Category Archives: Library advocacy

The Price of Everything…

Regardless of any other reservations campaigners might have about the Libraries Taskforce there should be no argument about the quality of the recent series of posts around the theme of how libraries deliver.

The seven posts highlight a core set of nationally important outcomes around literacy, culture, communities, prosperity, digital, wellbeing and lifelong learning. As a valuable promotional tool for campaigners and library staff alike the series evidence how vital the work of libraries are, not just nationally, but to local communities.

I would encourage all librarians to ensure that their lead members and senior corporate officers are aware of the posts.  

For me, the series shows that even amongst continuing bad news around library cuts it’s still not difficult to find exemplars of innovative library developments and the positive and demonstrable impact such services have on users. The mounting evidence reveals what those involved in libraries have known for a long time; that is, the essential societal, educational, and economic benefits that libraries bring.

Another project that will hopefully provide further evidence is the Arts Council funding to Libraries Unlimited and Exeter University’s Business School to run a two year research project around the social value of libraries. 

In practice this is what I believe R. David Lankes meant when he challenged UK libraries to follow their US counterparts and take control of the narrative around libraries and to demonstrate their worth to the wider public and politicians alike.

The rationale being that a positive message around the beneficial effects of libraries to decision makers would lead to a greater understanding and appreciation, resulting ultimately in a lessening of closures and cuts.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened and it’s not for want of understanding by decision makers or profile-raising activity within the sector.

There are many eloquent advocates for libraries both within and outwith the profession, from big name authors, actors, and politicians, to high profile public organisations such as the BBC, to a host of ordinary people campaigning to save their libraries at a local level. Libraries are rarely out of the local and national newspapers.

A recent example of support for libraries is from the Big Issue founder, Lord Bird. In an excellent and well informed speech to the House of Lords around the difficulties facing libraries and small booksellers he highlighted the many positives that libraries bring and the consequences of closing them.

So the message for libraries is clearly out there, the narrative is changing, despite the still occasional uninformed comment from individual politicians and councillors.

Unfortunately, the underlying challenge is not one of narrative but funding; not messaging but money.

As Baroness Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House publishing group stated during the Lord’s debate:

“Central government also need to address the funding deficit in local authorities, where competing essential services too often result in library closures. Our trajectory towards one library per 50,000 people is simply a disaster.”

And this is the single biggest challenge for those parties involved at the strategic level nationally; the DCMS, Taskforce, Arts Council, Cilip, LGA, SCL etc. The solution needed is sourcing funding streams that provide ongoing revenue rather than just project based funds.

 The Taskforce has also set out to collect and publish a model data set for libraries with the aim that:

“…access to timely, accurate, comparable library data is critical to enabling the library sector and users to monitor the delivery of library services and improve their quality. This includes everything from the information librarians need to manage their service day-to-day and that decision makers need to consider the strategic direction on library service provision, to the facts that will inform anyone who wants to know how their local service fits into the national picture.”

This will help provide a regular insight into the state of public libraries in England. It will be interesting to note as the data is released if continuing advocacy has any real impact on slowing down or reversing the rate of attrition amongst services and staff.

One aspect of the library story, unpalatable as it might be, is that libraries will continue to decline, not for want of being valued, but due to simple, unforgiving economics.

To use a common idiom ‘money talks’ and that is the real narrative that needs addressing. Especially against a government economic agenda that knows the “price of everything and the value of nothing.”

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Addendum: reply from Nick Poole:

Leon, as ever, you raise arguably the central point in terms of where we go next with the library lobby. I would argue that we have always had ‘hearts and minds’, but have lacked influence and evidence. Now, thanks to the coordinated efforts of individuals and organisations across the sector, we are securing both. But these things are only useful if we are crystal clear about the tactics we are deploying and the end-game we are looking to achieve.

We have to assume that our objective is to secure the outcomes which only a great library service can deliver for our society. It follows that we should not be closed to the idea of progress – we’re not looking to prevent any library from closing ever, but to replace the current chaotic culture of financially-motivated closure, hollowing-out and volunteerism with an ongoing, effective mechanism for the management of our capacity according to clear evidence of need, supported by professionals who know what they are doing and are committed to delivering the best possible service for the people who depend on them.

