Category Archives: Library closures

Libraries as Social Hubs

Libraries are about physical spaces. That’s what the public values about them. Campaign after campaign has started not necessarily because of threatened withdrawal to services, although this undoubtedly plays a part, but because of the danger to the actual library building itself. The threat, or even the perceived threat, of closure is what galvanises public reaction.

The difficulty for public libraries is the same as for many public spaces, in that they act as “a shared resource in which experiences and value are created. These social advantages may not be obvious to outsiders or public policy makers.”

The report from which the above quote is taken, The social value of public spaces by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation goes on to state that:

“To members of the public, it is not the ownership of places or their appearance that makes them ‘public’, but their shared use for a diverse range of activities by a range of different people.”

The report identified a range of such spaces, from school gates to boot sales, to shopping malls and community centres, where people met to create spaces of engagement.

To this group I would very firmly add libraries. The tendency amongst policy makers over the past few years to insist that libraries become ‘community hubs’ misses a vital point: libraries are and have always been social hubs of their communities.

Over the years public libraries have offered an increasing range of services to reflect evolving societal and technological changes. Libraries now, quite rightly, offer 24 hours access to online services, support local and national government ‘digital by default’ agendas, provide e-books and e-magazines, online resources and academic journals, 3D printers and coding clubs, digital literacy and computers, and enable digital citizenship. But all of these services can be delivered outwith the library space, which has led some to conclude that libraries, as a concept, are outdated and anachronistic.

2015%20-%206But beyond the technology what the public really values is the library as a community space and social hub. Campaigners and volunteers understand this better sometimes than the profession itself. When looking at the range of activities and services on offer in community libraries there is nearly always a tendency to concentrate on the social value of the library as a physical space. The bringing together of people and activities that enable social cohesion and engagement such as reading groups, coffee mornings, knit & natter, film clubs, creative writing, and as a community meeting space.

The MLA report What do the public want from libraries showed something similar in that people who used public libraries valued the social contact they provided. Equally, the ACE report Envisioning the Library of the Future recognised public libraries as trusted spaces, free and open to all, and as “a safe, free, creative community space that is enjoyable and easy to use, both physically and virtually.”

For some this would indicate that community centres or hubs providing a combination of council services could fulfil the same function. This is true in some respects and libraries can be successfully relocated within shared space or co-located with complementary services. However, the opposite is also true and I would argue that there is something intrinsically unique about the library as a social space that is diluted when its core purpose is subsumed within an array of non-related services or facilities.

The public still value libraries and value them as a physical space. Those responsible for reshaping library networks within current financial constraints need to acknowledge that re-location, co-location or closure runs the risk of weakening existing social networks within libraries and undermining the very community resilience they seek to build.

The Whole Story..?

image_galleryLove them or loath them ‘community libraries’ are an uncomfortable fact of life. I have great respect for volunteers that complement library services and paid staff, and libraries have a long history of working with volunteers, contributing as they do time, energy and additional skills. But since 2010 ‘volunteer led’ libraries have become ubiquitous and many authorities have them in one form or another.

A recent post on the Libraries Taskforce blog: Meeting the teams in community run libraries discusses work towards the development of a good practice toolkit for such libraries.

What comes through from the post is that many of the groups prefer core support from the parent library service and being connected to the wider library network. Such support can include oversight from paid staff, buildings and maintenance costs being met, and provision of stock and IT. This version of the model centres on volunteers replacing paid staff, and the subsequent budget savings this brings, but with the running costs being met by the local authority. Volunteers also support the library by fund raising activities to a greater or lesser degree. How much this genuinely meets the overall costs will differ from library to library, even ones within relatively short distances of each other.

However, while the posts goes as far as recognising the contentious nature of the issue and states that no endorsement of the volunteer model is implied I do find it unbalanced in tone and the emphasis is very much on the strengths and successes of the volunteer model.

