The Library Commonwealth

This is likely to be my last post although I will continue to be active around libraries via social media and can be followed on Twitter @librareon.

So I thought I would end this blog with some general observations and try to encapsulate some of my thoughts from the past five-and-a half-years.

The state of public libraries in England

Crisis…what crisis!

Libraries are facing an existential crisis. Not because they are danger of disappearing altogether but rather a crisis of identity; who they are, what they are, what they stand for.

This goes beyond the closures, hollowing-out, deprofessionalisation, and amatuerisation – all critical factors – but these are symptoms rather than the cause. Austerity has been a major driving force behind the changes but again this is not the whole story.

Nor is the lack of strategic leadership within the sector. Although this is without doubt a significant factor especially as the library leadership are enabling government policies in return for organisational funding. The very same policies that are causing the current crisis!

But as always, when you follow the money, you end up in someone’s pocket!

Despite this there is also a deeper malaise and it’s one that as a profession we all have to accept responsibility for. And that is a loss of belief in the profession itself. We have lost our sense of identity and by doing so lost our sense of purpose.

And because we have lost this self–belief we have allowed others to fill the void with short-termism, self-interest, and organisational and technological fads.

We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that libraries are just victims of technological and societal changes. A sector shaken by political and financial whims to which the only pragmatic response is compliance. This is ‘realpolitik’ so grow-up and get with the programme!

Partly through not having a unified voice, partly through fear for jobs and livelihoods, partly because we never believed it would quite get this bad, we acquiesced, we kept our heads down and refused to speak out.

After all, as the Americans say, ‘you can’t fight city hall’. Not when ‘city hall’ is the DCMS, LGA, Libraries Taskforce, Arts Council, and the SCL/LC. Not when they tell us they are right and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Not when they hold all the political cards, the patronage, the funding.

And the profession, full of doubt, and fear, and a loss of belief in who we are and what we stand for have played right along.

As austerity took hold we fell for that typical neo-liberal con trick: ‘things can only get better in the long run by becoming worse in the short-term.’ Deal with it!

We slashed budgets, reduced staff, bought less and less stock, closed libraries, recruited volunteers, merged services, co-located, changed job roles (from dedicated, knowledgeable library staff to Jack and Jill of all trades), re-organised, restructured…and when that didn’t work we did it all again…repeatedly!

The small state ideology has become the accepted dogma within libraries. We have adopted the language of commercialism, become entrepreneurs, instigated corporate practices, and explored alternative delivery models. But guess what, things haven’t got better, they’ve got worse and continue to get worse with each passing year.

In February this year the Institute for Government published 10 key facts about neighbourhood services. It revealed how badly councils services have been hit with libraries facing amongst the worse reductions. Highlights included:

  • Since 2009/10, libraries have borne real-terms day-to-day spending cuts of 41%.
  • Between 2009/10 and 2017/18, the number of full-time equivalent library staff declined by 38%.
  • Local authorities have increased their reliance on volunteers. The number of library volunteers increased by 187% between 2009/10 and 2017/18. The number of volunteer hours tripled over this period, increasing from 500,000 to almost 1.7m.
  • There were 17% fewer libraries in 2017/18 than in 2009/10.

Another recent investigation into libraries in the North East revealed the scale of  closures, reduced hours and huge drop in spending on books in the region.

But sadly, far from being unique, this is merely indicative of the degree that library services have been impacted and how much provision has been degraded throughout the country.

That was then!

It can be argued that the evolution of the public library service has until recently been one of upward progression, despite some faltering steps and periods of inactivity. Certainly, the creation of libraries can be counted as one of the most important social reforms of the Victorian era with the Public Libraries Act of 1850.

[As an aside it will come as no surprise that the Act, designed for the ‘improvement of the public through education’, was opposed by the Tories of the day. It appears that very little changes!]

Along with many other institutions it was mainly due to philanthropy that saw the expansion of libraries so that by 1914 approximately 62% of England’s population lived within a library authority area. By 1919 a new Public Libraries Act gave responsibility for libraries to county councils.

This is not to downplay periods of stagnation of regression for library services but ultimately library provision was an upward trajectory culminating in the 1964 Museums and Libraries Act with the goal to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. Not just locally but for the whole nation.

This is now!

So can the current crisis be viewed as a regression from which the sector will recover? While it would be wrong to say that the pendulum will never eventually swing back towards investment and expansion, the damage done nationally to the underlying infrastructure will, in my opinion, take a long time to recover from. That’s assuming the political will and inclination is even there.

The fragmentation of services, the closures, the increase in volunteers in service delivery or to run libraries, the split between statutory and non-statutory provision, expansion of public service mutuals, delivery by second-tier authorities such as town and parish councils, all mitigate against a quick return to a national model for libraries.

This disintegration of the library eco-sphere, along with the dramatic decrease in funding, will take years, if not decades, to reform. And based on current evidence there appears to be a distinct lack of political will to even attempt such a task.

Unfortunately, while this current crisis can be laid squarely at the feet of the Conservative Government and its predecessor the Coalition – which means the LibDems also carry responsibility – no mainstream party has a coherent strategy for libraries. Labour councils have been as quick as their tory counterparts to adopt localism and the Labour Manifesto states the party’s commitment to both localism and devolution. Equally shadow ministers have been as unwilling to criticise library closures and cutbacks as government ministers.

This lack of strategy has turned into farce in some areas. The move by Derbyshire Council to hand 20 libraries over to the community was dubbed ‘devastating’ by the local Labour Councillors who demanded a professionally-run service. Meanwhile next door in Sheffield Labour heaped praise on volunteer run libraries and lauded them as innovative!

Sadly, there seems to be very little to choose from between both main parties with some of the worse reductions seen in Labour controlled areas such as the aforementioned Sheffield where ironically the Chair of the APPG on Libraries, Gill Furniss, is a local MP.

So the expectation that the worse depredations of the current crisis will be rolled back with a change in administration is not supported by any evidence or facts.

Localism: the road to nowhere

While Localism has been presented as a way of empowering communities and giving residents a greater say in decision-making unfortunately the reverse is true where libraries are concerned.

Far from being empowered to influence decision-making residents are forced to contend with highly biased consultations with limited options. The outcome of which is usually a binary choice of closure or the forced imposition of responsibility onto an ill-prepared community. All dressed up in the language of localism, community empowerment, and local control.

In an excellent piece written for the Guardian by Laura Swaffield, a long-time and tireless campaigner for libraries, she writes that we no longer have a national public library service:

“Until very recently, every local public library was part of a joined-up national network. In even the smallest library, people could be sure to find certain basics such as books and PCs, plus trained staff able to provide a gateway to national assets, including standard online reference works, national newspaper archives, a link to the British Library, access to the summer reading challenge for children in the summer holidays, and much, much more in terms of books, educational resources, reference material and contacts. The whole point was to provide a standard service nationwide. But that has now gone.”

But ignoring the national nature of libraries in favour of localism means the underlying issues and challenges are discounted. For example residents are misled into believing that funding is a problem to be resolved locally rather than as a national issue shaped by government policy.

This reflects the imbalance in local democracy whereby residents have responsibility forced on them but without genuine access to the mechanisms of political influence.

Ultimately volunteer libraries are a highly visible but shallow form of localism and by concentrating solely on local problems communities are treating the symptom rather than the underlying cause. This in turn leads to the implementation of government reforms that exacerbates rather than resolves the library crisis.

Rather than bringing people and communities closer together the crisis in libraries has created division, fragmentation, and lower quality provision. As the Civil Exchange report on the ‘Big Society’ noted:

“Fewer people feel they can influence local decisions, disenchantment with the political system remains widespread and communities are less strong. A market-based model for reforming public services is concentrating power in the hands of new ‘quasi-monopoly’ private sector providers rather than in those of local people and is reducing, not increasing, transparency and accountability.”

If anything the localism agenda has lessened accountability, entrenched inequality of provision, and created library elites at the expense of a more equitable and fairer distribution of resources.

In other words those library services more willing to embrace and implement the government’s agenda, especially in terms of PSMs, commercialism, and volunteer participation have been rewarded with greater opportunities through funding and influence.

