Public Libraries, Professionalism and the Civic Turn

Added on Tuesday, July 9th, 2019

stars In her latest blog, ICC Head of Research and AHRC Leadership Fellow Kerry Wilson shares her contribution to the recent debate on the future of civic culture, led by academics at the department of Media, Culture and Heritage at Newcastle University.


On the 2nd July, I had the real pleasure of taking part in an important debate on the future of civic culture at Newcastle University, as part of an ongoing project led by Professor Rhiannon Mason, Dr Katie Markham and Dr Bethany Rex.

I was invited by the team to contribute to a session on ‘researching the role of civic culture’ along with panel members Bethany, Anna Barker and David Churchill (University of Leeds) and Lindsay Findlay-King (Northumbria University). We were encouraged as researchers in the field to share and reflect upon what we mean by the term ‘civic’ and the implications that definitions of this term have for broader understandings about public participation in cultural and democratic life.

We focused in particular on the differential impact that austerity cuts might be having on different groups, places and kinds of organisations, and were asked to think about the impact that austerity is having on cultural organisations’ ability to engage with broad ideas of equality, inclusion and social justice. I discussed the impact on professional standards and values in public libraries, and the ethical implications of an increasing shift towards community-run and volunteer-led services.

Public libraries as statutory civic services

Our fundamental understanding of the civic role and value of public libraries comes from their status as statutory public services, with the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 requiring local authorities to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” public library service. According then to principles of equality and inclusion, everybody can reasonably expect to have equitable access to a functional library service. Local authorities must ‘lend books and other printed material free of charge for those who live, work or study in the area’ with definitions of ‘comprehensive and efficient’ including ‘having books and other printed matter and other materials in sufficient number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements of adults and children. [local authorities] should either keep these items themselves or have arrangements with other library authorities to obtain them’.

Despite this, we have seen consistent cuts, closures, reductions in and reconfigurations of library services, including significant changes to the professional fabric of the service, nationally:

  • 5000% increase in community-run libraries since 2010;
  • 40% reduction in total staff since 2005;
  • 242% increase in volunteers working in libraries since 2008.

In defence of professional library services

The response from the sector has been to defend its statutory but also professional status. The My Library By Right campaign led by the sector’s professional body, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, promotes and defends our rights to ‘quality’ library services and has resulted in guidelines for local authorities having to review their current services. Library workers themselves have self-organised through various relevant unions, holding regular local and national demonstrations against library cuts and campaigning for the retention of statutory, professionally run local authority services.

The Libraries Taskforce was convened by government in 2015 to ‘provide leadership and help reinvigorate’ the public library service. Its action plan acknowledges different models for responsive local service delivery, including commissioned, sub-contracted and community-run services, but emphasises the need to define excellence with appropriate benchmarks and service standards, supported by a workforce development Public Library Skills Strategy. The emphasis therefore is on the value of ‘professionally’ run services in ensuring that a “comprehensive and efficient” public library service is available to all.

Cultural work and the rhetorical civic turn

Gradually however and within the context of austerity, the civic role of libraries and other community assets has been rhetorically reframed to reflect more localised ‘grassroots’ agendas as opposed to statutory responsibilities. This has been enabled and accelerated by wider policy narratives, including for example public health strategies and policies to support more preventive, community-based care agendas in addressing the social determinants of health and wellbeing.

Libraries and other cultural services have adopted the language of social value and asset based community development to good effect, particularly through the arts and health movement. Through my own research with reputable cultural services with clear civic and socially-orientated objectives, including public and prison libraries, best practice in the field is increasingly defined by the range and volume of collaborating organisations; the integral supporting role of third sector and voluntary organisations; and the diverse range of ‘life-course’ professional skills and experiences held by members of the collaborative community of practice. Despite the value paced in professionally run library services therefore, the professional autonomy and identity of the sector is increasingly at risk.

Professional ethics and care in cultural work

My current research on professional ethics in the field is highlighting other issues concerning collaborative (inter)dependence and risk in cultural work, particularly when undertaken by volunteers. This includes for example the extent of emotional labour undertaken by both staff and volunteers, both in performative terms and in relation to the impact on own wellbeing and resilience. This necessitates self-managed care strategies and enhanced reflective practices that are arguably performed most ‘successfully’ by those with the social, intellectual, cultural and material resources to do so. There are other more pragmatic risks involved when working with and as volunteers, in not having the same levels of reporting, responsibility and accountability as paid members of a workforce or structured organisation.

Codes of ethics or professional practice exist to communicate the mission and values of an organisation or sector, outlining how professionals are supposed to approach problems, ethical principles based on its core values, and the standards to which the ‘professional’ is held.

As an example of the legitimation and regulation of professional ethics in cultural work, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) launched a revised Ethical Framework in 2018, following a substantial consultation with members. The framework now covers seven ‘ethical principles’ including human rights, equalities and diversity; public benefit; preservation; intellectual freedom; impartiality; confidentiality; and information, skills and information literacy. In various studies of consistent or ‘enduring’ values across different organisational codes and consultations, definitive principles include stewardship; service; intellectual freedom; equity of access; privacy; literacy and learning; rationalism; and democracy (Gorman, 2000; Hauptman, 2002; Koehler, 2015).

Codes of practice however become increasingly difficult to enforce and are limited in their capacity to communicate, regulate and enforce professional standards in complex, cross-sector work environments. The ‘civic turn’ to community-led library services therefore presents another potential risk to ethical practice in the sector.

Equality, access and cultural value

Other issues concerning equality, access and cultural value are emerging from cuts to our civic culture landscape that resonate with wider debates in the cultural policy field. There are for example persistent structural inequalities in cultural work, concerning who gets to work in cultural and creative industries (CCIs) in the first place. In the context of austerity, there are ethical implications of cultural work being positioned as a cost-effective alternative to other state-funded interventions, and its impact on statutory social services. The recently announced government strategy for tackling loneliness for example provides another example of political appropriation of cultural work, that promotes a ‘community response’ yet ignores the damage done to the cultural sector and other statutory public services by austerity measures.

The third sector – increasing crucial to public library services – is equally under-resourced and in need of infrastructural support. This is particularly true in relation to the ethical provision of professional, quality public services, and the long-term investment needed in terms of the multi-disciplinary skills, experience and expertise of the people who deliver them and their high levels of personal commitment. Perhaps the greatest civic responsibility for all of us, then, is to join the campaign for statutory, professional public library services. It is still, after all, #MyLibraryByRight.

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