Review of Public Libraries 2017

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

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

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

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

Commercialism

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

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

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

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

Recruitment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independent voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round-up

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

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

 

Cilip AGM 2017

It’s been a busy week in the library world with the main event being Libraries Week, showcasing as it did the wonderful and diverse range of work that libraries and library staff do. As illustrated on the LW website libraries are still ridiculously well attended and not necessarily in terminal decline as some would have us believe.That said, libraries still face quite significant challenges.

Despite being the representative of a government that has overseen the closure of 340 libraries and the loss of 8000 library staff John Glenn wasted no time in exploiting the event for numerous photo opportunities. He appears quite happy to use libraries as a backdrop to deliver inane governmental platitudes but not actually do anything to protect them. As the old adage goes ‘actions speak louder than words’ and by taking none the new libraries minister is as much a paper tiger as previous incumbents of the post.

Ethics Workshop

This week also saw the Cilip AGM take place and it’s become a tradition on this blog to report back from it. Just before the AGM I took part in one of the ethic workshops that have been organised as part of the Big Conversation. While ethics might seem a long way from the practical, everyday situations librarians find themselves in the reverse is true and our values and behaviours should underpin everything we do. In my opinion we cannot claim to be a profession or act professionally if we don’t understand why we do what we do.

As Dawn Fince observes:

“It is worthwhile to reflect for a moment as to why ethics and professional values are so important. Our ethical principles do sit at the centre of our Professional Knowledge and Skills Base (PKSB), and should inform and inspire the way we use all the skills and knowledge set out in the PKSB, but they should be even more far reaching. At their best they should also protect the user, engender trust across all stakeholder groups and enable better judgement and decision making. To do that they need to be embedded in every aspect of our professional practice and promoted more widely within our user communities. This review is very much about the “public good” of our profession which, for CILIP, we express in terms of the following goal: “to put information and library skills and professional values at the heart of a democratic, equal and prosperous society”.

It was heartening therefore to discover that over 1500 responses had been received to the ethics survey. If you havene’t had the opportunity yet I would encourage members and non-members alike to visit the Ethics Review page and to read the recent blog what are the work-based ethical issues concerning you?

For a more in-depth look at the topic it’s worth reading the seminal Our Enduring Values by Michael Gorman and an excellent round-up of the various issues by David McMenemy: Sustaining Our Common Values (slide presentation).

Libraries Change Lives

The Highlight of any Cilip AGM is the Libraries Change Lives Award and this year was no exception. It’s worth viewing all four shortlisted projects, with introductory films, to see how much impact libraries can have on peoples lives. And while every year throws up wonderful and innovative work being done, this year’s winner was particularly inspirational and moving. So congratulations to the library at HMP Norwich that delivers weekly cognitive stimulation therapy to elderly prisoners serving life sentences, who are suffering from memory loss, dementia, and depression.

Congratulations also to the other shortlisted candidates:

  • Ipswich Library’s Chat and Chill:  for women from diverse and international backgrounds living in Suffolk
  • Kirklees Libraries’ Family Storywalks: bringing local families together outdoors to take part in learning and nature-based activities
  • Story Café at the Women’s Library in Glasgow: a women-only shared reading group which brings women from different backgrounds together to connect over literature

Honorary Fellowship:

There was also the awarding of five Honorary Fellowships

  • Joy Court – Carnegie Greenaway Award Chair, Children’s librarian and children’s literature expert
  • Martin Hayes – local studies librarian for West Sussex County
  • Stephan Roman – former Regional Director of South Asia for the British Council
  • Sheila Webber – Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s Information School

And last but by no means least:

  • Chris Riddell – triple Kate Greenaway Medal winning illustrator, political cartoonist and former Children’s Laureate

All thoroughly deserved and Chris Riddell kept the room entertained with an amusing story of why and how librarians had inspired him:  “This honorary fellowship has given me a chance to think of the important librarians in my life. She was called Helen…!”

Finally

It was an excellent day and a chance to catch-up with colleagues old and new and the opportunity to network. I would certainly encourage all members to attend an AGM if they get the opportunity.

Finally, Cilip members will have the opportunity to elect three new trustees to the Board over the coming weeks. Among the candidates is a certain Likable Loquacious Blogger..! Need I say more.

Cilip AGM 2016

The highlight of the Cilip AGM is the Libraries Change Lives Award, providing as they do an inspiration for the rest of the sector. This year was no exception.

