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.

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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.

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.

 

 

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.”

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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.

 

My Way

So it’s finally happened. Ed Vaizey, the longest serving Minister for Culture has finally left the building, or at least been asked to leave as part of the new Cabinet reshuffle. It would be unfair to blame Vaizey for the all the problems of the public library sector over the last six years. The overriding factor has been one of ideology; from austerity, to localism, to devolution. But the ex-minister was certainly a strong advocate for these policies and ensured that libraries became a poster-boy for DIY community services.

It would also be unfair to lay the blame at the feet of just Tory local authorities. Councillors of all hues have been keen to support and adopt both localism and devolution, sometimes as a pragmatic solution to budget cuts, but equally as a means of distributing power from central government. And Let’s not forget that Labour and LibDem councils have been just as quick to reduce library services and hand over to volunteers as their conservative counterparts. Equally, it could be argued that the profession had grown complacent with comfortable funding and cosy political links so was ill-prepared to respond to the severity of the public spending cuts agenda.

So how should we judge Ed Vaizey’s time in office? Certainly the SCL appears to have regarded him as a positive force for championing libraries as the following tweet shows:

I have to say my own view is not so charitable. This was a minister who refused to intervene in any library reductions whatsoever, and who despite having the resources of the DCMS at his disposal preferred to rely on desktop research to assess library closures. The government figure touted was totally at odds with both CIPFA, independent BBC research, and what the public could see happening to their local libraries. Incompetence or deliberate spin? Take your pick.

According to the BBC the last six years have seen:

  • 343 libraries closed. Of those, 132 were mobile services, while 207 were based in buildings (and there were four others, such as home delivery services)
  • The number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 buildings shut
  • The number of paid staff in libraries fell from 31,977 in 2010 to 24,044 now, a drop of 7,933 (25%) for the 182 library authorities that provided comparable data
  • A further 174 libraries have been transferred to community groups, while 50 have been handed to external organisations to run. In some areas, such as Lincolnshire and Surrey, the move has led to legal challenges and protests from residents.

The BBC also estimated that a further 111 closures were planned, but since the research was published, I suspect the number is now far higher. This is alongside a funding reduction of £180 million since 2010.

Matt Hancock has replaced Ed Vaizey so it remains to be seen what stance he will take particularly in the light of a new Prime Minister and Cabinet. Will he continue a non-interventionist approach or actually engage to slow down the rate of attrition?

Anyway, I shall end with a personal tribute to Ed (with apologies to Old Blue Eyes!)

(Click to enlarge)

Ed Vaizey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Papering Over The Cracks

After a bit of light hearted satire I welcome the Taskforce’s aim to establish a communications sub-group to promote more positive news around libraries and what they do. Specifically:

“The role of the group is to co-ordinate communications activity across the sector with a view to shifting the narrative on public libraries from one that is primarily focused on cuts, to one that shows a more balanced view.”

In the current environment of grinding public sector cuts any news about the value of libraries is to be supported. Although whether or not that ‘shows a more balanced view’ is open to debate. While welcoming the initiative I would argue that the real balance is tempering good news with the reality of the cuts. The danger otherwise is to simply present stories out of context and promote the view that despite the funding crisis ‘all is well’ and ‘aren’t library staff a wonderful bunch for carrying on’.

Such a ‘rose tinted’ approach would do the public library sector a disservice as we know from bitter experience that Ed Vaizey is a master of using rose-tinted stories to justify his own inaction around library closures.

Libraries do indeed accomplish wonderful things and quite rightly celebrate them: the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, Summer Reading Challenge, Reading Ahead, and National Libraries Day, amongst many other programmes, not to mention all the wonderful regional and local initiatives. All of which are feted and promoted by the SCL, Cilip, ASCEL, Reading Agency, Arts Council, and libraries up and down the country.

The issue therefore becomes how will the establishment of a communications sub-group improve the message, or the understanding of the political paymasters, when years of the above bodies doing so hasn’t?

Even reports highlighting the societal, health, and economic benefits of libraries have so far failed to improve the narrative or protect funding for libraries. The information is out there but falling on ears deafened by the overwhelming roar of austerity and the pressure of providing adult social care.

