Category Archives: Libraries Taskforce

The Library Commonwealth

This is likely to be my last post although I will continue to be active around libraries via social media and can be followed on Twitter @librareon.

So I thought I would end this blog with some general observations and try to encapsulate some of my thoughts from the past five-and-a half-years.

The state of public libraries in England

Crisis…what crisis!

Libraries are facing an existential crisis. Not because they are danger of disappearing altogether but rather a crisis of identity; who they are, what they are, what they stand for.

This goes beyond the closures, hollowing-out, deprofessionalisation, and amatuerisation – all critical factors – but these are symptoms rather than the cause. Austerity has been a major driving force behind the changes but again this is not the whole story.

Nor is the lack of strategic leadership within the sector. Although this is without doubt a significant factor especially as the library leadership are enabling government policies in return for organisational funding. The very same policies that are causing the current crisis!

But as always, when you follow the money, you end up in someone’s pocket!

Despite this there is also a deeper malaise and it’s one that as a profession we all have to accept responsibility for. And that is a loss of belief in the profession itself. We have lost our sense of identity and by doing so lost our sense of purpose.

And because we have lost this self–belief we have allowed others to fill the void with short-termism, self-interest, and organisational and technological fads.

We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that libraries are just victims of technological and societal changes. A sector shaken by political and financial whims to which the only pragmatic response is compliance. This is ‘realpolitik’ so grow-up and get with the programme!

Partly through not having a unified voice, partly through fear for jobs and livelihoods, partly because we never believed it would quite get this bad, we acquiesced, we kept our heads down and refused to speak out.

After all, as the Americans say, ‘you can’t fight city hall’. Not when ‘city hall’ is the DCMS, LGA, Libraries Taskforce, Arts Council, and the SCL/LC. Not when they tell us they are right and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Not when they hold all the political cards, the patronage, the funding.

And the profession, full of doubt, and fear, and a loss of belief in who we are and what we stand for have played right along.

As austerity took hold we fell for that typical neo-liberal con trick: ‘things can only get better in the long run by becoming worse in the short-term.’ Deal with it!

We slashed budgets, reduced staff, bought less and less stock, closed libraries, recruited volunteers, merged services, co-located, changed job roles (from dedicated, knowledgeable library staff to Jack and Jill of all trades), re-organised, restructured…and when that didn’t work we did it all again…repeatedly!

The small state ideology has become the accepted dogma within libraries. We have adopted the language of commercialism, become entrepreneurs, instigated corporate practices, and explored alternative delivery models. But guess what, things haven’t got better, they’ve got worse and continue to get worse with each passing year.

In February this year the Institute for Government published 10 key facts about neighbourhood services. It revealed how badly councils services have been hit with libraries facing amongst the worse reductions. Highlights included:

  • Since 2009/10, libraries have borne real-terms day-to-day spending cuts of 41%.
  • Between 2009/10 and 2017/18, the number of full-time equivalent library staff declined by 38%.
  • Local authorities have increased their reliance on volunteers. The number of library volunteers increased by 187% between 2009/10 and 2017/18. The number of volunteer hours tripled over this period, increasing from 500,000 to almost 1.7m.
  • There were 17% fewer libraries in 2017/18 than in 2009/10.

Another recent investigation into libraries in the North East revealed the scale of  closures, reduced hours and huge drop in spending on books in the region.

But sadly, far from being unique, this is merely indicative of the degree that library services have been impacted and how much provision has been degraded throughout the country.

That was then!

It can be argued that the evolution of the public library service has until recently been one of upward progression, despite some faltering steps and periods of inactivity. Certainly, the creation of libraries can be counted as one of the most important social reforms of the Victorian era with the Public Libraries Act of 1850.

[As an aside it will come as no surprise that the Act, designed for the ‘improvement of the public through education’, was opposed by the Tories of the day. It appears that very little changes!]

Along with many other institutions it was mainly due to philanthropy that saw the expansion of libraries so that by 1914 approximately 62% of England’s population lived within a library authority area. By 1919 a new Public Libraries Act gave responsibility for libraries to county councils.

This is not to downplay periods of stagnation of regression for library services but ultimately library provision was an upward trajectory culminating in the 1964 Museums and Libraries Act with the goal to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. Not just locally but for the whole nation.

This is now!

