Saturday, 16 June 2012

The library neo-liberalists have an 'ACE' up their sleeve!

On the 1/10/11 the Arts Council England (ACE) took over responsibility for developing Public Library policy from the MLA, many at the time saw this as a deliberate attempt to sideline libraries and felt that the remit would have sat better with the Reading Agency! In fact you could have been mistaken in believing that ACE had just become the MLA markII due to their appointment of several ex-MLA officers especially Nicola Morgan!

Even before the hand over, in August 2011, ACE had committed to continue the 'Future Libraries Programme', a programme orchestrated by the MLA and derided by campaigners as a waste of time, effort and money and seen by many as having a neo-liberal agenda!
In September 2011 ACE published 'Culture, knowledge and understanding: great museums and libraries for everyone' which they stated was an attempt to integrate Libraries and Museums into their wider framework for the arts. In my view 'Culture, knowledge and understanding...' didn't really say anything that hadn't already been said before, in fact there had been a plethora of research, reports and inquiries over the years and much of it covered the same ground, but one section revealed to me, and others, the ACE and DCMS agenda for Libraries and that is;

"In this context, the Arts Council’s commitment to quality is as valid for museums and libraries as it is for the arts, since this is what will shore up their long-term public value. So too is its ambition to strengthen a mixed economy for culture. Museums and libraries similarly need to strengthen their business models, diversify their income streams and look at new ways of encouraging private giving and supporting enterprise. Likewise, they need to continue to explore new ways of collaborating and improving efficiency in order to thrive not just survive. For the Arts Council, the imperative to enhance our role as an investor that understands how to support and position arts and culture becomes even greater. We will have responsibility for, but relatively few funds to invest in, museums and libraries. Those funds we have will have to work hard, as catalysts for change, alongside the core funding provided by others, such as local authorities, with whom we will work even more closely."

In fact ACE in all their reports, including their submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Library Closures, have consistently stated that they are in favour of private funding, co-location, sharing services and using volunteers in relation to Public Libraries!
On 14/6/12 I put this direct question to Liz Forgan, the Chair of ACE,
"With the imminent privatisation of Croydon/Wandsworth and Wokingham Library Services, Hounslow already being run by John Laing Ltd and Greenwich by GLL, does ACE see the private finance model as a way forward for Public Libraries?"
And got this reply;
"We need to be looking at many different operating models so we keep libraries relevant and sustainable – this includes potentially involving the private sector. However, I believe any library service should be focused on principles of free access, literacy and enjoyment of the written word."
On 09/11/11 they launched their 'Libraries Development Initiative' with 13 authorities each receiving a share of a £250,000 fund to "test innovative, locally appropriate and enterprising ways of working, resulting in a resilient vision for future public library services as a whole." This initiative received criticism due to the insignificant amount of money involved and for the type of projects it funded, in particular the "Creation of a volunteer managed and run community cinema within the community managed library in Kirklees, Yorkshire."

And from the beginning of this year, 2012. ACE launched a 'Libraries Consultation', commissioning Shared Intelligence and Ipsos/Mori to undertake the exercise. It kicked off with a "desk-based trends and innovation review' and then a 'Delphi inquiry' where they hand picked "over 200 sector experts" to consider a series of statements about how they would envisage the state of the country in 10 years time and then moved onto a blog with a number of yet again hand-picked contributors blue-sky thinking about library services in the year 2022! Why 2022? no one knows but them, huge criticism has been levelled at this exercise due to the fact that there has been absolutely no discussion, except from campaigners responding to the posts, about the present situation of cuts, redundancies and divestment!

As part of this 'consultation' process ACE held a panel discussion on 27/03/12 at Swiss Cottage Library, the panel was made of Brian Gambles - Asst Director of Culture, Birmingham City Council; Ciara Eastell - Head of Libraries, Devon; Janene Cox - Commissioner for Culture, Leisure & Tourism, Staffordshire; Nicky Parker - Head of Transformation, Manchester and SCL President; Antonio Rizzo - Head of Libraries & Information Services, Lewisham and Executive member of the ALCL and finally Mike Clarke, Head of Camden Libraries and Chair of ALCL. Lots of talk about encouraging entrepreneurs, flexible staff with the right attitude and oh yes volunteers (someone actually mentioned a book!) What a really representative bunch!

They have also been holding a series of 'Envisioning the Library of the Future' workshops around the country and I had the misfortune of attending the one at Swiss Cottage Library on 16/5/12! The attendees list was a roll call of the cutters and marketeers of the library world and included David Ruse, Helen Brazier, Sue McKenzie, Kate Pitman, Jillian Southwell, Maggie Appleton et al. For a fuller view read my account 'Selling the Family Silver....'

And in the next phase of the exercise, to run between June and late September 2012, ACE "will test the public view of the purpose and value of public libraries", yes you read correctly they will be asking the public what they think of libraries, because as we all know library users are not the experts! And finally they will produce another bloody report to add to the huge pile of reports and research produced on the very same subject over the years!

"Please let this be the end" i hear you scream! But no! in the last couple of weeks the plot has further thickened, a public tender has been issued by ACE, the DCMS, DCLG and DEFRA "to create
a new information and support resource for officers and service planners who are considering creating community supported or community managed libraries in their areas."

All this in the middle of a 'consultation' to envisage the future agenda of Public Libraries, well i never!


  1. Re: Wokingham Library Services.. Together with leading librarians in the Wokingham community we got together a powerful team and responded to the tender for the Wokingham Libraries, but as a new organisation we were unsuccessful. We did not have a financial history ... or existing expertise. This was indeed very frustrating because we did have members of the local community behind us and the expertise. We genuinely had a plan to cut the IT bill by over 70% and enhance the services in Wokingham using proven web based technology. I would submit that the companies short-listed have big balance sheets, but do they really have the technical IT expertise to take advantage of the web to offer more services at reduced costs? I do not see any history to suggest that this is the case... I see the same group of big companies who have been supplying high cost services to the Councils at the taxpayers expense for years.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks for your comment David, gives the other side of the story! As you know i've been following the situation in Wokingham since the start of the procurement process but this is the first time i've had details of any failed community or staff led bids! The whole process has been very secretive and information hard to come by! I've asked Cllr Ullakarin Clark and others for details but they have never been forthcoming so i've had to rely on the local press and campaigners for news. I agree with you that some of the shortlisted companies probably don't have the expertise to run a library service except for LSSI and maybe John Laing and some definitely don't have the specialist IT knowledge required but it's not about that is it? It's being done for ideological reasons and things will only get worse when the Localism Bill gets into full swing!