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

 

School Librarians and Why Our Children Need Them

This is the second in a series of five articles about the importance of school libraries. Elizabeth Hutchinson is Head of the Schools’ Library Service, Guernsey, and a strong advocate that access to a good school library is a right of every child.

In the following post Elizabeth argues strongly for the role a professional school librarian and the positive benefit it can bring to schools, teachers and most importantly students.

 

School Librarians and Why Our Children Need Them

I offered to write this to raise awareness of the importance of school librarians, which may seem a bit strange as the head of a Schools’ Library Service (SLS) where we are the only professional librarian support on our Island of Guernsey. It may seem that I am trying to do myself out of a job but that is not the case.

Even where schools do have a full-time professional school librarian the support from an SLS can save schools money and be invaluable. I feel that if schools understand the role of the school librarian they will also begin to understand what is on offer from SLS’s too benefiting schools, teachers and most importantly their students.

The relationship between teachers and the school librarian is a special one. The best schools are those who have school librarians, where the Head teacher has employed them for the very fact that they are qualified. Providing a specialist who can help embed research skills and support literacy development across the curriculum. These schools have Senior Leadership Teams where teachers are expected to work with the librarian when they are planning any kind of research or where the focus is on literacy.

From using the school library for books or online resources, teaching digital and information literacy, supporting literacy intervention to encouraging reading for pleasure these schools understand the benefit of collaboration for their student. This relationship leads a better understanding of the needs of the teacher and students, which in turn leads to time saved, better quality resources and students who are independent learners.

These nurtured relationships also lead to collaborations that is not immediately associated with the school librarian such as help to organise international collaborations, attending parents evening to support students and parents outside school, create makerspaces, help with coding and yes, librarians still have time to run book clubs, reading initiatives and as Barbara said in her last post, also be there for that child who needs a quiet space and someone to talk to at lunchtime.

In the last year alone librarians from SLS have co-taught from reception to 6th form. We have planned schemes of work and curated the right resources for our students. Our librarians have connected our students with students from America, Mexico and India and have plans for many more. We have increased the use of online resources through teaching in the classrooms, we have taught referencing and copyright to e-safety lessons helping to engage students in critical thinking and independent study.

We have brought authors and experts into the classrooms and with the support of our public library run numerous events from Carnegie and Greenaway lunches to Non-fiction November and World book day quizzes bring students from different school together to celebrate books and supporting literacy. We have run training sessions for teachers, created reading lists, written blog posts, attended parents evenings and generally spent time raising awareness of the importance of school libraries to a child’s education and the world of work. However, none of this would be happening if our teachers and schools did not understand the librarian’s role in teaching and learning.

If every Head Teacher, Senior Leadership Team member and teacher understood that this is what happens when librarians are engaged and supported the benefits to their students would increase seven fold. Schools need access to qualified librarians and Head Teachers need to understand why it is important.

Over the years as school budgets were cut the school librarian was commonly the first person to go. When schools started to use the Internet many thought that school librarians were no longer essential and books were no longer important as there was another way for children to get all the information they needed. They did not realise that an important skill set that was currently being taught was at risk of being lost and was going to be needed more than ever.

Now whilst I agree the opportunity to find information has become quicker it is also essential to teach our students the skills to assess, evaluate and find good quality information. Schools who no longer have a school librarian do not have this skill set available to them and we risk having a world of people who don’t have time or understand the importance of making sure that the information they read is correct. Unfortunately, teachers who have grown up where they as children were not taught or had the opportunity to use a school library do not always understand the need for them and along with that do not have the skill set to teach their students these essential research skills.

What can teachers do?

Your starting point is the school librarian. Go and find out what books are in the library for the subject you teach. Arrange a meeting with the librarian and talk about what your curriculum topics are and find out if there is any budget left to order more. What else do you need to ask?

• Does the library have any online resources that can support your topic?
• Can the librarian help you search these resources and explain how the citation tool works?
• Do they have any tools to teach referencing?
• Are they willing to teach your students these skills?
• Can they help you with global collaborations?
• Are there any online tools that they have used that would be useful for you to know about?
• Do you have any reading lists for my year group or topic? If not can you make one for me?
• Is there a book club for students/teachers?
• Little Jonny (not his real name) is not performing well do you know how much he reads? Can you help to find a book he might enjoy?

