Review of Public Libraries 2017

Last year I looked at the possible trends in public libraries for 2017 and unfortunately the challenges I identified remain unabated. The situation has deteriorated even more so and the release of the recent Cipfa data details a sector in continuing crisis. What has remained a constant since the start of austerity is deep reductions in funding, staffing, resources, and hundreds of library closures. Conversely, there has been an increase volunteer led-libraries, co-location, and technology enabled access.

There is no evidence that this trajectory is likely to change under the current administration and all indications are for deeper and more damaging cuts to the national network in England over the coming year.

However, it would be unfair to imply that nothing good is happening within libraries. Library staff have managed to drive forward creative projects and service improvement despite the challenging circumstances. For the best examples of this see the Libraries Change Lives website. Equally, new library builds and improvements are still happening and welcomed by the communities they benefit. Public Library News provides the most comprehensive and regular updates from across the sector including a list of new or refurbished libraries. The Libraries Taskforce blog also highlights good work happening and best practice from other services. Unfortunately as a government funded body, the bias is for highlighting only positive stories rather than acknowledging the difficulties that beset the sector, and as such it lacks both impartiality or gives balanced coverage.

While not entirely doom and gloom the positives above need to be set in the overall context of ongoing funding cuts to local authorities and the continuing drivers of localism and devolution. All of which continue to provide a challenging environment for libraries. Not just public libraries but all those that rely on public funding either directly or indirectly such as schools, FE, HE, and health libraries.

Commercialism

Libraries are increasingly being challenged to adopt a more commercial approach in the way they market and charge for services. In principle this is nothing new and fees and charges have always played a role in raising income; from fines, room hire, photocopying, DVD rental etc.

What has changed is the emphasis placed on income generation as central to the core budget. That is, a failure to meet an income target can have a direct impact on service delivery with the need for further efficiency savings such as reducing the stock fund or even losing staff as a result. This is particularly true of library mutuals I would guess who no longer have the safety net of the local authority to soak up any overspends.

It also highlights the dichotomy as to why library services can attract large amounts of project funding from the Arts Council but still be subject to cuts and closures. Such funding is tied to a specific project work and does nothing to alleviate the underlying structural issues such as revenue funding.

While many in the profession object to libraries being treated as profit making organisations the approach is in keeping with government policy and ideology so is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.

Recruitment

Sadly, years of austerity, hollowing out, and de-professionalisation of the sector have made public libraries an unattractive proposition for new library graduates. An article in the bookseller described the relentless cuts as turning the sector into a ‘war zone’. The sad fact is public libraries are no longer an appealing long-term career prospect.

Speaking at a round table discussion with the APPG on libraries Nick Poole argued that despite the difficulties the sector needed to invest and encourage new talent. Looking at the information sector in the round I would agree. Many opportunities exist and will continue to expand, particularly in the areas of information and knowledge management, specialist libraries, and Higher Education.

However, it’s more difficult to argue a case for public libraries, when both national and local government, and all main political parties regard library staff, including qualified librarians, as replaceable by volunteers.

The recommendation by William Sieghart to encourage and develop the library workforce and especially new recruits and graduates’ seems unachievable now. The ambition to develop a programme similar to the TeachFirst concept for librarians appears to have been dropped by the Taskforce in favour of the more achievable goal of encouraging apprenticeships, although this too is not without its difficulties.

Pay in the public sector will continue to be depressed with either a real term pay cut or wages struggling to keep pace with inflation, also make public libraries less attractive to those entering the profession.

Despite this some councillors seem to enjoy increases or pay outs far in excess of those they expect of their workforce. While no means an isolated case the leader of East Sussex Council is to get a 37% increase in his allowance and proudly states that he is “worth the money and more”. It appears you can volunteer and still be paid the equivalent of a full time wage for doing so!

This from a council leader who is threatening to close libraries unless they are funded wholly by communities or other organisations. Presumably, any volunteers taking over the threatened libraries cannot expect the same level of recompense as Councillor Glazier.

Not to be outdone Paul Blantern former CEO of Northamptonshire County Council and Chair of the Libraries Taskforce enjoyed a pay out in excess of £100k when he quit his post this year. This at the same time 21 libraries were threatened with closure as the council can  apparently no longer afford to run them.

Performance

I won’t dwell too much on the recent Cipfa figures as a very good in-depth analysis has been provide by Tim Coates on UK Library News.