Unhappily, this is the politics of division rather than cohesion but rather than challenge the inequities of such a model the library leadership has embraced it.

However, you cannot promote equality by adopting delivery models that actually entrench the opposite.

Localism and libraries

Libraries, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain on a downwards course, which began with the introduction of austerity. Service provision will continue to be fragmented along with deep reductions in funding, staffing, resources, and library off-loading with the occasional closure.

There is no evidence of change by a government divided and distracted by Brexit and indications are for deeper and more damaging cuts to the national network yet to come. Until recently this was mainly a problem in England but funding cuts are now starting to impact in Wales and Scotland as well.

But cuts and closures are only partial aspects of the situation. Off-loading libraries to other providers seems to be the preferred approach, either to community groups, or as I’ve noted before parish/town councils, with Cornwall leading the way.

Even a cursory glance at Ian Anstice’s Public Library News site, despite the occasional new library or refurbishment, reveal a depressing pattern of cuts and threatened closures with Derby and Essex being the two current stand-out proposals.

Again, local people are fighting hard against the proposals, and again it is likely their wishes will be discounted. Many will be expected and required to step in to run libraries themselves.

It is this total disregard for public opinion that reflects what localism actually means in practice to many communities.

But to be fair these two services are only the latest in a long list of failing services. Perhaps the rather dubious award of the most failed service should go to Northamptonshire who outsourced so many aspects of council services, including libraries, and did it so badly, that the council almost went bankrupt (see my previous posts Nothing to laugh at in Northants and Damned if we do and damned if we don’t)

The ex-CEO of Northamptonshire Paul Blantern was also Chair of the Libraries Taskforce and along with other members promoted outsourcing libraries, greater commercialisation, and enabling the replacement of paid staff with volunteers. Rather than learn from the mistakes of Northamptonshire the current Taskforce members continue along the same discredited route.

Recruitment to the sector, particularly new talent, will remain flat. Sadly, years of austerity, hollowing out, and de-professionalisation have made public libraries an unattractive proposition for new library graduates. An article in the bookseller described the relentless cuts as turning the sector into a ‘war zone’, which hardly makes public libraries an appealing long-term career prospect.

Even at the senior level of Head of Service we have seen changes that while not quite a trend have worrying implications for the future. Suffolk and Devon, both mutuals, have recently appointed charity bosses as CEOs rather than someone with a library background.

It seems that having a library qualification is no longer adequate enough for staff with aspirations to become HoS. Hardly a welcome thought to ambitious new graduates.

And in fact many library service managers are no longer HoS in the traditional sense but merely the most senior grade in a diminishing service reporting to an ever rotating carousel of departmental managers; leisure, culture, children’s services, housing etc.

It also appears that the role of Head of Service is being shunted down the management structure, ever further away from the senior echelons and decision makers. Obviously, this represents a loss of influence and while some HoS enjoy good working relationships with senior officers many have to wade through several layers of intervening management, each with their own agenda, to get the library message heard.

It is one thing to say libraries must do more to influence key policy makers but the reality is one of services being corporately sidelined and merged with other areas, with the danger that libraries are devalued and no longer viewed as a distinctive service but just another council outlet.

Added to this, is the proliferation of volunteers in service delivery and the widespread view amongst local councillors and national politicians that library staff are unnecessary. In fact the situation has become so dire that technology such as Open+ is considered a suitable replacement to having paid staff on site.

And yet far from defending the role of paid staff SCL/Libraries Connected is heavily involved in advocating for volunteer led libraries. It provides direct training and support for volunteers and along with Locality has set up the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network to ‘help develop sustainable community managed library business models and approaches.’

It’s always puzzled me as to why so many librarians support the work of a body that quite happily accepts government funding to bolster their own organisation while enabling policies that replace paid staff with volunteers and undermines the delivery of a quality library service.

However, their willingness to drive government policy has seen them rewarded with £2m from the Arts Council as a ‘Sector Support Organisation’. A further £75,000 was given to investigate how to strengthen the regional LC groups so no doubt more funding is likely to be forthcoming in the near future to accomplish this.

Oddly it appears to be OK for the government to give funding to library organisations as long as they come up with ways to make actual library services survive with less!

After a hundred years of support through the public purse libraries seem to be regressing backwards to a model that is overly dependent on ad-hoc philanthropy, the good will of volunteers, a two-tier system that entrenches inequality of provision, and commercial partnerships that undermine the value of a ‘safe, neutral and trusted’ place.

And the irony is that absolutely none of these approaches will alleviate the underlying structural issue of sufficient revenue funding.

In years to come Localism will not be seen as saving libraries but rather as a political dead end that destroyed the principle of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service. More damning will be that the profession itself was complicit in allowing it to happen.

Libraries as a commonwealth

Far from being just a local resource, libraries should be viewed as part of a national commonwealth. Rather than localism with the emphasis on ‘community led’ a more joined-up approach should encourage services to be ‘community focused’ while adopting a coherent and cohesive model underpinned by a set of national standards.

We should develop the narrative, whether it’s politically palatable or not, that libraries are a national asset and as such should be wholly, and fairly, publicly funded for the common good.

Services should also be publicly accountable. An essential point that is being lost as some morph into quasi-business entities that hide behind charity law or commercial sensitivity.

Without overly simplifying, library provision should centre around three areas: stock, buildings and staff. Time after time this is what patrons and communities say is most important to them – we need to start listening.

Added to which our core purpose should be to develop and promote literacy, education, and access to information and knowledge, particularly around widening access, facilitating opportunity, and helping disadvantaged individuals and communities to close the attainment gap.

These are not abstract issues but a fundamental challenge to defining libraries place in society. Equally, we need to put aside the fads and fashions that seem to plague the profession.

Traditionally libraries have always prided themselves on providing access to knowledge and learning, of being the champions of literacy, but slowly, exacerbated by the austerity, these principles have been eroded.

Unfortunately, libraries are increasingly used as a shop front for other council services, which is indicative of the narrow view of libraries as just another building, rather than as a unique and valuable service within their own right. While libraries do have an essential social role to fulfil, merely viewing them as ‘community hubs’ mistakenly puts them on par with almost any other space.

Leisure centres are community hubs, parks are community hubs, pubs are community hubs. But libraries are unique in being a community space and something else, something extra, something special.

Libraries are more than just another meeting space, somewhere were people come together. They have a higher purpose and value. That’s what we need to bear in mind, that’s what we need to cherish and preserve for future generations.

Despite social and technological changes the core purpose of the library is as valid today as it’s always been.

I reject the narrow vision of localism, the fragmentation of a national resource, the inequality of provision. Public libraries are not a luxury dependent on philanthropy. They are a common resource for all. And despite current political dogma they do not belong to individual communities but form part of the wider commonwealth of the nation.

I hope and aspire towards a better future. For a strategic vision that leads towards a national approach to library services; that provides genuine oversight, development, and resources. To enable libraries to be the best they can be for the benefit not only of local communities but for society as a whole.

This should be the aspiration of the whole library profession and we should demand better not just from the politicians but from our own leadership.

Bye Bye Byelaws

Hertfordshire Council has just announced a proposed change to its library byelaws. Now, library byelaws might seem slightly archaic, if not downright boring, but actually provide an important function in that they give library staff (‘library officers’ as described in the byelaws) the authority to enforce rules & regulations governing the library, particularly around users behaviour.

Ostensibly Hertfordshire want to do away with the byelaw that prevents the use of mobile telephones, portable computer or recording equipment. All well and good and it’s unlikely anyone would have objections to this in the age of smartphones, tablets and laptops.

But the Council wish to take it one step further and more significantly also broaden the definition of a ‘library officer’ to include volunteers. Currently library byelaws consider ‘library officers’ as being paid employees of the Council. So this proposed change would put volunteers on an equal footing with paid staff.

It’s not particularly easy to change byelaws. Any amendments have to be referred to and approved by the Secretary of State at the DCMS. However, given the evidence of the past nine years it’s highly unlikely the DCMS will rule against the further encroachment of volunteers into the sphere of library provision or be overly concerned about the role of library workers and paid staff.

The Council report notes that the byelaws:

“…assist the library workforce in their daily role, they can be used when necessary to deal with the more extreme cases of behaviour experienced and they allow for flexibility in dealing with local concerns.”

