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On libraries and their “value”

Last week, Libraries Connected published a UEA-authored report on the economic value of UK libraries, estimating libraries are “worth” about £3.4 billion to the UK economy every year.

When I worked at Suffolk Libraries, we expounded the “value” of libraries to all sorts of funders and stakeholders, from Suffolk County Council to the NHS. It was a main part of our communications strategy, and we published similar reports several years ago.

The thinking behind this is that funders don’t understand what libraries do, and their “real” benefit to local communities. Consequently, in the competition for decreasing national and local funding, libraries need to set their stall out better – in terms funders can relate to – or they’ll continue to lose out to more “important” services.

To be clear: only vandals and phillistines shut libraries. Libraries are shared, non-commercial, publicly-owned spaces where resources are pooled for the benefit of the local community – one of the few “places to be”. They can also serve as a display of civic pride and power, especially in the “showcase” examples you’ll find in some northern cities; an expression of what’s collectively possible. Proving their “worth” is like explaining why you need a water supply in your town.

Still, the explaining-the-value strategy seems sensible enough. Except I’m pessimistic because it perhaps misses a very simple point.

What if the people responsible for shutting libraries haven’t done this by accident, and are vaguely aware of their “value”? What if they just don’t care and/or have an ideological opposition to “civic” and “public”? What if this isn’t really anything to do with regrettable budgetary decisions, but an effort to get rid of as many public services as possible?

If this is the case, no amount of demonstrating the financial value of libraries will halt their closure. There are probably only three things that will.

Firstly, a basic change in the ideology of those in power, moving from austerity to some concept of provision, investment and even a functioning civic system. Note this doesn’t necessarily mean a change of government, especially if the alternative intends to implement a slightly nicer version of austerity. Additionally, the existing government may change tack, or simply run out of energy and ideas.

This would also require a change in thinking from austerity’s adminstrators and managers: the cost cutting regime and its attendant bureaucracy of fundraisers, bidwriters and commissioners has been in place for over a decade now. They may find it hard to plan for growth and investment, or not have the capacity to do so.

Secondly, grassroots resistance that gets local poiticians worried about their seats. Luckily, libraries tend to be popular, even when they’re not used by everyone – shutting such a visible asset isn’t always a simple process.

Thirdly, the hollowing out of local government makes it difficult to do anything at all. Including – in an ironic twist – closing libraries.

What does a library strategy look like when the sole aim isn’t to prove “value”?