The news about the decline in library employment – a quarter of posts disappearing in six years – made me think about the connections with the museum profession, of which I used to be a member. Many libraries have closed while others are now significantly (and sometimes entirely) volunteer-staffed. Although the museum world provides a different sort of knowledge-based service to that libraries deal with – artefacts, rather than books - there have always been close links between the two and both have been subject to the same sort of pressures since the current squeeze on public finances began in 2010 (and in fact a lot longer than that).
The provision of libraries, though you may not have noticed given what’s happening to them, is a statutory duty laid on local authorities; but providing museums isn’t, and councils have periodically cast baleful eyes over their heritage-related responsibilities, once they got over the heady days of the late 1980s when they thought museums could actually make money. We faced this at Wimborne while I was there, when East Dorset District threatened to withdraw its support for the two curatorial staff; we underwent it at Wycombe, too, when the results of a Council-wide review initiated by the most right-wing Cabinet members (including, we knew, the axing of the museum service) were spiked the very morning they were due to be unveiled to the Council staff, after the rest of the Tory group discovered them and rebelled: the only outcome of that was the £90,000 of ratepayers’ money poured into the pockets of PriceWaterhouseCooper who conducted the review.
The current decimation of museum services, then, comes as no great surprise. It seems to run counter to the Government’s decision to maintain free access to the great national museums in the capital, but that looks rather more like one of the contrarily populist gestures Messrs Cameron and Osborne are fond of making than an example of a wider policy. It’s certainly scant comfort to communities losing their local heritage institutions.
And yet the volunteer-run museum is a proud tradition, and across the land stalwart groups of enthusiasts can do very well in this respect. Surely there is no reason why the library service should be any different.
There isn’t: but anyone who takes any interest in museums will know that their quality varies hugely. Museum professionals often play a key role in pulling up the standards of volunteer-run museums, and even when there are no professional curators directly associated with this or that institution, the Museums Association and the Association of Independent Museums perform the same role, encouraging even small museums to try to maintain conservation standards rather than becoming the charnel-houses of objects they might otherwise be, and to stage displays that inform the visitor rather than mystify or intimidate them.
Libraries have long been more professionalised institutions, and ones more directly under municipal control, than museums; the history of museums throughout the later twentieth century has been one of the gradual drawing of various voluntary local efforts into the ambit of the professional element, and the consequent ratcheting-up of standards. You don't necessarily need professionals in any particular institution, but professional standards are a good thing, and those do require a core of people and groups committed to them; and as far as museums are concerned, that core has resided not so much in the free-floating national collections (which seem to be fairly safe even in the current climate) as in the local authority services (which aren't).
Since the 1980s we have been culturally suspicious of professions. This can be traced to the Thatcher government's wholesale buying into public choice theory, which holds, among other things, that public servants so-called are not really engaged in service of any kind, but in consciously or unconsciously fleecing the body politic in their own interests. It's no secret how highly Mrs Thatcher thought of the TV series Yes Minister: we all remember the self-serving circumlocution of Sir Humphrey, but less episodes such as The National Education Service which promoted the position that publicly-funded education was organised in the interests of the teaching profession rather than for any actual educational purpose. Professionals are suspect: ideally they should be disposed of. Well, we may well start finding out what happens when we do, though anyone who makes an effort might discover what things were like before various areas of public life did have structures dedicated to raising standards that aren't just the mechanisms of the market.
Not that the market can apply to museums and libraries, which are never going to make money: there are not the same possibilities for private enrichment that the academised education sector offers. The danger now is that the gains secured by professionalisation go into reverse. It’s hard to imagine, so far as libraries are concerned, what that might look like, but that’s only because they’ve been so well-run for so long; I know what it’ll look like in the museum world all too well.