This needs money, as you rightly say, but I think we need to be clear about what – precisely – we mean. Which means being absolutely clear about some key principles:

– Whichever side of the political spectrum you are on, the British electorate voted for a Government in 2015 which clearly signalled an agenda based on austerity, cuts to public services and diminishing Local Authority budgets. We may see a reversal of this policy under the new Government or following a General Election, but for the time being we are not going to reverse the dominant economic policy of low taxes and diminishing investment in public services.

– This means that public library services are intrinsically linked to a host (Local Government) that will continue to see significant real-terms losses in cash income (mostly likely in the aftermath of the Autumn Statement on the 23rd November). This leaves us with four options:

i) Seek Government intervention to ring-fence Local Authority funding for libraries, which would fly in the face of Treasury policy and the Government’s preference for localism. I have looked into the eyes of the people that would be responsible for trying to implement this and see no appetite for doing so at all;

ii) Encourage the ‘good’ Authorities (the ones that are managing to sustain investment in public libraries despite budget cuts) to continue their support by celebrating their actions in defence of libraries and providing real, credible evidence of the positive impact of their support for their local communities and economy;

iii) Discourage the ‘bad’ Authorities (the ones that are closing libraries, transitioning too rapidly into unsustainable governance models, cashing in on estate and building stock with scant regard for their statutory duties) through public intervention, the intervention of DCMS and – where necessary – direct action, local campaigning and local media activity;

iv) Support the ‘struggling’ Authorities (the ones where there genuinely isn’t the money to deliver a full statutory service, nor is there likely to be from business rates, Council Tax and other local revenues) to make informed decisions which focus on medium to long-term user need and outcomes over in-year cash savings.

– If we can stabilise the ‘core’ investment in library services through Local Authorities, then as you say it follows that we need to look to where new and additional sources of development investment may come from (in other words, if we can stop the rot – financially – we need money to invest in improvements). There are really 3 possibilities here:

i) That we address the question of how lottery funding is made available to libraries through the Arts Council England, and whether this supports the kind of core development (as opposed to a cycle of projects) which public libraries need. We have argued many times that libraries need the same kind of development support from the Arts Council that museums currently receive – a dedicated team, a UK-wide funded Museum Development Network, a clear Accreditation Scheme (and associated quality expectations) and dedicated ‘Resilience Funding’ to help strengthen the core delivery of services;

ii) That we petition the Government (as was included in our briefing to the Lords debate) for an Emergency Relief Fund to help libraries escape the short-term cycle of in-year cuts to staffing and buy time to transition to a more sustainable footing (emergency relief funding was made available by the Arts Council in 2013-14 to help struggling arts organisations transition into new, more sustainable operations);

iii) That we seek to create an alternate stream of Improvement, Development and Transitional funding for public libraries which is targeted specifically at strengthening the resilience of the public library sector.

– Finally, we are currently prone to the accusation that public libraries already receive a significant amount of taxpayer investment every year. Depending on which source (and which Nation) you take as your focus, the UK taxpayer spends between £640m and £715m on public libraries each year. It is too easy to dismiss or claims for support on the basis that this is already a significant amount of public money. With this in mind, we need to be absolutely sure that we are doing everything in our power to minimise duplication, reduce complexity, negotiate better prices for products, services and content – which also means looking at issues like shared data platforms, consortium procurement, bringing Authorities together and encouraging region-level planning and collaboration.

So, effectively from this our tactics to address your point about money would be:

1) Slow and eventually stem the rot of ‘core’ investment in libraries by Local Authorities

2) Improve the availability of development funding to help public libraries develop, improve and promote their services

3) Review the way we currently spend money either locally, nationally or (most likely) as natural clusters of library services

Unless we drive these 3 priorities collectively as a sector with focus and tactical impact, the best-intentioned ambition for public libraries won’t have a material impact on the financial realities so long as the dominant political and economic agenda remains a combination of localism, devolution and austerity.

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Challenges and Opportunities

After some initial confusion it was finally announced that Rob Wilson was to be the new Minister for libraries. Given the government’s emphasis on localism it’s not surprising that libraries have been placed as part the civil society agenda. The minister immediately set out his stall by emphasising volunteering, community action, and developing new governance models including mutuals, trusts and co-operatives.

The departure of Ed Vaizey and appointment of Rob Wilson has also led to a delay in the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Ambitions report to allow him time to review the document, visit libraries and talk to colleagues. In all honesty I’m not sure this will make any substantial difference to the outcomes of the report. The direction of travel has always been clear: localism, devolution, community libraries, new governance, commercialisation etc.

