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Libraries Deliver…

The following is an edited version of an article by John Vincent. It has been reproduced with permission from The Network Newsletter, Number 189, December 2016 (full article with appendices and footnotes). In it, John takes an in-depth look and analysis of the Ambition report and the correlation to social justice.

Libraries Deliver

The Libraries Taskforce report was finally published on 1 December. It has already had considerable media coverage, so this assessment is going to focus primarily on its approach to social justice (and how far the issues raised, for example during the consultation workshops, have been taken on board).

In addition, The Network responded at some length to the Independent Review of Public Libraries: a consultation, and again in May 2016 to the draft version of the report that appeared earlier this year; John Vincent also attended one of the consultation workshops – and this assessment will look at how many of these issues have also been taken on board.

Thinking about and analysis of the report are still in their early stages – no doubt there will be considerable additional comment that will need to be picked up at a later stage, but this assessment is intended to be a starter!

The social context

To start with some broader but vital points, in our response to the draft version of the report, we said:

“A key issue for us in looking at Libraries Deliver is how far it considers the context in which people are living in 2016 – and what we can forecast for the years 2017-2021 […]

We would want to see Libraries Deliver addressing some of the following issues, none of which is likely to have disappeared by 2021:

  • The increasing polarisation of rich and poor, and increasing inequality in the UK  
  • The increasing health gap between rich and poor  
  • The increase in poverty, for example as manifested by the growth of food-banks  
  • The removal of public services and the effects this has on people dependant on them  
  • The reduction in the public sphere, with, for example, fewer places where people can freely meet  
  • The growth in racism and Islamophobia, as well as hostility to migration  
  • The growing evidence of corruption at the heart of society, for example in the police (Hillsborough, undercover policing), in politics (expenses scandals)

Where are these issues – which the best public libraries are engaging with – reflected in this paper?” [p2]

We also argued that the suggested impacts of libraries “seem a bit too ‘safe’, and it would be good if they became ‘grittier’, for example including how libraries can have an impact on people’s lives in relation to the contextual issues mentioned above.”

Our response gave a few examples too: “[…] young people being bullied, trans people wanting to find out more about transitioning, BME people wanting to find themselves reflected in society somewhere, sex workers wanting to read up on contraception and sources of support.” [p6]

  • None of this has got into the final report. This is disappointing, and significant for several reasons:
  • It leaves an impression that libraries are not part of/engaging with the real political and social world. 
  • It also appears as though libraries are disengaged from the struggles that many in their communities face every day.  
  • It gives the impression that libraries are intended for only some kinds of people. For example, the figure, “Libraries are for everyone, throughout their lives” [p13], is a good illustration of part of what libraries do, but is targeted at ‘Active’ participants (“Children and young people”, “Active learners”, “Active citizens”, “Active ageing”); and, similarly, the figure on the next age, “Examples of targeted services which libraries provide for specific life situations” [p14], again gives some important examples, but is also quite unchallenging.
  • Libraries end up sounding ‘cosy’, ‘nice’, possibly ‘not-for-the-likes-of-us’.

Detailed response

Section 3: Context

The Context section in the report reflects, in many ways, a different ‘context’ from that we have noted above. It is completely understandable that, in setting the scene, this report does emphasise the positive aspects of library provision – why, otherwise, are libraries deserving of support? – but, at the same time, by doing so, it smooths over a lot of rough edges that should have been highlighted in this important report.

For example, it is important to emphasise that “Public libraries are a unique and valued public service” [p12], but this point is not helped with evidence that people thought libraries “[…] should be protected, whether or not they themselves were a regular user.” [p12]

The reach of public libraries is impressive, and there is considerable evidence of their impact on people’s lives, yet the paragraphs on p12 make it sound as though there is no problem with them: there is ample evidence of people who are not welcomed in libraries and do not use their services, and, of course, in the current dire financial situation, libraries are being starved of resources – which, in turn, is having a major impact on usage.

The sections on the legal position and on funding do not go nearly far enough in suggesting ways out of the current position; to say merely that “Councils will need to take these [funding and demographic changes] – and many other issues – into account when restructuring budgets to meet strategic priorities.” [p16] is not really very helpful.

Section 4: Vision

The final report has pulled together the vision statements (which were spread under the different ‘Purposes’ – now ‘Outcomes’ – in the previous version), and are more coherent and punchy set in one table.

These seem a useful set of overall ‘ambitions’ – for communities, public services and partners, and libraries themselves – but how will they be achieved?

Section 5: Outcomes

  • Section 5 looks at how the ambitions may be achieved via focusing on seven Outcomes:
  • cultural and creative enrichment 
  • increased reading and literacy 
  • improved digital access and literacy 
  • helping everyone achieve their full potential 
  • healthier and happier lives 
  • greater prosperity 
  • stronger, more resilient communities [p21]

(These are also looked at in more depth in Appendix 1 – please see below.)