Students the message to you is simple. Go to the school library, if you read you will do better in school.

Parents, the last message is for you. Go and find out if your school has a good library and a qualified librarian. If not then ask them why. Your children deserve the best and this is the perfect place to start.

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 Tories are on course for another victory with the only point being how large the majority will be. That said, polls have been wrong before so we can but hope.

Labour have at least 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 Tories 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, after seven years of mishandling the situation, councils are a fundamental part of the problem. The traditional model of local authorities 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.

Dodgy Dudley?

As a library campaigner and commentator I am particularly interested when libraries spin out of local authority control. It’s an issue I have written about many times and therefore tend to keep an eye on those proposing such a route.

Dudley is one such service. In October 2015 Public Library News highlighted the aim of Dudley Council to create an employee-led mutual with a planned launch date of April 2016. Given that such decisions require planning well in advance (or at least should do) I have no doubt that library staff, corporate officers, and councillors had been in discussions for a long time.

In the news story a spokesperson for the council made clear that the mutual would be “where council employees set up a new organisation separate to the local authority to continue to deliver public services.” A three-month public consultation was planned and for talks with staff, unions and other stakeholders.

Rachel Harris, the cabinet member responsible for libraries said:

“As a community council we are committed to delivering high quality services to our existing customers and at the same time providing opportunities to widen access to community services. An employee-led mutual creates opportunities to deliver professionally led services supported by the community in a way that local people can be proud of.”

In April 2016 it was announced that the library service would be run as a ‘not-for-profit mutual’. Councillor Harris is quoted as saying that this was a new era for the borough and described it as a ‘absolutely historic occasion for this council’.

It was reported that the new organisation would be run by staff but have community, employee and council involvement at board level.

So far, so good. Despite the cutbacks and financial challenges Dudley Council had made the decision to place the future of the library service firmly in the hands of the people who knew it best, the library staff themselves. This was certainly the position the council promoted to the public during the consultation exercise.

It was also the preferred option of the Council as the Cabinet Report made abundantly clear:

  • “Consultation with user groups about the Mutual model has been done by local staff in each setting.” (point4)
  • “There has been a specific comment about the mutual model from one of the Friends of Libraries groups who wanted to know more about the business case and how the Friends would work with the library if it was run from within a staff led mutual.” (point 5)
  • “There have been helpful and encouraging comments from one partner organisation where the library is co-located in their building about the Mutual model and how this could improve further joint working.” (point 6)
  • “Frequently Asked Questions continue to be compiled and a regular staff mutual newsletter began in January.  Staff are taking part in workstreams, including a workshop on branding for the Mutual.” (point 8)
  • ” A Mutual is an umbrella term for an organisation run for the benefit of its members, who have active and direct involvement whether as employees, suppliers or the community.  Meta-Value recommends an Employee-led Mutual with charitable status as the model for LAAL, which would enable greater income growth.  Membership would be open to employees and members of the community with a Board which includes a nominated Council representative.  York Explore has spun-out using this model.” (point 14)
  • “On 28th October 2015, Cabinet approved the following:  in principle, the setting up an employee-led Mutual for   LAAL, with a 5 year Business Plan, subject to consultation with staff and the public and the decision of full Council in February” (point 15)

In fact the whole report is in favour of the proposal to set-up a ‘staff led mutual’, so you would be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what would happen. Certainly both the public and staff were led to believe this. So positive was the proposal to establish a staff led mutual that Dudley Council even prepared a candidate’s pack for a Treasurer of the newly created model.

Dudley was also awarded £42,000 as part of the Mutuals Support Programme for support around ‘legal governance, business planning and financial modelling, stakeholder engagement support and transition.’

Therefore, it came as a great shock when it was announced that GLL was instead to step in and take on the running of Dudley’s Libraries.