So can the current crisis be viewed as a regression from which the sector will recover? While it would be wrong to say that the pendulum will never eventually swing back towards investment and expansion, the damage done nationally to the underlying infrastructure will, in my opinion, take a long time to recover from. That’s assuming the political will and inclination is even there.

The fragmentation of services, the closures, the increase in volunteers in service delivery or to run libraries, the split between statutory and non-statutory provision, expansion of public service mutuals, delivery by second-tier authorities such as town and parish councils, all mitigate against a quick return to a national model for libraries.

This disintegration of the library eco-sphere, along with the dramatic decrease in funding, will take years, if not decades, to reform. And based on current evidence there appears to be a distinct lack of political will to even attempt such a task.

Unfortunately, while this current crisis can be laid squarely at the feet of the Conservative Government and its predecessor the Coalition – which means the LibDems also carry responsibility – no mainstream party has a coherent strategy for libraries. Labour councils have been as quick as their tory counterparts to adopt localism and the Labour Manifesto states the party’s commitment to both localism and devolution. Equally shadow ministers have been as unwilling to criticise library closures and cutbacks as government ministers.

This lack of strategy has turned into farce in some areas. The move by Derbyshire Council to hand 20 libraries over to the community was dubbed ‘devastating’ by the local Labour Councillors who demanded a professionally-run service. Meanwhile next door in Sheffield Labour heaped praise on volunteer run libraries and lauded them as innovative!

Sadly, there seems to be very little to choose from between both main parties with some of the worse reductions seen in Labour controlled areas such as the aforementioned Sheffield where ironically the Chair of the APPG on Libraries, Gill Furniss, is a local MP.

So the expectation that the worse depredations of the current crisis will be rolled back with a change in administration is not supported by any evidence or facts.

Localism: the road to nowhere

While Localism has been presented as a way of empowering communities and giving residents a greater say in decision-making unfortunately the reverse is true where libraries are concerned.

Far from being empowered to influence decision-making residents are forced to contend with highly biased consultations with limited options. The outcome of which is usually a binary choice of closure or the forced imposition of responsibility onto an ill-prepared community. All dressed up in the language of localism, community empowerment, and local control.

In an excellent piece written for the Guardian by Laura Swaffield, a long-time and tireless campaigner for libraries, she writes that we no longer have a national public library service:

“Until very recently, every local public library was part of a joined-up national network. In even the smallest library, people could be sure to find certain basics such as books and PCs, plus trained staff able to provide a gateway to national assets, including standard online reference works, national newspaper archives, a link to the British Library, access to the summer reading challenge for children in the summer holidays, and much, much more in terms of books, educational resources, reference material and contacts. The whole point was to provide a standard service nationwide. But that has now gone.”

But ignoring the national nature of libraries in favour of localism means the underlying issues and challenges are discounted. For example residents are misled into believing that funding is a problem to be resolved locally rather than as a national issue shaped by government policy.

This reflects the imbalance in local democracy whereby residents have responsibility forced on them but without genuine access to the mechanisms of political influence.

Ultimately volunteer libraries are a highly visible but shallow form of localism and by concentrating solely on local problems communities are treating the symptom rather than the underlying cause. This in turn leads to the implementation of government reforms that exacerbates rather than resolves the library crisis.

Rather than bringing people and communities closer together the crisis in libraries has created division, fragmentation, and lower quality provision. As the Civil Exchange report on the ‘Big Society’ noted:

“Fewer people feel they can influence local decisions, disenchantment with the political system remains widespread and communities are less strong. A market-based model for reforming public services is concentrating power in the hands of new ‘quasi-monopoly’ private sector providers rather than in those of local people and is reducing, not increasing, transparency and accountability.”

If anything the localism agenda has lessened accountability, entrenched inequality of provision, and created library elites at the expense of a more equitable and fairer distribution of resources.

In other words those library services more willing to embrace and implement the government’s agenda, especially in terms of PSMs, commercialism, and volunteer participation have been rewarded with greater opportunities through funding and influence.

Unhappily, this is the politics of division rather than cohesion but rather than challenge the inequities of such a model the library leadership has embraced it.

However, you cannot promote equality by adopting delivery models that actually entrench the opposite.

Localism and libraries

Libraries, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain on a downwards course, which began with the introduction of austerity. Service provision will continue to be fragmented along with deep reductions in funding, staffing, resources, and library off-loading with the occasional closure.

