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This Is Not A Library Consultation

July 20th 2013

Louth Library

Not for the chop

Jonathan Platt

Jonathan Platt

I had a hunch this was going to be a crock before I came in. What gave it away? Well, there was the fact that there are only eight consultations scheduled county-wide, all of which are in places that aren't due to lose their libraries. There was the fact that it wasn't widely advertised, and although the library service has my email address they didn't send me an email to inform me of this meeting. There was the fact that people were asked to book places. And although the meeting took place in a busy leisure centre, there was no sign advertising its presence, or saying "public library consultation - all welcome".

Divide and conquer

The hall was set up more like a classroom than any public consultation I've ever been to, with a series of separate tables each staffed by people from Sheffield Hallam University Sports Research Department. So the object was not to expose actual members of the council to direct public opinions, but instead to have these recorded by a neutral organisation, who weren't to blame for any of the budget cuts or proposals.

However, before we got to the stage of giving opinions, we were subjected to forty minutes of presentation, all of which dealt with the details of the proposals, and all of which could already be found on the LCC website. I doubt any of the councillors and concerned library users and campaigners present needed filling in on this detail, but we got it anyway. Attendance was around 43, including the organisers.

So the questions followed the flawed format of the LCC library questionnaire, which is full of leading questions along the lines of "If your library was defined as a Tier 3 facility, which option would you prefer?"
  • Mobile vehicle
  • Community-run library
  • Don't know
For what it's worth, my answer to that question was "legal action".

So none of the options were any good, and my table (mostly full of Labour councillors) was in agreement that the consultation was a sham and that library services should not be cut. In fact Councillor Neil Ward even left in disgust at the way the consultation was being run and the one-sidedness of the questions we were being asked to answer. There were even stickers and post-it notes to attach to prepared charts to indicate our views, as though reducing them to tick-box options would make them easier to process in bulk.

Several good alternatives to library closures were proposed, such as finding ways to make more money from the existing library buildings through events or game rentals. But because of the way the consultation was set up there was no opportunity to share these ideas with the attendees as a whole.

I felt manipulated by the whole process, and distinctly as though my words and opinions would be used merely to assert that consultation had taken place. I also got the sense that, rather as spoilt ballots are routinely not reported at elections, our non-compliant responses would not be counted in this exercises. No-one at my table agreed with the format of the questions, so we responded with the "something else" option in almost every case. The questions asked simply weren't relevant to what we felt about the proposals.

Another one of the questions focused on how the cuts would affect us individually. This was arguably the worst of the lot, because it assumes that libraries are mere book-borrowing institutions, and if an individual can't borrow books it only affects them. This is narrow-minded.

I'm a writer, so I rely on widespread literacy. But this doesn't put me in a special class, because we all benefit from an educated population, whether we're job seekers, employees, employers, parents, health care workers, service users, or anything else. There is no section of society that is worse off when people can all read. And there's no doubt in my mind that closing 32 libraries and getting rid of mobile services is going to harm literacy rates in Lincolnshire. It's false economy.

So that question was stupid, and I feel insulted that they even asked it.

During the two hour session there was a mere twenty minutes devoted to a question and answer session at the end. In this part, Jenny Gammon, when asked about the need for CRB checks on library volunteers, responded that they would be carried out "when necessary, but largely it's not necessary."

Libraries are havens for vulnerable people, places where anyone can search out information on sensitive topics like health and sexuality without fear of judgement, and places where children's storytime sessions are run. Yes, I have an issue with Jenny Gammon's "not necessary" comment.

Other members of the public brought up issues of how this consultation was run, concerning how much publicity it was given, and the availability of the phone number for booking places.

Councillor Laura Stephenson raised questions about the possibility of volunteer libraries which might only be open for six hours, which is the theoretical minimum. Others pointed out the poverty of the local transport system, which means that even if someone is in theory able to use it to reach a library within 30 minutes' travel time, they might not be able to get on a bus on the one day a week that it runs (in some cases). One member of the public pointed out that Grimoldby wasn't represented in the consultation document. "How many people are going to lose their jobs?" Councillor Andy Austin asked.

The answers Councillor Chris Worth, Jonathan Platt, and Jenny Gammon gave to these questions were neither reassuring nor comprehensive, I have to say.

It's not a public consultation when there's no public and no-one is listening. The feeling I got from this is that the big decisions have already been made, and that LCC feel that all they need to do is tweak the details. It's like saying, "here's the twitching corpse of your library service, but hey, you can choose whether to cremate it on a pyre, drive a stake through its heart, or bury it at sea with full military honours. Pick one!"



 


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