Congratulations then to the winner, Norfolk Libraries for their  Healthy Libraries’ initiative; a countywide programme promoting healthy living and targeting the county’s most serious health priorities through the Norfolk library network.”

But equally well done to all those shortlisted for showing how vital and needed libraries and staff are for their communities.

Congratulations also to the winners of the UKeiG Information Manager of the Year and Mentor of the Year awards, and the Honorary Fellows.

Typically in the build up to AGM I would write several posts, usually critical and usually about the increase in subscription fees or lack of political campaigning and advocacy for libraries.

Two factors have conspired to keep me quiet this year. Firstly, work events and demands have meant that my attention has, by necessity, been focused elsewhere. Secondly for the first time I broadly agreed with all the items on the agenda including the proposals regarding membership fees. The AGM agreed to:

  • Freeze to subscription rates for the majority of members in 2017
  • End the trial of providing free student membership and returning students to a heavily discounted rate
  • Include a minimum annual subscription of £40 for newly qualified members and the removal of access to a 50% discount for newly qualified members if earning over £42,001
  • Modest fee increases for Professional Registration enrolment and portfolio submission

This now paves “…the way for CILIP’s proposed new approach to membership from January 2018. The proposed structure is designed to be more affordable, better value for money, more open to everyone in the sector and provide clearer benefits.” To which I add is more equitable and fairer to members.  

Added to this is my growing satisfaction with the direction of travel that Cilip is taking and that within a relatively short space of time a convergence of views has evolved.

From being  perceived as soft on library closures we have seen quite increasingly strong statements from Cilip, Nick Poole as CEO, and the current President Dawn Finch, against closures, hollowing out, and the loss of paid staff.

Nick has engaged in a round of media coverage to promote the value of libraries, and even written to councils where cuts have appeared rather draconian. Equally, Dawn is an outspoken defender of library services and fierce critic of closures and cutbacks.

Last year the Cilip Board fully endorsed the resolution to oppose the ‘amateurisation’ of public libraries services and we have seen the launch of the My Library By Right campaign, challenging both local and central government to fulfil their legal responsibilities and provide a quality library service.

Cilip is also ensuring that librarians and staff have a strong voice on the Libraries Taskforce.

And 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 librarians.

So this year the other winner is Cilip itself in achieving what some people would have considered impossible; giving me nothing to be grumpy about.

The problem is, I do like being ever so grumpy…thanks a lot Cilip!

 

 

 

 

 

The Library User Comes Second

The phrase that ‘staff are an organisation’s most valuable asset’ was at one time so ubiquitous that it became accepted as a truism. Unfortunately, this belief was fundamentally undermined by globalisation as companies outsourced and focused on short-term gain and maximising profits, with employees seen as an expensive overhead and therefore expendable.

Despite this public services were to a certain extent protected. That was until five years ago and the introduction of the Government’s austerity programme and a political agenda that viewed centrally funded public services as a burden rather than an asset to the state.

That staff are a valuable resource is still accepted in principle, with plenty of lip service being paid, but in practice, particularly in local authorities, the reality is somewhat different. Over 500,000 workers having lost their jobs since 2010 and according to the Office for Budget Responsibility a further 500,000 more jobs are still to go, making the loss of a million jobs between 2010 – 2020.

Budgets have also decreased significantly with central funding to councils reduced by 40% and the spending review in November set to scale the grant back even further. The National Audit Office has warned that some councils may struggle to provide services they are legally obliged to and no doubt this will include libraries.

Nowhere is the perceived value of staff in principle and their replacement by untrained amateurs in practice more evident than in libraries, with views from some councils bordering on the absurd regarding the capacity and capability of volunteers. This approach is underpinned by the unevidenced belief that it is communities at the micro level that are best placed to determine the needs of that particular locality. Despite the fact that this very rarely applies to any other council or outsourced service in the area.

This is not to preclude the local community from having influence into the service via appropriate fora such as friends groups, but there is a fundamental difference between input and actual responsibility for delivering the service.

Despite the primacy afforded to communities I would argue it is the opposite; that it is staff and not the user that is most important. This has long been recognised in the commercial sector with many advocates of the approach of it’s staff who provide customer satisfaction so by keeping staff engaged a better customer experience is delivered. There are many books on the subject with perhaps Hal Rosenbluth The Customer Comes Second being one of the best known.

