Category Archives: Library reports

Striking The Right Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

 

Following the Leader…

libraryFor anyone who hasn’t yet read it I would highly recommend the excellent post by Nick Poole ‘Giving public libraries strong leadership and commitment.’ In it he lays out a coherent vision and set of principles for public library provision , averring that:

“A strong public library service is the foundation of a literate and inclusive society and a competitive knowledge economy. Great local libraries are an investment in communities, providing a cost effective way to improve health, support business start-ups, improve literacy and skills, and do all of this in a way that is open to all.”

The 10 key principles outline a clear stance on developing public libraries in England to hopefully curtail the massive reductions taking place nationally. This includes calling for emergency relief funding and intervention from government bodies where local authorities are being shown to fail their statutory provision.

It’s certainly a vision that many within the profession and campaigners should be able to support. If there’s a drawback it’s the reliance on the proposals being adopted by the same bodies who have so far failed to provide national leadership or a framework of protection for libraries.

However, due credit to Cilip for taking the lead in articulating what the sector needs to firstly survive and then hopefully develop.

Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England

In marked contrast we are still awaiting the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Libraries Deliver: Ambition. Although, originally due for publication by the end of July this year, the report was held up due to the appointment of a new libraries minister, Rob Wilson.

A further update was provided by the Taskforce in September but with no firm deadline in sight. It’s concerning that a report that was on the verge of being ready for publication over 3 months ago is still languishing in the DCMS, while the sector remains rudderless, libraries closures announced almost daily, and hundreds more staff lost to the profession.

But never mind at least it allows the new minister time to get his feet under the table!

Obviously, we have no way of knowing if or how far the report has been amended, or if any changes will be for the better or worse. Certainly Ed Vaizey was no friend to libraries so perhaps Rob Wilson’s view will be more positive. That said, how long does it take to amend an almost complete document. Then again perhaps the new minister’s view is so different to his predecessor that it requires a major revamp?

It will be interesting if the final product will be recognisable to everyone who attended the consultation workshops and if it fits with the work done and expectations raised at them.

What Next?

Perhaps Cilip has chosen to deliberately steal a march on the Ambition report. Certainly, it has challenged fellow members of the Libraries Taskforce to support the Principles for the Leadership and Development of Public Library Services in England as outlined in the blog post. Whether they will or not remains to be seen.

Partly, Cilip’s reaction could be borne out of the frustration with the long delay in publication of the Ambition document. Equally, there might be a perception that the report will fail to provide the guidance that’s needed for the sector and Cilip is setting out its stall in advance. This remains to be seen and comparing the two side-by-side will no doubt be highly informative and perhaps not a little contentious.

The one thing that is clear however is that only Cilip is currently offering a strategic framework and the leadership that the sector needs, while the others lag behind.

The test to how successful Cilip will be is how closely aligned its vision is to the Taskforce’s and what the fall-out will be if there is a wide discrepancy between the two.

 

 

Make a difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The devil is in the detail

I had an interesting, if rather short, exchange recently on Twitter with Chris Bryant, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Culture. He was criticising Lincolnshire Council over their plans to force local communities to operate libraries. I asked how these plans differed to Sheffield’s and why attack one but not the other. To the more cynical amongst us the obvious answer being one is a Conservative council and the other Labour controlled.

I share his criticism of Lincolnshire but the real issue is that library closures and cuts traverse the political divide and are to be found in Labour as well as Tory authorities. Therefore, only attacking his opponent’s plans appears more petty political point scoring rather than a genuine concern about public libraries.

Mr Bryant did affirm that public libraries need leadership. If elected Mr Bryant will be in a position to provide such leadership – and let’s hope it’s better than the misapplied ‘distributed leadership’ the Arts Council offers – however, we have been here before when Ed Vaizey was in opposition. Support for public libraries is an admirable thing but not if Mr Bryant is unable to articulate how he will differ from the current incumbent whose non-interventionist approach and slavish commitment to localism has been so disastrous for libraries.

In a story in the Independent Mr Bryant accused the Government of “utterly failing” library users and said library closures had “accelerated rapidly” since the election.”

He then went on to say that “Labour would provide “genuine national leadership” in reversing the decline in library use, encourage greater cooperation between England’s 151 library authorities and give councils longer-term funding settlements so they can plan ahead better.

So far, so good. He also stated that “Libraries are a vital part of the social and cultural life of this country. They extend opportunities for people, whatever their background, to read, learn and explore and they help to bridge the widening inequality gap in the country.”

