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John Vincent: Libraries, the universe & everything

I interviewed John Vincent by email in February, 2018. I have known John since we were both chief librarians in London in the 1990s. As Head of Libraries in Lambeth, John pioneered community librarianship in the U.K. This movement began in the mid-1970s, became more mainstream with the setting up of the Community Services Group of the Library Association in 1982, and disappeared with the onset of cuts to local government expenditure in 1987-1988.

I worked with John on the Open to All? The public library and social exclusion (2000) research project and the subsequent Social Exclusion Action Planning Network, which John continues to operate as The Network.

How / why did you get into public libraries and what was your career path?
When I was about 12, I got very bored on Saturdays (everyone else seemed to be playing football!), so my dad had a word with someone at the local public library, and I got my first taste of libraries as a volunteer in the Children’s Library. As soon as I was 14, Hertfordshire then took me on as a paid employee (Saturday Library Assistant), and I worked there from then until 1968, both on Saturdays and also in the school holidays. I proved to have an aptitude for clerical systems, so was trained—and then allowed!—to carry out all sorts of relatively senior levels of work.

In 1966, I was about to leave school. No one could offer any sort of career advice (they were really only interested in people with professional career paths mapped out, such as children of solicitors, or people who wanted to teach). Not knowing what I wanted to do—but also not wanting to study further any of the subjects I had done at school—I decided that I would apply for a librarianship course, and, eventually, was accepted at the then North Western Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University), where I studied the two-year diploma course.

When I left college at the end of 1968, Hertfordshire had held a vacancy open for me, so I returned to Welwyn Garden City [WGC] as an assistant librarian. I was still very much into systems, and co-ran the local branch library for a couple of years. However, I began to become bored with that too, and, when the post of Children’s Librarian was advertised, I applied—and was successful!

It meant an enormous change in my outlook, and I also started working with innovative, challenging, politically-interesting people—and I loved working with children and young people!

By 1974, however, I felt it was time for a change, and applied successfully to work in the London Borough of Lambeth as Assistant Borough children’s librarian. There began a whole new chapter!

In parallel with all this professional development, I was also facing personal challenges. One of the reasons that I had enjoyed my library assistant work at WGC was that people took me seriously —at school, I was having a miserable time, being bullied and name-called for being gay. However, the bullying and treatment I received also led to my having panic attacks, so the early 1970s involved a mix of therapy to deal with the panics and gradual coming-out. By 1974, I was dealing with both well enough to think of the move to London!

Tell me about your career in Lambeth in general and what community librarianship meant to you, in particular.
It was an enormous change. I moved to London from WGC, and started working as the Assistant Borough Children’s Librarian. The children’s librarian was the renowned Janet Hill (author of Children are people, Hamish Hamilton, 1973; and coordinator of the first review by librarians of race in children’s books, Books for children: The homelands of immigrants in Britain, Institute of Race Relations, 1971). Janet had worked in the U.S. on a secondment scheme, and brought back lots of exciting ideas about how libraries could reach children. As a result, Lambeth organised storytelling in parks, housing estates, and other venues in the summer holidays, and ran a series of activities through the year, and we were also involved in writing and giving talks to groups all over the U.K., so it was exciting and challenging work.

During the 1970s, central government made funding available for inner-city areas to deal with extreme poverty and other social issues, and Lambeth was successful in obtaining funding to develop and expand its work inside and outside libraries—by the early 1980s, the outreach programme had grown to serve over 500 community groups with regularly-changing collections of library materials.

To start with, this had been quite ad hoc (someone driving around the borough in his own car, dropping books off at youth-clubs, for example) but, by the late 1970s, we had reviewed progress and established the service on a far more organised and rigorous footing.

However, during the mid- to late-1980s, central government started initiating cuts to public services, and also attacking what it saw as “loony left” provision, best exemplified by the passing of legislation in 1988 to prevent local authorities from “promoting” LGBT rights.

The cuts had a major impact on both the local community in Lambeth (many of the community organisations that the library service had served via outreach were closed, or had their funding reduced), and also on the library service itself. In addition, some local politicians took against the library service’s approach, saying that they wanted to have a huge central library somewhere in the borough, something to rival the British Museum Reading Room!

By the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the service continued to develop, but with far fewer community group contacts (and far fewer staff).

From 1983 onwards, I had been Acting and then actual Head of Libraries, but it was a stormy and difficult place to work, and, in 1996, I was (I am glad to say!) made redundant.

