Dataset – Call to Cilip & SCL

Following up from my previous post ‘Nothing to Yell About’ it’s become obvious that the Libraries Taskforce is not the vehicle for collecting and distributing data for and about public libraries. Despite the best of intentions as a body it is too susceptible to interference, including having to scale back it’s activities during the pre-election period.

The snap general election is thrown up the need for reliable data more than ever and Cilip has announced the launch of the ‘Facts Matter’ campaign “to promote the need for evidence-based decision-making as a foundation of a strong, inclusive and democratic society.” 

As such the library profession itself needs to take responsibility for gathering and distributing data around public libraries, without reliance on politically controlled bodies, and for making such data as widely accessible as possible.

Ultimately, as a profession we should encourage an open data approach by local authorities. However, it is likely to take a some time for this principle to become embedded and regarded as the norm as protectionism around data and political nervousness will make this a slow process. Another issue will be around governance models and whether or not public service mutuals would sign up to releasing data in such a way.

I wrote to Cilip and SCL asking for their views around the Taskforce’s recently risible dataset and where they thought the profession should go next. Nick Poole replied saying:

My own view is that, as a sector, it is important to think long-term about how we ensure that the development of public libraries, individually and nationally, is informed by the best possible body of evidence and up-to-date data.

 The publication of the Taskforce dataset, while important, is only one aspect of answering the more fundamental question, which – to me at least – is that of how we as a sector organise ourselves to ensure ongoing access to a credible body of quantitative and qualitative data about public libraries which supports the overlapping needs of management, targeted development and advocacy.
 

The Taskforce is a time-limited task-and-finish group with the specific remit of enabling the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to respond to the recommendations in the original Sieghart Review. Any long-term solution to the data and evidence needs of the sector ought to address how the process of data-gathering will be governed and funded in the long-run by sector bodies with the remit for the development of the sector – specifically, the Arts Council England, SCL and CILIP with the support of DCMS and the Local Government Association.

Alongside the question of governance and investment, there is the question of ensuring that the dataset is valid and widely-used. In my view, the best means of achieving this is through the creation of an open, public-access dataset published via http://data.gov.uk and licensed for a wide range of commercial and non-commercial re-use. An open access public library dataset, enriched with persistent identifiers,  would facilitate the embedding of library data into Government statistics and reporting, promote the development of 3rd party applications and support activities such as Libraries Week. This, obviously, is an issue with Cipfa data, which remains paywalled and cannot be used in 3rd party platforms.  
 

In the School Libraries sector, CILIP has recently proposed an industry-led consortium with the responsibility for improving the evidence-base (qualitative, quantitative and impact/outcome-based) around school library provision. In my view, such an industry-led consortium ought also to be possible in the public library sector with a broad remit for defining not only how data is collected, but for improving the overall methodology, creating a comprehensive model for what should be collected and engaging with 3rd parties to promote its use.

As part of this, you will be aware that CILIP has announced its intention to develop a Library & Information Sector Research & Evidence Base in our Action Plan 2016-2020. While not primarily concerned with public library data, it would be valuable to consider how the scope of this would intersect with the kind of industry-led data-gathering for which CILIP is advocating.

 

Nick also reiterated that the “… most useful data is open data. We think it is important that this activity yields data that is openly licensed for re-use, and ideally that we start to foster a community of developers and creatives who will use it as the basis of interesting applications.”

 

Neil McInnes, President of SCL also replied agreeing that there was an need for up to date figures on libraries. Neil stated that the SCL agreed with many of Nick Poole’s points, including:

 

“…the need for current and credible data about public libraries that will support and enable the running of excellent library services, and promote libraries widely especially to non or lapsed users.”  

 

He added:

 

“As you know, CIPFA collects data from libraries and publishes yearly figures on use. We have long lobbied for this dataset to be widened to show what we feel would be a more accurate representation of the library sector. Each of our members collects some of the data you refer to—number and type of libraries, opening hours.”

 

So we have both the CEO of Cilip and President of the SCL agreeing that a more accurate picture of libraries is needed. With that in mind there are many advantages to both bodies working together to ensure the collection of accurate and objective data and the regular and timely publication of such information. Therefore:

 

I ask that the Cilip Board of Trustees and the Executive Committee for the Society of Chief Librarians work together and take direct responsibility for the gathering, collation, and release of datasets around public libraries for the good of the profession and sector.

