Saturday 10 March 2012

Something for the Weekend 1

Once in a while – and quite possibly every weekend, eventually – BI-Gen will take a break from the world of family history news and wander into other areas. This new ‘Something for the Weekend’ feature will give myself and others the chance to vent their spleens with an opinion-piece, to recommend a product or research technique, or to simply show off their expertise! Who knows what will find its way onto the blog? If you’ve an idea, run it past me. We’ll begin with something topical…

Fahrenheit 451*

None of us like to admit we’re wrong. A u-turn is embarrassing, humbling – a sign of weakness, even. But I admit it: I was wrong.

But it wasn’t really my fault. I was taken advantage of – we all were, in fact. Let me explain.

The UK's libraries are in crisis, as we all know. When the public sector cuts were first mooted in the wake of the last general election, local and family historians knew what was in store. And it involved our beloved museums, archives and libraries. They were quickly branded ‘non-essential services’ and would be first up against the wall.

Councils up and down the land, as if to justify their pending and inevitable decisions, rolled out public surveys to let the people have their say. And, of course, as people want their bins collected, their sick treated and their elderly cared for before safeguarding the welfare of their culture and their heritage, library services and the like ended up bottom of the polls. Not helped by the fact, of course, that 75% of the population are philistines and only pick up a book to swat a housefly or prop up the sofa. And most folk couldn’t identify a primary source if it was tied to their nose and labelled “primary source”.

OK, then, so cuts started being made – and c*lture became a swear word. Archives began cutting their hours, museums likewise (and many considered charging an entrance fee if they were free) – and libraries, well, they could be run by volunteers.

When this all began kicking off a couple of years ago, I and many others looked upon the crisis as an opportunity for structured, positive change. As they lurched out of the Dark Ages, archives and libraries would become leaner and meaner, they would embrace and harness new technologies, they would diversify, they would modernise. They would become the hubs of our communities as the public ‘mucked in’. By taking on volunteers and engaging with ‘friends’ organisations they would integrate beautifully and seamlessly into society, finding and filling a new and vital role. You know, the ‘Big Society’.

Volunteers? Turns out it was the thin end of the wedge.

Check out the mayor of Doncaster’s amazing outburst, here. Now that people are prepared to work in our libraries for nowt, they are supposedly resentful that they’re getting paid, er, nowt, whilst the salaried staff get, erm, a salary. But hold on a minute, if we can get folk to work for free, then, well, I guess we don’t need the paid staff, do we? No one seems to have imagined what would happen if the supply of unpaid staff suddenly dried up.

And that’s where I was wrong. Getting volunteers in isn’t such a good idea after all, I think. Give the local councils an inch and they take several miles. Ditto central government, ten-fold.

Tell you what. Why not just get rid of the books, put the archives into cold storage and be done with it. Won’t even need volunteers then. Sorted.

The adult comic, Viz, may not be far off the mark with this dystopian view.

Want to do something about it? Then check out SpeakUpForLibraries, and get yourself along to their rally on Tuesday 13th March.

Mick Southwick

*Fahrenheit 451 – see here.

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