Category Archives: DCMS

What is comprehensive & efficient?

Providing a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ is considered the touchstone of library provision and a constant refrain during campaigns to save libraries from closure. The notion is enshrined in law through the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and until 2010 there was little reason to fully discuss, let alone define, what this actually meant. After all, we all knew what it meant, right! In the best progressive tradition libraries were not only considered a good thing by their very existence but de facto ‘efficient & comprehensive’ became synonymous with expansion: more libraries, more staff, more resources to cater for a growing population and expanding towns and cities.

Only twice has a government felt compelled to conduct a formal public inquiry into local authorities plans for library closures: once in Derbyshire in 1991, and more significantly in the Wirral in 2009. Unfortunately, such intervention was short-lived as were the lessons learned.

The election of 2010 and the introduction of an austerity driven coalition government resulted in a rude awakening for the library sector including the abolition of the MLA and the Advisory Council on Libraries. Faced with large scale reductions, deprofessionalisation, and the steadfast non-intervention by the Minister of State for Culture – who for decades it was thought would always intercede for the benefit of libraries – the great cornerstone of library protection turned out to be more fiction than fact.

The difficulty is that no one is able to define what comprehensive and efficient actually means, at least not to the extent that meets general consensus and acceptance. For some the term is associated with an extensive network of physical buildings and paid staff, while to others the term is equally applicable to few service points but with reliance on technology such as RFID, 24/7 online services, wifi, and mobile apps for libraries.

Some authorities consider volunteer libraries to form part of their statutory provision and thus retain the characteristics of a comprehensive service, while many campaigners would take issue with this approach. Because the term is not defined in the 1964 Act it is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

Even during judicial reviews the courts have refused to get drawn into the quagmire of a legal definition, concentrating instead on the technical aspects of the consultation process.The MLA had produced a checklist for local authorities to use but again this has more to do with the process rather than defining terms or meaning.

Thus, the concept has failed so ‘comprehensively’ (pun intended) that Herefordshire Council can now seriously suggest reducing library provision down to a single main library, with the remaining taken over by volunteers or being self-service only.

So the question becomes that if the notion is no longer fit for purpose does it need replacing and if so what with? I realise this will be a contentious and in some quarters heretical suggestion but to continue with a principle that has become so outdated and impractical allows others to control the narrative to the disadvantage of meaningful library provision.

In my submission to the Sieghart Review I suggested that a set of core principles and values should be established similar to that which underpins the NHS. These principles should be regulated nationally but with scope for local interpretation.

For example, principles for the public library service might include:

  • Free access and membership for all  
  • Provision of and access to information in appropriate formats e.g. online resources
  • Access to books in all formats
  • Provision of a community space – for individual study, lifelong learning, workshops, and changing expectations e.g. maker spaces/hack spaces
  • Access to economic wellbeing opportunities – recognising the economic roles of libraries e.g. providing access to employment and benefits information, facilities for job hunting, re-skilling, and innovative approaches such as business hubs and enterprising libraries

The Voices for the Library manifesto is similar in advocating for a defined level of service including paid staff and professional librarians.

Such core principles should be overseen by an independent body that recognises the specific opportunities and remit of public libraries, enables evidence based research, sets standard, shares best practice, and provides advice to the relevant government departments and Minister for Culture. Perhaps along the lines of the Scottish Library & Information Council.

The term ‘comprehensive’ and efficient’ is no longer helpful and is inadequate to capture the changing nature of library provision. It lacks definition, is relative, and in many instances unquantifiable and could more usefully be replaced with a set of core principles and values as outlined above.

The principles and values should be based on continuing free access to literacy, learning and information and underpin the social value and instrumental role libraries play in creating a literate and educated population.

Addendum

A detailed account of the now defunct library standards and relation to the 1964 Act can be found on Public Library News: Public Library Standards in England.

In a twitter conversation with Nick Poole, CEO of Cilip, he quite rightly points out that standards and regulation are needed to underpin the principle of ‘comprehensive and efficient’. I totally agree and the NHS principles & values I highlighted are obviously underpinned by standards & regulation.

Nick also points out that industry standards might prove useful. Again I agree and look forward to Cilip developing some as well as stating what its view of ‘comprehensive & efficient’ is. After all, if the professional body for librarians is unable to define the term what hope has anyone got!

Situation in Wales (from Alyson Tyler)

Wales is a lot smaller than England, but your readers might be interested in the Welsh Public Library Standards, which have been in operation since 2002. Frameworks run on a three year cycle. The current framework has 18 core entitlements which sound much like your principles and values, and also 16 quality indicators, some of which have targets, some of which can be benchmarked, and some of which are impact measures. No system is perfect and not everyone agrees on everything of course. http://gov.wales/topics/cultureandsport/museums-archives-libraries/libraries/standards/?lang=en

The Leadership Void

I have to admit to admiring mavericks. Individuals that stand above the mainstream and are quite happy to challenge the system or status quo from without or within. Think Tony Benn. Such maverick behaviour is a time honoured and valuable political tradition. Principles before party and all that.

