A Tale Full of Fact and Fiction

Much has been made within the profession of the need to adopt a positive narrative approach. In this, libraries are no different from other organisations, and the story we tell about ourselves drives the collective identity of the service. It also shapes the perception of how those outside libraries view us.

So adopting a positive approach to tell the story of an organisation, or in this context the library sector, is a widely acknowledged and effective strategy for influencing others.

This is the driving force behind calls to move beyond the negative aspects of austerity in which the defining theme had been one of cuts and decline in the sector. The inclination for a different narrative has gained particular urgency as continuing public sector cuts challenge not only library budgets but also the very identity and  value of public libraries.

The Narrative

In February 2015 internationally respected librarian R. David Lankes called upon the profession to ‘control the narrative’ and demonstrate how public investment in libraries could have a huge impact on the economic and social well-being of the communities they serve. He stated:

The narrative of crisis is useful, but fleeting in its impact and exhausting and demoralising for those within the profession. A cry of alert had to be matched with a call to action, and, important in times of economic hardship, a compelling value proposition.

We learned that value goes far beyond economics and business development (though we had ample data to make that case). Value can include contributions to economic development, but it must include clear contributions to how librarians and libraries make life better.

Equally, in the same year Kathy Settle of the Libraries Taskforce argued of the need to “break the negative narrative” around libraries. She said:

 “I think we need to break that negative narrative. I recognise that’s difficult because there really are cuts and closures happening. We certainly don’t want to make it look as if everything is sweetness and light because we know that it’s not. But equally, if we don’t turn that narrative round and collectively start talking more positively about libraries, no one else is going to. And why would anyone want to invest in a service that sounds as if it’s failing?”

To a certain extend these arguments are right. Libraries certainly should accentuate what they do well and promote the positive benefits libraries bring. This is particularly true as we begin another Summer Reading Challenge, one of the most important national literacy programmes.

In simple terms there are two aspects of the positive narrative approach . The first is to move away from only the discourse of crisis and focus on the very real and tangible benefits that libraries bring. The second is the return on investment of the improved narrative and the influence gained with decision makers e.g. national government and local authorities.

However, this is where the positive narrative model flounders somewhat as unfortunately there is no clearly defined outcome of what the approach should achieve.

David Lankes argued for a ‘compelling value proposition.’ In practical terms this means showing how libraries are valued, proving both social and economic worth, demonstrating how effective they are in delivering national and local government priorities etc.

But after that, then what? What exactly is the outcome hoped for once this has been achieved? The arguments so far have focused on the establishment of a narrative without addressing what the cause and effect will be.

The positive narrative in practice

Recently, there has been two strong examples of the positive narrative argument. Firstly, the Shining A Light report from the Carnegie Trust. I’ve already discussed the report in a previous post and argued:

“…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.”

Secondly, is the work done by the Libraries Taskforce at the Local Government Association conference this year with the aim to encourage:

“…decision makers to ‘think libraries first’ and events like this are a good opportunity to reach a wide range of different people – many of whom are not immediately involved in the library sector.”

This included:

“…an invitation to a morning fringe session on libraries from the New Local Government Network (NLGN), entitled ‘More than Book-keeping? A New Approach to Library Services’. Featuring presentations from Cllr John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council, Ciara Eastell of Libraries Unlimited, and Brian Ashley of Arts Council England, this was an excellent way to start our conference. It was a small session, but the quality of discussion was high, with half a dozen library services all looking to share ideas and thoughts about achieving successful service transformation.”

There were also further presentations during the event from Stella Duffy on Fun Palaces,  Paul Blantern (Chair of the Libraries Taskforce) describing the Library Plus approach in Northamptonshire,  Jan Holden from Norfolk Library Service on their work with public health, and Tabitha Witherick of Somerset Libraries on the Glassbox project.

All of which adds-up to some powerful advocacy to those with considerable influence over the running of libraries.

Continuing the story

Add to this the direct representation from the Libraries Taskforce to the libraries minister and the years of ongoing advocacy by the SCL and Cilip to DDCMS and various other governmental departments.

The point being, that while there has been a natural and understandable tendency to focus on the negative side of the reductions in libraries, there has also been an ongoing counter-balance of positive advocacy, particularly at a higher level.

