Bridging the Gap

I enjoyed attending the Speak Up for Libraries conference this year; meeting and talking to very passionate campaigners and library users about the importance of libraries. Nick Poole, Cilip CEO, started the conference off with a excellent welcome speech extolling the virtues and values of libraries, including welcoming David Cameron to the ranks of library campaigners after his intervention in Oxfordshire, to much laughter! More detailed notes of the conference can be found on Public Library News and the transcript of Nick’s speech on the Cilip website.

For many the main draw this year was the opportunity to listen to and question Paul Blantern and Kathy Settle of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. This was never going to be an easy ride for them and while not necessarily agreeing with all their views they mostly retained grace under fire from very understandably frustrated campaigners, with only the occasional flare up!

Paul Blantern had a prior engagement so arrived in the afternoon but credit to Kathy Settle who was around all day and took the opportunity to talk to many attendees.

Both Paul and Kathy made no disguise of the fact that the Taskforce is both limited in scope and influence and that they are a task and finish group. Given the time limited nature of such groups the emphasis of the Taskforce appears to be identifying trends in a national context, researching and sharing good practice (although that beggars the question who decides what good practice is?), and exploring potential alternative sources of funding that libraries can tap into. The other role of the group that Paul and Kathy were keen to reinforce was as a strong advocating voice to ministers and other national decision makers.

This is all very laudable but for some campaigners does not go far enough. The difficulty is one of expectation, with the Taskforce being perceived as having more influence and authority than it actually does. The most misleading misnomer is the use of the term ‘Leadership’ when in fact, at best, it’s more of a facilitating body. Able to talk to a wide variety of individuals, organisations and ministerial departments at both national and local level but without the ability to enforce adherence.

Given the limitations in both scope and power it is easy to argue that a genuine strategic leadership body is still very much lacking within public libraries nationally.

But then again this should not come as any surprise. William Sieghart’s report, despite claims to the contrary, was not actually that independent, as it’s difficult to reconcile the outcomes of the report with the feedback given by many individual campaigners and library bodies such as Cilip, ASCEL and the SCL.

Given the delay in publication and the amount of time sat in Ed Vaizey’s office many campaigners have long suspected  a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down recommendations that did not chime with government policy.

What we finally got was a report that recognised the challenges libraries faced but with solutions that were politically palatable to the current government. For example many submissions raised the issues of national library standards and the merging of library authorities. In its submission Cilip remarked:

“The focus on localism has been a barrier to the development of national standards that would support local delivery and identifying major economies of scale. The public library is a national brand and some elements of it can be delivered more effectively on a national scale.”

And:

“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.”

And yet both issues were noticeably absent in the report. Sieghart would have been well aware of these but either decided they would not be acceptable and dropped them as a matter of pragmatism or as a result of ministerial intervention.

Whether this was a pragmatic approach or political interference depends I suspect on your political outlook.

A similar conversation took place at the SUFL conference with the view from the Taskforce that neither issue would be acceptable to the LGA or ministers and incompatible with the trend towards greater localism and regional devolution.

Looking at the report Sieghart’s three main recommendations were:

  • The provision of a national digital resource for libraries, to be delivered in partnership with local authorities
  • The setting up of a task and finish force, led by local government, in partnership with other bodies involved in the library sector
  • The task force, to work with local authorities, to help them improve, revitalise and if necessary, change their local library service, while encouraging, appropriate to each library, increased community involvement

Right from the outset the Taskforce was always meant to be subservient to the views of government and particularly the LGA . So, far from being ‘independent’, the report actually outlined a framework for the continuation of government policy.

This is again made clear in the recommendations concerning the oversight of the Taskforce, which he recommended:

“…will jointly report to Ministers and the Local Government Association. This partnership will foster and promote a new and dynamic way of working for libraries.”