Then again, perhaps I just watched too many films such as Rebel without a Cause, Easy Rider or The Wild One when younger! The phrase ‘what are you rebelling against’, which elicits the reply ‘whadda you got?’ resonates down the decades.

Rebellion seems rife at the moment over the governance review with barbed comments flying thick and fast on LIS-PUB-LIBS. Even without Tom Roper’s resignation to add to the mix the issue was always likely to cause a furore. As far back as February I highlighted elements of the proposals, which to me, went against the democratic principles of a membership organisation. Equally, many other individual members also raised concerns in their feedback to Cilip. Certainly Tom’s resignation has not caused the resulting uproar but it has brought it into sharp focus.

Many campaigners and those outside the profession are both perplexed and as Desmond Clarke observed, appalled, by what they see as an unnecessary distraction to campaigning against library cuts and closures:

“All this energy being spent by the CILIP leadership on changing the structure of its Council at this time is appalling when the library service faces a major crisis and thousands of librarians are losing their jobs. Fiddling with the composition of council at this time is not going to help anyone, neither CILIP, its staff. CILIP members or the public that libraries exist to serve. No one would be affected if the changes were put off for a year or two while everyone focused on ensuring that a library service is available to the millions of people who need it.”

Now I have to say that I see things slightly differently. Despite the unfortunate tendency towards mud-slinging the debate has thrown-up, the governance of our professional body is an important issue. If a revised structure improves the running of the organisation than well and good. It’s been a long time in the planning and deserves proper consideration and debate by the membership.

Such discussion should obviously not distract us from the major changes going on in the library sector. However, debating these changes does not equate to there being any less willingness or time spent on advocating for public libraries either by individual members or Cilip itself. They are not mutually exclusive activities.

Maybe the real point then is not whether such activities distract Cilip from campaigning but whether Cilip is capable of the robust advocacy needed in the rough and tumble of the political arena in the first place. And that’s a whole different question and debate.

Perhaps this highlights the issue of the ‘leadership void’ that so many campaigners have complained about. Not individual leaders of which there are many fine examples in libraries but rather a body that proactively seeks to defend public libraries and staff.

Cilip

One of the difficulties that Cilip faces is that it lacks both the size and political influence that say a combined professional body and union such as the National Union of Teachers has. Neither does it have a strong history of political advocacy, which immediately put it at a disadvantage during the upheaval of the past few years.

A difficult point for many outside, and even inside, the profession to accept is that Cilip has never been a campaigning body. Why this is so is not always clear. It has been argued that the charitable and chartered status of the body sets certain restrictions on campaigning activity. Equally, as a body it has limited resources so has tended to rely on co-operation and conciliation rather than taking a more adversarial approach. Perhaps it has never needed to campaign strongly and the advantages that we have taken for granted until recently, such as professionally staffed libraries, have been given to us rather than fought for and earned.

The profession is, in the main, conservative with a small ‘c’ and overall members have shown a lack of appetite for direct campaigning. Partly, I suspect, this is related to job insecurity and not wishing to put heads above the parapet. Cilip has also become quite a broad based organisation appealing to other sectors such as information and knowledge management, as well as school, academic, and special libraries, which means it’s not just public libraries that have to be catered for.

Nevertheless, we should also recognise that as a professional body Cilip does many things well, such as training, networking, highlighting good practice, raising professional standards, organising conferences, cooperating with other library associations, and contributing to important professional topics e.g. copyright law and ebooks. As such it should be given credit.

However Cilip is not, and is unlikely ever to be, a strong campaigning organisation and those that expect it to be expect too much.

Society of Chief Librarians

Equally, looking to the SCL for political leadership is also unrealistic. The SCL is not an independent organisation but is accountable to the Local Government Association and as such will conform to restrictions imposed by the expectations and policies of the LGA. The recent announcement to support ‘community libraries’ being a case in point.

The SCL enjoys close links to governmental agencies that influence the direction of travel for libraries such as the DCMS and ACE. Over the years this has usually worked to the profession’s advantage. Equally, Ed Vaizey is still happy to talk to the SCL directly (unlike Cilip), which could be viewed as keeping open important channels of communication to the Minister responsible for libraries. Conversely, it also indicates how much SCL is part of the mainstream political machinery and regarded as a safe organisation for promoting the government’s view of libraries.

Now to be fair to the SCL they have always been open about their limitations. When meeting with campaigners in 2012 they made it very clear that:

• They were not and could not be a campaigning body
• As a body they were accountable to the LGA
• They could not criticise local authorities or oppose government or council policy
• They were not a voice for librarians but for local government and that it was CILIP that was the voice for librarians

That is not to say that the SCL does not carry out excellent work. It does. Over the years the body has promoted good practice, encouraged senior librarians to support each other and work together on a regional and national basis, and has been responsible for the Universal offers, to which the addition of a ‘learning’ strand is to be welcomed. The Universal offers are in my opinion one of the best schemes that libraries have undertaken. And for this the SCL should be given full credit.

