On the day of the Speak Up for Libraries Conference we hear from Alan Wylie, a public librarian and campaigner for public libraries, about the consequences of library cuts on outreach programmes in libraries.
We’ve all seen the headlines, and as a library campaigner I’ve been unfortunate enough to see them every day, announcing cuts to library service budgets and the closure of libraries but what about the hidden cuts, the fine detail tucked away in the ‘consultation’ or ‘re-organisation’ report, what damage are these cuts causing?
Concerns about hidden cuts to library services are not new, as these articles from 2010/11 demonstrate:
“The cuts will just make it harder for libraries to provide outreach work and school visits – everything around making books accessible.”
“Reader development staff – the people who run activities such as library reading groups, author events and outreach work to schools – are also being culled wholesale in some parts of the country.”
Since 2010/11 the situation facing public libraries has deteriorated rapidly with CIPFA estimating 3000-4000 library staff lost (900+ in London alone) but what the figures don’t often show and the headlines rarely announce is the loss of specialist staff and services. For example staff in outreach teams who work with nurseries, children’s centres and schools to promote the enjoyment of reading and the importance of literacy to young children and their parents/guardians. One such person is Dave Pickering who until earlier this year worked as an ‘Early Years Library Outreach Worker’ with Enfield Libraries until:
“Last month the team of five people that I was a part of was reduced to a team of one person.”
“I worked with children and parents across Enfield. The Guardian is currently tracking the “Enfield Experiment”. Like many parts of London, it is a place where you will find shocking disparities between the wealth and lifestyles of people in one area compared to those in another. I moved around the borough, working both in communities you might describe as affluent and those you might see as deprived.
My service was valued in both places, but the impact of its loss – and the loss of other even more essential and life-enhancing services – will be felt most keenly by the poorest and most at risk, rather than by people who can pay for private children’s services and who don’t need the extra help to combat the social conditions they find themselves in. We’re not all in it together, because the impact of each cut is vastly different for each person depending on their situation.
The government is literally taking things away from children; it is dividing and dismantling communities and claiming that this is an unfortunate reality.”
Recently in Hampshire very similar cuts to those already made in Enfield have been proposed:
“The proposals are part of a package of measures , which include reducing the mobile library service in Hart and Rushmoor and ending the family library link service
One aspect of the cuts is to disband the library outreach team, which promotes the use of the library service to playgroups, schools and community groups.”
And I’ve also been told that part of the new proposals for Havering Libraries include cutting the team that promotes the Summer Reading Challenge. Nationally this annual event is a public libraries success story:
- Research shows that taking part in the Summer Reading Challenge can help children keep up their reading skills during the long summer holiday
- A record 810,089 children took part in the 2013 Summer Reading Challenge.
In January 2014 the Save Wolverhampton Libraries Campaign wrote an open letter to the Wolverhampton Chief Executive outlining their concerns relating to proposed cuts to the library service including those to “services outside the core role of lending books, DVDs and audio”:
“The proposed cuts constitute closure by stealth of one of our city’s most precious assets. We are especially concerned about the removal of services outside the core role of lending books, DVDs and audio; we refer you to the many roles carried out by our city’s librarians of which the following is not an exhaustive list:
- Support with CV writing
- Support with job searching
- Support with form filling
- Support regarding benefits
- Support or assistance with IT and associated training
- School holiday and Saturday activities
- Outreach with schools
- Outreach with community groups”
In the 2013 report ‘The public library service under attack‘ commissioned by Unison and written by Steve Davies of the University of Cardiff, the figures show that although building based activities appeared to be holding steady or increasing, outreach was being cut:
“Although some respondents reported an increase in provision in some services (a quarter reported an increase in Baby Bounce and Rhyme time), close to one fifth reported cuts to both school holiday activities and to outreach with local schools (19% and 20% respectively).”
John Vincent, co-author of the blog ‘Social Justice Librarian’ and coordinator of ‘The Network’, recently raised similar concerns about the demise of outreach and targeted services to ‘marginalised groups’ in a recent piece he wrote on libraries and social justice:
“We know some of the reasons why this is happening: lack of library staff, time and resources; communities overwhelmed by other demands on their time; possibly political views about ‘new arrivals’.
But is there more to it? Could it be that, surreptitiously, we’ve become worn down by the calls to return to building-based services, to concentrate on existing users and their demands, to abandon ‘risky’ types of service, or services that do not show ‘high returns’ such as increased issue figures and visitor numbers? We do know that the sort of work that is required to make public libraries really relevant is time-intensive, and often involves relatively small numbers of users.”
Richard Lyda an Outreach Librarian based in the US outlines the crucial importance and the positive benefits of his role:
“My experiences teaching for Head Start made me appreciate how important community outreach can be for so many people. Families need to know that resources exist before they can access them, and effective community outreach is a great way to spread the word about valuable community resources.”
“I would suggest not to overlook outreach as a mode of service in public libraries. I’ve had a very gratifying and fulfilling experience in my almost 5 years as an outreach librarian. I get to see the service positively affecting youth, families, and seniors every day.”
In my opinion outreach is crucial to the relevance, integrity and survival of public libraries without it we are in danger of losing touch with those in our communities that need our services most.
It helps to ground us and to break down the ‘professional in an official building’ barrier, it also helps to loosen the ‘footfall & issues’ noose put around our necks by those only interested in quantative data.