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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Barnet Libraries Without a Prayer

Praise be to Barnet Council. On Wednesday 18 July, I took a copy of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks' daily prayer book out of East Barnet Library. I needed three, so I ordered two more, as the Council's website says that there are several copies in libraries across the borough, according to the "Aqua Browser" (why "Aqua"? What does any of this jargon actually mean?). What I, as a secular Jewish agnostic, wanted with three Orthodox Jewish prayer books is a question that need not detain us until later.

A helpful librarian and I filled in the two forms for the two copies of the book, and I went merrily on my way, assured that it would be a mere day or three before the books had winged their way to East Barnet from their current homes upon the shelves of libraries in Hendon and (Finchley) Church End, at which point I would be able to pop in to East Barnet Library to collect them and willingly pay the tiny fee charged for ordering books in this way.

On Friday 3 August, I went to collect the two books (I needed them for that evening) and (in a narrative twist worthy of Steven Moffat, or possibly Ronnie Corbett) they had, of course, not arrived - more than a fortnight after they had been ordered.

Another very helpful librarian then told me that they had had to be ordered from stock or from stack and were therefore still waiting to be sent from a storage facility in Hackney, despite my having ordered them so many days before and been assured that they would arrive within days of my ordering them, and despite the Council's own website showing copies available at several libraries across the borough - I was able to show the librarian this on my Blackberry there and then.

Only one of my two order forms was on file - what had happened to the other one? - and neither book was there.

Leaving aside any feeble jokes about my offering up a prayer for the arrival of the prayer books, or an equally feeble joke about my reflecting at that moment upon Lord Sacks' own past writings about the difference between hope and optimism, I asked if I could go to Hackney myself, now, and get the books - to which the answer was No, of course.

However hard-working and committed to excellence Barnet's librarians surely are, they are clearly working with a system that is not fit for purpose, if one cannot simply order a couple of books from libraries across the borough.

A librarian helpfully phoned Hendon and Church End and ascertained that the two books did indeed appear to be there, on the shelves, although there was doubt in one case as to whether it actually was the same prayer book...Everyone was trying to be more than helpful. They just hadn't got me the books - that is, the system had not done the one simple thing that I had been reasonably assured that it would do.

I have always defended Barnet Council, and the Tories who sadly have been elected to run it, from suggestions that it is scandalously awful. I am not up in arms so much as down at heart, at the pointlessness of a vast local government infrastructure that cannot achieve something so simple as ordering some library books.

It is in those little ways that Barnet sometimes seems to let residents down, despite the best endeavours of the Council's employees. Most people are not in a state of uproar about our local council; rather most people take it for granted that there is little point in expecting the institution that is Barnet Council ever to do very much.

People therefore don't bother to think of using the Council when they need some little thing done. My little thing was for a dinner that my girlfriend was cooking on a Friday night, with a guest coming who is "religious", hence the need for prayer books, in case we decided to do the whole Jewish Friday night thing.

Since I had neither bought nor cooked the delicious food, and had provided nothing other than the challah (bread), some wine and my scintillating presence (the latter of which it is cheaper to buy wholesale), it really meant something to me to have been so thoughtful as to track down the prayer books and order them - but I might as well not have bothered, it transpired.

It's the principle. I do not say that nothing bad ever happens at councils controlled by Liberal Democrats, as opposed to those councils, like Barnet, that are controlled by Conservatives, although I believe that Barnet's Lib Dem councillors could surely deliver a vast improvement to the running of our council if the people elected them to do so.

I do not wish to start a blame game with the Tory Cllr Robert Rams, who runs Barnet's libraries and with whom I am on friendly nodding terms. These things (lack of delivery of ordered library books) happen. I just really wish they wouldn't.

Is Barnet's motto now "Most men (and women) lead lives of quiet desperation"? If this is the service at an unreformed council, then how could outsourcing possibly make it worse, given that we currently have a book-ordering service that orders no books? My experience of privatised utilities does not lead me to believe that the private sector is always the worst provider of public services. Or is this library "service" itself the result of the very same set of policies that itself includes outsourcing?

I don't know. I do know that there is clearly no point in relying upon Barnet Council to order two books that its own (supposedly accurate - otherwise what's the point?) website shows to be on the shelves of several of the council's own libraries.

1 comment:

  1. Matthew, what you experienced, whilst minor is a symptom of a much bigger problem generated entirely by the council's unswerving drive to outsource as much of the council as possible. Managers who should be checking the day to day operation of the council are running round like headless chickens trying to implement The One Barnet programme. A lot of the senior staff have eother been made redundant or have left the council. Indeed the Council has acknowledged that the planning department has had major problems specifically because of the unprecedented loss of staff and the inability to recruit new staff to posts that may be outsourced in a few months. If the council were to refocus on getting the day to day things right I am sure that satisfaction levels would rise, staff moivation would increase and a desire to generate the most cost effective council in London would prevail.