David Lankes made a similar argument for the profession to take control of the narrative while at the same time recognising:

“… that budget cuts have been so deep, the political lack of understanding of public libraries so disconnected from the reality and, yes, the lack of leadership (structurally at least) so dysfunctional that to blame librarians for the failure to change into 3D community workshop engineering hi-tech wunderkinds is a bit much.  But that’s the challenge, my friends.  We need to convince the politicians that libraries are relevant to their goals and the public that libraries are places to be cherished (and not just with placards).  This may be very hard with some public-service hating anti-professional and deeply ideological politicians but there are other people out there and even the most dyed in the wool reactionary is not demonic.”

This is a legitimate argument and one the Taskforce is taking on board. But it’s not just about changing the narrative, such communication needs to underpin concrete action and improvement.

However, a positive narrative around libraries is going to be difficult to achieve when the reality is so grim. Even the BBC, which is represented on the Taskforce, have highlighted the extent of the cuts, including:

• 343 libraries closed, 207 of them buildings, 132 mobile and four “other”
• 232 transferred, 174 to community groups and 58 outsourced
• 111 proposed for closure over the next year

The media coverage is to be welcomed as an opportunity to celebrate what is important about libraries and counter the misleading data over closures. Certainly, the BBC’s research and analysis is to be more trusted that Ed Vaizey’s notorious use of desk research to compile misleading data, despite having the full resources of the DCMS at hand. The Guardian newspaper has stated that libraries are facing the greatest crisis in their history.

So it becomes a difficult chronicle to challenge while at the same time treading the fine line between government dogma re: localism and devolution, and the expectations of the profession and campaigners.

Highlighting good news stories and ‘golden moments’ while important is unlikely to produce an epiphany regarding the value of libraries within government circles.

Libraries do need positive stories, positive reinforcement about their value, and the Taskforce are right to take this on. The dichotomy however is that such stories during a period of deep cuts and widespread cynicism regarding government policy on libraries could lead to a disconnect from the reality of the crisis and the accusation of misplaced Pollyannaism.

Or to put it another way; it’s one thing to want to change the décor but it’s another to merely paper over the cracks.

How High?

Although hardly surprising the statement from the SCL refusing to support the My Library By Right campaign is nevertheless galling to say the least. In fact the statement is incredibly disappointing to those wanting the SCL to show more leadership over library cuts:

“As the leaders and managers of library services across the country, the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) is committed to delivering library services which have real impact on local communities.

We developed the Universal Offers for Public Libraries – with partners like The Reading Agency – to enable the continued development of strong unifying core services, reflective of what people want from their library.

As a body largely comprising representation from local authorities, SCL recognises that it is for individuals and their local authorities to provide local responses to the My Library By Right campaign.

For its part, SCL continues its work on an ambitious programme of innovation to further develop and embed the Universal Offers; supporting our workforce to deliver vibrant library services; building national and local partnerships that enable library services to contribute to relevant policy agenda, particularly those around economic development and health and wellbeing and contributing to the evolution of the Libraries Taskforce.

SCL welcomes the opportunity to grow its relationship with CILIP, recognising the potential benefits for communities in working together to develop sustainable library services, delivered by an engaged and well supported library workforce.”

What this statement ignores is that as a body the SCL makes agreements and builds partnerships without expecting members to respond as individuals. So why should this issue be any different?

SCL have often claimed that as an apolitical organisation they have to remain neutral. Perhaps there are some who take such words at face value. However, despite such protestations, it’s difficult to see how they differ from the vision set out for libraries by the government and by extension the LGA, ACE and Libraries Taskforce: volunteer libraries, community hubs, trusts (which I support), and commercial partnerships (despite the quite dubious ethics of companies like Barclays), are all part and parcel of the SCL approach. What appears to be lacking, is any challenge by the SCL as to whether this is the right path for public libraries, rather than just following the political diktak of the day.

Sometimes it’s difficult to find out how the SCL operates. Their Twitter account states that it is a local government association made up of the senior librarian of each library authority. So it’s obvious where SCL’s inclinations lie. It appears the LGA says jump, the SCL asks ‘how high?’.

The claim to be apolitical would be more believable if it wasn’t for the fact that their actions support a pro-government agenda.

Ian Anstice has observed that the SCL amounts to a voluntary organisation of hundreds of equal members. Unfortunately, it seems that some are more equal than others with the Executive Committee apparently making all the decisions, without the need to refer back to the regions or individual members. By that I mean the decision not to support MLBR was taken by the Executive only. Surely such an important decision should have at least been referred back to members, even by a quick email vote.

