UNISON is currently drawing up a Cultural Charter for Libraries, in a dramatic bid to protect the UK’s threatened library services.
Councils will be challenged to sign the charter and commit themselves to maintaining fully staffed in-house library services, with sufficient funding for their future development.
The move is the latest in UNISON’s ongoing campaign to oppose ‘closure by stealth’ as councils lure local communities to run library services on their behalf – without the resources or professional staff that make them tick.
Locally, the union has been involved in successful campaigns this year to keep libraries open and is battling for others. But it remains concerned at the trend that continues to put them at risk.
Communities “pivotal” to success
“So many libraries have experienced staff cuts and so many are being run by volunteers that we no longer have a national library service. It’s been totally fragmented,” says Sarah Pearce, assistant national officer for local government.
“That’s why it’s crucial that UNISON branches work with their local communities to save their libraries. We all want the same thing – a quality public service.”
One such campaign in Neath Port Talbot, Wales, saved four libraries from closure, after UNISON led a local protest against the plans. The union believes that getting the community involved in that fight was “pivotal” to its success.
And Essex County Council recently performed a U-turn on its plans to close a number of its libraries, after a high-profile campaign which saw UNISON join forces with other local campaigners and included marches, lobbies of council meetings, petitioning, the involvement of local schools and celebrity tweeting,
However, that story has since become complicated, in a way that highlights the thorny problem of volunteers – whether in the form of parish councils, charitable trusts or even individuals.
Initially, the council had planned to close 25 libraries and seek community groups to run another 19. While agreeing not to close any, it’s now asking the community to take responsibility for the entire 44.
Andrew Coburn, the retired members secretary of UNISON’s Essex County branch and a member of Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) says that the £18,000 over three years being offered to community groups to take on the running of libraries “is not going to get them very far”.
Moreover, the council has stated that libraries would not remain in their existing buildings – which it will likely sell – meaning that the volunteers would have to find them another home.
And hundreds of library jobs are at risk.
“I’m disappointed and angry that Essex County Council is not investing in building a properly run and funded statutory public library service,” says Mr Coburn (pictured above), who worked for the library services for 37 years (latterly as an acquisitions and cataloguing librarian) before being made redundant three years ago.
“Using communities to run libraries is closure by stealth. It will affect the jobs of many UNISON and potential UNISON members, as well as providing a worse service – if indeed there is a service in a few years’ time.
“Councillors are not showing a real understanding and appreciation of what a decent library service looks like and how it can serve the community.”
Softening up for privatisation
Sarah Pearce says that what is happening in Essex reflects the national pattern.
“Councils are absolutely strapped for cash. They know how publicly disagreeable it would be to close libraries. But in order to keep them open they are farming them out at a frightening rate to volunteers to run them.
“Now, the desire to keep your local library open is completely understandable, but UNISON knows that they are just being softened up for privatisation or closure.
“The money being offered is not adequate to invest in the service. That means the service deteriorates, so there are fewer users, which allows the council to argue that it might as well be closed anyway. It’s a vicious circle.”
And those hardest hit by closures are the elderly and vulnerable who might not be able to make their way to the only libraries remaining open, in the centre of town.
Community libraries are being set up to fail
Ms Pearce feels that UNISON is well placed to educate communities about the dangers of handing libraries over to volunteers and on the need for paid staff.
“By its very definition, a voluntary service is not sustainable. Workers have no contract. Are there set hours? Can you rely on them? Are they doing the jobs that need to be done or the ones they want to do? How much training have they had? Are they protected in the event of an accident?
“If libraries are run by volunteers they are not experts. They don’t have the knowledge, expertise or experience of library workers. Library workers don’t just stamp books. They are the portal to a world of information and advice.”
Unfortunately, a committed campaign in Ealing, west London – which saw over 17,000 signatures across eight petitions – seems to have failed to prevent the borough council from handing five libraries to community groups.
The UNISON branch believes 105 jobs are at risk, while “community libraries are being set up to fail.”
In Essex the battle is far from over. After the council’s sleight of hand, SOLE issued a plea to community groups to withdraw their interest in taking over libraries – effectively asking them to call the council’s bluff.
Says Mr Coburn: “We pointed out that the council has promised not to close libraries for five years. If you withdraw, they are committed to running them, with trained staff, a proper book stock, etc…”
So far, four community groups have rescinded their expressions of interest. SOLE will be continuing its campaign with a day of action in September.
Ms Pearce praises “to the hilt” those activists who are at the frontline of protecting libraries. “These are campaigns that everyone can learn so much from. It’s very important to share that experience.”
Alongside the Cultural Charter, UNISON is carrying out research with Cardiff University into the impact of volunteering on the library service – the results of which will inform future campaigning.
Love your libraries: read more UNISON stories