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.

 

 

 

 

 

Public Library Skills Strategy

Cilip and the SCL have launched the Public Library Skills Strategy today with the aim of investing in and developing skills of the public library workforce in England. I won’t go into the detail here as the report is fairly short and self-explanatory. As stated:

“The strategy makes eight recommendations structured around key aims for workforce development and commits to ensuring that Local Authorities understand the expertise of the library and knowledge profession in developing and delivering quality services that are needed by today’s communities.”

The claim is that it:

“sets out a path to a thriving future for libraries by 2030 as centres of digital, creative and cultural excellence that will enhance prospects for their communities.”

Leaving aside such hyperbole there appears much to agree with and support. Certainly the greater part of the strategy appears to promote the value of a skilled, knowledgeable, and ‘paid’ workforce (my interpretation).

Cilip confirmed that the ‘…public library skills strategy is one part of an ongoing programme of developing the skills and expertise of the library and information workforce across all sectors to deliver modern services that meet the needs of users now and in the future.’

I am particularly intrigued by the aim of revisiting the role of professional ethics in public libraries, the outcome this will bring, and the expectations for staff. There’s further information on the Cilip website: Cilip’s Big Conversation on Ethics. As always, I encourage colleagues to participate in the Ethics Review Survey or sign up for the planned workshops so the views of the membership are made known.

However, back to the strategy as there are a few notes of caution:

1. The strategy clearly endorses a “…vision of a future for public libraries as digital, creative and cultural centres of excellence.” This positions libraries firmly in the cultural sector, a path started when libraries were allotted to the Arts Council.

It is also not particularly surprising given the recent £500,000 award to SCL to act as the Art Council’s Sector Support Organisation for Libraries. According to the SCL news release the “…award will enable libraries to work more closely with cultural organisations, both local and national.”

There are pros and cons to positioning libraries mainly as a cultural institution but nevertheless the news will be disappointing to those who see libraries primary mission more aligned with education and learning.

2. ‘Recommendation 5’ encourages changing the way we think about ‘professionalism’. It’s not clear what the context is for this or how it will be applied. Other than stating CILIP and SCL will work together to promote this new way (my italics) of thinking about professionalism, there is no further detail. However, the wording implies both organisations have agreed a working definition and application for the term.

3. The foreword mentions ‘developing a range of skills that staff and volunteers delivering public library services will need.’ However, while the main thrust of the strategy is around workforce development for paid staff, ‘Aim 7’ worryingly recommends  shared approaches to CPD for public library staff and volunteers.

I asked for clarification around points 2 & 3 above and was told that both will be expanded upon up in the workforce strategy for the wider library and information sector due to be published at the end of July. Apparently, this wider strategy  will clarify the use of the term professional and address key areas regarding volunteers.

While I broadly welcome many of the recommendations and investment in the library workforce the challenge will be reconciling the lofty ambitions of the strategy with the reality on the ground.

Sadly, news continues with grinding regularity of staff losses, threatened closures, or libraries being given over to volunteers or other organisations leading Ian Anstice to exclaim in his  recent editorial:

“…thoughts this week to the paid staff of the 12 libraries who are either now volunteer or soon will be. I wish the volunteers well but it is a tragedy that such an important public service as libraries is being given to amateurs.”

With that in mind it would be a great pity to see our own professional organisation supporting training for those replacing paid staff. But whether or not this is actually part of the wider strategy remains to be seen.

 

Too Many Chefs…

Well another general election is upon us and sooner than most could have predicted. The indications are the Tories are on course for another victory with the only point being how large the majority will be. That said, polls have been wrong before so we can but hope.

Labour have at least 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 Tories 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, after seven years of mishandling the situation, councils are a fundamental part of the problem. The traditional model of local authorities 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.

Dataset – Call to Cilip & SCL

Following up from my previous post ‘Nothing to Yell About’ it’s become obvious that the Libraries Taskforce is not the vehicle for collecting and distributing data for and about public libraries. Despite the best of intentions as a body it is too susceptible to interference, including having to scale back it’s activities during the pre-election period.

The snap general election is thrown up the need for reliable data more than ever and Cilip has announced the launch of the ‘Facts Matter’ campaign “to promote the need for evidence-based decision-making as a foundation of a strong, inclusive and democratic society.” 

