Access & Choice: the importance of libraries

The following guest post is from Barbara Band, immediate past President of Cilip and Head of Library & Resources at Emmbrook School in Wokingham with 1,200+ students aged 11 to 18 years. Barbara has been a school librarian for over 22 years and believes vehemently in the value of libraries. She was also the driving force behind the successful Mass Lobby in support of School Libraries.

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School librarians make a vital contribution in the school system towards teaching and learning, as well as helping children develop information skills and improve literacy, the subject of Barbara’s post.

In the fight to protect public libraries sometimes it is easy to forget that our colleagues in other areas; schools, FE, HE are also fighting their own battles against funding cuts. I would like to thank Barbara for reminding us of the vital importance of school libraries and the work they do in improving children’s life opportunities.

Further details of Cilip’s advocacy work for schools can be found here as well as the SHOUT ABOUT campaign

Access & Choice 

If you’re reading this blog then it’s fairly safe to assume that you are interested in libraries and also that you are aware of the sorry state of affairs regarding public libraries; the decimation of a service that used to be the envy of many other countries, the erosion of a vital community facility that provides value above and beyond its costs. You’re probably also aware that I’m a professional librarian and am passionate about the benefits of libraries to the whole community. I have always been an avid library user and still am, visiting my local library around three times a month for various reasons – and yes, I do have one and recognise that I’m luckier than many.

Much has been written about what libraries do – other than issue books – and about the value-added that professional librarians bring to the service so I’m not going to repeat that here. What I’d like to do is question how various current literacy initiatives do not recognise the role that libraries and librarians can have in their agenda.

For a developed country, the UK has appalling low literacy levels. One in five children aged 11 years cannot read at the expected level and this figure increases to one in three in disadvantaged areas. Children with low literacy levels will grow into adults with literacy problems, they do not just suddenly become able to read and understand text. This will impact on their job prospects, their health and well-being and, by default, have an economic impact that affects everyone.

The government recognises this is a problem and many organisations have set up initiatives to deal with it. The latest of these is the Read On Get On campaign to tackle early language and reading skills which seems eminently sensible; if a child does not develop a range of verbal skills then they are unlikely to learn to read well, and if they cannot read then they are unlikely to be able to write. There are many other initiatives and I am not going to list them here but what they all have in common is the failure to acknowledge the huge role libraries can play in improving literacy.

Early years’ language and reading skills are a good place to start but throwing everything at nurseries is not going to work because that precludes children who do not attend them, for whatever reason – and there are many that don’t. You also need to start earlier, when that child is a baby and listening to sounds. So where can all parents and children have exposure to professional expertise to help them develop these skills – maybe the public library could help? Many already run baby rhyme and story time sessions that are incredibly popular, it would be fairly easy to expand the programme to include a range of other relevant activities and reach the local community.

Teaching children how to read is one thing but if you want them to develop into higher level readers with the accompanying literacy skills then you need to engender a love of reading because then they will choose to read, rather than read because they have to. Reading programmes have their place but do not work with everyone.

Books in classrooms can help but it is unlikely that every classroom will have a wide enough range of both fiction and non-fiction books to appeal to every type of reader. And without a knowledgeable professional to select stock and guide children, you are likely to end up with a strange random collection. Some teachers may be aware of what is published but many of them are not, they are focused on their subject; for librarians, books and resources are our tools, regardless of the format, subject or level.

Access and choice – those are the key words when it comes to engendering a love of reading and improving literacy. Schools and communities without libraries have neither.

Barbara Band

 

Exciting operating models!

I came across the following tweet by Paul Blantern, Chair of the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, today (Wednesday 15th April 2015).

really great conference in Nottingham today looking at many of the exciting operating models that now exist libraries in England
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Among the many exciting operating models I presume are Lincolnshire, which is hell-bent on handing over 68% of libraries to volunteers despite a judicial review and the threat of a second. Sheffield, which has given over 46% of its libraries to volunteers, Coventry, which is suggesting reducing its libraries from 17 to 5, a decrease of 70%, and Staffordshire, which is proposing 50% of its libraries are run by community groups. To name but a few!