If this can be true in the commercial sector it is particularly true for the public sector delivering as it does vital public services. Many councils have a ‘vision’ and ‘brand’ that they expect staff to translate into practice. However, it is difficult to support any vision while at the same time being under constant threat of restructuring, increased workloads, reductions in conditions and pay, and redundancy. And in the case of library staff, replacement by volunteers.

What is perhaps surprising is that library staff actually do remain engaged despite such threats hanging over them, which is testimony to their resilience and belief in the social value of what they do. It is paid staff that deliver on services which include social equality, economic benefits, health & wellbeing, digital skills, learning, and literacy. It is not enough to have a passive service where the doors remain open, you need trained staff and qualified librarians to engage in outreach and activities that encourage people to come through the library doors in the first place. The work delivered around the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, and the Carnegie Library Lab are shining examples of this.

While volunteers do their best to keep services running they lack the skills, knowledge and experience to develop and deliver such strategic and innovative programmes for the good of the wider community. Offering a passive service, with the expectation that users will come to the library without continuous innovation and maintaining high-quality services, is one reason why many volunteer libraries struggle to maintain visitor numbers.

Library staff and librarians offer a whole range of skills and knowledge that ensures a service is professionally managed and developed. Importantly, they offer a service for the benefit of the whole community and not just for a local ward or parish. For an extensive list of the type of work carried out see ‘What Librarians Do’ on the Voices for the Library website.

Many volunteers recognise this fact and even when forced to take on libraries regret the loss of paid staff as demonstrated in Lincolnshire.

Library users are incredibly important, as are their views on libraries, but it is paid staff and librarians that are essential to the running of an comprehensive and efficient service. To use business parlance libraries are not a start up scrabbling to place an untried product. Libraries are an established business with recognisable products, services, and a brand, and most importantly customer base. The challenge is to maintain and grow that customer base by offering products and services that customers want. Not that I agree with commercial terminology being applied to public services but for comparison purposes it’s useful in this particular context.

Thus, it is staff that are best placed to manage, develop, deliver, and innovate services that will keep the public coming through the doors and ensure that libraries have a long-term future.

 

Cilip AGM 2015

Cilipres4I was unable to attend the AGM this year but thanks to the wonder of technology and the excellent work of Cilip staff I was able to follow the proceedings via a live video link.

As usual the Libraries Change Lives Award was inspirational and full of ideas for other services to emulate. Well done to all the shortlisted candidates and particularly well done to the winner, North Ayrshire Libraries, with their ‘Appiness’ digital programme for pre-schoolers and parents.

There were six worthy recipients of the Honorary Fellowship award this year including Ian Anstice of Public Library News fame. Never has an award been so richly deserved and Twitter was alight with people (including myself) offering congratulations. There are not enough superlatives for Ian’s excellent work so I will stick with saying incredibly well done, without his hard work and dedication the library world would be a poorer and less informed place.

Unfortunately, the subscriptions were raised once again on a vote of 105 for, 33 Against & 5 Abstentions. My opposition to the rise is well known and at the meeting there was a lot of criticism of the £17-£42k band. Mike Hoskings, Cilip Treasurer has indicated  that this will be looked at, and despite promises to the same for the past five years, perhaps this will be the year something actually changes. I remain ever hopeful.

Nick Poole highlighted the increased advocacy by Cilip this past year and announced the launch of the Strategic Plan 2016-2020, called Shape the Future:

‘Shape the Future is an open, collaborative project to develop CILIP’s Strategic Plan 2016-2020. We want to ensure that as many people as possible have a chance to contribute to this plan including members and non-members, external parties, staff and partners in all 4 nations of the UK and internationally.’

One of the most urgent areas to be addressed will be the continuing decline in membership. Apparently, there are now only 3000 members from public libraries left in Cilip. It’s difficult to decide if there is one over-riding factor for the decline but I would hazard a guess that weak advocacy from Cilip over the past 5 years has played a major part. Equally, the loss of 37% professionally qualified staff in public libraries since 2009/10 won’t have helped either.

That said, I do see some change in Cilip’s approach and certainly since becoming CEO Nick Poole has been more overt in advocating for the profession as evidenced by the string of TV and radio interviews recently. Equally, the Board backed resolution 4 last night opposing the amateurisation of public libraries. Again, well done to Andy Richardson & Anna Brynolf for submitting the motion and presenting it so eloquently.