So the trajectory will remain the same but what we will see, I suspect, is a more explicit statement on how this will be achieved. Equally, I don’t see Rob Wilson being any more interventionist than his predecessor except perhaps to encourage local authorities to go down the trust route.

Obviously, this will be bitterly disappointing to campaigners fighting to keep libraries as a public service directly accountable to elected members. As it will be for those fighting for a more national approach to libraries that is evident in other parts of the UK.

For the profession there will be both challenges and opportunities and far from the uniform service that has traditionally been offered the new landscape will be a dizzying mosaic of local provision. Over the next few years what I expect to see is a growth of:

  • Hub and spoke model: a central library or small number of libraries providing a core offer, supported by community libraries or alternative provision such as book collections
  • Greater involvement by parish/town council’s in running or funding local libraries
  • Increased commercialisation with more paid for and traded services
  • Relocation, co-location, and core library space given over to other council services or commercial opportunities
  • Reliance on open access technology and volunteers to replace staffed hours and/or extend opening hours

Last but not least a change in how libraries are run. There has been a marked reluctance amongst most authorities to fully embrace the trust route or share services with other councils. Perhaps the new Minister will provide the impetus for this to become the norm, not the exception. None of the above is new and exists in various forms to a lesser or greater degree across the country already. What will happen is an increase in the pace of change.

For those of us in the profession the challenge will be how to manage and adapt to these changes while still providing a core service that reflects the Libraries and Museums Act, and taking advantage of new opportunities for partnership working and income generation.

For some the whole idea will be anathema. But until there is a change in administration, an ideological move away from austerity, and a commitment to plug the funding gap in council budgets then I genuinely don’t see the landscape changing for a long time to come. For campaigners the next few years will be ones of damage limitation and compromise rather than outright victory.

An unintended effect of such changes will impact on the SCL, which until now has offered a safe space at regional meetings for heads of service to support each other. Whether such trust can be maintained around a table where some heads will be eyeing up their neighbours as potential expansion opportunities remains to be seen?

Personally, I would like to think that as a mainly supportive and friendly profession trust and collaboration will continue despite changes to governance models.

Another impact will be the skills needed by senior librarians and heads of service, with less emphasis on traditional skills, and more on managerial and leadership competencies, plus the ability to build partnerships across a wide variety of public, third sector, and commercial bodies.

Whether or not this brave new world is an opportunity or challenge will depend on your viewpoint and politics. But like it or not, it is the new reality to which those of us in the  profession will have to adapt.

 

 

 

 

That Was Then…

untitledI published my first post in October 2013 outlining the Cilip AGM of that year. The context to my beginning this blog was almost utter disillusionment with Cilip: it’s lack of campaigning for public libraries, the continuous increase in subscriptions, and the constant navel gazing culminating in the ill-advised proposal to change the body’s name (‘ILPUKe’ or ‘I’ll Puke’ anyone!). It was hemorrhaging members by the hundreds and seemed lacking any relevance to the battles being fought daily by campaigners and library staff on the ground.

Thankfully, the name change was defeated and the one positive outcome of the AGM was a vote of no confidence in Ed Vaizey. I think if the name change had gone through and the vote of no confidence failed I and many other members would have voted with our feet. More battles followed and I make no apologies for being a staunch critic of Cilip in several areas, particularly membership fees.

In 2015 I gave a cautious welcome to the appointment of Nick Poole as the new CEO but within a few short months I could detect a sea-change in the organisation; a willingness to listen and engage, advocate for the membership, and address the difficult issues and decisions facing the profession. Quickly Nick began to raise the body’s profile during a round of radio and TV interviews talking about library closures and advocating for the profession.

The fact that Cilip seemed to be turning a corner was illustrated in an interview with Kathy Settle, discussing the November spending review, in which Nick stated:

“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.”

The AGM in September 2015 brought another surprise when the Cilip Board fully supported the motion opposing the amateurisation of public libraries. Not everything was rosy however and I continued to oppose increasing membership fees. That said, the campaigning and advocacy aspects were improving dramatically.

It appeared that at long last Cilip was evolving into the professional body its members needed it to be. This has included a growing list of positive initiatives:

Not bad for a CEO who has only been in post for 12 months. Credit should also go to the dedication of the Cilip Board Members and staff. As President Dawn Finch is a straight talking proponent for libraries, the Board appears to address the more contentious issues head on, and this is underpinned by hard working staff that make proposals and policies a reality. Long may it continue.