So it’s unrealistic to expect the SCL to be anything other than it is. Those who expect the SCL to provide independent leadership for the library profession will be sorely disappointed. That is not its raison d’etre.

Rebels with a cause

In the main I am not a reformist. I do not believe that Cilip can be changed sufficiently to provide the strong focus, frank rhetoric, and forceful advocacy that public libraries need. So far this has been left to organisations such as the Library Campaign and Voices for the Library. But such groups, while providing an essential outlet, are not professional bodies or a voice solely for librarians.

The library sector is changing, driven by technology, societal pressures, and political ideology. As a profession we have responded positively to technological and societal changes but it is the ideology that is proving our downfall. In response we need to find another way to challenge the politics, to provide a united front, to fill the leadership void. One that is focussed solely on campaigning for public libraries and in which librarians are the central voice.

Not so long ago I wrote a post speculating about the need for another kind of professional body. At the time Tom Roper who was then a council member, disagreed with me (just as I disagreed with his viewpoint). There is absolutely nothing wrong with holding divergent views – which leads to debate and then hopefully consensus – but equally there comes a point when attacking organisations such as Cilip and the SCL becomes a waste of time and energy particularly if transformation is not possible or, more importantly, if they are not the most effective agents for the change that is needed.

Perhaps it’s time to stop rebelling for the sake of it, for asking ‘whadda you got?’ Public libraries are a cause worth fighting for, what we need is an organisation that can take that fight forward.

Reply from the Liberal Democrats

The following reply was received from John Leech MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport.

Dear Leon,

Thank you for your email about public libraries.

Libraries are on the whole a DCLG responsibility but I will nevertheless do my best to answer your questions from a DCMS perspective.

Firstly, I can assure you that we support the principle of local authorities providing library access. Libraries are a vital resource in any community. Currently there is a worrying trend of local authorities shutting local libraries at the same time as spending money on other things that constituents might think are lower priority (i.e. things which are not front line services). I wish to see this trend reversed.

I do support creation of community volunteer managed libraries as a last resort in the event of the closure of a local authority funded library. This happened recently in Burnage, in my constituency, where the local council chose to close the local library against the wishes of local people, despite the fact that the annual cost was only £43000. I believe that a volunteer run library is better than no library at all, though I would not like to see this to become the norm. The expectation should be that local libraries are funding by local authorities and run by paid staff.

With regard to your question about the quality of volunteer staff, I believe that some volunteers will provide the same quality of service as paid staff while others will not. The level of training that volunteers receive is key to the service that they can offer.

My final thought on this is that local authorities ought to be protecting front line services including libraries if they truly wish to serve the needs of the local community.

Best wishes,

John Leech MP
Member of Parliament for Manchester Withington

Sieghart…or jumping through hoops!

Well, another day and another library consultation over. Given the long list of reviews and reports into libraries over the past few years it’s hard not to be cynical and see the current one as the usual hoop exercise…as in jumping through!

That said, it would be foolish not to make a submission on the extremely unlikely chance that this is the one that will make the difference…so I’ve duly added my tuppence worth.

Feedback was asked around three questions:

  1. What are the core principles of a public library service into the future?
  2. Is the current delivery of the public library service the most comprehensive and efficient?
  3. What is the role of community libraries in the delivery of a library offer?

The fact that the report has been commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government should give pause and makes me wonder what the underlying motivation is. Or to put it another way: is this the usual political machination by the government to undermine the public library service?

The scope of the review is to ‘…produce an independent report considering the current structure and role of public libraries, including community libraries, in England as well as identifying any opportunities for future delivery.’

Colour me suspicious but question two immediately raised a certain amount of disquiet. Although I have concerns about the efficaciousness of the principle of ‘comprehensive and efficient’, for many it is all that stands between library services and widespread closures (cue Lincolnshire).

Then there’s question three about community libraries. Many campaigners and observers have already pointed out that the term means different things to different people. So to begin with a clear explanation of the term is required to ensure a shared understanding and frame of reference.

However, I think it’s safe to assume that in this context the term refers to a library that is either run by volunteers/community group outside of local authority control, or operated by volunteers with a lesser or greater degree of support from the local authority.

The fact that the review blithely refers to such libraries indicates that the panel implicitly accept them as a viable model of service provision. Again, this is a reflection of current government philosophy rather than a genuine invitation to discuss the principle of so called community libraries.

Now, the report should be seen in a wider context including the fact that ACE has recently commissioned Locality to ‘…explore existing good practice and assess the further potential to enable enterprise amongst library service providers’ – for ‘library service providers’ read ‘community libraries’.

So it will be interesting to see if Sieghart does indeed produce an independent narrative or if, as I suspect, this is just another fudged report exploited by the DCMS to justify and extend the use of volunteer run libraries.