Category Archives: Librarians

Changing Times, Changing Roles

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

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

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

 

Cilip VP Election – Rita Marcella

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

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

Many thanks to Rita for sharing her views.  

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

rita-marcellaAbout me

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

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

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

1. What is the core message of your manifesto?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My final thoughts

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

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

Cilip VP Election – Ayub Khan

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

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

Many thanks to Ayub for sharing his views. 

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

ayub-khanAbout me

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

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

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

1. What is the core message of your manifesto?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally

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

 

It’s Complicated!

I doubt that many people, when the coalition government came to power, could predict the precarious state that public libraries would find themselves in five years later, particularly in England. Obviously over that time local authorities have responded in unique – at least as far as libraries were concerned – and not always popular ways including establishing volunteer led libraries, reducing library networks through closures, and hollowing services out by cutting hours, budgets and staff.  A few have gone down the route of commissioning out, mainly in the form of not for profit trusts.

However, the situation has become so fluid that solutions which appeared robust even a couple of years ago are looking unstable in the current climate. This is not necessarily the fault of the managers involved. I admit that my own views have changed, driven by the fact that it is one thing to develop practical alternatives to mitigate a 10%-20% reduction in funding and another to design a service around 40%-50% cuts, with more to follow. Services are being contorted by the unremitting grind of austerity into misshapen delivery models that ill-match their purpose: from a shop front of ragbag, mismatched council services to financially brittle libraries dependent on the availability and philanthropy of the local community.

That said, it’s also undeniable that councils are under immense financial pressure as the setllement from central government is substantially reduced year on year. According to the LGA central government has cut the settlement to councils by 40% since 2010 with a further reduction by 2018. The current furore between David Cameron and the leader of Oxfordshire Council shows that even the most ardent tory councils have had enough.

No wonder some local authorities seek to transfer assets, co-locate services, and turn libraries into ‘community hubs’, whatever that phrase means.

However, such approaches do not lend themselves to genuine service development and the outcome is that library services become pale imitations of their former selves, far removed from the ideal of ‘comprehensive and efficient’, which is sacrificed on the altar of austerity economics.

Library staff, campaigners, and local communities are often faced with a difficult dilemma when threatened with library closures. The option of choice for most councils appears to be to off-load parts of the network individually to local community groups and volunteers. Another option is to hand over to a private company but thankfully there are few examples of this in the UK. The main one being Carillion, which appears to be an unmitigated disaster. That said, Self-service and Bibliotheca’s Open+ are being used as an excuse to replace staff altogether. This is not a criticism of such technology but it is being used increasingly not to enhance service development but merely to enable staffing cuts.

A pragmatic solution? Personally I prefer my libraries with the human touch.

Another option that fewer councils have adopted is the mutual/trust approach. Many campaigners rightly point out the pitfalls in taking such a path and the pros and cons are summed up on Public Library News.

The main concern about trusts seems to be that they are viewed as a backdoor to privatisation, lack accountability in the way they operate, not least regarding FoI, remove accountability out of the hands of elected representatives, and offer lower employment terms and conditions  for staff. I have great sympathy for some of these concerns particularly over withholding information under the guise of commercial confidentiality.

Data around trusts is also hard to come by so how successful they really are in comparison with a council run service is difficult to reliably quantify.

However, despite these qualms we should not just dismiss the trust approach. Now I have previously argued in favour of trusts, not because I believe they are the ideal solution, but because they offer a pragmatic option over fragmenting library networks by closure or handing over to volunteers. I’ve also never been entirely convinced that this undermines local accountability, mainly because it’s the elected representatives that have helped to create the current crisis. Ask campaigners in Sheffield, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Kirklees…in fact almost anywhere in the country how well local accountability is working!

Yes the ideal might be a fully funded and council run service but in the current political climate and a government ideologically opposed to properly funding public services this is a unrealistic expectation. Maybe circumstances will change in the future under a more sympathetic government but we have a long way to go before we get there. In the meantime we need to develop pragmatic interim solutions.

The latest authority to go down the trust route is Devon, with the adoption of a new identity as Libraries Unlimited South West, which Ian Anstice observed could imply ambitions beyond the Devon area. I’ve explored regional library trusts in previous posts comparing them to  NHS trusts and surmising that perhaps similar cross boundary cooperation could work well for libraries.

Often staff are supportive of the trust model as an alternative but prevented from pursuing this by council members who, for some unfathomable reason, prefer threatening to close libraries as a way of coercing communities into running them.

So if it genuinely comes down to a choice between the option to keep the network mostly intact and run mostly by paid staff and qualified librarians or face the fragmentation of services and handing over to volunteers I know which option I’d choose. In fact where a council is intent on off-loading a large proportion of its library network then campaigners should challenge the council to adopt a trust model.