As part of the Fit for the Future proposals there is a short survey for both members and non-members to express an opinion. I encourage everyone to do so. The idea of a leaders network is also intriquing so I look forward to more details being made available about the scheme.

It is also gratifying to see the proposed reduction in subscriptions fees and free student membership abolished. I voted against free membership in 2013 on the basis that what students really needed was for a professional body to be relevant rather than free.

Now I understand and sympathise that for some campaigners Cilip is not as radical or political as they would like it to be. But I would argue that it is still early days and more has been done to change and improve Cilip in the past 12 months than in many years previously. Cilip is also a broad church so has to strike a balance between the different aspects and sectors it represents.

That said, Cilip still has work to do, particularly in it’s relationship with the Libraries Taskforce. Many disagreements still exist between government policy and aspirations that Cilip and individual members have expressed for public libraries. Whether or not these differences will be ironed out and a consensus reached through the Taskforce’s Ambitions document remains to be seen.

I also remain critical of the small cadre of Taskforce members making decisions on behalf of public libraries around commercial sponsorship without wider discussions in the sector. In a recent Twitter exchange I, Nick Poole and other campaigners discussed the development of an ethical policy to help inform such partnerships, which is something I hope the Taskforce will take on board.

So, from my first post to this one I see the beginnings of real change in Cilip and as an individual member feel more positive about my professional body than I have done for a long time.

Labouring the point

Well, after 53 days, 1 letter, 3 emails, and several or more tweets I finally received a reply from Maria Eagle, Shadow Culture Minister. The lesson being I suppose is that social media is not the preferred method of communication for MPs but rather good old fashioned letter writing.

I won’t say that the letter was disappointing because my expectations of Labour are pretty low nowadays. The letter is full of the well worn platitudes and unimaginative thinking that has characterised Labour’s stance on libraries for a number of years (see my previous post) and hardly differs from the current administration’s view.

This was illustrated by two incidents recently. The first is Barclays apparent bid to supplant libraries as the digital trainer of choice through the Eagle Labs programme. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, commended Barclays for having such an initiative and stated “If we don’t have everyone involved in a digital age, with the skills they need, we will lose out as a region, so the Digital Eagles programme is fantastic.” followed by the wonderfully ironic “Some people might argue Barclays has a self-interest…”

Actually, there’s no ‘might’ about it. Barclays definitely has a self-interest and it’s naive to think otherwise. A factor the SCL and Libraries Taskforce might want to consider before committing the sector to more partnership working with  financial organisations mired in scandal and allegations of ‘systematic fraud’.

She concluded “…the important part I would say is we need to invest in libraries and other public spaces, but given the cuts I do think it’s great that they are taking the time and investment to support getting people online.”

So here’s one Labour MP who’s happy to support the commercial sector taking over aspects of library work.

Sending a more traditional Labour message John McDonnel pledged support for striking Library staff in Barnet in the continuing dispute over the council’s plans to outsource library services across the borough. In a rousing statement Mr McDonnell said:

“I want to pay tribute and send solidarity greetings to Barnet Unison library workers. They have been fighting an inspirational workplace and community campaign and I would like to thank them for their sterling efforts to expose and prevent the proposed widespread decimation of their library service…Barnet Unison has been a fine example of how trade unions and their community can work together in fighting austerity policies which are destroying local public services up and down the country, they have my 100 per cent support.”

All well and good until you consider the same sort of decimation taking place in Lambeth, which Labour MPs, and the new London Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, have been notoriously silent about. If John McDonnel really wanted to offer his ‘100% support’ to library campaigns he would encourage the Labour Party to adopt a substantially different policy and approach to the one it has now.

Which brings us back to the reply from the Shadow Culture Minister, which can be summed as:

  • Labour councils are hit harder than tory ones
  • The tory government is to blame
  • Labour councils are delivering innovative models of library provision and offering positive solutions
  • She will continue to listen to campaign groups and local authorities to try to develop a set of policies for libraries for the next election

And that was it! It would be interesting to know which campaign groups she has been talking to and the advice given. If you are one of those groups please do get in touch. Also, why it is going to take four years to ‘try’ and develop a policy for libraries? A working group of interested parties could easily formulate a policy in a fraction of that time as can be seen by the Ambition consultation, especially as Unison has done so much work on libraries, which could readily feed into a policy document.

