Time to share?

Catch 22

In the drive towards savings in libraries the greatest losers have been paid staff and in many circumstances the axe has fallen heaviest on professionally qualified staff as, from a local authority’s point of view, these are the most expensive asset of the library service.

Equally, library assistants (or equivalent) have also suffered in the drive towards volunteers taking over smaller, local libraries, either outright or by replacing staff. Now this is not a criticism of volunteers per se, many communities are put in an unenviable position and step forward in order to prevent the withdrawal of a valuable and valued service.

It is unfortunately a catch-22 situation: by taking over the running of the library or by replacing paid staff volunteers enable authorities to claim the success of such ventures and thus risk the domino effect as more and more libraries are given over to the unpaid. Volunteer libraries beget volunteer libraries. But what would happen if communities refused to step forward and volunteer? Would the council still enact such widespread closures or would they fear the political backlash? It would be a very brave community that put this to the test and many are not prepared to play such brinkmanship for fear of losing the service.

So an unpalatable aspect of volunteer libraries is the exploitation of reluctant communities to take on resources they would prefer to be professionally run and staff being deprived of often cherished livelihoods within that same community. Not a situation that is acknowledged in the official spin surrounding so called ‘community libraries’.

Better than closure?

This leads me to a second observation regarding attitudes towards library closures. There have been a number of comments recently to the effect that a volunteer run library is better than a closed library. However, this is too simplistic a conclusion. For instance, closures can have a devastating impact in rural areas but the same cannot always be said for urban areas.

I realise this is a contentious point but large rural counties such as Lincolnshire and Devon with libraries in small rural communities with challenging transport links for example require a different strategy to that of a large urban area with relatively good transport. Strategic based closures can have a part to play in order to protect the integrity and quality of the overall service but this is dependent on many local factors. Therefore, a blanket generalisation that a volunteer library must automatically be better than closure is a logical fallacy.

Equally, the automatic acceptance of volunteer libraries over closures also discourages investigating and challenging councils to consider other alternatives, such as charitable trusts and shared services. A point raised by the judge in the recent judicial review for Lincolnshire libraries. A more contentious alternative is challenging senior officer and chief executive pay, increased allowances for councillors, or the reduction of services in the face of massive underspends and reserves.

Shared services

One alternative that appears to receive almost brick-wall indifference or outright opposition is that of councils sharing library services. Although some very limited moves have been made in this area such schemes are few and far between.
I have referred to shared library services in past posts and also highlighted that many within the profession would like to see a merging of library authorities. Recently the New Local Government Network (NLGN) stated that “Councils should find alternative ways to sustain local arts and culture… (and) should now look to share services such as libraries and theatres as funding cuts are handed down to local cultural sites.”

While not underestimating the difficulties involved there is definitely potential in the shared services approach for libraries (for further information see PLN – Efficiencies: Sharing services). For instance, integrating operational arrangements e.g. stock units and management systems, or merging libraries that are geographically close to each but in  in different authorities. Larger authorities could increasingly deliver services for a smaller services such as Essex and Slough, or staffing structures between neighbouring services could be shared.

Equally, regional library trusts could potentially deliver economies of scale, have access to different funding streams (including direct fund raising), and provide non-traditional services to fund the core offer. Locality have just produced a report outlining possible areas of income generation for public libraries, with some excellent examples and intriguing suggestions.

However, sharing library services seems to be the exception rather than the norm. Equally, it also looks like the idea of library mergers will be missing from Sieghart’s final report if recent comments are anything to go by, which seems to me both a great pity and missed opportunity.

Better than indifference!

The debate over Cilip’s governance seems to have generated a fair bit of discussion, point and counter-point, and unfortunately the occasional personal attack and name calling. On a positive note most of this is healthy and democratic and highlights how strongly members feel about the future direction of Cilip. Best that members disagree and generate discussion rather than no one shows any interest at all.

Tom Roper’s blog has several (so far) posts about the governance review and I would urge people to read the comments section with counter-arguments being made by Martyn Wade, Barbara Band, and Phil Bradley among others, as well as comments in support of Tom’s own viewpoint.

Barbara Band has written a spirited defence of the review on her blog. It’s a genuine, heartfelt post with lots to agree with, although, again, it’s worth reading the comments section as not everyone is in favour.

There are many comments on JISCMail, although I do feel some of the comments aimed at Frances Hendrix have been rather harsh and seem little more than personal attacks. Perhaps we all need to remember that professional courtesy goes a long way and that it is the idea that should be attacked, not the individual.