Previous work on demonstrating value to policy makers, while not perfect by any means, should not be disregarded. In fact there is a danger of promoting the view that leaders within the profession have been consistently poor at showing the value of the service and thus libraries have suffered a negative perception and decline in funding as a consequence. In other words ‘it’s our own fault’.

Therefore, there needs to be a greater acknowledgement of the more nuanced complexity between the robustness of the advocacy and the willingness of decision makers to fully engage, listen, and take remedial action.

One observation in the Shining Light report was the:

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

Partly, the problem is the profession defining the aims and purpose of libraries for decision maker to understand as the strategic direction nationally is incredibly vague. Equally, libraries now offer a smörgåsbord of activities and partnerships from service to service that, even allowing for the Universal Offers, it’s no longer clear what the library brand and identity actually is.

Nevertheless, I would argue that while the broader aims might still be unclear, it’s difficult for even the most hardened supporters of the ‘positive narrative’ approach to argue that libraries are not valued and appreciated by the public and decision makers alike. The vital ingredient in this mix is the willingness, or even ability, of decision makers to intervene particularly where the lack of buy-in is due to political dogma.

This is one of the fundamental flashpoints between campaigners and the ‘official’ representatives of the library sector.

Opposing views

The inherent dichotomy between the positive and crisis aspects of the library narrative is exacerbated  by a profession that places great value on objectivity, especially concerning information, as the ‘facts matter’ campaign illustrates. Conversely politicians prefer messaging that promotes government and local initiatives, even around reductions, in a positive light. Facts versus ‘messaging’ creates a toxic mix, quickly leading to distrust and suspicion.

This was perfectly captured in a claim by Kathy Settle:

“Libraries Taskforce chief executive Kathy Settle made the mind-boggling claim at a recent local government conference that public libraries are currently flourishing. “While people focus on libraries that have closed, there aren’t that many of those — and there are hundreds that have been opened or renovated,” she insisted.  “That message doesn’t always get out.”

Minutes of the last taskforce meeting, just 16 days earlier, record that Settle was present while the taskforce discussed complaints about the lost libraries in Lancashire, Swindon, Southampton, Barnet, Bedfordshire and Darlington.  Maybe she was confused by the fact that in the minutes of a three-hour meeting, covered by more than 4,500 words, “closures” were not mentioned once, instead referred to obliquely as “ongoing changes by library authorities”.”  Library News-  Private Eye – Issue No. 1448

 

Unfortunately, a narrative based mostly on facts appears too didactic, lacking emotional appeal, and unpalatable to the general public. Equally, a narrative devoid of facts is simply hot air and spin, leading to deluded over-optimism. Therefore, there needs to be a balance between the ‘fact’ and the ‘fiction’. No easy task when both sides have become so mired in their conflicting views and stuck on opposing ends of the narrative spectrum.

Another difficulty between the campaigners and official representatives is one of perception. One side sees itself as pragmatic, taking steps to ensure the sector survives, and to some extent thrives, under challenging circumstances. By implication, either implicitly or explicitly, other approaches are viewed as naïve or idealistic.

 

In contrast the opposing view is one of complicity in the devaluation not just of service quality but in the fundamental principles underlying public libraries.

What would be useful for both the profession and the public is engagement. And by this I mean genuine engagement with a willingness by both sides to consider each others narrative with an open mind.

There has been some attempts at engagement in the past but this has mostly been on an ad-hoc basis. What is needed is a neutral space with the opportunity for both sides to meet and debate openly.

Sadly, the chances of this happening is slim. Both sides appear to prefer silo approaches and the safety of insular meetings or conferences with little or no opportunity to dispute opposing views.

That said, I would argue that the onus should be with the official representatives towards more transparency, openness, and a willingness to justify their work to the public. Closed workshops and conferences that only include parts of the profession and vested interests is not the way to build bridges.

What next?

All credit should go to the individual library services and staff that, despite financial challenges, still drive forward creative initiatives. The demonstrable value of such projects in their local community are not just obvious but measurable as well. Most importantly, they are, in the main, promoted extremely well and libraries have become accomplished at marketing their achievements to local decision makes.

So, what next? We have, and continue, to do our part as a profession; we demonstrate more than ably the value of libraries and the work they carry out; we have a direct conduit to government via the Taskforce, SCL and Cilip. We have won the hearts and minds of the public; we have informed the decision makers many times over, we have collected evidence and highlighted the data where it exists. And now..?

