Boyd Tonkin: Our libraries need to study success

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The Independent Culture

Whatever you think of the high-visibility Tory MP Louise Mensch, she has – as Louise Bagshawe, the prolific author of spicy romances – reached more real readers than anyone else in the House of Commons. In the Lords, of course, sit Baronesses James and Rendell.

As both professional novelist and member of the culture committee, Mensch had good reason to question Ed Vaizey when the arts minister came to talk about his department's action – or inaction - during Tuesday's final session of evidence on library closures. Until now the mouthpiece for a doctrine of laissez-faire localism – councils fund and run libraries and if they choose to board up branches, so be it – Vaizey did agree (prompted by Mensch) to discuss the effect of job losses among librarians with CILIP, the professional umbrella group.

Vaizey well knows that the buck would stop with his department if a court review proved once and for all that branch-shutting councils have flouted their duty to offer a full service under the 1964 libraries act. Campaigners against closures – who also gathered at Westminster on Tuesday for a rally and lobby – often scoff at the inconsistency of a minister who in opposition called for the government to intervene (on library cuts in Wirral) but in office prefers to sit on his hands. His remarks hint that he understands that joined-up policy, or at least research, might help to maintain standards – even though he refused to specify national benchmarks for libraries a couple of weeks ago.

Library cuts lose votes, many of them Conservative: the Women's Institute this week presented a 70,000-strong petition against closures. And Vaizey certainly needs some top-level expert advice if the best example of library innovation he can produce is a book-filled phone booth in Philadelphia. Don't call us, Ed...

Unless you're a rampant statist who thrills at the prospect of more tax-funded bureaucrats, Occam's Razor should apply to proposals for new official agencies. Like concepts in philosophy, unless they need to exist, they should not. In the case of libraries, we may have reached the point where a slim and nimble body to study, advise and hold to account might escape the razor. As an interest-group of senior staff, CILIP can't do this job. The now-defunct MLA largely failed to do it. Arts Council England, which formally inherited the MLA's roles, has only a quarter of the former budget to pursue this remit. Libraries will not occupy the centre of its stage.

At the rally on Tuesday, shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis called for the government to examine the creation of just such a "national libraries body". Now, Jarvis's jibes at Vaizey as the "Dr Beeching of libraries" might sound more impressive if he dared to challenge Labour councils – with Brent the worst offender – that have wrecked their own services. On this matter, however, he may well be correct.

It seems extraordinary that a popular service that still commands the active loyalty of around 40 per cent of adults should have such primitive mechanisms for sharing good practice. Time and again, the consultant-campaigner Tim Coates has to make sensible suggestions for smarter estate management, customer service and stock control in libraries as if he enjoyed official status. He doesn't, but perhaps he should. It's as if clinical standards in the NHS depended not on NICE but on the spare-time goodwill of public-spirited surgeons and GPs.

However, no one in Westminster has yet suggested that well-meaning amateurs who fancy trying their hand at neurosurgery or obstetrics should replace trained staff. That, of course, is precisely what the government wishes to see in libraries as volunteers take on more and more responsibility.

A slender and flexible agency devoted to excellence in library services would more than earn its keep – but, just now, its first task would have to be a draining rearguard battle against rampant deprofessionalisation. And in the end, I suspect, only crude and messy politics has much chance of restocking empty shelves and re-opening closed doors. In the past, the threat of hospital closures has won, and lost, by-elections. Might the same happen with libraries? That sounds fantastic. But, given a highly marginal seat, a knife-edge campaign and a lot of local noise, it could be more than a fairy-tale.

Putting a spinner in the work

If most journalists have no wish to become the story, still less do literary PRs hanker to appear in fiction. Yet, towards the end of The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (right), we meet a publicist described as "a strange Colman Getty boy with a towering plume of hair". I'm not sure whether the promotional doyennes of Colman Getty – who have just sold a majority stake in their booming firm to Four Communications – will enjoy breaking cover in this way. But I can just about imagine to whom the phrase might once have referred. If so, most people would find the target a model of ordinariness compared to your average New York-based double-Booker-winning Aussie novelist...

Shades of grey, kinds of blue

When it comes to "sensational" erotic books by women, the script of hype often sounds so routine that readers might be inclined to turn over and go to sleep. But the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by ex-TV executive EL James does offer a few new ingredients. Her tales of a masterful entrepreneur and a swooning student began as a runaway e-book bestseller. Only this week did Random House acquire UK print rights. The plots were first spun off as steamier "fan fiction" from the chaste passions of the Twilight series. Good luck to Ms James – but it's a sign of an enduring Victorian mindset that this twist on a long tradition still stirs a media storm. So: many women enjoy reading about sex, even in forms that missionaries might not like. What, pray, is the story here? At least it gives me the chance to recommend Anne Rice's stylish pre-vampire erotica – her modern titles published as "Anne Rampling", and Gothic fantasias as "AN Roquelaure" – and ask for a reprint. A new audience awaits.