However, as I say, it’s complicated, and for the foreseeable future likely to get more complicated still.

Paved with good intentions

love-librariansI’ve come across the phrase ‘volunteer librarian’ twice recently. Firstly from a newspaper article about a volunteer run library in Lincolnshire and secondly in a blog from a campaigner protesting cuts in Barnet and the establishment of volunteer libraries.

The sentiments from the latter post are to be admired as is the valuable work they do with their local school. I also endorse their end statement that “You wouldn’t want a volunteer teacher. So why would you want a volunteer librarian?”. And in fact most people don’t. What they want is paid and qualified staff delivering services.

The one unfortunate element of the above post is the authors claim to be a ‘volunteer librarian’ themselves, which rather undermines the whole argument. Now, this is not a personal attack but we need to be clear as to what constitutes a librarian, which is a theme I explored in a recent post ‘When is a librarian not a librarian?’ Put simply, if an individual doe not hold a recognised qualification in librarianship then they are most definitely not a librarian.

This is not to undermine the valuable contribution such library helpers make but just as being a classroom assistant, despite the important work they do, does not make you a ‘teacher’, volunteering in a library does not entitle the individual to the title of librarian. So within this context there is no such thing as a volunteer librarian. Librarianship is a highly skilled and qualified profession and one way of campaigners supporting librarians is to ensure the currency of the title is not debased.

This leads me on to the question of librarian volunteers. That is, qualified librarians who help in their local volunteer library. This is a difficult and divisive issue.

One such volunteer recently commented that:

I am a retired librarian running my local library with about 70 volunteers. A library with no links to the local community is now a local hub, with talks, clubs, many kids events and displays, trained volunteers, who have just won an award for the tiptop service they supply to the community. I love it , having always worked miles away I know so many local users and volunteers. Some libraries were great but not this one – we have together made it great. I am proud of this Community Library created by the local population. And Surrey regards us as one of their own they fully support their community libraries.

The intention is again well meaning. However, the involvement of a retired librarian has wider implications than that of ordinary volunteers because they, in my opinion, also have a duty towards the wider profession.

Unfortunately, the involvement of qualified librarians in volunteer run libraries:

  • Undermines the integrity of librarianship and enables the deprofessionalisation of the public library sector
  • Limits career opportunities of those still in or newly entering the profession
  • Gives a façade of respectability to council cuts
  • Supports the erroneous notion that volunteer services are as good as those run by paid staff

I’m sure the inclination to save a much loved local library is genuine. Nevertheless, I also feel that retired librarians who have enjoyed a rewarding career and the good fortune of paid employment should not support a system that denies the same opportunities to their fellow professionals.

Rather than enabling the degradation of library services and actively supplanting paid staff retired and ex-librarians should be in the vanguard of opposing such moves.

By undermining the sector such ‘librarians’ should forfeit the right to be part of a professional body that is fighting hard to preserve the professional integrity of the public library network nationally.

 

 

Tim Coates: Ten Steps to Changing Public Libraries

This guest post comes from Tim Coates, former Waterstone’s boss and library commentator. Tim is known for his outspoken views on libraries and recently criticised the government and councils for showing a lack of leadership. He also called for Ed Vaizey to be replaced.

Tim often comments on this blog and so I invited him to write a piece about what he views as the challenges facing library services and possible solutions, which he has kindly done.

Ten Steps to Changing Public Libraries

1. The first line of the CILIP charter says ‘for the public benefit ‘. That has to be the motto for everything.

2. That means increasing use of libraries as libraries (not as social services or council centres); using limited resources as efficiently as possible; and really understanding what makes people use libraries. There needs to be professional ‘consumer’ analysis . CILIP should conduct this initially and then on a continuous basis.

3. All training, including professional training, has to be directed at understanding and meeting people’s library needs – NOT the traditional academic ideas of information management . Training needs to change to be about service and books and information resources and open to anyone who works in the service. CILIP should facilitate and monitor this.

4. All people who work in libraries should give professional service, be equipped to do so and be acknowledged by the profession by virtue of their experience and skills – not their education. There should be no more demarcations about who can do which jobs – except by the ability to do those jobs properly. CILIP should oversee this.

5. The emphasis should be on local libraries in local communities with management and systems designed and empowered to give the best service. Localism means local libraries not local councils. The library systems for management and acquisition of material should be national and standard and able to be used by any local library with its own budget . CILIP should cooperate in this.