Thus, the Taskforce was never intended to be an independent voice for libraries but rather a vehicle by which ministers and the LGA could drive forward their own vision for libraries. The composition of the Taskforce reflects established interests with calls to include campaigners and unions falling on deaf ears, leaving the only potential dissenting voice on the group being Cilip. 

Is it any wonder that many campaigners are suspicious of the Taskforce’s motives and view it as little more than a smokescreen for enabling government policy regardless?

However, it would be wrong to disregard the Taskforce altogether. Paul Blantern made the point that without their intervention libraries would have one less tank in the armoury. They are able to make representation to government and the LGA that individuals cannot. Equally, both Paul and Kathy indicated that they were happy to talk to individual councils and advise on the pros and cons of the different options available such as the viability and sustainability of volunteer libraries.

Another interesting point raised was the how the Taskforce operates behind the scenes. Paul mentioned a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith regarding the vital role libraries play in developing digital skills for Universal Credit. He indicated that the Taskforce could encourage funding for libraries that deliver services which benefit the DWP.

This would certainly find favour with many services who struggle to cope with the rising demand from job seekers. However, the success of such an approach can only be judged by how quickly such funding becomes available, if at all.

This leaves campaigners in somewhat of a conundrum. They can ignore the Taskforce and continue with outright opposition to government policy in the hope that a eventual change in administration will result in a better deal for libraries. Or they can accept the limitations of the Taskforce, that it will never be the leadership body they would like, but work together where interests coincide.

Whatever happens bridges need to be built on both sides whilst recognising that there are major differences in ideology and attitudes. Perhaps one small start would be for campaigners not to attack Paul Blantern, in his role as Chair of the Taskforce, over changes made in Northamptonshire . It’s hard for a CEO not to be defensive about his own authority. In return, perhaps Paul could refrain from holding his own library service up as an exemplar in recognition that many campaigners disagree with the changes he has made.

There are at least three more years of austerity and five years of the current government left. Campaigners, the Taskforce, and all interested bodies and organisation must try to work together, where circumstances and interests coincide, to ensure that even if library services don’t thrive they do at least survive.

What shape those library services will take over the next few years I’ll leave for another post.

 

 

 

It’s Complicated!

I doubt that many people, when the coalition government came to power, could predict the precarious state that public libraries would find themselves in five years later, particularly in England. Obviously over that time local authorities have responded in unique – at least as far as libraries were concerned – and not always popular ways including establishing volunteer led libraries, reducing library networks through closures, and hollowing services out by cutting hours, budgets and staff.  A few have gone down the route of commissioning out, mainly in the form of not for profit trusts.

However, the situation has become so fluid that solutions which appeared robust even a couple of years ago are looking unstable in the current climate. This is not necessarily the fault of the managers involved. I admit that my own views have changed, driven by the fact that it is one thing to develop practical alternatives to mitigate a 10%-20% reduction in funding and another to design a service around 40%-50% cuts, with more to follow. Services are being contorted by the unremitting grind of austerity into misshapen delivery models that ill-match their purpose: from a shop front of ragbag, mismatched council services to financially brittle libraries dependent on the availability and philanthropy of the local community.

That said, it’s also undeniable that councils are under immense financial pressure as the setllement from central government is substantially reduced year on year. According to the LGA central government has cut the settlement to councils by 40% since 2010 with a further reduction by 2018. The current furore between David Cameron and the leader of Oxfordshire Council shows that even the most ardent tory councils have had enough.

No wonder some local authorities seek to transfer assets, co-locate services, and turn libraries into ‘community hubs’, whatever that phrase means.

However, such approaches do not lend themselves to genuine service development and the outcome is that library services become pale imitations of their former selves, far removed from the ideal of ‘comprehensive and efficient’, which is sacrificed on the altar of austerity economics.

