How High?

Although hardly surprising the statement from the SCL refusing to support the My Library By Right campaign is nevertheless galling to say the least. In fact the statement is incredibly disappointing to those wanting the SCL to show more leadership over library cuts:

“As the leaders and managers of library services across the country, the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) is committed to delivering library services which have real impact on local communities.

We developed the Universal Offers for Public Libraries – with partners like The Reading Agency – to enable the continued development of strong unifying core services, reflective of what people want from their library.

As a body largely comprising representation from local authorities, SCL recognises that it is for individuals and their local authorities to provide local responses to the My Library By Right campaign.

For its part, SCL continues its work on an ambitious programme of innovation to further develop and embed the Universal Offers; supporting our workforce to deliver vibrant library services; building national and local partnerships that enable library services to contribute to relevant policy agenda, particularly those around economic development and health and wellbeing and contributing to the evolution of the Libraries Taskforce.

SCL welcomes the opportunity to grow its relationship with CILIP, recognising the potential benefits for communities in working together to develop sustainable library services, delivered by an engaged and well supported library workforce.”

What this statement ignores is that as a body the SCL makes agreements and builds partnerships without expecting members to respond as individuals. So why should this issue be any different?

SCL have often claimed that as an apolitical organisation they have to remain neutral. Perhaps there are some who take such words at face value. However, despite such protestations, it’s difficult to see how they differ from the vision set out for libraries by the government and by extension the LGA, ACE and Libraries Taskforce: volunteer libraries, community hubs, trusts (which I support), and commercial partnerships (despite the quite dubious ethics of companies like Barclays), are all part and parcel of the SCL approach. What appears to be lacking, is any challenge by the SCL as to whether this is the right path for public libraries, rather than just following the political diktak of the day.

Sometimes it’s difficult to find out how the SCL operates. Their Twitter account states that it is a local government association made up of the senior librarian of each library authority. So it’s obvious where SCL’s inclinations lie. It appears the LGA says jump, the SCL asks ‘how high?’.

The claim to be apolitical would be more believable if it wasn’t for the fact that their actions support a pro-government agenda.

Ian Anstice has observed that the SCL amounts to a voluntary organisation of hundreds of equal members. Unfortunately, it seems that some are more equal than others with the Executive Committee apparently making all the decisions, without the need to refer back to the regions or individual members. By that I mean the decision not to support MLBR was taken by the Executive only. Surely such an important decision should have at least been referred back to members, even by a quick email vote.

Despite claiming to represent the views of members SCL has few aspects of a membership organisation. Yes the committee officers are elected but other than that it has no constitution, process for joining (other than being HoS), individual membership fees, or mechanisms whereby members are genuinely consulted and decisions made by consensus. It appears members are not able to put forward motions or to make binding policy.

The details of the annual conference are very low key, without any details on the SCL website. In fact members are only notified by email. Such lack of openness is totally at odds with the transparency of Cilip conferences and groups such as Speak Up for Libraries. Perhaps, this is done to stay under the radar of campaigners or because the programme reveals how integrated with the status quo the SCL is.

It appears the SCL is far from apolitical but is very much part of the establishment. No doubt this year Ed Vaizey, will be an honoured guest yet again! With SCL committee members clamouring to share a photo-opportunity with the minister.

An interesting item is that the Taskforce will be seeking feedback on its proposed ‘Ambition for Libraries’. It will be interesting to see the outline of such ambition. Whether or not it will be a genuine analysis of the current library crisis with robust solutions remains to be seen. Unfortunately, I suspect it will merely be a continuation of current government policy given dubious respectability by carrying SCL approval.

If you want more details of the conference don’t go to the SCL website as there aren’t any there! Although, if enough people ask they might just publish something.

While it must be recognised that the SCL does carry out some important work in the sector, the Universal Offers being a case in point, this in no way compensates for the damage done to the profession by their continuing support for policies designed to fragment and debase the public library network and devalue the work of paid staff.

They might be the ‘leaders’ of public libraries in a technical sense as individual HoS but as a body the SCL lacks the legitimacy to claim to represent the aspirations of the wider profession and workforce.

 

 

Sometimes I Get So Angry..!

