Vote for Cilip

Cilip Board elections are not noted for controversy and neither should they be. The members who put themselves forward want to support their profession by supporting their professional body. But voting is not a neutral act. The elected members are the face and voice of the body and can set the tone for the type of organisation that members want to represent them.

First and foremost being a Cilip Trustee is about ensuring the viability and compliance of the organisation. Sustainability is key to ensuring that as a profession we have an organisation that can represent and speak out for us. Trustees also need to enable  Cilip to act as the body for all areas of the library, information, and knowledge management world.

They need to take a broad view in developing an organisation attractive to those working within an expanding knowledge economy. But they need to do this while ensuring existing sectors are still strongly represented. Added to this is the ability to help the organisation navigate the current, choppy political and financial waters.

Four years ago I started this blog ostensibly as a reaction to changes proposed by Cilip that I disagreed with. Luckily those changes were voted down. For me, it was something of a low point, with our professional body seemly disconnected from the concerns of ordinary members and I questioned why I and many others should bother remaining members. But  I did remain, hoping for change, and never wavered in advocating for a strong, vocal professional body, engaged with its membership.

Four years later, and the situation has changed for the better, with a more engaged leadership, structural changes, and stronger advocacy.

I continued writing posts as, like many within the profession, I was appalled at the cuts and closures to public libraries. Those cuts were part of a wider austerity agenda affecting all public service and still show no sign of abating. The crisis in libraries has continued into an existential threat. Not just through closures and staffing cuts, although these continue, but by the erosion of the fundamental principles of what it means to have a free, efficient, comprehensive and publicly funded library service.

Many individuals have chosen to speak out in defence of libraries and to create platforms to reach a wider audience such as Public Library News, Speak Up for Libraries, The Library Campaign. Sadly some, like Voices for the Library, have fell by the wayside.

Famous authors, campaigners, trade unions, have all been vocal in support of libraries. Unfortunately, while many speak out, the lack of cohesion amongst the groups and individuals is our greatest weakness, despite sterling work by activists involved in the above groups.

In these circumstances it is difficult for individual library staff to make a difference. That’s why it’s more important than ever that our professional body should be the unifying voice that brings us all together to advocate for the profession.

I know that many remain cynical about Cilip. I know that many have their doubts about it’s structures and capacity to change. In the past it has been viewed as slightly elitist and only for qualified staff. That has changed and continues to change.

It was seen as expensive, and I spoke out many times about the increasing cost of membership. From this month that has also changed.

Cilip far from being elitist now welcomes staff from all levels and grades. It’s approach is one of inclusivity not exclusivity. It is the only library body that represents all levels of staff.

So if you are library staff, at whatever grade, join Cilip. If you are an activist, trade unionist, or free thinking radical, and work in libraries, join Cilip. The more members it has have the louder, and more importantly diverse, its voice will be.

For those who say change cannot happen within the organisation I say ‘Momentum’. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the group, what cannot be denied is the change wrought by a grassroots  movement on a major political party.

Inertia is not an inevitability. Change comes about because people are willing to get involved.

I am standing for Cilip Board because in the current upheaval  one thing is certain: silence is not support, acquiescence is not advocacy. We need a strong, professional body through which our concerns are heard and we need to be represented by those who know and share those concerns and are willing to speak out.

But regardless of the outcome of these elections my message is simple: vote for a strong, unified professional voice. Vote for Cilip by joining and by making your own voice heard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cilip AGM 2017

It’s been a busy week in the library world with the main event being Libraries Week, showcasing as it did the wonderful and diverse range of work that libraries and library staff do. As illustrated on the LW website libraries are still ridiculously well attended and not necessarily in terminal decline as some would have us believe.That said, libraries still face quite significant challenges.

Despite being the representative of a government that has overseen the closure of 340 libraries and the loss of 8000 library staff John Glenn wasted no time in exploiting the event for numerous photo opportunities. He appears quite happy to use libraries as a backdrop to deliver inane governmental platitudes but not actually do anything to protect them. As the old adage goes ‘actions speak louder than words’ and by taking none the new libraries minister is as much a paper tiger as previous incumbents of the post.

Ethics Workshop

This week also saw the Cilip AGM take place and it’s become a tradition on this blog to report back from it. Just before the AGM I took part in one of the ethic workshops that have been organised as part of the Big Conversation. While ethics might seem a long way from the practical, everyday situations librarians find themselves in the reverse is true and our values and behaviours should underpin everything we do. In my opinion we cannot claim to be a profession or act professionally if we don’t understand why we do what we do.