This idea of community librarianship (i.e., providing services wherever people need them, not just in library buildings) flourished briefly in the late 1970s and 1980s, then more-or-less disappeared (and, today, the emphasis seems to be almost entirely on buildings-based services). Why was this?
I think the following were key factors:

  • When the community groups were well-funded, they supported libraries, but, as they had to fight for their day-to-day survival, libraries dropped down their list of priorities
  • We did not take all the library staff with us. Many felt that this work was difficult (which it was) and potentially dangerous (which was less likely), and began to complain about having to visit, for example, a hostel for homeless men where everyone smoked. Sadly, the trades union was not committed to this as a way of working.
  • We also did not take all our elected members with us (for reasons similar to the one noted above).
  • It was resource-intensive. For example, because we could not recruit qualified librarians with the required person skills, we decided to recruit people who had the skills, and then trained them (for the best part of a year) to become librarians. This definitely was a success, but could not be repeated year after year.

On a personal level, I decided to be out as a gay man from my interview onwards. Looking back, I suppose this was ‘brave’ (as some people have described it), but it seemed right, and, apart from people assuming that I would know everything to do with all LGBT issues (and anything sexual!) when I became Head of Libraries, I really did not face that much discrimination (the only time when there was any was when I applied to be Head of Libraries, and was not appointed—there were rumours that it was because the councillors did not want an out gay man, but, despite taking out a grievance against the Council, I never did get to the bottom of this). Certainly, there were lots of very positive developments, such as ensuring that equality and diversity were on every agenda of every meeting, and that staff were absolutely clear about issues such as discrimination.

What did you do after leaving Lambeth and what is your analysis of the current position and condition of public libraries in the U.K.?
I was made redundant by Lambeth in 1996. In typical fashion, this was not straightforward! The Council had bought in a consultant— someone I’d known for 20 years or so—ostensibly to assess progress on computerisation (for a number of reasons, Lambeth was a late adopter); however, unbeknown to me, he was, in fact, brought in to restructure the Library Service, and I found myself restructured out!

This was, in many ways, a relief. I decided to have a late ‘gap year’, and, amongst other things, studied for a NVQ Level 4 in “Learning” (which was primarily about training and learning methods). I also had some time off!! In 1997, there was a significant political change in the U.K. when new Labour swept to power. One of their innovations was to refocus work on disadvantage as ‘tackling social exclusion’, and there was considerable work across Government on inclusion. As part of this, the then Library and Information Commission put up funding for a research project into “Public Library policy and social exclusion,” led by Leeds Metropolitan University, and involving six researchers, of which I became one.

The research project published a series of working papers and then, in 2000, produced a summary report, plus a detailed research report, and the collection of working papers (some of which are available on The Network website).

It was our aim to ensure that this work did not go the way of much other library research (i.e. just get shelved!), so, as part of the launch of the research reports, we also ran a series of seminars and courses; in 1999 I established The Network as a means of sharing good practice (it’s still in operation today, nearly 20 years later); and worked with London Metropolitan University and the London Borough of Merton to set up the Quality Leaders Programme (which was intended to prepare staff for senior positions, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds).

A number of library authorities across the U.K. did adopt working principles and methods from this work, and, in particular, it became the inspiration for the “Working together” project in Vancouver Public Library, whose Community-led libraries toolkit incorporated many ideas from Open to All?

I became the Networker for The Network, and, since 1999, have been writing, running courses, speaking at conferences, and generally advocating the role that libraries—and museums, archives and heritage organisations—play in tackling social exclusion. I also returned to frontline librarianship for 10 years or so (part-time) with the London borough of Enfield, in a variety of jobs, but mainly working with young people, which had always been one of the areas of work I loved most.

My analysis of the current position and condition of public libraries in the U.K. is “mixed!” Since successive governments have adopted a policy of ‘austerity’, originally, allegedly, as a response to the 2008 banking crisis, but, since then, and particularly under the coalition and the later Conservative governments, as a way of politically “rolling back the state,” local authority services have been severely cut, and public libraries—even though they are a statutory service—have been badly hit. Current provision is a mix of: a very few authorities where elected members decided to support the continued provision of libraries; a small number of authorities that have created trusts to run their library (and other) services; a growing number that are being taken over and run by a social enterprise (GLL); a few that were run by the failed giant, Carillion; and a huge number that have handed over the running of libraries to community volunteers, with or without infrastructure support from the local authority.

A complication (in my view) is that Arts Council England is responsible for implementing library policy in England, and their focus is much more on the creative arts than it is on social policy, so the political stance that many library services had taken after Open to all? was published has disappeared from many public libraries.

Because of different policy and funding regimes in Scotland and Wales, until now at least, their libraries have been thriving.

I think it is difficult to see this situation changing until there is more of a realisation that ‘austerity’ is seriously harmful, and that the age of spin has overtaken the media in the U.K., as elsewhere. The lies we were told about the benefits and dangers of Brexit is evidence of this.

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