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Libraries vary and that has implications for a good library policy

07 March, 2019

Camden’s director of development, Neil Vokes, Camden’s director for libraries and tourism, Sam Eastop, and Friends of West Hampstead Library chairman, Simon Inglis

• CAMDEN’S officers Neil Vokes and Sam Eastop must have been very disappointed at the reaction of the West Hampstead Library audience on February 26 when they unveiled their vision for the bright digital future of Camden’s Library Service – very interesting, very laudable, now let us we talk about books, (Danielle Steel or Bob Woodward? How Camden’s libraries choose which books to order with an algorithm, February 28).

The nature of the West Hampstead community is reflected in its library, so the reaction was predictable from the performance of that library. West Hampstead is not unique in this. All Camden’s small libraries are very well integrated into their communities and, inevitably, they take on the characteristics of their hosts.

The widely differing nature of the borough’s libraries must be a nightmare for a council committed to top-down management techniques. Whatever policy decisions are made, it can be certain that they are unsuitable for many / most of the libraries.

Thus, attempting to replicate the Highgate Library partnership experiment in West Hampstead has to be viewed with considerable caution. The volunteer / council partnership scheme is both a good idea and a bad idea. Which of the two possibilities applies to any particular library is completely dependent on the characteristics of the local community.

The recruitment of volunteers is a never-ending task and has proved a difficult one for the Highgate partnership. In an area where the population is in a continual state of flux (West Hampstead) it is doubly difficult. This is the killer problem for the tentative extension of the partnership scheme.

The Highgate model will not work in West Hampstead, unless Camden Council provides far greater support throughout the life of the scheme. If Camden’s sole motive for proposing partnership schemes is to save money by displacing paid staff with unpaid volunteers, it will refuse to improve its support.

However if Camden also wishes to prove its library offering or mitigate some of the disadvantages of its top-down management structure, it will seriously consider improving its support.

Chair, Camden Public Libraries Users’ Group


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