 

I ask that a wide range of individuals and interested parties with the necessary expertise and/or professional credibility to gain the confidence of the profession, public, and campaigners be involved. I urge Cilip and SCL not to rely only on the input of the same bodies that have so far failed to deliver objective and credible data.

 

Further, I ask that as a matter of urgency, and as a first priority, that Cilip and the SCL collate and publish the data around the number and type of public libraries in England to date. This should include information regarding:

 

  • Type of each library within a service: local authority run, community run, commissioned, independent, closed etc
  • Open and staffed hours
  • Stock budgets
  • Number of professionally qualified and library staff
  • Other information deemed appropriate to give a reliable and accurate picture of the current state of public libraries in England

That this request be treated as a matter of urgency by both organisations with the view of establishing an appropriate group and publishing the above data as quickly as possible. 

One last point, both Nick and Neil raised the issue of finance for the project and the need for additional funding on an ongoing basis. The obvious candidates for this would be the DCMS and ACE. Although, whether or not the DCMS would fund a project it had no direct control over remains to be seen. The other, perhaps better, option would be to divert funding from CIPFA since it’s plainly not delivering what the sector needs in terms of appropriate, open data, in a timely and regular manner.

Shining a Light – Initial Response

 

 

Carnegie UK Trust has released research outlining how public libraries can contribute to government policy goals and improve people’s wellbeing. The investigation includes data around library use and attitudes towards library across the UK and Ireland 2011-2016.

 

The research is supported by other reports as part of the series including

  • Data booklet: provides the data and big picture ‘headline findings’ from across all jurisdictions
  • Five Country Factsheets: shows how England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are faring
  • Secondary Research: a report by Ipsos MORI which compares our findings with existing research

I don’t aim to go into detail about the report. This will be highlighted over the coming days and weeks from various bodies, with emphasis on differing aspects to suit either personal or political viewpoints. However, in the foreword it should be noted that the report recognises that:

“There is no doubt that public libraries face unprecedented challenges and very real threats. In 2016 the BBC reported that across the UK there had been more than 340 library closures and 8,000 library job losses since 2010.1 In response, the vociferous and visible campaign against the closure of library buildings has swelled, in England in particular. The campaigns have often focused on specific local decisions but point to broader trends and pressures.”

Instead, I wish to draw out some basic principles that form part of the report.

Demonstrating value

The main point for me is the research finally qualifies the ‘narrative’ argument. It demonstrates once and for all that both users and non-users value the library service and that libraries, contrary to some, are not in terminal decline, but remain a well used and valued service.

Demonstrating value to policy and decision makers has been a hotly contested debate. This can be summed up as the ‘positive narrative’ argument in that strategic leaders within the profession have been poor at showing the value of libraries and thus they have suffered a negative perception and decline in funding as a consequence.

The argument goes that by demonstrating value and how libraries contribute to local and national agendas decision makes will react accordingly by increasing – or at the very least protecting – funding and investment. The strength of the Shining a Light report is it demonstrates quite conclusively the value of libraries.

The SWOT analysis is a useful synopsis of issues facing libraries. Listed under threats is the point:

“Lack of understanding and buy-in among decision makers and the public regarding the broader aims and purpose of libraries.”

My own view is that after years of demonstrating the value of libraries it’s difficult for even the most hardened supporters of the ‘positive narrative’ approach such as the Libraries Taskforce and SCL to argue that libraries are little understood or appreciated. While there will always be the wilfully ignorant or obtusely political who choose to ignore such value the truth lies not with a lack of understanding or buy-in but one of ideology and funding.

For example the report makes clear that 72% of respondents opposed volunteers replacing paid staff (p.10). However, this runs contrary to the avowed aims of the Libraries Minister to support greater community involvement in running libraries. Not supporting libraries in complementary, value added roles, but taking on libraries and replacing paid staff.

This is where funding and ideology clash with public and professional expectations around the what’s good for the sector.