Interestingly, the wording and order of the Outcomes have changed since the previous draft, which gives them some more power. Here are brief comments on each:

  • Cultural and creative enrichment: this Outcome has moved to the top of the list. It very much relates to the Arts Council agenda, especially with the emphasis on libraries-as-venues:

“We’ll encourage libraries to establish themselves as a focal point for community cultural life, hosting and running a range of activities in partnership with amateur and professional groups. As a result, we’d expect to see increasing attendance and active participation in creative arts by people of all ages and backgrounds.” [p23]

  • Increased reading and literacy: whilst citing research to show that reading does have a positive impact on health and wellbeing, this section is not strongly argued. Having argued for the positive impact of reading/literacy, it then says that there is a lack of basic skills, but does not suggest ways that this might be overcome; and the case study used is, again, the Summer Reading Challenge, the impact of which on literacy levels is unknown.
  • Improved digital access and literacy: this includes a good section on the role of libraries to support digital inclusion (but could have done with a case study other than the Tinder Foundation).
  • Helping everyone achieve their full potential: this is one section where a link to the wider world would really have been of benefit. At a time when social mobility is a ‘hot topic’, some detail here about libraries’ positive role in this could have made a significant impact.
  • Healthier and happier lives: the case for libraries’ role in health is not well made here (for example, had some of the examples from the Norfolk case study – which is mentioned on p28 – been drawn out, this would have signalled much more clearly what libraries can offer.
  • Greater prosperity: this is an important role, and one which many libraries are already involved in. The British Library Business and IP Centres are a valuable opening up of the BL’s resources – but surely meet the needs of only certain kinds of small businesses? There is a concern here that we are seeing this as a complete solution when it is only a partial one.
  • Stronger, more resilient communities: this section really does need further development. Given that there have been two very recent reports on the growing lack of social cohesion – and the dangers this poses – much more should have been made of libraries’ role in building cohesive societies; and the strong evidence of the key involvement of the library in Ferguson could also have illustrated this. As one of the messages from this review is that we need to ‘sell’ ourselves to partners and to local authorities, surely this could have been a great way of doing so?

Section 6: How we’ll achieve this

This section argues that, to make the vision and Outcomes a reality, “further development of library services” [p32] is required. The report suggests that “strong local leadership” [p32] can be supported nationally by the Taskforce, and that, together, there is a set of actions that need to be taken. These include the following:

  • Encouraging common design principles 
  • Planning public library services to meet local needs  
  • Considering different models for local service delivery  
  • Funding library services in varied and sustainable ways
  • Defining what an excellent library service looks like  
  • Helping libraries use better evidence to support decision-making  
  • Stronger co-ordination and partnership working  
  • Developing the library workforce, now and for the future

These seem very sensible courses of action – but, of course, are entirely dependent on adequate resourcing and political support.

Section 7: Making the case for libraries

This section pulls together all the points made in the previous draft report about improving the image of public libraries and people’s awareness of what they offer.

It includes:

  • Championing libraries to decision-makers: this has four connected priorities:
  1. “developing influence with local councillors and decision-makers to secure local support and funding, promoting ‘library first’ approaches whenever new service developments are planned 
  2. using data and evidence to make decision-makers aware of what public library services have to offer and how libraries can help achieve their wider strategic goals 
  3. ensuring that future policy and regulation at a national level supports public libraries 
  4. promoting achievements where local leaders have supported and worked through their public library service” [p52]
  • Creating wider public awareness of what libraries have to offer
  • Promoting positive messages about libraries in the media

Section 8: How we’ll take this forward

This brief section outlines the next steps for the Taskforce – primarily regularly reviewing progress on the actions listed in the report and in the separate Action Plan11 [also, please see below].

This is followed by 5 Annexes:

  • Annex 1: The 7 Outcomes the public library network supports [to be considered in more depth below]
  • Annex 2: Action plan [also see below]
  • Annex 3: Summary of the consultation and responses: this sets out the main changes to the draft report, which have been taken on board
  • Annex 4: Role and remit of Taskforce member organisations
  • Annex 5: Image credits and references: this incudes weblinks for some 167 footnotes.

Annex 1: The 7 Outcomes the public library network supports

This is where the detail about the seven Outcomes and what they involve is. As noted above, the Outcomes have been re-named and re-ordered, and there is more depth to them. Here is a quick assessment of each.

Outcome 1: Cultural and creative enrichment

This Outcome is much stronger than in the draft report, and has developed the sense of libraries as cultural hubs. There still is no link between this and Outcome 3 – makerspaces can be cultural and creative as well as STEM based. (This work will also be further developed as SCL creates the Creativity Universal Offer.)

Outcome 2: Increased reading and literacy

Here the “Success in 2021 will look like” section is shorter but mostly better defined than in the draft. The new ‘ambitions’ are:

  • “improvement in England’s international literacy rankings 
  • all library services offering a range of reading/literacy programmes and activities with an increase in the number of children, young people, adults and families participating (both as readers and volunteers) and, as a result, increased reading for pleasure 
  • stronger partnerships between public libraries and local schools” [p61]

It would still have been useful for the report to spell out what the “stronger partnerships between public libraries and local schools” would actually involve.

The outline of the role that libraries play in developing reading and literacy is clearer, and the report has moved away from what seemed to be quantitative approaches; there is also a wider range of reading programmes listed (although it would have been good to have included some local library service initiatives – which do not form part of a national programme – as well, such as Warwickshire’s creative reading festivals12.

Outcome 3: Increased digital access and literacy

The “Success in 2021” section is, again, stronger, although it would have been valuable to have linked digital skills and access to overcoming some of the social context issues outlined above.

The description is much stronger, with good emphases on outreach and digital inclusion.

Outcome 4: Helping everyone achieve their full potential

This has replaced “Learning” which was what was in the draft. It is much simpler and clearer, and more community-related, and less focused on measurable outcomes.

Outcome 5: Healthier and happier lives

The “Success in 2021” section is much improved:

  • “libraries are perceived as important partners for achieving improved health outcomes in communities by Public Health England, NHS providers, local health bodies, clinical commissioning groups, Sustainability and Transformation Plan Committees, and other health and wellbeing commissioners and providers 
  • people perceive themselves to have improved wellbeing/to be happier as a result of participating in library activities
  • people who are housebound, or who have dementia or autism, and their carers feel more connected and supported to manage in the community, and maintain their independence and wellbeing as a result of their contact with libraries 
  • library users are enabled to self-care and self-manage their health, participate in shared decision-making with healthcare professionals, and are more health literate” [p67]

There is a wide range of types of library work included in the description, as well as some national programmes.