In its own statement the Council itself has highlighted an important principle in that the byelaws are for the ‘workforce’, that is ‘paid’ employees. Legally, volunteers are not employees and should not be treated as such.

Hertfordshire Libraries responded to criticism on Twitter by stating:

“Hertfordshire has had Community Libraries, managed in partnership with volunteers, for several years. The Council is seeking to update its byelaws to reflect this reality.”

Hertfordshire currently have thirteen community libraries run by unpaid volunteers as part of its statutory service. This means that those libraries are subject to the byelaws , which are technically not enforceable by volunteers!

So while it might appear Hertfordshire are seeking a pragmatic solution it ignores the fact that the council created the problem in the first place by removing paid staff. It also becomes clear that giving volunteers the same authority as staff allows the claim of running a ‘statutory service’.

With that in mind it will come as no surprise that the Council is considering outsourcing the library service and looking for a further £500,000 budget reduction on top of an already £2.5m saving in the last four years. Far from being pragmatic it is a cynical manoeuvre to enable further service and staff cuts.

So what has been the response in the profession been so far. Well, as expected Libraries Connected sought to defend the move and in a Twitter statement that could have equally been written by the Council, said:

“The byelaws are not a change in policy towards staff and volunteers. The change is to ensure that public and staff have an equally safe experience @hertsLibraries by ensuring that volunteers have the permission to manage situations in libraries when they arise.”

To be fair I had little hope that Libraries Connected would respond in any other way given their goals are so closely aligned with the DCMS via the Libraries Taskforce and are funded to provide training for volunteer-led libraries.

It’s worth observing though that while all publicly funded library sectors are under pressure including HE, FE and especially schools, public libraries must be in a unique position of having a self-appointed ‘leadership’ body that actively facilitates de-professionalisation and the replacement of paid staff with volunteers.

But surely members could expect a more robust response from Cilip?

Sadly, Cilip seemed unsure on how to approach the issue. From initially liking the Libraries Connected tweet, which would seem to imply agreement, Nick Poole then approached Shelia Bennet, Head of Libraries Strategy and Delivery at the DCMS:

“one for an @DCMS view perhaps? A quiet word with the Council might discourage the use of an expression intended for paid staff to describe what is clearly volunteer substitution.”

While I commend Nick for approaching the DCMS, a more formal response aiming to protect members interest would be preferable.  But the issue actually goes deeper. Cilip is in a difficult position of its own making as it counts Libraries Connected as a strategic partner but the aims of both organisations don’t necessarily match.

It’s also not the only Cilip partnership that has drawn criticism. Concerns have been raised about Cilip’s promotion of Information as an Asset by partnering with KPMG

Now this might make perfect sense for the IP/KM sectors but sits less well with public libraries. As I noted in a previous post KPMG was severely criticised and investigated over its role in the collapse of Carillion, which particularly hit the public sector, and left the taxpayer to pick up millions of pounds of debt.

Recently they have also been criticised for leaving out negative findings from a study of its own flagship literacy programme.

And let’s not forget that in 2011 KPMG published a report on public sector reform in which they stated

“…giving councils total freedom on libraries could mean that they create huge social value from engaging a community in running its own library, backed up with some modern technology, whilst also saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff, poor use of space and unnecessary stock”.

Unfortunately, the Government and many councils took this advice to heart to the utter detriment of a professionalised national library service.

Cilip seems to be tying itself up in knots by trying to be the representative body for all information sectors but such a broad church approach can lead to tensions between the different areas. Whether Cilip can reconcile the conflicting missions of different sectors and partner organisations, to its members satisfaction, remains to be seen.

However, as ably demonstrated in politics lately, tensions have a way of festering and can only last so long before schisms occur.

Returning to the issue of the byelaws I’ll end with two tweets around the issue. The first from Luke Fowler who wrote:

“What’s maybe telling is that this thread seems to show a total divide between “leaders” and the rest of the profession? Many Info Pros have commented in the thread – but the only ones seemingly supporting this as positive are two CEOs and the HoS proposing the change?”

And the second from Lesley Martin:

“So my years of study & training, professional qualifications, experience and professional development are worthless? I am sick of this idea that being a librarian or library worker is some sort of little hobby.”


If The Shoe Fits!

There’s been a bit of a Twitter storm over Government plans, partnering with the National Literacy Trust, to encourage language development and literacy using, of all places, Clarks shoe shops, with staff apparently being “…asked to engage children in conversation to improve language skills, as part of a government attempt to tackle “concerning” rates of early literacy.”

Now, as always, this is not the full story and is in fact part of a wider government initiative to involve businesses to support children’s early learning in the home environment, which includes bookswaps in supermarkets as well as special training for staff in shoe shops.

The inclusion of Clarks, KPMG, and Penguin Random House in the partnership with the NLT seems a perfectly natural fit (pun intended!) given that they all have links with the NLT Board of Trustees. Whether KMPG and Clarks are appropriate organisations to support such a scheme is open to debate.

Also, as many on Twitter pointed out, the cost of Clarks shoes is likely be prohibitive to many of the disadvantaged constituencies that this scheme aims to target. It would interesting to compare customer data for Clarks against the Indices of Deprivation to see if any correlation exist.

The Guardian followed up with another story, Outsourcing education to Clarks shoes: only a Tory could think of that, which reflected many of the criticisms on Twitter, and in which the columnist pointed out that what was really needed:

“…is proper investment in early-years education. A 2010 evaluation of the Sure Start initiative found that children’s centres, which offered consistent, high-quality expert support, could have a positive influence on the home-learning environment and on parenting more generally. Buts many as 1,000 children’s centres have closed down since 2010, and many of those that are left offer only a fraction of the services they once did.”

This month, the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi, announced the creation of a new advisory panel to assess the many different educational apps. The same announcement also highlighted the work of British Land to introduce bookswap schemes at three of its retail sites.

This builds on the work from last November when Education Secretary Damian Hinds publicised a Multi-million investment to support children’s early communication skills along with the NLT.

Some of the more interesting participants of the scheme include the aforementioned KPMG – the auditing firm that was severely criticised and investigated over its role in the collapse of Carillion, leaving the taxpayer to pick up millions of pounds of debt – McDonalds (I’ll have fries with that literacy programme please!), and the Scouts! Yes, the Scouts are being funded to run a volunteer early years pilot programme.

Now given the importance of early years literacy and communication skills you would expect that one of the participants to be included would be an organisation that already has ‘bookswaps’ in place. Places that already specialise in early literacy development through carefully curated children’s stock and activities, and which is delivered by trained professionals.

But no! libraries didn’t get a mention at all. Even the accompanying document; Improving the home learning environment barely mentions libraries and certainly no library organisations were consulted as a sector expert (Annex A).

But it’s not just about the exclusion of libraries, the issue goes far deeper than this. It’s about the neoliberalisation of literacy, and it’s not just the library sector affected but other public services such as health and education.

This real issue here is a ‘small-state’ philosophy, the withdrawal of the government from public services, and the over-inflation of the philanthropic or charitable model to take its place. From badly run academies, failed outsourcing (hello Northamptonshire!), and volunteer libraries, the big society approach is creating greater inequality and more disadvantages in the very communities it is supposedly meant to benefit.

That is not to say there is no role for charities or philanthropy but the role should be one of supplementing, not replacing, basic or essential services. And though we may applaud businesses for getting involved let’s also remember the not insignificant PR and potential tax advantages that come with doing so.

It also allows the Government to abnegate its responsibility for vital public services. If charities and big business can be responsible for literacy levels why fund schools and libraries as much?

Equally, the £18m funding for the project pales into insignificance when compared to the reduction in public library funding in England of more than £230m since 2010. Or the reduction of £763m for Sure Start services, or that funding for services for young people has fallen by £855m.

The danger becomes that charity and philanthropy target the symptoms rather than the root-cause and provide a fig-leaf to hide behind without addressing the thorny issue of wealth inequality (including taxation models).

Let’s not forget that despite being the 5th wealthiest nation in the world a recent UN report stated that the Government had inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity.