Rationale for libraries

There is a genuine attempt at explaining the rationale for libraries. Unfortunately, the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of libraries highlight how woolly the thinking has become in the UK. The mission behind libraries is highlighted for each country with much being made of ‘opportunities’, ‘enabling’, ‘potential’, and ‘wellbeing’ but with little focus on what this means in reality and whether or not it’s appropriate for libraries. Having them listed together in one place reflects what a jumbled collection of meaningless buzzwords have become attached to public libraries in the last few years.

While there is little to disagree with in noting libraries contribution to economic, social, cultural, and learning opportunities, and indeed this highlights the value of such activities, there is a clear intention to build a correlation between libraries and local and national government agendas:

“Demonstrating value and impact requires clearly aligning library services with community needs and the priorities and policies of funders, policymakers and decision makers. Following from this, delivery of new strategies need to be monitored to ensure that library services, decision makers and funders have a mutual understanding and recognition of the relationship between the role of public libraries and local and national government goals.”

This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing but it assumes that current government goals will be beneficial for libraries and ignores the real drivers for change, which are the austerity, localism, and devolution agendas.

For instance aligning libraries with local authority priorities has seen an increase in co-location and sharing of services in a drive to reduce costs. At face value this would be a logical rationalisation of services. However, as many users have found, such an approach can lead to the devaluation of a library service as both brand and expertise are sacrificed to cost cutting, with specialised roles and experienced staff replaced with generic customer service posts to the detriment of the service and user.

Delivering a universal service

This is perhaps the most interesting and important aspect of the report and bears some quoting. The report demonstrates an interesting dichotomy in public libraries as a “…universal service when there is no universal set of needs.” While the public see value in “public libraries as community services, but they are much less likely to regard libraries as important to themselves personally.”

This is reflected in that:

 “…around three-quarters (72%-79%) of people reported that public libraries are essential  or very important to the community whilst only  37%-44% responded that public libraries are essential or very important to them personally. The level of support for public libraries as community resources is also not matched by an equivalent level of personal use, with around one in two people in each jurisdiction  (43%-50%) using the library.”

So the public are recognising the importance of libraries as a service for others but not necessarily for themselves. That said, this could be off-set by the assertion in the Libraries Deliver report that people use libraries at different stages of their lives or when circumstances change.

The report asserts that those involved “…in the delivery of public library services to discuss and debate whether, as a universal service, public libraries should strive to meet the needs of all demographic groups within a community, or to build on their success with particular demographic groups, and to identify ways forward.”

For me this is the essential point that the profession needs to address and quickly as well as the fact that:

“When looking at how many books, if any, library users read or listened to,10 we found evidence in sympathy with the idea that the primary focus of libraries ought to be books and the evidence with which to challenge this view. On the one hand, logistic regression reveals that being a prolific reader is a predictor for the likelihood of library use and frequency of use across all jurisdictions. On the other hand, there is a sizeable percentage (21%-30%) of people across the five jurisdictions who rarely or never read books that nevertheless use the library.

The challenge lies in developing services that continue to be attractive to prolific readers and services that are appealing to those who are not – whilst not inadvertently dissuading either group from using the library.”

While entirely sympathetic to such an approach this is dependent on the current raft of services on offer being the right ones to ensure the successful development and continuation of public libraries into the future. It could be argued that services around literacy and learning where once the mainstay of public libraries and would have been a guiding principle behind Andrew Carnegie’s description of libraries as ‘instruments for the elevation of the masses of the people’ and it is this that the profession has been side-tracked from.

Conclusion

This is just an initial response and the report certainly needs closer reading and further consideration. No doubt I shall return to the research over the coming weeks as more detail and nuance emerges. What I would say though is this is an incredibly constructive and timely contribution to the debate around public libraries and provides a great detail of material to support the worth of public libraries. As such, all due credit and thanks should go to the Carnegie Trust and the report’s author, Dr Jenny Peachey.

However, the drawback is that it analyses the current situation without fundamentally challenging the context of current service provision or governance both locally and nationally. As such , there are a number of basic assumptions around the status quo with the analysis concentrating on improving, rather than changing, the current model. For example:

“Being able to draw on evidence of impact will enable public libraries to plan, strategise and share learning within the sector, provide the basis for demonstrating their worth to decision-makers and funders outside of the sector and ensure libraries are accountable to those that fund them. Moreover, better evidence has an important role to play in helping to persuade those that are sceptical about the role and value of public libraries and in moving the conversation about the value of public libraries beyond the believers, advocates and critical friends that are already passionate about the value and role of libraries.”

