Labour blunders to right decision on Liverpool’s libraries

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The Mansion House where the Reader Organisation is encouraging thousands to read and use the written word

Like a giant mammoth pricked by the 20,000 arrows of the petitioners of Liverpool Joe Anderson has finally stumbled to what might be the right decision on Liverpool’s libraries. The sad thing is that if we had in Liverpool a council with vision and direction capable of thinking ahead and creating real partnerships the anguish felt by library users and staff in the past few months could have been avoided.
No-one likes someone who says, I told you so”, but Mayor Anderson and the Labour Party in Liverpool don’t like me anyway so here goes.
For the past two and a half years I have been saying that we needed to have a close look at our library service and see if it is fit for purpose. Times have changed and nothing has changed quicker and more dramatically than the way in which we communicate. For the past decade our libraries have stood still. Yes they had more computers than before but to all intents and purposes the looked and felt like libraries have done since libraries were invented.
This was at a time when readership of newspapers had slumped and a mass increase had started in the way people bought books. Not books now in a physical sense but books downloaded from the internet and held in I-pads, I-phones and computers. When I said this in council two years ago I was mocked by the Cabinet Member responsible for libraries. Yet a year later my words were heeded and Liverpool launched its own e-library programme with more than 1,000,000 books available.
These changes do not mean that there is now no need for a library but that our libraries need to change if they are to meet their continued need. That need can be defined as:
• A place where we can access the written word
• A place where we can be helped to access the written word
• A place where we can come together as a community to appreciate the written word
• A place where we can come to study the written word.
All these together mean that we need places with books and computers but open up the possibilities of doing them in very different ways.
If you want to see new ways of doing things go to the Reader Organisation in Calderstones Park almost any day of the week. There you will see a wide range of activities which could be classed as ‘library like’. People come together in a range of classes, reader groups, play groups, fun groups to explore both reading and writing. Those concepts are then taken further with people exploring drama, acting and reading. Together these activities are important in their own right. Anything that encourages the increased skill base with the written word is good for the individual and for the city. But the end results are much, much more important than that. Being able to read at a higher level, being able to speak aloud and be listed to; being able to use your voice to promote an argument rather than shouting are all things that help people to get jobs. Yes reading is about pleasure but yes it is about employability and the future as well.
Over the past two years as the threat to libraries became more apparent ‘Friends of Libraries’ have been established all over Liverpool. In my own Ward Erica and Andrew Makinson have been active in establishing and supporting a Friends group at Allerton Library. This group has an increasing number of activities which not only do things within the library to encourage reading but sue the library as a base to go out and meet people. The Friends of Garston Library have been particularly active with a range of innovative competitions and meetings.
All this support was always available to the Council if it had found a way of asking for it. What they did was to be political about it. “It’s Nick Clegg’s fault”, they say and it’s the cuts. It’s what they say about everything! But Government cuts were not the most important consideration here but the changing face of book use. If we had not changed the way we do things then our libraries would, over the next decade, have declined as we lost the ‘market’ as a supplier of services concerned with the written word.
How much better it would have been if instead of resorting to crude politics the Council had stated clearly an openly the facts about the need for change. Had right from the start made it clear they were open for offers and wanted to talk to people about innovation. In that way all the solutions that have been proposed by the community which are now being worked up come have come forward in a rational and positive way.
The need for vision, strategy and competence needs to embed itself through every service in the council. Take Allerton Municipal Golf Course which has been saved by being privatised! Last year the council refused to allow the Golfers themselves to enter the tender process to take over the course. Apparently they had no track record as an organisation – which was of course true. Yet they had a committee composed of people who knew the course well and knew what was preventing it making money. The membership includes more solicitors, accountants and business people than you could shake a stick at. Was it really that they had no track record or was it that the Council had no trust in the people and see privatisation as the answer to everything?
Vision, strategy and competence are in short supply in Liverpool Council as anyone who comes to the Council meeting on Wednesday will see. We need to challenge the Labour party in this city but we equally need to challenge the system which allows a city of giants to be run by a council of pygmies.

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About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. . Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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