Outcome 6: Greater prosperity

The report now includes both ‘bigger’ schemes, such as the British Library Business and IP Centres, and the smaller-scale – but vital – work that libraries undertake around literacy and digital literacy, job clubs, help with preparing CVs, and so on.

Outcome 7: Stronger, more resilient communities

The description of this Outcome has some real strengths, eg:

“Library services should work with local people to define, develop, plan and deliver the right mix of services to meet local needs and priorities; no two places will have the same mix. For example, rural and urban areas will need different ways of delivering services. Doing this will reinforce the library’s role as a focal point for local community activity.” [p72]

and some patchy paragraphs, eg:

“Public libraries contribute directly to community cohesion by creating a sense of place for their users. Local studies work brings communities together by exploring and celebrating local people’s differing and shared culture and heritage. Libraries also provide a valuable introduction into a community for newcomers, through assistance with specific needs (such as language training and citizenship support for recent immigrants where required) and, more generally, by using their knowledge to marshal a wealth of information on the local area, services and community.” [p72]

Examples of exactly what this work involves would have been of real benefit here. The examples given are strong, but there is no real sense of an active approach by libraries to foster community cohesion.

As the report goes on to say, “Libraries can also play a major role in work to combat disadvantage.” [p72] However, it would have been helpful if some of the ways in which this happens were spelled out here.

Finally:

“Libraries also provide an inclusive, free and safe space for all, both physical and virtual, making local people equally welcome irrespective of their age or background. They are one of the few remaining places where people from different backgrounds or generations can come together to learn from and appreciate each other (for example, through reminiscence sessions helping with local history understanding, or by younger age groups helping older people with digital learning). Innovations like ‘human libraries’ […] challenge prejudices and stereotypes by stimulating social interactions that people might be unlikely to experience otherwise. We want to see libraries developing these inter-community and intergenerational activities to increase understanding and draw communities closer together.” [p73]

This is certainly true of the best library services, but, sadly, not of all. Perhaps there needs to be a clearer ‘ambition’ that this description is what every library should be aiming to achieve.

Action Plan

As noted above (in relation to Annex 2), the Action Plan13 has also been published.

This includes 25 actions to be taken by the Taskforce; 5 challenges to Central Government; and 12 challenges to Local Government/Library Services.

The Taskforce actions are taken from the report, and are grouped under:

  • Priority actions, such as ensuring that a ‘Libraries First’ approach is adopted, and that a core dataset is produced
  • Raising public awareness of what libraries have to offer 
  • Identifying and showcasing good practice and supporting innovation 
  • Supporting workforce development 
  • How we will take this forward: monitoring and reporting on progress.

The challenges are all also taken from the report and are intended to assist in the ‘Libraries First’ approach, encouraging new approaches and partnership working.

Provided the monitoring does take place and is thorough and transparent, this should give a good way of following and checking on progress (possibly not as good as a proper library planning process, but important).

Other actions

Workshops

The Taskforce is organising a series of workshops14 in January 2017:

“The events will start with a series of presentations about Ambition, followed by workshops on topics covered in the action plan. These will be an opportunity for you to learn more about the actions and enable you to give your views. Workshop topics will include:

  • mutuals and other alternative delivery models 
  • alternative funding streams 
  • communications (covering barriers to involvement and how to overcome, and shared and reusable assets) 
  • data  workforce development”

Community-managed libraries

In addition, Kathy Settle has just published a new Taskforce blogpost, “Community managed libraries – the next phase …”, which outlines the next stages in the work to support community-managed libraries – this will involve the Taskforce in:

  • Undertaking research into community managed libraries, and 
  • Working with partners to create a new peer support network to make it easier for communities to share good practice and to learn from each other.

In terms of the research, DCMS have commissioned SERIO17 (part of Plymouth University) to carry out a survey of:

“[…] all known community managed libraries in England. The survey focuses on areas such as:

  • the different types of service(s) the library delivers and their effectiveness 
  • any barriers to service delivery 
  • staff/volunteer satisfaction and training 
  • current and future resourcing plans 
  • the financial sustainability of the library […]

An analysis of the responses, along with more detailed case studies from a representative sample of community managed libraries, will form the basis of the final report to be published in March 2017.” 18

There is further information about the peer network which intends to offer support and guidance, including:

  • “extensive range of online tools and resources 
  • series of expert webinars 
  • local networking events 
  • advice and learning from others in the network on fundraising and business development 
  • platform for shared learning 
  • signposting to other external resources 
  • Q&A forum for practical advice and support 
  • sector news and debates – how can you make a difference?”

Libraries Opportunities for Everyone Innovation Fund

ACE have also announced this new funding stream20 which “will support projects that develop innovative library service activity to benefit disadvantaged people and places in England.”

Principles for the Leadership and Development of Public Library Services in England

Finally, CILIP has issued a challenge to “HM Government, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Local Government Association, the Arts Council England and fellow members of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce” to support ten principles. These are:

1. “England’s public libraries are part of a successful network which delivers key outcomes including learning, health and wellbeing, digital inclusion, civic participation and stronger local economies.

2. Securing these outcomes for the long-term depends on effective leadership through a fully-funded and evidence-based National Public Library Plan for England that is owned jointly by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association.

