This was an excellent fringe session on culture, libraries and the Big Society. Andrea Stark (Arts Council England) began by outlining the new responsibilities the Arts Council has taken on in museums and archives. Andrea was clear that, despite these new responsibilities being transferred for financial reasons (the Government’s scrapping of MLA), Arts Council is very keen to ensure they further contribute, with councils and other partners, to coherent, high-quality arts and culture provision at the local level across the country. Quality of innovation will be the key to culture provision in the future. Andrea closed with a genuine call for councils to work with Arts Council in culture provision.
Cllr Jeremy Lucas followed with an explanation of why and how Essex County Council is not closing libraries “because they are the hub of the community”. Jeremy explained how he and Essex, while making necessary cost cuts, are making sure every citizen has a good, reliable, sustainable library service in their vicinity. They are not looking for volunteers to run libraries, but volunteer groups are ‘key holders’, able to open up libraries, making them available at times when professional librarians are unable to be there. Other services are beginning to co-habit within libraries, including local post offices and Citizens Advice Bureaux.
Simon Cane (Head of Museum Operations at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), described the museum and library provision in Birmingham. He explained some innovative, diverse museum exhibits over the past few years, drawing in many different types of visitor. (Indeed, walking back to the station after the conference, I saw the most unlikely bunch of museum goers walking enthusiastically out of the ‘Home of [Heavy] Metal’ exhibition.) He described also how the museum outreach programmes are working with communities to address social problems including unemployment. His final thought: partnerships are a key way of continuing provision and (necessarily) cutting costs.
There were a large number of very interesting questions. The issue of closing libraries is clearly a sensitive one. Those who are not closing libraries are applauded; those who feel they need to close libraries appear to be vilified without being given the opportunity to explain how a particular closure fits within the fuller library provision strategy for the given locality. Clearly, it’s important to understand the bigger picture.
There was a particularly interesting question on the role of ‘economies of scale’ in the provision of library services. If libraries are best when they provide a local service, where is the place for economies of scale, which presupposes larger (and therefore more generalised) provision as a means to making savings?
In the final analysis, all were in agreement on the importance of cultural services. By the same token, there was an acknowledgement that there may be too many institutions to support in the current climate if we want high-quality provision from all of them.