There’s no one theme to this post but observations about several issues. First and foremost is the lack of traction on the My Library By Right Campaign, an area I promised to explore further in my last post. The lack of signatures is very saddening and led to an outburst from Cilip ex-president Phil Bradley on his blog entitled ‘Really angry…’

I share his frustration with the apparent apathy out there. At the time of Phil’s blog there had only been 6,000 signatures, which has now increased to just over 9,000. This is embarrassingly low. There are 13,000 Cilip members so at the very least there should be 13,000 signatures. The fact there is not speaks volumes for the stronger together approach of Cilip representing different sectors. The number of signatures also doesn’t reflect all the library campaigns and individual campaigners out there. If everyone opposing closures at a local level signed the petition it would make a huge difference.

So here’s some things that everyone can do:

  • Sign the petition (no brainer)
  • Share not just once but repeatedly on social media
  • Ask family and friends to sign
  • If allowed share in the workplace and ask colleagues to sign
  • Some workplaces will not allow such open campaigning so talk to colleagues individually and ask to sign. At the end of the day this is a professional issue and you have every right to discuss it
  • Have the campaign poster or Cilip Update (Dec/jan 2015/16) prominently displayed in your office or at your workstation to help generate discussion and show your support
  • For the more adventurous campaign publicly and ask people to sign. Give out leaflets and engage with the public. Certainly this could be driven by Cilip groups regionally and equally by campaigners as part of local campaigners.

I’m sure there’s lots more so please share suggestions on social media.

Ultimately, as it states on the Cilip website, this is about holding “…the Government to account for these legal duties, including working with the Secretary of State to provide a clear and meaningful statement of the characteristics of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service for Local Authorities to follow.” And surely no campaigner or Cilip member can disagree with that?

This leads me on to the SCL and the apparent lack of support from them, with no obvious statement, or link from the SCL website, acknowledging the campaign. Phil Bradley tweeted the SCL about the matter to which I replied, only partly tongue in cheek, to give them time as they needed to ask permission from the LGA first!

SCL’s status as firmly in the camp of the establishment rather than representing the best interests of the profession are surely beyond doubt. There is certainly a distinct lack of openness, transparency and accountability about the body. So here’s a simple challenge to the SCL: contact all the members and ask if there should be link to the My Library By Right campaign on the SCL website. Show the profession that there is at least some inkling of democracy about the organisation.

Thinking of the SCL I am rather surprised that amongst all the Cilip groups there is not one for senior staff and heads of service. I assume historically they have relied on the SCL to represents such interests. However, perhaps now is the time for Cilip to consider establishing an alternative that is not so bound to the vested interests of the LGA and is obviously more democratic and accountable to members and the wider profession.

Lastly, I return to a number of tweets I posted recently inspired by an exchange I had with someone locally regarding libraries and book swaps. Unfortunately, there are many out there who regard book swaps and volunteer libraries as a viable alternative to properly funded and staffed library services. My argument is that it’s not enough for libraries just to be open, you have to give people a reason to come through the doors in the first place.

This means providing services, activities, and facilities developed and delivered by a knowledgeable and dedicated workforce, underpinned by targeted marketing and outreach. Every successful business and organisation knows this.

Without such knowledge and dedication passive service provision will ultimately fail.  Libraries need to be dynamic places delivering and evolving services for the good of the community. This requires professional knowledge and experience, a trained workforce, and adequate funding

It’s also why book swaps will never be libraries and volunteers will never be librarians.

Winning Hearts and Minds

It’s a new year but the same old battle continues. The battle that started five years ago and the coalition government’s introduction of the austerity agenda. Less public services and less libraries. However, the initial rush to closure quickly ran into trouble and the government was genuinely surprised at the strength of opposition, particularly those politicians who couldn’t see out of their rose tinted digital glasses: everything was available online and digital was the future. Whereas libraries were an anachronism, old fashioned, had had their day? Except they hadn’t and plenty of people were on hand to point that out. With placards, demonstrations and judicial reviews if necessary.

