All posts by Leon

Time to consolidate?

Unfortunately, the old adage that may you live in interesting times is certainly true for libraries at the moment. This innocuous saying hides a dark meaning, insinuating, as it does, chaotic and insecure periods. No wonder it is regarded by many as a curse.

Along with other public services, libraries enjoyed quite a settled period of expansion and investment until relatively recently. However, given the current austerity programme, the drive towards a smaller state, and the continuing strain on the public purse, the downwards pressure on resources is set to continue well into the future. Rapid and profound changes are taking place and this will ultimately change the nature and set the tone of library provision for decades to come. Therefore, those that manage services need to seek the best possible models of provision in order to ensure public libraries survive, remain relevant, and continue to serve their communities.

Despite the desire by some to write off public library services as being outdated and an anachronism in the digital age, use of libraries remain robust. However, it would be wrong not to recognise that there has been a contraction of traditional services and usage.

Typically during a period of contraction the commercial sector can respond in various ways: lowering or increasing prices, creating additional revenue streams with new products, or consolidating (merging) with another company.

Public services are somewhat more limited in the response they can take. Nevertheless, libraries have risen to the challenge with excellent examples of innovation, changes in service delivery, new builds that allow for multiple functions, and a greater focus on delivering initiatives that are relevant to users – driven in no small part by the SCL Universal Offers. Likewise, libraries are now more adept at partnership working, bidding for funds, and creating additional revenue, albeit on a small scale. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

However, this is not to present too overoptimistic a picture. Library services throughout the country have also seen reductions in staff, opening hours and stock budgets – the hollowing out effect – closures, and the widespread introduction of volunteers. Equally, the core funding from local authorities has been, and will continue to be, substantially reduced as councils struggle to provide burgeoning essential services.

As librarians we have to manage this change to ensure a future for our profession and the communities we serve. To do so requires a long hard look not only at models of provision but also the extent to which we can honestly offer a ‘comprehensive and efficient service.’

One solution is to run services as not for profit social enterprises, which is now a growing area. Equally, we should also allow contraction to lead to consolidation, and by that I mean enabling library services to merge, or even take over others. It is still very early days for this approach but examples such as the Tri-borough initiative in London and GLL are worth looking at. The Tri-borough has kept the services under council control, whereas GLL, as a not for profit enterprise, could (as it does for its leisure arm) run libraries anywhere in the country.

Regional trusts are more familiar within services such as the NHS. For example I live in Wiltshire which is covered by the Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Trust that also covers Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Swindon. A similar cross boundary approach could work equally well for libraries.

There is no universal model that offers the perfect solution for public libraries. Nevertheless, strategic alliances and collaborative service models could offer not only savings but a more secure future and heads of service would be remiss not to consider them. The harsh fact is we have, and will continue to have, far less resources than previously. The challenge is to transform services to mitigate against this.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a lack of willingness and a dearth of vision shown by councils over the issue.

Why we don’t talk anymore!

There seems to be a misapprehension that Ed Vaizey is no longer willing to speak to Cilip due to vote of no confidence expressed by the body in him. If this were true it would indeed, as Phil Bradley points out, be the politics of the playground. Annie Mauger, CEO of Cilip, has drawn a direct correlation between the vote of no confidence and the minister’s refusal to meet and others within the library world have expressed a similar opinion. However, this view misses two important points.

The first is that votes of no confidence in ministers are nothing new. In 2013 both the BMA and the teachers unions passed votes of no confidence in Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove respectively, yet neither minister refused to meet those involved afterwards and face-to-face dialogue continued. Obviously, both the NHS and education are bigger political hot potatoes than libraries but it raises the interesting question of why Ed Vaizey has taken a different tact.

Forget anything to do with personal petulance, that’s not the way politics work in public. The fact is Ed Vaizey does not need to hold meetings with Cilip as they have no real political influence and he is winning all the arguments. This leads us to the second and for many, a rather unpalatable point. The previous meetings with the minister were just a sop, a smokescreen to disguise the fact that the government ignored anything that Cilip or campaigners had to say regardless. But even that pretence has now ended.