Library staff, campaigners, and local communities are often faced with a difficult dilemma when threatened with library closures. The option of choice for most councils appears to be to off-load parts of the network individually to local community groups and volunteers. Another option is to hand over to a private company but thankfully there are few examples of this in the UK. The main one being Carillion, which appears to be an unmitigated disaster. That said, Self-service and Bibliotheca’s Open+ are being used as an excuse to replace staff altogether. This is not a criticism of such technology but it is being used increasingly not to enhance service development but merely to enable staffing cuts.

A pragmatic solution? Personally I prefer my libraries with the human touch.

Another option that fewer councils have adopted is the mutual/trust approach. Many campaigners rightly point out the pitfalls in taking such a path and the pros and cons are summed up on Public Library News.

The main concern about trusts seems to be that they are viewed as a backdoor to privatisation, lack accountability in the way they operate, not least regarding FoI, remove accountability out of the hands of elected representatives, and offer lower employment terms and conditions  for staff. I have great sympathy for some of these concerns particularly over withholding information under the guise of commercial confidentiality.

Data around trusts is also hard to come by so how successful they really are in comparison with a council run service is difficult to reliably quantify.

However, despite these qualms we should not just dismiss the trust approach. Now I have previously argued in favour of trusts, not because I believe they are the ideal solution, but because they offer a pragmatic option over fragmenting library networks by closure or handing over to volunteers. I’ve also never been entirely convinced that this undermines local accountability, mainly because it’s the elected representatives that have helped to create the current crisis. Ask campaigners in Sheffield, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Kirklees…in fact almost anywhere in the country how well local accountability is working!

Yes the ideal might be a fully funded and council run service but in the current political climate and a government ideologically opposed to properly funding public services this is a unrealistic expectation. Maybe circumstances will change in the future under a more sympathetic government but we have a long way to go before we get there. In the meantime we need to develop pragmatic interim solutions.

The latest authority to go down the trust route is Devon, with the adoption of a new identity as Libraries Unlimited South West, which Ian Anstice observed could imply ambitions beyond the Devon area. I’ve explored regional library trusts in previous posts comparing them to  NHS trusts and surmising that perhaps similar cross boundary cooperation could work well for libraries.

Often staff are supportive of the trust model as an alternative but prevented from pursuing this by council members who, for some unfathomable reason, prefer threatening to close libraries as a way of coercing communities into running them.

So if it genuinely comes down to a choice between the option to keep the network mostly intact and run mostly by paid staff and qualified librarians or face the fragmentation of services and handing over to volunteers I know which option I’d choose. In fact where a council is intent on off-loading a large proportion of its library network then campaigners should challenge the council to adopt a trust model.

However, as I say, it’s complicated, and for the foreseeable future likely to get more complicated still.

Community Tubs

8db82330006691b95ced0a718d83f9cbDespite Middlesbrough Council’s rush to rebrand libraries as community hubs Midshire Council has gone one better and teamed-up with a well-known DIY brand, BBQ Base, to launch the community library shed programme. As part of the scheme each library member will get a 10% discount card to use in-store.

Until now little light has been shone on the hitherto unknown issue of shed mountains. A bearded spokesperson for BBQ Base said that people often changed sheds each year due to new seasonal colours being available and more attractive tongue and groove models. “There’s plenty of life left in these poor sheds but people seem to want a different hue each year so the old one’s are abandoned and left out in the rain.”

Councillor Maureen Claim-More, Lead Member for Libraries, said the idea had occurred to her when visiting one of Tower Hamlets Idea Stores. “I was reading an article in Shed Monthly, on my tablet of course, about the problem and the idea just popped into my head. Now that wouldn’t have happened in a traditional library.”

The Save Libraries Right Now Campaign declared that this move would only continue the trend towards a two-tier library service. SLRN said its concern was that users in the most deprived areas would be offloaded with cheap overlapping rough sawn timber models, with more affluent areas being awarded the attractive shiplap cladding option.  Councillor Claim-More poo-pooed the objection and said it was spurious scare mongering but stated that volunteers would be needed to paint them. “After all we wouldn’t want them to fall out of fashion”.