As Dawn Fince observes:

“It is worthwhile to reflect for a moment as to why ethics and professional values are so important. Our ethical principles do sit at the centre of our Professional Knowledge and Skills Base (PKSB), and should inform and inspire the way we use all the skills and knowledge set out in the PKSB, but they should be even more far reaching. At their best they should also protect the user, engender trust across all stakeholder groups and enable better judgement and decision making. To do that they need to be embedded in every aspect of our professional practice and promoted more widely within our user communities. This review is very much about the “public good” of our profession which, for CILIP, we express in terms of the following goal: “to put information and library skills and professional values at the heart of a democratic, equal and prosperous society”.

It was heartening therefore to discover that over 1500 responses had been received to the ethics survey. If you havene’t had the opportunity yet I would encourage members and non-members alike to visit the Ethics Review page and to read the recent blog what are the work-based ethical issues concerning you?

For a more in-depth look at the topic it’s worth reading the seminal Our Enduring Values by Michael Gorman and an excellent round-up of the various issues by David McMenemy: Sustaining Our Common Values (slide presentation).

Libraries Change Lives

The Highlight of any Cilip AGM is the Libraries Change Lives Award and this year was no exception. It’s worth viewing all four shortlisted projects, with introductory films, to see how much impact libraries can have on peoples lives. And while every year throws up wonderful and innovative work being done, this year’s winner was particularly inspirational and moving. So congratulations to the library at HMP Norwich that delivers weekly cognitive stimulation therapy to elderly prisoners serving life sentences, who are suffering from memory loss, dementia, and depression.

Congratulations also to the other shortlisted candidates:

  • Ipswich Library’s Chat and Chill:  for women from diverse and international backgrounds living in Suffolk
  • Kirklees Libraries’ Family Storywalks: bringing local families together outdoors to take part in learning and nature-based activities
  • Story Café at the Women’s Library in Glasgow: a women-only shared reading group which brings women from different backgrounds together to connect over literature

Honorary Fellowship:

There was also the awarding of five Honorary Fellowships

  • Joy Court – Carnegie Greenaway Award Chair, Children’s librarian and children’s literature expert
  • Martin Hayes – local studies librarian for West Sussex County
  • Stephan Roman – former Regional Director of South Asia for the British Council
  • Sheila Webber – Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s Information School

And last but by no means least:

  • Chris Riddell – triple Kate Greenaway Medal winning illustrator, political cartoonist and former Children’s Laureate

All thoroughly deserved and Chris Riddell kept the room entertained with an amusing story of why and how librarians had inspired him:  “This honorary fellowship has given me a chance to think of the important librarians in my life. She was called Helen…!”

Finally

It was an excellent day and a chance to catch-up with colleagues old and new and the opportunity to network. I would certainly encourage all members to attend an AGM if they get the opportunity.

Finally, Cilip members will have the opportunity to elect three new trustees to the Board over the coming weeks. Among the candidates is a certain Likable Loquacious Blogger..! Need I say more.

Libraries Week 2017

Welcome to Libraries Week 2017. A celebration of how fantastic and vibrant libraries can be. This is not to ignore the continuing crisis in libraries but for this one week let’s celebrate how awesome libraries and especially library staff are.

All the following information can be found on Cilip’s Libraries Week site:

 

Did you know..?

  • 250 million visits were made to public libraries in Great Britain last year – that’s more than cinema and theatre visits, visits to the UK’s top ten tourist attractions and the number of people that went to live music gigs COMBINED
  • Over 1.6 million visits were made to the Library of Birmingham last year, making it the UK’s busiest library
  • Young people are the group most likely to use public libraries. 15-25 year olds are more likely to use libraries than over 55s across the British Isles.
  • Three out of every four people in the UK and Ireland say that libraries are important or essential to their community.
    51% of us have a current library card and 47% have used a public library in the last twelve months. (Backed up by Carnegie UK Trust data)
  • There was a 330% increase in coding clubs Mar-Dec 2016

One Hundred And Two!

The following guest post is from @ALibrarian1 on Twitter who has to remain anonymous due to censure they would incur for speaking out about their experience dealing with library volunteers. Obviously, this will not be everyone’s experience and neither does it detract from some of the great work volunteers do in libraries around the country.