This would be acceptable if recognition was also given to the pitfalls inherent in the system as a counter-point. Certainly any informed advice from the Taskforce needs to balance the pro and cons in a realistic narrative, if only to avoid the accusation of bias towards the government’s localism agenda.

For instance, despite all the wonderful work being done at Manchester Central Library, volunteer libraries in the area are struggling, with visitor numbers and opening hours falling dramatically. The challenges are nothing new and in both 2013 & 2014 a frustrated volunteer library manager vented her concerns to Public Library News about the reality of running a community library.

The situation is no doubt complex. Some volunteer libraries are thriving, some surviving with support from the parent service, and others barely managing to stay open. What we lack is data. Data to know how many volunteer libraries there are, what their experience is, and how we measure their success through standardised metrics. Will they be judged on visitor numbers, loans, events, or merely keeping the doors open?

So in the interest of balance and telling the whole story the Taskforce should highlight not just why community libraries succeed but also why and how they fail.

 

 

 

 

Parish or Bust!

A new phrase is set to enter the lexicon of library reductions: ‘parishing!’. It’s something I’ve warned about in previous posts but has mainly happened at a low level and very much under the radar. However, some recent high profile examples are bringing the issue to the fore. Parishing is the natural outcome of the localism and devolution agendas and in simple terms is the process whereby local authorities pass responsibility for universal and discretionary services to parish and town councils.

This is a rather cynical political ploy. The rationale being that councils don’t want to raise taxes above the referendum threshold but parish councils can raise the local precept to pay for services. With many councils set to raise the council tax by almost 4% this represents a double whammy of tax hikes for local communities, with low income families particularly vulnerable.

According to the BBC ‘thousands of parish and town councils in England increased their share of the annual bill, raising £18.9m in extra funds.’ The analysis shows that 5,217 parish and town councils increased the bill, 3,659 increased the basic demand by above 1.99%, and 60 parish councils at least doubled their bills in 2015-16. This is set to continue in the 2016-17 financial year with some parish and town councils significantly raising the precept.

What the article makes clear is the reason for the rises is to take on services previously provided by the principal local authority such as libraries, youth provision, and community buildings.

This is the approach being proposed by Cornwall under a devolution agenda. The Council’s Cabinet Member for Localism, Jeremy Rowe states

“Across Cornwall, our most significant current devolution priority is in relation to libraries and one stop shops, but there are a number of other exciting devolution projects underway locally, relating to a wide range of services and assets including open spaces, recreational facilities and community buildings.”

However, it’s not just in Cornwall but across many counties and unitary authorities that devolution is the catalyst for forcing additional responsibility onto lower tier councils and increasing precepts.

The justification for parish and town councils taking on services, such as libraries, is that if local people want the service then local people should pay for it. Unfortunately, such an approach and attitude lends itself to increasing social inequality between those communities that can afford services and those that cannot. It also continues the decline and fragmentation of library services, which further exacerbates such inequality.

This is rather at odds with the aim of creating robust, sustainable communities and services. Instead it appears a desperate  race to the bottom to provide the least service for the least cost, with some communities in danger of losing out altogether.

Equally, how parish councils taking on libraries fits into the 1964 Act remains to be seen and perhaps challenged. What is almost a certainty under these proposals is more job losses for library staff, replacement by volunteers, and a fall in the quality of service provision.

So it seems that along with localism and devolution, ‘parishing’ is yet another disingenuous term for drastic cuts to important local services including libraries.

 

 

 

 

 

Winning Hearts and Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

It’s Complicated!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paved with good intentions

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

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

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

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

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

One such volunteer recently commented that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Library User Comes Second

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Gordian Knot

Gordian-Knot-and-Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The ‘Amateurisation’ of Public Libraries

The 2015 CILIP AGM takes place on Thursday 24 September at CILIP Headquarters and unlike previous years is a fairly low key affair estimated to take just over two hours. As usual I would urge all those members who cannot attend to at least use their proxy votes.

