The Guardian reported this week on the “battle of Britain’s libraries”, contrasting the visionary renovations of Cardiff, Newcastle and Birmingham with the traditional image of fusty old libraries. That some Councils see the value of investing in libraries is visionary indeed in a time of swingeing cuts and negative attitudes, yet it sits at odds with the words of Margaret Hodge, the Government minister charged with their care. In the interview with the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, she equates library success with book issues, as if books were the same as tins of beans. Everyone that understands libraries knows that their success cannot be measured by this bean-counting criteria; Margaret, clearly, does not understand libraries. She also exhorts libraries to move with the times, lamenting the paucity of ebook provision, without acknowledging the fact that decades of under-investment and cuts are inevitably going to reduce the offer that libraries can make. Ebooks cost money, and libraries have very little of that.

Her greatest mistake is to press for libraries to be staffed by volunteers. This is just reiterating the myth that qualified librarians are merely book-stampers, and plays into the Government agenda to provide a statutory service at low cost. The real cost, of course, is to the people of this country, whose rights to learn, to explore, and to participate will be sold out in order to bail out the bankers and politicians. I’m not denigrating the commitment and enthusiasm of volunteers, but a service fit for the demands of our increasingly information-complex future needs a highly trained, motivated and appropriately paid workforce.  “”There’s nothing that depresses me more,” Hodge says, “than going into a library and being confronted by a computer and someone in authority who isn’t going to deliver the citizen-focused services I think should be on offer. I won’t have this. Libraries can’t go on being merely traditional. That’s why we should consider volunteers.”” And you’ll provide all this through volunteers, Margaret? Get real. Qualified librarians are at the forefront of cutting edge developments in Web 2.0 applications, reader development initiatives and the growth of information literacy. Get rid of us, and libraries will be reduced to bean-counting. And then of course, you’ll have the perfect excuse to get rid of libraries altogether.

Oh, and calling on libraries to follow the lead of booksellers like Borders? Margaret, I hate to tell you this, but Borders went bust. I guess you weren’t paying attention. The only “innovations” that booksellers brought to the debate were Starbucks franchises and displaying books on tables. Any other initiatives, like Manga clubs and author events, were ideas they nicked from libraries. And libraries like Tesco, Margaret? Really? Tesco is Tesco. Libraries are libraries. They’re doing something totally different; they are spaces for engagement and participation, culture and creativity, lifelong learning and social mobility. I guess the Government doesn’t really want all that; just shops where we’ll spend all our cash and keep silent, like sheep.

Margaret insists we need a strategy, but she’s not the one to provide it. It’s time to do something radical, and ASK THE LIBRARIANS.