6. Councils need help to make best use of the budgets they can allocate to libraries and how much money is needed. Local residents should know what they should expect from local libraries and how well their local library performs . Local people should be able to look for increasing use of each individual library . CILIP should provide this, explaining all the while why good libraries are of benefit to the people within the jurisdiction of the council and why.

7. Councils should be able to call on CILIP for special projects and advice knowing that the priority will be to the service to local people and issues of that kind and will not be about protecting jobs.

8. There should be a national digital library as a resource available to all libraries and library users – CILIP should participate in facilitating this . This should be linked into and operated through one standard national library management system with the various book and material suppliers.

9. I believe that creating one absolutely standard ILMS specification (not a ‘minimum standard) is essential to the project on digital development – and to the future of the service as a whole . Without being disagreeable, it should not be carried out by a committee – but by the most expert group that can be found.

There should be no need to spend £20m on an umbrella system if the ILMS requirements were specified properly and totally standard.

10. With the emphasis on local: libraries rather than councils – there needs to be a wholesale reorganisation of the English library service into 6-10 regions . There should eventually be no council library authorities. CILIP should cooperate in the creation and establishment of these new larger regions and the removal of the old ones – it should work with national task forces on all these things

If it did these things there would be nothing ‘amateurish’ whatsoever about the library profession.

Tim Coates

 

 

The Gordian Knot

Gordian-Knot-and-Pain

The list of volunteer libraries grows almost daily with perhaps Herefordshire providing the most extreme example, proposing that all but one library should be run by community groups. However, the approach is fast becoming ubiquitous across the country with examples at Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Southampton, Kirklees, Leicestershire, Sheffield, etc. The list goes ever on. Unfortunately, it might be easier nowadays to list those services that haven’t handed, or want to hand, libraries over to volunteers in one form or another.

In fact it’s become the norm to the extent that Lincolnshire Council can boast that “Volunteers are now at the heart of Lincolnshire’s library service, giving communities a chance to do things their own way.” So we finally have a local authority that regards volunteers and not paid staff to be central to its library service. In a similar vein Lewisham Council claim’s that making staff redundant and handing libraries over to volunteers ‘…will in fact enhance the service.’ Hampshire appears to be going one better than even using volunteers and aims to replace 74 staff with self-service technology.

Unfortunately, the volunteer model is leading to the fragmentation of library services, not only nationally, but also locally with a two-tier service developing within the same county, city, or town.

Obviously, the approach is not without it’s difficulties for Councils as the judicial challenges in Lincolnshire shows. A recent story from Lincolnshire also illustrates that not all libraries are viable with volunteers saying there is not enough money to keep going. Equally worrying is that volunteer libraries in Manchester have seen visitor numbers plummet by as much as 90%.

So while volunteer libraries are not necessarily the answer they do seem to the model favoured by many local authorities faced with an ever decreasing settlement from central government. A situation that is projected to get far worse by 2020 according to the LGA.

Communities are offered very little choice in the face of closures. It’s long been recognised that there is an element of blackmail in forcing communities to take over the running of libraries or face closure. It’s also very difficult to oppose plans that are targeted at individual libraries as each community fights to save their local library rather than the whole network. I’ve always found it puzzling that councils can trumpet that charities and trusts are a preferred option for individual libraries, which can sometime amount to the majority of libraries in that authority, but somehow the trust/mutual approach is not considered suitable for the whole service. At least that way it is the experts, the library staff, that retain control. Work that one out!

In both Lincolnshire and Leicestershire the attitude is that local communities …know best what their library needs, whether it is different opening hours or staging more events’ and that volunteer libraries are capable of ‘…creating an even better service that the county can be proud of.’

Some councillors and volunteers might actually believe this. Others take a more pragmatic view. Bob Mynors, a volunteer at Stannington Library in Sheffield acknowledges “While volunteers cannot ever fully replace the work done by professional, qualified librarians, libraries remain important local, social spaces.” He also states that the volunteers have greater flexibility to do things that would not have been possible under local authority management such as a murder-mystery evening , accepting book donations, and a story festival.

It’s a pity that such simple things are considered an improvement when they should have been part and parcel of the council run library offer. What all of the above demonstrates however is the importance that both councillors and communities place on libraries, with the prevalent attitude being that a volunteer library is better than a closed library.

This is a conundrum for both the library profession and campaigners alike. The Gordian Knot that we must find an answer to. It is one thing to protest cuts and closures but it is another to develop a viable alternative. From a cash-strapped council point of view volunteer libraries offer a cheap and politically palatable alternative to closure even if the local community have to be compelled to take on the running. For the past five years it is the one argument that many campaigns have foundered on.

It should be obvious that volunteers cannot replace the knowledge and expertise of paid staff and qualified librarians. However, regardless of how bitter communities feel about the loss of paid staff they would still rather lose staff than the library, which is why councils know that ultimately volunteers will, in most cases, step forward.

