“handing libraries over to volunteers would be a disaster”

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Letter from campaigner Robert Harrison to the latest Secretary of State. Robert says: “Having responded to Ed Vaisey’s request for further comments on his reluctance to intervene in LCC’s plans for the library service and having not had any kind of acknowledgement or response, I am writing again. This time it is a second copy to Ed Vaisey with a covering letter and also a covering letter (and a copy of the original) to John Whittingdale, the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.”

4th July 2015

Dear Mr. Whittingdale,

Shortly before your recent appointment as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, I wrote to the minister, Mr Ed Vaisey MP. Concerning Lincolnshire County Council’s plans to close and hand the running of thirty libraries to be funded and run by volunteers with only limited support. This was prompted by Mr. Vaisey inviting further representations as to his proposed decision not to intervene in the Lincolnshire County Council Executive’s destructive plans for the Library service in the county.

Having not received an acknowledgement, probably due to the pressure of the election, I consideredit appropriate to to send a second copy to Mr Vaisey and a copy to yourself in order to make youboth aware of the situation as seen at a local level and point out the problems which on closeinspection, make the council’s plans far less desirable than they would have you believe.

I am pleased Mr Vaisey highly values the library service and agree some form of change needs to take place but this must be carefully managed, offer a professional, sustainable service which is of benefit to the community and not overly relying on volunteers for its future sustainability.

I was saddened to hear Mr. Vaisey’s address made during the council debate at Westminster Hall on the 9th of June this year. Despite expressing his belief in the value of libraries, he appears to be using similar dismissive phrases that I have heard from others who see any alternative argument against library closures as not relevant or worth serious consideration.

He spoke of “mood music by some library campaigners” or of closures, “not on such a great scale as most library campaigners would have you believe ”

I suggest politicians consider visiting areas other than London to gain a better insight as to what is actually happening in the country and visit smaller local libraries in areas of deprivation, not what are hailed as newly built city libraries such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester (which are already drastically cutting back and unable to operate as intended).

In Lincolnshire County Council meetings, the ruling Conservative majority scoff at anyone who opposes their preferred option, slighting organisations such as Save Lincolnshire Libraries as “Labour lefties.” Some Conservative councillors brag that they haven’t visited a library for over 30years and assume others don’t need to.

If your elected representatives don’t respect the views of the electorate, belittle them, or are blinkered to the value of libraries then it is very discouraging, which is something I believe they intend to be.

Mr. Vaisey praises the work of the task group, set up as the result of the Sieghart Report but locally we have seen no helpful improvements yet and for Lincolnshire’s libraries anything other than your department’s intervention will be too late, resulting in the closure, yes closure of over 30 statutory libraries.

Even William Sieghart made it clear that “handing libraries over to volunteers would be a disaster” and yet this is what will happen in Lincolnshire. Does Mr. Vaisey’s view of “engagement with the community” include threatening to close their library unless they submit a business plan and volunteer to fund and run a Community Hub which is no longer covered by 1964 Act?

Certainly LCC have done this and the support for his plans Cllr. Hill boasts of is as a result of what can only be called “blackmail and coercion.” He also boasts he is not closing any libraries but this is obviously not the truth as to remove so many libraries from the protection of the 1964 Act, they must be closed. Community Hubs will no longer be covered by the 1964 Act and are not libraries in anything like the same form having a reduced number of books and reference material. When the council ceases to fund them in four years time, many Community Hubs face a very uncertain future. I have nothing against volunteers giving time to help in and support local libraries but to find funding, administer and run them when no longer statutory libraries, creates a system which will become unsustainable – a postcode lottery at best.

Even one of the experimental Community Libraries in Lincolnshire, featured as an example by the Arts Council in its document Envisioning the Library of the Future – 2013 is experiencing great difficulties in maintaining sufficient volunteers to provide a satisfactory service and aspects of it have to be heavily subsidised by the Local Parish Council to maintain opening hours and adequate library supervision. Everything is not as successful as we are being led to believe.

On 26th March 2015, in a letter to Cllr. Hill the leader of Lincolnshire County Council, (Ref:CMS264190/asg) Mr. Vaisey requested further comments from interested parties on why The Secretary of State should intervene and enquire into Lincolnshire’s plans for volunteer run libraries. I sent a letter to your department, outlining some of my major concerns and having had no acknowledgement, I enclose a copy once again to draw the matter to your attention post election. I also propose to send a further copy to Mr. Vaisey in an attempt to emphasise the seriousness of the situation.