It would also appear that unlike her shadow cabinet colleague, Maria Eagle would consider the solution on offer in Barnet as being both innovative and positive. It’s certainly no worse than the ones delivered in Sheffield or suggested for Lambeth and, in the main, Tory councils are under as much financial pressure as Labour one’s.

So, to labour the point, there really does appear to be no difference between the two main parties regarding libraries. Any campaigner who thinks that Labour will ride to the rescue of libraries is likely to be disappointed, as it is patently clear they are bereft of both ideas and inclination.

 

Libraries Deliver…Social Justice?

The following is an extract from the response by The Network to Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021, with thanks to John Vincent:

Social justice

In broad terms, “Social Justice is about every one of us having the chances and opportunities to make the most of our lives and use our talents to the full.” Working towards social justice is vital for all kinds of library services. It must involve in outline:

  • Embracing equality and diversity 
  • Focusing on a needs-based service and targeting resources towards those who need them most 
  • Having a clear understanding of the whole context in which the local community operates 
  • Knowing and understanding the components of the local community 
  • Having an active, collaborative role in empathising and working in partnership with the local community
  • Fully engaging the community, moving as far as possible towards co-production of service provision

A key issue for us in looking at Libraries Deliver is how far it considers the context in which people are living in 2016 – and what we can forecast for the years 2017-2021. There is certainly some consideration of this, particularly in the “Assumptions” section (18.2), although some of these are very woolly and some, to be frank, are fatuous – eg “Libraries will continue to focus on not only having a seat at the decision-making table but setting the table”. Social justice hardly seems to touch this world …

We would want to see Libraries Deliver addressing some of the following issues, none of which is likely to have disappeared by 2021:

  • The increasing polarisation of rich and poor, and increasing inequality in the UK 
  • The increasing health gap between rich and poor 
  • The increase in poverty, for example as manifested by the growth of food-banks 
  • The removal of public services and the effects this has on people dependant on them 
  • The reduction in the public sphere, with, for example, fewer places where people can freely meet 
  • The growth in racism and Islamophobia, as well as hostility to migration 
  • The growing evidence of corruption at the heart of society, for example in the police (Hillsborough, undercover policing), in politics (expenses scandals).

Where are these issues – which the best public libraries are engaging with – reflected in this paper?

Taken from: Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021 Response from “The Network – tackling social exclusion

Make a difference

It’s easy to forget after the initial rush of enthusiasm that campaigns and consultations can go on for months and support naturally peters out as other, newer battles emerge. Anyway this is a reminder of two important engagements that are still ongoing.

My Library By Right continues and deserves to be supported by all library staff, information professionals, the public and campaigners. If you haven’t already done so take time to sign the petition. Thus far over 16,500 supporters have signed so please add your name. Get your friends, family and colleagues to sign…heck! even get your pets to sign!

In the past Cilip has come under fire for not being proactive enough in campaigning and challenging the fragmentation of library services and the amateurisation of the profession. This is a positive campaign to try and redress some of those issues so regardless of your views of Cilip in the past (and I’ll admit that mine have been critical!) please find the time and inclination to support this particular endeavour.

Equally, the Libraries Taskforce continues to seek feedback over Libraries Deliver: an Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021. ‘The document reflects on the evolving role of libraries in light of changing public expectations. It presents a vision for the future and discusses how it should be achieved.’

This is at the draft stage so needs input from as many interested parties as possible. It’s a given that feedback will be sought right across the spectrum of the profession including strategic partners, stakeholders, and decision makers.

But most particularly the Taskforce needs to hear back from library staff of all levels and not just the senior managers and lead members. It’s important that those working on the frontline have their say as well. So fill out the survey and spread the word amongst colleagues.

You can also get involved by registering to attend workshops or email comments directly to the Taskforce librariestaskforce@culture.gov.uk. Apparently, you can even write in. Now that’s radical!

I cannot emphasise enough that the document is at the draft stage so if people want to influence it, to ensure it reflects the aspirations and concerns of ordinary library workers then as much feedback as possible is needed. You have until 3rd June to contribute.

I have made my own views clear in that it’s a good starting point but eventually needs to be far more radical in scope and aspiration.

If, as a profession, we want it to be a ‘deliver’ a genuine ‘ambition’ for public libraries then we need to influence the direction of travel and be willing to speak out to make it happen.

It’s not enough to be against something, you have to be for something to make change happen. So get involved, have your say, make a difference.

