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, 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.

All of which adds-up to some powerful 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 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. In fact 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’.

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 incredibly vague. 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 was 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, either implicitly or explicitly, other approaches are viewed as 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Dodgy Dudley – Revisted

I followed-up my last post about Dudley by making a FOI request asking for details of how and why the decision had been made to award the contract to GLL despite all the evidence pointing to an agreement for a staff led mutual.

For those not familiar with local authority decision making and the somewhat byzantine complexity of council procedures, there are some, very critical committees through which the majority of decisions have to make their way. Two of the most important are Cabinet and Scrutiny so my request was to supply information and links to those committees that had decided or approved the awarding of the contract without any apparent further consultation.

Despite some obvious delaying tactics I finally received a reply claiming that disclosure of some of the information was not in the public interest. This relates to information under Section 43 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act and the related procurement exercise.

This was followed by rather unhelpful links to committee documents between April and September 2016. Unfortunately, rather than provide any clarity what the documents show is the progress of approval for a staff mutual. The outcome of the September meeting did nothing to alter the process or change the agreed method of procurement. Rather, the documents back-up the 3 month statutory consultation which clearly states a plan to create a staff led mutual. 

However, between September Cabinet and the subsequent announcement to award the contract to GLL in February 2017 there appears to have been a decision made to completely ignore the agreed plan. A decision so secret that Dudley Council is unwilling to share how it was made and by whom.

Now add to this is a reply from Councillor Harley to a local resident indicating that the decision was subject to the appropriate scrutiny procedures and that the process has ‘gone too far and cannot be reversed’.

Dear…

 The decision to use a company that has been set up as a mutual (not for profit) to operate the Borough’s libraries for the next 5 years is a good decision. They have a good track record on running libraries in other parts of the country.
 
The decision to award the contract has now gone too far and cannot be reversed having been through the relevant scrutiny processes. The tender by the successful company was far superior to that of the one put forward by employees and officers of the council.
 
They have given assurances that Libraries will not close and that staff will not be made redundant. In fact one of the determining factors of awarding them the contract was the proposal to review opening hours and where they can justify it extend opening hours.
 
Therefore based on this and the fact that under the control of the council the service would have diminished i fully support the decision to award them the contract. The library service will be protected and hopefully improved as a result of this measure.
 
If you require any more information please get in touch.
 
Regards
Cllr Harley

 

This is in contrast to the reply I received from the Council’s FOI Officer saying the process was still underway!

The main point being, if the usual scrutiny process has been followed, then the details of the particular committee should be publicly available.
Every public authority is required to publish certain information, in keeping with the Information Commissioner’s Model Publication Scheme and as a general rule, a council should publish the following on a routine basis:
  • minutes and agendas of public meetings;

  • documents it is required to make public by other legislation, such as the Local Government Act 1972; 

  • minutes of senior-level policy and strategy meetings, eg board meetings; and 

  • any background documents which are referred to in the agenda or minutes, or were circulated in preparation for the meeting. These are considered part of the agenda.

Therefore, the relevant agendas and minutes including briefing/decision notes should already be in the public sphere.

Looking at Dudley Council’s constitution, decisions that require the approval of Cabinet can be made by a Lead Member in consultation with the appropriate Director, which tends to be standard practice in local authorities. This leads to a ‘Decision Sheet’, which in the words of DBC is one mechanism of the Council’s formal process ensuring transparency and robustness in decision making.

Once the decision sheet has been approved it should be available on the Council’s Decision Database. There appears to be no such decision available on the database regarding the award to GLL.

The Freedom of Information Act makes clear clear that the public interest is served where access to the information sought will:

  • Further the understanding of, and participation in the debate of issues of the day
  • Facilitate the accountability and transparency of public authorities for decisions taken by them
  • Facilitate accountability and transparency in the spending of public money
  • Allow individuals to understand decisions made by public authorities affecting their lives and, in some cases, assist individuals in challenging those decisions

Unfortunately, there appears only lip service being paid in Dudley to such principles and the dodgy decision making continues apace to dupe the public and renege on promises made to the hardworking, dedicated library staff.

Stronger Together

cilipI make no apologies for this post being unashamedly a recruiting drive for Cilip after seeing on Twitter that membership is still falling by 3%. However, as with everything, the context needs to be understood to see this fall as a positive and not necessarily a negative.

For years I was a harsh critic of Cilip, not because it had lost its way, but because it didn’t have a way forward at all. It was floundering under the pressure of austerity and the resulting widespread hollowing out of public libraries with the loss of jobs and thus membership. Worse of all, this was happening without Cilip speaking up for the profession or advocating the advantages of retaining a professional workforce.

It also faced the challenge of arresting the decline in membership. My own opinion was that members where leaving because they could no longer see the relevance of belonging to a professional body, and paying expensive subscriptions, that was too far removed from their everyday experience of year-on-year budget and job cuts.

But all this has thankfully changed. Cilip now has, and continues to develop, a strong voice in defence of its membership and championing library services in different sectors; public, schools, health. It challenges Government policy and intervenes, as much as it can, in local decisions to reduce services. Cilip is becoming the professional body its members need it to be.

