Review of Public Libraries 2016

2016 is set to be a watershed year for public libraries. The Libraries Taskforce published the Ambition report, the longest serving libraries minister, Ed Vaizey, was replaced, and Cilip finally found its voice. All this against a backdrop of increasing library closures, massive reductions in library budgets, and decreased library book spending.

Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2012

Ambition was a report of two halves in many ways. It was launched with great fanfare early in the year with a round of workshops and consultation that included library staff and not just the usual suspects. I attended one of the workshops and found it positive. There was a sense of optimism that perhaps, at long last, here was an opportunity to effect genuine change and start to turn around the decline in public libraries. As Kathy Settle noted:

“It was inspiring to see and hear all the interest, passion and commitment for the public library network. The valuable ideas, insight and feedback we received really helped to challenge and hone our initial thinking, and make the document more useful to the various stakeholders we’re trying to involve as we take our plans forward.”

The report was due to be published at the end of July but the timetable quickly slipped as the usual horse trading and debate over wording took place. This delay was exacerbated by the replacement of Ed Vaizey, a victim of the post-Brexit vote, with Rob Wilson taking on the role of libraries.

Initially the delay was to allow the new minister time to get to get to grips with his new portfolio but as the months marched on I and many other campaigners began to question if the report would be published this year at all. Eventually, with no advance notice, it was released on a day in which the main news headlines was the increase in EU migrants arriving in Britain. Despite this rather clumsy attempt to ‘bury bad news’ the report received its fair share of publicity within the sector.

I won’t go into the pros and cons of the report as many others have already responded such as Cilipcampaigners and authors.  In contrast the report was broadly welcomed by those with a seat on the Taskforce; SCL, LGA

My own view is that the report failed to encapsulate the aspirations of the profession. What we got merely reflected existing government policy and advocated the views of a minority of vested stakeholders, with the early optimism being replaced by crushing stoicism and an uncertain future of continuing funding cuts.

Libraries Taskforce

I have always chosen not to give the Libraries Taskforce its full title in my posts. This is simply because I do not view it as a leadership body for libraries. What we have is a body set up, funded, and answerable to the DCMS and the libraries minister. In my opinion the Taskforce is precisely that: a group ‘tasked’ with delivering government policy around localism and devolution, and papering over the cracks caused by the continuing decrease in government funding to local authorities.

Now its easy to conflate the organisation with the individuals involved. The fact is I have met Kathy Settle and other members of the Taskforce and they strike me as being both dedicated and conscientious in their aim of supporting libraries through a prolonged and difficult period. But they have the unenviable task of doing this with no access to long-term funding and with only piecemeal project monies available. Even the £4 million libraries innovation fund is not actually new funding but money left-over from previous projects.

Sadly, the Taskforce has yet to evolve into the strategic body that libraries desperately need: one that provides a genuine national strategy underpinned by sustainable funding for the sector.

Library Ministers

This was the year we lost Ed Vaizey as the longest serving culture minister, who was sacked during the post-Brexit reshuffle. Vaizey, despite harsh criticism of Labour when in opposition, proved to be something of a lame duck when in office. He failed to intervene in any cuts, claimed “the library service is not in crisis”, and disputed statistics produced by Cipfa, the BBC, and leading campaigners, while at the same time producing much ridiculed figures from his own desktop research.Very few within the sector were sad to see him go.

Although replaced by Matt Hancock as Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, the library brief was awarded to Rob Wilson, the minister for civil society. For many this set alarm bells ringing as it placed libraries directly into a portfolio that actively promoted volunteering, social enterprise, and spinning services out from local authority control.

Only five months into his new role Rob Wilson has faced a plethora of challenges as cuts to libraries have become even more entrenched, leading Nick Poole to describe one authority’s proposals as ‘the most damaging ever seen to any library service anywhere in the country.’

Faced with major cutbacks in places such as Lancashire, the minister emulated his predecessor and took a non-interventionist stance. Then again it would be a brave politician that challenged his own government’s policies that have basically starved councils of funding. Equally, given the UK national debt has risen by £555 Billion since 2010, libraries are hardly likely to be viewed as a spending priority when set against the burden of adult social care.

However, it is worth considering how the DCMS decides what does and does not constitute a ‘comprehensive & efficient’ service. Without a baseline measurement how can they evaluate when an authority falls below the standard required? After questioning those councils proposing major cutbacks it appears the Minister does not consider them to have fallen beyond the ‘threshold’ required to trigger intervention. So what yardstick, what definition and criteria, has been used to ensure compliance with the 1964 Act?

Apparently only the Minister and DCMS know.

