Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Further North Yorkshire campaign progress

The consultation period on North Yorkshire libraries ends in little over a week. The situation is developing rapidly and the council’s reactions are beginning to become apparent. For more information, please see the Save North Yorkshire Libraries site put together by Kirkbymoorside town councillor, Martin Brampton.

The county has seen a number of successful events where the public have clearly demonstrated their opposition to the plans: Bentham Library staged a read-in which attracted support from playwright Alan Bennett; hundreds of people protested at Bilton Library and marched through Pateley Bridge; people across the county have been starting petitions and collecting signatures. On Save Our Libraries Day, hundreds of people attended the read-in at Easingwold Library (local author Tim Hopgood has some great photos here) . Footage from the read-in was shown on BBC News all day and I was interviewed on BBC Radio York about the impact of the event. As Beverley Knights of the Friends of Easingwold Library campaign said, “It’s the Big Society biting back”: communities telling government exactly what they want rather than being told what they should want.

In light of this clear opposition to the plans for the library service, the council have begun to respond. On February 4th, it was reported that the library service will be given a reprieve of a year before any closures take place: this is partly to respond to the public backlash and partly to finalise plans for creating volunteer-run libraries. In fact, the council’s position has moved from threats of closure to advocacy of volunteer-run libraries. This morning the council released this statement by Cllr. Chris Metcalfe – the Conservative councillor in charge of adult and library services. The statement shows the council’s intention to develop libraries run by volunteers from the local community. Though it mentions “positive discussions... with local communities”, there is no mention of the widespread opposition to the plans, the events on February 5th, or the planned amount of professional staff.

Although an open volunteer-run library is better than a closed library, it needs to be understood that a library service run by volunteers is not an adequate replacement for a professional service. Fellow Voices member, Ian Clark, wrote this article for ORG Zine on why librarians cannot be replaced by volunteers (in a similar vein, I wrote this article for ORG Zine on the origins of Voices for the Library). Ian has also written on the money that councils are holding back for ‘Big Society projects’. Instead of destroying a professional library service, councils should be looking to save money by examining wastage and cutting administrative budgets.

Voices for the Library recently published data which reveals the overall success of North Yorkshire’s libraries and the specific success of many libraries previously earmarked for closure (we have Friends of Easingwold Library to thank for the Freedom of Information request which made this data available). It also demonstrates that the library closures will disproportionately affect vulnerable people across the county. Last July, North Yorkshire County Council produced this slideshow about turning libraries into volunteer-run libraries. Among the problems it discusses are that volunteer libraries take longer than expected to set up, have much-reduced opening hours (North Stainley Village Hall open only 6 core hours a week), have high ICT costs, and require a team of enthusiastic volunteers and supporters.

North Yorkshire deserves a professional library service. Isolated rural communities deserve the links to information and communication that local libraries provide. David Cameron wants libraries to “wake up to the world of new technology” and this means appointing staff trained in the use of new technology rather than volunteers who may not have appropriate IT experience or the budget to develop new library technologies. Please continue to support your local libraries, send your stories and comments to the Voices for the Library team, write to your local councillors and MPs, and attend public meetings (on Monday, I will be attending a public meeting in Starbeck which the council has refused to attend). Keep supporting your libraries and – like in Northamptonshire – we can make the council change its plans.

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