Papering Over The Cracks

After a bit of light hearted satire I welcome the Taskforce’s aim to establish a communications sub-group to promote more positive news around libraries and what they do. Specifically:

“The role of the group is to co-ordinate communications activity across the sector with a view to shifting the narrative on public libraries from one that is primarily focused on cuts, to one that shows a more balanced view.”

In the current environment of grinding public sector cuts any news about the value of libraries is to be supported. Although whether or not that ‘shows a more balanced view’ is open to debate. While welcoming the initiative I would argue that the real balance is tempering good news with the reality of the cuts. The danger otherwise is to simply present stories out of context and promote the view that despite the funding crisis ‘all is well’ and ‘aren’t library staff a wonderful bunch for carrying on’.

Such a ‘rose tinted’ approach would do the public library sector a disservice as we know from bitter experience that Ed Vaizey is a master of using rose-tinted stories to justify his own inaction around library closures.

Libraries do indeed accomplish wonderful things and quite rightly celebrate them: the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, Summer Reading Challenge, Reading Ahead, and National Libraries Day, amongst many other programmes, not to mention all the wonderful regional and local initiatives. All of which are feted and promoted by the SCL, Cilip, ASCEL, Reading Agency, Arts Council, and libraries up and down the country.

The issue therefore becomes how will the establishment of a communications sub-group improve the message, or the understanding of the political paymasters, when years of the above bodies doing so hasn’t?

Even reports highlighting the societal, health, and economic benefits of libraries have so far failed to improve the narrative or protect funding for libraries. The information is out there but falling on ears deafened by the overwhelming roar of austerity and the pressure of providing adult social care.

David Lankes made a similar argument for the profession to take control of the narrative while at the same time recognising:

“… that budget cuts have been so deep, the political lack of understanding of public libraries so disconnected from the reality and, yes, the lack of leadership (structurally at least) so dysfunctional that to blame librarians for the failure to change into 3D community workshop engineering hi-tech wunderkinds is a bit much.  But that’s the challenge, my friends.  We need to convince the politicians that libraries are relevant to their goals and the public that libraries are places to be cherished (and not just with placards).  This may be very hard with some public-service hating anti-professional and deeply ideological politicians but there are other people out there and even the most dyed in the wool reactionary is not demonic.”

This is a legitimate argument and one the Taskforce is taking on board. But it’s not just about changing the narrative, such communication needs to underpin concrete action and improvement.

However, a positive narrative around libraries is going to be difficult to achieve when the reality is so grim. Even the BBC, which is represented on the Taskforce, have highlighted the extent of the cuts, including:

• 343 libraries closed, 207 of them buildings, 132 mobile and four “other”
• 232 transferred, 174 to community groups and 58 outsourced
• 111 proposed for closure over the next year

The media coverage is to be welcomed as an opportunity to celebrate what is important about libraries and counter the misleading data over closures. Certainly, the BBC’s research and analysis is to be more trusted that Ed Vaizey’s notorious use of desk research to compile misleading data, despite having the full resources of the DCMS at hand. The Guardian newspaper has stated that libraries are facing the greatest crisis in their history.

So it becomes a difficult chronicle to challenge while at the same time treading the fine line between government dogma re: localism and devolution, and the expectations of the profession and campaigners.

Highlighting good news stories and ‘golden moments’ while important is unlikely to produce an epiphany regarding the value of libraries within government circles.

Libraries do need positive stories, positive reinforcement about their value, and the Taskforce are right to take this on. The dichotomy however is that such stories during a period of deep cuts and widespread cynicism regarding government policy on libraries could lead to a disconnect from the reality of the crisis and the accusation of misplaced Pollyannaism.

Or to put it another way; it’s one thing to want to change the décor but it’s another to merely paper over the cracks.

What I Didn’t Know Then!

I wrote a post recently about the SCL not supporting the My Library By Right Campaign. I think it’s fair to say that my irritation and pique came through more strongly than perhaps intended. It appeared at the time to be a failure by the SCL to show what I considered to be fairly simple support for the profession, Cilip, and the incredibly important aim to encourage the DCMS to provide statutory guidance regarding the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act.

However, I am always ready to admit when either I have made a wrong assumption. So here’s some things I didn’t know then about the SCL that I do know now – and many thanks to the SCL members who have spoken to me about the matter:

  1. The SCL has no constitution: this was technically correct but only in so far that the SCL is incorporated as a company limited by guarantee and governed by Articles of Association.
  2. No individual membership fees: this was correct. Individual members are not required to pay membership fees but the local authority pays fees on the Head of Service (HoS) behalf.
  3. Consultation mechanisms: Members are able to effect policy through the regional groups, which are then taken to SCL Executive by regional representatives. The Executive has quite a lot of authority under the articles and are able to make decisions on behalf of the membership. Thus, it was the Executive that felt unable to support My Library By Right (January 2016 minutes refer – under AOB). The annual conference is also another opportunity to discuss and influence SCL decisions and direction of travel.
  4. Equally, members, like many membership organisations such as Cilip and ASCEL,  give freely of their time to ensure the running of the organisation.

