I know that you use the library.. .I’ve seen you! I haven’t felt so young in a while… If you’re a thrusting young professional™, who likes the local library, then where the hell were you? Seriously – that meeting was packed, but barely a soul there was under fifty. Which is fine, but it was a week night – a Tuesday for god’s sake! You can’t all have been at Pilates?! Anyway… Despite the curious demographic slope, the meeting was an interesting affair.
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The main speaker, Antonio Rizzo (head of Lewisham’s Library services) came across as a capable if generally on-message kind of civil servant. There were many many definitions thrown around the room. Definitions of how this government defines libraries (“gateways to learning”, “aspirational”), platonic ideals of what a library should be… “Anything other than books” wasn’t actually mentioned as one, but it felt close.
The one cheer of the evening came when his PowerPoint presentation took on a mind of its own, and meant that he decided to do without it. As someone who spends far too much work time staring at the bloody things, this can only be a good thing. So he decided to speak directly instead. And despite the endless explanation’s of Margaret Hodge’s vision (terribly joyless, generally turning libraries into job centres and grim colleges, possibly also shunting some of the GP surgery in there too), there was a fair amount of directness. He admitted that there isn’t a clear strategy about how Blackheath library should proceed. He was very clear that they have to take opportunities where they see them, and seemed to have no problem with the idea of the private sector being involved with this.
There was a great deal of talk about the building itself. Again he said that he knew of the (somewhat) controversial Piazza plans, but that no clear decisions had been made about how a library would fit into those yet. He said the square “may contain a library”, but that he had not been part of the meetings. The current building costs £72k per year to rent, and this was cited as a bad thing. Although an audience member pointed out that, for the size of the building it’s a pretty reasonable rate per square metre. But if a new Piazza is built, I’m sure short-termism would win out, and the council would again end up renting instead of buying the new library property.
Another obvious point of frustration from him was “you have 24,000 books in that library, and it is closed for nearly half the week”. It seems a key priority must be to improve the opening hours. I came away with the sense that the council feels that librarians are their most expendable costs, when looking at libraries as a whole. Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. I think libraries are great, but the age of card indexes is long gone. Bookshops like Borders pay their staff a pittance, and make them work split shifts – it seems that councils would like librarians to be similarly devalued.
There was a lot of talk of installing a lift in the building. I have to say, I didn’t really understand this. I’m ashamed that I’ve never once been upstairs in the current library. Mainly because there aren’t any books up there! Someone else suggested letting the upper floor out to private companies. Another audience member from the Blackheath Arts Society said it was a wonderful space for showing off artwork. I hope it is (I will go and look soon, I just haven’t got round to it yet!).
The speaker mentioned the performance of the library. He said that very little stood out, in terms of trends. The two key things that they look at are “issues” (how many books are taken out), and “visits”. It’s worth remembering that you are casting a vote for your local library every time you produce a beep from the bar code scanner! Visits were steady over the last five years, and Issues were almost flat. (See performance graphs here). This sounds like a reasonably good thing to me, as the media is always claiming that libraries are in decline. But I wonder how it stacks up against the increase in the local population. Maybe Andrew Brown can make a visualisation on his blog!
Looking to the future, he said you didn’t need a crystal ball to see that public spending squeezes would be inevitable. Resources will decrease, but we don’t know by how much yet. “We’ll have a clearer idea after the first week in May” (much bitter laughter).
He seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the use of volunteers as a way of enlivening a library, not just a way to cut costs. He pointed out that it worked very well for a few weeks each year in Lewisham Library, as part of their Summer Reading Challenge, and suggested that it could also work elsewhere.
This also presented a wonderful bit of double-think: firstly praising our local librarians, and then saying that the voluntary sector should be used to help run the libraries. Maybe I’m not capable of thinking widely enough, but I can’t help suspecting that the first step towards closing a library is to describe it as “run on a voluntary basis”.
On the other hand, maybe if there were assurances that voluntary staff would only ever make up a certain percentage of the workforce, maybe some kind of agreement could be reached?
There were some interesting questions. One slightly barking one – (not sure if he was just trying to provoke a response or something more depressing), asking about the use of libraries for “Social Engineering” – especially the promotion of Black, and Gay & Lesbian literature in the library. A slightly daft question, deftly handled: “the choice of books tries to cater to the existing users of the library, but also to people who we haven’t completely reached yet”. Well said! More Armistead Maupin, I say!
There was a really nice testimony from one lady in the audience, who said that she’d started taking her 3 year old grandson to the children’s reading mornings on Thursdays. She pointed out that it isn’t a crèche (are you listening Margaret Hodge?), but that it is brilliant. He’s now started asking “Please can we go to the library?” each time he sees her!
Many questions about opening hours. Antonio mentioned that he did propose a change to the library’s hours at a Blackheath Assembly meeting a while back, but that it was rejected. It would have cost £33,000 and would have introduced self-service machines, as well as increasing the opening hours from 31 per week to 45. But the Local Assembly rejected it. There was a little consternation in the room about this, until someone who was present at the Assembly meeting explained why it was rejected – it wasn’t because they didn’t want longer opening hours, but was because the Assembly is only given £50,000 to spend, and giving it all to the library would have prevented many smaller requests from being accepted.
Which leads nicely onto Local Assembly meetings.. But that’s probably for another day…