Category Archives: Library closures

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.

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.

 

 

 

The Positive and Negative Impact of Using Volunteers in Public Libraries

The following post is from Gina Baber a Library & Information student at UCL. Gina has produced an excellent paper looking at the positive and negative impact of volunteers in public libraries. The full article can be found on the UCL website.

I came across the article via Twitter and Ian Anstice also highlighted it from the Public Library News site. However, it’s well worth publicising a widely as possible and Gina has kindly agreed to it being posted here.

Gina can be followed on Twitter @Gina_Baber and I highly recommend that you do.

The Positive and Negative Impact of Using Volunteers in Public Libraries

Gina Baber

Introduction

‘Volunteers have long supported and provided highly valuable additional support, working alongside qualified and paid staff, and they should be acknowledged and valued for this role. They should also be given appropriate role descriptions, training and management. CILIP is opposed to job substitution where paid professional and support roles are directly replaced with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts to save money….If this happens services will suffer and will be unsustainable. What remains would be a library service unable to serve the community comprehensively, support people’s information needs or provide everyone with the opportunity for learning and development.’ (1)

The following essay is a discussion on the impact of using volunteers in Public Libraries. It will focus on the experiences of Library Professionals and Volunteers; and consider the overall effect of Volunteers on the Public Library Service.

Public Libraries are a vital resource, and according to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, are a statutory requirement (2). Public Libraries are a centre for communities; a place for lifelong learning; and a sanctuary for the vulnerable, including the elderly, mentally disabled and homeless. Libraries improve accessibility to information; help to develop literacy and information literacy; and are a catalyst for social empowerment and social mobility:

‘…A strong public library service is the foundation of a literate and inclusive society and a competitive knowledge economy.’ (3)

There has been a change in the way many Public Libraries are being run. Cuts to funding have forced some Libraries to reduce their paid staff and introduce unpaid workers, resulting in a significant increase in volunteers in some areas: ‘paid library staff fell by 5.3% from 18,028 to 17,064, volunteer numbers rose by 7.5% to 44,501.’ (4)

The Librarian as Volunteer Manager

Managing a sizeable cohort of volunteers is a complex undertaking, and there are many aspects of management that need to be taken into consideration. These include: the challenges faced in training volunteers with little or no experience of library work; the varying reliability of volunteers (some can only commit to a few hours a week, or less, and they are often unable to commit to a regular shift pattern); and the effect volunteers have on staff morale, including staff who have seen colleagues made redundant, and who are being required to train volunteers who have replaced paid staff.

According to a 2017 review of UK Public Libraries, the top 4 challenges of using volunteers were as follows: 1. 82% The time investment that is needed to manage and support volunteers 2. 62% The time investment needed to recruit volunteers 3. 62% The level of commitment among volunteers 4. 58% The time needed to train new / casual users on systems (5)

The Government’s ‘Good Practice Toolkit’ also reflects the need for constant and considered management of volunteers:

  • a volunteer policy needs to be in place
  • volunteer roles need to be agreed
  • volunteers will require training for their roles
  • volunteers require ongoing access to professional advice
  • resources are needed to manage the volunteer roles (6)

After discussions with several Librarians and Library Managers, many examples of Volunteer Management responsibilities were highlighted. These included ‘coming up with volunteer opportunities; writing role descriptions; creating & managing advertising; drafting Service Level agreements; obtaining references; DBS checks for certain roles; maintaining records; training; holding regular meetings; and hosting volunteer thank you events’ (7)

The Volunteer Manager role is almost always performed in addition to an existing Librarian or Library Manager role. For example, Maria Bernal, who is the part-time Librarian and Volunteer Manager at Woodberry Down Volunteer-run Library (London Borough of Hackney), is also the Librarian at Homerton Library.

Similarly, Sophia Richards, the Community Librarian for Children, Families, Learning and Outreach at North Somerset Council, also manages the Volunteer programme in North Somerset (8). Inevitably, Librarians taking on these new responsibilities and often large numbers of volunteers, are frequently overworked and under a huge amount of pressure: ‘…We’re open 39 hours a week. I had 5 part time staff, now I have one full time member of staff and 102 volunteers…most of whom volunteer for only 2 hours once a week…It’s non-stop training and very tiring teaching 3 new people with minimal IT skills how to do frontline library work in 2 hour slot…the time it takes to train, the extra hours staff are putting in (unpaid, we don’t get overtime) just so we can keep on top of our admin and line management responsibilities is exhausting.‘ (9)

