It’s New York!

In these days of doom and gloom it’s very rare that we see news that actually inspires us. Well, recently I saw exactly that. The inspirational story for me was York Libraries & Archive Services move to becoming a Mutual organisation from April 2014.

Looking at it from a library perspective the positives are:

  • There is a very clear vision that puts core library services at the heart of the venture
  • Decisions are made by professional librarians and managers
  • Continued staffing by professionals and experienced library staff
  • Working with volunteers but not handing over responsibility and libraries to the community

A clear message came through in the article; that a more professional service is provided and staff can focus solely on their business because as Fiona Williams (soon to be CEO of the new Mutual) stated ‘…being a librarian means something: being an archivist means something.’

It’s such a great pity that York is still a rare entity instead of being the norm. Many library campaigners and librarians themselves have been wary of going down the Trust or Mutual route, and sometimes with justification.

However, the alternative is proving somewhat worse. For many still under local authority control the reality is dominated by the morale sapping grind of salami slicing the service year on year, with councils spinning a smokescreen of not closing libraries when in actuality what remains underneath the façade is a hollowed-out shell that bears little resemblance to an effective and comprehensive service.

In a national climate that is too often dominated by a lack of strategic vision, political tribalism, uninspired thinking, the deletion of professional posts, and blackmailing communities into running local libraries – often with a resultant fall in the level of service, it is good to see a truly, innovative model being advocated.

The York model shows that there is another way, a more positive way, and one in which the library staff themselves have a vested interest in the long term success of the organisation.

Opposition is the hardest word

There has, quite rightly, been suspicion and not a little outrage at an official government website that is actively promoting individuals and communities to take over libraries. Now, for those of us on the front line of public library cuts, this doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. However, what is causing consternation is that the government appear to be advocating volunteer led libraries not as a last resort but proactively as a viable, cost-effective alternative.

Cilip has expressed concern and sought clarification from the government and Ed Vaizey over the wording and implications involved, and called for the government to reiterate its commitment to statutory public library services.

Now, Cilip is absolutely right to be concerned and to raise this issue and I applaud them for doing so. However, the real question is what happens next? What will Council do when clarification is provided, or indeed if clarification is provided? Can we expect stronger opposition from our professional body over the whole issue of volunteer led libraries?

Rather than highlighting a weak policy backed by ineffectual advocacy Cilip should be developing a new strategy to actively address the issue of volunteer led libraries and the Government’s rush to impose them on communities regardless.

Opposition might be a difficult concept for Cilip to grasp (evidenced by the lack of willingness to proactively highlight the motion of no confidence in Ed Vaizey) but so far, the usual tactic of quiet, backroom diplomacy has failed spectacularly. For those of us in public libraries the diplomacy has been so quiet as to be deafeningly silent.

However, as any politician knows, while cooperation and conciliation are preferred, conflict and opposition are also useful tools in the arsenal.

Reforming Cilip

Since the merger of the LA and the IIS to form the rather insipid Cilip, the organisation has been on a downward spiral. Intent on transforming itself into some sort of generic Knowledge & Information (KIM) based organisation, it is now, unfortunately, neither one thing or another – neither fish nor fowl as the saying goes – much to the detriment of its membership.

This became abundantly apparent during the renaming debacle as the membership could not agree on a name that represented all the disparate elements Cilip claims to represent: libraries, information, knowledge. It spoke volumes about the proposed names that we voted to maintain the status quo and retain the rather dull and uninspiring title of Cilip.

Seeking to shed its library based heritage it has also shed members at an alarming rate, from 25,000 to 13,500. However, what is not clear is why? Currently, Cilip represent librarians by default in that there is no other professional body for us to join but as the organisation becomes more KIM based perhaps librarians no longer feel Cilip is the body to represent their views and concerns and therefore vote with their feet.

This in itself leads to a Catch-22 situation, where more librarians leave and Cilip is forced to look at other professional areas to bolster numbers, thus changing the nature of the organisation and making it less relevant to librarians, who then in turn leave!

So if Cilip can be reformed to appeal to librarians and draw them back into the fold (and that’s a very big ‘if’) what should it do? For a start, I suggest two areas:

  • A high profile and targeted recruitment drive towards librarians and library staff (within all areas: public, school, academic etc.) to increase membership numbers
  • More overt advocacy, again for all areas. After all it’s not just public libraries that face cuts.