Another point against philanthropic approaches is argued by Dr Neil Levy in that it benefits the state rather than the disadvantaged and is self-defeating if it allows governments to escape some of their responsibilities. Further, he states that:

“…large-scale philanthropic activity carries with it serious risks of changing the balance of funding from the public to the private sector, thereby exposing those most in need to the vicissitudes of the market. To the extent that private funding of essential services becomes the norm, the vulnerable become the recipients of (at best) uncertain aid, which is liable to fluctuations and constant reduction.”

Literacy is perhaps the single most important life skill any individual can develop. The fact that the Government is farming this responsibility out to charities only adds to the ‘great misery’ inflicted on already disadvantaged communities.

Be the Change

Sometimes it’s easy to become cynical or complacent about voting; whether that’s for national and local elections or indeed for something as simple as representation on a professional body. I know the feeling! But despite the peaks and troughs of pessimism over the years I have never lost the feeling that ‘voting’ really does matter.

So with that in mind I would urge all Cilip members to note and vote in the current Cilip election for three Board Members and the CILIP Vice-President. Members should have received email notifications in October announcing the election and with details of how to vote. If you are a Cilip member but haven’t received details please contact the Membership Team. Voting closes 19th November.

Voting is only part of the equation though. Membership should be a active conversation between the individual and the organisation to ensure views are aired and shared. While I recognise that it’s easy to become disillusioned with organisations, political and professional, if they appear not to represent your views the only way for that to change is to get involved and put your own opinions forward.

To take inspiration from Maya Angelou:

“When you do nothing you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment that comes from knowing you are working to make things better.”

Talking of involvement it was heartening to see all the positive tweets coming from CILIP’s New Professionals day (31st October), which is the annual conference aimed at library and information professionals in the early part of their careers. Check out #CILIPnpd on Twitter.

And lastly to a different kind of involvement, UNISON is calling for a National Demonstration in support of Libraries, Museums and Culture on 3rd November (this Saturday!). The demo has the support of the PCS and UNITE. Again I hope as many library workers as possible get involved. Front-line library workers make up the bulk of the library workforce but sadly have the least representation amongst library organisations.

It’s always been a particular bugbear of mine that union involvement was excluded and continues to be excluded from library representation at a national level.

Perhaps that position might improve with a change of Government and a recognition that front-line library staff, not just the leadership, deserve to have their voices heard.


Protecting Library Services?

There is a petition calling on the government to ringfence funding for libraries by Frances Belbin. The text reads:

“Libraries across the country are being closed, cut back and/or outsourced to volunteers as a result of government cuts to local authority budgets. Councils are unable to keep staffed library services open when faced with the competing demands of social care, child protection etc.

Local libraries are a vital resource for the promotion of reading, literature and culture. They are a necessity for the digitally excluded who need to go online to access benefits, health, education and employment resources.
While the commitment of volunteers is welcomed, volunteer-run library services are unsustainable long-term.

The government must ringfence funding to ensure councils can fulfil their statutory duty to keep libraries services available to the general public.”

As of today (Sunday, 21st October 2018) the petition had attracted 7,035 signatures. At 10,000 signatures the Government will provide a response. Whether that response will be substantially different to those replies received by various MPs and Peers in the Houses of Commons and Lords remains to be seen. At 100,000 signatures the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.

Given the continuing popularity of libraries and coming off the back of the Summer Reading Challenge and Libraries Week I’m hoping that the 10,000 barrier can be reached relatively easily . So if you haven’t already done so please sign and encourage friends and family to do so.

The tone of the petition is in keeping with a recent article in the New Statesman; The deepest cuts: austerity measured, outlining the real-terms funding cuts to local authorities including a section on public libraries. Despite the Prime Ministerial claim that ‘austerity is over’ the Institute for Fiscal Studies has  stated that “without substantial tax rises or much better growth prospects there is no way for the chancellor both to end austerity for public services and to eliminate the budget deficit.”

The spending cuts within local authorities are set to continue until at least 2020 leading the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association (LGA) to warn that “…after eight years of austerity during which £16bn has been stripped from municipal budgets in England, councils risked being “damaged beyond recognition” and communities depleted of vital services.”

Whether the spending review set for 2019 will ease some of this burden is not yet clear but with a 49% reduction in finances since 2010 it will be a long time before authorities bounce back and are unlikely to ever fully recover to pre-austerity levels.

National funding for libraries in this context will remain a difficult challenge and calling for a national approach  runs contrary to the recently released Civil Society Strategy in which:

“People are empowered to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods. Power is decentralised so that local officials and professionals are properly accountable to local people, and trusted to do their job without bureaucratic interference. The provision of services is seen as the business of the community, not solely the responsibility of government, and providers are drawn from a broad range of suppliers from the public sector and beyond.”

The reports highlights the positives of communities taking on responsibility for services previously provided by local authorities, encourages closer working with Town and Parish Councils, voluntary organisations, social enterprise organisations, and actively encourages the adoption of public service mutuals.

Libraries get several mentions, including a case study of Suffolk Libraries, and the statement that:

“Many public libraries have an established track record in providing opportunities to facilitate this. Many are actively developing their role as community hubs bringing together local people, services, and organisations under one roof. There is a growing number of public libraries which are directly run or managed by the communities themselves or as mutuals by the people who work in them (or as a combination of the two), with varying levels of support from local councils at all levels.”

This is further supported by the promotion of the Mutuals Support Programme 2 and the mutuals masterclasses commissioned by DCMS and run via the Libraries Taskforce and strategic partners.

Whether the rosy ideal of the Civil Society Strategy matches the actual reality on the ground remains open to vigorous debate. It certainly seems mismatched with the warnings coming from the LGA and the many instances of hollowing-out taking place in library services.

A recent analysis by CIPFA reported in Public Finance outlines how the ‘Government is increasingly shifting the costs of public services on to citizens as the effects of austerity continue.’  The article states that “One way the government has tried to save money and avoid the need for tax increases is by asking members of the public to contribute more in other ways – from volunteers running libraries to people paying a greater share of the cost of defending themselves in court.”

The report states that many neighbourhood services – such as waste collection, food safety, road maintenance and libraries – have sustained the deepest spending cuts of all the services looked at.

The fact that libraries, like many public services, need additional funding for revenue and infrastructure rather than just project funding, should be uncontestable.  How and by whom that funding is provided is very much an ongoing conversation.

The direction of travel advocated by the present government would seem to indicate a delivery matrix of a smaller core statutory service with a mixture of in-house and commissioned models, underpinned by a second tier service (mostly non-statutory) run by community groups, volunteers, and parish/town councils.

Whether this satisfies the definition of a comprehensive and efficient library service seems a moot point when Councils are faced with very real budget reductions and in some instances the issuing of 114 notices.

But to a certain extent to only concentrate on the issue of funding is miss the point as to why libraries need protecting in the first place. And it has never been because of any failure in relevance or adaptation on the part of libraries.

Finance is only one part of the equation. The main issue is ideology and for the past eight years the government has been wedded to austerity, privatisation, and the ‘small state’ doctrine. And it is this dogma, coupled with fiscal policy, that has resulted in the contraction, commercialisation, and outsourcing of public services such as libraries.




The Importance of Public Library Computers

Below is a press release from Lorensbergs and Cilip about a new book ‘More Short Stories from the People’s Network’ which outlines twelve new case studies underlining the importance of public library computers.  This builds on the original publication ‘Short Stories from the People’s Network

I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy at the Cilip conference in July and was impressed with the range of activities taking place in libraries across the UK. Despite the perception of everyone owning a digital device there are still large numbers of the public reliant on the computers provided in public libraries and the digital support provided by staff.

As the Cilip President, Ayub Khan, states in the foreword:

“Free library computers are a lifeline to the digitally disadvantaged in our increasingly online world. It’s getting harder to do essential, everyday things offline – like shopping, homework, or applying for jobs. The Government’s ‘digital by default’ policy aims to make everything from taxing the car to applying for benefits, online-only transactions. Government figures for 20171 revealed that 90% of households had internet access – but that still leaves around three million households without it. Plus many other lower income households are without broadband and rely solely on mobile phones, which offer connectivity but are less suited for making benefit or job applications.”

Both books are available for download and provide further evidence of the valuable services offered by public libraries and library staff for the benefit of their communities.