When a Library relies on volunteers, consistent availability and reliability can be an issue. As volunteers do not have a contract in the same way a paid worker does, their attendance is not an obligation. This can lead to casual and sometimes erratic attendance, which can disrupt and put pressure on the rest of the workforce; as well as leading to valuable community group activities being cancelled, the library closing early, and the integrity of the service being damaged, ‘…volunteers typically are less bound to follow regular schedules or to work for extended periods of time…Limited, irregular schedules are ill suited for tasks needing frequent attention.’ (10)

The Positive Effects of Volunteering: Social Empowerment and Social Mobility

Many volunteers are used in Community Outreach and Engagement roles, supporting paid staff and promoting the Library Service. Examples of these volunteer roles include: assistance with the Summer Reading Challenge; IT and Digital Literacy sessions; reading groups; and the Home Library Service for users who are unable to visit the Library due to a disability or ill health (11). As well as a desire to assist the Community, there can be many other reasons people volunteer. These can include volunteering as a way to improve self-confidence or sociability; to gain experience before applying for a paid position; or as a way of gradually integrating back into the workforce. Volunteering can have a positive effect on volunteers with learning difficulties; mental health issues; those dealing with loneliness, bereavement, social isolation and social anxiety; those dealing with unemployment and the struggle to find work or return to work; and those with extended periods of illness which have impacted on their confidence, self-esteem and motivation.

Interviewer: ‘Have you had any positive feedback from volunteers on the voluntary work they do?

Community Librarian: ‘I suppose the most obvious is those who have gone on to secure employment. One of the volunteers with autism secured a full time position with BT and couldn’t thank us enough for giving him an opportunity to have an up to date CV and a reference. A volunteer who had been a social services manager had been claiming sickness following complications after childbirth. She hadn’t been in employment for over 12 years and had significant anxiety issues. I worked with her, slowly re-introducing her to the safe library environment…Eventually she became a volunteer and developed the confidence to attend a counselling course. She is now working part-time in that field. (12)

Volunteers and Motivation

‘Volunteers are fearful they will lose their libraries, so rather than be faced with that, people think of volunteering…I can understand…but they should never have been in the position to have to make that decision…Volunteers have a brilliant role to play in boosting capacity and outreach but they shouldn’t be compelled to take over running the service.’ (13)

Volunteers come from different professional or non-professional backgrounds, frequently with little or no experience of managing a Library. The view of the Library as a cultural hub and centre of the community, motivates volunteers to keep the service running; often with limited resources, shorter opening hours and few or no professionally trained Library staff.

As mentioned previously, reliance on volunteers can be problematic for several reasons; and motivation is a particularly powerful influence on reliability and retention. The initial determination to ‘save’ a Library may be an ‘intrinsic motivation,’ built on a strong and focused desire to keep the Library open; and the idea that this is a positive and important act. Initially, volunteers may feel that they are taking control and managing change effectively. This action is also a result of an ‘extrinsic motivation’ and ‘external pressures’ upon the volunteer or voluntary group, caused by the potential closure of the Library. Volunteering must be ‘a choice freely made by an individual…both the volunteer and the organisation that the volunteer works with should benefit from the relationship; and the contribution of volunteers should be recognised.’ (14)

The initial motivation of the volunteer to make a difference or improve the situation may decrease, when external pressures become increasingly evident and their free choice as a volunteer becomes more of an obligation or ‘social coercion.’ (15)

External pressure may also come from volunteers having to take on more work than they were initially able to, and outside their capabilities. Untrained volunteers may not be able to cope with increased and unattainable expectations and workload. As a result, demotivation could occur as follows:

1. The reduction in paid professional Library staff could result in a lack of support and training for volunteers

2. This constraint on volunteer training and development could then result in volunteers feeling isolated or unable to fully assist Library Users

3. A lack of training and consequent limited understanding of information resources, could result in lower levels of self-confidence in volunteers; leading to frustration and disappointment that they are unable to fulfill the role

4. Frustration and negative feedback from library users, unable to receive the information or services they require, could result in a volunteer feeling that they are no longer in control

5. As a result of this lack of control, a volunteer may develop a negative association with the workplace and volunteer role. Volunteers may feel anxious, defiant, and demotivated; ultimately leading to amotivation and them leaving the volunteer position (16)

It is important to provide volunteers with consistent and thorough training and support, as well as a variety of tasks that suit their individual skills and experience ‘…having managed volunteers myself, I’m very aware that you have to make sure people are happy, stimulated, befriended and given a cup of tea and a chance to sit down and chat. Also, if they’re there for the long term, they need some autonomy over a task (this has to be appropriate for their level of ability), and a chance to change up tasks and routines when they get bored (or they’ll get burned out)’ (17)