There is no evidence of change by a government divided and distracted by Brexit and indications are for deeper and more damaging cuts to the national network yet to come. Until recently this was mainly a problem in England but funding cuts are now starting to impact in Wales and Scotland as well.

But cuts and closures are only partial aspects of the situation. Off-loading libraries to other providers seems to be the preferred approach, either to community groups, or as I’ve noted before parish/town councils, with Cornwall leading the way.

Even a cursory glance at Ian Anstice’s Public Library News site, despite the occasional new library or refurbishment, reveal a depressing pattern of cuts and threatened closures with Derby and Essex being the two current stand-out proposals.

Again, local people are fighting hard against the proposals, and again it is likely their wishes will be discounted. Many will be expected and required to step in to run libraries themselves.

It is this total disregard for public opinion that reflects what localism actually means in practice to many communities.

But to be fair these two services are only the latest in a long list of failing services. Perhaps the rather dubious award of the most failed service should go to Northamptonshire who outsourced so many aspects of council services, including libraries, and did it so badly, that the council almost went bankrupt (see my previous posts Nothing to laugh at in Northants and Damned if we do and damned if we don’t)

The ex-CEO of Northamptonshire Paul Blantern was also Chair of the Libraries Taskforce and along with other members promoted outsourcing libraries, greater commercialisation, and enabling the replacement of paid staff with volunteers. Rather than learn from the mistakes of Northamptonshire the current Taskforce members continue along the same discredited route.

Recruitment to the sector, particularly new talent, will remain flat. Sadly, years of austerity, hollowing out, and de-professionalisation 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’, which hardly makes public libraries an appealing long-term career prospect.

Even at the senior level of Head of Service we have seen changes that while not quite a trend have worrying implications for the future. Suffolk and Devon, both mutuals, have recently appointed charity bosses as CEOs rather than someone with a library background.

It seems that having a library qualification is no longer adequate enough for staff with aspirations to become HoS. Hardly a welcome thought to ambitious new graduates.

And in fact many library service managers are no longer HoS in the traditional sense but merely the most senior grade in a diminishing service reporting to an ever rotating carousel of departmental managers; leisure, culture, children’s services, housing etc.

It also appears that the role of Head of Service is being shunted down the management structure, ever further away from the senior echelons and decision makers. Obviously, this represents a loss of influence and while some HoS enjoy good working relationships with senior officers many have to wade through several layers of intervening management, each with their own agenda, to get the library message heard.

It is one thing to say libraries must do more to influence key policy makers but the reality is one of services being corporately sidelined and merged with other areas, with the danger that libraries are devalued and no longer viewed as a distinctive service but just another council outlet.

Added to this, is the proliferation of volunteers in service delivery and the widespread view amongst local councillors and national politicians that library staff are unnecessary. In fact the situation has become so dire that technology such as Open+ is considered a suitable replacement to having paid staff on site.

And yet far from defending the role of paid staff SCL/Libraries Connected is heavily involved in advocating for volunteer led libraries. It provides direct training and support for volunteers and along with Locality has set up the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network to ‘help develop sustainable community managed library business models and approaches.’

It’s always puzzled me as to why so many librarians support the work of a body that quite happily accepts government funding to bolster their own organisation while enabling policies that replace paid staff with volunteers and undermines the delivery of a quality library service.

However, their willingness to drive government policy has seen them rewarded with £2m from the Arts Council as a ‘Sector Support Organisation’. A further £75,000 was given to investigate how to strengthen the regional LC groups so no doubt more funding is likely to be forthcoming in the near future to accomplish this.

Oddly it appears to be OK for the government to give funding to library organisations as long as they come up with ways to make actual library services survive with less!

After a hundred years of support through the public purse libraries seem to be regressing backwards to a model that is overly dependent on ad-hoc philanthropy, the good will of volunteers, a two-tier system that entrenches inequality of provision, and commercial partnerships that undermine the value of a ‘safe, neutral and trusted’ place.

And the irony is that absolutely none of these approaches will alleviate the underlying structural issue of sufficient revenue funding.

In years to come Localism will not be seen as saving libraries but rather as a political dead end that destroyed the principle of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service. More damning will be that the profession itself was complicit in allowing it to happen.

Libraries as a commonwealth

Far from being just a local resource, libraries should be viewed as part of a national commonwealth. Rather than localism with the emphasis on ‘community led’ a more joined-up approach should encourage services to be ‘community focused’ while adopting a coherent and cohesive model underpinned by a set of national standards.