2016 was the year that Cilip finally found its voice. Following on from the resolution in 2015 to oppose the amateurisation’ of public libraries services’ the My Library By Right campaign was launched, challenging both local and central government to fulfil their legal responsibilities and provide a quality library service.

From being  perceived as soft on library closures we have seen quite increasingly strong statements against closures, hollowing out, and the loss of paid staff. An extensive round of media coverage was undertaken to promote the value of libraries, and councils challenged where cuts appeared draconian.

Recently, Cilip also launched its own vision for the future of libraries. While this is still not enough for some I see it as evidence of an increasingly confident and vocal professional body, willing to champion the value of libraries and library staff.

Unfortunately, Cilip’s aspiration for libraries is at odds with that offered by the Libraries Taskforce and Ambition report. As I’ve previously noted, it’s unlikely Cilip’s vision will be adopted as it runs contrary to government policy.

That said, I much prefer a professional body that is in tune with the aspirations of its members and reflects what the sector genuinely needs even if its vision is unpalatable to the current administration. After all, circumstances, and even administrations, eventually change.

The Future

Sadly, the medium term future appears bleak for public libraries: a lack of national strategy, a dearth of leadership, continuing funding cuts, and a non-interventionist minister hardly provides a genuine ‘ambition’ for libraries. That libraries will survive into the future in some form is a given. What form that takes and whether as a service it will remain ‘comprehensive and efficient’ remains to be seen.

It only remains for me to wish you all, despite the trials and tribulations, a very Happy New Year.

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Comment from Nick Poole

An excellent and measured review of a challenging year. It is a sad fact that the trend of funding cuts and service reductions has occurred despite a quite extraordinary body of great work by public librarians across the country. I have noted elsewhere that it is not the ‘core product’ of public libraries that is at fault here but the lack of political engagement with it, and it is this which we must increasingly organise ourselves to counter.

We know from the My Library By Right campaign that the statutory basis of public library provision is very thin, thanks in no small part to the withdrawal of Public Library Service Standards, which provided that vital 2nd tier of definition around ‘comprehensive and efficient’. We should also be clear that this is not the only legal basis from which to challenge poorly-implemented service redesign – legislation around Equalities is likely to be equally important in defending the public right to a quality, universally-accessible service.

There are many inside the sector who oppose standards, but the fact is that in almost every other public sector they serve an essential role in providing clarity, definition, a baseline against which to assess improvement and a valuable means of identifying and correcting poor performance or under-investment. In my view, we as a sector ought to be able to organise ourselves in England to develop our own standards, following the model set down in Wales and Scotland.

To me, the most important message in your post is the one that says that ‘administrations will change’. I would be surprised if the current administration survives in its current form to May 2020 given the political and economic pressures at play over the next three years. As a profession, we need to ensure that when and if the political winds change in our favour, we are ready with workable, costed solutions so that we can act swiftly to mitigate the damage being done to the public library network and, where possible, repair it.

In the meantime, though, I commend you, your colleagues and everyone out there that is continuing to focus on what really matters – ensuring that every citizen can continue to benefit from the unique value that libraries bring to their lives.

Library as Laboratory – How can Libraries exist in the future?

The following guest post has been received from Bedford Creative Arts. The post highlights how libraries and arts can collaborate successfully and provide a powerful and positive experience for users.

Library as Laboratory – How can Libraries exist in the future?

selfie-slot-car-credit-andy-willsher

Bedford Creative Arts has been exploring new ways that libraries can evolve for the future by bringing together artists and libraries. The result is five pioneering projects created by eight artists, ranging from festivals and performances to slot car championships.

The project is funded by Arts Council England Libraries fund and sits in the context of the government spending review which has brought about cuts to spending on libraries by local councils. Libraries are now looking at what services and community offers they can provide in order to stay open and working with other local organisations like BCA is a way to deliver this.handbag-credit-andy-willsher

Library as Laboratory is a brand new, open and collaborative way of working for the Library Services which usually follow a more planned, traditional approach. This project promotes non-traditional activities and ways of working with artists to devise projects and workshops that collaborate with communities and library staff. High quality new work has been created as a response to people and place through collaborating with the local community and brings innovative projects into the library setting.

The artists selected to develop projects are Ania Bas, David Littler, Rosalie Schweiker, DashnDem, Roshi Nasehi, Chris Dobrowolski and Gerry Pilgrim. The projects created:

Flitwick Future Library Festival – a three day multi-activity festival exploring the concept of business not as usual in the library, from cocktails and comedy to yoga, skater films and musical bingo.

Biggleswade B-Fest – a one day multi-activity festival with activities related to the local history of the bike and the brussel sprout from a bike smoothie, brussel sprout supper and a new mobile bike library.