This might well  prove to be true. But what I would have liked to have seen is more scrutiny around the fundamental positioning of libraries and a more radical envisioning of the core purpose going forward without reliance on current assumptions.

 

 

Fake News – Take The Survey

Can you help with the following request to assess the reliability of information presented as ‘facts’ by political parties in Scotland

“The terms ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ have become commonly used in recent months, particularly relating to politics.

This survey, conducted by the School of Creative and Cultural Business at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, aims to gather opinions on the reliability of information presented as ‘facts’ by political parties in Scotland.

You will be presented with five images containing various ‘facts and figures’ that have recently been posted on the social media sites of the main political parties in Scotland. You will be asked three short questions about each image.

You will then be asked two questions about your own personal experience of ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts’. Finally, you will be asked four short questions about yourself.

The survey is aimed at anyone aged 16 years or over. It should take around 10 – 15 minutes to complete, and all responses will remain completely anonymous.”

Complete the fake news survey

Dodgy Dudley – Revisted

I followed-up my last post about Dudley by making a FOI request asking for details of how and why the decision had been made to award the contract to GLL despite all the evidence pointing to an agreement for a staff led mutual.

For those not familiar with local authority decision making and the somewhat byzantine complexity of council procedures, there are some, very critical committees through which the majority of decisions have to make their way. Two of the most important are Cabinet and Scrutiny so my request was to supply information and links to those committees that had decided or approved the awarding of the contract without any apparent further consultation.

Despite some obvious delaying tactics I finally received a reply claiming that disclosure of some of the information was not in the public interest. This relates to information under Section 43 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act and the related procurement exercise.

This was followed by rather unhelpful links to committee documents between April and September 2016. Unfortunately, rather than provide any clarity what the documents show is the progress of approval for a staff mutual. The outcome of the September meeting did nothing to alter the process or change the agreed method of procurement. Rather, the documents back-up the 3 month statutory consultation which clearly states a plan to create a staff led mutual. 

However, between September Cabinet and the subsequent announcement to award the contract to GLL in February 2017 there appears to have been a decision made to completely ignore the agreed plan. A decision so secret that Dudley Council is unwilling to share how it was made and by whom.

Now add to this is a reply from Councillor Harley to a local resident indicating that the decision was subject to the appropriate scrutiny procedures and that the process has ‘gone too far and cannot be reversed’.

Dear…

 The decision to use a company that has been set up as a mutual (not for profit) to operate the Borough’s libraries for the next 5 years is a good decision. They have a good track record on running libraries in other parts of the country.
 
The decision to award the contract has now gone too far and cannot be reversed having been through the relevant scrutiny processes. The tender by the successful company was far superior to that of the one put forward by employees and officers of the council.
 
They have given assurances that Libraries will not close and that staff will not be made redundant. In fact one of the determining factors of awarding them the contract was the proposal to review opening hours and where they can justify it extend opening hours.
 
Therefore based on this and the fact that under the control of the council the service would have diminished i fully support the decision to award them the contract. The library service will be protected and hopefully improved as a result of this measure.
 
If you require any more information please get in touch.
 
Regards
Cllr Harley

 

This is in contrast to the reply I received from the Council’s FOI Officer saying the process was still underway!

The main point being, if the usual scrutiny process has been followed, then the details of the particular committee should be publicly available.
Every public authority is required to publish certain information, in keeping with the Information Commissioner’s Model Publication Scheme and as a general rule, a council should publish the following on a routine basis:
  • minutes and agendas of public meetings;

  • documents it is required to make public by other legislation, such as the Local Government Act 1972; 

  • minutes of senior-level policy and strategy meetings, eg board meetings; and 

  • any background documents which are referred to in the agenda or minutes, or were circulated in preparation for the meeting. These are considered part of the agenda.

Therefore, the relevant agendas and minutes including briefing/decision notes should already be in the public sphere.

Looking at Dudley Council’s constitution, decisions that require the approval of Cabinet can be made by a Lead Member in consultation with the appropriate Director, which tends to be standard practice in local authorities. This leads to a ‘Decision Sheet’, which in the words of DBC is one mechanism of the Council’s formal process ensuring transparency and robustness in decision making.