Paid and unpaid staff require professional and personal development, including positive and constructive feedback and staff appraisal. If a volunteer does not receive consistent feedback and encouragement, they may feel undervalued. Similarly, if a working environment is hostile, isolating, apathetic, or not stimulating for a worker or volunteer, there will be little or no incentive to achieve goals. Problems may also occur when the paid workforce feel undermined or threatened by the increased use of volunteers. With many paid professionals losing their jobs or facing redundancy, there is a definite sense of unease, and sometimes a lack of respect or understanding from both paid staff and volunteers:

‘…without a doubt, many of the volunteers do not value nor respect our experience….It’s obvious that most of the volunteers don’t really know or understand what public library staff do. They aren’t intending to start a career in libraries, they haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the same way an applicant for a job vacancy would.’ (18)

Diversity: The Effect on Service

Interviewer: Do you think Equality and Diversity are fairly represented in Libraries that rely on volunteers?

Library Manager, Wirral: NO! The vast majority of our volunteers are elderly, white & middleclass/ retired teachers, engineers etc. (19) Community Librarian, Conwy County Borough Council: ‘My experience is that I haven’t seen someone from an ethnic minority, with a disability or anybody under the age of 60 volunteering. The simple answer therefore is no! However, I don’t think libraries are doing enough to attract these groups anyway and our users remain older retired and white and those with young children. That’s leaves a huge part of the population!’ (20)

Another issue with Volunteer recruitment, is the lack of equality and diversity amongst volunteers recruited. This lack of equality and diversity can have an impact on the relationship between the volunteer and Library user; and the quality of the service provided. The less diverse the workforce, the less diverse the range of knowledge; experience and understanding of different cultures; attitudes; beliefs; and lifestyles.

A lack of diversity, coupled with little or no understanding of information literacy, may ultimately lead to a biased or limited information service provision. Volunteers may be unaware of appropriate data protection laws and copyright, for example; and be unaware of the most efficient, accurate and ethical ways of finding information, such as using the most current databases to search for medical information.

Volunteers may also have little or no experience of how to manage the needs of a user with specific learning needs, a disability, or mental illness. It is important for a Public Library to employ professional staff to maintain as balanced and fair a service as possible, ‘…public librarians should provide expert assistance and advice to users as a public service without prejudice against persons and without a hidden motive of staff affecting search results…public librarians have an obligation to protect and promote the rights of every individual to have free and equal access to sources of information without discrimination.’ (21)

The Librarian Identity: Deprofessionalisation

‘What the profession needs to be vigilant of and something that should be challenged is appointing candidates to post as ‘librarian’ or equivalent without qualification or the need to pursue one. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of volunteer libraries it is the responsibility of all of us in the profession to uphold the integrity of what it means to be a qualified librarian. Anything else fundamentally undermines the concept of professional Librarianship’ (22)

Library volunteer roles are sometimes given titles with a professional association, for example ‘Marketing Assistant’, Library Ambassador’ and ‘Library Events Facilitator,’ which suggest a more serious position, with greater responsibility; and may result in an increased level of commitment from the volunteer. The language used can be encouraging for Volunteers, but problematic in its confusion with professional roles. Job titles used on the ‘Volunteering Wales’ website, for example, include ‘Assistant Librarian’ and Library Administrator.’ The requirement for the ‘Assistant Librarian’ role requests that the volunteer has ‘no particular skills, and training will be given.’ The role involves ‘talking to the public and using the computer to log books in and out.’ (23) Language and role descriptions like this, are in danger of undermining the view of the Library Professional.

Many people who have worked as a Librarian or are working towards a professional role, have extensive practical experience, training, knowledge and skills – the Librarian role is far more complex and exhaustive than this simplified job description suggests. Deprofessionalisation is hugely problematic, and volunteers are rarely able to take the place of a trained information professional ‘…The shift towards volunteer-run libraries also promotes the misconception that being a librarian is not a profession. Working in a library isn’t just about flicking a date stamp about and re-shelving a few books…’ (24)
Some Public Libraries do not believe in the importance or necessity of qualified Library staff, and the retail customer service model is often favoured over the knowledge and professionalism of a Librarian ‘…Being a qualified librarian is desirable, but not essential for front line staff.

Also, a colleague was telling me recently that “…CILIP’s own research shows than only 46% of those polled think that librarians provide trustworthy information. This does put librarians in the top 5 professional nationally, but at the same time it’s not a full endorsement either”…’ (25). It was interesting to hear that the Idea Store do not use volunteers, believing that ‘…services are lessened by the use of volunteers, so Idea Store do not take on volunteers to do the work of professional, trained staff.’ (26) There appears to be an awareness of the current situation, where volunteers have been frequently replacing professional staff; but one cannot help but feel that management is missing out on valuable expertise, knowledge and service development potential by not employing qualified Librarians.