We should develop the narrative, whether it’s politically palatable or not, that libraries are a national asset and as such should be wholly, and fairly, publicly funded for the common good.

Services should also be publicly accountable. An essential point that is being lost as some morph into quasi-business entities that hide behind charity law or commercial sensitivity.

Without overly simplifying, library provision should centre around three areas: stock, buildings and staff. Time after time this is what patrons and communities say is most important to them – we need to start listening.

Added to which our core purpose should be to develop and promote literacy, education, and access to information and knowledge, particularly around widening access, facilitating opportunity, and helping disadvantaged individuals and communities to close the attainment gap.

These are not abstract issues but a fundamental challenge to defining libraries place in society. Equally, we need to put aside the fads and fashions that seem to plague the profession.

Traditionally libraries have always prided themselves on providing access to knowledge and learning, of being the champions of literacy, but slowly, exacerbated by the austerity, these principles have been eroded.

Unfortunately, libraries are increasingly used as a shop front for other council services, which is indicative of the narrow view of libraries as just another building, rather than as a unique and valuable service within their own right. While libraries do have an essential social role to fulfil, merely viewing them as ‘community hubs’ mistakenly puts them on par with almost any other space.

Leisure centres are community hubs, parks are community hubs, pubs are community hubs. But libraries are unique in being a community space and something else, something extra, something special.

Libraries are more than just another meeting space, somewhere were people come together. They have a higher purpose and value. That’s what we need to bear in mind, that’s what we need to cherish and preserve for future generations.

Despite social and technological changes the core purpose of the library is as valid today as it’s always been.

I reject the narrow vision of localism, the fragmentation of a national resource, the inequality of provision. Public libraries are not a luxury dependent on philanthropy. They are a common resource for all. And despite current political dogma they do not belong to individual communities but form part of the wider commonwealth of the nation.

I hope and aspire towards a better future. For a strategic vision that leads towards a national approach to 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 and we should demand better not just from the politicians but from our own leadership.

Be the Change

Sometimes it’s easy to become cynical or complacent about voting; whether that’s for national and local elections or indeed for something as simple as representation on a professional body. I know the feeling! But despite the peaks and troughs of pessimism over the years I have never lost the feeling that ‘voting’ really does matter.

So with that in mind I would urge all Cilip members to note and vote in the current Cilip election for three Board Members and the CILIP Vice-President. Members should have received email notifications in October announcing the election and with details of how to vote. If you are a Cilip member but haven’t received details please contact the Membership Team. Voting closes 19th November.

Voting is only part of the equation though. Membership should be a active conversation between the individual and the organisation to ensure views are aired and shared. While I recognise that it’s easy to become disillusioned with organisations, political and professional, if they appear not to represent your views the only way for that to change is to get involved and put your own opinions forward.

To take inspiration from Maya Angelou:

“When you do nothing you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment that comes from knowing you are working to make things better.”

Talking of involvement it was heartening to see all the positive tweets coming from CILIP’s New Professionals day (31st October), which is the annual conference aimed at library and information professionals in the early part of their careers. Check out #CILIPnpd on Twitter.

And lastly to a different kind of involvement, UNISON is calling for a National Demonstration in support of Libraries, Museums and Culture on 3rd November (this Saturday!). The demo has the support of the PCS and UNITE. Again I hope as many library workers as possible get involved. Front-line library workers make up the bulk of the library workforce but sadly have the least representation amongst library organisations.

It’s always been a particular bugbear of mine that union involvement was excluded and continues to be excluded from library representation at a national level.

Perhaps that position might improve with a change of Government and a recognition that front-line library staff, not just the leadership, deserve to have their voices heard.

 

Protecting Library Services?

There is a petition calling on the government to ringfence funding for libraries by Frances Belbin. The text reads:

“Libraries across the country are being closed, cut back and/or outsourced to volunteers as a result of government cuts to local authority budgets. Councils are unable to keep staffed library services open when faced with the competing demands of social care, child protection etc.

Local libraries are a vital resource for the promotion of reading, literature and culture. They are a necessity for the digitally excluded who need to go online to access benefits, health, education and employment resources.
While the commitment of volunteers is welcomed, volunteer-run library services are unsustainable long-term.

