INVESTING IN ALIBIS
So now it’s official:
‘Public libraries are not adequately resourced to make up for the deficiencies of educational institutions that can not or will not provide sufficient text books and library books.’
For anyone who’s tempted to say ‘so what?’ here’s why this under-funding matters:
‘The role of the public library in meeting the needs of children and young people is of paramount importance to the future economic and cultural health of this country.’
Both statements – blindingly obvious, no doubt, to the bulk of BfK readers – come from a new report called Investing in Children: The future of Library Services for Children and Young People. It was commissioned by the Department of National Heritage but produced by an independent working party of teachers, librarians, writers and others chaired by David Leabeater of the National Consumer Council. Their findings make sober reading:
- – ‘Funding levels are cause for concern in a significant number of areas of the country and reflect the continuing pressure from central government to restrain local authority expenditure… charge-capping and exceeding the Statutory Spending Allowance (SSA) are an ever present threat or reality for most authorities.’ (page 20)
- – ‘There are huge disparities in levels of real purchase between authorities.’ (page 21)
- – ‘Although the pattern to be imposed by [local government] reform in many counties of England has not yet been determined, it is clear that existing proposals would result in the dismemberment of some county authorities, with consequent dispersal of county library systems and their resources.’ (page 25)
- – ‘Schools library services have been subject to fundamental change in recent years from the passing of the Education Reform Act 1988 and the introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS)… the situation is not only complex but volatile… a few services have been disbanded altogether or run down to a minimum level.’ (pages 35-36)
- – ‘Standards within individual services are dictated partly by funding levels but also – and perhaps more potently – by internal priorities in the allocation of budgets, management perceptions of the importance of the library, and the quality of staff whose function it is to observe and maintain specified standards.’ (page 21)
Pretty depressing stuff.
Still, as Ross Shimmon of the Library Association remarked in welcoming the Report: ‘at last it looks as if the Government may address the hugely neglected role of school and public libraries in delivering the National Curriculum.’
Will it, though?
Take another look at my five quotations which I chose as fairly as I could both to catch the drift of the Report as a whole and to reflect the worries expressed to BfK by countless librarians in recent years. The first four, it seems to me, are the direct result of political decision-making: about rate-capping, about provision at local level, about local government reorganisation, about the ‘reform’ of Education. These determine, overwhelmingly, the context of the fifth factor – the efficiency and initiative of individuals within the various library services.
Now, no one should underestimate the latter. The Report certainly doesn’t… it’s packed with advice about prioritising, about coordination, about the difference sheer flair can make as evidenced by a number of case histories. What it’s careful to avoid, though, is the suggestion that these alone provide a solution – on the contrary, it spells out the exact opposite using heavy type for emphasis:
‘While quality is not exclusively a product of funding, the ability to meet high standards of service does depend on adequate funding.’ (page 21)
Is that clear enough?
Well, maybe it is to you and me – but not, apparently, to Stephen Dorrell. His response, as National Heritage Secretary, was as follows:
‘By taking a hard look at what is available for children, and putting their heads together, school libraries and local libraries in any given area will find that their resources can go much further.’
That, substantially, is his answer.
The Report’s cool but entirely unequivocal appraisal of the effects of current Government policy is simply ignored.
It’s all the professionals’ fault, you see. Knock the heads of a few book-ish softies together and the following facts, gathered earlier this year from a national survey by The Library Association, need no longer detain us:
- – Nine authorities reported closures of a total of 37 branch libraries and five mobiles in 1995/6.
- – Somerset has had its book fund cut by 37% and will be buying no fiction in l995/6. In Lancashire, no new books at all were bought between December 1994 and April 1995.
- – In the late 1970s there were 116 libraries in Britain which opened for at least 60 hours a week; by 1993 this had dropped to 10.
I could go on… but I’d better stop immediately before Stephen Dorrell arrives in person to smack my head and give me a hard look.
One thought does occur to me, though. The Law of the Land, on which our Government is normally so keen, requires ‘a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof’, insists on sufficient materials ‘to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children’ and places a statutory duty on the Secretary of State for National Heritage to ‘superintend, and promote the improvement of [my italics] the public library service provided by local authorities in England’.
This being the case … anyone care to join me in a Citizen’s Arrest?
Investing in Children (0 11 701994 1) is available from HMSO, priced £10.95.
‘Library Power’ culminates in a week of national and local activity from 15-21 May 1995. For further information about ‘Library Power’, contact The Library Association on 0171 636 7543.
REMINDER: Have you filled in our Reader Survey yet? If you haven’t, please spare the time to complete the yellow sheet which arrived with your March issue of BfK and return it to us. Many thanks.