Dear Councillor Noble,
I am deeply concerned at Gloucestershire County Council’s proposals for severe cuts to our library service. I submitted a written question to the County Council meeting on the 18th November regarding these proposals, and thank you for your response. However, I would like to question you further on a couple of points:
1. In your response to my question, you cite the ‘meeting the challenge’ survey as justification for the cuts to library services. I work in social science research, and after reading the brief report of the survey’s results available from the county council website, have some questions regarding this. Firstly, the survey was completed by less than 1% of people in the county. Within most social science research a response rate of around 30% is considered a minimum standard to allow any claim of representativeness or generalisation of a sample to the wider population. Therefore it seems questionable to be evoking this result as a mandate for such severe measures.
Secondly, the manner in which the survey was presented seems rather simplistic – asking people would you cut this OR this, without any room for a more nuanced approach. I believe a number of survey respondents stated as much; commenting that they found the survey too simplistic and tokenistic, and were not provided with sufficient information about the relative costs of services and their interlinkages to make an informed decision.
I would also like to ask why ‘libraries’, ‘archives and records’, and ‘lifelong learning’ appear to have been presented as three separate services in some of the survey questions, but are then combined when presenting results? To most people answering the survey, I would imagine that ‘archives and records’ conjures a different image and response than ‘libraries’. Indeed, the report states that many more people chose to reduce or cut ‘archives and records’ than ‘libraries’. Why then are these results combined to arrive at the figure you cite of ‘more than 50%’? People seem to be being asked one thing, then their answers manipulated to say another? Please could you explain further the rationale and methodology behind this approach?
My final point in relation to the survey, is that if the Council is keen to reflect the results of the survey in its policy making, why are cuts of 43% being proposed to the library service – more than twice the 16.7% average amount respondents to the survey would apparently be willing to cut?
2. I would also like to question your attempt to allay fears that volunteer ownership of eleven libraries will result in a diminished and sub-standard service, by comparing the County Council’s proposals for Gloucestershire with Buckinghamshire’s ‘community libraries’ scheme. The comparison is misleading, as these libraries continue to receive support from the central library service. As per the proposals, this will not be the case in Gloucestershire where community libraries will have to purchase support from the central service. Also, Buckinghamshire is a largely affluent county. Indeed the Chair of a ‘friends of’ groups for one such community-run library in that area is quoted in the national media as saying; ‘Our area is a prosperous one with many able, retired folk who are keeping it afloat by spending a lot of their own money’. To compare this situation to that of Hesters Way or Matson for example – two relatively deprived areas where libraries would close unless taken on by volunteers, suggests a lack of understanding about the needs of these communities, and the role of their libraries within them.
In the Council meeting of the 24th November, you mentioned Woodbury Down Library in Hackney as an example of a successful volunteer-run library in a deprived area. Again though, this library is supported by Hackney’s central library service and is considered part of the public library network – described by the council as a ‘satellite library’. The Woodberry Down example must also be viewed in the context of Council investments in libraries in other parts of the borough – a brand new library and archive is being developed as part of the Dalston Square project, and Clapton Library reopened in early 2010 following renovation and extension. One of the headline successes of the project is that several previously unemployed volunteers have moved into employment in the library and information sectors, which has been possible because of the experience they have gained at Woodberry Down, and the expansion of this sector in the borough over the last few years. In contrast, in Gloucestershire these sectors are being severely squeezed and existing jobs will be lost – let alone new ones created as a result of volunteering. The ‘community ownership’ model at Woodberry Down was initiated in response to an existing complete lack of a library in the local area (since 1996). This is a different scenario to closing existing, popular libraries as per GCC’s plan, thereby attempting to ‘strong arm’ the community into taking ownership.
The model for community ownership proposed by GCC is unprecedented, untested, and risks irreparable damage to the high quality and comprehensive library service which people all across Gloucestershire pay for through their taxes, are legally entitled to, and deserve.
3. In your response to my question in the Cabinet meeting on the 18th, you say that cuts to the library service ‘must be seen in the context of Meeting the Challenge in which Council needs to save £108 million’. As you know, these cuts will represent only 2.3% of the amount the County Council say they need to save. Is making such severe and potentially damaging cuts to a well-loved and well-used service with such wide benefits to society for this small return really justified?
Demelza Jones, Cheltenham