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.

Dataset – Call to Cilip & SCL

Following up from my previous post ‘Nothing to Yell About’ it’s become obvious that the Libraries Taskforce is not the vehicle for collecting and distributing data for and about public libraries. Despite the best of intentions as a body it is too susceptible to interference, including having to scale back it’s activities during the pre-election period.

The snap general election is thrown up the need for reliable data more than ever and Cilip has announced the launch of the ‘Facts Matter’ campaign “to promote the need for evidence-based decision-making as a foundation of a strong, inclusive and democratic society.” 

As such the library profession itself needs to take responsibility for gathering and distributing data around public libraries, without reliance on politically controlled bodies, and for making such data as widely accessible as possible.

Ultimately, as a profession we should encourage an open data approach by local authorities. However, it is likely to take a some time for this principle to become embedded and regarded as the norm as protectionism around data and political nervousness will make this a slow process. Another issue will be around governance models and whether or not public service mutuals would sign up to releasing data in such a way.

I wrote to Cilip and SCL asking for their views around the Taskforce’s recently risible dataset and where they thought the profession should go next. Nick Poole replied saying:

My own view is that, as a sector, it is important to think long-term about how we ensure that the development of public libraries, individually and nationally, is informed by the best possible body of evidence and up-to-date data.

 The publication of the Taskforce dataset, while important, is only one aspect of answering the more fundamental question, which – to me at least – is that of how we as a sector organise ourselves to ensure ongoing access to a credible body of quantitative and qualitative data about public libraries which supports the overlapping needs of management, targeted development and advocacy.
 

The Taskforce is a time-limited task-and-finish group with the specific remit of enabling the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to respond to the recommendations in the original Sieghart Review. Any long-term solution to the data and evidence needs of the sector ought to address how the process of data-gathering will be governed and funded in the long-run by sector bodies with the remit for the development of the sector – specifically, the Arts Council England, SCL and CILIP with the support of DCMS and the Local Government Association.

Alongside the question of governance and investment, there is the question of ensuring that the dataset is valid and widely-used. In my view, the best means of achieving this is through the creation of an open, public-access dataset published via http://data.gov.uk and licensed for a wide range of commercial and non-commercial re-use. An open access public library dataset, enriched with persistent identifiers,  would facilitate the embedding of library data into Government statistics and reporting, promote the development of 3rd party applications and support activities such as Libraries Week. This, obviously, is an issue with Cipfa data, which remains paywalled and cannot be used in 3rd party platforms.  
 

In the School Libraries sector, CILIP has recently proposed an industry-led consortium with the responsibility for improving the evidence-base (qualitative, quantitative and impact/outcome-based) around school library provision. In my view, such an industry-led consortium ought also to be possible in the public library sector with a broad remit for defining not only how data is collected, but for improving the overall methodology, creating a comprehensive model for what should be collected and engaging with 3rd parties to promote its use.

As part of this, you will be aware that CILIP has announced its intention to develop a Library & Information Sector Research & Evidence Base in our Action Plan 2016-2020. While not primarily concerned with public library data, it would be valuable to consider how the scope of this would intersect with the kind of industry-led data-gathering for which CILIP is advocating.

 

Nick also reiterated that the “… most useful data is open data. We think it is important that this activity yields data that is openly licensed for re-use, and ideally that we start to foster a community of developers and creatives who will use it as the basis of interesting applications.”

 

Neil McInnes, President of SCL also replied agreeing that there was an need for up to date figures on libraries. Neil stated that the SCL agreed with many of Nick Poole’s points, including:

 

“…the need for current and credible data about public libraries that will support and enable the running of excellent library services, and promote libraries widely especially to non or lapsed users.”  

 

He added:

 

“As you know, CIPFA collects data from libraries and publishes yearly figures on use. We have long lobbied for this dataset to be widened to show what we feel would be a more accurate representation of the library sector. Each of our members collects some of the data you refer to—number and type of libraries, opening hours.”

 

So we have both the CEO of Cilip and President of the SCL agreeing that a more accurate picture of libraries is needed. With that in mind there are many advantages to both bodies working together to ensure the collection of accurate and objective data and the regular and timely publication of such information. Therefore:

 

I ask that the Cilip Board of Trustees and the Executive Committee for the Society of Chief Librarians work together and take direct responsibility for the gathering, collation, and release of datasets around public libraries for the good of the profession and sector.