According to the positive narrative approach we should be rewarded; with recognition, influence and appropriate funding. But perhaps it’s too soon. Perhaps not enough decision makers have been informed and influenced. Perhaps the whole approach should be viewed as long term…very long term.

And perhaps after a few more years, with the eventual change in the economic climate, or administration, we will realise that it was ideology and funding to blame after all. And that the ‘positive narrative’ was in fact just another ‘tale’. A tale, to misquote Shakespeare, full of fact and fiction…signifying nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

Public Library Skills Strategy

Cilip and the SCL have launched the Public Library Skills Strategy today with the aim of investing in and developing skills of the public library workforce in England. I won’t go into the detail here as the report is fairly short and self-explanatory. As stated:

“The strategy makes eight recommendations structured around key aims for workforce development and commits to ensuring that Local Authorities understand the expertise of the library and knowledge profession in developing and delivering quality services that are needed by today’s communities.”

The claim is that it:

“sets out a path to a thriving future for libraries by 2030 as centres of digital, creative and cultural excellence that will enhance prospects for their communities.”

Leaving aside such hyperbole there appears much to agree with and support. Certainly the greater part of the strategy appears to promote the value of a skilled, knowledgeable, and ‘paid’ workforce (my interpretation).

Cilip confirmed that the ‘…public library skills strategy is one part of an ongoing programme of developing the skills and expertise of the library and information workforce across all sectors to deliver modern services that meet the needs of users now and in the future.’

I am particularly intrigued by the aim of revisiting the role of professional ethics in public libraries, the outcome this will bring, and the expectations for staff. There’s further information on the Cilip website: Cilip’s Big Conversation on Ethics. As always, I encourage colleagues to participate in the Ethics Review Survey or sign up for the planned workshops so the views of the membership are made known.

However, back to the strategy as there are a few notes of caution:

1. The strategy clearly endorses a “…vision of a future for public libraries as digital, creative and cultural centres of excellence.” This positions libraries firmly in the cultural sector, a path started when libraries were allotted to the Arts Council.

It is also not particularly surprising given the recent £500,000 award to SCL to act as the Art Council’s Sector Support Organisation for Libraries. According to the SCL news release the “…award will enable libraries to work more closely with cultural organisations, both local and national.”

There are pros and cons to positioning libraries mainly as a cultural institution but nevertheless the news will be disappointing to those who see libraries primary mission more aligned with education and learning.

2. ‘Recommendation 5’ encourages changing the way we think about ‘professionalism’. It’s not clear what the context is for this or how it will be applied. Other than stating CILIP and SCL will work together to promote this new way (my italics) of thinking about professionalism, there is no further detail. However, the wording implies both organisations have agreed a working definition and application for the term.

3. The foreword mentions ‘developing a range of skills that staff and volunteers delivering public library services will need.’ However, while the main thrust of the strategy is around workforce development for paid staff, ‘Aim 7’ worryingly recommends  shared approaches to CPD for public library staff and volunteers.

I asked for clarification around points 2 & 3 above and was told that both will be expanded upon up in the workforce strategy for the wider library and information sector due to be published at the end of July. Apparently, this wider strategy  will clarify the use of the term professional and address key areas regarding volunteers.

While I broadly welcome many of the recommendations and investment in the library workforce the challenge will be reconciling the lofty ambitions of the strategy with the reality on the ground.

Sadly, news continues with grinding regularity of staff losses, threatened closures, or libraries being given over to volunteers or other organisations leading Ian Anstice to exclaim in his  recent editorial:

“…thoughts this week to the paid staff of the 12 libraries who are either now volunteer or soon will be. I wish the volunteers well but it is a tragedy that such an important public service as libraries is being given to amateurs.”

With that in mind it would be a great pity to see our own professional organisation supporting training for those replacing paid staff. But whether or not this is actually part of the wider strategy remains to be seen.

 

Too Many Chefs…

Well another general election is upon us and sooner than most could have predicted. The indications are the Tories are on course for another victory with the only point being how large the majority will be. That said, polls have been wrong before so we can but hope.

Labour have at least mentioned libraries in their manifesto with a promise to increase council funding and reintroduce Library Standards. Both are very welcome but for me miss the main challenge facing the sector.