The figures sadly illustrate the continuing decline of the sector, with the Bookseller describing the results as showing the “catastrophic” scale of library closures in Great Britain. Overall the figures confirm huge drops in funding, increase in library closures – 449 since 2012 but other commentators have put this higher – a drop in expenditure by £66m for 2016-7 alone, and a decline in visitor numbers 14% over five years.

However, not all councils have returned their figures so the situation is likely to be much worse.

That the situation requires urgent strategic action on a national scale is obvious. What is not obvious is where this action will come from. All the major players, ACE, DCMS, Libraries Taskforce, have so far fundamentally failed to address or halt the decline.

Part of the issue is also the loss of focus on what public libraries are for and what they should deliver. Some of the underlying problems are due to technological and societal changes, but these effects have been exacerbated by political ideology around public finances and service delivery.

The SCL Universal Offers where partly meant to address this by formalising those areas that libraries where good at and how they could adapt to meet the changing information needs of the public. Despite being a continuing critic of the SCL as a organisation I have always been broadly supportive of the universal offers. However, after years of failing to alter the decline in usage we need now to start questioning the validity of the offers as an effective strategy.

While this might be heresy to some, and I certainly don’t advocate for immediately discontinuing them, I do believe the themes need revisiting to gauge if they continue to be fit for purpose in their current form. Equally, adding to the number of offers is both counter-productive and misguided.

Leadership

There still remains a lack of strategic leadership for the sector within England. Obviously, the government would not accept a body highly critical of it’s policies, which is why the make-up of the Taskforce is as it is. The majority of those round the table are beholden to the government either politically or financially.

That’s not to say that some of the organisations don’t carry out valuable work beneficial to the sector, such as the British Library. However, in 2016/17 79% (£93.9m) of the British Library funding came from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Equally, the SCL has benefited from closer engagement and have been successful in attracting additional money. This year it was awarded £2m over four years by the Arts Council as a ‘Sector Support Organisation’, allowing it to pay up to £65k for a new Chief ExecutiveEqually, six library services were also awarded National Portfolio Organisation status attracting just over £4m in funding between them. As Ian Anstice observed:

“It’s interesting to see that 3 out of the 6 library services to get the funding, by the way, are non-profit trusts. This is proportionately way higher than one would expect. The bids were also not public so it’s unclear, apart from what can be gained from press releases, as yet, as to what they will mean.”

So it’s no surprise that the SCL is heavily involved in promoting a cultural and arts agenda for libraries and advocating support for volunteer led libraries, both mainstays of government policy. As the latest minutes of the Taskforce noted:

“The Taskforce also undertook to provide support to community managed libraries to share good practice, and help develop sustainable community managed library business models and approaches. It is working in partnership with SCL and Locality to support a new Community Managed Libraries Peer Network…”

What was encouraging for those of us critical of the arts path being foisted on libraries with no debate was the Cilip interview with Gill Furniss, Chair of the APPG:

‘I am a bit disappointed. I did think public libraries fitted better in Civil Society. To me they are community assets and don’t go terribly well with arts, museums and culture. I see public libraries serving communities’ information needs and that they should be very much placed within a community and be valued by the community.’

She also believes the arts label comes at a cost. ‘It makes libraries seem very grand when you’re talking about arts and ­museums. We’ve got to get away from grand. We’ve got to be there with our sleeves rolled up in communities. I’d put it with housing and neighbourhoods.’

Whether Labour adopts this approach remains to be seen. Kevin Brennan, shadow library minister, is currently working on library policy but over the past seven years most Labour controlled authorities, including Gill Furniss’ home area of Sheffield, have followed their tory counter-parts in cuts, closures, and the replacement of paid staff with volunteers.

Independent voice

As such there is no independent body, with perhaps the exception of Cilip, that is willing to be publicly critical of government policy. Although a recent APPG round-table discussion in Westminster produced some heart-felt warnings there appears little political appetite to change course from any of the parties.

The APPG has yet to publish it’s list of activities so it’s difficult to know yet what it’s priorities will be and how it will bring together different political opinion into a coherent strategy. The LibDems are as equally to blame as the tories for the current crisis and despite both the Chair and Vice-Chair being Labour, as noted above Labour have a poor record on differentiating their stance in any meaningful way from that of the Conservatives.

What is needed is a clear and meaningful strategy that addresses the structural and financial difficulties besetting the sector, and a strategy that is intent on building relationships with all  stakeholders rather than creating division.

Unfortunately, Sieghart’s recommendations deliberately set to exclude campaigners, unions, and library users from the Taskforce. Given the emphasis on communities having a say it’s rather ironic that the users voice was intentionally left out at national level.