The two areas that have grabbed my attention are the proposal by Andy Richardson and Anna Brynolf (below) and the, as usual, ever increasing subscription rates. The unnecessary increase in subs is something I argued against last year but it seems that Cilip is determined to treat members as milch cows despite the job losses and limit on public sector pay. This is a matter I will return to in a future post.

Well done to Andy and Anna for submitting the following proposal and saying what many within the profession think. The phrase ‘amateurisation of the Public Library services’ sums up the current situation succinctly and encapsulates in a single word the reductions, hollowing out, deprofessionalisation, and handing over to volunteers. Amateurisation indeed!

The wording of the proposal is:

“That CILIP actively oppose those public authorities and senior library staff over the “amateurisation” of the Public Library service by offering library buildings and contents to be run by the local community with little or no funding for professional or paid library staff. This is resulting in public libraries being run by volunteer staff and taking away work currently done by paid professional and library assistant staff. All current public library service points manned by paid local authority library staff should be the current base-line – and where such actions are suggested by the local authority and senior library staff, CILIP should support the opposition to such proposals and say so publicly.”

 

Vol stats

The loss of staff and increase in volunteers is starkly illustrated in this graph from the Guardian.

Recently Cilip has raised its profile around advocating for libraries and Nick Poole has done a round of radio and TV interviews talking about library closures. However, I still think Cilip’s approach is too softly-softly so will be supporting the proposal and urging Cilip to be more adversarial in its opposition to the removal of paid staff.

This proposal transitions interestingly into the announcement that Jan Parry, President of Cilip, has been appointed to lead a task-force charged with working out how Liverpool’s libraries will be funded from 2017 onwards. From one perspective this is a positive move to involve those who actually know about libraries, from another it could be seen as glossing over the relinquishing of 5 libraries to volunteers and the loss of paid staff.

So this is a precarious position for Cilip. Any move to find a solution which involves volunteer libraries will be met with outrage from members and campaigners alike and will run contrary to the above proposal if passed.

Cilip has released a statement in support of the work Jan has been asked to do. Unfortunately, it is couched in terms that immediately gives rise for concern and suspicion in that it is similar to the vague terminology and management-speak that seeks to disguise reductions to service and removal of staff.

Cilip needs to clarify in plain English whether or not this will mean supporting, even indirectly, volunteer run libraries. It would be reassuring if Cilip were to offer a base-line affirmation, along the lines of the SLIC recommendation, that volunteer run libraries without paid professional staff are not the preferred option.

There is a basic financial imperative for Cilip in all of this. It is paid staff, not volunteers, that pay subscriptions and without employment they are unable to do so. So less employment for members means less members for Cilip. Simple really!

Addendum

Interesting comment from librariesmatter:

Just a thought …..if CILIP had wider membership then perhaps it wouldn’t need to raise subscription rates and it wouldn’t be seen so much as a narrow professional body merely protecting its members interests.

For example the American Library Association provides personal membership to Library Friends, Trustees and Associates. CILIP for some reason doesn’t embrace such people.

 

 

 

What is comprehensive & efficient?

Providing a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ is considered the touchstone of library provision and a constant refrain during campaigns to save libraries from closure. The notion is enshrined in law through the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and until 2010 there was little reason to fully discuss, let alone define, what this actually meant. After all, we all knew what it meant, right! In the best progressive tradition libraries were not only considered a good thing by their very existence but de facto ‘efficient & comprehensive’ became synonymous with expansion: more libraries, more staff, more resources to cater for a growing population and expanding towns and cities.

Only twice has a government felt compelled to conduct a formal public inquiry into local authorities plans for library closures: once in Derbyshire in 1991, and more significantly in the Wirral in 2009. Unfortunately, such intervention was short-lived as were the lessons learned.