More Short Stories from the People’s Network

Twelve case studies evidencing the continuing importance of public access computers in UK libraries have been published in a new book ‘More Short Stories from the People’s Network’.

The stories have been compiled for publication by Lorensbergs, and supported by CILIP, the UK’s library and information association. The book shares the experiences of twelve public library authorities and provides vital insights into the progress achieved and challenges overcome when helping customers to access and use the internet.

Many opportunities to participate and progress are available only to those with the means and skills to get online. It’s essential for many life critical tasks, yet 10% of UK households are without connectivity to the internet, and many more are without broadband. Millions make use of library computers – collectively known as the People’s Network – to apply for jobs, benefits, find new opportunities and remain socially included.

The book is the second volume of case studies on how the People’s Network remains an essential piece of national infrastructure provided by the UK’s public library service. Its chapters describe the many initiatives taken by library staff to keep their communities connected and inclusive.

Libraries Minister Michael Ellis said: “Internet access is now an integral part of a modern library service. Public libraries offer both the facilities and the practical support to help people get online and develop their digital skills. This is hugely important to society, now and in the future.

“I welcome this publication, which helps the sector share experiences, learning and best practice to improve services for library users across the country.”

Anna Crilly, Managing Director of Lorensbergs, comments: “This new collection continues to communicate the national story of the value of the people’s network. Today, nearly half of libraries are seeing requests for help with digital skills rising, with the vast remainder needing to satisfy a constant level of demand for this support from their communities. These stories provide the narrative behind the statistics and explore the difference libraries are making to people’s lives.”

Ayub Khan, CILIP President, who provides a foreword to the book, said: “These stories offer a compelling message on the continuing importance of the People’s Network. It’s a book that deserves to be read by all those with a stake in the welfare and development of our society.”

Press contacts

  • Philippa Bryant, Head of Marketing, Lorensbergs –
  • Mark Taylor, Director of External Relations, CILIP –

The Positive and Negative Impact of Using Volunteers in Public Libraries

The following post is from Gina Baber a Library & Information student at UCL. Gina has produced an excellent paper looking at the positive and negative impact of volunteers in public libraries. The full article can be found on the UCL website.

I came across the article via Twitter and Ian Anstice also highlighted it from the Public Library News site. However, it’s well worth publicising a widely as possible and Gina has kindly agreed to it being posted here.

Gina can be followed on Twitter @Gina_Baber and I highly recommend that you do.

The Positive and Negative Impact of Using Volunteers in Public Libraries

Gina Baber


‘Volunteers have long supported and provided highly valuable additional support, working alongside qualified and paid staff, and they should be acknowledged and valued for this role. They should also be given appropriate role descriptions, training and management. CILIP is opposed to job substitution where paid professional and support roles are directly replaced with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts to save money….If this happens services will suffer and will be unsustainable. What remains would be a library service unable to serve the community comprehensively, support people’s information needs or provide everyone with the opportunity for learning and development.’ (1)

The following essay is a discussion on the impact of using volunteers in Public Libraries. It will focus on the experiences of Library Professionals and Volunteers; and consider the overall effect of Volunteers on the Public Library Service.

Public Libraries are a vital resource, and according to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, are a statutory requirement (2). Public Libraries are a centre for communities; a place for lifelong learning; and a sanctuary for the vulnerable, including the elderly, mentally disabled and homeless. Libraries improve accessibility to information; help to develop literacy and information literacy; and are a catalyst for social empowerment and social mobility:

‘…A strong public library service is the foundation of a literate and inclusive society and a competitive knowledge economy.’ (3)

There has been a change in the way many Public Libraries are being run. Cuts to funding have forced some Libraries to reduce their paid staff and introduce unpaid workers, resulting in a significant increase in volunteers in some areas: ‘paid library staff fell by 5.3% from 18,028 to 17,064, volunteer numbers rose by 7.5% to 44,501.’ (4)

The Librarian as Volunteer Manager

Managing a sizeable cohort of volunteers is a complex undertaking, and there are many aspects of management that need to be taken into consideration. These include: the challenges faced in training volunteers with little or no experience of library work; the varying reliability of volunteers (some can only commit to a few hours a week, or less, and they are often unable to commit to a regular shift pattern); and the effect volunteers have on staff morale, including staff who have seen colleagues made redundant, and who are being required to train volunteers who have replaced paid staff.

According to a 2017 review of UK Public Libraries, the top 4 challenges of using volunteers were as follows: 1. 82% The time investment that is needed to manage and support volunteers 2. 62% The time investment needed to recruit volunteers 3. 62% The level of commitment among volunteers 4. 58% The time needed to train new / casual users on systems (5)

The Government’s ‘Good Practice Toolkit’ also reflects the need for constant and considered management of volunteers:

  • a volunteer policy needs to be in place
  • volunteer roles need to be agreed
  • volunteers will require training for their roles
  • volunteers require ongoing access to professional advice
  • resources are needed to manage the volunteer roles (6)

After discussions with several Librarians and Library Managers, many examples of Volunteer Management responsibilities were highlighted. These included ‘coming up with volunteer opportunities; writing role descriptions; creating & managing advertising; drafting Service Level agreements; obtaining references; DBS checks for certain roles; maintaining records; training; holding regular meetings; and hosting volunteer thank you events’ (7)

The Volunteer Manager role is almost always performed in addition to an existing Librarian or Library Manager role. For example, Maria Bernal, who is the part-time Librarian and Volunteer Manager at Woodberry Down Volunteer-run Library (London Borough of Hackney), is also the Librarian at Homerton Library.

Similarly, Sophia Richards, the Community Librarian for Children, Families, Learning and Outreach at North Somerset Council, also manages the Volunteer programme in North Somerset (8). Inevitably, Librarians taking on these new responsibilities and often large numbers of volunteers, are frequently overworked and under a huge amount of pressure: ‘…We’re open 39 hours a week. I had 5 part time staff, now I have one full time member of staff and 102 volunteers…most of whom volunteer for only 2 hours once a week…It’s non-stop training and very tiring teaching 3 new people with minimal IT skills how to do frontline library work in 2 hour slot…the time it takes to train, the extra hours staff are putting in (unpaid, we don’t get overtime) just so we can keep on top of our admin and line management responsibilities is exhausting.‘ (9)

When a Library relies on volunteers, consistent availability and reliability can be an issue. As volunteers do not have a contract in the same way a paid worker does, their attendance is not an obligation. This can lead to casual and sometimes erratic attendance, which can disrupt and put pressure on the rest of the workforce; as well as leading to valuable community group activities being cancelled, the library closing early, and the integrity of the service being damaged, ‘…volunteers typically are less bound to follow regular schedules or to work for extended periods of time…Limited, irregular schedules are ill suited for tasks needing frequent attention.’ (10)

The Positive Effects of Volunteering: Social Empowerment and Social Mobility

Many volunteers are used in Community Outreach and Engagement roles, supporting paid staff and promoting the Library Service. Examples of these volunteer roles include: assistance with the Summer Reading Challenge; IT and Digital Literacy sessions; reading groups; and the Home Library Service for users who are unable to visit the Library due to a disability or ill health (11). As well as a desire to assist the Community, there can be many other reasons people volunteer. These can include volunteering as a way to improve self-confidence or sociability; to gain experience before applying for a paid position; or as a way of gradually integrating back into the workforce. Volunteering can have a positive effect on volunteers with learning difficulties; mental health issues; those dealing with loneliness, bereavement, social isolation and social anxiety; those dealing with unemployment and the struggle to find work or return to work; and those with extended periods of illness which have impacted on their confidence, self-esteem and motivation.

Interviewer: ‘Have you had any positive feedback from volunteers on the voluntary work they do?