Conclusion

‘We, as members of the public, deserve better. We deserve (and are legally entitled to) a library service that delivers not only books but is a free public access point to information. We deserve someone qualified in knowledge and information management who is best able to provide that service – and that’s a real librarian.’ (27)

The general view amongst Library Professionals and many users, seems to indicate that replacing paid professional staff with volunteers will result in a lower quality service provision. Volunteers should, where possible, only be used to support experienced, qualified staff. Volunteers are a positive addition to a workforce, when used to support certain activities, but should not be relied on to run a Library service ‘…experience would suggest that the most effective use of volunteers is to support paid staff in delivering specific activities (storytimes, job clubs, reading schemes, etc.), rather than taking on the day-to-day logistics of running a library’ (28).

Personal experience of using (or attempting to use) a volunteer-run Library, has been problematic and disappointing, with the Library in question frequently closing early, or being unable to open due to lack of volunteer availability. For users reliant on accessing resources, including computers and internet access, this can be greatly inhibiting and frustrating. The impression created, is one of an inefficient Library Service – a service that is unreliable and nonfunctioning. Ultimately, the user may be forced to look elsewhere for information and resources; and the trust in the service is reduced. Reduction in paid professional staff and reliance on volunteers, also has an impact on the availability and discovery of accurate and balanced information sources; and there may be issues with volunteers’ inexperience with intercultural competences and diversity. Volunteers can be used in a positive and effective way, and volunteering can have a positive impact on those who volunteer. In a Public Library context however, volunteers need to be managed carefully. Where possible, they need to support and not undermine professional paid staff; and they need to be offered regular training, support and feedback.

Volunteers should not be expected to take on the responsibility and workload of experienced, trained Information Professionals. There should be a clear distinction between the role of a volunteer in supporting the Library service, and representing it entirely. Evidence shows that volunteer-run libraries are not sustainable, and cannot run in an efficient, freely accessible and wholly ethical manner. Leadership and management from paid professionals is essential in maintaining the standard of a Public Library service. Without paid information professionals working as true representatives of the service, perception of Public Libraries will be further degraded and the public may lose an important resource capable of empowering and mobilising individuals and communities.

References:

(1) CILIP Public Libraries use of Volunteers [online] 19 April 2017 (original date of Policy June 2012) [accessed 04/02/17] Available from: https://archive.cilip.org.uk/research/sectors/public-libraries/briefings-statements/publiclibraries-use-volunteers

(2) Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964: 7. General Duty of Library Authorities https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1964/75

(3) CILIP Public Libraries 2016 Available from: https://archive.cilip.org.uk/research/sectors/public-libraries

(4) Kean, D. UK Library Budgets Fall by £25m in a Year The Guardian Thursday 8 December 2016 [online] [accessed 19/02/2018] Available from: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/08/uk-librarybudgets-fall-by-25m-in-a-year

(5) Axiel A Review of UK Libraries in 2017: A Guide for Delivering Sustainable Communitycentric Services [online] May 2017 Axiel Ltd. [Accessed 11/04/18] Available from: http://www.axiell.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Axiell-Report-A-review-of-UKlibraries-in-2017.pdf

(6) Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Libraries shaping the future: good practice toolkit: 3.3 Volunteering [online] [accessed 05/02/16] Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/libraries-shaping-the-future-good-practicetoolkit/libraries-shaping-the-future-good-practice-toolkit

(7) Library Manager, Wirral Interviewed by Anon 15/04/18

(8) Meet the Volunteering Team! https://northsomersetlibraryvolunteers.wordpress.com

(9) @ALibrarian1 ; Bolton, L. (ed.) One Hundred and Two! in Leon’s Library Blog [online] 20/09/2015 [accessed 25/03/2018] Available from: https://leonslibraryblog.com/2017/09/27/one-hundred-and-two/

(10) Leonard, K. B. Volunteers in Archives: Free Labor, But Not Without Cost USA: Journal of Library Administration 52 2012 p 316

(11) North Somerset Library Volunteers Available from: https://northsomersetlibraryvolunteers.wordpress.com

(12) Community Librarian and Volunteer Manager, Conwy County Borough Council Interviewed by Anon 16/04/18

(13) Powell, M. in Flood, A. Save your Local! Should Volunteers Help Keep Our Public Libraries Open? [online] The Guardian 8 August 2017 [Accessed 20/02/18] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/08/public-libraries-at-thecrossroads-should-volunteers-be-keeping-them-open

(14) Paine, A. E. ; Hill, M. ; Rochester, C. ‘A Rose by Any Other Name..’ : Revisiting the Question: ‘What Exactly is Volunteering?’ [online] 2010 UK: Institute for Volunteering Research p 9 [accessed 09/04/18] Available from: https://www.scribd.com/document/352352785/A-rose-by-any-other-name-Revisiting-thequestion-what-exactly-is-volunteering

