Category Archives: Politics

If The Shoe Fits!

There’s been a bit of a Twitter storm over Government plans, partnering with the National Literacy Trust, to encourage language development and literacy using, of all places, Clarks shoe shops, with staff apparently being “…asked to engage children in conversation to improve language skills, as part of a government attempt to tackle “concerning” rates of early literacy.”

Now, as always, this is not the full story and is in fact part of a wider government initiative to involve businesses to support children’s early learning in the home environment, which includes bookswaps in supermarkets as well as special training for staff in shoe shops.

The inclusion of Clarks, KPMG, and Penguin Random House in the partnership with the NLT seems a perfectly natural fit (pun intended!) given that they all have links with the NLT Board of Trustees. Whether KMPG and Clarks are appropriate organisations to support such a scheme is open to debate.

Also, as many on Twitter pointed out, the cost of Clarks shoes is likely be prohibitive to many of the disadvantaged constituencies that this scheme aims to target. It would interesting to compare customer data for Clarks against the Indices of Deprivation to see if any correlation exist.

The Guardian followed up with another story, Outsourcing education to Clarks shoes: only a Tory could think of that, which reflected many of the criticisms on Twitter, and in which the columnist pointed out that what was really needed:

“…is proper investment in early-years education. A 2010 evaluation of the Sure Start initiative found that children’s centres, which offered consistent, high-quality expert support, could have a positive influence on the home-learning environment and on parenting more generally. Buts many as 1,000 children’s centres have closed down since 2010, and many of those that are left offer only a fraction of the services they once did.”

This month, the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi, announced the creation of a new advisory panel to assess the many different educational apps. The same announcement also highlighted the work of British Land to introduce bookswap schemes at three of its retail sites.

This builds on the work from last November when Education Secretary Damian Hinds publicised a Multi-million investment to support children’s early communication skills along with the NLT.

Some of the more interesting participants of the scheme include the aforementioned KPMG – the auditing firm that was severely criticised and investigated over its role in the collapse of Carillion, leaving the taxpayer to pick up millions of pounds of debt – McDonalds (I’ll have fries with that literacy programme please!), and the Scouts! Yes, the Scouts are being funded to run a volunteer early years pilot programme.

Now given the importance of early years literacy and communication skills you would expect that one of the participants to be included would be an organisation that already has ‘bookswaps’ in place. Places that already specialise in early literacy development through carefully curated children’s stock and activities, and which is delivered by trained professionals.

But no! libraries didn’t get a mention at all. Even the accompanying document; Improving the home learning environment barely mentions libraries and certainly no library organisations were consulted as a sector expert (Annex A).

But it’s not just about the exclusion of libraries, the issue goes far deeper than this. It’s about the neoliberalisation of literacy, and it’s not just the library sector affected but other public services such as health and education.

This real issue here is a ‘small-state’ philosophy, the withdrawal of the government from public services, and the over-inflation of the philanthropic or charitable model to take its place. From badly run academies, failed outsourcing (hello Northamptonshire!), and volunteer libraries, the big society approach is creating greater inequality and more disadvantages in the very communities it is supposedly meant to benefit.

That is not to say there is no role for charities or philanthropy but the role should be one of supplementing, not replacing, basic or essential services. And though we may applaud businesses for getting involved let’s also remember the not insignificant PR and potential tax advantages that come with doing so.

It also allows the Government to abnegate its responsibility for vital public services. If charities and big business can be responsible for literacy levels why fund schools and libraries as much?

Equally, the £18m funding for the project pales into insignificance when compared to the reduction in public library funding in England of more than £230m since 2010. Or the reduction of £763m for Sure Start services, or that funding for services for young people has fallen by £855m.

The danger becomes that charity and philanthropy target the symptoms rather than the root-cause and provide a fig-leaf to hide behind without addressing the thorny issue of wealth inequality (including taxation models).

Let’s not forget that despite being the 5th wealthiest nation in the world a recent UN report stated that the Government had inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity.

