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Community Libraries – looking to the past to inform the present by David McMenemy

In his timely and perceptive post, David McMenemy looks at the 1942 McColvin Report and suggests that there are valuable insights that today’s policymakers can gain from it. In Britain, policy making in the libraries and archives sector has undergone radical changes in the past two years, following the closure of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in 2011 as part of the mission by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government to cut down the number of existing quangos . As of the 1st October 2012, responsibilities for museums, library and archives was distributed between Arts Council England and the National Archives. The folding of the MLA inevitably means the loss of precious institutional memory and specialised staff, considering that the MLA’s previous incarnation, the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries started operating in 1931: David’s call for an historical awareness of past debates and policy solutions is especially poignant. The cuts that local authorities-funded library are facing throughout the country as a result of austerity measures makes libraries a prime cultural value battleground, and David’s reminder of the values that had inspired previous library reforms all the more poignant for it.

Looking to the past for evidence is not only inconvenient for people with a political agenda to deliver, it is also something they can discredit very easily by citing the proponent as old-fashioned and behind the times; someone not willing to “innovate”.   However, when you have on one hand evidence as to the limitations of one system, versus nothing on the other except political experimentation writ as progress, only the foolhardy, the acquiescent or the zealous would rush headlong.

To put it simply, what is being proposed regarding community ownership of public libraries goes against everything the public library movement has achieved since the mid-Victorian era.  If any of the evangelists for community-run libraries would care to pick up a book that suggested why, I would recommend they dip a little into the evidence collected by Lionel McColvin in the World War 2 era.

The publication of The Public Library System of Great Britain, or the McColvin Report, as it came to be known, set the case for a realignment of public library services.  The report was published in 1942 and attacked the variance in quality of library services across the country, with particular emphasis on rural libraries.  McColvin was highly critical of what he saw as a fragmented structure, and he advocated larger administrative units being constructed to look after multiple libraries; a reduction from 604 library authorities UK wide, to just 93 (1942,p.149-157).  This was a crucial point, as the variances in quality and service were inevitable with the huge differences in populations served by libraries; while some served populations in the thousands, others like metropolitan services had to cater for numbers in excess of a million.   McColvin’s belief was that only large structures could deliver the range of services modern libraries required to provide for their users, such as children’s services, and efficient and effective reference services.

McColvin identified the inadequacies of the public library system as it existed as such:

  • Units of service that are far too small
  • Authorities which are unable or unwilling to provide the necessary means
  • Lack of co-ordination
  • Often lack of guidance and inspiration
  • Inadequate personnel – and absence of the factors which alone can secure it (1942, p.195).

By the latter point re personnel, McColvin was referring to the need for not only good staff, both qualified librarians and assistants, but also good qualifications, good salaries, and good opportunities for professional and personal growth (1942, p.169).

These were all reasons why the public library service was failing the public, yet 71 years later for political purposes we are proposing to go back to the kind of structure which McColvin fought so hard to eradicate.  Just examine those five points again closely, and consider how many of them might apply by default to community-run libraries.

McColvin himself admitted that his report was “a piece of opportunism” (1942, p.v) – but it was one that used evidence to improve a situation for the betterment of society.  The opportunism of today to spread the public libraries of England to the four winds has no more than producing a small state as its agenda.  Dressing it up as localism puts the Sunday best on it, but look closer and it is threadbare.   Public libraries became, if not a major strand of the emerging welfare state, a large-scale example of the principles of welfarism (Black, 2001, p.111).  What we are witnessing is nothing less than the tearing up of the principles of welfarism, with the cloak of austerity the most thinly disguised opportunism we have seen in many a day.

The legacy of the public library reformers was one of the proudest of any of the social campaigners the UK has been proud to call their own.  Writing in 1956 McColvin suggested that the most important aspect of the work of the reformers was that they inspired five key principles on which our modern understanding of public libraries is now enshrined:

  1. That public libraries should be publicly funded
  2. That they should be administered by public bodies and not private      organisations or individuals
  3. That they should be freely available to all members of the      community
  4. That they should embrace the needs and interest of all members of      the community
  5. That they should be free both financially and intellectually, and      provide access to materials without bias or interference (McColvin, 1956:      24)

Only the most optimistic souls among us would care to take a bet on how many of these principles will be with us in 5 or 10 years’ time.

 

References

Black, A. (2001) The Public Library in Britain 1914-2000.  London: The British Library.

McColvin, L. (1942) Public Library System of Great Britain. London: Library Association.

McColvin, L. (1956) The Chance to Read: Public Libraries in the World Today. London: Phoenix House.

 

BIO

David McMenemy is Course Director for the MSc in Information and library Studies at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, with over a decade of work experience in public libraries before moving to academic life. He was Editor of Library Review between 2006-2011, and is co-author of Librarianship: an introduction, The Library and Information Professional’s Internet Companion and A Handbook of Ethical Practice.  His study of the public library system, The Public Library, was published by Facet in December 2008.  His forthcoming work, Information Ethics: reflection and practice, will be published by Facet in December 2013.

 

 

 

Discussion

4 Responses to “Community Libraries – looking to the past to inform the present by David McMenemy”

  1. Had you thought of perhaps trying to explain some of this to the minister at the DCMS, or the Arts Council? We have been trying for years, so I don’t fancy your chances…

    Posted by Laura Swaffield, The Library Campaign | March 15, 2013, 3:38 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Cultural Value Initiative : 8th February Community Libraries – looking to the past to inform the present by David McMenemy These were all reasons why the public library service was failing the public, yet 71 years later for political purposes we are proposing to go back to the kind of structure which McColvin fought so hard to eradicate. http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/02/08/community-libraries-looking-to-the-past-to-inform-the-… [...]

  2. [...] Cultural Value Initiative : 8th February Community Libraries – looking to the past to inform the present by David McMenemy These were all reasons why the public library service was failing the public, yet 71 years later for political purposes we are proposing to go back to the kind of structure which McColvin fought so hard to eradicate. http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/02/08/community-libraries-looking-to-the-past-to-inform-the-… [...]

  3. [...] McColvin Report – See this for a summary of what it says and its relevance [...]

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