Now there several puzzling areas here:

  • How can GLL take on the running of Dudley libraries, including TUPEing staff over, and yet the Council still claim that a staff-led working arrangement has been created? A ‘staff-led’ mutual is precisely that: a service owned and run by the staff, for the benefit of the community in which each member of staff has a vote to elect trustees and local residents are able to become members. This is a long way from how GLL operates.
  • Where, when, how and whom made the decision to appoint GLL? Like many Councils decision-making takes place in a labyrinth of different committees. However, such decisions should be clear via Cabinet or Scrutiny minutes etc. I’ve made a request to DMBC for details but have not yet received an answer.
  • Did the funding given to Dudley via the Mutuals Support Programme allow for the awarding of the contract to a different provider?

I am actively following through on these questions and will publish a further post when (if!) I get answers.

One thing that is clear though is that both staff and the public have been misled and misinformed over the proposals. Neither group have been consulted or engaged with over the process and the decision to award the contract appears shrouded in council bureaucratic fog.

I hope that residents and campaigners challenge this bit of rather dodgy decision making. That Dudley Council quickly comes to its sense and reverses the agreement with GLL and awards it to where it properly belongs; to the staff and residents of Dudley.

 

 

Not Waving but Drowning

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It’s difficult to take a balanced view of public libraries at the moment. Concentrating overly on bad news around closures and cuts appears so much doom-mongering. Equally, highlighting only positive news stories smacks of pollyanaism. Obviously, both aspects exist and will differ from region to region, authority to authority, and even community to community within relatively close proximity. Amongst the cuts there is still opportunity to find examples of good practice, valuable partnership working,  and innovation within the sector.

That said, the bad news does appear to have the upper hand at the moment, especially with the announcement that local councils face an ever deepening hole in their finances: A story in the Bookseller outlines how:

“According to the Local Government Association (LGA), the long-term funding crisis means local government will continue to face an overall funding gap of £5.8bn by 2020 and that more than two thirds of the 375 councils in England and Wales will be forced to find millions in savings to plug the funding gaps in 2017/18.”

This was put into stark context with a warning from the Leader of Liverpool Council that:

‘…even if he closed all 19 libraries in the city and its nine sports centres, stopped maintaining its 140 parks, halted all highway repairs and street cleaning and switched off 50,000 streetlights, he would save only £68m—which is £22m short of what he must cut by 2020. So there will have to be a further 10% reduction in the social-care budget.’

Many other councils are facing equally unenviable choices, which is the consequence of a path determined by the coalition government in 2010. According to the government, at the start of the 2010 almost 80% of council expenditure was financed by the central government grant but by 2020 this will have reduced to 5% with the ultimate aim that it will disappear altogether.

The consequences for libraries are obvious, with a litany of severe cuts from all around the country, and figures showing that UK libraries had lost £25m from their budgets in just one year. Nick Poole has warned that library closures will double unless immediate action is taken, stating that:

“We have already lost 340 libraries over the past eight years and we think that unless immediate action is taken, we stand to lose the same number over the next five years.”

This leaves bodies like the Libraries Taskforce, SCL and ACE in a difficult position. Tasked with developing libraries it seems the best that can be assumed is a slow rout with an eventual retreat in many areas to the consolidation of a central library underpinned by varying levels and quality of community provision.

I am reminded of the image of the Little Dutch Boy holding back the incoming flood, with the Taskforce vainly attempting to stop the torrent of cuts while the dyke around them steadily spouts leaks labelled Kirklees, Plymouth, Walsall, West Berkshire, Bristol, Bury, Lancashire…the difference being, in the story at least, the Little Dutch Boy was successful at plugging the gap!

Or to use a bleaker literary reference the sector is ‘not waving but drowning.’

Unfortunately, the Taskforce is operating to a deeply flawed report that is hopelessly outdated just a mere two years on, with little in Ambition to offer concrete help or financial support. But most of all it is curtailed by political intransigence.

To a large extent the malaise goes even deeper than just funding. Councils have shown themselves to be unimaginative at best and inept at worse when dealing with library services. Parochial to an incomprehensible degree, very little has been done to genuinely merge services across boundaries or treat them as part of a national infrastructure. Localism is part of the problem not the solution.