Most people were in favour of the motion. Some minor amendments were made with the replacement of the word ‘manned’ by ‘staffed’, and the resolution was easily passed.

Sue Williamson, Head of Library Services at St Helens, felt is was unfair to apportion blame to senior library managers as they often had little choice in making such changes. No one, certainly not Heads of Service want the amateurisation of the profession. I quite agree with Sue’s comments and have often written how difficult it is for managers to resist such changes since decisions are made by councillors.

This is where the Society of Chief Librarians have a vital role to play. While individual HoS, as paid council officers, have no choice but to implement changes – and many do argue quite strongly behind the scenes – SCL, as the body representing senior library managers, could make an unequivocal statement opposing volunteer run libraries and the loss of paid staff.

However, this might not be realistic given that only a year ago the President of SCL as part of her inaugural speech stated that a priority was to “…explore how we might develop resources and a framework to support community-led libraries.” It might be that Cilip and SCL’s positions on this issue are starting to diverge significantly.

Another interesting factor will be reconciling the principle of the resolution with the fact that Jan Parry, President of Cilip, has been appointed to lead a task-force charged with working out how Liverpool’s libraries will be funded from 2017 onwards. On the face of it the resolution would appear to preclude Jan recommending that Liverpool hand over further libraries to community groups or volunteers. We shall just have to wait and see what models are eventually suggested.

So, another AGM over with lots of changes afoot. I’m certainly looking forward to the Shape the Future consultation, greater advocacy and opposition to volunteer run libraries, but most of all, to finally sorting out the subscription bands.

 

 

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.

What about social justice?

The following is by John Vincent who is a tireless campaigner for promoting social justice through public libraries. In 1997 he was invited to become part of the team that produced the UK’s first review of public libraries and social exclusion from which The Network originated.

John now runs courses and lectures, writes, produces regular newsletters and ebulletins, and lobbies for greater awareness of the role that libraries, archives and museums play in contributing to social justice, and is also the author of LGBT People and the UK Cultural Sector and along with John Pateman, Public Libraries and Social Justice. John was deservedly awarded a Honorary Fellowship for his work by Cilip this year.

What about social justice?

John Vincent

Leon and I bumped into each other at the CILIP “Big Day”, where we were celebrating the achievements of the three finalists for the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award, and he invited me to write a piece about social justice and community libraries.

This seems an entirely appropriate moment to consider this issue, as, at the “Big Day”, we were urged by William Sieghart to go out and copy the work of the three outstanding finalists (the winners, Northamptonshire Library and Information Service and the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership Enterprise Hubs; and the finalists Hertfordshire Library Service and KidsHub library sessions, and Leeds Library Service Studio 12 – Writing Leeds) – William also declared that:

“We need to do something urgently. We’re at a Beeching moment – the review that led to the closure of railway branch lines – which many regret, and that’s why this is urgent.”

However, the one issue which William Sieghart’s talk seemed to gloss over was the role of libraries in working towards social justice!

An aside before we begin: some public libraries are working to tackle social exclusion, and have been doing so (albeit under different names) long before the introduction of the formal policy in 1997 – think, for example, of the community librarianship and outreach heydays of the 1970s and 1980s. However, it is also worth reminding ourselves that the research which led to Open to all? [1], published by the then Resource in 2000, demonstrated that:

“… there are wide differentials between UK public library authorities [PLAs] in terms of activity relevant to social inclusion:

  • The survey estimates that only one-sixth of PLAs approximate to a comprehensive model of good practice for social inclusion. Most PLAs (60%), although having developed some initiatives, have no comprehensive strategy and uneven and intermittent activity. A final group of one-quarter of PLAs are those with little apparent strategy and service development
  • Targeting of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and social groups is used comprehensively by only approximately one-third of PLAs. Recent service developments in libraries, such as the development of ICT networks and literacy initiatives, tend to be targeted at socially excluded people in only a small minority of cases
  • Most PLAs report fairly high levels of community involvement by their staff but this tends to be at a general level, rather than focussed on disadvantage or exclusion
  • Most PLAs have no consistent resource focus on exclusion, and this is sometimes very marginal indeed. A minority of PLAs are very active in developing partnership projects but this is not a dominant factor in most PLA social exclusion strategies
  • Many of the UK’s most marginal and excluded people are not considered to be a priority in PLA strategy, service delivery and staffing. This applies especially to a number of social groups who commonly face stigma and discrimination: e.g. Refugees; Homeless People; Travellers.” [p ix]