(15) Ibid. pp 12-13

(16) Adapted from the points in: Taylor, B.M. Table 1,2, and 3 of Motivation : The Hierarchical Model of Motivation: A Lens for Viewing the Complexities of Motivation USA: Performance Improvement 2015 [online] 54 4 p 38 [accessed 04/03/18] Available from: https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/doi/epdf/10.1002/pfi.21475

(17) Library Assistant and Library Volunteer, London Interviewed by Anon 11/04/18 (18) @ALibrarian1 ; Bolton, L. (ed.) One Hundred and Two! in Leon’s Library Blog [online] 20/09/2015 [accessed 25/03/2018] Available from: https://leonslibraryblog.com/2017/09/27/one-hundred-and-two/

(19) Library Manager, Wirral Interviewed by Anon 15/04/18

(20) Community Librarian, Conwy County Borough Council Interviewed by Anon 16/04/18

(21) Kargbo, J. A. The Role of Public Librarians in Disseminating Information for True Democracy Public Library Quarterly 33:4 pp 362-371 [accessed 16/02/18] Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2014.937216

(22) Bolton, L. When is a Librarian Not a Librarian? in Leon’s Library Blog [online] 20/09/2015 [accessed 25/03/2018] Available from: https://leonslibraryblog.com/2015/09/20/when-is-a-librarian-not-a-librarian/

(23) Volunteering Wales: Opportunities [online] [Accessed 11/04/18] Available from: https://www.volunteering-wales.net/opportunity/28652/

(24) Ash, E. in Flood, A. Save your Local! Should Volunteers Help Keep Our Public Libraries Open? [online] The Guardian 8 August 2017 [Accessed 20/02/18] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/08/public-libraries-at-thecrossroads-should-volunteers-be-keeping-them-open

(25) Dogliani, S. Deputy Head of Idea Store Interviewed by Anon 17/04/18

(26) Ibid. 22/02/18

(27) Finch, D. The Harsh Truth About Volunteers Available from: https://dawnfinch.co.uk/2015/04/05/the-truth-about-volunteers/

(28) Librarian, Adults & Communities Team, North Lincolnshire Library & Information Services Interviewed by Anon 16/04/18

 

 

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

 

Vote for Cilip

Cilip Board elections are not noted for controversy and neither should they be. The members who put themselves forward want to support their profession by supporting their professional body. But voting is not a neutral act. The elected members are the face and voice of the body and can set the tone for the type of organisation that members want to represent them.

First and foremost being a Cilip Trustee is about ensuring the viability and compliance of the organisation. Sustainability is key to ensuring that as a profession we have an organisation that can represent and speak out for us. Trustees also need to enable  Cilip to act as the body for all areas of the library, information, and knowledge management world.

They need to take a broad view in developing an organisation attractive to those working within an expanding knowledge economy. But they need to do this while ensuring existing sectors are still strongly represented. Added to this is the ability to help the organisation navigate the current, choppy political and financial waters.

Four years ago I started this blog ostensibly as a reaction to changes proposed by Cilip that I disagreed with. Luckily those changes were voted down. For me, it was something of a low point, with our professional body seemly disconnected from the concerns of ordinary members and I questioned why I and many others should bother remaining members. But  I did remain, hoping for change, and never wavered in advocating for a strong, vocal professional body, engaged with its membership.

Four years later, and the situation has changed for the better, with a more engaged leadership, structural changes, and stronger advocacy.

I continued writing posts as, like many within the profession, I was appalled at the cuts and closures to public libraries. Those cuts were part of a wider austerity agenda affecting all public service and still show no sign of abating. The crisis in libraries has continued into an existential threat. Not just through closures and staffing cuts, although these continue, but by the erosion of the fundamental principles of what it means to have a free, efficient, comprehensive and publicly funded library service.

Many individuals have chosen to speak out in defence of libraries and to create platforms to reach a wider audience such as Public Library News, Speak Up for Libraries, The Library Campaign. Sadly some, like Voices for the Library, have fell by the wayside.

Famous authors, campaigners, trade unions, have all been vocal in support of libraries. Unfortunately, while many speak out, the lack of cohesion amongst the groups and individuals is our greatest weakness, despite sterling work by activists involved in the above groups.

In these circumstances it is difficult for individual library staff to make a difference. That’s why it’s more important than ever that our professional body should be the unifying voice that brings us all together to advocate for the profession.

I know that many remain cynical about Cilip. I know that many have their doubts about it’s structures and capacity to change. In the past it has been viewed as slightly elitist and only for qualified staff. That has changed and continues to change.