There are comments on the LinkedIn Cilip group section and I am sure that I have missed lots on Twitter about the issue.

The details about the CILIP Big Day and AGM 2014 is online, with a rather interesting programme outlined. And it would be good if this issue meant a big turnout of members on the day. In fact perhaps Cilip needs to consider a contentious issue each year to encourage a large turn out!

It looks like this debate has a long way to go yet, with more to be written and said before it comes down to the vote. To me this is a good thing, as it shows an interest and regard by members for what their professional body is doing. After all, surely the worst feedback is indifference.

 

Governance review: response from Martyn Wade

The following response was received from Martyn Wade, Chair of Cilip Council, to my request for details of the of the professional bodies that Cilip had investigated as part of the governance review.

My thanks to Martyn for providing the information and for allowing it to be shared. This will enable members to review and decide if the bodies mentioned provide the sort of model and structure that Cilip should emulate, with the caveats that Martyn has outlined.

I would also like to say that despite reservations over the proposals I absolutely appreciate the hard work that has gone into the project by both paid officers and elected members.

However, now is the time for the membership to review, discuss, and if necessary amend, the proposals put forward. This should not be viewed as a criticism of the of the hard work already done but as a natural part of the democratic process to ensure healthy debate within a membership organisation.

Hi Leon

Thanks for your email.

CILIP is a member of the Professional Associations Research Network which provided a useful source of information on structures in other professional bodies. After examining a range of models two bodies with similarities to CILIP – the Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (IOSH), and the Museums Association were looked at in more detail. Both use appointed members successfully, although their appointment processes they use have been adapted for the proposals for CILIP.

IOSH operate a model that involved a nominations committee filling most Board and committee roles which they were very positive about. The Project Board did not recommend this model to Council as they felt that members would still wish to elect the majority of trustees, but should have the opportunity to appoint some (a minority) to allow for recruitment of skills and experience that might not be available after the elections process (assessed through the board skills matrix).

The Museums Association work on a system of electing eight trustees and then identifying gaps and approaching appropriate people to bring skills or representation of an interest area to the board. The Project Board did not consider that this process was transparent enough and that a proper application process would need to be in place to demonstrate openness in recruiting appointed members.

CILIP also of course looked at what is normal practice for charities of our size, which is generally to appoint all trustees by interview.

You might also be interested in the positive response from the Privy Council which has to approve the charters of all Chartered bodies:

“Overall Privy Council Advisors felt the proposals put forward by CILIP to amend their governance structure appeared practical and also appeared to refine the governance structure and provided improved clarity. The introduction of a smaller Board of Trustees, to replace a larger Council, was felt to be appropriate. The proposals for the Board to be chaired by a President elected from among its own members was also considered appropriate, as were the proposals regarding the election of the Vice-President and the Treasurer.”

There is also an issue about having two-tiers of trustees. All trustees of a charity have equal legal responsibility for the running of the organisation. The governance proposals do not allow appointed members to be Chair (unlike co-opted trustees in the current arrangements) and the Board quorum requires there to be a majority of elected trustees present. To prevent appointed trustees from voting for their own Chair would be an additional, and severe, limitation on their decision making ability when they retain the full liability.

I hope that this clarifies things for you, and I am happy for you to share this reply.

Best wishes, Martyn

Elected!

I’ve written before about the Cilip Governance Review (Fit for the future? & Chairman of the Board), which will be debated and voted on at this year’s AGM in September. Cilip Council met recently (8th July) to discuss the proposals and comments from the membership. The minutes and comments can been seen here.

It seems a number of reservations have been expressed regarding several areas of the review but overall there doesn’t seem to be that much opposition to the proposals from the wider membership, certainly not in the way that the name change last year generated opposition. Whether this amounts to approval of the suggested changes or just simple indifference is difficult to tell. Maybe librarians are more concerned about pay and conditions than the esoteric maneuverings of their professional body. Certainly there are a lot less of us nowadays in public libraries to be worried about Cilip’s shenanigans.

That said, I still believe that this is an important issue that will see Cilip being less democratic in principle than before, particularly in relation to co-opted members being given voting rights to elect the president.

