Much ado about nothing…the Sieghart report

Well it’s finally here, the Independent Library Report for England, and as expected it caused frenetic activity and reaction on social media. Despite being published on the same day as the local government settlement for 2015-16 and the day before Parliament broke up for recess, the report still managed to garnish plenty of media coverage. I listened to Sieghart and Mark Taylor (Cilip) being interviewed on Radio 4 on my drive into work.

Other coverage included the BBC’s ‘libraries must emulate coffee shops’, an editorial in the Independent Romantic fiction: A review of libraries that fails to address the real problem, which the Bookseller thought was wrong and rejoined with Sieghart: on the money. Cilip regarded the report as offering a ‘convincing road map‘ albeit with some reservations. The Library Campaign also welcomed the report although considered it ‘pallid’ in places (the comment by Shirley Burnham and reply from Laura Swaffield are also worth noting).

Lauren Smith makes some telling observations on her blog and no doubt the report will continue to be digested and debated on social media for weeks and months to come. So a very mixed bag and wide spectrum of opinions with more to follow.

The report contained some important positives particularly around improved IT e.g. universal Wifi, supporting digital literacy, e-lending, and improving standards of service and the physical estate. All very sensible but equally quite costly, and there’s the rub; there was no mention of where the finance to accomplish this was to come from.

Another sensible, at least at face value, suggestion was the creation of a national task force to lead on the recommendations of the report. While sound in principle the execution however leaves much to be desired with the task force consisting of the same organisations and bodies that have so far failed to provide the strategic leadership needed in the sector. Unfortunately, it’s a case of the usual suspects with the man tasked (excuse the pun) with leading the group, Paul Blantern, having very definite and preconceived notions on how libraries should operate.

There is much more within the report to analyse and it is perhaps more nuanced that it first appears. It is a topic I will be returning to time and again especially as the outcomes of the report become more apparent. That said I have to admit that my initial response is one of disappointment. This was perhaps the best opportunity for a long time to create a serious and realistic narrative around libraries. Unfortunately, it appears to be more of a superficial short story than a deep, meaningful novel, defined more by what it didn’t say than what it did.

Pushing the boundaries

There was an interesting news story regarding the Met Police Commissioner’s comments that forces in England and Wales should merge and share resources with other police authorities or emergency services as a way of saving money and operating more effectively in the face of stringent cuts (Scotland has already adopted the approach and have a single merged service).

Now this is not just a salient reminder that even police forces are under pressure from the austerity measures but raises the issue once again of how public services should respond effectively to ever decreasing funding.

There is a lesson for library services here. In the rush to cut costs by reducing staff, service points, hours, stock funds, and introducing volunteers the one idea that has failed to gain ground with politicians is the idea of regional, rather than county/unitary, library services. However, there are many advantages to doing so including the sharing of expertise, back office functions, and merging staffing structures to achieve economies of scale.

I made a similar point in my own submission to Sieghart stating that we should seek to reduce the number of library authorities and merge services across local authority boundaries, either building on existing regional structures or creating new ones. This is nothing new and many within the profession including Cilip have made similar suggestions.

I have also argued for this approach in a previous post but unfortunately the idea continues to receive indifference at best and outright opposition at worse. Which highlights once again how local political expediency triumphs over innovation for delivering services.

I admit to finding it perplexing that more is not done in terms of merging libraries in different authorities that are geographically close, or larger library authorities delivering services for smaller ones such as Essex and Slough. Unfortunately, sharing library services is still the exception rather than the norm.

What’s not in doubt though is the spending commitments of the three mainstream political parties. The desire to protect funding for the NHS and education, as well as the rising cost of adult social care, will leave the rest of us scrabbling around for a smaller share of an ever decreasing budget.

The sharing of services across boundaries and different political affiliations might currently be unpalatable for many councils but in the not too distant future it may well become a financial necessity .

Dysfunctional and devalued

I’ve been quiet on the blogging front lately during which time there seems to have been a never ending stream of negative news about public library provision, either threatened closures or handing over to volunteers. Even in Wales, where in the main they have sought to protect library services, there is definitely a sea change driven by the continuing austerity measures and major reductions in funding. This was further reinforced by the details of the Autumn statement and the massive cuts to public spending that are being forecast. Given such projections it’s difficult not to be despondent about the future of public libraries at the moment.

This brings me to Sieghart, who appears to have finished his report and it is now with Ed Vaizey, no doubt glaring accusingly from a ministerial in-tray. If early indications are anything to go by it will make uncomfortable reading for the Minister as it seems to be the antithesis of his own approach and at odds with the expectations of localism and the big society. I suspect there will be a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down those areas which make the current coalition’s approach to libraries look as bad as they genuinely are.

It also comes as no surprise that Sieghart has described the current system as dysfunctional. Many campaigners and those within the profession have been pointing out the same for a long time now. But it’s good that Sieghart appears to be so forthright and honest over the situation. It appears that the notion of standards, a national coordinating body, views about volunteers, and if earlier indications are anything to go by, libraries as trusts might also form part of the document. There’s a good piece about the awaited report by Guy Daines on the Cilip website.

Ian Anstice recently reported back from Spain, where there appears to be a general acceptance that libraries are more than just buildings and stock. There is apparently a third ingredient that makes libraries a ‘service’ rather than just a ‘function’. Yes, you’ve guessed it…the librarian! It is the professional element that allows us to manage and develop services, deliver on the universal offers, and contribute to the many local, regional, and national initiatives. This is in direct contrast to the view that any Tom, Dick or Harriet can run a library.

No wonder professional staff abroad are appalled at the changes and damage being done not just to individual services but to the profession as a whole in the UK.

Perhaps even more than closures the real damage is through the hollowing out effect while trumpeting that no libraries have been closed. This is one of the biggest divergences between the library profession and politicians. On one hand the profession points out quite rightly that libraries are more than just buildings and stock, that service quality and development also counts, and for that you need professionally qualified librarians. On the other is the politicians view that any unqualified, well meaning amateur…well, see above.

Equally, library services are increasingly being used as a shop front for council services, which is indicative of the narrow view of libraries as just buildings and thus an outlet for other services, rather than as a unique and valuable service within their own right. I am not against partnership working or authentic collaborations but restructuring and integration at this level are ‘cuts’ driven and have very little to do with improving operational efficiency or the strategic development of libraries.

Unfortunately, there appears to be another insidious thread worming its way into public libraries, which is the downgrading and disappearance of senior library roles. In my experience it seems that the role of Chief Librarian/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.

Another worrying aspect is the deletion of HoS posts, with the resulting loss of substantial professional experience and knowledge, and the replacement (usually at a higher grade) by generic managers with little or no familiarity of the sector.

I am still idealistic enough (perhaps naively so!) to believe that it is the professional component that makes libraries a genuine service rather than merely a function. Whether this is a view shared by the Sieghart report we shall have to wait and see.