Changing Times

Following on from my previous post Through the Barricades, I received the following from library campaigner, Frances Hendrix, which I thought deserved greater prominence. My thanks to Frances for sharing.

“I have always thought of pubic libraries as evidence of the UK’s attitude to learning, knowledge, freedom of information and the importance of reading for learning and leisure. As I have written before, in the small village I lived in queues formed once a week to await the arrival of the box of books coming from the larger library in the small town some 4 miles away.

But since then everything has changed. Who would have thought that by the year 2000 plus, we could travel on our holidays with as many books as we wished on our iPad, courtesy of Amazon etc. However, even though I do just that, it is for mainly fiction, newly published, but my family and I still buy non fiction, travel and other illustrated books in hard copy.And we have a house full of books from all ages and all subjects. In fact my daughter, when she was at school and had a new project would despair when i said ‘oh we have a book on that’! Thus her essay on Archimboldo!

Much else has changed since my youth, the range of TV programmes and the accessibility of TV and other devices, CD’s and video, on-line newspapers, and so on, so I feel to some extent we, in the profession, have not done enough to keep up with the times, and with the offer we should have been making, and promoting that in a more professional manner.

I admit I am fortunate and can afford to buy what I want and need, MANY others are not, and not only should a library provide the reading material, in a clean and accessible way (accessible by virtue of it being there, being clean and with sensible opening hours),but also promoting its services in a much more proactive way.

Book shops have done this very successfully., clean, bright, well stocked, open everyday except Sunday (although some may open Sunday), and bright displays both in and out of the store available on most high streets. Whereas many public libraries are rather dowdy places, with no facilities and poor toilets etc. Yes I know many tried to have coffee etc, but many haven’t changed in years. Also some have had some very peculiar rules. I recall working for one large authority where anyone titled (and there were quite a few in this up market area), was not charged fines! I queried this, but the answer was, this is what we have always done. The same authority also did not allow females to wear trousers on the mobile.

Again I broke this rule, as it was freezing in the winter. needless to say I wasn’t there long, but did leave of my own freewill.
I worked in another authority in a very, very busy branch library, and the volunteer staff, who normally worked on a Saturday, were absolutely fantastic. They were an additional resource mainly for check out and shelving, and the branch would not have worked without them.

So what am I getting at? Well I just don’t think that we, as a profession, have ever had the clout, the PR skills, or the determination to raise the profile of our service and work inside our authority or direct to the public. It has often been the ‘outsider’ to the profession who have pushed the service to new activities etc.

Take automation, the professional librarian in public libraries were not the pushers for this advance. When I worked in Birmingham it was the 2 universities (Birmingham and Aston, and at that time I was in Aston, and the then progressive and active public library), that pushed for the use of Marc records for instance. LASER, where I also worked, was fundamental in automating Inter Lending, providing union catalogues and extending the service UK wide. But there was resistance for all of these and many other initiatives that were frowned upon by many chiefs.

The Professional Body must also be held to some extent, to be part of the problem. For many years their profile was low, their impact negligible, their aroma fuddy duddy! It took the charisma, energy and vitality, as well as the contacts and charm of Lord Matthew Evans to get the ‘People’s Network’ off the ground.

I can hear you now, ‘who does she think she is’ etc. Well these are my experiences and views. BUT our major issue as a service was/is being part of local government, which is not well-known for its drive, energy, forward thinking etc., and often did not think highly of, or treat appropriately the head of the public library service. So much more could have been achieved working and supporting public libraries much better than they were.

Some research projects LASER did for the British Library R&D many years ago, was to examine who and why people were obtaining material on Inter Library Loan from their libraries, many from tiny little branches. The whole world was their oyster, they requested books from all over the world to help with identifying illnesses, starting up businesses, on their own hobbies of for example collecting rare china, to support university research in all sorts of subjects. All done via their public library.

Yes things have changed, access to information for the individual or the business (I recall the manic use and business of Birmingham Public Libraries Business library), with access to the worlds books, journals, research etc available at your desk and in your home. But of course so much more can be done on one’s own PC.

So I suppose what I am saying in some way is it is time for a new model for public libraries. Take them away from the dull, ill-informed and useless local government. Train our librarians to be more forceful, persuasive, business canny and energetic, with high levels of IT skills. Let us move on and up and rethink and fight for what we believe in!”

Where does it go from here?

Well, despite the best of intentions to write more widely about politics I have actually found, after numerous aborted attempts, that the only area I really enjoy blogging about is libraries. So with that in mind Leon’s Library Blog is once again up and running.

I still firmly believe that the fight for public services is the fight the libraries. The genuine despondency felt by many staff struggling to deliver public services is summed up in a heart-felt letter by Corinna Edwards-Colledge, a Brighton and Hove Council Officer. In it she accuses David Cameron of deliberate contempt for council workers, outlines the devastating cuts to public services, and the negative impact on local communities.