 

I ask that a wide range of individuals and interested parties with the necessary expertise and/or professional credibility to gain the confidence of the profession, public, and campaigners be involved. I urge Cilip and SCL not to rely only on the input of the same bodies that have so far failed to deliver objective and credible data.

 

Further, I ask that as a matter of urgency, and as a first priority, that Cilip and the SCL collate and publish the data around the number and type of public libraries in England to date. This should include information regarding:

 

  • Type of each library within a service: local authority run, community run, commissioned, independent, closed etc
  • Open and staffed hours
  • Stock budgets
  • Number of professionally qualified and library staff
  • Other information deemed appropriate to give a reliable and accurate picture of the current state of public libraries in England

That this request be treated as a matter of urgency by both organisations with the view of establishing an appropriate group and publishing the above data as quickly as possible. 

One last point, both Nick and Neil raised the issue of finance for the project and the need for additional funding on an ongoing basis. The obvious candidates for this would be the DCMS and ACE. Although, whether or not the DCMS would fund a project it had no direct control over remains to be seen. The other, perhaps better, option would be to divert funding from CIPFA since it’s plainly not delivering what the sector needs in terms of appropriate, open data, in a timely and regular manner.

Where does it go from here?

Well, despite the best of intentions to write more widely about politics I have actually found, after numerous aborted attempts, that the only area I really enjoy blogging about is libraries. So with that in mind Leon’s Library Blog is once again up and running.

I still firmly believe that the fight for public services is the fight the libraries. The genuine despondency felt by many staff struggling to deliver public services is summed up in a heart-felt letter by Corinna Edwards-Colledge, a Brighton and Hove Council Officer. In it she accuses David Cameron of deliberate contempt for council workers, outlines the devastating cuts to public services, and the negative impact on local communities.

Libraries are part and parcel of the struggle to deliver meaningful services to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities: from the housebound, to the job seeker who cannot afford internet access, and the families who are unable to buy books to effect the many positive benefits that reading for pleasure brings.

In fact the ‘reading for pleasure’ element of libraries has been poorly regarded and often disparaged by politicians. However, a recent report, The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, by the Reading Agency demonstrates the real, tangible benefits of reading for pleasure. As such, the loaning of books, in all formats, should remain a mainstay of library provision. An excellent blog by Dawn Finch outlines the main aspects of the report and why reading for pleasure is so important.

We are faced with 5 more years of ideologically driven austerity, the dismantling of public services, and the almost certain continuing reduction and fragmentation of public libraries. So the fight continues and I have decided to return to my musings mainly on the political and campaigning aspects of the ever changing library landscape (and yes, you can accuse me of doing a ‘Farage’ like u-turn!).

I cling to the hope that despite the changes to come we can continue to articulate a vision for public libraries, that while perhaps being a long way from the reality of current provision, nevertheless should be the ideal we aspire to, and which we will one day hopefully achieve.

We’ve got five years..!

save our library

It’s something of an understatement to say that the results of the general election were  disappointing, not just on a personal level but also for what it means for libraries. It’s difficult not to be despondent over the ramifications, which are outlined by Ian Anstice on Public Library News, with the headlines being:

  • Continuing deep cuts to budgets and increasing co-location
  • Off-loading more libraries to volunteers or closure
  • The removal of paid staff, continuing deprofessionalisation, and increasing anxiety about job security
  • Reducing the ability to mount legal challenges and continuing non-intervention by the culture minister
  • Continuing reduction of mobile services

This, unfortunately will be the new realism of the next five years and I believe Ian’s analysis will prove to be depressingly accurate. What we will see now is the re-invigoration of Big Society principles, underpinned by Localism, which will transform the whole public library landscape. The Conservatives are ideologically driven by the desire for a smaller state, less direct government intervention, and reduced public services delivered increasingly by third sector, voluntary organisations, and the private sector.

Libraries will continue to be, along with other public services, hostages to such ideology with little in the way to restrain the inevitable outcome and decline. I have no doubt that public libraries will continue to exist in the future but in a form that is radically different to that of 10 or even 5 years ago in terms of delivery and funding. Whether they will remain comprehensive and efficient in their new form will be open to intense debate.

For many campaigners therefore the battle to protect libraries continues but perhaps there needs to be a period of reflection and consolidation in order to formulate, if possible, a unified national strategy to resist the coming changes. I am not directly involved with the Library Campaign, Speak Up For Libraries, or Voices for the Library but it seems to me that these organsiations would be best placed to begin such a conversation.