 

 

Libraries Without Boundaries

My england-regionsnew post Libraries Without Boundaries can be found on the Libraries Taskforce blog. In it I argue for:

  • Adoption of a set principles to underpin and clarify the 1964 Act
  • Creation of regional library consortia or organisations
  • Direct central government funding for libraries
  • Creation of an independent advisory body
  • Adoption of library standards

Papering Over The Cracks

After a bit of light hearted satire I welcome the Taskforce’s aim to establish a communications sub-group to promote more positive news around libraries and what they do. Specifically:

“The role of the group is to co-ordinate communications activity across the sector with a view to shifting the narrative on public libraries from one that is primarily focused on cuts, to one that shows a more balanced view.”

In the current environment of grinding public sector cuts any news about the value of libraries is to be supported. Although whether or not that ‘shows a more balanced view’ is open to debate. While welcoming the initiative I would argue that the real balance is tempering good news with the reality of the cuts. The danger otherwise is to simply present stories out of context and promote the view that despite the funding crisis ‘all is well’ and ‘aren’t library staff a wonderful bunch for carrying on’.

Such a ‘rose tinted’ approach would do the public library sector a disservice as we know from bitter experience that Ed Vaizey is a master of using rose-tinted stories to justify his own inaction around library closures.

Libraries do indeed accomplish wonderful things and quite rightly celebrate them: the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, Summer Reading Challenge, Reading Ahead, and National Libraries Day, amongst many other programmes, not to mention all the wonderful regional and local initiatives. All of which are feted and promoted by the SCL, Cilip, ASCEL, Reading Agency, Arts Council, and libraries up and down the country.

The issue therefore becomes how will the establishment of a communications sub-group improve the message, or the understanding of the political paymasters, when years of the above bodies doing so hasn’t?

Even reports highlighting the societal, health, and economic benefits of libraries have so far failed to improve the narrative or protect funding for libraries. The information is out there but falling on ears deafened by the overwhelming roar of austerity and the pressure of providing adult social care.

David Lankes made a similar argument for the profession to take control of the narrative while at the same time recognising:

“… that budget cuts have been so deep, the political lack of understanding of public libraries so disconnected from the reality and, yes, the lack of leadership (structurally at least) so dysfunctional that to blame librarians for the failure to change into 3D community workshop engineering hi-tech wunderkinds is a bit much.  But that’s the challenge, my friends.  We need to convince the politicians that libraries are relevant to their goals and the public that libraries are places to be cherished (and not just with placards).  This may be very hard with some public-service hating anti-professional and deeply ideological politicians but there are other people out there and even the most dyed in the wool reactionary is not demonic.”

This is a legitimate argument and one the Taskforce is taking on board. But it’s not just about changing the narrative, such communication needs to underpin concrete action and improvement.

However, a positive narrative around libraries is going to be difficult to achieve when the reality is so grim. Even the BBC, which is represented on the Taskforce, have highlighted the extent of the cuts, including:

• 343 libraries closed, 207 of them buildings, 132 mobile and four “other”
• 232 transferred, 174 to community groups and 58 outsourced
• 111 proposed for closure over the next year

The media coverage is to be welcomed as an opportunity to celebrate what is important about libraries and counter the misleading data over closures. Certainly, the BBC’s research and analysis is to be more trusted that Ed Vaizey’s notorious use of desk research to compile misleading data, despite having the full resources of the DCMS at hand. The Guardian newspaper has stated that libraries are facing the greatest crisis in their history.

So it becomes a difficult chronicle to challenge while at the same time treading the fine line between government dogma re: localism and devolution, and the expectations of the profession and campaigners.

Highlighting good news stories and ‘golden moments’ while important is unlikely to produce an epiphany regarding the value of libraries within government circles.

Libraries do need positive stories, positive reinforcement about their value, and the Taskforce are right to take this on. The dichotomy however is that such stories during a period of deep cuts and widespread cynicism regarding government policy on libraries could lead to a disconnect from the reality of the crisis and the accusation of misplaced Pollyannaism.

Or to put it another way; it’s one thing to want to change the décor but it’s another to merely paper over the cracks.

Winning Hearts and Minds

It’s a new year but the same old battle continues. The battle that started five years ago and the coalition government’s introduction of the austerity agenda. Less public services and less libraries. However, the initial rush to closure quickly ran into trouble and the government was genuinely surprised at the strength of opposition, particularly those politicians who couldn’t see out of their rose tinted digital glasses: everything was available online and digital was the future. Whereas libraries were an anachronism, old fashioned, had had their day? Except they hadn’t and plenty of people were on hand to point that out. With placards, demonstrations and judicial reviews if necessary.