Sadly, the perhaps unintended but very foreseeable consequence has been to create a toxic relationship of distrust, accusation and counter accusation between groups that should be united in fighting for libraries.

Besides being politically petty the decision has built walls rather than bridges and bodes ill for the future should a new administration establish a different body. It would be very difficult for those currently at the table to cry foul if they were to be excluded.

It also raises the question of legitimate engagement and how far library organisations should allow themselves to be part of policies that are so at odds with the good of the profession and sector. Within any situation there is always nuance and complexity. Very few issues are black and white. That said, it is difficult to pinpoint any advantages to public libraries that engagement with the government has brought.

The campaigns run by Cilip in support of public, school, and health libraries, the outspoken criticism from authors and celebrities, all highlight the damage being done. So the question becomes at what point does engagement become collusion or self-harm? At what point are organisations putting their own needs above the good of the wider profession?

As Nick Poole recently tweeted as part of a thread: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Round-up

For myself, I see another challenging year of quiet desperation for public libraries with no obvious solution in sight. The government is too caught up in Brexit to give domestic issues much consideration. That’s not to be overly pessimistic but the evidence leads only one way and as we have all affirmed in the past year #factsmatter. To pretend otherwise is a dis-service to the profession.

For other reviews of the year see Nick Poole’s 2017 Review and Ian Anstice English Public Libraries key trends 2017

 

Vote for Cilip

Cilip Board elections are not noted for controversy and neither should they be. The members who put themselves forward want to support their profession by supporting their professional body. But voting is not a neutral act. The elected members are the face and voice of the body and can set the tone for the type of organisation that members want to represent them.

First and foremost being a Cilip Trustee is about ensuring the viability and compliance of the organisation. Sustainability is key to ensuring that as a profession we have an organisation that can represent and speak out for us. Trustees also need to enable  Cilip to act as the body for all areas of the library, information, and knowledge management world.

They need to take a broad view in developing an organisation attractive to those working within an expanding knowledge economy. But they need to do this while ensuring existing sectors are still strongly represented. Added to this is the ability to help the organisation navigate the current, choppy political and financial waters.

Four years ago I started this blog ostensibly as a reaction to changes proposed by Cilip that I disagreed with. Luckily those changes were voted down. For me, it was something of a low point, with our professional body seemly disconnected from the concerns of ordinary members and I questioned why I and many others should bother remaining members. But  I did remain, hoping for change, and never wavered in advocating for a strong, vocal professional body, engaged with its membership.

Four years later, and the situation has changed for the better, with a more engaged leadership, structural changes, and stronger advocacy.

I continued writing posts as, like many within the profession, I was appalled at the cuts and closures to public libraries. Those cuts were part of a wider austerity agenda affecting all public service and still show no sign of abating. The crisis in libraries has continued into an existential threat. Not just through closures and staffing cuts, although these continue, but by the erosion of the fundamental principles of what it means to have a free, efficient, comprehensive and publicly funded library service.

Many individuals have chosen to speak out in defence of libraries and to create platforms to reach a wider audience such as Public Library News, Speak Up for Libraries, The Library Campaign. Sadly some, like Voices for the Library, have fell by the wayside.

Famous authors, campaigners, trade unions, have all been vocal in support of libraries. Unfortunately, while many speak out, the lack of cohesion amongst the groups and individuals is our greatest weakness, despite sterling work by activists involved in the above groups.

In these circumstances it is difficult for individual library staff to make a difference. That’s why it’s more important than ever that our professional body should be the unifying voice that brings us all together to advocate for the profession.

I know that many remain cynical about Cilip. I know that many have their doubts about it’s structures and capacity to change. In the past it has been viewed as slightly elitist and only for qualified staff. That has changed and continues to change.

It was seen as expensive, and I spoke out many times about the increasing cost of membership. From this month that has also changed.

Cilip far from being elitist now welcomes staff from all levels and grades. It’s approach is one of inclusivity not exclusivity. It is the only library body that represents all levels of staff.

So if you are library staff, at whatever grade, join Cilip. If you are an activist, trade unionist, or free thinking radical, and work in libraries, join Cilip. The more members it has have the louder, and more importantly diverse, its voice will be.

For those who say change cannot happen within the organisation I say ‘Momentum’. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the group, what cannot be denied is the change wrought by a grassroots  movement on a major political party.

Inertia is not an inevitability. Change comes about because people are willing to get involved.