Ed Vaizey believes he has won the argument that keeping libraries open with volunteers is an acceptable alternative to a professionally run service. He’s so confident that he can even let officials take charge of advocating the setting up of community managed libraries without taking responsibility for such advice himself.

This is because Cilip and the government are at opposite ends of the spectrum over public libraries. Cilip would like a comprehensive and efficient library service, well-resourced and appropriately staffed/managed, while the government wants the exact opposite. Ed Vaizy, Maria Miller, and all the other ministers are dedicated to an ideology of neo-liberalism, a programme of austerity, and a vision of a ‘Big Society’, and that’s why Vaizey doesn’t need to bother with Cilip – or indeed anyone else interested in protecting libraries – because he genuinely doesn’t share their point of view, and in this he has the full backing of the coalition.

It makes you wonder if those who, to a greater or lesser degree, support and implement the government’s approach to libraries such as the LGA, ACE, and even the SCL have any difficulty in getting to talk to the minister. Somehow I doubt it!

It’s not a question of ‘we don’t talk anymore’ but rather ‘what is there to talk about?’

Your Local Authority Needs You!

Continuing on from the post below it seems that now libraries have proved, and continue to prove, that unpaid amateurs are the future of local service (whether or not they are a viable future is debatable!) it comes as no surprise that the LGA is keen for this scheme to expand. In the Telegraph Sir Merrick Cockell has outlined how museums and parks could also be run by volunteers.

To be fair local authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place with substantially less funding from central government making it increasingly difficult to fund much beyond essential services. That said, many local authorities are now cottoning on to the fact that they can no longer keep freezing council tax year on year with the large loss of income this approach represents. Also, there is some legitimate criticism about the level of reserves some councils continue to hold onto.

Ever since the Barnet Graph of Doom  was mooted the future of departments outside of adult social care and children’s services have been hotly debated and contested, but not, unfortunately, well planned for. Thus, the rather ad hoc and often quite weak response by councils to library provision. Couple this with the political ideology of the Big Society and it is proving to be somewhat of a perfect storm for public libraries up and down the country.

What will be left after the storm abates remains to be seen.

Not so lazy Vaizey!

Intended to deliberately cause upset (how could they not?) Ed Vaizey’s comments regarding volunteers in the Telegraph is par for the course. The biggest surprise is not that he delivers these inane comments with a straight face but that we are outraged when he does so.

Ed Vaizey is neither lazy nor incompetent. In fact he is delivering the political ideology of the coalition government and the instructions of his boss, Maria Miller, perfectly. Vaizey’s so called ‘inaction’ around swingeing cuts to libraries is in fact very deliberate and effective political action.

Cameron’s vision of the Big Society has, unfortunately, found fertile ground in certain areas and public libraries are the poster boy.

Councils of all political hues have bought in to the idea that libraries are the one service that can be run by well-meaning but unqualified, inexperienced and unpaid amateurs.  We can argue over who is to blame for this fallacy: Government ideology, the LGA, individual councils and councillors, the lack of leadership and advocacy shown by the SCL and Cilip, and even the overoptimistic bumbling of ACE, but it is volunteers themselves who also must bear some of the responsibility.

Communities are often blackmailed or pressured by their local authority into running a service they already pay for through their council tax.  However, despite the good intentions and the desire not to see services stripped from their community, the irony is that every time a volunteer or group steps forward to run their local library it justifies Vaizey’s position.

It vindicates the approach of keeping libraries open no matter what while ‘hollowing’ out the service in other ways. It expedites de-professionalization, the cutting back of paid, experienced staff, and the lessening of specialised services. The Catch-22 is that by saving something the volunteer places great value on; their local library, they expedite the diminution of the overall service.

Ultimately, despite the best of intentions, by taking on the running of their local library, volunteers become part of the problem, not the solution.