3. Implementing this plan requires appropriate governance of the library network, including partnerships for local delivery, regional and national support and with appropriate engagement with the equivalent strategies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

4. It also requires a national strategy for the development of the professional library workforce alongside the appropriate use of volunteers.

5. Effective national support for the library network requires an appropriately-resourced and mandated national development function, the responsibilities of which should include quality standards, targeted investment and development support and a transparent approach to monitoring and impact evaluation.

6. HM Treasury must make available to Local Authorities emergency relief funding and transitional support to ensure they are adequately resourced and funded to meet their statutory obligation for the provision of a quality public library service and to set in place appropriate plans for long-term governance and sustainability.

7. Library service points should not be transitioned out of statutory provision unless all alternative options for their maintenance have been explored, a full cost/benefits analysis has been conducted in consultation with the community and a realistic plan for long-term support is put in place.

8. Where a Local Authority fails to meet agreed standards on statutory public library service delivery (so-called ‘hollowing-out’ of services) DCMS and DCLG should use effective strategies for early intervention & improvement, including options for sanction and the removal of library services (and funding) into a national or regional Library Service.

9. Public libraries must work in partnership with other local community organisations to sustain and amplify the reach and impact of their services.

10. Public engagement with libraries should be promoted and encouraged through a joined-up programme of media and public relations led jointly by members of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce (and in future by the organisation with responsibility for the national development function for public libraries).”

Conclusions

The report has met with a mixed reaction, with some saying it’s a good way forward, with others saying it is ‘too little, too late’ and/or being critical.

In terms of social justice, there are real strengths (and it’s a huge improvement on the earlier versions), but still does not really touch the reality (as outlined above in the ‘Context’ section). The result is a vision of libraries that is very positive and proactive – but also somehow unrealistic, and unrelated to the austerity cuts and to the severe disadvantage and discrimination that large sections of the UK face.

Certainly, the £4m from ACE is very welcome – but does not really go anywhere near replacing the core funding lost by public libraries over the last eight years or so.

Overall, probably of most importance is the lack of any real monitoring process which would hold local authorities to account. Much as people grumbled about Annual Library Plans, they did ensure that a planning process was in place; plans were assessed and they and the assessments were made publicly available.

So – there are huge improvements in this version of the report compared to earlier drafts; some areas of library work come through really strongly (including aspects of their social justice work); but the real context – in the social, community and political senses – seems to have gone missing.

 

Abbreviations and acronyms

  • ACE = Arts Council England
  • BME = Black and minority ethnic
  • CILIP = Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
  • DCLG = Department for Communities and Local Government
  • DCMS – Department for Culture, Media and Sport
  • IP = intellectual property
  • SCL = Society of Chief Librarians
  • STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Review of Public Libraries 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libraries Taskforce

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

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

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

Library Ministers

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently only the Minister and DCMS know.

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

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

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

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

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

The Future

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

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

_______________________________________________

Comment from Nick Poole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

selfie-slot-car-credit-andy-willsher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

flitwick-furure-library-credit-andy-willsher

About the projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links to the Library as Laboratory projects:

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

Changing Times, Changing Roles

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

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

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

 

Following the Leader…

libraryFor anyone who hasn’t yet read it I would highly recommend the excellent post by Nick Poole ‘Giving public libraries strong leadership and commitment.’ In it he lays out a coherent vision and set of principles for public library provision , averring that:

“A strong public library service is the foundation of a literate and inclusive society and a competitive knowledge economy. Great local libraries are an investment in communities, providing a cost effective way to improve health, support business start-ups, improve literacy and skills, and do all of this in a way that is open to all.”

The 10 key principles outline a clear stance on developing public libraries in England to hopefully curtail the massive reductions taking place nationally. This includes calling for emergency relief funding and intervention from government bodies where local authorities are being shown to fail their statutory provision.

It’s certainly a vision that many within the profession and campaigners should be able to support. If there’s a drawback it’s the reliance on the proposals being adopted by the same bodies who have so far failed to provide national leadership or a framework of protection for libraries.

However, due credit to Cilip for taking the lead in articulating what the sector needs to firstly survive and then hopefully develop.

Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England

In marked contrast we are still awaiting the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Libraries Deliver: Ambition. Although, originally due for publication by the end of July this year, the report was held up due to the appointment of a new libraries minister, Rob Wilson.

A further update was provided by the Taskforce in September but with no firm deadline in sight. It’s concerning that a report that was on the verge of being ready for publication over 3 months ago is still languishing in the DCMS, while the sector remains rudderless, libraries closures announced almost daily, and hundreds more staff lost to the profession.

But never mind at least it allows the new minister time to get his feet under the table!

Obviously, we have no way of knowing if or how far the report has been amended, or if any changes will be for the better or worse. Certainly Ed Vaizey was no friend to libraries so perhaps Rob Wilson’s view will be more positive. That said, how long does it take to amend an almost complete document. Then again perhaps the new minister’s view is so different to his predecessor that it requires a major revamp?

It will be interesting if the final product will be recognisable to everyone who attended the consultation workshops and if it fits with the work done and expectations raised at them.

What Next?

Perhaps Cilip has chosen to deliberately steal a march on the Ambition report. Certainly, it has challenged fellow members of the Libraries Taskforce to support the Principles for the Leadership and Development of Public Library Services in England as outlined in the blog post. Whether they will or not remains to be seen.

Partly, Cilip’s reaction could be borne out of the frustration with the long delay in publication of the Ambition document. Equally, there might be a perception that the report will fail to provide the guidance that’s needed for the sector and Cilip is setting out its stall in advance. This remains to be seen and comparing the two side-by-side will no doubt be highly informative and perhaps not a little contentious.

