Lambeth Council announced yesterday that they intend to sell 2 of the Borough’s libraries (Waterloo and Minet), and cut the funding for another 3 (with a vague hope that local ‘Friends’ groups and volunteers take over the running of them). Whilst this has been put out as ‘prospective’ it is clear from the fact that they are already moving the Brixton Archives from Minet Library to Brixton that this is the long-term intention.
The background for this is a cut in funding for ‘cultural’ services which means that they are budgeting for just ½ the amount of money being available in 2018 as was available in 2013-14. The ‘cultural’ umbrella appears to encompass libraries, parks and other open spaces, with all areas being hit.
What appears to missing entirely from the ‘Co-operative’ council’s cost model is any integration of these figures with other council spending. As just one example, it is well documented that continuing to be mentally active in old age through such activities as reading and conversation with others helps to reduce the onset of senile dementia – increasing independence and thus reducing the cost to the council of Social Care in old age.
The ‘silo’ effect that is forever present in council and government thinking means that a consequence that affects someone else’s budget is not truly considered – and this appears to be a classic case in point. Whilst the library budget may indeed be able to be cut successfully – at what cost to the social care budget?
That is not to say however that libraries can continue in the somewhat analogue fashion that they have done – but we should be looking to re-invigorate them, not reduce them. As a Pirate, I am a great advocate for digital working – so what should libraries look like in a digital age? In some senses, the Victorian concept of the library was the internet of its day; it provided the opportunity for everyone, regardless of background or status, equal access to culture and knowledge. As Pirates, we believe in the principle of free and open transfer of knowledge to all in society – what role should libraries play in this?
Instead of cutting the library provision, I think that we should be much more imaginative about what ‘libraries’ provide by way of services. If they are to fulfil in a modern world that principle of open access to knowledge and culture then they should be transformed into open access community hubs – buildings, at the heart of the community, which anyone can visit. In terms of services, they should provide free WiFi – such that they become the default go-to location instead of the local coffee shop.
They should be digitally focused – providing opportunities for all to get online; for everyone to become digitally engaged. They should be the space in which to provide wide ranging and extensive classes all the way from engaging the digitally unengaged, to enthusing coding in a young generation. (As an aside, I believe that they should be able to lend digital media – and the work of Julia Reda, Pirate MEP in the European Parliament is pushing strongly towards this)
If the council was truly ‘Digital by Default’ then they would easily be able to provide the majority of council services – reducing the need to travel to Brixton, but instead to your local community hub in the library. They should be at the heart of adult literacy classes in the Borough – they should be safe community spaces where people can come together for the transfer of culture and knowledge.
None of this is cheap, and lots of it isn’t what libraries and librarians tend to ‘think’ that they should be doing – but it’s far better to reinvigorate and renew our library provision for a digital age instead of just reducing it and suffering the consequences in our communities. We know that life can be isolating, and that isolation is one of the worst things for public heath – both mentally and physically.
Let’s campaign vigorously to keep open the community spaces that we have where people can genuinely engage with culture, knowledge and each other, and commit instead to reinvigorating them for a digital age.
To respond to the consultation – please see details on the Lambeth Council website here