Another point against philanthropic approaches is argued by Dr Neil Levy in that it benefits the state rather than the disadvantaged and is self-defeating if it allows governments to escape some of their responsibilities. Further, he states that:

“…large-scale philanthropic activity carries with it serious risks of changing the balance of funding from the public to the private sector, thereby exposing those most in need to the vicissitudes of the market. To the extent that private funding of essential services becomes the norm, the vulnerable become the recipients of (at best) uncertain aid, which is liable to fluctuations and constant reduction.”

Literacy is perhaps the single most important life skill any individual can develop. The fact that the Government is farming this responsibility out to charities only adds to the ‘great misery’ inflicted on already disadvantaged communities.

Be the Change

Sometimes it’s easy to become cynical or complacent about voting; whether that’s for national and local elections or indeed for something as simple as representation on a professional body. I know the feeling! But despite the peaks and troughs of pessimism over the years I have never lost the feeling that ‘voting’ really does matter.

So with that in mind I would urge all Cilip members to note and vote in the current Cilip election for three Board Members and the CILIP Vice-President. Members should have received email notifications in October announcing the election and with details of how to vote. If you are a Cilip member but haven’t received details please contact the Membership Team. Voting closes 19th November.

Voting is only part of the equation though. Membership should be a active conversation between the individual and the organisation to ensure views are aired and shared. While I recognise that it’s easy to become disillusioned with organisations, political and professional, if they appear not to represent your views the only way for that to change is to get involved and put your own opinions forward.

To take inspiration from Maya Angelou:

“When you do nothing you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment that comes from knowing you are working to make things better.”

Talking of involvement it was heartening to see all the positive tweets coming from CILIP’s New Professionals day (31st October), which is the annual conference aimed at library and information professionals in the early part of their careers. Check out #CILIPnpd on Twitter.

And lastly to a different kind of involvement, UNISON is calling for a National Demonstration in support of Libraries, Museums and Culture on 3rd November (this Saturday!). The demo has the support of the PCS and UNITE. Again I hope as many library workers as possible get involved. Front-line library workers make up the bulk of the library workforce but sadly have the least representation amongst library organisations.

It’s always been a particular bugbear of mine that union involvement was excluded and continues to be excluded from library representation at a national level.

Perhaps that position might improve with a change of Government and a recognition that front-line library staff, not just the leadership, deserve to have their voices heard.

 

Protecting Library Services?

There is a petition calling on the government to ringfence funding for libraries by Frances Belbin. The text reads:

“Libraries across the country are being closed, cut back and/or outsourced to volunteers as a result of government cuts to local authority budgets. Councils are unable to keep staffed library services open when faced with the competing demands of social care, child protection etc.

Local libraries are a vital resource for the promotion of reading, literature and culture. They are a necessity for the digitally excluded who need to go online to access benefits, health, education and employment resources.
While the commitment of volunteers is welcomed, volunteer-run library services are unsustainable long-term.

The government must ringfence funding to ensure councils can fulfil their statutory duty to keep libraries services available to the general public.”

As of today (Sunday, 21st October 2018) the petition had attracted 7,035 signatures. At 10,000 signatures the Government will provide a response. Whether that response will be substantially different to those replies received by various MPs and Peers in the Houses of Commons and Lords remains to be seen. At 100,000 signatures the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.

Given the continuing popularity of libraries and coming off the back of the Summer Reading Challenge and Libraries Week I’m hoping that the 10,000 barrier can be reached relatively easily . So if you haven’t already done so please sign and encourage friends and family to do so.

The tone of the petition is in keeping with a recent article in the New Statesman; The deepest cuts: austerity measured, outlining the real-terms funding cuts to local authorities including a section on public libraries. Despite the Prime Ministerial claim that ‘austerity is over’ the Institute for Fiscal Studies has  stated that “without substantial tax rises or much better growth prospects there is no way for the chancellor both to end austerity for public services and to eliminate the budget deficit.”

The spending cuts within local authorities are set to continue until at least 2020 leading the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association (LGA) to warn that “…after eight years of austerity during which £16bn has been stripped from municipal budgets in England, councils risked being “damaged beyond recognition” and communities depleted of vital services.”

Whether the spending review set for 2019 will ease some of this burden is not yet clear but with a 49% reduction in finances since 2010 it will be a long time before authorities bounce back and are unlikely to ever fully recover to pre-austerity levels.