I am standing for Cilip Board because in the current upheaval  one thing is certain: silence is not support, acquiescence is not advocacy. We need a strong, professional body through which our concerns are heard and we need to be represented by those who know and share those concerns and are willing to speak out.

But regardless of the outcome of these elections my message is simple: vote for a strong, unified professional voice. Vote for Cilip by joining and by making your own voice heard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cilip Board Elections 2017

Cilip members have the opportunity to vote for three new Board members over the coming weeks, 2nd – 27th November. There are four people standing, including myself, and further details can be found on the Cilip website. The fact that there are more candidates standing than positions available is good for the democratic process and demonstrates the willingness of the nominees to work for the good of the profession. Dawn, Naomi and John have kindly agreed for their details to be listed below.

Elections are a two way process, which require candidates and membership to be engaged. That’s why I encourage all members to vote, not just for this, but in all relevant Cilip elections. I shall be returning to the topic of the Board Elections over the coming weeks as well as tweeting regularly and I hope members also take to social media to find out more about the candidates and to promote the poll.

A professional body is only a strong as the people who speak out for it. Please make your voice heard by voting, so we can make our voices heard on your behalf.

Leon Bolton: Librarian and Blogger

I am a strong advocate for libraries and library staff and the benefit they bring to society. However, as individuals we can only accomplish so much which is why the interests of the sector is best served by a strong professional body that champions library and information services nationally. Cilip brings together not just public libraries but school, academic, health, etc. as well as those from the related IP and KM sectors.

I started out as highly critical of the body but my view has changed thanks to Cilip itself changing as it continues to  advocate for library and information services in all sectors. I would like to be part of this change and contribute to Cilip becoming the professional body its members need and making it relevant to current, new and potential members.

I recognise that the work of the Board is to ensure that the organisation maintains a secure financial footing and meets all the legal accountabilities of its charitable and chartered status. This is the foundation for ensuring a sustainable association and if elected I am committed to working with the staff, fellow trustees, and presidential team to help secure the long-term interests of the body for the good of the profession.

 

Dawn Finch: Librarian and Children’s Author

As my time on the CILIP Presidential Team draws to a close, I am keen not to lose touch with the work and the campaigning I have done over the past three years. I feel that the campaign for libraries (sadly) has a long way to run, and that we all face a much tougher struggle ahead, and I want to be at the sharp edge of that process.

There are also issues of ethical concern within the profession, and as chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee, I feel that having a vote and a voice on the Board will strengthen that role. Speaking personally, I would also like to make a difference to my own sector – children’s and school libraries. This campaign is hotting up and I think that having someone on the Board who represents and understands the needs of school librarians, and the children they work with, is essential.

 

Naomi Korn: Managing Director and Consultant

Since 2015, I have been proud to sit on CILIP Board as a Trustee and on CILIP’s Audit Committee. Apart from being a CILIP Trustee, my relationship with CILIP, its members and the wider information and library community is extensive, well established and goes back many years. I have worked closely on a variety of projects and activities with CILIP.

I became a Trustee in 2015 because although i had a well established relationship with CILIP, its members and the wider information and library community, I wanted to become more involved in the strategic direction of travel of CILIP at a crucial time of library closures and when CILIP was  planning its future. Running a small business myself, I felt I could offer valuable business insight, as well as a professional perspective on risk, compliance and business planning.

I have decided to run as a CILIP Trustee again because I love working with CILIPs talented Board and i want to do everything I can to support Nick and the Exec team in the successful implement of CILIP’s Action Plan and CILIP’s new membership offer.

I believe that my business acumen, professional compliance and risk skill set compliment the skills we already have on the Board, crucially bringing a synergy of sectorial understanding and business & compliance know-how at a critical time for CILIP and the members we represent.

 

John Trevor-Allen: Outreach / Reader Services Librarian

Over the past two years I have been extremely privileged to have been a CILIP Trustee, and I have worked hard to ensure I contribute to the development of CILIP as a strong professional association.
 
As a Trustee, I currently sit on the Ethics Committee as we work to develop and modernise the existing Ethical Principles and professional code of practice. Particularly in the current climate I believe it is essential that information professionals and librarians have a set of clear, modern values we can point to, demonstrating our commitment to open, reliable sources of information. I want to remain a Trustee of CILIP to help deliver an ethical framework that can support the profession and provide the tools we need to build a tolerant, open, just society.
 