Once the decision sheet has been approved it should be available on the Council’s Decision Database. There appears to be no such decision available on the database regarding the award to GLL.

The Freedom of Information Act makes clear clear that the public interest is served where access to the information sought will:

  • Further the understanding of, and participation in the debate of issues of the day
  • Facilitate the accountability and transparency of public authorities for decisions taken by them
  • Facilitate accountability and transparency in the spending of public money
  • Allow individuals to understand decisions made by public authorities affecting their lives and, in some cases, assist individuals in challenging those decisions

Unfortunately, there appears only lip service being paid in Dudley to such principles and the dodgy decision making continues apace to dupe the public and renege on promises made to the hardworking, dedicated library staff.

Nothing To Yell About!

In December 2015 the Libraries Taskforce held a data workshop to start the process of identifying and improving data retained by and about public libraries. The ambition was simple but essential: pinpoint existing datasets, make them more accessible, and establish what data was best suited to inform decision making and decision makers.

This work was to underpin the conviction that “access to timely, accurate, comparable library data is  critical to enabling the library sector and users to monitor the delivery of library services and  improve their quality.”

It’s worth bearing in mind what the Taskforce set out to accomplish as it acknowledged:

“…how much time and effort (at national and local level) goes into dealing with requests for information (from the media, campaigners and the public) on numbers of libraries and closures. As these requests often come with slightly different definitions and start and end dates, the resulting information cannot easily be compared (the ‘apples and pears’ analogy), leading to confusion and unhelpful ‘noise’ in the system.”

A survey was accordingly sent out and library services were asked to provide information around the location and type of each library within a service. For example:

LAL: Local Authority run library CRL: Community run library or CRL+ CL: Commissioned library ICL: Independent community library or ICL+ XL: closed library 

This was followed by the number of open and staffed hours and what sort of IT and digital access was available. In fact all the basic detail that would have been an incredibly valuable resource and achieved the objectives as outlined above.

There was even help in defining the different types of libraries:

Types of ‘Open’ Libraries
Type Definition Examples
(LAL) Local authority run library Nb LAL- indicates LA funded and managed, but unstaffed Library building funded, run and managed by local authority staff (can be augmented by unpaid volunteers)  
(CL) Commissioned library Library building that was an LAL and part of the statutory service on 1 April 2010 where the library building/service has been transferred to a separate trust or organisation (may be operating as a social enterprise, may be commercial), commissioned and funded by a local authority. Local authority are still accountable.
(CRL) Community run library Nb CRL+ indicates that LA staff may be involved in day to day running Library building that was an LAL and part of the statutory service on 1 April 2010 and operating now as a library with some level of ongoing support from a local authority. Work according to a joint agreement such as a Service Level Agreement, Memorandum of Understanding or contract. Staff are volunteers, but some form of support is available. May or may not be counted as part of the statutory service.
(ICL) Independent community library Nb ICL+ indicates paid staff Library building that was an LAL and part of the statutory service on 1 April 2010 and now operating as a library that has been transferred to the management of a non local authority body, either community group or third party, which is OUTSIDE THE LOCAL AUTHORITY NETWORK (eg for circulating bookstock, access to online cat etc)
(X) Closed library Library building that was an LAL and part of the statutory service on 1 April 2010 and now either completely repurposed, or locked/shuttered.  

Unfortunately, the dataset was lost in the void of politics, eventually being held up at Downing Street level. But after constant pressure some details were finally published a few days ago. Sadly, rather than the complete data it’s little more than a contact list for public libraries in England. In other words it’s taken 16 months to produce a piece of work that could have been done within a hour using yell.com!

Criticism of the data has been made by many campaigners, Cilip, and Ian Anstice.

Given the professionalism of the Taskforce staff, being instructed to release such incomplete data must be both galling and embarrassing to say the least. The reputational damage to the Taskforce members and the Libraries Minister, Rob Wilson, must also not be underestimated either given their inability to control and publish data freely.

Far from being a ‘first step’ as stated by the Taskforce, this is a deliberate withholding of information for political purposes.

Therefore, it’s time for the profession to take responsibility for the collection, development, and dissemination of up-to-date data, and remove the openly biased political interference from the equation.

This is the issue I shall post about very shortly.