She added that males were a falling library demographic but that men loved sheds so the programme would make libraries more attractive to men and drive up visitor numbers. The programme is also adopting the Open+ approach by removing the shed doors to provide access on demand 24/7.

She also confirmed that this is just the first phase of the programme, which if successful will herald the introduction of READING1community library tubs, with hot tubs being installed in the sheds, or summer houses for her own constituents.

Cilip warned that this might have an unfortunate detrimental effect on stock budgets as services struggled to replace water damaged stock. However, the SCL broadly welcomed the move saying “we agree with whatever the LGA say and regard this new and innovative project as part of the universal health offer.”

The Minister for Community Hubs & Amateurs, stated that despite being completely useless he welcomed the programme and would view any council that delivered library sheds and tubs as fulfilling their duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. He stated ” I have absolutely no idea what the 1964 Act entails but this seems perfectly fine to me.”

The Chair of the Taskforce tasked with following government policy on libraries noted the only thing that would improve the programme was it being delivered by a mutual or trust. The Arts Council meanwhile promised to fund Locality to produce a report which stated that what users really wanted was clean people to help them when they visited a library shed.

Paved with good intentions

love-librariansI’ve come across the phrase ‘volunteer librarian’ twice recently. Firstly from a newspaper article about a volunteer run library in Lincolnshire and secondly in a blog from a campaigner protesting cuts in Barnet and the establishment of volunteer libraries.

The sentiments from the latter post are to be admired as is the valuable work they do with their local school. I also endorse their end statement that “You wouldn’t want a volunteer teacher. So why would you want a volunteer librarian?”. And in fact most people don’t. What they want is paid and qualified staff delivering services.

The one unfortunate element of the above post is the authors claim to be a ‘volunteer librarian’ themselves, which rather undermines the whole argument. Now, this is not a personal attack but we need to be clear as to what constitutes a librarian, which is a theme I explored in a recent post ‘When is a librarian not a librarian?’ Put simply, if an individual doe not hold a recognised qualification in librarianship then they are most definitely not a librarian.

This is not to undermine the valuable contribution such library helpers make but just as being a classroom assistant, despite the important work they do, does not make you a ‘teacher’, volunteering in a library does not entitle the individual to the title of librarian. So within this context there is no such thing as a volunteer librarian. Librarianship is a highly skilled and qualified profession and one way of campaigners supporting librarians is to ensure the currency of the title is not debased.

This leads me on to the question of librarian volunteers. That is, qualified librarians who help in their local volunteer library. This is a difficult and divisive issue.

One such volunteer recently commented that:

I am a retired librarian running my local library with about 70 volunteers. A library with no links to the local community is now a local hub, with talks, clubs, many kids events and displays, trained volunteers, who have just won an award for the tiptop service they supply to the community. I love it , having always worked miles away I know so many local users and volunteers. Some libraries were great but not this one – we have together made it great. I am proud of this Community Library created by the local population. And Surrey regards us as one of their own they fully support their community libraries.

The intention is again well meaning. However, the involvement of a retired librarian has wider implications than that of ordinary volunteers because they, in my opinion, also have a duty towards the wider profession.

Unfortunately, the involvement of qualified librarians in volunteer run libraries:

  • Undermines the integrity of librarianship and enables the deprofessionalisation of the public library sector
  • Limits career opportunities of those still in or newly entering the profession
  • Gives a façade of respectability to council cuts
  • Supports the erroneous notion that volunteer services are as good as those run by paid staff

I’m sure the inclination to save a much loved local library is genuine. Nevertheless, I also feel that retired librarians who have enjoyed a rewarding career and the good fortune of paid employment should not support a system that denies the same opportunities to their fellow professionals.

Rather than enabling the degradation of library services and actively supplanting paid staff retired and ex-librarians should be in the vanguard of opposing such moves.

By undermining the sector such ‘librarians’ should forfeit the right to be part of a professional body that is fighting hard to preserve the professional integrity of the public library network nationally.