Unfortunately, both parties offer little in the way of innovation. For the Tories it will be the continuing path of localism and devolution leading to even greater fragmentation of the sector. For Labour it is primarily a funding issue. However, funding is only part of the overall challenge, what’s really needed is addressing the structural issues facing the sector.

There has been a tendency to focus on funding and to apportion the lack of financial support as the main reason for the current crisis in libraries. However, the problem goes deeper than this: it is about vision, about what libraries are, could, and should be. And just as importantly who should run the service. In my opinion, after seven years of mishandling the situation, councils are a fundamental part of the problem. The traditional model of local authorities delivering library services is no longer fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul.

The lack of strategic vision is further exacerbated by the lack of leadership, which in turn is the result of the chaotic nature in which libraries are overseen, funded, and influenced. From the libraries minister, DCMS, DCLG, ACE, Libraries Taskforce, and LGA,  to professional representation by Cilip and the SCL, down to local authorities, and increasingly parish councils, community groups, charities, and mutuals.

Far from the concept of ‘distributed leadership’ once inappropriately advocated by the Arts Council the current framework of oversight and delivery is a prime example of organisational dysfunction. Rather than addressing the structural challenges of the sector the current approach creates a toxic mix in which add-hoc project funding merely places greater pressure on an already creaking network.

The Libraries Taskforce has failed because it has been unable to address two central issues: the provision of on-going revenue funding and the creation of a unified strategic vision that addresses the structural challenges and is not merely a rehash of government policy. No amount of positive spin, blogging, or occasional funding can cover this deficiency.

Nick Poole captured the above difficulties when stating:

“The reason for this is that the Government has more or less direct control over the priorities of lottery and other providers of project funding, but due to the overarching policies of devolution and austerity has elected not to exert control over the ‘core’ funders of libraries and civic museums – the Local Authorities themselves. By withdrawing funds from Local Authorities and leaving them, essentially to their own devices, Government is forcing them into a position whereby core structural issues cannot be addressed and, by association, creating the very real danger of significant inequality between communities in different parts of the four nations of the UK.”

Those of us on the ground see the outcome of these policies everyday; the creation of a two-tier, post code-lottery in local library provision. In turn this leads to greater inequality throughout the country, with the already socially deprived being the most disadvantaged.

Libraries are a national resource and should be treated as such. However, this approach is very much at odds with current political ideology, which does nothing to address genuine sustainability for the future and impedes long-term planning. What we face is a systemic failure of oversight in the sector to create a unified, sustainable model of provision.

As a working librarian I have to accept the current political reality of the fragmentation of services, the downgrading of libraries as a shop front for a mish-mash of council services, and the deprofessionalisation of the sector.

However, I can also hope and aspire towards a better future. For a strategic vision and leadership that leads towards a national approach for library services; that provides genuine oversight, development, and resources to enable libraries to be the best they can be for the benefit not only of local communities but for society as a whole.

This should be the aspiration of the whole library profession while recognising the current political challenges that make this unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Shining a Light – Complaint from Tim Coates

An article appeared in the Bookseller today (27/04/17), which outline a complaint made to the Carnegie Trust UK about it’s recent Shine a Light Report. Below is the full text of the complaint from Tim Coates.

Carnegie UK Trust Report on Public Libraries-  April 2017 – “Shining a light”
 
Formal complaint to the Trustees of the Carnegie UK Trust-   by Tim Coates April 2017

Headline
My complaint is that the report ‘Shining a Light’ seriously avoids the truth of what is happening in public libraries. It omits evidence of long term decline it should have included. It fails to draw the right conclusions from data in the research it has carried out.

It should be withdrawn and changes made in the operation of the Trust in respect of their future work on public libraries
The danger is that poor management of the public library service is reinforced.

This complaint is absolutely not directed in any sense at all at Ipsos Mori who were commissioned by the Carnegie UK Trust to carry out research.

Tim Coates 
Tim Coates is a former managing director of Waterstone’s, Sherratt and Hughes, Websters Bookshops, the London Bookshed, Bilbary Ltd  and of WH Smith in Europe.  He is also former UK general manager of YBP (UK), the leading supplier of academic books to libraries worldwide. He is a consultant who has advised in the public library and academic library sectors in the UK and in the US for eighteen years. He is an expert on book industry supply chains.  He gave evidence to the House of Commons select committee on libraries in 2005, which was used extensively in the report of the committee.