That said, it’s a great pity that such information had to be conveyed verbally or the relevant documents sent. As a body made up of information professionals such information should be readily and publically available. SCL has to bear some responsibility for failing to do so.

I also refer back to another post in which the SCL indicated that they did not consider themselves a campaigning body, or as HoS, many of which are in politically restricted posts, able to overtly criticise central or local government policy. The consensus appears to be that they consider themselves more of a ‘development agency’ for libraries and as such can accomplish more for the profession as part of the Libraries Taskforce.

In the post I also recognised that the SCL has over the years promoted good practice, encouraged senior librarians to support each other and work together on a regional and national basis, and has been responsible for the Universal Offers. The Universal Offers are in my opinion one of the best schemes that libraries have undertaken. And for this the SCL should be given full credit.

Speaking to SCL members there also seems to be an acknowledgement that communication via the website could be improved and governance made more transparent. I welcome this move and hope it can be accomplished sooner rather than later. Perhaps a quick win would be publishing details of the upcoming conference.

Now all of this does not necessarily mean I agree with the SCL over its stance. To my untrained legal eye there is nothing in the Articles that would prevent them showing support – which is not the same as campaigning – for issues that affect their members as well as the wider profession. This includes support for statutory guidance around the 1964 Act, establishing a national strategy for England, and adopting a range of national standards. After all, in this, England is out of step with the rest of the UK so precedents have already been set.

However, while it is perfectly acceptable to disagree I broke my own rule about keeping such discourse courteous and professional.

That said, the SCL only represents the interest and opinions of 151 members so I maintain that it lacks the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the wider profession and that having fees paid for by the local authority compromises the independence of the SCL.

 

The Whole Story..?

image_galleryLove them or loath them ‘community libraries’ are an uncomfortable fact of life. I have great respect for volunteers that complement library services and paid staff, and libraries have a long history of working with volunteers, contributing as they do time, energy and additional skills. But since 2010 ‘volunteer led’ libraries have become ubiquitous and many authorities have them in one form or another.

A recent post on the Libraries Taskforce blog: Meeting the teams in community run libraries discusses work towards the development of a good practice toolkit for such libraries.

What comes through from the post is that many of the groups prefer core support from the parent library service and being connected to the wider library network. Such support can include oversight from paid staff, buildings and maintenance costs being met, and provision of stock and IT. This version of the model centres on volunteers replacing paid staff, and the subsequent budget savings this brings, but with the running costs being met by the local authority. Volunteers also support the library by fund raising activities to a greater or lesser degree. How much this genuinely meets the overall costs will differ from library to library, even ones within relatively short distances of each other.

However, while the posts goes as far as recognising the contentious nature of the issue and states that no endorsement of the volunteer model is implied I do find it unbalanced in tone and the emphasis is very much on the strengths and successes of the volunteer model.

This would be acceptable if recognition was also given to the pitfalls inherent in the system as a counter-point. Certainly any informed advice from the Taskforce needs to balance the pro and cons in a realistic narrative, if only to avoid the accusation of bias towards the government’s localism agenda.

For instance, despite all the wonderful work being done at Manchester Central Library, volunteer libraries in the area are struggling, with visitor numbers and opening hours falling dramatically. The challenges are nothing new and in both 2013 & 2014 a frustrated volunteer library manager vented her concerns to Public Library News about the reality of running a community library.

The situation is no doubt complex. Some volunteer libraries are thriving, some surviving with support from the parent service, and others barely managing to stay open. What we lack is data. Data to know how many volunteer libraries there are, what their experience is, and how we measure their success through standardised metrics. Will they be judged on visitor numbers, loans, events, or merely keeping the doors open?

So in the interest of balance and telling the whole story the Taskforce should highlight not just why community libraries succeed but also why and how they fail.

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Correction:

I incorrectly linked a fall in usage in Wirral libraries to community libraries being run by volunteers. It’s been pointed out that the Wirral has no volunteer led libraries and the fall was due to a reduction in opening hours last year.

It’s a unfortunate sign of the times that the term ‘community library’ has become almost synonymous with them being volunteer led that I made the wrong assumption. I’ve removed the reference in the above post and apologise to Wirral Library Service for the error.