The Government and councils were quick to get the message and unfortunately closures quickly morphed into two more insidious strands that hid the true picture from the wider public: hollowing out and volunteer led. Both approaches causing just as much damage to the national public library sector but far more difficult to challenge and fight. Libraries, more than any other service, became the poster child for the Big Society.

In the early days many within the profession saw a opportunity to modernise the service, make it more flexible, more entrepreneurial, with more public engagement. After all weren’t we here to serve our communities? So greater involvement could only be a good thing. Public services, including libraries, had become too directive: doing onto communities rather than working with them. Thus, the inclination to change and involve communities was genuine.

Unfortunately, very few could imagine the scale of change to come, could envisage that by 2020 the core grant from government would no longer exist. This is all part of the governments push to greater regional devolution, with alleged spending powers to match. Some bodies, such as CIPFA and LGA, have welcomed greater financial autonomy for regions seeing it as a way of decentralising control from Westminster. This is to be a brave new world of local self-determination.

Despite the claim that retention of local taxes and business rates will support local services, in practice there are still huge gaps in funding. This has led to many councils becoming commissioning bodies, rather than directly delivering services, in order to survive financially. Nevertheless, this is raising some serious questions regarding the lack of legal protection contracting out gives to service users. It also means that universal and some statutory services, such as libraries, losing out badly.

The professional bodies were slow to act to the rate of change. Both Cilip and the SCL have to accept responsibility for wanting to continue with a more conciliatory and collaborative approach in the hope of retaining influence despite the very obvious negative impact on the profession.

The abolition of the MLA with oversight being transferred to ACE made matters worse, with libraries being shoehorned into an arts-centric model they were ill-equipped to deliver. Equally, ACE were determined to deliver a prototype of libraries that fitted the government agenda, frequently commissioning Locality to inflate the voluntary sector’s ability to run them.

Both Cilip and SCL continued to drive forward valuable initiatives such as the Universal Offers, growing the Summer Reading Challenge, copyright, digital, and e-lending. These are all important areas that require professional input and partnership working but by ignoring the political consequences of austerity and the impact on the profession such  initiatives were merely papering over the schisms and strains appearing in the sector. Between 2009 – 2014 Cilip lost over 4,000 members through job losses and those leaving the body out of sheer frustration with perceived political inactivity.

Something had to give and fortunately with both the appointment of a new CEO and pressure from members Cilip has now taken a more oppositional stance to the government agenda. This has included taking legal advice regarding the Secretary of State responsibilities to libraries and the launch of the My Library By Right Campaign. I shall return to the campaign in a future post but encourage every library campaigner, user, paid staff, and Cilip member to get behind the campaign regardless of the slight misgivings some have raised (and for goodness sake sign the bloody petition!).

The SCL continue with a more conservative and conciliatory stance, preferring to work in tandem with the LGA and the  Libraries Task Force. This has led to accusations of merely helping to bring about government policy rather than standing up for the best interests of the sector.

The difficulty when discussing the SCL is the sheer opaqueness of how it operates and the lack of any clear decision making mechanisms such as how it seeks feedback and consensus from members over controversial decisions. In fact do members get to actually vote on issues at all? While it appears to derive authority from high level partnership working with the LGA, the Reading Agency, etc. it also appears to lack any democratic processes, and thus lack a mandate, to genuinely claim to speak on behalf of the wider profession.

Campaigners have led the fight against library closures. However, campaigns have been piecemeal and lacking genuine national focus. So the biggest challenge for campaigners is to articulate an alternative narrative but accepting that, while major differences exist, it needs to include an element of compromise with vested groups such as the LGA and taskforce.

If the sector has failed to produce the national strategic leadership required then campaigning groups have also failed to fill the void sufficiently.  This is not a criticism but a recognition that opposition in itself is not enough.

What is needed is one body, or campaign group, speaking with one voice, with a vision for libraries and a realistic roadmap of how to achieve it. The individual elements already exist but bringing it together into a unified narrative to challenge the government’s account is for me the single most important issue for 2016.

I started the post by referring to the fight for libraries as a battle but rather than rely on a coercive approach, through funding and ideology, as the government is doing we must instead concentrate on winning hearts and minds across the political spectrum as well as amongst the general public. To do this we need a very clear, positive, and realistic vision for libraries.