The ‘Amateurisation’ of Public Libraries

The 2015 CILIP AGM takes place on Thursday 24 September at CILIP Headquarters and unlike previous years is a fairly low key affair estimated to take just over two hours. As usual I would urge all those members who cannot attend to at least use their proxy votes.

The two areas that have grabbed my attention are the proposal by Andy Richardson and Anna Brynolf (below) and the, as usual, ever increasing subscription rates. The unnecessary increase in subs is something I argued against last year but it seems that Cilip is determined to treat members as milch cows despite the job losses and limit on public sector pay. This is a matter I will return to in a future post.

Well done to Andy and Anna for submitting the following proposal and saying what many within the profession think. The phrase ‘amateurisation of the Public Library services’ sums up the current situation succinctly and encapsulates in a single word the reductions, hollowing out, deprofessionalisation, and handing over to volunteers. Amateurisation indeed!

The wording of the proposal is:

“That CILIP actively oppose those public authorities and senior library staff over the “amateurisation” of the Public Library service by offering library buildings and contents to be run by the local community with little or no funding for professional or paid library staff. This is resulting in public libraries being run by volunteer staff and taking away work currently done by paid professional and library assistant staff. All current public library service points manned by paid local authority library staff should be the current base-line – and where such actions are suggested by the local authority and senior library staff, CILIP should support the opposition to such proposals and say so publicly.”

 

Vol stats

The loss of staff and increase in volunteers is starkly illustrated in this graph from the Guardian.

Recently Cilip has raised its profile around advocating for libraries and Nick Poole has done a round of radio and TV interviews talking about library closures. However, I still think Cilip’s approach is too softly-softly so will be supporting the proposal and urging Cilip to be more adversarial in its opposition to the removal of paid staff.

This proposal transitions interestingly into the announcement that Jan Parry, President of Cilip, has been appointed to lead a task-force charged with working out how Liverpool’s libraries will be funded from 2017 onwards. From one perspective this is a positive move to involve those who actually know about libraries, from another it could be seen as glossing over the relinquishing of 5 libraries to volunteers and the loss of paid staff.

So this is a precarious position for Cilip. Any move to find a solution which involves volunteer libraries will be met with outrage from members and campaigners alike and will run contrary to the above proposal if passed.

Cilip has released a statement in support of the work Jan has been asked to do. Unfortunately, it is couched in terms that immediately gives rise for concern and suspicion in that it is similar to the vague terminology and management-speak that seeks to disguise reductions to service and removal of staff.

Cilip needs to clarify in plain English whether or not this will mean supporting, even indirectly, volunteer run libraries. It would be reassuring if Cilip were to offer a base-line affirmation, along the lines of the SLIC recommendation, that volunteer run libraries without paid professional staff are not the preferred option.

There is a basic financial imperative for Cilip in all of this. It is paid staff, not volunteers, that pay subscriptions and without employment they are unable to do so. So less employment for members means less members for Cilip. Simple really!

Addendum

Interesting comment from librariesmatter:

Just a thought …..if CILIP had wider membership then perhaps it wouldn’t need to raise subscription rates and it wouldn’t be seen so much as a narrow professional body merely protecting its members interests.

For example the American Library Association provides personal membership to Library Friends, Trustees and Associates. CILIP for some reason doesn’t embrace such people.

 

 

 

What is comprehensive & efficient?

Providing a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ is considered the touchstone of library provision and a constant refrain during campaigns to save libraries from closure. The notion is enshrined in law through the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and until 2010 there was little reason to fully discuss, let alone define, what this actually meant. After all, we all knew what it meant, right! In the best progressive tradition libraries were not only considered a good thing by their very existence but de facto ‘efficient & comprehensive’ became synonymous with expansion: more libraries, more staff, more resources to cater for a growing population and expanding towns and cities.

Only twice has a government felt compelled to conduct a formal public inquiry into local authorities plans for library closures: once in Derbyshire in 1991, and more significantly in the Wirral in 2009. Unfortunately, such intervention was short-lived as were the lessons learned.

The election of 2010 and the introduction of an austerity driven coalition government resulted in a rude awakening for the library sector including the abolition of the MLA and the Advisory Council on Libraries. Faced with large scale reductions, deprofessionalisation, and the steadfast non-intervention by the Minister of State for Culture – who for decades it was thought would always intercede for the benefit of libraries – the great cornerstone of library protection turned out to be more fiction than fact.

The difficulty is that no one is able to define what comprehensive and efficient actually means, at least not to the extent that meets general consensus and acceptance. For some the term is associated with an extensive network of physical buildings and paid staff, while to others the term is equally applicable to few service points but with reliance on technology such as RFID, 24/7 online services, wifi, and mobile apps for libraries.