All highly commendable but also, unfortunately, short on detail, big on ‘soundbite’.  It is one thing to say you support libraries but quite another to state how you would support them. The devil, as always, is in the detail and Chris Bryant is not providing any.

Now Labour should be in a very strong position to have an informed view on libraries. Helen Goodman, Mr Bryant’s predecessor, began her own review of libraries last year and equally the review by William Sieghart is available to refer to. So there’s plenty of information and research for Mr Bryant to draw upon.  Also, as a Welsh MP, he can look to the Expert Review of Public Libraries in Wales for inspiration.

Perhaps he could make a commitment to introducing national standards for England, or creating a genuine oversight body, or merging library authorities (not just ‘encourage greater cooperation’ which quite frankly the current Government has tried to little effect). Perhaps he could indicate a desire to revisit the 1964 act and define clearly what a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service should actually be. Equally, Labour has pledged to boost Sure Start centres and re-expand the scheme should they be elected so perhaps Mr Bryant could make a similar commitment to public libraries. And then there’s the thorny issue of consistent and adequate funding.

Returning to the Twitter exchange, one point that emerged was Mr Bryant supports volunteer run libraries in ‘some circumstances’. What those circumstances are he failed to elaborate on. Unfortunately, sharing the same belief as his opponent, that volunteer libraries are part of the solution, will hardly inspire library staff and campaigners to view Labour as offering anything substantially different to the current government.

Before the conversation on Twitter I had already emailed Mr Bryant (twice) inviting him to share his views, just as Helen Goodman had done, about public libraries. I reiterated the invitation as part of the Twitter exchange. Whether or not he accepts remains to be seen but if he does let us hope for something more substantial than he’s offered so far.

Addendum (09/02/2015): Chris Bryant has called the handover to volunteers in Lincolnshire ‘exceptional‘. I keep coming across slightly different figures but it appears that Lincs has handed or will hand over 68% of libraries to volunteers. Lincolnshire is a Conservative controlled council. Sheffield, which is Labour controlled, has given over 46% of its libraries to volunteers. Coventry, also Labour run, is suggesting reducing its libraries from 17 to 5, a decrease of 70%.

So it seems ‘exceptional’ is fast becoming the norm…for both parties!

(Happy to be corrected on the above figures)

 

 

Much ado about nothing…the Sieghart report

Well it’s finally here, the Independent Library Report for England, and as expected it caused frenetic activity and reaction on social media. Despite being published on the same day as the local government settlement for 2015-16 and the day before Parliament broke up for recess, the report still managed to garnish plenty of media coverage. I listened to Sieghart and Mark Taylor (Cilip) being interviewed on Radio 4 on my drive into work.

Other coverage included the BBC’s ‘libraries must emulate coffee shops’, an editorial in the Independent Romantic fiction: A review of libraries that fails to address the real problem, which the Bookseller thought was wrong and rejoined with Sieghart: on the money. Cilip regarded the report as offering a ‘convincing road map‘ albeit with some reservations. The Library Campaign also welcomed the report although considered it ‘pallid’ in places (the comment by Shirley Burnham and reply from Laura Swaffield are also worth noting).

Lauren Smith makes some telling observations on her blog and no doubt the report will continue to be digested and debated on social media for weeks and months to come. So a very mixed bag and wide spectrum of opinions with more to follow.

The report contained some important positives particularly around improved IT e.g. universal Wifi, supporting digital literacy, e-lending, and improving standards of service and the physical estate. All very sensible but equally quite costly, and there’s the rub; there was no mention of where the finance to accomplish this was to come from.

Another sensible, at least at face value, suggestion was the creation of a national task force to lead on the recommendations of the report. While sound in principle the execution however leaves much to be desired with the task force consisting of the same organisations and bodies that have so far failed to provide the strategic leadership needed in the sector. Unfortunately, it’s a case of the usual suspects with the man tasked (excuse the pun) with leading the group, Paul Blantern, having very definite and preconceived notions on how libraries should operate.

There is much more within the report to analyse and it is perhaps more nuanced that it first appears. It is a topic I will be returning to time and again especially as the outcomes of the report become more apparent. That said I have to admit that my initial response is one of disappointment. This was perhaps the best opportunity for a long time to create a serious and realistic narrative around libraries. Unfortunately, it appears to be more of a superficial short story than a deep, meaningful novel, defined more by what it didn’t say than what it did.