Bailie Agnew is on the pig’s back while library services suffer cutbacks

By Bill Heaney

The public will be able to use most libraries seven days a week from between 8am and 10pm under new plans to double the number of visitors to their book-lined rooms over the next five years.

A large number of public libraries will open for longer, while the public will be able to take and return books when the libraries are unmanned using scanners.  The extended hours will give members more opportunities to study, use Wifi, hold meetings and, in some cases, use the libraries’ free “hot-desking” facilities to work remotely from offices.

Meanwhile, fines for overdue items are to be abolished, while a number of libraries are to upgraded by the end of 2022.

Libraries will continue to be fully staffed during normal working hours and there will be no decrease in staffing hours. Indeed, extra librarians are to be hired in coming months.

The plan, which will be backed by Government and local authority cash, aims to double library membership within the next five years.

There are also wider plans to upgrade libraries, develop digital learning centres in suitable libraries and position libraries as a community hub.

Is this not great news for the people of West Dunbartonshire?  Well, no, actually it isn’t.

It is wonderful news though for people in more enlightened communities in Europe, such as the Republic of Ireland.

In West Dunbartonshire, the library service has not escaped the SNP council’s package of austerity cuts.

Tom Enright, chief executive of Wexford County Council, who chairs the State’s Libraries Development Committee in Ireland, says libraries need to respond to the way people live and work now – “Many people commute long distances to work and cannot get to the library between 9am and 5pm,” said Mr Enright.

It was a shame to have these libraries closed, he added, but many of them would now be available to local communities outside of library hours.

There had been an agreement with their trade unions to pave the way for the recruitment of extra librarians.

And there would be a bid to capture the interest of primary schoolchildren and older people in membership public libraries.

Meanwhile, in West Dunbartonshire, where our library service was once much admired, loved even, and our education services were reckoned by many to be world class, it would appear we are going backwards.

Our libraries have just moved to new, reduced opening hours with branches closing at allegedly quiet times, including Saturday afternoons.

And the money saved by these austerity cuts in staff and services, a substantial £421,000, will go to furnishing buildings instead of furnishing minds.

The cash for these things should, in my view, be coming from the building maintenance and improvements budget.

The official announcement of the cutbacks here came from the enigmatic Bailie Denis Agnew, who has managed to conjure up at title for himself where none exists.

Plus a gold chain and nice little earner of £20,000 a year to go with it.  Unlike the library service and librarians – some of whom face redundancy – his remuneration has received an austerity by-pass.

He is on the pig’s back – despite his (broken) promise to the electorate that he would be Independent when he is SNP in all but name.

West Dunbartonshire is to spend its library money on a range of areas including renovating children’s areas, improving book display areas, and creating more welcoming help desks and improved signage.

The cash for that should, in my view, be coming from the building maintenance and improvements budget.  Renovating spaces is not culture.

Taking the mobile library service into areas of deprivation where it has never been before is all very well, but what about books? There is no mention of expenditure on new books in the council statement about this important matter.

Books after all are what libraries are supposed to be all about.

Andrew Carnegie, the great philanthropist recognised this, when he donated fortunes to set up libraries in his native Scotland, such as the one in Strathleven Place, Dumbarton.

There’s certainly no mention of encouraging young and old people in the community to emulate the likes of AJ Cronin by stocking books by local authors.

The bombastic bailie, who was once a Labour councillor, appears to have become a pawn in the tawdry political game which has put the SNP into power here.

He would seem to have traded the Independent ticket he stood on for election for a title and a chain of office.

Bailie Agnew left little doubt about that when he seconded the now infamous anti trade union measures in this year’s council budget.

This led to council leader, Jonathan McColl, performing an embarrassing and ignominious U-turn.

It may be that Bailie Agnew is trying to take a leaf out of the book of the SNP hero Hugh MacDiarmid, who wrote the epic poem of 1926, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle? 

MacDiarmid’s character in this poem, an extremist and an elitist, is unconcerned with the couthy opinions of the majority of folk, and heaps scorn on them.

MacDiarmid despised local authors, whom he called kailyard (literally cabbage patch) writers, most notably the novelist and playwright JM Barrie.

Barrie’s sentimental depictions of small-town life, the poet opined, had little connection with the realities of modern Scotland and present-day experience.

The poet sought to establish a new cultural reality in Scotland, one that replaced what he regarded as outmoded figures such as Barrie, who wrote the massively popular Peter Pan, with writers, some of whom can barely be remembered at all,  who he promoted as part of the Scottish renaissance.

MacDiarmid envisaged cultural life in Scotland being established once more on a specifically Scottish footing – what he called “the axis of our own mentality” – yet firmly in the vanguard of international developments.

To achieve that in West Dunbartonshire today, Bailie Agnew and his SNP partners will require a more radical, quite different approach to our council services in general and our libraries in particular.

We really should be investing in books, local, national and international.

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