It was seen as expensive, and I spoke out many times about the increasing cost of membership. From this month that has also changed.

Cilip far from being elitist now welcomes staff from all levels and grades. It’s approach is one of inclusivity not exclusivity. It is the only library body that represents all levels of staff.

So if you are library staff, at whatever grade, join Cilip. If you are an activist, trade unionist, or free thinking radical, and work in libraries, join Cilip. The more members it has have the louder, and more importantly diverse, its voice will be.

For those who say change cannot happen within the organisation I say ‘Momentum’. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the group, what cannot be denied is the change wrought by a grassroots  movement on a major political party.

Inertia is not an inevitability. Change comes about because people are willing to get involved.

I am standing for Cilip Board because in the current upheaval  one thing is certain: silence is not support, acquiescence is not advocacy. We need a strong, professional body through which our concerns are heard and we need to be represented by those who know and share those concerns and are willing to speak out.

But regardless of the outcome of these elections my message is simple: vote for a strong, unified professional voice. Vote for Cilip by joining and by making your own voice heard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

A Tale Full of Fact and Fiction

Much has been made within the profession of the need to adopt a positive narrative approach. In this, libraries are no different from other organisations, and the story we tell about ourselves drives the collective identity of the service. It also shapes the perception of how those outside libraries view us.

So adopting a positive approach to tell the story of an organisation, or in this context the library sector, is a widely acknowledged and effective strategy for influencing others.

This is the driving force behind calls to move beyond the negative aspects of austerity in which the defining theme had been one of cuts and decline in the sector. The inclination for a different narrative has gained particular urgency as continuing public sector cuts challenge not only library budgets but also the very identity and  value of public libraries.

The Narrative

In February 2015 internationally respected librarian R. David Lankes called upon the profession to ‘control the narrative’ and demonstrate how public investment in libraries could have a huge impact on the economic and social well-being of the communities they serve. He stated:

The narrative of crisis is useful, but fleeting in its impact and exhausting and demoralising for those within the profession. A cry of alert had to be matched with a call to action, and, important in times of economic hardship, a compelling value proposition.

We learned that value goes far beyond economics and business development (though we had ample data to make that case). Value can include contributions to economic development, but it must include clear contributions to how librarians and libraries make life better.

Equally, in the same year Kathy Settle of the Libraries Taskforce argued of the need to “break the negative narrative” around libraries. She said:

 “I think we need to break that negative narrative. I recognise that’s difficult because there really are cuts and closures happening. We certainly don’t want to make it look as if everything is sweetness and light because we know that it’s not. But equally, if we don’t turn that narrative round and collectively start talking more positively about libraries, no one else is going to. And why would anyone want to invest in a service that sounds as if it’s failing?”

To a certain extend these arguments are right. Libraries certainly should accentuate what they do well and promote the positive benefits libraries bring. This is particularly true as we begin another Summer Reading Challenge, one of the most important national literacy programmes.

In simple terms there are two aspects of the positive narrative approach . The first is to move away from only the discourse of crisis and focus on the very real and tangible benefits that libraries bring. The second is the return on investment of the improved narrative and the influence gained with decision makers e.g. national government and local authorities.

However, this is where the positive narrative model flounders somewhat as unfortunately there is no clearly defined outcome of what the approach should achieve.

David Lankes argued for a ‘compelling value proposition.’ In practical terms this means showing how libraries are valued, proving both social and economic worth, and demonstrating how effective they are in delivering national and local government priorities etc.

But after that, then what? What exactly is the outcome hoped for once this has been achieved? The arguments so far have focused on the establishment of a narrative without addressing what the cause and effect will be.

The positive narrative in practice

Recently, there has been two strong examples of the positive narrative argument. Firstly, the Shining A Light report from the Carnegie Trust. I’ve already discussed the report in a previous post and argued:

“…the research finally qualifies the ‘narrative’ argument. It demonstrates once and for all that both users and non-users value the library service and that libraries, contrary to some, are not in terminal decline, but remain a well used and valued service.”

Secondly, is the work done by the Libraries Taskforce at the Local Government Association conference this year with the aim to encourage:

“…decision makers to ‘think libraries first’ and events like this are a good opportunity to reach a wide range of different people – many of whom are not immediately involved in the library sector.”

This included:

“…an invitation to a morning fringe session on libraries from the New Local Government Network (NLGN), entitled ‘More than Book-keeping? A New Approach to Library Services’. Featuring presentations from Cllr John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council, Ciara Eastell of Libraries Unlimited, and Brian Ashley of Arts Council England, this was an excellent way to start our conference. It was a small session, but the quality of discussion was high, with half a dozen library services all looking to share ideas and thoughts about achieving successful service transformation.”