National funding for libraries in this context will remain a difficult challenge and calling for a national approach  runs contrary to the recently released Civil Society Strategy in which:

“People are empowered to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods. Power is decentralised so that local officials and professionals are properly accountable to local people, and trusted to do their job without bureaucratic interference. The provision of services is seen as the business of the community, not solely the responsibility of government, and providers are drawn from a broad range of suppliers from the public sector and beyond.”

The reports highlights the positives of communities taking on responsibility for services previously provided by local authorities, encourages closer working with Town and Parish Councils, voluntary organisations, social enterprise organisations, and actively encourages the adoption of public service mutuals.

Libraries get several mentions, including a case study of Suffolk Libraries, and the statement that:

“Many public libraries have an established track record in providing opportunities to facilitate this. Many are actively developing their role as community hubs bringing together local people, services, and organisations under one roof. There is a growing number of public libraries which are directly run or managed by the communities themselves or as mutuals by the people who work in them (or as a combination of the two), with varying levels of support from local councils at all levels.”

This is further supported by the promotion of the Mutuals Support Programme 2 and the mutuals masterclasses commissioned by DCMS and run via the Libraries Taskforce and strategic partners.

Whether the rosy ideal of the Civil Society Strategy matches the actual reality on the ground remains open to vigorous debate. It certainly seems mismatched with the warnings coming from the LGA and the many instances of hollowing-out taking place in library services.

A recent analysis by CIPFA reported in Public Finance outlines how the ‘Government is increasingly shifting the costs of public services on to citizens as the effects of austerity continue.’  The article states that “One way the government has tried to save money and avoid the need for tax increases is by asking members of the public to contribute more in other ways – from volunteers running libraries to people paying a greater share of the cost of defending themselves in court.”

The report states that many neighbourhood services – such as waste collection, food safety, road maintenance and libraries – have sustained the deepest spending cuts of all the services looked at.

The fact that libraries, like many public services, need additional funding for revenue and infrastructure rather than just project funding, should be uncontestable.  How and by whom that funding is provided is very much an ongoing conversation.

The direction of travel advocated by the present government would seem to indicate a delivery matrix of a smaller core statutory service with a mixture of in-house and commissioned models, underpinned by a second tier service (mostly non-statutory) run by community groups, volunteers, and parish/town councils.

Whether this satisfies the definition of a comprehensive and efficient library service seems a moot point when Councils are faced with very real budget reductions and in some instances the issuing of 114 notices.

But to a certain extent to only concentrate on the issue of funding is miss the point as to why libraries need protecting in the first place. And it has never been because of any failure in relevance or adaptation on the part of libraries.

Finance is only one part of the equation. The main issue is ideology and for the past eight years the government has been wedded to austerity, privatisation, and the ‘small state’ doctrine. And it is this dogma, coupled with fiscal policy, that has resulted in the contraction, commercialisation, and outsourcing of public services such as libraries.

 

 

 

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.

 

Damned if we don’t, damned if we do!

It was bound to happen sooner or later; a council would run out of money. The reason is rather simple: the removal of the central government grant coupled with increasing costs for social care and children services has, since 2010, caused an ever-widening gap between expenditure and income for all local authorities. This is what has happened to Northamptonshire Council, which according to the BBC:

“A cash-strapped local authority has imposed emergency spending controls as it faces “severe financial challenges”.
The section 114 notice bans all new expenditure at Northamptonshire County Council, with the exception of statutory services for protecting vulnerable people. Last month the government said an inspector would look into allegations of financial failings at the authority.”

But this is also the same ‘cash-strapped’ authority that recently paid its outgoing Chief Executive, Paul Blantern over £100,000 as part of a resignation payment. Let’s just consider that: a CEO of a failing local authority, that has banned all non-essential expenditure, was paid over £100,000 because he chose to resign!

As Alan Wylie highlighted via Twitter both Northamptonshire Council and Paul Blantern had been strong proponents of outsourcing council services. Even proposing reducing its staff force to a core of 150, while transferring out 4000 jobs to different service providers. These would be part owned by the Council but managed like private sector companies.

Paul Blantern was quoted as saying: “we are always having to be at the cutting edge, to be innovative and creative.” He also stated on the BBCs The Bottom Line that there was nothing he wouldn’t consider outsourcing.