The government must ringfence funding to ensure councils can fulfil their statutory duty to keep libraries services available to the general public.”

As of today (Sunday, 21st October 2018) the petition had attracted 7,035 signatures. At 10,000 signatures the Government will provide a response. Whether that response will be substantially different to those replies received by various MPs and Peers in the Houses of Commons and Lords remains to be seen. At 100,000 signatures the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.

Given the continuing popularity of libraries and coming off the back of the Summer Reading Challenge and Libraries Week I’m hoping that the 10,000 barrier can be reached relatively easily . So if you haven’t already done so please sign and encourage friends and family to do so.

The tone of the petition is in keeping with a recent article in the New Statesman; The deepest cuts: austerity measured, outlining the real-terms funding cuts to local authorities including a section on public libraries. Despite the Prime Ministerial claim that ‘austerity is over’ the Institute for Fiscal Studies has  stated that “without substantial tax rises or much better growth prospects there is no way for the chancellor both to end austerity for public services and to eliminate the budget deficit.”

The spending cuts within local authorities are set to continue until at least 2020 leading the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association (LGA) to warn that “…after eight years of austerity during which £16bn has been stripped from municipal budgets in England, councils risked being “damaged beyond recognition” and communities depleted of vital services.”

Whether the spending review set for 2019 will ease some of this burden is not yet clear but with a 49% reduction in finances since 2010 it will be a long time before authorities bounce back and are unlikely to ever fully recover to pre-austerity levels.

National funding for libraries in this context will remain a difficult challenge and calling for a national approach  runs contrary to the recently released Civil Society Strategy in which:

“People are empowered to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods. Power is decentralised so that local officials and professionals are properly accountable to local people, and trusted to do their job without bureaucratic interference. The provision of services is seen as the business of the community, not solely the responsibility of government, and providers are drawn from a broad range of suppliers from the public sector and beyond.”

The reports highlights the positives of communities taking on responsibility for services previously provided by local authorities, encourages closer working with Town and Parish Councils, voluntary organisations, social enterprise organisations, and actively encourages the adoption of public service mutuals.

Libraries get several mentions, including a case study of Suffolk Libraries, and the statement that:

“Many public libraries have an established track record in providing opportunities to facilitate this. Many are actively developing their role as community hubs bringing together local people, services, and organisations under one roof. There is a growing number of public libraries which are directly run or managed by the communities themselves or as mutuals by the people who work in them (or as a combination of the two), with varying levels of support from local councils at all levels.”

This is further supported by the promotion of the Mutuals Support Programme 2 and the mutuals masterclasses commissioned by DCMS and run via the Libraries Taskforce and strategic partners.

Whether the rosy ideal of the Civil Society Strategy matches the actual reality on the ground remains open to vigorous debate. It certainly seems mismatched with the warnings coming from the LGA and the many instances of hollowing-out taking place in library services.

A recent analysis by CIPFA reported in Public Finance outlines how the ‘Government is increasingly shifting the costs of public services on to citizens as the effects of austerity continue.’  The article states that “One way the government has tried to save money and avoid the need for tax increases is by asking members of the public to contribute more in other ways – from volunteers running libraries to people paying a greater share of the cost of defending themselves in court.”

The report states that many neighbourhood services – such as waste collection, food safety, road maintenance and libraries – have sustained the deepest spending cuts of all the services looked at.

The fact that libraries, like many public services, need additional funding for revenue and infrastructure rather than just project funding, should be uncontestable.  How and by whom that funding is provided is very much an ongoing conversation.

The direction of travel advocated by the present government would seem to indicate a delivery matrix of a smaller core statutory service with a mixture of in-house and commissioned models, underpinned by a second tier service (mostly non-statutory) run by community groups, volunteers, and parish/town councils.

Whether this satisfies the definition of a comprehensive and efficient library service seems a moot point when Councils are faced with very real budget reductions and in some instances the issuing of 114 notices.

But to a certain extent to only concentrate on the issue of funding is miss the point as to why libraries need protecting in the first place. And it has never been because of any failure in relevance or adaptation on the part of libraries.

Finance is only one part of the equation. The main issue is ideology and for the past eight years the government has been wedded to austerity, privatisation, and the ‘small state’ doctrine. And it is this dogma, coupled with fiscal policy, that has resulted in the contraction, commercialisation, and outsourcing of public services such as libraries.