There was a concerted effort by some public library services after 2000 to put inclusion at their core. However, I think that social justice involves taking this a stage further still, for example by recognising the current harsh and discriminatory treatment of all kinds of groups in society (claimants, single parents, migrants, disabled people) and finding ways in which the library can provide information and other support (eg meeting spaces) to assist communities to fight for their rights, and also to help people think through where “the truth” may lie. In its policy guidelines, What makes a good library service?, CILIP says that:

“A good library service will deliver against key policy objectives and provide:
• … Equality, community cohesion and social justice …” [p2]

So, how are we doing?

As the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award finalists (and, indeed, the other applicants for the Award) have demonstrated, despite the gloomy economic and political climate for public libraries, there is brilliant work going on in some libraries – work which not only supports communities that may otherwise be marginalised (unemployed people; children with special needs and their families; and young people from BME communities, many were excluded from school, experienced poor formal education and many have been long-term unemployed – to take the three finalists), but also shows how vital a public library can be.

However, is this pattern universal across the UK? To take two examples, if, ten years ago, you looked for examples of public library websites that strongly promoted their LGBT provision, there would have been many good examples. Today, there are hardly any.

When the Welcome To Your Library project finished in 2007, there was growing interest in developing provision for ‘new arrivals’ (refugees, asylum-seekers, migrant workers, etc), not only from the six WTYL partner areas, but across the UK – now, provision is minimal, with only a very few libraries targeting and providing services.

We know some of the reasons why this is happening: lack of library staff, time and resources; communities overwhelmed by other demands on their time; possibly political views about ‘new arrivals’.

But is there more to it? Could it be that, surreptitiously, we’ve become worn down by the calls to return to building-based services, to concentrate on existing users and their demands, to abandon ‘risky’ types of service, or services that do not show ‘high returns’ such as increased issue figures and visitor numbers? We do know that the sort of work that is required to make public libraries really relevant is time-intensive, and often involves relatively small numbers of users.

In addition, how many public library services have actually taken this sort of work into their core? Is social justice (or tackling social exclusion) embedded in everything they do, for example in making funding priority decisions? Or is it an add-on? Is it seen as a core activity, or a ‘project’? (And, by ‘project’, I mean something that is time-limited and short-term funded.) One of the dangers is that, when funding diminishes and when external funding sources dry up, so ‘social justice work’ also stops, instead of its being seen as a core activity.

And this then brings us to community libraries. I am arguing here that, currently, social justice is already on the ‘back-burner’ for some libraries, and, with politicians’ apparent urgent desire to decimate local services (at a time when, ludicrously, Britain is starting to commit vast sums of money to a highly risky and unproven war strategy in the Near East and North Africa; and the anomaly of savage cuts to local services whilst giving huge grants to businesses is only just being explored by the media), libraries – along with other vital provision – continue to be at risk.

The pros and cons of community libraries are neatly summed up in the new report from OPM and Locality, Rural library services in England: exploring recent changes and possible futures:

“Where communities have become more directly involved in supporting or managing their rural libraries, they can evolve into more effective, positive and well-used venues than their predecessors. This can involve the nurturing of a
library’s role in supporting social interaction, strengthening community ties, hosting events and activities to appeal to a wider range of people and creating space for clubs and societies to flourish.

In other cases, however, library friends groups might save a branch but bring with them very limited perceptions about what that facility will offer. As such, library service managers are sometimes concerned about the inability of some of their community libraries to live up to what should be expected of a local library from the point of view of standards / consistency of service and inclusivity.” [pp5-6, emphasis theirs]

It is this approach that has led to library provision becoming something of a postcode lottery, particularly where libraries have been ‘cast adrift’ by their local authority, losing the steer that they had previously.

Libraries must be properly funded and properly staffed if they are to take their rightful place in the struggle for social justice – and working towards social justice has to be their core aim. Without that, what is their purpose?

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[1] Dave Muddiman, Shiraz Durrani, Martin Dutch, Rebecca Linley, John Pateman and John Vincent. Open to All? The public library and social exclusion: volume one: overview and conclusions. Resource (Library and Information Commission Research Report 84), 2000.