Man walks into a column, no.44: Librarians

The second in an occasional series – hopefully very occasional – of posts about conferences Phil’s been to in god awful places at antisocial times. 

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will, despite their best efforts, have been unable to miss, I was stuck in what can only be described, in all honesty, as ‘deepest’ and ‘darkest’ Nottinghamshire; this Friday evening and Saturday morning just passed. Seriously: the most notable and indeed only local landmark appeared to be a vast coal power station. Charming.

The ray of light amidst the mire was the event that had lured me there: the annual conference of the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians (ASCEL). Without wishing to get into ‘lovely people, those librarians’ territory, it is nevertheless only fair to note that I have never, in all my legged life, felt anywhere near as welcomed at such a shindig; all the more remarkable when one considers that I was very much an outsider intruding upon a gathering of people who have every reason to feel resentful and angry at the moment.

Why was I there (well may you ask)? Someone from ASCEL had been to one of OPM’s events about mutuals and social enterprises, and felt that it would be helpful to spend part of the conference thinking about the potential of these and other ‘different models’ of public service management and delivery in the school and public library context. The actual title of my session was ‘the future of library services…’ which in current circumstances had a distinctly oxymoronic ring to it.

Again, without wishing to sound patronising (I was less surprised, more simply relieved, given the prevailing winds) the only reason the session went off okay was because of the willingness of the participants to get stuck in. What emerged from the scenario-based group work was an intriguing mix of creative and astute tactical responses, which included:

  1. Political piggy-backing: if ‘saving libraries’ doesn’t have sufficient political salience, find an agenda that does – safeguarding children, for example – and do everything you can to make it impossible for local politicians to miss the full implications of closing libraries.
  2. Going where the money is: free schools, for example, were mentioned as one potentially lucrative (and indeed sensible) set of local partners, as were local leisure companies looking for space to expand (what better way to relax after exercising than exercising your mind with a good book?).
  3. Mixing and matching: several groups mentioned additional services that could be woven into the fabric of a library, ranging from the obvious cafes and community spaces, to things like job centres. Partly in the interest of adding revenue streams, but also demonstrating maximum bang for local buck: child learns to read, mum or dad finds a job etc.
  4. Networked libraries: all of the descriptions of ‘the library of the future’ contained tech elements, as one would expect, but more interesting were those that emphasised libraries as community hubs: not just for isolated older people, but for stay-at-home parents and homeworkers too.

There were plenty more besides, these are just the ones that stuck in my mind the most. The pressures on library services are such that no blame could reasonably be assigned to managers such as these if solutions aren’t found. But I thought the quality of this discussion bodes well: with people like this in charge, one would hope that libraries have at least a fighting chance. In the meantime I’m simply hoping that I can busy myself around the office for the next few weeks.