Public & Mobiles Library Group Survey

I have to admit to being perplexed when I read some of the findings of the recent PMLG survey (Cilip Update, April 2014, p.24) First, congratulations to the PMLG committee, they acknowledged the effects of the cuts and closures on members, produced a good survey, and asked clearly about the sort of advocacy work the group (and by extension, Cilip) should be concerned with.

Thus, the results are both surprising and not a little disappointing. Apparently, more members in the survey “…ranked generic advocacy higher than targeted campaigning and political lobbying. In fact, campaigning against cuts and library closures was given a low ranking by the majority of respondents, with almost 50 cent assigning the lowest rank to campaigning against all cuts.”

And yet inversely, 92% of respondents “…agreed with the statement that ‘the impact of reduced budgets, service reductions and closures are the key issues that concern me’.”

64% ranked “‘advocacy for the generic value/benefits of a public library service’ as the top activity they would expect to see from CILIP and PMLG. This suggests bigger-picture thinking – library staff would rather that their professional body fight for the future of all libraries by reinforcing awareness of the importance of library services.”

Not sure I agree with the assertion that advocacy for the generic value indicates bigger-picture thinking. General advocacy (which has gone on for as long as I’ve been in the profession), and specific advocacy e.g. against reductions and closures, are not mutually exclusive and should go hand-in-hand. Equally, perhaps recognising that reductions to budgets will happen regardless or that strategic closures can sometimes be a good thing, many might have thought it unrealistic to be against ‘all cuts’.

However, that aside, there does appear to be an attitudinal conundrum here.

The statement that library staff “…would rather that their professional body fight for the future of all libraries by reinforcing awareness of the importance of library services” appears rather surprising. Surely if we don’t campaign against large scale closures and reductions there won’t be much of a professional service left to advocate for.

What’s startling is that after four years of such advocacy, highlighting the value of libraries extensively, not least through Cilip and SCL, and websites such as Voices for the Library, that colleagues still think this approach actually works when set against the politics of austerity, neo-liberal ideology, and the avowed intention of the government to shrink the state. When even an award winning service like Devon is targeted with substantial cuts you have to wonder at the political naiveté of such a stance.

I wonder how public campaigners will respond when they see the results of this survey. I suspect there will be many ‘head in hands’ moments and a lot of disappointment as it seems that library staff, while professing to be concerned about cuts and closures, appear as a profession to want to do little about it, or even worse, leave it to the public to campaign on our behalf.

Unfortunately, perhaps the fact that one of our greatest strengths as a profession; the willingness to cooperate and share, to be team players, has left us unable to cope in more adversarial conditions.

If anyone can explain the discrepancy in attitude or perhaps any inconsistency in the methodology used I would be more than happy to hear from them.

Good for Goodman?

Like many others, I welcome the fact that Helen Goodman, Shadow Minister for Culture, has joined campaigners in Lincolnshire in calling for a rethink on the Council’s threat of widespread closures or handing over libraries to volunteers. Such support for the library community is always welcome.

However, perhaps we need to view her words with a slightly jaundiced eye and healthy dose of realism. According to the press release:

“Labour is committed to avoiding a postcode lottery; maintaining a core professional service; and modernising and strengthening the role of libraries in the knowledge economy.”

Well, the obvious question becomes what exactly constitutes a ‘core professional service’? For many politicians a small group of professionally managed libraries overseeing or working in partnership with a wide circle of ‘volunteer libraries’ is considered a core service.

Is this what the Shadow Minister means? Perhaps she can elucidate.

Two other points to bear in mind:

Who decides when there is no other alternative? Many councils would argue that due to cuts in central government funding this is the situation they have reached already.

  • During a campaigner meeting with the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group (20/11/13), Helen Goodman agreed that “…volunteers running libraries in “small villages” was acceptable.”

So does that mean the Shadow Minister agrees with the elements of Lincolnshire’s plan regarding volunteers running libraries in villages?

In principle there is no difference to volunteers running a library in a ‘small’ village and volunteers running a ‘small’ library in an urban area. The fact is both Labour policy and the Minister’s own views support the use of volunteers. (the section has been reworded from the original posting)

Lastly, Labour has already stated that it will keep to the current government’s spending cuts so don’t expect any increases in grants to councils, which in turn will see reduced funding to library services continue.

Other comments on the Shadow Minister’s trip can be seen at: Public Library News and Question Everything

Community libraries (part two): creating space

This is the second of three postings discussing the issue of Community Managed Libraries (CMLs). In the first I discussed why such libraries are not the solution for the long-term future of library services. In this post I explore what I think we should aspire to instead, and in the third how professional library services can engage and develop a relationship between the two.

Unfortunately, the debate around libraries usually starts with the TINA approach (there is no alternative), is driven solely by financial pressures, and tends to offer only two solutions: closure or handing over libraries to volunteers.

There is however a very simple, third alternative and one that builds on existing knowledge and good practice. My own view is that what communities need are community spaces and not CMLs. It is the resource not the provision that should lie at the heart of the consultation. Such spaces, be it a village hall or community centre, are already run by groups and organisations throughout the country in both urban and rural areas. But this simple idea is lost in the battle over closures.

As part of the debate we need to reimagine buildings as genuine community spaces. This is in direct contrast to the current model of establishing CMLs and trying to fit community needs around the limitations. Many small, community based libraries have limited capacity and do not lend themselves easily to the widest range of social activities and services while operating as a library.  As a model it benefits few, except perhaps for councillors who can claim that they have kept the library ‘open’.

Some consider there to be little difference between the two models but I would argue that there are distinct practical differences that affects the approach taken with and by communities, and which make a material difference to how services are delivered and financed.

