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.

 

 

 

 

 

Date Set for Dataset?

Further information

Well this saga runs and runs! Apparently it’s not that Taskforce holding up the dataset but Downing Street. Should we be honoured or horrified! Perhaps a little of both. Would that this information had been shared with the profession by the Taskforce and the Minister. But that’s my political naivety coming through: expecting government bodies or minister’s to share something as simple as the truth!

On the face of it would appear to let the Taskforce off the hook over the issue but it also lays bare a fundamental flaw: that the Taskforce has very little influence or ability to enact real change in the sector, except the change dictated by government policy. And we all know where that is leading.

So perhaps they should just continue with what they are becoming best known for: publishing a blog and arranging workshops. It’s not much but it is something.

Looking at the comments below it might be that the way forward is to collate and release such data through the profession itself. More on that to follow.

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It’s been brought to my attention in the comments section that a parliamentary question had been asked:

Question From Kevin Brennan – 20 Dec 16
To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, what the timetable is for the release of data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries; and if she will make a statement.

Answer from Rob Wilson – 9 Jan 17
The data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries will be published in due course.

Due course…soon…shortly…any minute…before long!! How many more excuses can Rob Wilson give?

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Since publishing the post below a few interesting facts have emerged. In a tweet even the Chair of the Libraries Taskforce has implied the information is being withheld:

And if even the Chair of the Taskforce cannot release the data collected then it rather undermines their credibility as a body.

Paul indicates that the data is not quite as bad as anticipated but if that’s the case why the reluctance to publish? Unfortunately, even when eventually published the information will be out of date especially given the raft of changes to libraries since last year. It also makes a mockery of the Taskforces ambition to collate and release such data on a regular basis. Much longer and even Cipfa will be faster with library statistics!

There has also been a FOI submitted about the dataset by Ian Clark and Cilip. The Cilip one was dismissed as Nick Poole explains:

So we have a situation where both the Chair and a member of the Taskforce are being ignored and stonewalled. Also makes you wonder what the DCMS definition of ‘soon’ is as it appears to be a substantially different one to what most other people would accept!

Given the delay and the suspicion that the data will have been manipulated to put a positive spin on it I believe that the raw data should also be published to allow the public to make their own assessment (re: open data below).

The SCL have an important part to play in this as the information comes from SCL members and Heads of Service. In fact it would be an easy task for SCL to gather and release the data themselves. Perhaps Neil McInnes and the SCL Executive can to take this forward.

Another body that could get involved is the APPG for Libraries and I’ve emailed Gill Furniss as Chair to ask them to do so.

Ultimately, the decision rests with Rob Wilson as Libraries Minister. I will be tweeting and emailing regularly to urge the dataset is published immediately. That said, Rob Wilson has shown an almost contemptuous silence when it comes to answering difficult questions about libraries.

Therefore, I have decided to keep tweeting to Rob Wilson until the information is released or until he blocks me. I invite all interested parties to do the same.

If anyone has actually had a actual reply from Rob Wilson I would be interested in knowing so please do contact me.

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Post

Data matters because it helps to form evidence and evidence informs the truth. This has become increasingly important in a world in which post-truth, alternative facts, and fake news have become mainstream topics. Libraries have a important role to play in ensuring public access to trusted information sources, promoting information and media literacy, and where possible, encouraging users to think critically about the types of information and news available to them.

However, before boasting too much about our role in this area we need to set our house in order and collect, collate, and publish reliable data about libraries themselves. Unfortunately, the last seven years have highlighted the difficulty in providing accurate and comprehensive data regarding the depth and breadth of changes to the library network. This has allowed many councils and certainly many politicians to play loose and fast with the truth about libraries; some out of ignorance but others with the aim of furthering a political agenda. This in itself is a form of ‘fake news’.

So step forward the Libraries Taskforce, who are running a range of workshops with the aim:

“The core dataset is intended to be a series of data which all library services will, collect, use and publish. The plan is to have a consistent dataset which can be used to help inform and improve local library service delivery, as well as being used for advocacy purposes at local and national level…”

And there is certainly an urgent need for reliable, objective statistics for libraries. Ed Vaizey deliberately refused to collect data so he could continue to claim, quite wrongly, that there was no crisis in libraries, and ignore the claims by campaigners regarding closures and reductions to services. This led him to publish risible and misleading ‘desk-top’ research in an attempt to refute such claims. Make no mistake this was a deliberate act of obfuscation by the then Minister.

Most data around libraries come from a cross-section of sources. Cipfa being the most reliable ‘official’ stats but also additional information from the Taking Part Survey, Public Library News, BBC, and variety of ad-hoc sources.

