I’ve written about libraries a couple of times before, specifically about York Explore (formerly York Central library). Which in recent years has been transformed into a very modern, bright, inclusive and accessible kind of place. I always loved it but now more people use it and love it, including younger people, which is an excellent thing.
We all know, however, that these are difficult times, and that library services are under threat as a result of funding reductions. City of York Council is now looking into other ways York library services could be run.
I’m not a journalist, and this website isn’t really a ‘news’ site, but I’ve been so frustrated by the lack of information that the following is an attempt to gather together the various articles and opinions I’ve been reading. Please feel free to add relevant information or opinion via the comments.
What do we know? Not much …
Council leader James Alexander said in a recent Press report on this that ‘Residents showed us they want us to explore different delivery methods’. On Twitter I asked where we’d shown this. Answer: via the results of the Big City Survey (PDF). It does show that those residents who completed the survey were open to other possibilities. No reason not to be, if services are under threat. But the same data also appears to show that 66% of residents questioned have very little idea, or no idea at all, of what the ’social enterprise’ model is. So lots of information/education needed then, if we’re to be properly informed regarding this major decision.
The new libraries organisation might be something similar to York Museums Trust, Steve Galloway suggests in his blog. He points out that YMT has achieved great things, but comes across as not particularly transparent or open to the public.
There was a survey, a couple of months ago, asking library users about the services they used, and their views on what was most important. It was also clearly trying to recruit more volunteers from the wider community. In fact, that seemed to be its main purpose. What it didn’t ask, strangely, was the main question: whether library users wanted the libraries taking out of local authority control. Or, to phrase it another way, whether we want the local authority to give away control of the libraries.
At a council meeting on 13 December Cllr Nigel Ayre asked when this consultation on the main question would take place. No date set yet, as far as I can tell. Not that it matters much anyway, perhaps. If the public view meant anything the question would have been asked in the recent survey, surely. To ask people to engage with all those minor questions but not ask them the main one seems odd.
Press promotes council plans
The first piece on this subject I noticed in our local Press had a headline suggesting we should be concerned:
Fears for York’s libraries (25 September 2012)
Since then the headlines have been, in the main, oh so positive. According to press stories over recent months, you’d be forgiven there’s nothing at all to be concerned about. It all sounds so cosy and safe.
Charity idea to run York’s libraries (1 October 2012)
Radical plan aims to safeguard York libraries (18 December) … Mmm, radical (exciting!) and also safe. What’s not to like.
The Council’s own press release (in that quiet ‘between Christmas and New Year’ time when most people aren’t paying much attention) was of course almost joyfully exuberantly positive Developing a community solution for York’s libraries (28 December 2012). Oh, that’s alright then. It’s got ‘community’ in it, and it’s a solution too. Marvellous.
The Press were impressed, and reported soon after: “Community benefit society” plan for York’s libraries moves step closer (1 January 2013). This headline suggests we’re all eagerly awaiting this thing. This thing put in inverted commas because actually we haven’t a clue what it is. No balance, no other voices, just the council line.
And most recently: City of York Council to explore library changes (9 January 2013), which briefly mentions the other perspective, and the union’s view.
In the midst of the Press’s generally unquestioning coverage was a brief piece suggesting that not everyone was joyfully embracing the proposed new model. York leaders face library plans quiz (11 October 2012) quoted Cllr Nigel Ayre’s concerns about the plans and the need for a proper debate.
Other councillors, letter writers, bloggers and commenters online have also voiced doubts and asked questions. Thank goodness for that.
In a letter to the Press, Library concerns (4 October 2012), Cllr Ayre again expressed concern that the libraries consultation didn’t include the main question, perhaps because the decision had already been made, and feared that ‘the public will be invited on a six-week merry-go-round of rubber-stamping – at taxpayers’ expense.’
Martin Bashforth expressed his concerns in letters to the Press:
Funding challenge for our libraries (10 October 2012) , Unco-operative over library consultation (29 October) and in his blog: Archives, Libraries and Austerity in York
And the central ‘community’ in all this?
Thank goodness we still have unions, also asking questions, and answering a question I’ve been wondering for some months, which is, how do library staff feel about this? The Press on 9 Jan included the Unison representative (briefly), saying that staff felt ‘fearful and powerless’.
Clearly not all staff will be feeling exactly the same, some are perhaps pleased about the proposed changes, but it isn’t looking like a simple solution or safeguard, as presented by the council and The Press. On the BBC website – Unison opposes plans to transfer York libraries to trust – staff are said to be ‘angry and upset’ at the plans.
So perhaps this much-vaunted ‘community solution’ has already alienated the very community which should have been the first to feel onside and included. I don’t like the idea of librarians being angry and upset.
At the cabinet meeting of City of York Council on 8 Jan, cabinet were ‘asked to approve the development of a business plan for a potential community benefit society for the services, establish a shadow board for the purpose of taking forward this work and undertake further engagement with the public and staff.’ The report prepared for this is available to read online: The Co-operative Council: A Community Benefit Society for Libraries and Archives (PDF)