The one thing that is clear however is that only Cilip is currently offering a strategic framework and the leadership that the sector needs, while the others lag behind.

The test to how successful Cilip will be is how closely aligned its vision is to the Taskforce’s and what the fall-out will be if there is a wide discrepancy between the two.

 

 

Cilip VP Election – Rita Marcella

This post is written by Rita Marcella, one of the two candidates for Cilip Vice-President. I asked each candidate the same five questions with the opportunity for an opening and closing statement. The questions reflect my own interests as a public librarian but are hopefully also relevant for the wider profession as well as campaigners. 

The successful candidate will be elected Vice-President and “…will become CILIP President in 2018. The Vice-President and President are honorary roles and their duties include being an ambassador and spokesperson for CILIP.” 

Many thanks to Rita for sharing her views.  

Details on how to vote can be found at: Elections for the CILIP Board and for Vice-President 

rita-marcellaAbout me

I have been a librarian since my early twenties when I first went to work in a university library after graduating with my Diploma in Information and Library Studies. After having my first child I became an academic teaching cataloguing and classification, user studies and bibliographic and reference work. My research and teaching interests have varied far and wide over the years and I honestly believe that there is not an aspect of library and information service that I have not reflected upon over that time.

However, despite varied interests and work with public library services, advisory services and special libraries in government and business, my chief personal research interest has always remained that of supporting the library and information user to access the information they need to help them in every aspect of their everyday lives. I like to look at the issue from both sides: from that of the information service provider and of the information service user, understanding the motivations, context and challenges of both.

Over the last 15 years as Dean of a business faculty my focus has been on interaction with industry and management of resources, both of which have given me keen insights into the challenges facing organisations in both the public and private sectors. I have also been involved in numerous charities and non-exec boards, in particular in work to enhance equity and diversity.

1. What is the core message of your manifesto?

I feel passionate about the value of library and information service and about our profession – I believe that the enabled access that we in the profession provide is critical to people’s lives in a huge number of ways and I would appreciate the opportunity in the role of Vice President to support the profession in maximising the impact of that message.

We need to provide more tangible evidence of the ways in which access to information and knowledge empowers individuals, organisations and societies. It is my view that there has been a steady erosion of the funding of, investment in and commitment to libraries and information service support in all kinds of spheres in the three decades of my career and that this erosion has been mirrored in academia, where our discipline has found itself swamped by an organisational incorporation into ‘bigger’ disciplines to the detriment of the subject. I’d like to bring the whole profession – practitioners, academics and those entering the profession together to assemble the evidence of the impact of libraries and information in an even stronger way. Through CILIP we have the base of professional partnership on which to make that work.

2. If elected what is the one area you would like to see CILIP tackle?

I should like CILIP to tackle the notion of empowerment through information both by celebrating the successes and illustrating the impact of information access but also by exploring further the ways in which people, organisations and societies can be disadvantaged through not having access to relevant, reliable and robust information. This is very much in line with my own chief focus in so much of my work but I believe that it is an agenda that it is at the heart of what CILIP is seeking to achieve.

3. What would you like to see the Taskforce’s Ambitions document contain?

I’d like a clear action plan on assembly of evidence and its powerful communication. I think that all of us who are involved in LIS understand and believe passionately in the vital role that libraries and information services play at every stage and in every context. What we have perhaps been less good at doing is having a targeted strategy for how to tackle the attitude that allow us to be packaged up as something that is ‘nice to have’ in good times but under threat at others. Strengthening and reinforcing powerful advocacy and building on work CILIP has already done is crucial.

My own particular contribution to the debate whether or not I am successful in this election will be to develop our understanding of how access to libraries and information more generally enables people and in particular disadvantaged groups to overcome barriers to success and exclusion from society.

4. In your opinion are public and school libraries facing a crisis or opportunity? 

As ever there are no threats without opportunities – that is an accepted truism in business practice. The threat is real and has resulted in the erosion I describe above – and not just in public and school libraries, but in every kind of library and information service imaginable. But the opportunities are there too: indeed arguably too many opportunities. For another truism in management is that if you have 83 priorities, you’ll fail: if you have one or two you have a far greater chance of success. And one of the ways in which the profession and academia needs to work together is on identifying and focusing on the most high value opportunities, the biggest wins – is that the extent to which libraries and information services support the health of our economy? That’s a big ticket item for sure.

5. What is your opinion of the My Library By Right Campaign & did you sign the petition?

I agree that all of society should have free and equal rights to information through libraries and other forms of provision and I support the My Library by Right, as I did the American Library Association’s Declaration for the Right to Libraries. I was very happy to sign the petition and wish the campaign every success. It is it seems to me a fact that LIS professional communities across the globe share the same set of common values about libraries and information and we need to work together through IFLA and other fora to drive forward such campaigns.

My final thoughts

Standing in the election for Vice President of CILIP has given me a very welcome opportunity to reflect back over a career spent working in Library and Information Science, a career of researching information use and need amongst citizens, business, decision makers in government and so on – but also a career of recruiting young people into the profession and preparing them for a career in library and information service. Those 35 years have seen many changes but ultimately at their core the library and information professional is dedicated to excellent service to people, to organisations and to society. We have a huge amount to celebrate in that but some messages to convey to policy makers about how and why that is important.

I want to conclude by saying that while I would be honoured if given the opportunity to take on the role of Vice President of CILIP, I will not be downcast if I am not successful for having read the post of my fellow candidate in the hustings, Ayub Khan, that I completely support everything that he says.