However, it will resonate with many library staff, especially those who have had volunteers foisted on them after losing dedicated colleagues to cutbacks. It’s also an antidote to the sometime hollowness of the ‘positive narrative’. Not quite ‘alternative fact’ but never the whole story either.

It’s a serious issue told with tongue-in-cheek humour and not a certain amount of frustration. if you don’t already follow @ALibrarian1 on Twitter I highly recommend you do.

One Hundred And Two!

Hello. I recently started tweeting as @ALibrarian1 to vent my frustration/shout into the void about what it’s like working with volunteers in a public library. It’s been quite a surprise to find that there are lots of library folks out there who are interested, are listening, and who have offered both support and advice. Thank you everyone. Particularly to those who have reacted with horror, surprise and horrified surprise at some of the things I’ve tweeted about. You are doing an excellent job of reminding me that some things just aren’t acceptable, particularly when managers go out of their way to reassure me that ‘everything’s going so well!’ I accepted the offer to write this guest post so I can expand on some of the things I’ve been tweeting about and offer a bit more of an insight into my situation.

In April 2017 my library authority implemented an ‘efficiency based’ restructure which replaced about 60% of our staff with volunteers (or at least that was the intent, as many branches hadn’t and still haven’t recruited the numbers of volunteers they’d need to cover their opening hours). Every single one of our branches now has volunteers delivering frontline library services. We have three tiers: core libraries, the big branch libraries which are 60% staff 40% volunteers; hybrid libraries which are 40% staff 60% volunteers, and community libraries which are fully volunteer run with staff who drop in maybe one day a week then are on call as support by phone for the rest.

I’ve been working in this library service for just over 10 years, and work full time (37 hours) supervising a busy hybrid branch. We’re open 39 hours a week. I had 5 part time staff, now I have one full time and 102 volunteers. One hundred and two volunteers, and we still need more. One. Hundred. And. Two. I have to keep track of one hundred and two people, most of whom volunteer for only 2 hours once a week. I don’t know all their names and I probably never will.

Luckily, I’m not responsible for recruiting, interviewing, checking references or arranging a rota for them. That’s the job of the volunteer committee. A committee of volunteers we recruited to manage the recruitment of volunteers. Writing this, I’m well aware of how ridiculous this sounds. And it is. It is absolutely insane. The committee were formed from the small number of people who, in response to the 2015 council consultation on the future of libraries, gave their contact details and said they’d be interested in volunteering. Because they couldn’t volunteer while staff were still in post, and management needed to keep hold of them, they were formed into a committee. Then they weren’t given anything to do for about 6 months.

In January this year management started holding meetings with them in the branch to discuss what would happen from April. Staff weren’t involved in these meetings and both staff and the committee were told that we shouldn’t speak or have any interaction due to the “sensitive” situation – staff being on notice and the committee readying to replace them as volunteers. We already knew who had been granted voluntary redundancy, who was staying in post and who was being made redundant. Being pointlessly secretive about what we all knew was going to happen didn’t assist good relations between staff and the council. Staff contracts ended on the last day of March, volunteers took over on April Fool’s Day.

The council began a county wide recruitment drive for volunteers in earnest in late 2016 by announcing that since we no longer had enough staff (and glossing over the ‘how odd that lots of staff would be leaving at the same time’ problem; some library customers still don’t realise there were redundancies) we’d need volunteers to help us keep the libraries open. I believe this call for help to run the libraries “because we’re short of people” has been interpreted by some of the volunteers (particularly those who make up the committees) as a call for help to run the libraries “because we aren’t sure what we’re doing anymore”. Without a doubt, many of the volunteers do not value nor respect our experience. The council devalued staff by announcing that anyone can have a bash at running a library, so why should they think otherwise! We’ve made it very clear that we can’t run this service without them, and in doing so have given them licence to interfere with core service provision. We now need to bend over backwards to keep them onside. Should they decide to quit, we’re done for and libraries will close.