There were also further presentations during the event from Stella Duffy on Fun Palaces,  Paul Blantern (Chair of the Libraries Taskforce) describing the Library Plus approach in Northamptonshire,  Jan Holden from Norfolk Library Service on their work with public health, and Tabitha Witherick of Somerset Libraries on the Glassbox project.

There can be little argument that this is not effective advocacy to those with considerable influence over the running of libraries.

Continuing the story

Add to this the direct representation from the Libraries Taskforce to the libraries minister and the years of ongoing advocacy by the SCL and Cilip to the DDCMS and various other governmental departments.

The point being, that while there has been a natural and understandable tendency to focus on the negative side of the reductions in libraries, there has also been an ongoing counter-balance of positive advocacy, particularly at a higher level.

Previous work on demonstrating value to policy makers, while not perfect by any means, should not be disregarded. For example there has been regular contact between the libraries minister and SCL over the years and he would have had ample opportunity to discover direct from HoS the socio-economic contribution of libraries.

So there is a danger of promoting the view that leaders within the profession have been consistently poor at showing the value of the service and thus libraries have suffered a negative perception and decline in funding as a consequence. In other words ‘it’s our own fault’ and all the advocacy undertaken by the SCL, Cilip, and more recently the Taskforce has been irrelevant.

Therefore, there needs to be a greater acknowledgement of the more nuanced complexity between the robustness of the advocacy and the willingness of decision makers to fully engage, listen, and take remedial action.

One observation in the Shining Light report was the:

“Lack of understanding and buy-in among decision makers and the public regarding the broader aims and purpose of libraries.” 

Partly, the problem is the profession defining the aims and purpose of libraries for decision maker to understand as the strategic direction nationally is vague at best. Equally, libraries now offer a smörgåsbord of activities and partnerships from service to service that, even allowing for the Universal Offers, it’s no longer clear what the library brand and identity actually is.

Nevertheless, I would argue that while the broader aims might still be unclear, it’s difficult for even the most hardened supporters of the ‘positive narrative’ approach to argue that libraries are not valued and appreciated by the public and decision makers alike. The vital ingredient in this mix is the willingness, or even ability, of decision makers to intervene particularly where the lack of buy-in is due to political dogma.

This is one of the fundamental flashpoints between campaigners and the ‘official’ representatives of the library sector.

Opposing views

The inherent dichotomy between the positive and crisis aspects of the library narrative is exacerbated  by a profession that places great value on objectivity, especially concerning information, as the ‘facts matter’ campaign illustrates. Conversely politicians prefer messaging that promotes government and local initiatives, even around reductions, in a positive light. Facts versus ‘messaging’ creates a toxic mix, quickly leading to distrust and suspicion.

This is perfectly captured in a claim by Kathy Settle:

“Libraries Taskforce chief executive Kathy Settle made the mind-boggling claim at a recent local government conference that public libraries are currently flourishing. “While people focus on libraries that have closed, there aren’t that many of those — and there are hundreds that have been opened or renovated,” she insisted.  “That message doesn’t always get out.”

Minutes of the last taskforce meeting, just 16 days earlier, record that Settle was present while the taskforce discussed complaints about the lost libraries in Lancashire, Swindon, Southampton, Barnet, Bedfordshire and Darlington.  Maybe she was confused by the fact that in the minutes of a three-hour meeting, covered by more than 4,500 words, “closures” were not mentioned once, instead referred to obliquely as “ongoing changes by library authorities”.”  Library News-  Private Eye – Issue No. 1448

 

Unfortunately, a narrative based mostly on facts appears too didactic, lacking emotional appeal, and unpalatable to the general public. Equally, a narrative devoid of facts is simply hot air and spin, leading to deluded over-optimism. Therefore, there needs to be a balance between the ‘fact’ and the ‘fiction’. No easy task when both sides have become so mired in their conflicting views and stuck on opposing ends of the narrative spectrum.

Another difficulty between the campaigners and official representatives is one of perception. One side sees itself as pragmatic, taking steps to ensure the sector survives, and to some extent thrives, under challenging circumstances. By implication other approaches are considered naïve or idealistic.

 

In contrast the opposing view is one of complicity in the devaluation not just of service quality but in the fundamental principles underlying public libraries.

What would be useful for both the profession and the public is engagement. And by this I mean genuine engagement with a willingness by both sides to consider each others narrative with an open mind.

There has been some attempts at engagement in the past but this has mostly been on an ad-hoc basis. What is needed is a neutral space with the opportunity for both sides to meet and debate openly.

Sadly, the chances of this happening is slim. Both sides appear to prefer silo approaches and the safety of insular meetings or conferences with little or no opportunity to dispute opposing views.