 

 

 

Striking The Right Balance

I recently came across the following quote by Edward R. Murrow, which struck me as being so true and such a succinct statement on how we should act professionally that I added it to my Twitter banner:

“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”

To be all of the above we need think carefully about the language and terms we use when discussing issues in the library sector; who we are, what we do, what our views and aspirations for the profession should be. Language is such a powerful tool when promoting a message. It captures and solidifies the image of a ‘thing’ in our minds, transforms it into a ‘truth’.

Words influence our thinking, our perception, for good or bad; something intimately understood by advertisers and marketers. Sadly, words are also used in the service of ‘spin’ and propaganda where language is used to obfuscate and mislead. Words tell stories and stories create the reality that shape our view of the world.

Now replace ‘story’ with the word ‘narrative’ and we come to the world of libraries and how they are viewed by the public. A recent blog by Dawn Finch outlines wonderfully what libraries are and what they are not in defence of the misappropriation of the word library. In response to the post Ian Anstice’s editorial, The Highjacking of a Common Noun, also challenged the debasement of the term and what the name stood for.

It matters what we as library professionals say about libraries; what they stand for. If we are unwilling to make such arguments publicly, then others will fill the void, twisting the ‘idea’ of the library into something the profession no longer recognises. Even more importantly is the narrative used by the lead bodies in the sector and how they present libraries to those with influence over the sector; national Government, local authorities, funding bodies.

During the early part of austerity, the burgeoning crisis within libraries – the closures, the hollowing out, the de-professionalisation – became the dominant narrative as campaigners and communities fought to highlight the loss of such a vital service.

To counter-balance the negative outpouring of bad news a more positive interpretation of libraries was developed, starting with the Sieghart report, and continuing through the work of the Libraries Taskforce and its partners.

The rationale behind the approach was to increase the public messaging about libraries so that those in power would see a sector not in decline, or libraries as anachronistic, but as vibrant, thriving places, and to promote the role libraries play in contributing to local and national strategies. This is encapsulated in the ‘Libraries First’ approach.

What should have emerged from these two narratives was an amalgamation, a more balanced view of libraries that recognised the reality of the changes but also an acknowledgment of the improvements. Sadly, rather than a consolidation – an appreciation of each viewpoint – both commentaries continued at opposing ends of a spectrum with opinions becoming even more polarised.

That is not to say that either argument lacks validity but on their own they present a very binary view of the sector. A black and white picture that misses the nuance and subtlety needed to acknowledge and understand the changes and challenges that services face.

In a work context we would not knowingly mislead our users. Whether undertaking research or signposting to information we would seek to present a balanced view, based on the available resources and evidence, and allow the user to make their own conclusions. And yet most stories around libraries fall at either end of the narrative spectrum.

I would argue that as a profession the responsibility to maintain a balanced approach – which is not to be confused with neutrality – is an ethical imperative.

We need not ‘sit on the fence’ or occupy some wishy-washy middle ground. We can engage in positive advocacy and at the same time be assertive in challenging decisions that adversely impact on services and users. We can celebrate the success of a brand new library while highlighting the risks of localism and devolution where it leads to fragmentation and hollowing out of services.

That is why I hope as a profession we can move away from the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ narratives towards a more balanced viewpoint. One that does not downplay the effects of austerity and funding cuts but one that is equally willing to applaud the good news stories within the library world.

So coming back to the quote I started with, we can only be persuasive as a profession by being credible, and to be credible we need to be truthful. That is why a more balanced narrative is needed; to the public, to the profession, and most of all to those in power.

 

Damned if we don’t, damned if we do!

It was bound to happen sooner or later; a council would run out of money. The reason is rather simple: the removal of the central government grant coupled with increasing costs for social care and children services has, since 2010, caused an ever-widening gap between expenditure and income for all local authorities. This is what has happened to Northamptonshire Council, which according to the BBC:

“A cash-strapped local authority has imposed emergency spending controls as it faces “severe financial challenges”.
The section 114 notice bans all new expenditure at Northamptonshire County Council, with the exception of statutory services for protecting vulnerable people. Last month the government said an inspector would look into allegations of financial failings at the authority.”

But this is also the same ‘cash-strapped’ authority that recently paid its outgoing Chief Executive, Paul Blantern over £100,000 as part of a resignation payment. Let’s just consider that: a CEO of a failing local authority, that has banned all non-essential expenditure, was paid over £100,000 because he chose to resign!