The Speak Up For Libraries conference is next month and unless campaigners can develop a narrative to counteract the volunteer model and advocate an equally simple and affordable option then volunteers libraries will be the reality for the next 5 years and possibly beyond.

Obviously, the task should not be left to campaigners alone as it’s important that any narrative is shared and supported by all, which includes Cilip, SCL, and the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. However, until a solution is found, and hopefully found quickly, then before too long it really will be volunteers rather than library staff and qualified librarians that will be at the heart of the service. To the detriment of all.

Addendum

The following was received from librariesmatter and it certainly is food for thought:

On a point of logic – the Lincolnshire CC statement does seem extraordinary since the community hub/volunteer libraries are not part of the Lincs statutory library service. How can the heart of the service be outside the service for which the Council has the responsibility?

Whilst the issue around the possible over use of volunteers in public libraries is well publicised, the issue of Councils’ redefining the extent of their statutory library service by leaving out libraries from their service has hardly received any attention. Lincolnshire is an example of this. My understanding is that for the 30 community hub/volunteer libraries – Lincs CC doesn’t have any obligation to support these libraries into the future. It has chosen to provide some short term support (4 years) presumably as a more palatable way of pushing through its reduction in service.

The redefining of the statutory service allows a Council to provide a worse and lower funded library service into the future. English councils are able to do this because there are no library standards (abolished 2008) nor any library performance indicators (abolished 2010) and government policy is clearly one of non-intervention. Shouldn’t campaigners and CILIP be paying more attention to this point?
If a library is part of the Council’s statutory service then it is under an obligation to fund and support it.
This doesn’t necessary mean the Council has to run the library itself or even that there have to be paid staff present (alternatives in smaller branches could be volunteers or ‘open+’ technology).
 
The places where community run libraries are more successful are surely those that are part of a statutory library service and are thus (hopefully) properly supported.

 

 

 

 

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.

Keep library staff to keep changing lives

For anyone who has missed it there is an excellent interview with Kathy Settle, Chief Executive of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce and Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP, talking about library priorities particularly in relation to the Government Spending Review in November.

You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said but there are some very important points for library staff and campaigners alike to reflect on. Amongst the many comments the following from Nick Poole really stood out for me:

“My biggest concern is that we allow services to be hollowed-out in the name of keeping up appearances, keeping the doors open while reducing the range and quality of services offered by skilled and qualified staff.

We can’t afford to focus on the short-term situation while allowing library services to be systematically under-funded. We need to fight the battles ahead while remaining focused on the real aim – which is to deliver the modern and comprehensive library network that the public need and have a right to expect.”

I doubt there is anyone within the sector that would disagree with these sentiments and all credit to Nick for making such assertions so publicly. This acknowledgement of the importance of paid staff is further evidenced by Cilip Board members support for the resolution on the ‘amateurisation’ of public libraries proposed by Andy Richardson. The reason for the proposal is explained by Andy here.

The importance of skilled and qualified staff delivering a meaningful service to communities is highlighted through the Libraries Change Lives Award. Every year this provides a showcase for wonderfully innovative projects that have a real social impact within communities. It’s worth reading through the list of past winners and this year’s shortlisted finalists to get a flavour of how important libraries are and can be to their communities.

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The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives.

And let’s not forget that this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the projects that happen everyday within libraries. The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives. Without them none of this innovation would be possible.

Unfortunately, the steady encroachment of volunteer run libraries threatens to undermine all of this. As Martyn Wade, Chair of Cilip Board states:

“Volunteers should be an asset. We should recognise the valuable skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, experience and fresh perspectives that volunteers can provide. But we must act when the quality and long-term sustainability of library services is at risk.”

Even innovation that is now taken for granted and considered standard service e.g. reading groups and film nights were first and foremost instigated by library staff or developed in partnership with individuals and organisations. Other initiatives developed with bodies like the Reading Agency have become mainstays of library provision such as the Summer Reading Challenge or Reading Ahead (previously the Six Book Challenge).

Staff continue to provide innovation from the library based Fab Lab in Exeter to the Get it loud in libraries project. Despite the challenging financial reductions and the fragmentation of services innovation is in the blood of librarians.

However, for this to continue skilled and qualified staff need to play a central part in all libraries; not just as managers and supervisors of volunteer run libraries, the overseers of the charity shop or hub and spoke model run by unpaid amateurs but as innovators embedded in their communities delivering core services.

For an overwhelming argument in support of paid staff look no further than the Libraries Change Lives Awards. Good luck to all those shortlisted.