Public & Mobile Libraries Group

It’s good to see the new Public & Mobile Libraries Group up and running after such a long hiatus, particularly during such challenging times for public libraries.

The stated aim of the group is ‘…to provide information, training, development and networking opportunities to all levels of staff working in public and mobile libraries and to act as advocates for public library services.’ 

Despite the travails of the past year and the prediction of next year being even worse I am trying to enter the New Year with a sense of optimism. Therefore, I’m hoping the PMLG will provide the political advocacy for public libraries that has been lacking within Cilip so far and that they are not curtailed by the traditional reticence of the Council towards anything that smacks of confrontation with the government…or ACE…or the SCL etc! I am also hoping that the new raft of Council members are willing to be more critical in defence of libraries.

The PMLG has started well including a survey to members that gave quite a high priority to advocacy work. They have also produced an excellent new journal called Access and I would urge all members to read it.  It also contains an article about PLN, the single most useful website about public libraries in the current climate. If anyone deserves to be nominated in the Queen’s birthday honours list for services to libraries it is Ian Anstice.

Anyway, I wish the very best of luck to the PMLG committee and look forward to seeing the work of the group develop.

You say it best…!

There’s not much that I can add to the disappointing statement by SCL regarding the recent Cipfa figures that others haven’t already highlighted.

Even allowing for the fact that the SCL is part of the LGA the statement was misguided at best and disingenuous at worst, managing in one short phrase to offend not only library campaigners, but totally misrepresent the reality of what is happening for many at a local level. Perhaps it will be some comfort to those in Lincolnshire to know that their library service is being changed ‘in tune with local community need’…but somehow I doubt it!

That said, this was a no win situation in which the SCL were damned if they did or damned if they didn’t criticise the volunteer figures so perhaps they should have taken inspiration from the song lyrics, ‘you say it best when you say nothing at all’ or  for those of an older persuasion ‘silence is golden’.

The biggest disappointment is that although this is an official statement from SCL many individual heads of libraries will be just as dismayed as library campaigners.

When is a library not a library?

Reported recently in the Harrowgate News  ACE’s continuing misplaced mission to mould libraries to its cultural agenda gathers apace with no less than a new undertaking to change ‘…both the public and government perception of libraries and developing them as cultural hubs and creative spaces’, which apparently are the ‘…keys to the future sustainability of libraries.’

And there’s me thinking literacy, learning, and information provision are what libraries are about!

Both Desmond Clarke and Alan Wylie make telling points regarding ACE’s approach that I fully agree with.

The difficulty is knowing how to deal with ACE. On one hand they are the official government body tasked with overseeing libraries and therefore are in a position to do a great deal of good. On the other hand they have displayed a level of ignorance and incompetence towards libraries that is not only incredibly frustrating to both librarians and campaigners but also damaging to services.

Take Envisioning the library of the future for example, which many councils have taken at face value and have used to justify the widespread use of volunteers in libraries. Rather than supporting and developing libraries, ACE has enabled councils to hoodwink communities by promoting the over-optimistic and misleading findings and presenting libraries as little more than community hubs.

As I’ve argued before the SCL Universal Offers present a far better opportunity for public libraries and is more in keeping with their core mission. It is a great pity that ACE have not seen fit to work in partnership with the SCL to adopt and promote the offers as the real key to the future sustainability of libraries.

A Few Library Quotes

Like many people I take inspiration from what others have written about libraries. Here are a few quotes that strike me as particularly apt:

“The only true equalisers in the world are books; the only treasure-house open to all comers is a library; the only wealth which will not decay is knowledge; the only jewel which you can carry beyond the grave is wisdom.” J.A. Langford

As true today as when written and aptly represents some of the core aspects of what for me libraries are about. Not only being universal and open to all but proactively serving the less advantaged, particularly around education and literacy, in order to be a ‘true equaliser’.

“I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking something up and finding something else on the way.” Franklin P. Adams

We often talk about the ‘brows-ability’ of libraries, just wandering amongst the shelves and seeing what grabs our fancy. I quite often start looking for one particular book or genre and come out with something completely, and enjoyably, different.