As Alan Wylie highlighted via Twitter both Northamptonshire Council and Paul Blantern had been strong proponents of outsourcing council services. Even proposing reducing its staff force to a core of 150, while transferring out 4000 jobs to different service providers. These would be part owned by the Council but managed like private sector companies.

Paul Blantern was quoted as saying: “we are always having to be at the cutting edge, to be innovative and creative.” He also stated on the BBCs The Bottom Line that there was nothing he wouldn’t consider outsourcing.

No doubt this attitude helped in his selection as Chair of the Libraries Taskforce as it perfectly reflected government policy towards libraries: outsourcing, greater commercialisation, and major staff reductions.

Northamptonshire were also held up as an exemplar of the brave new world of libraries as the service was subsumed into a health dominated social enterprise ‘First for Wellbeing’. No doubt the outcome of one of Paul’s ‘innovative and creative’ solutions. An approach so in favour with government policy that the DCMS described the library service as trailblazing.

Ironic then that Northamptonshire is the first council in twenty years to issue a section 114 notice and warns there is a “significant risk” it will not produce a balanced budget this year, as required by law.

However, irony is quickly replaced by farce as one of the council’s cost saving proposals is selling its brand new headquarters, which cost £53million, and then leasing it back! Then again, perhaps it should come as no surprise that a council willing to aggrandise itself with a new £53m building during austerity and falling income should come so financially unstuck.

Unfortunately, libraries will not escape this act of monumental political and financial incompetence as proposals have been put forward to close up to 28 of the  county’s 36 libraries. Despite the CIC route that was meant to provide a long-term sustainable model for Northamptonshire libraries.

Given all the publicity and resources dedicated by the Libraries Taskforce into promoting outsourcing I wonder if we can look forward to a blog on how badly it can also go wrong. Somehow I doubt it.

Sadly, the pressure and ideological imperative for councils to outsource services means that libraries could well be damned if they don’t and then damned if they do!

 

 

 

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

 

Through the Barricades?

Chatting with a fellow campaigner this week we observed that anyone following news and updates about libraries via social media could be forgiven for thinking that two entirely different sectors are being talked about.

On one hand is the pessimistic view of libraries in which the narrative of austerity, closures and cuts is dominant. Most campaigners tend to fall into this camp and with little wonder as local and national campaigns are the direct result of cuts to library services. You only have to throw a stick a short distance to find an example such as the battle taking place around Bath Central Library.

Sadly, this means that campaigners, on a national level, are reluctant to acknowledge when positive changes or projects take place within library services, and despite massive reductions, there is still some fantastic work happening within the profession.

On the other end of the spectrum, are the optimists who only highlight positive stories and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the extent of damage being done to the library network. The main culprits of this approach are the Libraries Taskforce and SCL. Trawling through their social media accounts it’s as if cuts to library services don’t actually exist in the brave new world of shiny central libraries, co-location, and the all-singing, all-dancing community hubs.

 

The Forum, Hemel Hempstead’s new council, library and voluntary services hub

What saddens me is both sides are guilty of closed-minds sets with a refusal to acknowledge the others point of view, and so closes down any meaningful discussion.

While I fully sympathise why many campaigners have become jaded over government policy I disagree with the sometimes vociferous and vocal attacks over even minor issues.

That said, the Libraries Taskforce and SCL are to as equally blinkered with an almost pathological unwillingness to debate publicly. Only wanting to promote ‘good news’ ignores and glosses over the real issue of library reductions and makes the official bodies as guilty as the more negative campaigners of skewing the narrative.

Unfortunately, it looks like neither side is willing to debate rationally or honestly preferring instead to sling stones at each other over the ideological barricades.

There are no easy solutions here and much would depend on goodwill from both sides. What I would personally like to see is a public libraries debate (but not forgetting school libraries either). This could take the form of a conference (one/two days perhaps) in which groups, organisations and individuals would be invited to give presentations, backed by evidence, and ending with a panel discussion.

This would be a good way of bringing all interested parties together in one place; Speak Up for Libraries, Library Campaign, Cilip, Libraries Taskforce, SCL etc. And not forgetting individuals such as John Bird and Ian Anstice for example.

The difficulty is having a body with the gravitas and neutrality, trusted by both sides, to organise this. My suggestion is that the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group, who have been very quiet since their launch, might have a part to play in setting this up.