Community Librarian: ‘I suppose the most obvious is those who have gone on to secure employment. One of the volunteers with autism secured a full time position with BT and couldn’t thank us enough for giving him an opportunity to have an up to date CV and a reference. A volunteer who had been a social services manager had been claiming sickness following complications after childbirth. She hadn’t been in employment for over 12 years and had significant anxiety issues. I worked with her, slowly re-introducing her to the safe library environment…Eventually she became a volunteer and developed the confidence to attend a counselling course. She is now working part-time in that field. (12)

Volunteers and Motivation

‘Volunteers are fearful they will lose their libraries, so rather than be faced with that, people think of volunteering…I can understand…but they should never have been in the position to have to make that decision…Volunteers have a brilliant role to play in boosting capacity and outreach but they shouldn’t be compelled to take over running the service.’ (13)

Volunteers come from different professional or non-professional backgrounds, frequently with little or no experience of managing a Library. The view of the Library as a cultural hub and centre of the community, motivates volunteers to keep the service running; often with limited resources, shorter opening hours and few or no professionally trained Library staff.

As mentioned previously, reliance on volunteers can be problematic for several reasons; and motivation is a particularly powerful influence on reliability and retention. The initial determination to ‘save’ a Library may be an ‘intrinsic motivation,’ built on a strong and focused desire to keep the Library open; and the idea that this is a positive and important act. Initially, volunteers may feel that they are taking control and managing change effectively. This action is also a result of an ‘extrinsic motivation’ and ‘external pressures’ upon the volunteer or voluntary group, caused by the potential closure of the Library. Volunteering must be ‘a choice freely made by an individual…both the volunteer and the organisation that the volunteer works with should benefit from the relationship; and the contribution of volunteers should be recognised.’ (14)

The initial motivation of the volunteer to make a difference or improve the situation may decrease, when external pressures become increasingly evident and their free choice as a volunteer becomes more of an obligation or ‘social coercion.’ (15)

External pressure may also come from volunteers having to take on more work than they were initially able to, and outside their capabilities. Untrained volunteers may not be able to cope with increased and unattainable expectations and workload. As a result, demotivation could occur as follows:

1. The reduction in paid professional Library staff could result in a lack of support and training for volunteers

2. This constraint on volunteer training and development could then result in volunteers feeling isolated or unable to fully assist Library Users

3. A lack of training and consequent limited understanding of information resources, could result in lower levels of self-confidence in volunteers; leading to frustration and disappointment that they are unable to fulfill the role

4. Frustration and negative feedback from library users, unable to receive the information or services they require, could result in a volunteer feeling that they are no longer in control

5. As a result of this lack of control, a volunteer may develop a negative association with the workplace and volunteer role. Volunteers may feel anxious, defiant, and demotivated; ultimately leading to amotivation and them leaving the volunteer position (16)

It is important to provide volunteers with consistent and thorough training and support, as well as a variety of tasks that suit their individual skills and experience ‘…having managed volunteers myself, I’m very aware that you have to make sure people are happy, stimulated, befriended and given a cup of tea and a chance to sit down and chat. Also, if they’re there for the long term, they need some autonomy over a task (this has to be appropriate for their level of ability), and a chance to change up tasks and routines when they get bored (or they’ll get burned out)’ (17)

Paid and unpaid staff require professional and personal development, including positive and constructive feedback and staff appraisal. If a volunteer does not receive consistent feedback and encouragement, they may feel undervalued. Similarly, if a working environment is hostile, isolating, apathetic, or not stimulating for a worker or volunteer, there will be little or no incentive to achieve goals. Problems may also occur when the paid workforce feel undermined or threatened by the increased use of volunteers. With many paid professionals losing their jobs or facing redundancy, there is a definite sense of unease, and sometimes a lack of respect or understanding from both paid staff and volunteers:

‘…without a doubt, many of the volunteers do not value nor respect our experience….It’s obvious that most of the volunteers don’t really know or understand what public library staff do. They aren’t intending to start a career in libraries, they haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the same way an applicant for a job vacancy would.’ (18)

Diversity: The Effect on Service

Interviewer: Do you think Equality and Diversity are fairly represented in Libraries that rely on volunteers?

Library Manager, Wirral: NO! The vast majority of our volunteers are elderly, white & middleclass/ retired teachers, engineers etc. (19) Community Librarian, Conwy County Borough Council: ‘My experience is that I haven’t seen someone from an ethnic minority, with a disability or anybody under the age of 60 volunteering. The simple answer therefore is no! However, I don’t think libraries are doing enough to attract these groups anyway and our users remain older retired and white and those with young children. That’s leaves a huge part of the population!’ (20)

Another issue with Volunteer recruitment, is the lack of equality and diversity amongst volunteers recruited. This lack of equality and diversity can have an impact on the relationship between the volunteer and Library user; and the quality of the service provided. The less diverse the workforce, the less diverse the range of knowledge; experience and understanding of different cultures; attitudes; beliefs; and lifestyles.

A lack of diversity, coupled with little or no understanding of information literacy, may ultimately lead to a biased or limited information service provision. Volunteers may be unaware of appropriate data protection laws and copyright, for example; and be unaware of the most efficient, accurate and ethical ways of finding information, such as using the most current databases to search for medical information.

Volunteers may also have little or no experience of how to manage the needs of a user with specific learning needs, a disability, or mental illness. It is important for a Public Library to employ professional staff to maintain as balanced and fair a service as possible, ‘…public librarians should provide expert assistance and advice to users as a public service without prejudice against persons and without a hidden motive of staff affecting search results…public librarians have an obligation to protect and promote the rights of every individual to have free and equal access to sources of information without discrimination.’ (21)

The Librarian Identity: Deprofessionalisation

‘What the profession needs to be vigilant of and something that should be challenged is appointing candidates to post as ‘librarian’ or equivalent without qualification or the need to pursue one. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of volunteer libraries it is the responsibility of all of us in the profession to uphold the integrity of what it means to be a qualified librarian. Anything else fundamentally undermines the concept of professional Librarianship’ (22)

Library volunteer roles are sometimes given titles with a professional association, for example ‘Marketing Assistant’, Library Ambassador’ and ‘Library Events Facilitator,’ which suggest a more serious position, with greater responsibility; and may result in an increased level of commitment from the volunteer. The language used can be encouraging for Volunteers, but problematic in its confusion with professional roles. Job titles used on the ‘Volunteering Wales’ website, for example, include ‘Assistant Librarian’ and Library Administrator.’ The requirement for the ‘Assistant Librarian’ role requests that the volunteer has ‘no particular skills, and training will be given.’ The role involves ‘talking to the public and using the computer to log books in and out.’ (23) Language and role descriptions like this, are in danger of undermining the view of the Library Professional.

Many people who have worked as a Librarian or are working towards a professional role, have extensive practical experience, training, knowledge and skills – the Librarian role is far more complex and exhaustive than this simplified job description suggests. Deprofessionalisation is hugely problematic, and volunteers are rarely able to take the place of a trained information professional ‘…The shift towards volunteer-run libraries also promotes the misconception that being a librarian is not a profession. Working in a library isn’t just about flicking a date stamp about and re-shelving a few books…’ (24)
Some Public Libraries do not believe in the importance or necessity of qualified Library staff, and the retail customer service model is often favoured over the knowledge and professionalism of a Librarian ‘…Being a qualified librarian is desirable, but not essential for front line staff.

Also, a colleague was telling me recently that “…CILIP’s own research shows than only 46% of those polled think that librarians provide trustworthy information. This does put librarians in the top 5 professional nationally, but at the same time it’s not a full endorsement either”…’ (25). It was interesting to hear that the Idea Store do not use volunteers, believing that ‘…services are lessened by the use of volunteers, so Idea Store do not take on volunteers to do the work of professional, trained staff.’ (26) There appears to be an awareness of the current situation, where volunteers have been frequently replacing professional staff; but one cannot help but feel that management is missing out on valuable expertise, knowledge and service development potential by not employing qualified Librarians.


‘We, as members of the public, deserve better. We deserve (and are legally entitled to) a library service that delivers not only books but is a free public access point to information. We deserve someone qualified in knowledge and information management who is best able to provide that service – and that’s a real librarian.’ (27)

The general view amongst Library Professionals and many users, seems to indicate that replacing paid professional staff with volunteers will result in a lower quality service provision. Volunteers should, where possible, only be used to support experienced, qualified staff. Volunteers are a positive addition to a workforce, when used to support certain activities, but should not be relied on to run a Library service ‘…experience would suggest that the most effective use of volunteers is to support paid staff in delivering specific activities (storytimes, job clubs, reading schemes, etc.), rather than taking on the day-to-day logistics of running a library’ (28).