As librarians, our value is not always obvious, and a strong professional association is vital to ensure that information professionals, at all levels of society, and in all sectors, are properly represented – and respected for what we can offer.
 
My first library post was as a pupil assistant in my school library, and as a professional I’ve worked in a number of sectors – academic, public, and now health. I’ve been lucky to always have a front-line role, and I’ve seen the ways in which we, as librarians, can have a direct and meaningful impact on our users.
 
I believe CILIP has a vital role to play in raising the profile of libraries and information skills and ensuring that everyone understands not only what a 21st Century library is, and how the support of trained information professionals can transform lives. What libraries offer is amazing, and CILIP is key to shaping how that offer should be supported, protected and expanded. I want to keep using my experience and skills to support CILIP as it works to achieve that vision.

 

 

A Question of Identity

Who are we, what are we for, and who do we serve? Fairly important questions for any profession but I doubt many of us actively spend much time, if any, pondering the existential and ethical underpinnings of our profession.

So it was interesting when Nick Poole tweeted from the recent IFLA WLIC conference the question as to whether Cilip saw itself as an association for libraries or librarians or both, and then invited views. The question has implications for our identity and how we conduct ourselves, both individually and as a profession.

It’s also worth observing that the question of identity is intrinsically linked to the question of ethics as the ‘who we are’ dictates ‘what we do’ and ‘how we behave’. Both function and form should be closely aligned to shape a coherent organisational ethos.

In terms of ethics many of us will adhere to intrinsic personal standards – and obviously our workplaces also have codes of conduct – but professionally, such matters tend to be codified and promoted by a professional body. In this case, Cilip.

The two main areas of guidance are contained in the Royal Charter and the “Ethical Principles and Code of Professional Practice for Library and Information Professionals”  which is currently under review. In simple terms, the first document defines ‘who we are’, and the latter ‘how we should act’.

Professional bodies can have a variety of roles but most will cover the following areas to a lesser or greater extent:

  • Promote the advantages of the profession to the public
  • Promote the interests of the members of that profession
  • Maintain standards through education, training, and accreditation
  • Safeguard the public interest e.g. code of conduct to guide professional behaviour

Cilip does all of the above. But returning to Nick’s question, why do we do it? For libraries, librarians, or both, or for something else entirely?

Royal Charter

For all practical intents and purposes the answer lies in the Royal Charter, section 2: Objects and Powers. The ‘Objects’ represent the aim of the organisation, and the ‘Powers’ the objectives, or the means Cilip uses to achieve its aim(s).

Broken down the aim of the organisation covers two main areas.

Firstly, “…to work for the benefit of the public to promote education and knowledge through the establishment and development of libraries and information services…” And secondly, “…to advance information science (being the science and practice of the collection, collation, evaluation and organised dissemination of information).”

It is the former that provides the main insight into the question of Cilip’s purpose and again can be split into two aspects: (1) to work for the benefit of the public (2) by establishing and developing libraries and information services.

So it’s clear that Cilip exists for the benefit’ of the public and this goal is served by developing library and information services for public access and use. If we allow that ‘public’ equates to a customer base then this covers all areas of the library, information, and knowledge sectors as no matter how specialised the work area all members will have a public/customer base they serve.

In and of itself the principle seems fairly straightforward. However, the issue then becomes one of definition. What does ‘benefit’ and ‘development’ actually mean? Who defines it?

Without adding context beyond the stated aim(s), arguments can be made that are counter-productive to the association, such as de-professionalisation. That is; whatever is defined as being for the public benefit should be the goal of the association even if it works against the interests of its members.

For example; a volunteer library is better than a closed one (equals benefit) and a peer support network helps sustain them (equals development). Ergo, Cilip should by its own aims, support volunteer led libraries.

But as usual, the issue is not that straightforward and emphasising the ‘public benefit’ argument to the exclusion of all else ignores the overall context. And it is the ‘powers’ that provide the context.

