Content wars and Canutism – why public libraries face more than government cuts in the digital age

There are few more controversial and emotive issues than the future of local public libraries.  Indeed, the current budgetary crisis for affecting local authorities has forced many Town Halls to make unpopular decisions, including widespread closure programmes, leaving residents feeling that their community or neighbourhood library is ‘first on the cuts list’ of local politicians.

As seen almost exclusively through the prism of government cuts, councils like mine vex over whether to ‘salami slicing’ services – risking the reduction of their opening hours to the point where people no longer have the confidence that their service is open; closing services outright; or (most invidiously) adopt a ‘mop and bottle detergent’ approach to services – where investment is so starved from services, all that remains is the shell of a building, a caretaker and a bottle of cleaning fluid.

After conducting a consultation on the future of libraries with over 6000 residents in Camden, it’s clear that The Big Society answer to cuts – replacing professional librarians with volunteers – has only limited appeal, so too higher fees or community giving. 

But while it is true that public libraries face unprecedented funding challenges, there is a much more unspoken and fundamental threat which needs to be addressed:  the challenge of continuing to provide the public information and content in an age when all content-based organisations are being forced to transform or die.  

The brutal truth is that just like any other organisation in providing access to books and music, public libraries will face real pressures from changing behavior over the next 5 to 10 years as more people own, subscribe and ‘stream’ more content online at home or on the move than libraries currently offer.  

While some library programmes have anticipated this change, controversially by providing a more diverse and atypical range of services, innovation has often been via larger ‘hubs’ at the expense (closure) of community libraries.  The decline and underinvestment in smaller neighbourhood libraries has forced people to literally vote with their feet.  Compare a traditional local library with a Costa Coffee and question how it might be that more information is being accessed by more people in private commercial spaces providing free wifi selling coffee than in public spaces supposedly dedicated to learning?  

Digital technology is transforming content industries, quickly, destructively and chaotically.  The pace of change over the last 10 years has been fundamental and far-reaching.  At the time of the first dot-com bubble in 2000 less than 40% of UK households were connected to the ‘down-the-line’ Internet.   Today the number is 80%, with many benefitting from high-speed broadband. 

The availability of Kindle/iPad, e-books and app-based mobile technology will only drive content change faster.  

The Internet, high-speed communications, new consumer electronics devices—together these and other inventions have created a perfect storm for content organisations.   They provide an alternative, virtual supply chain, one where often the costs of creation, marketing, distribution and use of information goods have plummeted to something close to zero.

Simply put, the cost of physically providing information is being overtaken.  Library users, like customers of HMV or Waterstones will tell us:  Why visit your local library when you can get more information online?  Why borrow a book or a CD, when you are just two clicks and a download away from it online? 

We can only guess at what the future holds for content providers, but the reality is that we don’t yet know what the emerging new markets and services for information will look like, but we know they are coming, and we know that in the interim it is entirely unclear who will survive the revolution. 

The content crisis of the last decade is grounded in the reality that digital technology has generated far more challenges for traditional content providers than we ever expected.  This crisis is about to play itself out across our public services. 

So why haven’t public libraries changed?

While all content providers have been forced to change, parochial politics rather than strategic thinking have played a major part in not anticipating the worst. 

Libraries possess are rare quality among public services – they are seen as a fundamental good regardless of whether people use them or not.  Whenever libraries are under threat, supporters argue strongly just how important these services are, yet once the leaflets have been delivered, local councilors and MPs lobbied and decisions overturned we find ourselves back in the same position as before: stuck in the 1970s.

There are two functions well-expressed about the public library: the “street-corner university” and the “living-room in the city.” The library needs both these parts of its identity – a place of learning, but also of culture, leisure, conviviality and inclusiveness.  There has often been a tension between both these functions, and resistance to becoming skewed towards one or the other so much that they are often neither.  The digital challenge over the next decade will enhance and distort this.   

In Camden – par excellence the hotbed of the Library Lobby– amenity groups have historically been very vocal and influential.  Indeed Friends Groups can credibly claim to have kicked off the wider national debate about libraries in the late 1990s, a debate which has re-emerged today as councils face severe cuts in government funding.