No doubt this attitude helped in his selection as Chair of the Libraries Taskforce as it perfectly reflected government policy towards libraries: outsourcing, greater commercialisation, and major staff reductions.

Northamptonshire were also held up as an exemplar of the brave new world of libraries as the service was subsumed into a health dominated social enterprise ‘First for Wellbeing’. No doubt the outcome of one of Paul’s ‘innovative and creative’ solutions. An approach so in favour with government policy that the DCMS described the library service as trailblazing.

Ironic then that Northamptonshire is the first council in twenty years to issue a section 114 notice and warns there is a “significant risk” it will not produce a balanced budget this year, as required by law.

However, irony is quickly replaced by farce as one of the council’s cost saving proposals is selling its brand new headquarters, which cost £53million, and then leasing it back! Then again, perhaps it should come as no surprise that a council willing to aggrandise itself with a new £53m building during austerity and falling income should come so financially unstuck.

Unfortunately, libraries will not escape this act of monumental political and financial incompetence as proposals have been put forward to close up to 28 of the  county’s 36 libraries. Despite the CIC route that was meant to provide a long-term sustainable model for Northamptonshire libraries.

Given all the publicity and resources dedicated by the Libraries Taskforce into promoting outsourcing I wonder if we can look forward to a blog on how badly it can also go wrong. Somehow I doubt it.

Sadly, the pressure and ideological imperative for councils to outsource services means that libraries could well be damned if they don’t and then damned if they do!

 

 

 

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

 

Through the Barricades?

Chatting with a fellow campaigner this week we observed that anyone following news and updates about libraries via social media could be forgiven for thinking that two entirely different sectors are being talked about.

On one hand is the pessimistic view of libraries in which the narrative of austerity, closures and cuts is dominant. Most campaigners tend to fall into this camp and with little wonder as local and national campaigns are the direct result of cuts to library services. You only have to throw a stick a short distance to find an example such as the battle taking place around Bath Central Library.

Sadly, this means that campaigners, on a national level, are reluctant to acknowledge when positive changes or projects take place within library services, and despite massive reductions, there is still some fantastic work happening within the profession.

On the other end of the spectrum, are the optimists who only highlight positive stories and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the extent of damage being done to the library network. The main culprits of this approach are the Libraries Taskforce and SCL. Trawling through their social media accounts it’s as if cuts to library services don’t actually exist in the brave new world of shiny central libraries, co-location, and the all-singing, all-dancing community hubs.

 

The Forum, Hemel Hempstead’s new council, library and voluntary services hub

What saddens me is both sides are guilty of closed-minds sets with a refusal to acknowledge the others point of view, and so closes down any meaningful discussion.

While I fully sympathise why many campaigners have become jaded over government policy I disagree with the sometimes vociferous and vocal attacks over even minor issues.

That said, the Libraries Taskforce and SCL are to as equally blinkered with an almost pathological unwillingness to debate publicly. Only wanting to promote ‘good news’ ignores and glosses over the real issue of library reductions and makes the official bodies as guilty as the more negative campaigners of skewing the narrative.

Unfortunately, it looks like neither side is willing to debate rationally or honestly preferring instead to sling stones at each other over the ideological barricades.

There are no easy solutions here and much would depend on goodwill from both sides. What I would personally like to see is a public libraries debate (but not forgetting school libraries either). This could take the form of a conference (one/two days perhaps) in which groups, organisations and individuals would be invited to give presentations, backed by evidence, and ending with a panel discussion.

This would be a good way of bringing all interested parties together in one place; Speak Up for Libraries, Library Campaign, Cilip, Libraries Taskforce, SCL etc. And not forgetting individuals such as John Bird and Ian Anstice for example.

The difficulty is having a body with the gravitas and neutrality, trusted by both sides, to organise this. My suggestion is that the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group, who have been very quiet since their launch, might have a part to play in setting this up.

 

 

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 current administration is on course for victory. Sadly, it’s a victory that will mean the  continuing reduction of the central grant paid to local authorities and the consequence this has for libraries at a local level.

Labour have 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 Conservatives 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 the traditional model of 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 – 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.