What’s it like each day in the library with volunteers? Short answer: bloody hard work. It’s non-stop training and very tiring teaching 3 people with minimal IT skills how to do frontline library work in 2 hour slots. There are many things I find intensely frustrating, the things that drive me to vent on twitter: The repeated daily reminders not to overfill transfer boxes so they aren’t too heavy to lift. Not to leave boxes stacked where they block a fire door. Not to shelve adult graphic novels with toddler’s picture books. The difference between a DVD and an audio book on CD (call me naïve, but this is not a thing I’d ever expected to have to explain more than once). Not to leave name and address details visible on the computer screen when they’ve finished registering a new borrower and wandered away…

The volunteers all have an introductory training session before their first shift which covers the layout of the shelves, fire safety, where the loos are, the usual sort of first-day workplace induction. Then they’re turned loose in the library for me to find something for them to do. That’s the question my colleague and I are asked throughout the day, “what shall I do now?” I haven’t a problem with them being keen, and wanting to be helpful and keep busy, but there’s an impression I get that helping customers who have enquiries doesn’t seem to be an option they always consider in answer to this. There’s a list of routine daily tasks but they seem to want special ‘volunteer’ tasks to do, and as a result I’ve seen volunteers straight up ignore customers who are waiting for assistance. I’ve seen volunteers tell customers “I can’t help you, I’m just a volunteer”. At this point we do step in and prompt them to offer help, but it feels strange that we must keep reminding them that their ‘job’ is to help people.

It’s obvious that most of the volunteers don’t really know or understand what public library staff do. They aren’t intending to start a career in libraries, they haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the same way an applicant for a job vacancy would. There’s a deeply ingrained idea that all we do is lend out books. “I’ll come and volunteer, but I just want to tidy books” is a regular comment. We have volunteers who refuse to do anything involving computers. I wouldn’t have recruited them, it would be impossible to employ a member of staff who said that, but it’s up to the committee to decide who is recruited. I just have to find them something to do.

All the volunteers have been surprised by the variety of services we offer. That we can recommend a book for someone aged 9 or 90, but can also help with finding crossword answers, that we can process bus pass applications, help people print boarding passes, family history searches, shotgun licences, give out town maps, that we almost never say no, sorry, we can’t help you with that. It’s been a challenge to communicate that this is what I need them to gain the skills to be eventually be able to do. In their defence, it is quite a daunting request, but this is what a public library service is.

The volunteers are stepping into a role which was done by paid professional staff. I’ve deliberately used a small-p-professional, none of my staff had library qualifications, but they were dedicated, professional, and all of them had been working in libraries for longer than I have been. We all know library work requires a massive amount of training as well as experience. It’s a real difficulty now. Post restructure, we don’t have enough staff left to run training sessions as well as cover frontline services so the volunteer committee are intending to take over some of the more structured training. Any training materials we give the committee, they insist on re-writing so they are more suited for volunteer’s style of learning. That’s just rude frankly, given that we’ve already purposely written them for volunteers and the committee aren’t familiar with library work.

We’re nearly 6 months in and it’s not really getting any easier. I don’t think this is sustainable indefinitely. The number of volunteers we need, the time it takes to train, the extra hours staff are putting in (unpaid, we don’t get overtime) just so we can keep on top of our admin and line management responsibilities is exhausting. I get to work early and stay late just to fit everything in. I’m needed on the library floor almost all the time helping the volunteers, as it’s usually too busy for my colleague to manage on their own, and the volunteers just don’t yet have the experience or confidence for enquiry work.
I was working as library supervisor in this branch before the restructure. I had to reapply and be interviewed to prove my suitability to supervise volunteers instead of staff.

Many of my colleagues took voluntary redundancy rather than go through the interview process. I never even contemplated voluntary redundancy because I wanted to carry on with the job I was already doing, but I’m not getting very much satisfaction out of it. I’m learning new skills – mainly relating to crisis management, short term planning, and how to triage my to-do list. I’ve limited career prospects here now. The council need me to help them keep the library doors open, but they aren’t offering anything inspiring in return. We’re repeatedly instructed to attend resilience training, change management, team building, persuasion and influencing training… all acknowledgement that things aren’t so great, but shifting of the fault onto staff. Some of my colleagues are having real trouble coping with the stress and the workload and being treated as an inconvenience by their committees who want to do things their way.

Were I to hand in my notice the branch would have to close for part of the week because I know there’s no-one they could spare from another branch to cover for me. I cannot change what the council have done in restructuring the service (and I’ve had a hard time dealing with the feeling of being complicit in ‘making it work’), but I will hold things together here as best I can. Perhaps I’m overestimating my abilities, but if I can keep my little branch afloat and steer it through the wreckage then that’s what I’m going to do. I do still like working in libraries, there’s so much to learn, there’s so much I still need to learn and I do not want to give that up just yet.

 

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!”

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.