Wednesday 3 February 2016

Open Season: or - the Library without Librarians - tested by Barnet campaigners

A body in the library: who dunnit? Your Tory councillors on ...

A question, for you, dear reader.

What is a library?

Is it perhaps a place where you might go to borrow something to read? 

Or a place where you might sit to study? 

To join in some activity, like a book club, or simply be with other people, in a welcoming environment, safe, and warm?

Or to find a source of information, or advice, from a professional librarian?

All of those things, you might think. If so, and you live in the London Borough of Broken Barnet, you might want to think again.

Because if your Tory councillors get their way, the public library service as you have always known it in this most rotten of Rotten Boroughs, will not exist.

The former library buildings will be handed over to Capita (yes, see previous post for an idea of how well that will go, including, as we know now, the winning of more gainshare payments from us to them for taking on this new responsibility) ...

In those buildings, a shrunken, nominal library service will be run, by coincidence, largely in traditional Tory wards, by a paltry level of staffing that will have been culled by nearly 50%: and the rest ... will be libraries in name only, a parody of a library service, with a massive 70% reduction in staffed hours, so to be run - if possible, or closed if not - by 'volunteers', or worst of all, become so called 'open' libraries - an innocuous sounding phrase for something really terrible: a library that is not, in fact a library, but a roomful of books, with no staff at all, professional, or unpaid, qualified, or voluntary. A space devoid of human contact, in short. 

And into this space residents will have to gain entry by electronically operated doors, activated by an entry system requiring a pin number. They may then enjoy, if that is the word, the complete sense of alienation from community, social interaction, and professional support that is the hallmark of the 'open', unstaffed library: the perfect library model for a hollowed out council authority, whose easynomic approach to public service is one of unswerving antagonism to the very idea of, well: anything that serves the public, without earning someone a private profit.

Open Libraries: a user's guide: Don't Panic! Or rather: no  - do panic ...

Your Tory councillors, including the deputy leader and aspiring Assembly Member Dan Thomas, who sits on the committee dealing with library matters, warmly welcomed the current proposed cuts and changes to the library service, and the use of the so called 'open' system, even though they had not seen the risk assessment for the pilot scheme which had then been running only a short time, at Edgware Library, and even though they were told by officers, wrongly, that this system was 'the standard approach' in 'Scandinavia' and successful elsewhere. 

The truth is that this system has not been used long term in any context comparable to the one in which it is now proposed to be implemented, and the risks highlighted in the council's own, discreetly hidden assessment are, although potentially catastrophic, being conveniently sidelined.

Library campaigners in the borough have already begun a process of legal challenge to the proposed destruction of our library service: and now some of those campaigners have taken another approach, and decided to visit the pilot scheme 'open library' at Edgware - the same branch, incidentally, that was Mrs Angry's refuge as a child, and the source of all her reading material: a place of infinite pleasures, and possibilities. How unspeakably sad it is that children in Edgware, in the future, will not be allowed to visit the unstaffed library, unaccompanied, to borrow books, or to study.

Local activist Barbara Jacobson and a group of residents from 'Save Barnet Libraries' went to visit Edgware library one night last week, to test the new system, and try to assess what would happen, in an emergency. Conclusion: nothing would happen. 

There is a report of this visit now online in the local Times, see here.

And as Barbara told Mrs Angry: 

"Outside of our group, only two men came in the entire time we were there. Someone who went on another night said there were only three people there; she was the only woman, felt uncomfortable, left and said she would not return on her own ...

There was a woman present before the end of staffed hours. She said she would leave and not re-enter on her own. She is a homeless person, so the accommodation the library would afford is tempting but she said she wouldn't stay because the council took no responsibility if anything happened to her on the premises.

Very little on the leaflet is accurate. Look at the 'Safety and security': it doesn't mention that the CCTV is not live monitored, thus providing nothing more than a record of what the cameras might have picked up. Filming or taking photos is not allowed – no reason given, no explanation of what this has to do with safety or security – but the fact is we did take photos. I didn't see the leaflet until we were leaving, so I didn't know it wasn't permitted and there was, of course, no one there to tell us or stop us.

One of the two men mentioned above was very upset when he saw a group of us walking in without using the keypad: you're not supposed to do that. He's right, but who will stop you?

"There would be no way to stop people who wanted to remove books or equipment either. It would be interesting to see whether CCTV picked up this stack of books being placed on the floor or being returned to the shelves. There are some places that may not be within sight of the CCTV cameras.

Look at what to do in an emergency. Well, I guess everyone entering the library will read the leaflet first. Sure they will. But what if they don't notice the two people lying prone behind the stacks? Have they fallen over? been overcome by a noxious substance? had a heart attack? Will CCTV have even seen them? And so what, since no one will look at the films until … gee, until when? 'Monitored' does tell us with what frequency, but we know it's not live.

All I can tell you is that we lay on the floor unseen by the two men who were in the library minding their own business. Theoretically, someone alone in the library could simply die there. 

The security guard was located outside the library by four of our group when they were leaving ... There won't be security guards if this dimwitted plan goes ahead, but this one was no use anyway ..." 