I contacted Nick Poole for further information about the fall in membership and he sent this reply:

“The current rate of attrition is just over 3%. That’s actually around half what it was 3 years ago, but it’s still a declining number. We follow up with people who don’t renew, and the underlying reasons are informative. A significant proportion are due to retirement, which is why we’re working to improve the offer the retired members. Similarly, we see a significant drop-off in the transition from free student membership to full membership. We have seen a decline in the number of people leaving because of dissatisfaction with CILIP.

 Of course, over the past 10 years, the most significant decline in sector terms is membership among public library staff. This is one reason why we launched the new Careers Hub on the CILIP VLE – to provide support for public librarians who find themselves having to make a transition to other parts of the library sector. We know that public libraries are changing, but we see it as essential that public library staff are encouraged to engage with their professional body, develop their skills and maintain the connection to the wider library and information profession. This is why we are pleased to be working with SCL on the new Public Library Skills Strategy, which will help address some of these issues.

 We know from the workforce mapping project that there are around 69,000 people in the library & information workforce in the UK. With around 12,500 members, we currently represent around 18% of that workforce. The average for professional association membership in other sectors is around 20-22%, so there is scope to grow our membership base. It is important for us to do this because the more of the sector we can represent, the more credible we are when advocating for librarians and information professionals.

 When we went out to the wider profession, we found that a lot of people want to be part of CILIP as their professional body but don’t currently regard membership as affordable. The new membership model on which members are currently voting is designed to help us retain and support our existing members, and reach more of those people. We also found that there are a lot of people who want to be part of the profession but aren’t yet ready to commit to Professional Registration. Welcoming these people to the CILIP community and encouraging them to take up Chartership has been a major factor in the design of the new model.

Ultimately, the sector needs a strong independent voice – I’d argue now more than ever. We understand that people expect value for money from their membership, and we are working hard to deliver that. This is a model for growth and we are really hoping that members will support it and empower us to reach out to those people who could and should be members, but currently aren’t.“

All I ever wanted from my professional body, what I had the right to expect, is that it speaks up in defence of its members and profession. Cilip is absolutely doing this, which is why I have changed from critic to proponent for the body.

I absolutely understand why library workers have drifted away from Cilip in the past but I genuinely believe it has changed and would encourage all library and information workers, especially public library staff, to stay connected to the profession.

Here’s some very simple reasons I think you should stay with, join, or rejoin Cilip:

  1. Advocacy: a strong voice for the profession
  2. Lower subscriptions and better value for money
  3. Advice & support including access to employment law advice
  4. Professional development and networking

Ultimately, we are stronger together, and I look forward to Cilip expanding towards the 69,000 target.

Please do forward your question and indeed criticisms via the comments area and I shall ensure they are passed on to Cilip to answer.

Further information:

My Way

So it’s finally happened. Ed Vaizey, the longest serving Minister for Culture has finally left the building, or at least been asked to leave as part of the new Cabinet reshuffle. It would be unfair to blame Vaizey for the all the problems of the public library sector over the last six years. The overriding factor has been one of ideology; from austerity, to localism, to devolution. But the ex-minister was certainly a strong advocate for these policies and ensured that libraries became a poster-boy for DIY community services.

It would also be unfair to lay the blame at the feet of just Tory local authorities. Councillors of all hues have been keen to support and adopt both localism and devolution, sometimes as a pragmatic solution to budget cuts, but equally as a means of distributing power from central government. And Let’s not forget that Labour and LibDem councils have been just as quick to reduce library services and hand over to volunteers as their conservative counterparts. Equally, it could be argued that the profession had grown complacent with comfortable funding and cosy political links so was ill-prepared to respond to the severity of the public spending cuts agenda.

So how should we judge Ed Vaizey’s time in office? Certainly the SCL appears to have regarded him as a positive force for championing libraries as the following tweet shows:

I have to say my own view is not so charitable. This was a minister who refused to intervene in any library reductions whatsoever, and who despite having the resources of the DCMS at his disposal preferred to rely on desktop research to assess library closures. The government figure touted was totally at odds with both CIPFA, independent BBC research, and what the public could see happening to their local libraries. Incompetence or deliberate spin? Take your pick.

According to the BBC the last six years have seen:

  • 343 libraries closed. Of those, 132 were mobile services, while 207 were based in buildings (and there were four others, such as home delivery services)
  • The number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 buildings shut
  • The number of paid staff in libraries fell from 31,977 in 2010 to 24,044 now, a drop of 7,933 (25%) for the 182 library authorities that provided comparable data
  • A further 174 libraries have been transferred to community groups, while 50 have been handed to external organisations to run. In some areas, such as Lincolnshire and Surrey, the move has led to legal challenges and protests from residents.

The BBC also estimated that a further 111 closures were planned, but since the research was published, I suspect the number is now far higher. This is alongside a funding reduction of £180 million since 2010.

Matt Hancock has replaced Ed Vaizey so it remains to be seen what stance he will take particularly in the light of a new Prime Minister and Cabinet. Will he continue a non-interventionist approach or actually engage to slow down the rate of attrition?

Anyway, I shall end with a personal tribute to Ed (with apologies to Old Blue Eyes!)

(Click to enlarge)

Ed Vaizey