Then there’s the thousands of job losses, hundreds of library closures, the hollowing out effect, drastic reductions in funding, and the many consultations ignored by councils and the Government alike when the public expressly state they want a professionally run and managed service with paid staff.

If Paul Blantern views all of this as ‘exciting’ I dread to think what it would take for him to consider the library sector to be in crisis!

Libraries: think, act and vote small!

Save our libraryI watched the leadership debate last night and regardless of which candidate or party you support, and it’s unlikely the debate would have done anything to alter your view, the fact is mainstream politics in the UK is changing rapidly. The traditional, monolithic stranglehold of the two big parties is being slowly pried apart and most commentators agree that multi-party politics in Britain is here to stay.

Personally, I thought it was the three women in the debate, Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Natalie Bennett (Green Party), and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) that came out of it the best and all challenged the prevailing austerity myth of the Westminster parties. Well done to Natalie Bennett for mentioning libraries as being one of the public services being irrevocably damaged by the Coalition’s slavish commitment to austerity.

However, it’s surprising how many within the library world are put off as soon as the ‘P’ word is mentioned; and by that I mean politics. Any attempt to equate the fight for public libraries with the wider political situation is met with uncomfortable shuffling and muttering. Quickly followed by an attempt to turn the conversation back to ‘real’ library issues such as copyright, LMS suppliers, the theme for this year’s SRC, or the ongoing gripe about the cost of Cilip subs.

It’s as if, for some, libraries should be insulated and set apart from the grubby reality of every day politics and the sad truth is, as a profession, librarians are shockingly disengaged in the fight to protect services, relying instead on the public to fight our battles for us.

To me this is an extremely naive and myopic view. From local campaigns, legal challenges, judicial reviews, bitter infighting amongst councillors, the changing terminology of cuts, and even the composition of the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, politics imbues and influences everything libraries do. Libraries are a public service and as any politician or councillor will tell you, public services are political at both local and national level.

However, it would be wrong to say that no fightback has taken place during the past five years and advocacy work has been carried out by many dedicated individuals both within and outside the profession.

One of the biggest criticisms about library advocacy so far  is that even quite compelling evidence about the value of libraries has had little effect. The usual response is to blame the library sector for not advocating strongly enough but the real issue is that the arguments have been ignored because they run contrary to government policy and ideology (for an excellent blog on this see Libraries, Advocacy and Austerity).

The only sop to libraries from the Government has been the setting-up of the libraries task force.

Whether the task force will be a genuine agent of change or merely a cover for the continued enforcement of government policy remains to be seen. Certainly the rather narrow emphasis on digital services or commitment to supporting and extending volunteer run libraries does little to solve the deep rooted problems facing the sector.

It’s also hard not to be cynical over the recent £7.4 million budget announcement for wifi in libraries when set against the very real 30%-40% reduction in library budgets over the course of this parliament. Less cuts would have resulted in wifi already being available rather than having to be grateful for this rather paltry and obvious pre-election bribe.

What is clear is none of this will change under the mainstream parties.

So let me argue why the new multi-party politics is a good thing for libraries. It’s good because the smaller parties give library supporters and campaigners more chance to influence policy. Regardless of the rhetoric of Labour and the Conservatives a vote for the SNP, Plaid Cymru, or the Greens is not a wasted vote. Maybe this election, or maybe the next, but certainly at some point, one or more of these parties will be a power broker and a party that has a positive view of and genuine commitment to libraries will bring this influence to bear, hopefully pushing back some of the the damage that has already been done.

Thousands of library staff, campaigners and library supporters, as well as millions of everyday library users will be going to the polls on 7th May and while libraries might not be the deciding factor in who they vote for it might just well be ‘a’ factor in their decision.

The big parties offer no positive alternative for libraries but the small parties might. So in order to make a long-term difference to the future of public libraries now is the time to think, act and vote small.