The Government and councils were quick to get the message and unfortunately closures quickly morphed into two more insidious strands that hid the true picture from the wider public: hollowing out and volunteer led. Both approaches causing just as much damage to the national public library sector but far more difficult to challenge and fight. Libraries, more than any other service, became the poster child for the Big Society.

In the early days many within the profession saw a opportunity to modernise the service, make it more flexible, more entrepreneurial, with more public engagement. After all weren’t we here to serve our communities? So greater involvement could only be a good thing. Public services, including libraries, had become too directive: doing onto communities rather than working with them. Thus, the inclination to change and involve communities was genuine.

Unfortunately, very few could imagine the scale of change to come, could envisage that by 2020 the core grant from government would no longer exist. This is all part of the governments push to greater regional devolution, with alleged spending powers to match. Some bodies, such as CIPFA and LGA, have welcomed greater financial autonomy for regions seeing it as a way of decentralising control from Westminster. This is to be a brave new world of local self-determination.

Despite the claim that retention of local taxes and business rates will support local services, in practice there are still huge gaps in funding. This has led to many councils becoming commissioning bodies, rather than directly delivering services, in order to survive financially. Nevertheless, this is raising some serious questions regarding the lack of legal protection contracting out gives to service users. It also means that universal and some statutory services, such as libraries, losing out badly.

The professional bodies were slow to act to the rate of change. Both Cilip and the SCL have to accept responsibility for wanting to continue with a more conciliatory and collaborative approach in the hope of retaining influence despite the very obvious negative impact on the profession.

The abolition of the MLA with oversight being transferred to ACE made matters worse, with libraries being shoehorned into an arts-centric model they were ill-equipped to deliver. Equally, ACE were determined to deliver a prototype of libraries that fitted the government agenda, frequently commissioning Locality to inflate the voluntary sector’s ability to run them.

Both Cilip and SCL continued to drive forward valuable initiatives such as the Universal Offers, growing the Summer Reading Challenge, copyright, digital, and e-lending. These are all important areas that require professional input and partnership working but by ignoring the political consequences of austerity and the impact on the profession such  initiatives were merely papering over the schisms and strains appearing in the sector. Between 2009 – 2014 Cilip lost over 4,000 members through job losses and those leaving the body out of sheer frustration with perceived political inactivity.

Something had to give and fortunately with both the appointment of a new CEO and pressure from members Cilip has now taken a more oppositional stance to the government agenda. This has included taking legal advice regarding the Secretary of State responsibilities to libraries and the launch of the My Library By Right Campaign. I shall return to the campaign in a future post but encourage every library campaigner, user, paid staff, and Cilip member to get behind the campaign regardless of the slight misgivings some have raised (and for goodness sake sign the bloody petition!).

The SCL continue with a more conservative and conciliatory stance, preferring to work in tandem with the LGA and the  Libraries Task Force. This has led to accusations of merely helping to bring about government policy rather than standing up for the best interests of the sector.

The difficulty when discussing the SCL is the sheer opaqueness of how it operates and the lack of any clear decision making mechanisms such as how it seeks feedback and consensus from members over controversial decisions. In fact do members get to actually vote on issues at all? While it appears to derive authority from high level partnership working with the LGA, the Reading Agency, etc. it also appears to lack any democratic processes, and thus lack a mandate, to genuinely claim to speak on behalf of the wider profession.

Campaigners have led the fight against library closures. However, campaigns have been piecemeal and lacking genuine national focus. So the biggest challenge for campaigners is to articulate an alternative narrative but accepting that, while major differences exist, it needs to include an element of compromise with vested groups such as the LGA and taskforce.

If the sector has failed to produce the national strategic leadership required then campaigning groups have also failed to fill the void sufficiently.  This is not a criticism but a recognition that opposition in itself is not enough.

What is needed is one body, or campaign group, speaking with one voice, with a vision for libraries and a realistic roadmap of how to achieve it. The individual elements already exist but bringing it together into a unified narrative to challenge the government’s account is for me the single most important issue for 2016.

I started the post by referring to the fight for libraries as a battle but rather than rely on a coercive approach, through funding and ideology, as the government is doing we must instead concentrate on winning hearts and minds across the political spectrum as well as amongst the general public. To do this we need a very clear, positive, and realistic vision for libraries.