But let me end on a positive note, which is the re-launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries. So welcome to the new Chair, Gill Furniss MP, who stated that:

“I was brought up on a council estate in Sheffield and my dad was a reader. When I was four he took me with him to the public library and it was like walking into an Aladdin’s cave…If my dad hadn’t taken me to that library I do not think I would be stood here as a Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. I’ve got my career and the knowledge it gave me which drove me on to go and get a degree and eventually become a Councillor.”

Whether the APPG is capable of providing the life-line desperately needed by the sector remains to be seen.

 

 

 

Review of Public Libraries 2016

2016 is set to be a watershed year for public libraries. The Libraries Taskforce published the Ambition report, the longest serving libraries minister, Ed Vaizey, was replaced, and Cilip finally found its voice. All this against a backdrop of increasing library closures, massive reductions in library budgets, and decreased library book spending.

Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2012

Ambition was a report of two halves in many ways. It was launched with great fanfare early in the year with a round of workshops and consultation that included library staff and not just the usual suspects. I attended one of the workshops and found it positive. There was a sense of optimism that perhaps, at long last, here was an opportunity to effect genuine change and start to turn around the decline in public libraries. As Kathy Settle noted:

“It was inspiring to see and hear all the interest, passion and commitment for the public library network. The valuable ideas, insight and feedback we received really helped to challenge and hone our initial thinking, and make the document more useful to the various stakeholders we’re trying to involve as we take our plans forward.”

The report was due to be published at the end of July but the timetable quickly slipped as the usual horse trading and debate over wording took place. This delay was exacerbated by the replacement of Ed Vaizey, a victim of the post-Brexit vote, with Rob Wilson taking on the role of libraries.

Initially the delay was to allow the new minister time to get to get to grips with his new portfolio but as the months marched on I and many other campaigners began to question if the report would be published this year at all. Eventually, with no advance notice, it was released on a day in which the main news headlines was the increase in EU migrants arriving in Britain. Despite this rather clumsy attempt to ‘bury bad news’ the report received its fair share of publicity within the sector.

I won’t go into the pros and cons of the report as many others have already responded such as Cilipcampaigners and authors.  In contrast the report was broadly welcomed by those with a seat on the Taskforce; SCL, LGA

My own view is that the report failed to encapsulate the aspirations of the profession. What we got merely reflected existing government policy and advocated the views of a minority of vested stakeholders, with the early optimism being replaced by crushing stoicism and an uncertain future of continuing funding cuts.

Libraries Taskforce

I have always chosen not to give the Libraries Taskforce its full title in my posts. This is simply because I do not view it as a leadership body for libraries. What we have is a body set up, funded, and answerable to the DCMS and the libraries minister. In my opinion the Taskforce is precisely that: a group ‘tasked’ with delivering government policy around localism and devolution, and papering over the cracks caused by the continuing decrease in government funding to local authorities.

Now its easy to conflate the organisation with the individuals involved. The fact is I have met Kathy Settle and other members of the Taskforce and they strike me as being both dedicated and conscientious in their aim of supporting libraries through a prolonged and difficult period. But they have the unenviable task of doing this with no access to long-term funding and with only piecemeal project monies available. Even the £4 million libraries innovation fund is not actually new funding but money left-over from previous projects.

Sadly, the Taskforce has yet to evolve into the strategic body that libraries desperately need: one that provides a genuine national strategy underpinned by sustainable funding for the sector.

Library Ministers

This was the year we lost Ed Vaizey as the longest serving culture minister, who was sacked during the post-Brexit reshuffle. Vaizey, despite harsh criticism of Labour when in opposition, proved to be something of a lame duck when in office. He failed to intervene in any cuts, claimed “the library service is not in crisis”, and disputed statistics produced by Cipfa, the BBC, and leading campaigners, while at the same time producing much ridiculed figures from his own desktop research.Very few within the sector were sad to see him go.

Although replaced by Matt Hancock as Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, the library brief was awarded to Rob Wilson, the minister for civil society. For many this set alarm bells ringing as it placed libraries directly into a portfolio that actively promoted volunteering, social enterprise, and spinning services out from local authority control.

