Dear Mr Echo

The council are consulting on the future of our local library and leisure centre. I say “library and leisure centre”, and that seems to be what we’re likely to end up with, but they’re currently two separate things; the library, in fact, is a Carnegie library, built before the First World War with money from the great American Republican philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. (Republicans were different then.) And I say “consulting”, but they’re doing it in their own particular way: they state that they’ve identified the three key priorities in libraries’n’leisure, and then ask if we’ve got anything we’d like to add.

The key priorities are:

  1. Facilities should be sited whenever possible in community hubs tailored to the specific needs and requirements of the surrounding neighbourhoods, where residents can access activities, information and advice and use self-service in one place.
  2. The Council should continue to work with commercial partners and external funding bodies to provide new facilities with the aim of improving customer satisfaction levels and reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

Auf Englisch:

  1. Facilities should be sited … in community hubs … activities, information and advice … in one place.
  2. The Council should … work with commercial partners and external funding bodies … with the aim of … reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute … journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

In descending order of enthusiasm, I’m at best neutral about #3; it smacks of drawing circles on a map around three or four shiny new High-Quality Pools and closing the rest. I suspect that all Manchester residents do already live in reasonably easy reach of at least a ratty old local pool, and I suspect more people get more use out of pools that way. I’m suspicious of #1, particularly when the ‘facilities’ we’re talking about are (a) leisure centres featuring a swimming pool and (b) libraries – I can’t see any benefit to anyone in having a swimming-pool in a library, or vice versa. (Has somebody misread Alan Hollingshurst?) As for #2, no, I don’t believe that this is what the council should do; in fact, I think this just what the council should not do. This is a simple case of robbing Peter to pay Paul: the only way that running costs can be reduced (while also making a profit for those “commercial partners”) is by finding the money from somewhere else, by making users pay a bit more on the door or by driving down salaries and service levels. You’d end up, all being well, with a lower council tax, higher per-usage charges and lower salaries, and with profits being taken out of the system – all of which is, of course, the precise opposite of the principles on which council-funded services were set up in the first place.

But there wasn’t a box for that. So I contented myself by adding a fourth priority

All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality library.

Curious omission, that one.

There was also some stuff about what we’d like to see in our shiny new leisure centre (didn’t answer, never go) and what we’d like to see in our shiny new library (I carefully ticked everything that you can only do in a library – see below – and left everything else blank). Then I completed the demographic information at the end, which seemed more like owning-up than usual (Oh, OK, it’s just another Guardian-reader…). And now they’ve consulted me.

There are also proposals – or advance warnings – for what’s going to happen to the Central Library, which has been closed for refurbishment for a couple of years. Things don’t look quite as bad as Jamie suggested – it will be a library, with books – but I think he was right to be suspicious. Highlights:

New ideas, new technology and new storage methods mean we can accommodate a better, more modern library service and accommodate partner organisations, but still streamline and open up spaces, making a feature of this building’s impressive architecture.

We don’t want the new library to just be a place where you come if you have an essay to write. We want you to relax there, meet your friends, drink coffee, enjoy performances, go online or just browse for a few impulse take-home treats. We want you to consider the Central Library home-from-home, open for longer and open for everyone.

They’ve been talking for some time about doing something new and different (but library-based) with the Town Hall Extension. It turns out that the Town Hall Extension will house the extended Central Library (not to be confused with the Central Library, which will be in another building). The extended Central Library will offer… oh, everything. Well, nearly everything.

The extended Central Library will be integrated with a customer service centre providing a one stop shop front for Council services. Open for longer than ever before; the library will be packed with all the things you like best, from best-sellers to DVDs, music and computers. There’ll be something on our shelves for every taste.

This is where new technology will really play its part in making the library more convenient than it’s ever been. You’ll be able to browse online, then call to pick up what you’ve chosen, then issue it yourself with your library card. You’ll be able to download e-books and audio books from home or in the library.

Everyone will find a niche in the extended Central Library, there’ll be songs and stories for little ones in a bright and exciting children’s zone; young people will have a place of their own with computers for school or for gaming, plus books and study support. There’ll be a decent latte in the cafĂ© and a comfy place to sit while you sip it. We’ll have quiet places and noisy places, you simply choose where you want to be that day. New layouts and technology will enable all types of visit, from groups working collaboratively on projects through to those who want to read the paper in peace.

To sum up:

In the past, libraries were all about books. Now they’re about people.

I responded to the consultation… no I didn’t, there wasn’t one. All of this is coming, ready or not – “quiet places and noisy places”, “partner organisations” and all. But the City Council’s Web pages all have a little “Was this information helpful?” feedback widget, like so:

So I left a comment there. I don’t know if anyone will ever read it, but you never know. It’s just a grumpy pushback, but sometimes a grumpy pushback is all there is to do. Here’s what I wrote:

Perhaps that last paragraph was meant to be provocative. If so, it’s succeeded.

What is the one thing that you can find in libraries and nowhere else? Books. Physical books, to search or browse through at random; books you’ve heard of but never seen, books you never knew existed, books you always wanted to read, books you never knew you wanted to read. Books that can be borrowed at no charge. Books, and lots of them.

A library is a place of discovery: it’s not a place to go for something you already want, it’s a place to go to find out what you want. And I know this may sound boring – I sometimes think the definition of a librarian is somebody who’s bored with books – but shelves of books do that job better than anything else. All that information, all those ideas, all those stories, packed into an object that fits into your pocket – and next to it, another one, and another, and another.

There’s no better aid to literacy – at any age, but especially for kids – than shelves of books, freely accessible, not being pushed at you by educational diktat or marketing hype, just sitting there waiting to be picked up and read. There are only two places in the world that can offer that, particularly to a child; one of them is a home well supplied with books, and most kids don’t have one of those. The other is a library. Turn a library into a cool multi-media meeting-place that isn’t “all about books” and you destroy the library.

Manchester City Council is one of those councils that were so Labour in the 80s that they effectively had a (right-wing, old-school) Labour council and a (left-wing) Labour opposition. The latter eventually took over, and they’ve been running on self-congratulation and a vague sense of shiny new radicalism ever since. Essentially they were New Labour avant la lettre, and they’re still New Labour now. And they’re still in charge.

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