Cilip VP Election – Ayub Khan

This post is written by Ayub Khan, one of the two candidates for Cilip Vice-President. I asked each candidate the same five questions with the opportunity for an opening and closing statement. The questions reflect my own interests as a public librarian but are hopefully also relevant for the wider profession as well as campaigners. 

The successful candidate will be elected Vice-President and “…will become CILIP President in 2018. The Vice-President and President are honorary roles and their duties include being an ambassador and spokesperson for CILIP.” 

Many thanks to Ayub for sharing his views. 

Details on how to vote can be found at: Elections for the CILIP Board and for Vice-President 

ayub-khanAbout me

I started my library career as a Saturday assistant more than 25 years ago. I have hands-on experience of all aspects of library services – at nearly every level. For the past few years I have been working hard in Warwickshire, steering county services through much change and many economies.

I have been a member of CILIP for more than two decades so I have a good understanding of the organisation, its membership, values and ambitions. I have been heavily involved in the national and international library scene, through various professional bodies, helping to develop new strategies and programmes whilst steadfastly adhering to traditional library values.

I would describe myself as a moderniser and problem-solver – and someone who is prepared to hard-sell library services at every opportunity. I am equally comfortable presenting to Government Ministers, or chatting to customers. In 2013, I was awarded an MBE for my services to libraries.

1. What is the core message of your manifesto?

Despite the challenges of recent austerity years I remain enthusiastic, committed and optimistic about the future for libraries. I believe CILIP has a pivotal role to play in providing a positive narrative for libraries – and pressing for positive action – as the leading voice of a vibrant and forward-thinking profession.

2. If elected what is the one area you would like to see Cilip tackle?

If elected as Vice-President I would focus on libraries’ future potential, as well as their proud traditions. My priorities would be workforce development, advocating the key role of knowledge workers, partnerships and technology.

 3. What would you like to see the Taskforce’s Ambitions document contain?

I would like to see the Taskforce come up with some practical, funded actions for change. There have been several reports, in recent years, looking at the future for libraries – but relatively little has changed as a result. We need to move forward now, with a clear purpose, ministerial mandate, and a properly-funded action plan.

4. In your opinion are public and school libraries facing a crisis or opportunity? 

Libraries have certainly had a tough time over the last few years and, for many of us, there are more cuts to come. We need to capitalise on the wider range of services libraries now offer – and their unique role. There are real opportunities for libraries around information literacy, data security  and information governance.

There has been plenty of commentary on the wider benefits of libraries – for health, literacy levels, education and job prospects, social inclusion and cohesion, the cultural wellbeing of the nation….. One anecdote sticks in my mind. Author Neil Gaiman, during his 2013 Reading Agency lecture, said he once heard a talk in New York about private prison provision in America. Apparently they forecast the number of cells that would be needed in 15 years time based on the percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds unable to read.

More recently, the October 2016 Libraries Taskforce meeting focused on ‘healthier and happier lives’ – one of its seven key outcomes. Members stressed ‘the importance of libraries marshalling evidence to advocate their strengths’ so they could promote library services – to health commissioners – as a prime delivery channel, particularly in terms of the self-management agenda.

What shocked me was the fact that, in one of the richest countries in the world, more people die from loneliness than smoking. Surely we need no other incentive?

Digital developments present all kinds of exciting opportunities for libraries. Advancing technology will enable library services to work together more effectively – and to offer more and better services to both physical and online customers.

Blowing our own trumpet: the opportunities are out there. I would encourage the profession to sing its own praises a lot more, and to shout about the power and importance of libraries. I know we tend to be modest types by nature but we are underselling the wider impacts we have on society. Libraries need to be seen as the solution, not a problem. Evidence-based advocacy – and the confidence to deliver it – is crucial.

5. What is your opinion of the My Library By Right Campaign & did you sign the petition?

I signed the My Library By Right petition as an individual citizen and support the campaign in principle. We need to take our voice to a national level – because it was national policy that created the austerity agenda. And we should capitalise on the massive public support for libraries of all kinds. We need others to be our advocates – as this would be more powerful.

Finally

It may sound corny but the library profession has given me so much that I want to give something back. I have a hands-on background but plenty of high-level strategic experience gained from the ‘day job’ and various voluntary/honorary roles I have undertaken, over the years. I believe my experience would bring a broader perspective to the Vice-Presidency, and I would welcome opportunities to influence policy, ensuring grass roots concerns and aspirations were fully considered.

 

Cilip Vice-President Election

vote2The good news is that there will be elections for the post of Vice-President, which has not always been the case in the past with Cilip struggling to generate interest and attract candidates.

Elections are not only healthy for the democratic mandate of the professional body but shows an increasing interest in Cilip by members. Those standing are to be commended for their willingness to give up their time and energy to support the work of Cilip.

In return it is only right that members show an interest in election and participate in the ballot. Voting opens on the 8th November and closes 1st December. Further details can be found on the Cilip election page with details of the candidates submissions.

The post of the Vice-President is particularly important as the successful candidate will also be President the following year and will influence the direction of travel for Cilip. Both VP candidates, Ayub Khan and Rita Marcella, have kindly agreed to write a post for me outlining their ideas and answering some questions, which I will publish over the coming weeks.

I have recently gone from being highly critical of Cilip to being a strong supporter due to the approach the body is now taking, particularly in questioning both central and local government decisions concerning libraries. With that in mind I shall be following the election closely, with the hope that the successful nominee is willing to drive the current direction forward and not put the metaphorical brakes on.

There is a time and place for a softly-softly approach but this is not one of them. We need clear strategic leadership and a strong voice in support of libraries, not quiet acquiesce to government policy. It will be interesting to see which candidate will provide this.