Powers

If the aims of the Charter encapsulate the ‘why’, the ‘powers granted’ represent the ‘how’. Given the importance of these objectives for establishing the wider context it’s worth reproducing what they actually say:

(a) to foster and promote education, training, invention and research in matters connected with information science and libraries and information services and to collect, collate and publish information, ideas, data and research relating thereto;
(b) to unite all persons engaged or interested in information science and libraries and information services by holding conferences and meetings for the discussion of questions and matters affecting information science and libraries and information services or their regulation or management and any other questions or matters relating to the objects of the Institute;
(c) to promote the improvement of the knowledge, skills, position and qualifications of librarians and information personnel;
(d) to promote study and research in librarianship and information science and to disseminate the results;
(e) to promote and encourage the maintenance of adequate and appropriate provision of library and information services of various kinds throughout the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man;
(f) to scrutinise any legislation affecting the provision of library and information services and to promote such further legislation as may be considered necessary to that end;
(g) to represent and act as the professional body for persons working in or interested in library and information services;
(h) to maintain a register of Registered Practitioners;
(i) to ensure the effective dissemination of appropriate information of interest to Members;
(j) to work with similar institutes overseas and with appropriate international bodies to promote the widespread provision of adequate and appropriate library and information services;
(k) to provide appropriate services to Members in furtherance of these objectives;
(l) to form and promote the formation of branches, regional member networks, sections or groups of the Institute in any part of the world and to dissolve branches, regional member networks, sections or groups so established;

Basically, this can be distilled into four broad areas:

  • Research: the promotion of librarianship and information science as an academic pursuit and discipline and to disseminate appropriate research
  • Education: to promote education, training, and the knowledge, skills, position and qualifications of librarians and information personnel
  • Collaboration: to act as a professional body for members, to provide a framework of opportunity for member collaboration e.g. conferences, to engage with similar overseas bodies
  • Advocacy: to promote adequate and appropriate library provision, to comment/challenge legislation affecting the sector

What I take from these objectives is that the aim of the organisation, ‘to work for the benefit of the public’, is best achieved through a knowledgeable, skilled, and qualified workforce. One that is organised, collaborative, and outward looking so that it learns from best practice both nationally and internationally, and which is informed by solid research.

Equally, to promote the position (point C) of librarians. Traditionally, this has been viewed as being protectionist and sometimes rather precious about the status and hierarchy of the term ‘Librarian’. However, Cilip has addressed this issue head on and the Professional Knowledge and Skills Base offers a broader and more inclusive approach to CPD for all levels of staff. Recently, Cilip has also jointly launched a public library skills strategy to invest in and develop the skills of the public library workforce in England.

The presence of the professional librarian role – and allowing for how many routes there now are for achieving this – from specialist posts, to management expertise, and Head of Service, should be at the heart of any professionally run and managed service. A skilled, educated, and knowledgeable library workforce is, in my opinion, the single most important factor for ensuring that the public benefit is best served.

And for me, this is what promoting the ‘position’ of the librarian, and all library staff, means. Thus, my answer to Nick’s question would be it’s for both and by building a strong professional body we provide the best possible service for libraries, librarians and ultimately the public. However, I would like to leave the last word to Nick Poole himself:

“Everything CILIP does is defined under our Royal Charter, which gives us our charitable status and our mandate. The Charter is quite clear that our role as a professional association covers both libraries and librarians (and information professionals in all types of library and information service). Specifically, it states our responsibility to “promote the improvement of the knowledge, skills, position and qualifications of librarians and information personnel” and to “promote and encourage the maintenance of adequate and appropriate provision of library and information services”. This is why we took the Charter as the basis of our current Action Plan, launched last year.
 
Having an independent member-led professional association which leads on both sector and workforce development is important. It means that we can maintain the status of librarianship as a recognised profession, scrutinise and influence policy and legislation relating to our sector and maintain a strong connection to our shared values, set out in the Code of Ethics. The staff, Trustees and Presidential Team at CILIP are committed to doing this job to the very best of our ability to secure the long-term interests of our profession.”

 

 

A Tale Full of Fact and Fiction

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

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

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

The Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The positive narrative in practice

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

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

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

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

This included:

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

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

There can be little argument that this is not effective advocacy to those with considerable influence over the running of libraries.

Continuing the story

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

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

Previous work on demonstrating value to policy makers, while not perfect by any means, should not be disregarded. For example there has been regular contact between the libraries minister and SCL over the years and he would have had ample opportunity to discover direct from HoS the socio-economic contribution of libraries.

So there is a danger of promoting the view that leaders within the profession have been consistently poor at showing the value of the service and thus libraries have suffered a negative perception and decline in funding as a consequence. In other words ‘it’s our own fault’ and all the advocacy undertaken by the SCL, Cilip, and more recently the Taskforce has been irrelevant.

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

One observation in the Shining Light report was the:

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

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

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

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

Opposing views

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

This is perfectly captured in a claim by Kathy Settle:

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Public Library Skills Strategy

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

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

The claim is that it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Too Many Chefs…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Poole captured the above difficulties when stating:

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

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

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

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

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

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