The election of 2010 and the introduction of an austerity driven coalition government resulted in a rude awakening for the library sector including the abolition of the MLA and the Advisory Council on Libraries. Faced with large scale reductions, deprofessionalisation, and the steadfast non-intervention by the Minister of State for Culture – who for decades it was thought would always intercede for the benefit of libraries – the great cornerstone of library protection turned out to be more fiction than fact.

The difficulty is that no one is able to define what comprehensive and efficient actually means, at least not to the extent that meets general consensus and acceptance. For some the term is associated with an extensive network of physical buildings and paid staff, while to others the term is equally applicable to few service points but with reliance on technology such as RFID, 24/7 online services, wifi, and mobile apps for libraries.

Some authorities consider volunteer libraries to form part of their statutory provision and thus retain the characteristics of a comprehensive service, while many campaigners would take issue with this approach. Because the term is not defined in the 1964 Act it is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

Even during judicial reviews the courts have refused to get drawn into the quagmire of a legal definition, concentrating instead on the technical aspects of the consultation process.The MLA had produced a checklist for local authorities to use but again this has more to do with the process rather than defining terms or meaning.

Thus, the concept has failed so ‘comprehensively’ (pun intended) that Herefordshire Council can now seriously suggest reducing library provision down to a single main library, with the remaining taken over by volunteers or being self-service only.

So the question becomes that if the notion is no longer fit for purpose does it need replacing and if so what with? I realise this will be a contentious and in some quarters heretical suggestion but to continue with a principle that has become so outdated and impractical allows others to control the narrative to the disadvantage of meaningful library provision.

In my submission to the Sieghart Review I suggested that a set of core principles and values should be established similar to that which underpins the NHS. These principles should be regulated nationally but with scope for local interpretation.

For example, principles for the public library service might include:

  • Free access and membership for all  
  • Provision of and access to information in appropriate formats e.g. online resources
  • Access to books in all formats
  • Provision of a community space – for individual study, lifelong learning, workshops, and changing expectations e.g. maker spaces/hack spaces
  • Access to economic wellbeing opportunities – recognising the economic roles of libraries e.g. providing access to employment and benefits information, facilities for job hunting, re-skilling, and innovative approaches such as business hubs and enterprising libraries

The Voices for the Library manifesto is similar in advocating for a defined level of service including paid staff and professional librarians.

Such core principles should be overseen by an independent body that recognises the specific opportunities and remit of public libraries, enables evidence based research, sets standard, shares best practice, and provides advice to the relevant government departments and Minister for Culture. Perhaps along the lines of the Scottish Library & Information Council.

The term ‘comprehensive’ and efficient’ is no longer helpful and is inadequate to capture the changing nature of library provision. It lacks definition, is relative, and in many instances unquantifiable and could more usefully be replaced with a set of core principles and values as outlined above.

The principles and values should be based on continuing free access to literacy, learning and information and underpin the social value and instrumental role libraries play in creating a literate and educated population.

Addendum

A detailed account of the now defunct library standards and relation to the 1964 Act can be found on Public Library News: Public Library Standards in England.

In a twitter conversation with Nick Poole, CEO of Cilip, he quite rightly points out that standards and regulation are needed to underpin the principle of ‘comprehensive and efficient’. I totally agree and the NHS principles & values I highlighted are obviously underpinned by standards & regulation.

Nick also points out that industry standards might prove useful. Again I agree and look forward to Cilip developing some as well as stating what its view of ‘comprehensive & efficient’ is. After all, if the professional body for librarians is unable to define the term what hope has anyone got!

Situation in Wales (from Alyson Tyler)

Wales is a lot smaller than England, but your readers might be interested in the Welsh Public Library Standards, which have been in operation since 2002. Frameworks run on a three year cycle. The current framework has 18 core entitlements which sound much like your principles and values, and also 16 quality indicators, some of which have targets, some of which can be benchmarked, and some of which are impact measures. No system is perfect and not everyone agrees on everything of course. http://gov.wales/topics/cultureandsport/museums-archives-libraries/libraries/standards/?lang=en