Unfortunately, campaigns of the past five years have had only limited success. To be more effective in the future library protest needs to evolve and align with different local and national campaigns, over hospitals, education, tax avoidance etc. There is strength in unity but too many campaigns for libraries have acted in isolation. Such insularity will be even less effective in the face of rampant Tory ideology. It’s not just public libraries but all those in the public sector; schools, colleges, university, and NHS libraries that will be under threat.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity have organised a mass protest in London on June 20th. It would be an empowering gesture if there were a large library contingent there made up of campaigners, organisations – dare I hope for Cilip input – save library groups, staff, and of course library users. Not just speaking up for libraries but shouting out for them.

What has become increasingly obvious is that it’s difficult to campaign for libraries without appreciating what is happening to public services overall. When I first started this blog it was in response to a very narrow debate within Cilip over a name change. It quickly morphed into advocating for libraries and library staff as reductions and closures increased in pace. But against this background was always the hope that the coalition would be ousted and a slow recovery could begin. That hope has been well and truly dashed.

After the election David Cameron announced his aim was “…to govern on the basis of governing for everyone in our United Kingdom” under the mantle of ‘One Nation’. Almost immediately we found out what sort of ‘one nation’ he meant with massive welfare cuts, attacks on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, scrapping the human rights act, destroying workers rights, and more damaging austerity measures.

But we are not ‘One Nation’ and many of us do not agree with the vision Cameron offers. This government does not represent the majority. It is the result of an archaic and increasingly undemocratic voting system in which the Conservatives are governing with only 24% of the vote. This is not a mandate.

Thus, the fight for libraries is also the fight for public services and changing the system so that it works for everyone not just an elite. The downside of the election is we have 5 more years of Tory government, the upside is we have 5 years to fight for real and lasting change.

And with that thought I have decided that now is a natural stopping point and this will be my last post on Leon’s Library Blog. I shall be launching a new site shortly, which will have a stronger political slant as well as advocating for public services, and electoral reform – although I’m sure I will still make the occasional foray into library matters!

It just remains to say thank you to everyone who has been kind enough to read, contribute, and share my ramblings and musings over the past couple of years. A very big thank you indeed.

Leon

Vote For Libraries

keep-calm-and-vote-libraries-Blue

Well, it’s here. After five years of austerity, attacks on public services, widening inequality, and of course the continuing decline of public libraries, the election is with us. During this time, according to Cipfa, there has been:

• The loss of 337 libraries
• Reduction of staff from 25,648 to 19,308
• Increase of volunteers from 15,894 to 35,813
(figures from the Guardian)

Added to which, 30-40% reduction in budgets, hollowing out of services, and deprofessionalisation. Let’s also not forget the high profile judicial reviews of Lincolnshire and the eye-watering percentage of libraries forced on reluctant communities by authorities such as Sheffield.

Despite all of this Ed Vaizey recently defended his handling of libraries and averred that the scale of library closures had been exaggerated. This view was quickly contested by the redoubtable Alan Gibbons, who has challenged Mr Vaizey to a public debate on the matter. While I would dearly love to see such a debate I hope the electorate passes a more compelling judgement and that Vaizey and his party are unceremoniously ejected from office

What makes the claim by Ed Vaizey so outlandish is that his own department, DCMS, does not keep track of library closures so he has no reliable figures to draw on other than those supplied by Cipfa, which he appears to have ignored. A more comprehensive and realistic estimation of library changes is provided by Public Library News.

One issue surrounding the election is the accusation of it being dull and that all the parties are the same. I absolutely disagree.

As mainstream politics fracture under the weight of disillusionment with the Westminster parties the smaller parties have a greater opportunity to influence both the results and aftermath of the election. This is the new politics of the 21st Century. Whether it will have lasting impact remains to be seen but one thing is certain; we live in exciting, if somewhat bemusing political times.

Robert Peston, BBC economics editor, has written an excellent post around this theme and argues that this election really matters.

Although, libraries are not on the scale of the NHS or Education in terms of generating political headlines they are a valued and much loved service that the public genuinely cares about. Unfortunately, libraries and other public services cannot stand another 5 years of Tory government, whether propped-up by another party or not.

Everyone who cares about the survival of libraries: staff, campaigners, and users should think carefully when casting their vote. Give libraries a fighting chance of recovery by not electing those whose avowed aim is to continually shrink and undermine public services.

 

Reply from the Green Party

I’ve had a reply from Martin Dobson, Culture Spokesperson for the Green Party. Apparently the Green Party, while having many activists involved in library campaigns, don’t have an official policy on libraries. What surprised me though was Martin’s openness about the issue, which I found both refreshing and a very human response. Certainly in contrast to the the avoidance tactics of Labour’s Chris Bryant and the obfuscation or downright misrepresentation of the Conservatives.