He is a graduate of both Oxford and Stirling Universities, from the latter of which he holds a master’s degree in Management Economics. He is a published author and the editor of two series of titles of the history of the UK and the US: ‘Uncovered Editions’ and ‘Moments of History’.  He is the author of the report ‘Who’s in Charge? responsibility for the public library service (2002)’. He is currently an active contracted advising consultant to leading library vendors in the US on matters of both digital and print supply of material to libraries. He works in New York, California and London

Complaint
The report published in the name of the Carnegie UK Trust called ‘Shining a Light’ avoids the factual evidence of the essential, continuous and destructive decline of use in public libraries in the UK. It draws conclusions without evidence; it fails to highlight key findings; it has not researched the views of lapsed users (which are the most important group of consumers in a time of decline) and it is misleading in its summary. It is too closely aligned with the management groups who operate public libraries and their policies, who have generally failed to stem the decline. It does not correctly identify the general view, need and opinion of the public and their desire for the benefit of public libraries. On these grounds its policy advice is flawed.

This  complaint centres on the avoidance of important available evidence and three pieces of information that are contained in the research but wrongly described in the report

1. The data that has been omitted are the CIPFA annual reports on library usage, drawn directly from local councils and the CIPFA PLUS (public library user surveys) that are conducted regularly in local councils.

2. The first piece of evidence in the data in the report which is wrongly described is that a large number of people understand the importance of public libraries, but only a small portion of those find within them what they need. The report wrongly draws the conclusion that therefore people need more personal service. There is no evidence for that conclusion.  But the gap between the theoretical importance of libraries and the actual satisfaction they give, should provide the opportunity to finding out exactly where the disappointment lies. It could be and probably is the reason why use of the service continues to fall. It provides an agenda for constructive management action in a way that the report has not underlined or hardly mentioned

3. The second piece of evidence is the finding that is not sufficiently emphasised is that only 6% of library use is of computers and 70-80% is dependent on the quality of available printed reading material in the library Public Library User Surveys of 10 years ago show that the figure for computer use was then was about 15-20%: it has declined dramatically in ten years (Table 4.1)

4. The third piece of information in the report that is not given sufficient weight is that among library users the single improvement they seek most is an improvement in the range of books available when they visit and online  (Data booklet page 44)

5. In simple terms the significance of these findings is that the comments we so often hear from local councillors, library professionals and government officers that ‘library use is changing’ and that ‘we need to emphasise that libraries are not just about books’ are misleading for both the public and for library managers. Those officials imply that increasingly the public use libraries to access the computers and reading in digital forms that are available and that libraries should concentrate less on their book collections and pursue other activities than book reading.  This research shows that the opposite is true.  Use of computers in public libraries is less than half what it was a decade ago. It is a very small part of library use. What matters to users are the collections of available printed material when they visit and their ability to obtain quickly what they need.  Improving these features is the key to increasing use.   That is a really important management finding that the report fails to highlight or even mention.

Recommendations

1. The report should be withdrawn immediately and its findings and conclusions be re-written

2. The Trust should change its relationship with the library profession and management so that it is not so closely associated with them and it can be more objective in its work

General 

1. The decline in numbers of visits and book issues in all countries in the UK has been going on relentlessly for over twenty five years. That is the evidence reported annually by councils responsible for the operation.  It has been noted in many government and independent reports. There is no diminution in the rate of decline and it is particular to the UK as is shown in the attached set of 4 slides (page 7 and 8) which are taken from published data.  No management action of those twenty-five years has stemmed the decline, let alone reversed it. The report does not show this long term evidence. It should

2. The effect of the decline in use is now to be seen in councils closing libraries, handing them to volunteers and hollowing out the service by reducing material collections and reducing opening hours, all of which activities cause further decline. It is therefore a downward spiral out of which it will be hard to move.  The report does not mention these events, the reasoning behind them or causes of them, nor does it identify the consequences of them for the public

3. From the public point of view therefore, and in the interests of the wellbeing potentially provided by libraries, any report into the state of libraries in the UK must start by honestly facing up to these problems

4. The valid questions that can then be researched, from a public point of view, are

a. What are the causes of decline?

b. What are its consequences?

c. Is there any mitigation?

d. Is there any remedial action?

e. Who can take action?

f. What informs council decisions about libraries?

g. Do councils fully understand the public need for public libraries?

h. Do councils act fairly, economically, properly, legally and responsibly in response the public desire for libraries?