Some authorities consider volunteer libraries to form part of their statutory provision and thus retain the characteristics of a comprehensive service, while many campaigners would take issue with this approach. Because the term is not defined in the 1964 Act it is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

Even during judicial reviews the courts have refused to get drawn into the quagmire of a legal definition, concentrating instead on the technical aspects of the consultation process.The MLA had produced a checklist for local authorities to use but again this has more to do with the process rather than defining terms or meaning.

Thus, the concept has failed so ‘comprehensively’ (pun intended) that Herefordshire Council can now seriously suggest reducing library provision down to a single main library, with the remaining taken over by volunteers or being self-service only.

So the question becomes that if the notion is no longer fit for purpose does it need replacing and if so what with? I realise this will be a contentious and in some quarters heretical suggestion but to continue with a principle that has become so outdated and impractical allows others to control the narrative to the disadvantage of meaningful library provision.

In my submission to the Sieghart Review I suggested that a set of core principles and values should be established similar to that which underpins the NHS. These principles should be regulated nationally but with scope for local interpretation.

For example, principles for the public library service might include:

  • Free access and membership for all  
  • Provision of and access to information in appropriate formats e.g. online resources
  • Access to books in all formats
  • Provision of a community space – for individual study, lifelong learning, workshops, and changing expectations e.g. maker spaces/hack spaces
  • Access to economic wellbeing opportunities – recognising the economic roles of libraries e.g. providing access to employment and benefits information, facilities for job hunting, re-skilling, and innovative approaches such as business hubs and enterprising libraries

The Voices for the Library manifesto is similar in advocating for a defined level of service including paid staff and professional librarians.

Such core principles should be overseen by an independent body that recognises the specific opportunities and remit of public libraries, enables evidence based research, sets standard, shares best practice, and provides advice to the relevant government departments and Minister for Culture. Perhaps along the lines of the Scottish Library & Information Council.

The term ‘comprehensive’ and efficient’ is no longer helpful and is inadequate to capture the changing nature of library provision. It lacks definition, is relative, and in many instances unquantifiable and could more usefully be replaced with a set of core principles and values as outlined above.

The principles and values should be based on continuing free access to literacy, learning and information and underpin the social value and instrumental role libraries play in creating a literate and educated population.

Addendum

A detailed account of the now defunct library standards and relation to the 1964 Act can be found on Public Library News: Public Library Standards in England.

In a twitter conversation with Nick Poole, CEO of Cilip, he quite rightly points out that standards and regulation are needed to underpin the principle of ‘comprehensive and efficient’. I totally agree and the NHS principles & values I highlighted are obviously underpinned by standards & regulation.

Nick also points out that industry standards might prove useful. Again I agree and look forward to Cilip developing some as well as stating what its view of ‘comprehensive & efficient’ is. After all, if the professional body for librarians is unable to define the term what hope has anyone got!

Situation in Wales (from Alyson Tyler)

Wales is a lot smaller than England, but your readers might be interested in the Welsh Public Library Standards, which have been in operation since 2002. Frameworks run on a three year cycle. The current framework has 18 core entitlements which sound much like your principles and values, and also 16 quality indicators, some of which have targets, some of which can be benchmarked, and some of which are impact measures. No system is perfect and not everyone agrees on everything of course. http://gov.wales/topics/cultureandsport/museums-archives-libraries/libraries/standards/?lang=en

Where does it go from here?

Well, despite the best of intentions to write more widely about politics I have actually found, after numerous aborted attempts, that the only area I really enjoy blogging about is libraries. So with that in mind Leon’s Library Blog is once again up and running.

I still firmly believe that the fight for public services is the fight the libraries. The genuine despondency felt by many staff struggling to deliver public services is summed up in a heart-felt letter by Corinna Edwards-Colledge, a Brighton and Hove Council Officer. In it she accuses David Cameron of deliberate contempt for council workers, outlines the devastating cuts to public services, and the negative impact on local communities.

Libraries are part and parcel of the struggle to deliver meaningful services to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities: from the housebound, to the job seeker who cannot afford internet access, and the families who are unable to buy books to effect the many positive benefits that reading for pleasure brings.

In fact the ‘reading for pleasure’ element of libraries has been poorly regarded and often disparaged by politicians. However, a recent report, The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, by the Reading Agency demonstrates the real, tangible benefits of reading for pleasure. As such, the loaning of books, in all formats, should remain a mainstay of library provision. An excellent blog by Dawn Finch outlines the main aspects of the report and why reading for pleasure is so important.

We are faced with 5 more years of ideologically driven austerity, the dismantling of public services, and the almost certain continuing reduction and fragmentation of public libraries. So the fight continues and I have decided to return to my musings mainly on the political and campaigning aspects of the ever changing library landscape (and yes, you can accuse me of doing a ‘Farage’ like u-turn!).

I cling to the hope that despite the changes to come we can continue to articulate a vision for public libraries, that while perhaps being a long way from the reality of current provision, nevertheless should be the ideal we aspire to, and which we will one day hopefully achieve.