________________________________________

Addendum:

Barbara Band has kindly pointed out that the:

“Presidential Team (ie: VP, President and Immediate Past President) attend board meetings and are able to participate in discussions, none of them can vote. This can be quite frustrating but those accepting the position are aware that it is outward facing, the link between members and the board. The Presidential Team may be able to influence board members by being verbally persuasive but the direction of CILIP comes from the voting board members and it is the Presidential Team’s role to support any decisions made.”

And it is the outward facing role to the membership and public that is incredibly important in setting the tone for the body. Both Barbara and the current President, Dawn Finch, are outspoken critics of Government policy and changes within the sector. Unfortunately, this has not always been the situation and many past presidents have felt restrained by their position from being overtly critical of political decisions or partner organisations.

My hope is that the current stance of speaking more frankly about the negative impacts on the profession and the public will continue, instead of the banal platitudes that unfortunately still appear in some quarters.

 

 

 

 

Parish Councils, Localism & Libraries

I’ve previously written about the trend of moving services over to Parish and Town Councils, which at the time appeared not to have gained much notice in library campaigning circles.

This development has gained traction with more and more authorities looking to second tier councils to take responsibility for services, including libraries (single tier Unitary or Metropolitan Authorities operate slightly differently).

The rationale being that first tier authorities e.g. County, District or Borough Councils are capped by central government in terms of raising council tax but parish councils are not. Previously this stood at 2% but the 2016-17 financial year saw the Government propose a threshold of 4% for local authorities with social care responsibilities and 2% for district councils.

Any proposed rise above this limit would require a local referendum, which few councils have the appetite for. Currently, parish and town councils are not subject to such limitations and can raise precepts above the 2% threshold. Thus, cash-strapped local authorities have sought to exploit this loop-hole to pass services downwards.

The transfer of responsibility has been window-dressed in the terminology of Localism: the desire to  encourage decision making at the lowest practical level of local government in order to decide what level of services should continue e.g. street cleaning and grounds maintenance.

However, regardless of the jargon used it is not the desire to empower communities that is the driving force but the harsh financial settlement imposed by central government year on year on councils. Unfortunately, with no lessening of the overall council tax, plus a rise in the local precept, many people regard this as paying twice for the same service.

It also puts greater pressure on parish councils not only to provide additional services but to raise income and resources within a small locality. This is coupled with a fear that continuing excessive rises in the precept will lead to the introduction of a cap similar to the limit on first tier authorities. There are also technical issues around ‘General Powers of Competence’ and the need to employ a qualified Clerk in order to deliver such services.

The counter-argument runs that if local people do not see the value in a particular service then it will discontinue, with the principle that communities will only get those amenities they are willing to pay for.

In practice this leads to another two-tier model of winners and losers. The winners are those lucky enough to live in an affluent parish, with an articulate community willing to save their local library. The losers are those communities without the social structure to mount a robust defence, which will see library provision disappear.

This is the downside of localism. Relocating services not to empower communities but to divest financial responsibility and place libraries in a more precarious position so that if they fail the blame lies with the local community and not the local authority.

Pragmatic, a cynical ploy, or just a matter of financial survival for the local authority? Sadly, in the current political and financial climate, it’s likely to be all three.

 

The Price of Everything…

Regardless of any other reservations campaigners might have about the Libraries Taskforce there should be no argument about the quality of the recent series of posts around the theme of how libraries deliver.

The seven posts highlight a core set of nationally important outcomes around literacy, culture, communities, prosperity, digital, wellbeing and lifelong learning. As a valuable promotional tool for campaigners and library staff alike the series evidence how vital the work of libraries are, not just nationally, but to local communities.

I would encourage all librarians to ensure that their lead members and senior corporate officers are aware of the posts.  

For me, the series shows that even amongst continuing bad news around library cuts it’s still not difficult to find exemplars of innovative library developments and the positive and demonstrable impact such services have on users. The mounting evidence reveals what those involved in libraries have known for a long time; that is, the essential societal, educational, and economic benefits that libraries bring.

Another project that will hopefully provide further evidence is the Arts Council funding to Libraries Unlimited and Exeter University’s Business School to run a two year research project around the social value of libraries. 

In practice this is what I believe R. David Lankes meant when he challenged UK libraries to follow their US counterparts and take control of the narrative around libraries and to demonstrate their worth to the wider public and politicians alike.

The rationale being that a positive message around the beneficial effects of libraries to decision makers would lead to a greater understanding and appreciation, resulting ultimately in a lessening of closures and cuts.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened and it’s not for want of understanding by decision makers or profile-raising activity within the sector.

There are many eloquent advocates for libraries both within and outwith the profession, from big name authors, actors, and politicians, to high profile public organisations such as the BBC, to a host of ordinary people campaigning to save their libraries at a local level. Libraries are rarely out of the local and national newspapers.

A recent example of support for libraries is from the Big Issue founder, Lord Bird. In an excellent and well informed speech to the House of Lords around the difficulties facing libraries and small booksellers he highlighted the many positives that libraries bring and the consequences of closing them.

So the message for libraries is clearly out there, the narrative is changing, despite the still occasional uninformed comment from individual politicians and councillors.

Unfortunately, the underlying challenge is not one of narrative but funding; not messaging but money.

As Baroness Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House publishing group stated during the Lord’s debate:

“Central government also need to address the funding deficit in local authorities, where competing essential services too often result in library closures. Our trajectory towards one library per 50,000 people is simply a disaster.”