5. The report ‘Shining a light’ does not attempt to address these issues.

Sections of the report

A. Policy report

1. The ‘Foreword’ and the ‘Key Statistics’ that precede it, do not mention the general decline in use over the last twenty years.  In the whole UK in that time, numbers of annual library visits per person have gone down by 37% and the number of books loaned per person per annum have gone done by 63%. Both visits and issues continue to decline.  These are key and important pieces of relevant information that should have been shown.  They are part of a proper and honest understanding of the state of the service.

2. As a headline figure the report states that “Around half of people ..use the library”. Yet the DCMS taking part quarterly survey reports consistently and that the number of people using libraries is now below 35%.  This is a huge difference. The difference is mentioned later in a section of the report comparing results but no reconciliation is offered between the two figures. It makes this report difficult to read.

3. The ‘Introduction’ describes ‘two pictures’ of the public library service and a ‘debate’ between the two groups who have created those pictures: one of decline, the other of positive innovation.  The truth, however is that both these groups have particular interests and are not typical of people who use, no longer use or do not use libraries.  As in all consumer matters, the general view of the public is silently expressed –  by use or non-use.  That is what matters most. That is the purpose of research. It is not  the public debate that should concern management and the Carnegie UK Trust but rather the public use as shown in actual usage figures.

4. The ‘introduction’ lists 5 ‘lessons’ which, it says ‘are drawn directly from the data’.

a. ‘(The library service should) demonstrate value to policy- makers, decisionmakers and funders to maximise public and other investment’’.  There is absolutely nothing in the evidence in the report from which this conclusion can be drawn …  nor is it likely to be something that would cross the mind of library users.  Nor is it a function of libraries described in the 1964 Act which generally legislates for library funding. The 1964 Act defines the value of libraries as being to individuals – not to policy makers or local councils. There is a huge and important difference.  It is misleading to signal this as a lesson drawn from research when it is not.

b. ‘(Libraries should) increase focus on tailored personalised services… ‘.  This is a prejudiced and incorrect reading of the responses in the research which do not say this at all.  Common sense shows that respondents to the research questions are saying that ‘libraries are a good thing in principle but my current experience is that they don’t provide what I need’.   That is not the same as saying that ‘libraries should focus on tailored personal service’ (whatever that may imply).  An editor should have questioned the whole assertion in this paragraph

c. The finding, however,  – which stands out in the evidence –   that ‘libraries are important but they currently do not provide what I need’ is an absolutely crucial piece of information that should have been heavily underlined in the introduction to and the headline of this report. It could have led to very useful and constructive further work to find out what is meant and why this is true – but that opportunity is not clearly expressed, anywhere in the report. That is a major omission.

d. ‘(Libraries should) accelerate the development of a strong online presence ‘. Library managers have been saying they should develop a strong online service for twenty years and the key point in this research is that the respondents are clearly saying that the library service has not achieved anything so far of which they are aware.  That needs to be said, because whatever management mechanisms are in place, they clearly are not working effectively. That is the lesson that should have been underlined.

e. ‘(Libraries should) invest in innovation, leadership and outcomes based partnerships ‘.  There is nothing in the research from which this conclusion could be drawn.  From a users’ point of view, it is obscure government management jargon, which merely implies that the management of the services is lacking in obvious basic abilities.   It would be better simply to say ‘management of the service needs to be improved’ and describe what that means in words related to the research.

f. ‘(Libraries should) enhance learning between libraries and across jurisdictions (countries)’.  This implies that in some places there are practices that could be used in other places.  However, there is nothing in the evidence presented that shows that there is any good practice that is worth sharing or where it might be.  Nor does such evidence exist anywhere else.  Evidence – which is available (for example see former MLA reports) – certainly shows that projects of ‘peer review and learning’ in the library sector have generally been a failure – and if that evidence had been looked at it would have raised a question about whether this is key ‘lesson’ at all. It should not have been included

B. Ipsos Mori comparison with other available data

1. Ipsos Mori are a highly reputable market research company of international standing. They have worked for many years in the public library sector in the UK and have a fund of experience and information upon which to draw.  Any criticism in this document of the report ‘Shining a light’ is not and cannot be a criticism of Ipsos Mori.  If there are concerns about the report, they can only lie in the way that Ipsos Mori were briefed and how their information has been interpreted. Criticism falls on The Carnegie UK Trust.