The issue took on a new twist with the resignation of Tom Roper from Cilip Council who has also expressed concerns about the review and in the way Council conducts itself. Tom is considered a leading light in the library sector and has challenged Cilip over issues previously, particularly the vote of no confidence in Ed Vaizey, but whether Tom’s exit will rock the boat enough to knock the review off course remains to be seen.

There are some very sensible suggestions in the review and in the main I support more of the proposals than I don’t. However, the recommendations form a single package so it seems a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater to vote against them. And perhaps that is what Cilip Council is hoping for to get the plan through without too much resistance. Then again, perhaps some members will feel strongly enough about the issue to submit amendments to the proposals.

What would be interesting to know is what other professional bodies Cilip looked at and considered to reflect good practice. If they could highlight how the model has been successfully achieved elsewhere without undermining the fundamental link between the membership and leadership it might go a long way to allaying mine, and I suspect other members, fears. Comments from Cilip Councillors welcome.

One way or another the issue will either fizzle out due to members having more pressing concerns, such as trying to hang onto their jobs, or it could be an interesting few months of infighting similar to what we saw last year.

Given the potential for conflict and the fact that the keynote speaker is William Sieghart who’s recent comments about the future of libraries didn’t exactly garnish overwhelming approval it could be an interesting AGM once again this year.

I very much look forward to it!

The insidious phrase!

One size does not fit all

Along with ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA), one other phrases that has gained in popularity when discussing changes to libraries is that one size does not fit all, usually followed by a reduction in the level of service! In the debate over library provision it has become one of the main declarations by both politicians and councillors to justify libraries leaving local authority control.

The phrase was used recently by William Sieghart when commenting on his report into the future of libraries. Whether the comments indicate a pragmatic approach towards libraries or one of political expediency – that is, taking us down the path the DCMS and ACE wish us to follow anyway – remains to be seen. Sieghart is still consulting so perhaps the final report will deliver more than his comments indicate.

As a profession, librarians have known for a long time that one size does not fit all, and in practice there has always been different levels of service and provision depending on library size, usage, and locality. What was common however was the effort to uphold standards and ensure all communities received a basic level of service regardless of location. In this sense one size did fit all. It was a concerted effort to provide and uphold the quality of service, particularly around the now defunct national standards

Unfortunately, the phrase has come to mean something more insidious: as an excuse to undermine professionally run and managed services and to justify off-loading libraries to community groups. It seems rather ironic that despite being told one size does not fit all there appears a fairly standard, uniform response by local authorities, which is to hand over libraries to volunteers. In classic doublethink terms community groups are apparently the one size that fits all!

Rather than involving the community to genuinely tailor and improve services – which is easily done through focus groups, friends groups, and volunteers in added value roles for instance – the phrase is now used to cloak cuts and pressure communities into taking on libraries regardless of local opinion or capacity. This was highlighted tellingly in a comment by Liz Waterland Chairwoman of The Friends of Deeping Library in April this year:

‘May I correct an impression that readers may have gained, following your news item about Nick Worth’s opinions on library closures. The word ‘volunteers’ is only correct in so far as we are unpaid and are preparing to run a Community Library should we have to. We haven’t volunteered to run a library; we are being forced to do so because Lincolnshire County Council have threatened us with the closure of our popular and well used facility if we don’t. We will do our very best to step in if we have to but we would much rather that our library stayed open as the professionally run, properly staffed and funded community asset that it is at present. Neither alternative, of closure or community take over, is of our choice; we are being forced into this position because we are not willing to see the end of our library in The Deepings. The Friends of Deeping Library have been told we must ‘do it or die’ – the choice between them is NOT voluntary!’

Localism

The idea that one size does not fit all has in part been driven by the principle of localism. The rationale being that councils and communities have a greater say in how funding is allocated and spent locally. However, as the comment above highlights local opinion is often over-ridden in the drive to deliver savings.

While many aspects of localism are praiseworthy, in practice it has been used to justify deep cuts to relatively small areas of council spending. A point noted by the chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association recently:

‘The cuts are falling disproportionately on leisure, libraries, culture, art, transport…and environmental health. The smaller services…Some of those smaller services will no longer be viable. You cannot continuously improve a service that you’ve cut by 40%. It’s just a logical fallacy. We need to think very carefully about the future of some of these smaller services.’

Such cuts are set to continue and the LGA warned yet again that:

‘In spite of cuts, local authorities will continue to try and protect spending on adult social care next year as much as possible, which could be at the expense of popular services like buses, libraries and leisure centres.’