However, there was, and continues to be, no definitive evidence concerning library closures and creation of volunteer led libraries. So it was welcomed when the Libraries Taskforce announced that they would start developing a model data set to better understand the level of library provision within each local authority in England. The first workshop was held in  December 2015. As Kathy Settle stated:

“We believe that access to timely, accurate, comparable library data is critical to enabling the library sector and users to monitor the delivery of library services and improve their quality.”

This was also followed up by a survey to SCL members and Heads of Service asking for information about the number and type of libraries in each area. In August 2016 it was announced that the data set would be published at the end of September and then in October it was announced that there would be a short delay in the publication but with the promise:

“Look out for a series of posts in the next few weeks. The first will point to the data set itself and share some early visualisations of the data.”

The weeks went by with no further announcements. Six months later we are still waiting. And yet the data has been gathered, collated, and no doubt relevant graphs and charts drawn up. So just what is the hold-up?

My assumption is that, as with everything associated with the Taskforce, they are subject to the self-interested political wrangling of its members, with no doubt one or another being particularly obstructive.

But here’s the conundrum; given the delay how can we trust the Taksforce in the gathering of data from the current workshops? Or is it perhaps they are looking to gather less contentious material to take our focus away from how politically unpalatable the first dataset is proving to be.

Ironically, I was at a recent Libraries Taskforce Sector Forum and attended a presentation on evidence-based, long-term and sustainable planning. One example was that of Newcastle Library Service which has adopted an open data approach:

“We are the custodians of this information, but it does not belong to us: it belongs to the citizens of Newcastle. And we need to give it back to them: freely, clearly, openly.”

You could use a similar argument for the data held by the Taskforce in that it belongs to everyone who uses libraries and should therefore be out in the public domain. If the issue is not one of politicking but capacity, if the Taskforce does not have the resources to fully collate and analyse the data, then they should simply release it. As Newcastle has found out:

“Just start publishing, it starts the conversation with data owners and data consumers and you will learn so much more this way.”

If we are to build a strong narrative on the value of libraries it needs to be underpinned by evidence and evidence needs to be supported by data.

With that in mind I encourage everyone to contact the Taskforce or individual members and urge them to release the data immediately. As always please keep such requests polite.

Contacts:
Rob Wilson: (Minister with responsibility for libraries)
Email: robwilson@parliament.uk
Twitter: @minforcivsoc or @robwilson_rdg

Paul Blantern (Chair of the Libraries Taskforce)
Email: pblantern@nrothamptonshire.gov.uk
Twitter @RosaSignum

DCMS: (FAO: Simon Richardson, Head of Libraries, DCMS)
Email: enquiries@culture.gov.uk
Twitter: @DCMSArts

Libraries Taskforce
Email: librariestaskforce@culture.gov.uk
Twitter: @LibTaskforce

The library profession also has direct input into the Taskforce in the form of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (Cilip) so please contact them and ask they request the dataset is released.

Members of the Taskforce (as stated on the website) are:

  • Dr Paul Blantern, Chief Executive of Northamptonshire County Council and Chair of the Libraries Taskforce
  • Kathy Settle, Chief Executive of the Libraries Taskforce
  • Neil MacInnes, President of the Society of Chief Librarians (and Strategic Lead – Libraries, Galleries and Culture, Manchester City Council)
  • Nick Poole, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
  • Rebecca Cox, Principal Policy Advisor, LGA
  • Iain Varah, Chief Executive of Vision Redbridge Culture and Leisure Trust, and Immediate Past Chair of the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association
  • Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library
  • Brian Ashley, Director, Libraries, Arts Council England
  • Sue Wilkinson, Chief Executive of the Reading Agency
  • Felix Greaves, Deputy Director – Scientific and Strategic Information, Public Health England
  • Jane Ellison, Head of Creative Partnerships, BBC
  • Dominic Lake, Deputy Director of Arts, Libraries and Cultural Property, DCMS
  • Simon Richardson, Head of Libraries, DCMS

Exciting operating models!

I came across the following tweet by Paul Blantern, Chair of the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, today (Wednesday 15th April 2015).

really great conference in Nottingham today looking at many of the exciting operating models that now exist libraries in England
.
.

Among the many exciting operating models I presume are Lincolnshire, which is hell-bent on handing over 68% of libraries to volunteers despite a judicial review and the threat of a second. Sheffield, which has given over 46% of its libraries to volunteers, Coventry, which is suggesting reducing its libraries from 17 to 5, a decrease of 70%, and Staffordshire, which is proposing 50% of its libraries are run by community groups. To name but a few!

Then there’s the thousands of job losses, hundreds of library closures, the hollowing out effect, drastic reductions in funding, and the many consultations ignored by councils and the Government alike when the public expressly state they want a professionally run and managed service with paid staff.

If Paul Blantern views all of this as ‘exciting’ I dread to think what it would take for him to consider the library sector to be in crisis!