Personal experience of using (or attempting to use) a volunteer-run Library, has been problematic and disappointing, with the Library in question frequently closing early, or being unable to open due to lack of volunteer availability. For users reliant on accessing resources, including computers and internet access, this can be greatly inhibiting and frustrating. The impression created, is one of an inefficient Library Service – a service that is unreliable and nonfunctioning. Ultimately, the user may be forced to look elsewhere for information and resources; and the trust in the service is reduced. Reduction in paid professional staff and reliance on volunteers, also has an impact on the availability and discovery of accurate and balanced information sources; and there may be issues with volunteers’ inexperience with intercultural competences and diversity. Volunteers can be used in a positive and effective way, and volunteering can have a positive impact on those who volunteer. In a Public Library context however, volunteers need to be managed carefully. Where possible, they need to support and not undermine professional paid staff; and they need to be offered regular training, support and feedback.

Volunteers should not be expected to take on the responsibility and workload of experienced, trained Information Professionals. There should be a clear distinction between the role of a volunteer in supporting the Library service, and representing it entirely. Evidence shows that volunteer-run libraries are not sustainable, and cannot run in an efficient, freely accessible and wholly ethical manner. Leadership and management from paid professionals is essential in maintaining the standard of a Public Library service. Without paid information professionals working as true representatives of the service, perception of Public Libraries will be further degraded and the public may lose an important resource capable of empowering and mobilising individuals and communities.


(1) CILIP Public Libraries use of Volunteers [online] 19 April 2017 (original date of Policy June 2012) [accessed 04/02/17] Available from:

(2) Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964: 7. General Duty of Library Authorities

(3) CILIP Public Libraries 2016 Available from:

(4) Kean, D. UK Library Budgets Fall by £25m in a Year The Guardian Thursday 8 December 2016 [online] [accessed 19/02/2018] Available from:

(5) Axiel A Review of UK Libraries in 2017: A Guide for Delivering Sustainable Communitycentric Services [online] May 2017 Axiel Ltd. [Accessed 11/04/18] Available from:

(6) Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Libraries shaping the future: good practice toolkit: 3.3 Volunteering [online] [accessed 05/02/16] Available from

(7) Library Manager, Wirral Interviewed by Anon 15/04/18

(8) Meet the Volunteering Team!

(9) @ALibrarian1 ; Bolton, L. (ed.) One Hundred and Two! in Leon’s Library Blog [online] 20/09/2015 [accessed 25/03/2018] Available from:

(10) Leonard, K. B. Volunteers in Archives: Free Labor, But Not Without Cost USA: Journal of Library Administration 52 2012 p 316

(11) North Somerset Library Volunteers Available from:

(12) Community Librarian and Volunteer Manager, Conwy County Borough Council Interviewed by Anon 16/04/18

(13) Powell, M. in Flood, A. Save your Local! Should Volunteers Help Keep Our Public Libraries Open? [online] The Guardian 8 August 2017 [Accessed 20/02/18] Available from:

(14) Paine, A. E. ; Hill, M. ; Rochester, C. ‘A Rose by Any Other Name..’ : Revisiting the Question: ‘What Exactly is Volunteering?’ [online] 2010 UK: Institute for Volunteering Research p 9 [accessed 09/04/18] Available from:

(15) Ibid. pp 12-13

(16) Adapted from the points in: Taylor, B.M. Table 1,2, and 3 of Motivation : The Hierarchical Model of Motivation: A Lens for Viewing the Complexities of Motivation USA: Performance Improvement 2015 [online] 54 4 p 38 [accessed 04/03/18] Available from:

(17) Library Assistant and Library Volunteer, London Interviewed by Anon 11/04/18 (18) @ALibrarian1 ; Bolton, L. (ed.) One Hundred and Two! in Leon’s Library Blog [online] 20/09/2015 [accessed 25/03/2018] Available from:

(19) Library Manager, Wirral Interviewed by Anon 15/04/18

(20) Community Librarian, Conwy County Borough Council Interviewed by Anon 16/04/18

(21) Kargbo, J. A. The Role of Public Librarians in Disseminating Information for True Democracy Public Library Quarterly 33:4 pp 362-371 [accessed 16/02/18] Available from:

(22) Bolton, L. When is a Librarian Not a Librarian? in Leon’s Library Blog [online] 20/09/2015 [accessed 25/03/2018] Available from:

(23) Volunteering Wales: Opportunities [online] [Accessed 11/04/18] Available from:

(24) Ash, E. in Flood, A. Save your Local! Should Volunteers Help Keep Our Public Libraries Open? [online] The Guardian 8 August 2017 [Accessed 20/02/18] Available from:

(25) Dogliani, S. Deputy Head of Idea Store Interviewed by Anon 17/04/18

(26) Ibid. 22/02/18

(27) Finch, D. The Harsh Truth About Volunteers Available from:

(28) Librarian, Adults & Communities Team, North Lincolnshire Library & Information Services Interviewed by Anon 16/04/18



Striking The Right Balance

I recently came across the following quote by Edward R. Murrow, which struck me as being so true and such a succinct statement on how we should act professionally that I added it to my Twitter banner:

“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”

To be all of the above we need think carefully about the language and terms we use when discussing issues in the library sector; who we are, what we do, what our views and aspirations for the profession should be. Language is such a powerful tool when promoting a message. It captures and solidifies the image of a ‘thing’ in our minds, transforms it into a ‘truth’.

Words influence our thinking, our perception, for good or bad; something intimately understood by advertisers and marketers. Sadly, words are also used in the service of ‘spin’ and propaganda where language is used to obfuscate and mislead. Words tell stories and stories create the reality that shape our view of the world.

Now replace ‘story’ with the word ‘narrative’ and we come to the world of libraries and how they are viewed by the public. A recent blog by Dawn Finch outlines wonderfully what libraries are and what they are not in defence of the misappropriation of the word library. In response to the post Ian Anstice’s editorial, The Highjacking of a Common Noun, also challenged the debasement of the term and what the name stood for.

It matters what we as library professionals say about libraries; what they stand for. If we are unwilling to make such arguments publicly, then others will fill the void, twisting the ‘idea’ of the library into something the profession no longer recognises. Even more importantly is the narrative used by the lead bodies in the sector and how they present libraries to those with influence over the sector; national Government, local authorities, funding bodies.

During the early part of austerity, the burgeoning crisis within libraries – the closures, the hollowing out, the de-professionalisation – became the dominant narrative as campaigners and communities fought to highlight the loss of such a vital service.

To counter-balance the negative outpouring of bad news a more positive interpretation of libraries was developed, starting with the Sieghart report, and continuing through the work of the Libraries Taskforce and its partners.

The rationale behind the approach was to increase the public messaging about libraries so that those in power would see a sector not in decline, or libraries as anachronistic, but as vibrant, thriving places, and to promote the role libraries play in contributing to local and national strategies. This is encapsulated in the ‘Libraries First’ approach.

What should have emerged from these two narratives was an amalgamation, a more balanced view of libraries that recognised the reality of the changes but also an acknowledgment of the improvements. Sadly, rather than a consolidation – an appreciation of each viewpoint – both commentaries continued at opposing ends of a spectrum with opinions becoming even more polarised.

That is not to say that either argument lacks validity but on their own they present a very binary view of the sector. A black and white picture that misses the nuance and subtlety needed to acknowledge and understand the changes and challenges that services face.

In a work context we would not knowingly mislead our users. Whether undertaking research or signposting to information we would seek to present a balanced view, based on the available resources and evidence, and allow the user to make their own conclusions. And yet most stories around libraries fall at either end of the narrative spectrum.

I would argue that as a profession the responsibility to maintain a balanced approach – which is not to be confused with neutrality – is an ethical imperative.

We need not ‘sit on the fence’ or occupy some wishy-washy middle ground. We can engage in positive advocacy and at the same time be assertive in challenging decisions that adversely impact on services and users. We can celebrate the success of a brand new library while highlighting the risks of localism and devolution where it leads to fragmentation and hollowing out of services.

That is why I hope as a profession we can move away from the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ narratives towards a more balanced viewpoint. One that does not downplay the effects of austerity and funding cuts but one that is equally willing to applaud the good news stories within the library world.