Dump It On Parliament Revisited – a multi-layered collaborative project involving local bands, youth drama groups, a wellbeing group and musicians to create a new compilation of music that explores the alternative local post-punk music history of the 1980’s meshed with today. Created and performed in the libraries.

Selfie Slot Car Championship – a digitally-based making project that invited families to create a personalised slot car and race it in a special one day event, all taking place at the library.

Handbag – a performance work involving female participants dancing around their handbag on an alternative open stage space to ‘Billie-Jean’ by Michael Jackson.

flitwick-furure-library-credit-andy-willsher

About the projects

The project enabled and empowered library staff to gain experience and skills in working with artists, programming and organising events while demonstrating opportunities that encourage long term use of library services. Houghton Regis Library held their first ever live gig in a library and Flitwick their first ever comedy event in a library.

The projects achieved significant increases in the footfall of the libraries of up to 20% with 3802 people joining in with the activities. The long term effects of these projects mean that the libraries are now looking at creating film clubs, recruiting a theatre development officer and hosting workshops.

Three of the artists focused on the idea of the local library as the custodian of local histories, in particular alternative local histories of the late 20th century and communities now. One project in particular Dump it on Parliament Revisited focused on what the role of the library could be, exploring the potential of libraries being a sound archive for recent local history as told by local communities from their perspectives.

Tessa Jackson OBE comments on the Dump it On Parliament project “The phrase ‘socially engaged art practice’ is much over used but Dump it On Parliament genuinely enabled a wide range of people to be creative on their own terms, b-festival-credit-andy-willsherparticipating in the truest sense of the word. Artists DasnDem and Roshi Nasehi, by collaborating with some of the original musicians and activists, were able to incorporate song writing, theatre making, printmaking, fanzine creation, fashion and make-up into their project; new forms of expression inspired new skills.”

Artists DashnDem said: ‘Libraries are one of the last free social spaces, which we don’t want to disappear, but that means they have to move with the times while retaining what is unique about them. This project looks at how we can better emphasise their place as repositories for local history, making it more accessible and relevant today and to future generations.

The outcomes of the project demonstrated to Central Bedfordshire and the Library Service that potential programming ideas from artist run activities to film and comedy nights could bring new library users in by using their Library spaces in new ways. CBC is now recruiting a new service team including Marketing and Engagement Officers who will develop new activities for the libraries and the theatre auditorium.

dump-it-on-parliament-credit-andy-willsherPartnerships have also developed out of the project; The Library Service has been awarded funding from Royal Opera House Bridge for an exciting project linking Leisure, Libraries and Countryside with Children’s Services and Public Health. The project will provide vulnerable learners in the Dunstable and Houghton Regis area with an opportunity to experience arts and cultural activities including music, theatre arts, digital arts and natural art in an outdoor environment. It will also look to engage families and carers and feed into the design and use of the new Dunstable Library Leisure Centre ensuring it is accessible to young people and provides appropriate space, resources and activities.

Cllr Brian Spurr, Central Bedfordshire Council Executive Member for Community Services, said: ‘We are very proud of our libraries, but as times change so must they. That is why we embarked on a refurbishment and modernisation programme across all our libraries, in which we consulted extensively with our residents to understand their needs, expectations and aspirations.

The three arts commissions that form the Library as Laboratory project are an intriguing next step as we seek to discover what our service can offer, now and in the future. They will always be places of learning and discovery and now through different forms of art projects, this innovative initiative also enables libraries to become places of culture and creativity.

In partnership with Bedford Creative Arts, the artists commissioned have all developed three inclusive projects that have tapped into the area, its rich history and its people. I would urge residents to get involved, as they have done before, with these experiments in shaping their library for the future.’

PR Contact:
Binita Walia, PR for Bedford Creative Arts binita@thespaceinbetween.co.uk 07734 507 799
Images available on request credit Andy Willsher.

Links to the Library as Laboratory projects:

Dump It On Parliament
Selfie Slot Car Championship
Future Library Festivals
Handbag

Changing Times, Changing Roles

My latest post can be found on the Libraries Taskforce blog: Changing Times, Changing Roles

45ea7abe81a766e78aed8ed432fd280eIn the post I reflect on the skills needed to successfully manage a public library service in the current environment. Whether we agree with it or not, we face a new reality for libraries and operating in such a landscape requires a high degree of adaptation and flexibility from all library staff.

Equally, the importance of strong strategic leadership is paramount to provide vision and aspiration. Library leaders will need the mental flexibility and managerial adaptability to bring distributed elements into a coherent whole to ensure the continuing success of libraries into the future.