August 4, 2007
Below is the Bookseller interview with Mrs Hodge about public libraries from last week.
You can see that the men in suits have already got to her with their stories of the "decline of professionalism" and need for protecting the funding etc. She does say she has been told there are problems, but isn't specific about what they are. She doesn't say that she understands that the increase in purchasing power from improved book discounts is well short of the fall caused by decline in book spend. I wish someone would do the sums for her more lucidly
Claiming the qualification that she was leader of Islington Council is about as reassuring as saying you were captain of the English World Cup Cricket Team-- more impressive in the title than the achievements.
Islington was never the best public library service - despite spending oodles of taxpayers money (as the District Auditor correctly tried to point out); that was where the expression "learning centre" came to mean a public library with access to the internet but no books. Mercifully people are beginning to realise that was a load of nonsense. So I'm afraid the jury has to remain in their room for longer. I do wish she would enthuse about books and reading. That doesn't come over at all. It is one of the things a minister can do. Few things would please the press and the public more; it's a wonder that politicians don't understand that- they talk of reading a book as if it were a visit to the old fashioned dentist. As if what is written in books couldn't possibly be enough to interest people, especially young people. Excuse me?
But Mr Brown has been good so far- so maybe a bit of that will rub off in due course. Let's hope.
Even a donkey knows that libraries need books
03.08.07 Katherine Rushton
New culture minister Margaret Hodge has backed away from her right to seize control of failing libraries, saying that any use of her powers under the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act would be “short-sighted”.
Speaking to The Bookseller, Hodge indicated she would be unlikely to use the draconian powers and emphasised her support for local government control. “I think [to seize control] is short-sighted, I really do. If those powers had been used by the Thatcher government in the 1980s, they’d have forced me as a local governor to close my libraries. I would not want government to determine where there should be libraries. They’ve got to be locally accountable.”
Hodge knows the struggle between local management and national expectations first-hand. Unusually for an MP, she started her political career in local government, eventually becoming council leader for the London Borough of Islington for 10 years from 1982. One of the big issues then—as now—was protecting libraries from having their funding slashed in the face of wider budgetary cuts. “They were really under threat then because funding was extremely low,” she recalls. “I actually remember the district order coming in and telling us we were spending too much on libraries during rate-capping. Every time you look for cuts, because it’s a discretionary spend, it comes up as a potential cut.”
Hodge and a group of pro-library colleagues always resisted, partly because the potential savings were so small “in the grand total of local authority spending”. But she identifies the protection of library funding as one of the key challenges of her new role: “We are in a very tight fiscal environment and we’ve got to make sure that this jewel in our community offer is preserved. That’s danger one.”
The second danger is “ensuring that libraries maintain their relevance as people change”. Like her predecessor, David Lammy, Hodge sees libraries as a powerful tool for social inclusion and insists that they must be a “books-plus” facility to help draw as wide a crowd as possible. “You’ve got to start from what draws people to a library,” she says. “[It might be] hunting for a job, so you’ve got to have a terminal which gives them access to Jobcentre Plus. Bring somebody into a library and it will open their eyes to the other opportunities the library presents, but if you see yourself as being solely a traditional institution, I think you will be losing that opportunity to extend your reach. I do think books have to be at the heart of [libraries], but I also think that libraries have to encompass a much, much wider agenda.”
Is there a worry that by embracing other functions—from cafés to creches to t’ai chi—libraries will alienate traditional users? “No. Absolutely not,” Hodge says. “I think it’s more important that we ensure continuing relevance in people’s lives, and I think all of us here understand that.”
Hodge makes no bones about the fact that “there are huge issues which we need to address”, but claims to have been surprised by the buoyant state in which she has found the service. “My impression before I got to the statistics was that there were many more closures than there have been. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been the de-professionalisation of library staff and that purchasing budgets haven’t declined, but nonetheless it’s not that many. We’ve lost only about 30 or 40 libraries [net] over time.”
She is also relatively optimistic about the state of spending on books, which, according to the latest set of Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy figures, has fallen from 14.4% to 8.8% (£66m) of the total library budget in the past 10 years. “Yes, book stock is down,” she says, but “the purchasing [the number of books bought] is now going up again [by 4% in 2006 compared with 2005].” She is not about to make any moves to ringfence book spending, preferring instead to leave all funding and management decisions to the local councils in charge. “What I can do is just act as an advocate,” she says.
Posted by Perkins at August 4, 2007 6:45 PM
Margaret Hodge appears less dogmatic than her predecessor. At the same time she is creating difficulties for herself by declaring,“there are huge issues which we need to address”.
Are there? Isn't it really quite simple? Provide an abundance of books, and the readers will follow. Go into a shop for kettles, and you expect to find kettles, and life goes on.
In vaguely trying to be something of everything, the national library system is in continual danger of ignoring its core function - the provision of books - and thereby letting down the substantial tranche of the population, readers and writers, for whom this is a part of life.
It is a delusion to imagine that one "initiative" after another will bring in those who scorn libraries, and any efforts to that end are better directed to the education system which has a chance of instilling a library habit. Catch 'em young, I believe marketeers call it.
And if some people choose not to use a well-stocked library, that is their privilege - just as I would not spend £30 to go to a football match.
But a well-stocked library is something that draws in readers.
How many times do we have to utter variations on a fact obvious to all those who do not have a vested interest in obscuring it?
Posted by: Christopher Hawtree at August 7, 2007 12:45 PM
Tim, just for once I am disagreeing with you -- but nly on a very minor point. Semantics perhaps but I am a pedant so I cannot agree that "even a donkey knows that libraries need books". Eyeore would have preferred thistles for breakfast and would not have gone near a book, Balaam's ass was more concerned with the word of God (no indication that it was the written word) and as for Donkey (from the Shrek films which if you have children you may have had inflicted on you) there is no indication that he was into books either!
People read books, sensible people know that a library may be many things to many people but that it's not much use without BOOKS. Maybe we just have a non-sensible minister?
Posted by: Hazel at August 8, 2007 10:17 AM
There are a lot of Eeyores in the MLA wood. But most of them won't know we are talking about them.
And a nonsense -ible miinister in the Ministry of Common Sense. Of course.
Posted by: Tim Coates at August 8, 2007 1:23 PM