Only five months into his new role Rob Wilson has faced a plethora of challenges as cuts to libraries have become even more entrenched, leading Nick Poole to describe one authority’s proposals as ‘the most damaging ever seen to any library service anywhere in the country.’

Faced with major cutbacks in places such as Lancashire, the minister emulated his predecessor and took a non-interventionist stance. Then again it would be a brave politician that challenged his own government’s policies that have basically starved councils of funding. Equally, given the UK national debt has risen by £555 Billion since 2010, libraries are hardly likely to be viewed as a spending priority when set against the burden of adult social care.

However, it is worth considering how the DCMS decides what does and does not constitute a ‘comprehensive & efficient’ service. Without a baseline measurement how can they evaluate when an authority falls below the standard required? After questioning those councils proposing major cutbacks it appears the Minister does not consider them to have fallen beyond the ‘threshold’ required to trigger intervention. So what yardstick, what definition and criteria, has been used to ensure compliance with the 1964 Act?

Apparently only the Minister and DCMS know.

2016 was the year that Cilip finally found its voice. Following on from the resolution in 2015 to oppose the amateurisation’ of public libraries services’ the My Library By Right campaign was launched, challenging both local and central government to fulfil their legal responsibilities and provide a quality library service.

From being  perceived as soft on library closures we have seen quite increasingly strong statements against closures, hollowing out, and the loss of paid staff. An extensive round of media coverage was undertaken to promote the value of libraries, and councils challenged where cuts appeared draconian.

Recently, Cilip also launched its own vision for the future of libraries. While this is still not enough for some I see it as evidence of an increasingly confident and vocal professional body, willing to champion the value of libraries and library staff.

Unfortunately, Cilip’s aspiration for libraries is at odds with that offered by the Libraries Taskforce and Ambition report. As I’ve previously noted, it’s unlikely Cilip’s vision will be adopted as it runs contrary to government policy.

That said, I much prefer a professional body that is in tune with the aspirations of its members and reflects what the sector genuinely needs even if its vision is unpalatable to the current administration. After all, circumstances, and even administrations, eventually change.

The Future

Sadly, the medium term future appears bleak for public libraries: a lack of national strategy, a dearth of leadership, continuing funding cuts, and a non-interventionist minister hardly provides a genuine ‘ambition’ for libraries. That libraries will survive into the future in some form is a given. What form that takes and whether as a service it will remain ‘comprehensive and efficient’ remains to be seen.

It only remains for me to wish you all, despite the trials and tribulations, a very Happy New Year.

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Comment from Nick Poole

An excellent and measured review of a challenging year. It is a sad fact that the trend of funding cuts and service reductions has occurred despite a quite extraordinary body of great work by public librarians across the country. I have noted elsewhere that it is not the ‘core product’ of public libraries that is at fault here but the lack of political engagement with it, and it is this which we must increasingly organise ourselves to counter.

We know from the My Library By Right campaign that the statutory basis of public library provision is very thin, thanks in no small part to the withdrawal of Public Library Service Standards, which provided that vital 2nd tier of definition around ‘comprehensive and efficient’. We should also be clear that this is not the only legal basis from which to challenge poorly-implemented service redesign – legislation around Equalities is likely to be equally important in defending the public right to a quality, universally-accessible service.

There are many inside the sector who oppose standards, but the fact is that in almost every other public sector they serve an essential role in providing clarity, definition, a baseline against which to assess improvement and a valuable means of identifying and correcting poor performance or under-investment. In my view, we as a sector ought to be able to organise ourselves in England to develop our own standards, following the model set down in Wales and Scotland.

To me, the most important message in your post is the one that says that ‘administrations will change’. I would be surprised if the current administration survives in its current form to May 2020 given the political and economic pressures at play over the next three years. As a profession, we need to ensure that when and if the political winds change in our favour, we are ready with workable, costed solutions so that we can act swiftly to mitigate the damage being done to the public library network and, where possible, repair it.

In the meantime, though, I commend you, your colleagues and everyone out there that is continuing to focus on what really matters – ensuring that every citizen can continue to benefit from the unique value that libraries bring to their lives.