So coming back to the quote I started with, we can only be persuasive as a profession by being credible, and to be credible we need to be truthful. That is why a more balanced narrative is needed; to the public, to the profession, and most of all to those in power.


No Plan B: The Closure of a Schools Library Service

The following guest post is from Elizabeth Roberts, former staff member of the Walsall Schools Library Support Service, which sadly closed in March this year due to funding cuts.

The irony, like many closures affecting school and public libraries, is such reductions happen while the Government announces plans to improve literacy, early reading, and language skills through the establishment of a Centre of Excellence for Literacy Teaching.

But sadly School Library Services, like school libraries, have no statutory standing and are susceptible to local decision making and  dwindling school budgets.

I wish the ex-SLSS staff the very best of luck in their endeavour to form a new company to continue delivering library services to schools. However, the  fact they need to do so is a damning indictment on government policy despite the lip service paid to improving literacy and an illustration of the real life impact of starving public services of desperately needed funding at a local level.

Walsall Schools Library Support Services

On 29 March 2018, after 50 years of service to children in Walsall, Walsall Schools Library Support Service (SLSS) closed its doors for the last time. Even on our final morning, staff were still out in schools delivering literacy support. Demand for our services was still extremely high. The questionnaires completed annually by schools showed a 100% satisfaction rate. So how could such a vibrant, thriving service close?

SLSS offered a wide range of library and literacy support to schools. Its offer was vast. Its loan collections encompassed reading for pleasure termly loans, class readers and topic boxes. In addition hundreds of artefact boxes were on offer to schools covering every aspect of the curriculum. Our service was flexible and proactive – you want Harry Potter, the World Cup, carnivals…..? No problem!

Alongside the loan collections, experienced SLSS staff worked in schools to deliver activities designed to inspire and enthuse. We revitalised school libraries, ran book clubs, told stories, gave information literacy sessions, performed poetry, ran quizzes, provided booklists and advised on purchases. Our staff were experts on children’s books. The list was endless. Where a school had a literacy need then we would do our utmost to fulfil it.

Our downfall, as it had been for our colleagues in Walsall public libraries the year before, was finance. For some years we had been funded by a dedelegated budget – money that headteachers had agreed could be top-sliced and invested in our service. We knew that this would have to end by 2019 and were planning for the transition to a fully traded service. However, in October 2017 the Heads Forum voted to end dedelegation a year early. Instead of the money being top-sliced, it would be returned to schools and they could choose how to spend it. For us, this meant that our money would run out in March 2018, at which point we would either have to trade or close.

At this point a variety of things happened which affected our ability to get a business plan together. The approval by senior managers that we could trade with schools was not given until November 2017, by which point schools were in the throes of Christmas preparations. In addition, appalling bad weather saw schools closed across the borough. Add to this the need to keep our service running and the time actually available to us to plan and negotiate with schools was tiny.

We were set a target of £120K that we would need to make through trading with schools. We were given until February 2018 to get schools to commit to this or else we would have to close. As soon as we came back after Christmas, staff on 12 weeks’ notice were issued with their redundancy notices. We all knew we were living on borrowed time.

Schools began to reply to us. Some said that they would rather buy their own resources than pay for SLSS. However, a sizeable number agreed to pay for some or all the elements of our new service. We were overwhelmed with messages of support from these schools, some of whom could not envisage how they would manage without us. What broke our hearts were the schools who said they would love to buy our services, that they valued us but that they could not afford us as they were having to make their own staff redundant.

One teacher said to us “For us the resources and books you provide help to take the child on a journey. The resources show them visually and the books take them on an emotional rollercoaster allowing them to escape, they are then able to develop their own ideas and personalities. Pupil premium kids certainly need the provisions you provide.”

Despite all our efforts, we didn’t make the target we had been set by the Council and were given formal notice at the end of February that we would have to close. We were around £40K short of our target. We tried to negotiate in order to keep SLSS running. Would the Council accept a slimmed-down service with fewer staff we asked? Could they lend us £40K contingency money to support us for 12 months to allow us to build a stronger business case? Could we be absorbed into public libraries to minimise the central running costs that other Council departments required from us? The answer was a firm “no”. We were told that there was “no plan B” for SLSS – it was all or nothing.

Ironically, in February 2018 it was announced that the planned refurbishment of Walsall Central Library would cost £250K more than originally budgeted for, because of problems with the roof. Councillor Mike Bird was quoted as saying “It seems they have started a project and haven’t done the due diligence and have found a lot more needs doing than first anticipated.” A fraction of this money would have kept SLSS going.

In the last 12 months 9 of the 16 public libraries in Walsall have closed. Those that remain have been chosen on a geographical basis – distance from the library as the crow flies. Unfortunately people don’t travel as the crow flies! We have spoken to schools who have been forced to end class visits to the library. Since the closure of SLSS, Walsall public libraries no longer have staff that specialise in supporting children’s literacy. The biggest losers in all these library closures have been the children of Walsall. In 2015 Walsall schools were in the bottom 10 authorities in the country for literacy. Shouldn’t the Council be investing more in supporting them, rather than cutting the services they rely on?

Looking to the future, some of the SLSS staff have begun working together to form a company Read For Your Life which aims to offer literacy support into schools  We are currently talking to schools about their requirements. From this we hope to carry on the best of Walsall SLSS, supporting our children to grow as readers.

Nothing to laugh at in Northants

The crisis at Northamptonshire continues with sudden drastic cuts announced to library opening times with less than twenty-four hours notice and with the immediate withdrawal of the mobile library. Many of the libraries are now only open for one day per week. The Council has issued the following statement on the library’s website:

“The Section 114 Spending controls currently in place within Northamptonshire County Council restrict expenditure on recruitment, temporary staff or existing staff working overtime. As a direct consequence of this Northamptonshire County Council instruction, the library service (operated by First for Wellbeing) has to remove temporary staff and additional hours from its staffing allocation. This has a direct and immediate impact on the ability to keep libraries open.”

KMPG has also advised the cash-strapped council to close 21 of the smaller libraries or hand them over to volunteers. This from an authority once lauded by the Libraries Taskforce as a flagship, innovative, library service for others to emulate.

Although many authorities face difficult budget challenges some of the financial decisions made by the council appear ill-advised such as paying their ex-CEO, and ex-chair of the Taskforce, over £100k for simply retiring. It has also been revealed that the council re-engaged an ex-member of staff and paid them a £1,300-a-day consultancy fee, along with another member of staff  who was given a £50,000 pay-off, and then the firm she owned was  paid £650 per day to oversee an IT project.

These instances are the ones that have been made public so it has to be wondered at how many other examples exist of what is at best poor oversight of council expenditure.

Such payments will be a smack in the face to those library workers now facing job losses and redundancy and none will receive anything like the above rewards.

Apparently staff morale among the library workers is, not surprisingly, at rock bottom. My thoughts are with all the library staff caught up in these horrible circumstances and the uncertain future they face.

All of this is happening on the doorstep of Northamptonshire MP and Minister for libraries, Michael Ellis. Given the DCMS woefully inadequate response to other major library cuts nationally I have no reason to think that Mr Ellis will be any more likely to intervene than his predecessors. After, the root cause of all this distress can be directly laid at the feet of this government’s policies.

Lastly, given the rushed nature of the proposals no consideration seems to have been given to any form of consultation or provision under the Equalities Act. It will be interesting to see how the Council justifies such a move.


As the only library body willing to publicly speak out on behalf of libraries Cilip has released a statement calling for the proposed cuts in Northamptonshire to be halted pending a national inquiry and are writing to the DCMS to intervene. They statement says:

“it is clear that the very significant cuts will result in a library service that can in no way be seen to be ‘comprehensive and efficient’, as required by the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. CILIP will be writing to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to call on them to mount an inquiry into this failure of provision. We urge Northamptonshire County Council to suspend the implementation of this decision pending any such inquiry.”

Nick Poole expressed Cilip’s solidarity with and support for all of the staff and library workers affected by the decision. He also urged CILIP members affected by the decision to make contact with the Member Services team for advice and support. Nick has also appeared on BBC Radio Northants challenging the Libraries Minister to intervene.




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