I trust you and Mr. Vaisey may be concerned enough to look beyond the seemingly plausible rhetoric of the proposals submitted by Lincolnshire County Council and to investigate through gathering local knowledge, what the reality of accessing and maintaining Lincolnshire’s Library service would really become for those living in a rural county.

Yours sincerely

R. K. Harrison.

You can read Mr Harrison’s initial letter to Ed Vaisey here:

Copy of letter to Ed Vaisey

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6 thoughts on ““handing libraries over to volunteers would be a disaster”

  1. Pingback: Library News Round-up: 7 July 2015 | The Library Campaign

  2. To say that “handing libraries over to volunteers would be a disaster” is absolute rubbish. Armthorpe Community Library Ltd took over the running of Armthorpe Library on August 4, 2014 and has improved the service from Armthorpe Library tremendously. Previously, as a Council Library the staff were so constrained in what they were allowed to do that they failed in their main task, Customer Relations. Now there are more staff and less red tape. The result? A much improved Library. I heard your Julie Harrison say that “Librarians are Professionals”, but why does a local library need a Professional Librarian? In City Centre Reference Libraries, yes, but not when the most complex question asked is “Where’s the Mills & Boon” or “How do I log onto this Computer” Remember unpaid Volunteer’s are doing it out of enthusiasm for the Library whereas the paid Professional is doing it for the paycheck! Please feel free to visit Armthorpe Community Library to see how well a Volunteer Library can be run.

    • Stuart

      Ian Anstice (editor of Public Libraries News) got this telling email following the BBC / Doncaster story

      “Don’t know if you saw the piece on breakfast news on Thursday … but the piece at Armthorpe Library bloody annoyed me. It showed two members of staff running a childrens activity but made out they were volunteers! What were the volunteers doing?? Nothing. The article that came later said that they were better than staff as there were more of them and they were open more. I’m sorry but Armthorpe was open 45 hours, its now about 20 and although 6 volunteers may be on in one go rather than 2 professionals, I’m afraid they can’t answer the basic of questions or do anything. I was fuming to put it mildly.”

  3. Angela. Please get your facts right. Yes the two people running the children’s group were council employees, from the Literacy team. They come regularly to help with special projects. As for “what were the volunteers doing?” The volunteers were running the Library and dealing with customers. Armthorpe may have been open 45 hours but it was empty for a great many of those hours. It now opens 30, not 20, per week and is very busy for moist of those hours. The way you write it seems as though you are a user of Armthorpe Library therefore I would be interested in knowing what basic questions the volunteer were unable to answer for you. Please, next time you are in Armthorpe Library make yourself known to one of the Directors, we would be pleased to show you how wrong you are. Oh and as my name is spelled Stewart, not Stuart, I do hope you weren’t one of the “paid professionals” that you claim the Library needs as so far in your letter you have failed on both Maths and English!

    • Stewart. The email I have quoted was not from me but a user of your facility, who contact the writer of Public Libraries News, a highly respected website, and I have copied the information from there. I do not know who this person is. This is all explained in the first line of my comment. The email I have reproduced offers a worthy counter balance to your comment, which is why I posted it. You should be concerned about this email – what is in fact a user complaint – and you should also be concerned that your first instinct is to insult and belittle the writer, and person who uses your facility. I have never visited your facility but I definitely do not want to go there and seek out people ‘pleased to show me how wrong’ I am. This is not the way professionals interact with the public.

  4. No insults or belittlement intended. Just pointing out that your post contained inaccuracies. As for the email. I would be more concerned if the individual had contacted Armthorpe Library with their complaint rather than sending an anonymous email, where they cannot even get the basic information correct, to the Library News. We never said we were better than staff. We said we could offer a better service because there were more of us and we didn’t have to get bogged down with all the council “back office” stuff. I would assume that from the tone of the email, and the address it was sent to, the writer is a disgruntled (ex)-member of staff. Hardly a balanced view. Just as a point of interest in our last quarterly review with the Council all of the review points used by the council; visitors, member numbers, book loans, printing, copying, etc, had improved under Volunteer control. We also now interact on a regular basis with two local schools and have kids clubs twice a week. None of which took place under council employees. Just because people are paid to do something doesn’t make them “professional” in the true sense of the word, just as being a volunteer doesn’t mean you cannot be professional.

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