Why library policy is a mess: the buck stops nowhere

Nicholas Clee
Opinion - Libraries Friday, 19th December 2014

Richard Mollet, CEO of the Publishers Association, got to the heart of the problem with library policy in his comment about the Sieghart review into the library service in England.

The report "amplifies the need for policy and budget for public libraries to be brought together in one single department", Mollet said.

The Department for Culture Media & Sport (DCMS) is in charge of libraries but has no say in their budgets. The money sits with local authorities, which get their funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey gets a lot of stick from library campaigners. But the issue of whether he is or is not good at his job is not of crucial relevance: the buck does not stop with him. Nor did it ever stop with Roy Clare, who faced a good many cannonballs (Clare was a naval man) when head of the now defunct Museums Archives & Libraries Council (MLA); and it does not stop with Arts Council England, which has taken over the MLA's role. The DCLG says that it assigns the money, and that it is up to the local authorities how to spend it. The library authorities - 151 in England - do their own thing, and when criticised, blame budget cuts imposed by central government.

Politicians, faced with many and often contradictory demands, get things done only if they have a clear incentive to do so. The buck has to stop with them, and be seen to stop with them; they have to be put in a position that makes inaction embarrassing. As Mollet says,there should be a clear chain of responsibilities for libraries.