So given that large parts of council budgets include social services or protected priority areas the actual pot that local communities can influence is relatively small.

Professionalism

The attitude underlying the phrase, and indeed the localism agenda itself, appears to be a rejection of professionalism in the mistaken belief that it is more important for services to be community rather than expertly run. This certainly seems to be the case for libraries (many would also argue that the same view applies to free schools).

One point in favour is that it allegedly gives local communities more influence in local service delivery. But having a say in library services and running them are completely different. The first is a genuine impulse to involve and thus improve services, the second to cut costs and operate with unpaid labour, with the lessening of expertise and quality this entails.

Despite the spin about engaging communities and given them a greater say ultimately it is about savings and as such it is disingenuous to claim that services can be improved in the face of severe budget cuts and reduced professional input.

Equality

The one size does not fit all approach also undermines the progressive impulse of libraries towards alleviating inequality in terms of learning, health, social wellbeing, and digital inclusion, amongst others. The continuing drive towards community managed libraries risks the creation of a two-tier service that exacerbates rather than alleviates inequality.

There is also a misguided belief that communities possess either individuals or groups with the capacity and resilience to deliver local services. Recently, a group of volunteers in Lincolnshire resigned en masse in response to the increasing and unrealistic demands made upon them by the local council.

Unfortunately, the slogan has now become a superficial excuse to impose inferior levels of provision on communities. It is an approach that also favours higher level socio-economic groups and disadvantages socially deprived areas.

Localism vs regionalism?

Localism is also counterproductive to wider approaches such as the universal offers, the desire to reintroduce national standards, and a more strategic approach to libraries that we see in Northern Ireland and Wales. Greater interoperability between local authorities was one of the main points made by both campaigners and organisations in submissions to Seighart. For instance, Cilip argued that:

In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient…there are lessons that could be learnt from the rest of the UK.

In Northern Ireland, five former Education and Library Boards have become one new authority, the Northern Ireland Library Authority (NILA) operating outside Government. The economies of scale achieved have helped NILA deal more effectively with the reductions in funding it has faced recently.

In Wales there are now also serious proposals to reduce the current twenty two local authorities by about half to improve the cost efficiency of service delivery.”

From his comments Sieghart seems to have rejected this proposition. While I think it is unlikely that the national approach we see in Northern Ireland would genuinely work in England there is no reason why reducing the number of library authorities and operating on a regional basis would not be effective.

Certainly, greater regional autonomy and power was the basis of Lord Heseltine’s No stone unturned: in pursuit of growth report, and a similar approach advocated recently by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. However, it is difficult to envisage how such a regional approach could work without first removing responsibility from individual local authorities and amending the 1964 Act.

Words matter

Terminology matters. In the battle of ideology over library services, words and phrases dictate the underlying philosophy and attitudes towards current and future provision. The over-use of trite phrases such as one size does not fit all risks rendering quite complex arguments into meaningless sound-bites and souring genuine dialogue between councils and campaigners over very real budgetary constraints and challenges.

Sometimes one size does indeed not fit all but equally when it comes to quality and standards, sometimes it can. In contrast, localism is creating only fragmentation, inequality, and a hodge-podge of inferior library provision.

Reply from the Liberal Democrats

The following reply was received from John Leech MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport.

Dear Leon,

Thank you for your email about public libraries.

Libraries are on the whole a DCLG responsibility but I will nevertheless do my best to answer your questions from a DCMS perspective.

Firstly, I can assure you that we support the principle of local authorities providing library access. Libraries are a vital resource in any community. Currently there is a worrying trend of local authorities shutting local libraries at the same time as spending money on other things that constituents might think are lower priority (i.e. things which are not front line services). I wish to see this trend reversed.

I do support creation of community volunteer managed libraries as a last resort in the event of the closure of a local authority funded library. This happened recently in Burnage, in my constituency, where the local council chose to close the local library against the wishes of local people, despite the fact that the annual cost was only £43000. I believe that a volunteer run library is better than no library at all, though I would not like to see this to become the norm. The expectation should be that local libraries are funding by local authorities and run by paid staff.

With regard to your question about the quality of volunteer staff, I believe that some volunteers will provide the same quality of service as paid staff while others will not. The level of training that volunteers receive is key to the service that they can offer.

My final thought on this is that local authorities ought to be protecting front line services including libraries if they truly wish to serve the needs of the local community.

Best wishes,

John Leech MP
Member of Parliament for Manchester Withington