That said, I would argue that the onus should be with the official representatives towards more transparency, openness, and a willingness to justify their work to the public. Closed workshops and conferences that only include parts of the profession and vested interests is not the way to build bridges.

What next?

All credit should go to the individual library services and staff that, despite financial challenges, still drive forward creative initiatives. The demonstrable value of such projects in their local community are not just obvious but measurable as well. Most importantly, they are, in the main, promoted extremely well and libraries have become accomplished at marketing their achievements to local decision makes.

So, what next? We have, and continue, to do our part as a profession; we demonstrate more than ably the value of libraries and the work they carry out; we have a direct conduit to government via the Taskforce, SCL and Cilip. We have won the hearts and minds of the public; we have informed the decision makers many times over, we have collected evidence and highlighted the data where it exists. And now..?

According to the positive narrative approach we should be rewarded; with recognition, influence and appropriate funding. But perhaps it’s too soon. Perhaps not enough decision makers have been informed and influenced. Perhaps the whole approach should be viewed as long term…very long term.

And perhaps after a few more years, with the eventual change in the economic climate, or administration, we will realise that it was ideology and funding to blame after all. And that the ‘positive narrative’ was in fact just another ‘tale’. A tale, to misquote Shakespeare, full of fact and fiction…signifying nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

Too Many Chefs

Well another general election is upon us and sooner than most could have predicted. The indications are the current administration is on course for victory. Sadly, it’s a victory that will mean the  continuing reduction of the central grant paid to local authorities and the consequence this has for libraries at a local level.

Labour have mentioned libraries in their manifesto with a promise to increase council funding and reintroduce Library Standards. Both are very welcome but for me miss the main challenge facing the sector.

Unfortunately, both parties offer little in the way of innovation. For the Conservatives it will be the continuing path of localism and devolution leading to even greater fragmentation of the sector. For Labour it is primarily a funding issue. However, funding is only part of the overall challenge, what’s really needed is addressing the structural issues facing the sector.

There has been a tendency to focus on funding and to apportion the lack of financial support as the main reason for the current crisis in libraries. However, the problem goes deeper than this: it is about vision, about what libraries are, could, and should be. And just as importantly who should run the service. In my opinion the traditional model of delivering library services is no longer fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul.

The lack of strategic vision is further exacerbated by the lack of leadership, which in turn is the result of the chaotic nature in which libraries are overseen, funded, and influenced. From the libraries minister, DCMS, DCLG, ACE, Libraries Taskforce, and LGA,  to professional representation by Cilip and the SCL, down to local authorities, and increasingly parish councils, community groups, charities, and mutuals.

Far from the concept of ‘distributed leadership’ once inappropriately advocated by the Arts Council the current framework of oversight and delivery is a prime example of organisational dysfunction. Rather than addressing the structural challenges of the sector the current approach creates a toxic mix in which add-hoc project funding merely places greater pressure on an already creaking network.

The Libraries Taskforce has failed because it has been unable to address two central issues: the provision of on-going revenue funding and the creation of a unified strategic vision that addresses the structural challenges and is not merely a rehash of government policy. No amount of positive spin, blogging, or occasional funding can cover this deficiency.

Nick Poole captured the above difficulties when stating:

“The reason for this is that the Government has more or less direct control over the priorities of lottery and other providers of project funding, but due to the overarching policies of devolution and austerity has elected not to exert control over the ‘core’ funders of libraries and civic museums – the Local Authorities themselves. By withdrawing funds from Local Authorities and leaving them, essentially to their own devices, Government is forcing them into a position whereby core structural issues cannot be addressed and, by association, creating the very real danger of significant inequality between communities in different parts of the four nations of the UK.”

Those of us on the ground see the outcome of these policies everyday; the creation of a two-tier, post code-lottery in local library provision. In turn this leads to greater inequality throughout the country, with the already socially deprived being the most disadvantaged.

Libraries are a national resource and should be treated as such. However, this approach is very much at odds with current political ideology, which does nothing to address genuine sustainability for the future and impedes long-term planning. What we face is a systemic failure of oversight in the sector to create a unified, sustainable model of provision.

As a working librarian I have to accept the current political reality of the fragmentation of services, the downgrading of libraries as a shop front for a mish-mash of council services, and the deprofessionalisation of the sector.

However, I can also hope and aspire towards a better future. For a strategic vision and leadership that leads towards a national approach for library services; that provides genuine oversight, development, and resources to enable libraries to be the best they can be for the benefit not only of local communities but for society as a whole.

This should be the aspiration of the whole library profession while recognising the current political challenges that make this unlikely for the foreseeable future.