Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Big Society and UK Libraries: Lessons for Canadian Libraries with CILIP president Phil Bradley

I had the great pleasure of introducing CILIP President and avid blogger Phil Bradley for his session at the recent CLA Conference in Ottawa. His talk focused on the current political situation in the UK, as it affects public library service, but I also learned a few random fun facts (such as
Edinburgh is the first library to develop an app!

As you likely know from reading this blog, the current horrifying state of UK libraries is a topic very close to my heart. Much of what is happening over the pond should serve as a warning to Canadians, especially Canadians who love their public libraries. Phil's passion for them was evident in his speech, and his final words were quite moving. Here are some of Phil's quotes and facts.
  • At the moment, 600 libraries in the UK are under threat, of which 262 have been threatened or closed since April 1st 2012 alone. This is out of a total of 4612 libraries in the UK. This is round 1 of the government cuts. Check out the map.
  • "We are very closely associated with one of the artefacts with which we work (the book) and that is causing us problems as that artefact becomes less important over time. Thus the librarian becomes less important as the library becomes less important." We need to distance ourselves from the artefacts. "No one sees a brain surgeon and says, "Oh, of course, scalpels! They say, "Oh, you make people feel better."
  • The UK has a variety of associations serving library workers. CILIP alone has over 16, 000 members, and views itself as a charity and not a trade union. "There are therefore limitations on what we can do and say."
    Sidebar: this issue of the role of a professional association in a time of government cuts ran through a few sessions at the conference, and unofficially spoke to the situation at the opening keynote speech.
  • There are 150 public authorities in England responsible for public library service.
  • All professions are under attack in the current British government's "Big Society:" Police officers are to be replaced by community police (with limited powers, resources, or training). Doctors will have more control over budgets and deciding where to send people (therefore spending more time administrating than doctoring). There will be a higher tax on the teaching profession: more and more are leaving the profession because they find themselves in difficult financial positions and will get more $ elsewhere.
  • There are 44 local campaigns to save libraries. Check out the main page for these campaigns here.
  • Phil's advice to those seeking to advocate or work within the political machine: "You have to be crystal clear about what comprehensive and efficient means or what any of your terms mean. Or what "open" means." For instance, in Essex, the government statement was that "we're not closing anything." The local library's opening hours, however, were cut drastically.
  • "Previous success makes you less likely to change in the future. If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've already got."
  • "The idea that libraries are a good thing is worth nothing."
  • One of the recent developments in high-level advocacy includes a Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group. The Libraries APPG "provides MPs and Lords with information and opportunities for debate about the role that libraries play in society and their future," and has a Conservative MP as its Chair.
  • "Signing petitions shows how powerless you are"
  • "The more strident we become, the less we are able to advocate on the highest levels and discuss libraries instead of library closures."
  • We have to ask ourselves the difficult questions. Here are some of the difficult questions on the table right now for CILIP and UK libraries: Campaigning or advocacy work? What should be our relationship with Friends groups and their campaigns? What is the role of volunteers and what is a volunteer? (Is volunteering really job substitution?) Hospitals or libraries? (Or is this a false analogy?) Do we retrench and do the same things we've always done, or do we do it better, or do we look at new options for libraries? Are fewer bigger libraries better than more small community libraries? What is the role of eBooks and social media for UK public libraries?

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