Libraries are part and parcel of the struggle to deliver meaningful services to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities: from the housebound, to the job seeker who cannot afford internet access, and the families who are unable to buy books to effect the many positive benefits that reading for pleasure brings.

In fact the ‘reading for pleasure’ element of libraries has been poorly regarded and often disparaged by politicians. However, a recent report, The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, by the Reading Agency demonstrates the real, tangible benefits of reading for pleasure. As such, the loaning of books, in all formats, should remain a mainstay of library provision. An excellent blog by Dawn Finch outlines the main aspects of the report and why reading for pleasure is so important.

We are faced with 5 more years of ideologically driven austerity, the dismantling of public services, and the almost certain continuing reduction and fragmentation of public libraries. So the fight continues and I have decided to return to my musings mainly on the political and campaigning aspects of the ever changing library landscape (and yes, you can accuse me of doing a ‘Farage’ like u-turn!).

I cling to the hope that despite the changes to come we can continue to articulate a vision for public libraries, that while perhaps being a long way from the reality of current provision, nevertheless should be the ideal we aspire to, and which we will one day hopefully achieve.

Access & Choice: the importance of libraries

The following guest post is from Barbara Band, immediate past President of Cilip and Head of Library & Resources at Emmbrook School in Wokingham with 1,200+ students aged 11 to 18 years. Barbara has been a school librarian for over 22 years and believes vehemently in the value of libraries. She was also the driving force behind the successful Mass Lobby in support of School Libraries.

candypic_lobby_group

School librarians make a vital contribution in the school system towards teaching and learning, as well as helping children develop information skills and improve literacy, the subject of Barbara’s post.

In the fight to protect public libraries sometimes it is easy to forget that our colleagues in other areas; schools, FE, HE are also fighting their own battles against funding cuts. I would like to thank Barbara for reminding us of the vital importance of school libraries and the work they do in improving children’s life opportunities.

Further details of Cilip’s advocacy work for schools can be found here as well as the SHOUT ABOUT campaign

Access & Choice 

If you’re reading this blog then it’s fairly safe to assume that you are interested in libraries and also that you are aware of the sorry state of affairs regarding public libraries; the decimation of a service that used to be the envy of many other countries, the erosion of a vital community facility that provides value above and beyond its costs. You’re probably also aware that I’m a professional librarian and am passionate about the benefits of libraries to the whole community. I have always been an avid library user and still am, visiting my local library around three times a month for various reasons – and yes, I do have one and recognise that I’m luckier than many.

Much has been written about what libraries do – other than issue books – and about the value-added that professional librarians bring to the service so I’m not going to repeat that here. What I’d like to do is question how various current literacy initiatives do not recognise the role that libraries and librarians can have in their agenda.

For a developed country, the UK has appalling low literacy levels. One in five children aged 11 years cannot read at the expected level and this figure increases to one in three in disadvantaged areas. Children with low literacy levels will grow into adults with literacy problems, they do not just suddenly become able to read and understand text. This will impact on their job prospects, their health and well-being and, by default, have an economic impact that affects everyone.

The government recognises this is a problem and many organisations have set up initiatives to deal with it. The latest of these is the Read On Get On campaign to tackle early language and reading skills which seems eminently sensible; if a child does not develop a range of verbal skills then they are unlikely to learn to read well, and if they cannot read then they are unlikely to be able to write. There are many other initiatives and I am not going to list them here but what they all have in common is the failure to acknowledge the huge role libraries can play in improving literacy.

Early years’ language and reading skills are a good place to start but throwing everything at nurseries is not going to work because that precludes children who do not attend them, for whatever reason – and there are many that don’t. You also need to start earlier, when that child is a baby and listening to sounds. So where can all parents and children have exposure to professional expertise to help them develop these skills – maybe the public library could help? Many already run baby rhyme and story time sessions that are incredibly popular, it would be fairly easy to expand the programme to include a range of other relevant activities and reach the local community.

Teaching children how to read is one thing but if you want them to develop into higher level readers with the accompanying literacy skills then you need to engender a love of reading because then they will choose to read, rather than read because they have to. Reading programmes have their place but do not work with everyone.

Books in classrooms can help but it is unlikely that every classroom will have a wide enough range of both fiction and non-fiction books to appeal to every type of reader. And without a knowledgeable professional to select stock and guide children, you are likely to end up with a strange random collection. Some teachers may be aware of what is published but many of them are not, they are focused on their subject; for librarians, books and resources are our tools, regardless of the format, subject or level.

Access and choice – those are the key words when it comes to engendering a love of reading and improving literacy. Schools and communities without libraries have neither.

Barbara Band