Despite claiming to represent the views of members SCL has few aspects of a membership organisation. Yes the committee officers are elected but other than that it has no constitution, process for joining (other than being HoS), individual membership fees, or mechanisms whereby members are genuinely consulted and decisions made by consensus. It appears members are not able to put forward motions or to make binding policy.

The details of the annual conference are very low key, without any details on the SCL website. In fact members are only notified by email. Such lack of openness is totally at odds with the transparency of Cilip conferences and groups such as Speak Up for Libraries. Perhaps, this is done to stay under the radar of campaigners or because the programme reveals how integrated with the status quo the SCL is.

It appears the SCL is far from apolitical but is very much part of the establishment. No doubt this year Ed Vaizey, will be an honoured guest yet again! With SCL committee members clamouring to share a photo-opportunity with the minister.

An interesting item is that the Taskforce will be seeking feedback on its proposed ‘Ambition for Libraries’. It will be interesting to see the outline of such ambition. Whether or not it will be a genuine analysis of the current library crisis with robust solutions remains to be seen. Unfortunately, I suspect it will merely be a continuation of current government policy given dubious respectability by carrying SCL approval.

If you want more details of the conference don’t go to the SCL website as there aren’t any there! Although, if enough people ask they might just publish something.

While it must be recognised that the SCL does carry out some important work in the sector, the Universal Offers being a case in point, this in no way compensates for the damage done to the profession by their continuing support for policies designed to fragment and debase the public library network and devalue the work of paid staff.

They might be the ‘leaders’ of public libraries in a technical sense as individual HoS but as a body the SCL lacks the legitimacy to claim to represent the aspirations of the wider profession and workforce.

 

 

When is a librarian not a librarian?

There has always been a confusion in the mind of the public to what actually constitutes a ‘librarian’. From experience I know that many users refer to any and all staff in libraries as librarians. For most of my career that’s never bothered me overmuch. However, over the past few years it’s become more important as the government has tried to redefine terminology to enable the reduction and deprofessionalisation of the public library sector.

For example ‘community library’ used simply to mean a library that was part of a particular community or denoted size/level to distinguish it from larger counterparts. Nowadays the phrase has become synonymous with a library that has been riven of paid staff and run by volunteers. After all ‘unsustainable book swap run by unpaid amatuers’ doesn’t quite have the same attractive ring as ‘community library’. So in best marketing style the term has been hijacked to mask the reality.

Unfortunately, those that should be concerned with maintaining high standards of library provison: DCMS, ACE, SCL have all bought into this notion and readily propagate such disingenuous definition.

That’s why as a profession we should be cautious when terminology is subverted to suit the current political and austerity agenda. A recent newspaper article about a volunteer run library in Lincolnshire uses the term ‘volunteer librarian’. Now  I assume that this oxymoronic phrase (unless they genuinely mean qualified librarians actually volunteering!) has been coined by the local newspaper. However, all such terms need to be challenged before they gain common currency as does any other erroneous assumption that librarianship is anything other than a highly skilled profession.

I was very disappointed when the Arts council averred in Envisioning the Library of the Future that an essential ingredient of the public library was “well trained and friendly ‘people’ (my italics) to help users to find what they want…” when all evidence points that what the public actually wants is ‘well trained and friendly paid staff’. One phrase justifies volunteer run libraries, the other does not. As always terminology matters.

However, it is beholden of the profession to also be wary of accidently perpetuating such an approach. A case in point is the appointment of non-qualified candidates to professional posts. Now to be fair there is a long history within libraries of bringing in candidates with the appropriate skills set from other sectors and this is a perfectly legitimate approach in order to attract the best individual for the job. Such people can be very talented and bring much needed skills and perspective to the service.

However, it is also common for such candidate to undertake further training, perhaps through distance learning or the Cilip Chartership route, to gain qualified status. This is often a requirement for accepting the role.

What the profession needs to be vigilant of and something that should be challenged is appointing candidates to post as ‘librarian’ or equivalent without qualification or the need to pursue one. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of volunteer libraries it is the responsibility of all of us in the profession to uphold the integrity of what it means to be a qualified librarian. Anything else fundamentally undermines the concept of professional librarianship.

No one should use the term ‘librarian’ who has not earned the right to do so and this right includes being appropriately qualified.