"If we had checked the opening hours, we would have seen that the unstaffed period began at 8.15pm. However, then we might not have learned that people cannot use the Internet for 15 minutes before the staffed hours end at 8pm, when everyone is made to leave the premises. 

There is then a delay in using the Internet when the unstaffed hours begin, so students studying or jobseekers searching for jobs or anyone filling in forms online will have a minimum 20-minute hiatus in their ability to continue whatever they are doing. 

The system might require a 15-minute break between staffed and unstaffed hours, but for the people wanting to use the library, it's an inconvenience – loss of concentration, perhaps loss of a form only partially completed – and a big waste of time.

The point of turfing people out is to ensure that only those with a library card and an activated PIN can get in. It's nonsense. There is a device outside the library door for users to insert their library card and a keypad to tap in their PIN ... 

Several of our group had problems: one had trouble with the keypad itself, others found that although they had PINs, they had not been activated, and one whose PIN had been activated by staff at the library that evening found it did not work. It didn't matter: I entered my (activated) PIN, the doors opened and several of us walked through, because automatic doors stay open as long as the electronic beam is broken. 

A few people remained outside to try the keypad. When their efforts proved fruitless, someone inside pressed the device to open the automatic doors, which is there to allow people to exit. This means there is no control over who enters the library: people of any age, with or without library cards, with or without PINs." 

As you can see here, the upstairs study area was shut off: not that it would stop anyone gaining access, if they wanted to: perhaps if they were 'caught short', due to the loo being shut? More unspeakable unpleasantness of the sort that makes Cllr Helena Hart quiver in indignation ...

Naughty Mrs Jacobson and her companions also sat down and pretended to smoke what look to Mrs Angry suspiciously like ... no, no, surely not ... right there, in the middle of a public library. What happened? Again: nothing. (Mrs Jacobson informs Mrs Angry they were really posing with rolled up paper, and no, she didn't inhale).

In the local Times' article, the ineffable Tory library shutter in chief, Reuben Thompstone, offers a typically humourless response to reports of the campaigners' trial of his pilot scheme: 

"It’s disappointing that some residents claim to have disrupted a session in this way. We are using the pilot at Edgware to trial a range of security measures which will inform any future adoption of the scheme."

Again, quite typically, Thompstone ignores the real issues at stake: the inherent and untested dangers of this system, the loss of access, the exclusion of children, the danger for lone women, and the elderly, the difficulties for disabled users who want to visit their local library. 

What does he mean, when claiming to 'trial' security measures? What security measures? A cctv camera that records and does not inform of any live mugging, or theft, or accident or illness? A use of security guards, however pointless, that, unlike in this pilot scheme, will NOT be in place if and when these unstaffed libraries are imposed on us? 

One worrying fact that we should all remember, and that means anyone in the UK who cares about the future of public libraries, is that this carefully managed 'pilot scheme' has already been visited by the government's Libraries Taskforce, last August, when the 'trial' had only been in place a short while. 

Be afraid: be very afraid. The use of Broken Barnet as a laboratory of Tory policy has demonstrated over and over again that any crackpot scheme, no matter how flawed, will be presented by our shameless Tory councillors and their aspirational senior management team as the most wonderful success, and ready to be adopted on a national scale. 

Thompstone and his colleagues claim that the destruction of our library service is necessary in order to make, yes, 'savings', just as they told us the Capita contracts were necessary for the same reason. Look at the previous post, and gauge for yourself how much reliance to put on any such assurance.

The truth is that the massive cut in staffing and opening hours, the shrinking of library space, and the handing over to Capita of our library building management is part of another story altogether, in line with the underlying motif of everything that happens in Broken Barnet. That is to say, creating a business opportunity for someone, a commercial partner, by appealing to the dogmatic opposition of our neo-Thatcherite Tory councillors to the very principle of locally run, accountable public sector services.

The library savings of £2.8 million are to be made with the capital expenditure of £6 million, directed at modifying the buildings. Cost effective, we are informed, in the long run. Really? 

No, not really, because here is another example of easynomics: calculations based on assumptions lacking any evidence or credibility, intended to persuade our dopey councillors that this is the only option for them to approve. 

If only a tiny fraction of the money we are throwing at Capita now, over and above the core cost of the contract, were to be reclaimed - we could save our libraries, and even invest in them, as they should be, so they can become central once more to our society, as the Carnegie foundation has recently been reminding us, for example:

As cultural centres, learning hubs, social centres, a resource for self empowerment: yes, a value for money service that is of immense and wide ranging benefit to society as a whole.

We will never see the short or long term benefits of these budget savings, not just because the damage they will cause will be incalculable, and profound, but in financial terms, because the next stage in the process will be the outsourcing of the library service, which is the real object of these swingeing cuts and changes. 

Don't be fooled, readers, as your Tory representatives already have been. 

Time to tell them to look again - and if not, to remember this, in May, when you are walking to the polling station, and Dan Thomas and Zac Goldsmith are asking for your vote. 

Before you get there, ask Cllr Thomas & Mr Goldsmith what they did to save your local library. 

And make sure you do something too, before it is too late.

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