Monday, 14 March 2011

Library Saviours or Council Spindoctors? - The Truth Behind the Happy Headlines

"Please can someone start telling the truth?"
That's the question I was asked by Paula Davies, chair of the Friends of Roade Library in Northamptonshire, one recent Friday afternoon. Well, yes, Paula. I will. Because I want to save Roade Library and all the other libraries under threat as much as you do.

For those who may have missed it (hard to do if you're a reader of this blog or any British newspaper) our libraries are in danger from Government cuts. There are many of us fighting against this cultural vandalism, but the ones on the true front line of the battle (apart from the librarians themselves) are the mostly unsung heroes and heroines who have, sometimes at very short notice, formed the Friends groups for their local libraries. Paula Davies of the Friends of Roade Library is such a person, along with her colleagues. On 5th February 2011 I took part in Roade's National Library Protest Day event, which you can read about HERE. On 15th February I was called by the local BBC newsroom and asked for a comment on the news that “Northants County Council have scrapped plans to close the 8 rural libraries that were to be shut as part of the £180k savings”. 

"Well, whoopee, I said rather cautiously. If it's true. But I'll have to see the detail before I dance a jig and open the champagne". How right I was to be a cynic. Because behind that happy headline lay an untold story. 
  • The Friends of the 8 libraries facing the axe had worked hard and raised more than £40k, (during an incredibly short consultation period), to help NCC reduce the deficit.
  • That's why they got a stay-of-execution. The headline-grabbing LIBRARIES SAVED BY COUNCIL announcement was pure 'let's make ourselves look good to the voters' smoke-and-mirrors by NCC, who, in reality had had to do almost no work at all. NCC are just going to use that handy volunteer-raised money to keep the libraries open--temporarily. 
There was an unfortunate and unforseen outcome of those happy headlines, as well.  All the people and businesses who had so kindly pledged large amounts (in a cash-strapped environment) to save the libraries thought that there was no longer a need to do so. Those 'happy headlines' had given them the mistaken impression that the council had done a U-turn and found the funds within their own budget.  That basically ripped the rug out from under the library Friends. And next year it will be worse.  Unless the library Friends raise more large sums from the community, they'll be in an even more precarious position.  Because next year NCC say they have to find £300k to balance the books.  No doubt they'll use the temporary cash reprieve the Friends have given them to put the fear of God into the other 28 'unthreatened' libraries and ensure they start raising funds too, so as to reduce the NCC libraries budget to a negligible amount.

The Friends of Roade Library have had their task spelled out in no uncertain terms.  They must contribute a minimum of £4,500 to NCC in 2011/12, continue paying in 2012/13 and again in 13/14, with the possibility of ever-rising contributions. Councillor Andre Gonzalez de Savage says that NCC need to "use [Roade] as trailblazers for the future of library services in the county." and to trumpet their example as "the impetus for others to work to raise local funding and galvanise...voluntary efforts." Oh good.  So that's all wonderful, then.  Well done, Roade. Trailblazers, eh? Paula Davies would just like to know where it all stops. I would too, and I'd like to ask a few more questions as well.
  • Are NCC accurate in their assessment of the monies needed to run Roade and the other libraries?
  • How can we know they are giving us accurate figures unless NCC justify taking this volunteer-raised money from the people of Roade and elsewhere in Northamptonshire by giving complete and open access to their accounts?
  • Will the Central Library (forinstance) be exempt from raising funds to help keep it open? If so, how is this fair to the other 35 Northamptonshire libraries? 
  • What will happen to the libraries that are unable to raise any additional funding (there are only 22 Friends groups and a total of 36 libraries)?
  • Will those libraries which are capable of raising funds be forced to use their hard-won monies to help support those libraries that can't/won't?
I wonder, too, whether the Friends of each library will have any say in how 'their' money is spent? Will they have the power to allocate their own funding to suit the individual needs of their own library?  In this public, open forum, I'd like to ask someone from NCC to give Paula and me some truthful answers to all these questions.  But I won't be holding my breath and twiddling my thumbs while I wait.  I'll be nagging  Andrea Leadsom, my local MP (again) to get properly engaged with our fight to save this essential community resource for future generations. It should be just as big and important a button on her website as Wind Farms or High Speed Rail.


catdownunder said...

Grrrrrrr - this is not what I gave up a decade of my life for. Interestingly the UK government appears to have taken my furious missives from Downunder at least a little seriously - they are at least trying to work out how to lie to me. I will write more letters if anyone thinks it will help.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this information Lucy. I don't know if you've seen Voices for the Library member Gary Green's post about councils burying library facts? Same stories happening all over.


Lucy Coats said...

Cat--thank you. I guess the more letters the better--let's them know we won't be silenced.

Lauren--thank you. I'm afraid this is indeed happening everywhere. Let's hope that if enough people dig up and expose those council 'buryings' in a public forum like this, the general public will get the true picture. False dawns of hope are, sadly, all too prevalent as far as libraries are concerned.

Zoe said...

Hi Lucy, am trying to bid on your greek stories over at Authors for Japan but comments appear to be closed? Can you check - I'm keen to bid!

Zoe said...

Aah got it - bidding only opens tomorrow! So ignore my previous comment :-)

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