“A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up children without surrounding them with books…. Children learn to read being in the presence of books” Horace Mann 

I suspect Horace would have been a great supporter of the Summer Reading Challenge. It’s a pity that studies show so many children growing up in homes with few or no books

“To read a book for the first time is to make an acquaintance with a new friend; to read it for a second time is to meet an old one.” Anonymous, Chinese saying

As a prolific re-reader of books this certainly resonates with me.

“There’s nothing to match curling up with a good book when there’s a repair job to be done around the house.”  Joe RYAN

Who hasn’t procrastinated around doing chores when there’s a good book to be read!

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Cicero

As a keen GYO gardener this is personal favourite of mine. Feed the body and feed the mind.

Not so ACE!

Like many others I viewed, with a fair amount of disappointment but little surprise, how ACE think public libraries should be integrated into a wider arts & culture strategic framework. The big mistake here is the assumption that libraries are a strand of cultural provision when in fact arts and culture is but one strand of partnership working and activity that libraries undertake. There is a subtle but very important difference here. Obviously, the biggest mistake was putting public libraries under the remit of ACE in the first place.

This is not the first time that library staff and campaigners have faced a disappointing response from ACE. The Envisioning the Library of the Future report, with its over-optimistic view of the impact of library closures and the ability of volunteers to fill the gap, is still derided by many within the profession. That said, they are a government funded body, so perhaps it is unrealistic to expect them to prioritise the views of campaigners over driving forward the government’s agenda in order to justify their own funding.

Even the SCL have waded into the debate pointing out that the important work of supporting IT literacy, community health, and generating economic prosperity was not reflected in the strategy. In other words, ignoring most of the SCL universal offers scheme.

Rather than cultural provision it is education and information provision that are at the heart of what libraries do. This is their core function, their raison d’etre. A fact that ACE repeatedly, and perhaps deliberately, fails to understand.

Part of Carnegie’s dictum was to “spend the first third of one’s life getting all the education one can.”  This is still as appropriate today as in Carnegie’s time. And libraries still have an important role to play in helping people achieve this; through supporting formal education, lifelong learning, and providing the best possible access to information. Equally, libraries are about fostering a love of reading for pleasure. This is not a luxury but a social and economic imperative.

For me, arts and cultural activities for libraries are a ‘nice to have’. Whereas, education and information access are an essential ‘have’. In times of limited and dwindling funding I know where I would choose to concentrate my resources.

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NB: A excellent  comment by Desmond Clarke re: ACE strategy can be found on the PLN website.

Opposition is the hardest word

There has, quite rightly, been suspicion and not a little outrage at an official government website that is actively promoting individuals and communities to take over libraries. Now, for those of us on the front line of public library cuts, this doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. However, what is causing consternation is that the government appear to be advocating volunteer led libraries not as a last resort but proactively as a viable, cost-effective alternative.

Cilip has expressed concern and sought clarification from the government and Ed Vaizey over the wording and implications involved, and called for the government to reiterate its commitment to statutory public library services.

Now, Cilip is absolutely right to be concerned and to raise this issue and I applaud them for doing so. However, the real question is what happens next? What will Council do when clarification is provided, or indeed if clarification is provided? Can we expect stronger opposition from our professional body over the whole issue of volunteer led libraries?

Rather than highlighting a weak policy backed by ineffectual advocacy Cilip should be developing a new strategy to actively address the issue of volunteer led libraries and the Government’s rush to impose them on communities regardless.

Opposition might be a difficult concept for Cilip to grasp (evidenced by the lack of willingness to proactively highlight the motion of no confidence in Ed Vaizey) but so far, the usual tactic of quiet, backroom diplomacy has failed spectacularly. For those of us in public libraries the diplomacy has been so quiet as to be deafeningly silent.

However, as any politician knows, while cooperation and conciliation are preferred, conflict and opposition are also useful tools in the arsenal.