Perhaps the one area that I would question is point one. While local decision making is admirable, where there’s a clear dereliction of duty by the local council, Lincolnshire being a case in point, I believe it’s the Minister’s duty under the 1964 Act to intervene to protect local services. Unfortunately, the current incumbent Ed Vaizey has been rather remiss in this area for ideological reasons and the Tories avowed intent to reduce public services.

I have included the 3 questions that I asked Martin to give context to his reply:

Questions

1. Should local authorities be allowed to decide on the future of libraries in their own areas without intervention from the Minister for Culture or should the Minister intervene to protect library provision?

2. Many councils have blamed the decrease in central government funding as the reason for no longer being able to afford to run libraries. What would the Green Party do to protect funding specifically for libraries?

3. Do you believe that libraries should be run by community groups/volunteers even if that means replacing paid staff? If not, what would Green Party do specifically to prevent this.

Reply

Dear Leon,

I am glad that you have contacted us in the Green Party because many Green Party activists are involved in campaigns to save their local libraries. Having said that, I have looked and found that we do not have a lot of very specific policy around the management of libraries in our ‘Policies for a Sustainable Society’ – which are our long term policy aspirations.

So I am going to answer your questions based on my knowledge of the work of local councillors and our philosophical basis.

1. The Green Party believes that nothing should be decided at a higher level if it can be decided at a lower one. We therefore would prefer that decisions about local libraries be taken locally within each local authority rather than at the level of Minister for Culture.

2. The Green Party would straight away inject a substantial amount of money into local authorities so that they could restore local services. The amounts will be announced when we launch our fully costed manifesto hopefully later this month. I would expect that local authorities would use this money to restore libraries to the professionally run services that people have enjoyed for so long.

3. This is a very interesting question and we do not have any specific policy to answer it fully. However I know many Green Party members who believe, like me, that libraries should be run and managed by professionally trained and adequately remunerated librarians.

Your email has highlighted for me what little we have in our policies around our vision for libraries, which contrasts with the passion that many Green Party members feel about saving their local library service. As soon as this election is over I will, in my role of Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport start the process of thinking through a vision for libraries within a sustainable society. I am sure many people within the party will want to contribute to the discussions, but if you our your colleagues have any suggestions I would be grateful for your ideas.

I should explain that, unlike other parties, our policy is wholly made by the members at our twice yearly national conferences. It isn’t a short process, and often there isn’t enough time to discuss good ideas. However I am sure that there would be a lot of support to get this subject on the agenda sooner rather than later.

I hope that this answers your questions sufficiently for now. Hopefully we can give a better answer sometime soon.

With all best wishes,

Martin Dobson
Green Party Spokesperson on Culture, Media and Sports
and Parliamentary Candidate for Liverpool Riverside

 

 

 

Support Libraries, support public services

Libraries are a public service and as such are very much part of the political arena. Politicians have found to their chagrin that members of the public are proactive in defending libraries and campaigning to prevent closures. From Moray in Scotland, Devon in South West England, and Rhydyfelin in Wales, the message is the same, ‘hands off our libraries’. In both rural and urban areas people fight passionately to save a service they value even when local councilors and national politicians don’t. Sometimes the campaigns are able to influence the outcome initially or, as in Lincolnshire and Sheffield, sometimes not. However, the fight goes on.

But the damage being done to libraries is only part of the undermining of the whole public sector by mainstream parties yoked to an ideology of unrestricted markets and neoliberal values. As such, the fight for libraries should be seen as part of a wider struggle to protect public services. As the We Own it site states ‘public services for people not profit’.

As mainstream politics fracture under the weight of public disillusionment many have turned away from the hegemony of extreme centre politics to smaller parties such as the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Equally new pressure groups articulate a different vision of political engagement and offer a campaigning voice on behalf of a public distrustful of the link between politicians and big business.

Individuals concerned with upholding the public service ethos and preventing the commercialisation of valuable public services such as the NHS are finding different ways, mostly through social media and the internet, to debate, challenge, and engage. Sometimes they take more direct action such as the Occupy movement. The one thing they all have in common is seeking a fairer, more equitable, society than the one we have now. This is the new politics of the 21st Century. Whether it will have lasting impact remains to be seen.

Public services are under attack as never before and it’s up to us as users and public sector workers to defend them. So support libraries, support public services, support the common good.