The conventional argument for creating CMLs is that the alternative would be closure but this ‘better than nothing’ attitude does more damage in the long-term to both communities and library services (see part one). The situation arises because consultations regarding the continuation – or discontinuation – of services are premised by the flawed assumption that it is the library element of provision that is paramount. Given the often confrontational nature of the debate that follows this view is further entrenched as each side seeks to impose their view on the other. However, between these polarised view points community space offers a different and positive alternative to consider.

A recent BBC article highlighted the types of social activities that take place in libraries and how popular they are. This included breastfeeding groups, yoga classes, knitting groups, a laughter workshop, and health walks, amongst many other examples.

Dr Louise Cook makes the point that “…it has become abundantly clear just how pivotal to some people’s existence libraries are. For the lonely in society, the library is somewhere they can go and sit and just be amongst people.”

In the same article a volunteer at the Derwent Valley Bridge Library and Resource Centre, states “We are definitely open to new ideas, we just want to be important in terms of the local community, we want to be a meeting place.” The fact that the building is regarded as a resource and meeting place is very much the salient point.

The article perfectly illustrates an expectation that libraries increasingly function as social space. What it also signals is that it is the space and not necessarily the library that is most important element.

Increasingly the indications are that the most successful and sustainable CMLs are those that have diversified into functional spaces and provide social and community activities such as film nights, skills training, cafes, meeting rooms, art activities, room hire, IT access and training, local history events etc.

But we should seek to go even further than this. A genuine community space  should be multi-purpose, able to deliver a wide range of services and activities, is easily accessed, responsive to local needs, and most importantly is the focal point of the community. From this space the community can develop strong relationships with other groups and bodies, be the base for outreach, and signpost to local services, including council services (for an excellent description of community hubs see the Octopus communities website).

And it is this model; the continuation of the building as a resource rather than as a library, that should be offered as an option to communities. The real debate should not be about closing libraries but rather about opening community hubs. Only then can a rational debate be had regarding the continuation or form of library provision.

For some communities the creation of a self-sustaining book swap might enough, for others links with library outreach events and/or training might be more appropriate. In some circumstances the level of library provision could be negotiated on a commissioned basis. Lastly, in order to ensure the quality of service to the wider community at county or borough level, some strategic assessment based closures might be necessary.

Financially, there is also a strong argument that funding for such community projects should come from those departments that are responsible for developing resilient communities and delivering the localism agenda – rather than using ever decreasing library funding – until hubs are financially self-sustaining and or run as a social business. This approach would also alleviate the hollowing out effect.

To my mind the notion of a community managed library (for the purpose of clarity I have added the word ‘managed’ to the term since the original post) is defunct and what we should aim for instead is the creation of genuine community spaces, ones that are not shackled by preconceived limitations or attitudes.

Clearly, this would lead to a natural contraction of library services. However, I believe there is an overwhelming argument that in order to ensure quality of provision and facilities we need to accept that a certain amount of contraction of physical assets is both necessary and desirable. This approach, which I shall discuss in my next post, is based on protecting the overall worth of the service for the widest customer base, and to me is very much preferable to the alternatives.

Community Libraries (part one): what’s in a name?

The Sieghart review has once again highlighted the ongoing debate as to what constitutes a ‘community library’ and the value and effectiveness of such entities.

And herein lies the problem: there is no accepted definition of a community library and it means different things to different people. Until the current austerity programme the term usually referred to a library that was part of a particular community or denoted size/level to distinguish it from larger counterparts.

However, this view has been undermined and now tends to denote one that is ‘community managed’, an approach that is strongly promoted by the DCMS and by extension ACE. So to begin with we need a clear explanation of the term to ensure a shared understanding and frame of reference to enable an informed debate around the topic.

Community libraries tend to fall into two main categories: Community Managed and Community Led. That is, a library which is either run by a voluntary group outside of local authority control or one that is operated by volunteers with a lesser or greater degree of support from the local authority.

Many individual campaigners and library bodies have already highlighted the inherent weakness in both approaches not least the growth of a two-tier library service and lack of quality assurance in terms of standards and provision.

My own view is that even the term community library is a misnomer and as a concept has no place in a modern library service. Like others I believe that there is little evidence that such libraries are financially viable outside of local authority control, have robust governance frameworks, will attract the necessary long-term community support, or are credible in delivering a library service, not just comparable to paid staff, but also to justify them being part of a comprehensive and efficient service.

In response to this it is often argued that community libraries should not be compared to those with paid staff, often by local authorities themselves, which seems to suggest that councillors are happy to foist a second class service onto their own communities. Personally I think communities deserve better.

My main criticism of such libraries is that they displace funding from the parent library authority, often having the detrimental effect of hollowing out services. That is, in order to fund and maintain them resources are taken from elsewhere through the reduction of paid staff, stock budgets, opening hours, and the de-professionalisation of the service. This hollowing out effect is far more damaging to the principle of comprehensiveness and efficiency than any strategic, assessment based library closures.

Equally, the amount of staff time and resources devoted to developing and maintaining community libraries, training volunteers, and providing ongoing support far outweigh the benefits and generates hidden costs that are very rarely acknowledged by local authorities.

This is not to exclude community groups or volunteers. Libraries have a long history of community engagement and volunteer involvement. However, the best models reflect a genuine partnership of community focused, not community managed or led, libraries, with volunteers operating in value added or complementary roles.

Community libraries are based on a flawed ideological notion (the big society), reflect poor business practice, and are driven by austerity measures rather than a strategic vision for the genuine improvement of library services. This leads to many councils retaining assets such as poor quality buildings and providing a second-rate service for reasons of political expediency while inflicting damaging reductions elsewhere within the professional service.

Ultimately, community libraries are a distraction, taking up valuable time and resources, when more creative long-term solutions exist.