As has been played out politically, the strength of the Library Lobby over the more diverse voice of library users has often distorted the very real role community libraries serve in more deprived communities, as spaces where parents can meet and pre-school children can play and have unstructured learning with books.   For those who live alone, a community facility like a library serves as an important venue for socialisation, the concept popularised in library circles the last decade as the ‘urban living room’ idea – a community space in an increasingly individualised world.

Famously backed by local celebs Library Lobby has, however, left itself open the criticism largely the preserve of the well meaning affluent middle classes.  While libraries have been protected by the fury of this group over time, views about libraries have ossified and change resisted. (‘Libraries should be for books, not machines’ was a slogan when Camden council first installed UK Online computers ten years ago). 

Perhaps it’s now time that the much more diverse weight of opinion and experience from the more diverse body of library users it brought to bear. 

Can we change before it is too late?

Libraries do not have to be the first public sector victims of the combination of cuts, content wars and conservatism. With concerted political will, perhaps Town Hall politicians can take the lead and help public libraries modernise to meet these three challenges: 

Social inclusion must be central to the work of community libraries

The Library Lobby is often far too unrepresentative of broader library users, skewing the priorities of library services away from goals the community shares in other services.  Councils should support and assist diverse and sometimes unrepresentative library users groups by establishing more effective and engaged networks where library users can not only exercise more self-governance, but do so in a way which links up with schools, childcare, youth and older peoples’ services.

If libraries are to seriously be effective we must ensure a more effective voice for library users from across the community, including a more powerful voice for young people and parents with young children. 

Camden, for example, where Friends groups have historically sprung up in libraries serving more affluent areas – the council proposes to assist library Friends groups establish themselves self-govern in public libraries serving more deprived areas.

Library as a digital-physical bridge

The decline of high street retailers in books and music has clearly created a potential additional need for libraries as the mediator between digital and physical goods via a trusted brand in a way that few other organisations could ever offer.

Libraries are probably the only places where people today can use the internet for free and browse/borrow for books for free.  Libraries should proudly the repository for ‘physical’ information – the core service of lending books/music – but should also recognise their evolving role in online literacy.  More radically, some have started to offer greater choice to a greater number of people with additional e-book services.

Recuing the stubborn digital divide

Public authorities should embrace UK Digital Tsar Martha Lane Fox’s Manifesto for a Networked Nationprogramme (authored by the only government Tsar to survive the transition from Labour to Coalition government).  In the short term, community libraries have a potential future as vehicles for to reduce the persistent digital divide and a hub for community ‘digital champions’.  One in six (including many disabled people, parents and older people) remain offline.  Despite the market for computer hardware and broadband now within the reach of a majority of low income households, many lack basic digital skills.  Through their links with UK Online, libraries have a crucial function over the short and medium term to close this gap.

More self-governance

Libraries should be much more self-governing than they have been traditionally.  Allowing greater innovation would allow a broader, more bespoke range of services to be delivered from these neighbourhood centres. 

Hours should be extended by encouraging local volunteering.  However, the patronising suggestion that the role of the public librarian can be replaced by cohorts of full-time volunteers should be rejected on grounds of unsustainability. 

A far better idea is to challenge public librarians to develop their latent skills as community organisers as well as knowledge professionals to assist libraries in provided extended and out of hours services by Friends networks and community programmes such as Time Banking.   

Local public service hubs

Councils should ensure that libraries work properly with other local services and other public sector bodies.  Too often libraries do not work as effectively as they could do with local schools (which have libraries themselves).

Remodelling of other services, e.g, housing services or advice, could provide new opportunities for council services to co-locate or provide ‘touchdown’ points in neighbourhoods where face-to-face services still need a presence.  Libraries should look at how they can work with local advice charities, for example Citizens Advice or Credit Unions, to jointly run services. 


The need to respond to cuts, the changing dynamics of content and conservatism require a fresh approach to community public libraries. 

In this climate those whowant to see a public library servcie survive must accept modernisation is a reality, not an option.


About Theo Blackwell

Camden Labour councillor, Cabinet memebr for Finance, moderate, anti-contrarian.
This entry was posted in Camden, Digital, Modernisation, Public libraries. Bookmark the permalink.

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