2. The report contains a section called ‘Secondary Analysis : comparing data…’  It asserts that Ipsos Mori were commissioned to ‘conduct secondary analysis of existing data sets .. in order to compare the Trust’s findings with existing data.’

3. Yet the report contains no information derived from publications of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants’ (CIPFA) who have gathered detailed consistent library performance data from all councils responsible for libraries for more than thirty years.  There is no data from the Public Library User (PLUS) surveys regularly conducted to a standard method devised by CIPFA.  In fact these essential sets of data are ignored entirely by the report.

4. The authors of the report say that in the case of Ireland the only available data is from council returns (historically through CIPFA) and then say – without any reasoning or further explanation- ‘therefore there is no data at national level’ –  when clearly there is such data for each of the five countries (including Ireland) and it is very important.

5. Moreover, it is disappointing that Ipsos Mori were not invited to draw on their experience of analysing the performance of individual library authorities or on their other research in the past twenty years. There is no mention that they were so requested and there is no indication that they did so.

6. The data shown in the report from the research fundamentally contradicts the ‘secondary data ‘ (the DCMS taking part survey) and also the CIPFA data    (table 2.2) and yet no explanation is offered for the discrepancies. (For example, in England the Carnegie research asserts that 46% of people have used libraries in the last 12 months and both Taking Part and CIPFA place the figure at nearer 35%. –  and those differences appear in almost every table of data  –  that is a sizeable difference to which the report offers no useable explanation or reconciliation    – it does bring into question the methods that have been briefed and used)

7. This section of the report, which is not segmented into different types of library use, also shows that 70-80% of library use is dependent upon the reading materials available in the library.  That is an absolutely essential piece of information that should have been highlighted in the introduction and summary of the report (Table 4.1) It is not mentioned anywhere by the author of the report.

8. The report does not attempt to identify the views of lapsed library users.  In a state of decline that is the obvious source of management information. It should have been part of the brief.

C. Data booklet : Recommendations for how libraries could improve

1. The report has several tables suggesting ways that libraries could improve. In the data booklet pages 38-43 are devoted to tables listing ideas.  But these tables do not distinguish between the views of people who use libraries already and people who don’t use them at all.  The two sets cannot be mixed because the result of mixing can be misleading.   It is like asking what improvements could be made to the facilities of a railway station and combining the views of people who use trains (who might want more regular trains and clearer timetables) and those who never travel by train (who might like to see the building turned into a leisure facility).  It is not hard to see the danger of such confused presentation in the hands of a disinterested local councillor. In fact, we have seen good libraries (that needed more books and longer hours) turned into gymnasia simply because of this kind of confused analysis of the public need.

2. Some of the suggestions thus described are hard to believe. For example page 43 of the same section says that about 40% of people suggest that libraries could benefit from improved ‘maker spaces’. It would be surprising if 40% of the population had ever heard the expression ‘maker space’ (which is a library specific term) and that in turn makes one wonder just what question they were asked. It certainly seems unlikely to have been a spontaneous response and that the question asked must have led to directly to that answer.  And that in turn diminishes the value of the findings.

3. Page 44 does present a one page analysis which indicates the views of users and non-users, but still lists them alongside each other. That says clearly that the leading suggestion from library users is that libraries need more books.  That, too, should have been a headline of the report. It is a really important finding. It is not surprising.   However, it is not mentioned anywhere in the summaries.  It should have been. It is key to increasing use of libraries. It is also a point rarely made in government or local government documents.

4. It will be far easier to persuade library users to increase their use than it will be to persuade non-users to visit the library and the two marketing questions about how to achieve these two separate objects are completely different. The two findings should have been presented separately.

5. Pages 46-48 return to mixing the findings of users and non-users

6. Nowhere is there an analysis of lapsed users.  Lapsed users are the most informative group of all. When hearing their views we know that they have sufficiently valued the library in the past but now they do not – and they should be persuaded to give specific reasons. Lapsed users should have been the starting point, segmented by age.

7. Appendix 1 in this section (page 52)  –  shows that the questions suggesting improvements are indeed leading questions with , but it is not clear from where the ideas put forward have come. If they have come from separate groups of users and non-users it would help to make that all much clearer. If they have come from the authors of the report, that, too should have been said.

 

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