Mary Hoffman, author and campaigner, writes about the Library Power Campaign and surveys the battles that lie ahead.
If ‘Library Power’ seems a bit of an oxymoron to you, it’s because libraries and librarians have such a poor public image. How did the stereotype of a dull person in a dull place ever take hold? Libraries are the most subversive places in the world, much more so than smoke-filled backrooms, because they hold everything you need both to teach you your civil rights and empower you to use them.
And this is just one tiny aspect of what they do. They are also time-machines to take you back into history or forward into unimaginable futures. And supersonic jets to take you anywhere in the world at the turn of a page. And they are so full of mind-expanding substances, it’s a wonder to me that they aren’t regularly raided and closed down.
Well, actually they are sometimes closed down. Or at least they have their hours and staff reduced and their book funds frozen. This happens or is threatened to happen about once a year. As the days shorten and local councils start to think about setting their budgets, local library campaigners dust down their old banners, get out their writing paper and heave a great sigh.
When the budget comes into bud
They know they will have to lobby Councillors, MPs and the press all through the winter, until they see what kinds of ‘victories’ they achieve come the spring, when the budgets come into bud. Waving placards outside my Civic Centre on a freezing night last winter and recognising all the usual faces, we agreed we were getting too old for this.
Against this rather gloomy background the Library Association has been running, all this year, a Library Power initiative that has put the spotlight on children and young people. The LA decided to commission research (funded by the British Library) into exactly what kind of library provision an individual child might receive in different parts of the country, including public libraries, school libraries and the activities of the local schools’ library service. Amazingly, this had never been done before.
The rates are slipping
The results were published at the beginning of Library Power Week in May, at a launch in Westminster which neither the Secretary of State for National Heritage nor the one for Education attended. The research was carried out in a hundred places in the UK, covering services to 66,000 children and, surprise, surprise, 75% of these locations was found to have ‘sub-standard library services’.
The standards were set by establishing a new Library Power Rating based on the answers to simple questions like ‘what is the school library expenditure per pupil?’ and ‘is there a public library within 20 minutes’ walk?’.
A practical outcome is that the LA has prepared a checklist for parents and carers, reprinted on the opposite page, so that you can carry out your own mini-survey of the kind of services your child is receiving and take appropriate action if they don’t fall within that quarter of the sample whose children are getting a good deal.
Who is the current Secretary of State for National Heritage? And for Education? And before them? And before that? Give your answers going back to the beginning of 1992. (They should really be upside down at the bottom of the page where they belong.) I reckon for DNH it’s Tim Renton, David Mellor, Peter Brooke and Stephen Dorrell, before the arrival of the present Secretary known throughout the Health Service as Golden Virginia. And over at Education we’ve had (after Kenneth Baker) Kenneth Clarke, John Patten and Gillian Shephard. By any standards that’s too high a turnover in both jobs.
Value for Money?
The beginning of ‘92 sticks in my mind because that’s when I launched my national campaign, in the pages of this very journal, to save the Schools Library Service. Since then I’ve fought two out of the three campaigns to save my own local SLS from extinction and helped with others from Islington to Solihull. I’ve had numerous letters from Government departments, assuring me that LMS was no threat to SLS (my life is now conducted entirely in initials) and that where the local service was providing value for money, it would always survive.
Waltham Forest’s primary service has no librarian and has changed its name to Project Loan Service, Barnsley SLS has closed down and Solihull’s has had its budget halved … need I go on?
This July the Labour Party launched its own Keep Libraries Public campaign, claiming that Tories plan to privatise libraries by the back door, through compulsory competitive tendering and the like. They also claim the Peat Marwick survey commissioned by the Government was looking at ways of extending contracting out parts of the library service.
But at the launch of this campaign, Mark Fisher, the Shadow Spokesperson for Arts, told me that his party were revising their manifesto commitment of ‘92 to make SLSs statutory. He and Chris Smith and David Blunkett are drafting the new policy for the autumn – there may yet be time to write to them – believing that the checkered pattern of SLS provision all over the country makes that promise difficult to renew.
Library Power Rangers
I recently received an invitation to speak from an organisation called the SAS. It’s the name they give to their SLS in Croydon and it stands for Schools Advisory Service. But for a moment I had a wonderful vision of these dedicated librarians as a swat team, yomping into schools, de-fusing the devices of ignorance and lobbing little imagination grenades into classrooms.
We continue to use the language of the battlefield. We carry on ‘campaigns’, seek to discover who is ‘the enemy’, send off ‘fusillades’ of letters and continue to ‘wave the flag’. The checklist will do something to raise standards in the other sense and perhaps restore ‘library power’ from being an oxymoron to what it out to be – a tautology.
You can obtain copies of the checklist leaflet from Donna MacLean, The Library Association, 7 Ridgmount Street, London WC1E 7AE.
You can join CENTRAL (Children’s Education Needs Teaching Resources And Libraries) by sending £5 subscription to Mary Hoffman, 28 Crouch Hall Road, London N8 8HJ (tel: 0181 292 5542, fax: 0181 292 5543).