And this is the single biggest challenge for those parties involved at the strategic level nationally; the DCMS, Taskforce, Arts Council, Cilip, LGA, SCL etc. The solution needed is sourcing funding streams that provide ongoing revenue rather than just project based funds.

 The Taskforce has also set out to collect and publish a model data set for libraries with the aim 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. This includes everything from the information librarians need to manage their service day-to-day and that decision makers need to consider the strategic direction on library service provision, to the facts that will inform anyone who wants to know how their local service fits into the national picture.”

This will help provide a regular insight into the state of public libraries in England. It will be interesting to note as the data is released if continuing advocacy has any real impact on slowing down or reversing the rate of attrition amongst services and staff.

One aspect of the library story, unpalatable as it might be, is that libraries will continue to decline, not for want of being valued, but due to simple, unforgiving economics.

To use a common idiom ‘money talks’ and that is the real narrative that needs addressing. Especially against a government economic agenda that knows the “price of everything and the value of nothing.”

_______________________________________________________________

Addendum: reply from Nick Poole:

Leon, as ever, you raise arguably the central point in terms of where we go next with the library lobby. I would argue that we have always had ‘hearts and minds’, but have lacked influence and evidence. Now, thanks to the coordinated efforts of individuals and organisations across the sector, we are securing both. But these things are only useful if we are crystal clear about the tactics we are deploying and the end-game we are looking to achieve.

We have to assume that our objective is to secure the outcomes which only a great library service can deliver for our society. It follows that we should not be closed to the idea of progress – we’re not looking to prevent any library from closing ever, but to replace the current chaotic culture of financially-motivated closure, hollowing-out and volunteerism with an ongoing, effective mechanism for the management of our capacity according to clear evidence of need, supported by professionals who know what they are doing and are committed to delivering the best possible service for the people who depend on them.

This needs money, as you rightly say, but I think we need to be clear about what – precisely – we mean. Which means being absolutely clear about some key principles:

– Whichever side of the political spectrum you are on, the British electorate voted for a Government in 2015 which clearly signalled an agenda based on austerity, cuts to public services and diminishing Local Authority budgets. We may see a reversal of this policy under the new Government or following a General Election, but for the time being we are not going to reverse the dominant economic policy of low taxes and diminishing investment in public services.

– This means that public library services are intrinsically linked to a host (Local Government) that will continue to see significant real-terms losses in cash income (mostly likely in the aftermath of the Autumn Statement on the 23rd November). This leaves us with four options:

i) Seek Government intervention to ring-fence Local Authority funding for libraries, which would fly in the face of Treasury policy and the Government’s preference for localism. I have looked into the eyes of the people that would be responsible for trying to implement this and see no appetite for doing so at all;

ii) Encourage the ‘good’ Authorities (the ones that are managing to sustain investment in public libraries despite budget cuts) to continue their support by celebrating their actions in defence of libraries and providing real, credible evidence of the positive impact of their support for their local communities and economy;

iii) Discourage the ‘bad’ Authorities (the ones that are closing libraries, transitioning too rapidly into unsustainable governance models, cashing in on estate and building stock with scant regard for their statutory duties) through public intervention, the intervention of DCMS and – where necessary – direct action, local campaigning and local media activity;

iv) Support the ‘struggling’ Authorities (the ones where there genuinely isn’t the money to deliver a full statutory service, nor is there likely to be from business rates, Council Tax and other local revenues) to make informed decisions which focus on medium to long-term user need and outcomes over in-year cash savings.

– If we can stabilise the ‘core’ investment in library services through Local Authorities, then as you say it follows that we need to look to where new and additional sources of development investment may come from (in other words, if we can stop the rot – financially – we need money to invest in improvements). There are really 3 possibilities here:

i) That we address the question of how lottery funding is made available to libraries through the Arts Council England, and whether this supports the kind of core development (as opposed to a cycle of projects) which public libraries need. We have argued many times that libraries need the same kind of development support from the Arts Council that museums currently receive – a dedicated team, a UK-wide funded Museum Development Network, a clear Accreditation Scheme (and associated quality expectations) and dedicated ‘Resilience Funding’ to help strengthen the core delivery of services;

ii) That we petition the Government (as was included in our briefing to the Lords debate) for an Emergency Relief Fund to help libraries escape the short-term cycle of in-year cuts to staffing and buy time to transition to a more sustainable footing (emergency relief funding was made available by the Arts Council in 2013-14 to help struggling arts organisations transition into new, more sustainable operations);

iii) That we seek to create an alternate stream of Improvement, Development and Transitional funding for public libraries which is targeted specifically at strengthening the resilience of the public library sector.

– Finally, we are currently prone to the accusation that public libraries already receive a significant amount of taxpayer investment every year. Depending on which source (and which Nation) you take as your focus, the UK taxpayer spends between £640m and £715m on public libraries each year. It is too easy to dismiss or claims for support on the basis that this is already a significant amount of public money. With this in mind, we need to be absolutely sure that we are doing everything in our power to minimise duplication, reduce complexity, negotiate better prices for products, services and content – which also means looking at issues like shared data platforms, consortium procurement, bringing Authorities together and encouraging region-level planning and collaboration.

So, effectively from this our tactics to address your point about money would be:

1) Slow and eventually stem the rot of ‘core’ investment in libraries by Local Authorities

2) Improve the availability of development funding to help public libraries develop, improve and promote their services

3) Review the way we currently spend money either locally, nationally or (most likely) as natural clusters of library services

Unless we drive these 3 priorities collectively as a sector with focus and tactical impact, the best-intentioned ambition for public libraries won’t have a material impact on the financial realities so long as the dominant political and economic agenda remains a combination of localism, devolution and austerity.