That said, Cilips reaction to public library cuts has so far been inadequate at best, leaving it to individual members and campaigners to do their job for them. I’ve always thought that Cilip should have instigated and run something similar to the superb PLN site. The fact that it has been created and maintained by one librarian is testament to the dedication and passion of Ian Anstice but it also highlights how woefully inadequate Cilips own response has been.

There are of course other areas that need reforming including the relationship between the AGM and Council. However, that as they say, is a topic for another day.

Why Reading Matters

It’s been well attested how libraries can change lives for the better by supporting educational and work aspirations. Even, provide an escape for a short time, from the reality of poverty and social deprivation.

Therefore, it saddened me greatly to see the OECD report that stated young adults in England have scored among the lowest results in the industrialised world in literacy and numeracy tests . Not only that but younger people are actually falling behind the older generation in such skills.

Now I know that in many ways this reflects failings within the education system, perhaps even poor parenting, but it also highlights the huge role public libraries still have to play in providing literacy opportunities for children and young people.

This is further reinforced by the recent IOE report that shows reading for pleasure in children increases both literacy and numeracy skills.

Such a pity then that public libraries are in such crisis with many community libraries closing in areas of social deprivation, precisely the areas that need them the most.

As I saw recently on a library protester’s placard  ‘cut libraries and see wot happens’.

Cilip AGM 2013

Well the Cilip AGM is over and by Cilip’s standard it was a fairly contentious one including the much debated proposal to change the organisation’s name, a motion of no confidence in Ed Vaizey, and free membership for students as part of the subscriptions package (full details).

Name change: For those of us who were vociferous opponents of the name change it was a victory of sorts. There were plenty of comments against and few for. In fact none of Cilip Council who had previously defended the name change so staunchly actually spoke in its defence. Perhaps they realised the mood was very much against the proposal.

The actual vote was 644 ‘against’, 356 ‘for’, and 22 ‘abstained’. For me the saddest fact is that so many members failed to vote. In one of the most hotly debated and contentious professional issues for a long time only a small percentage (7% approx.) of the membership actually bothered to express an opinion. Membership engagement still remains a problem for Cilip and is one area that very much needs addressing.

That said, membership, like communication, is a two way process and requires both parties to meet in the middle so it would be unfair to blame the low participation totally on our professional body.

Vote of no confidence in Ed Vaizey: The minister was recently overheard to admit that actually he is indeed completely useless. I’m sure there are very few within the library world who would disagree with this self-assessment and indeed many would add a few more choice and rather more frank epithets to bolster the description!

Anyway the motion of no confidence was passed so thanks should go to Jo Richardson who proposed and spoke so ably for the motion and the inimitable Tom Roper – whose testimonial as the most dangerous man in British librarianship’ makes me smile every time I see it! – for seconding it. Well done to both of them.

669 members supported the motion, 200 were against, and 103 abstained (get off the fence will you!). Again, no one spoke in opposition so it’s difficult for me consider the rationale of those who voted against. Perhaps they considered such a move endangers Cilip’s relationship/engagement with the Minister or others such as the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group. However, such quiet and polite diplomacy has failed dramatically so far in relation to public libraries. Personally, I think a more confrontational style is needed.

My only criticism of the motion is that in many ways it didn’t go far enough merely instructing Council to “…work with all other interested parties to protect library, information and knowledge services.”

Given that some of the senior Council members actually voted against the motion I don’t think we will see any change in Cilip’s stance for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps those behind have more manoeuvres up their sleeve. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Free student membership: I changed my mind on the day and voted against the subscriptions package. It occurred to me that what students really need is for a professional body to be relevant rather than free. Cilip should be asking why so many LIS students consider the body so inconsequential that they don’t want to join.

My other reason for voting against is that as a librarian working in public libraries I don’t consider Cilip to be worth my current subscription let alone raising it to £200 per year. If the extra money was going to be devoted to more effective advocacy I might be convinced.

Others also argued that the fee structure is inherently unfair in that everyone earning over £17,500 has to pay the same flat rate. An argument I have a lot of sympathy for and would support the introduction of different bands (within reason).

So another year and another AGM over. Let’s hope that now the renaming debacle is over Cilip will focus more on providing the advocacy and leadership that the profession so desperately needs.