As such the library profession itself needs to take responsibility for gathering and distributing data around public libraries, without reliance on politically controlled bodies, and for making such data as widely accessible as possible.

Ultimately, as a profession we should encourage an open data approach by local authorities. However, it is likely to take a some time for this principle to become embedded and regarded as the norm as protectionism around data and political nervousness will make this a slow process. Another issue will be around governance models and whether or not public service mutuals would sign up to releasing data in such a way.

I wrote to Cilip and SCL asking for their views around the Taskforce’s recently risible dataset and where they thought the profession should go next. Nick Poole replied saying:

My own view is that, as a sector, it is important to think long-term about how we ensure that the development of public libraries, individually and nationally, is informed by the best possible body of evidence and up-to-date data.

 The publication of the Taskforce dataset, while important, is only one aspect of answering the more fundamental question, which – to me at least – is that of how we as a sector organise ourselves to ensure ongoing access to a credible body of quantitative and qualitative data about public libraries which supports the overlapping needs of management, targeted development and advocacy.
 

The Taskforce is a time-limited task-and-finish group with the specific remit of enabling the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to respond to the recommendations in the original Sieghart Review. Any long-term solution to the data and evidence needs of the sector ought to address how the process of data-gathering will be governed and funded in the long-run by sector bodies with the remit for the development of the sector – specifically, the Arts Council England, SCL and CILIP with the support of DCMS and the Local Government Association.

Alongside the question of governance and investment, there is the question of ensuring that the dataset is valid and widely-used. In my view, the best means of achieving this is through the creation of an open, public-access dataset published via http://data.gov.uk and licensed for a wide range of commercial and non-commercial re-use. An open access public library dataset, enriched with persistent identifiers,  would facilitate the embedding of library data into Government statistics and reporting, promote the development of 3rd party applications and support activities such as Libraries Week. This, obviously, is an issue with Cipfa data, which remains paywalled and cannot be used in 3rd party platforms.  
 

In the School Libraries sector, CILIP has recently proposed an industry-led consortium with the responsibility for improving the evidence-base (qualitative, quantitative and impact/outcome-based) around school library provision. In my view, such an industry-led consortium ought also to be possible in the public library sector with a broad remit for defining not only how data is collected, but for improving the overall methodology, creating a comprehensive model for what should be collected and engaging with 3rd parties to promote its use.

As part of this, you will be aware that CILIP has announced its intention to develop a Library & Information Sector Research & Evidence Base in our Action Plan 2016-2020. While not primarily concerned with public library data, it would be valuable to consider how the scope of this would intersect with the kind of industry-led data-gathering for which CILIP is advocating.

 

Nick also reiterated that the “… most useful data is open data. We think it is important that this activity yields data that is openly licensed for re-use, and ideally that we start to foster a community of developers and creatives who will use it as the basis of interesting applications.”

 

Neil McInnes, President of SCL also replied agreeing that there was an need for up to date figures on libraries. Neil stated that the SCL agreed with many of Nick Poole’s points, including:

 

“…the need for current and credible data about public libraries that will support and enable the running of excellent library services, and promote libraries widely especially to non or lapsed users.”  

 

He added:

 

“As you know, CIPFA collects data from libraries and publishes yearly figures on use. We have long lobbied for this dataset to be widened to show what we feel would be a more accurate representation of the library sector. Each of our members collects some of the data you refer to—number and type of libraries, opening hours.”

 

So we have both the CEO of Cilip and President of the SCL agreeing that a more accurate picture of libraries is needed. With that in mind there are many advantages to both bodies working together to ensure the collection of accurate and objective data and the regular and timely publication of such information. Therefore:

 

I ask that the Cilip Board of Trustees and the Executive Committee for the Society of Chief Librarians work together and take direct responsibility for the gathering, collation, and release of datasets around public libraries for the good of the profession and sector.

 

I ask that a wide range of individuals and interested parties with the necessary expertise and/or professional credibility to gain the confidence of the profession, public, and campaigners be involved. I urge Cilip and SCL not to rely only on the input of the same bodies that have so far failed to deliver objective and credible data.

 

Further, I ask that as a matter of urgency, and as a first priority, that Cilip and the SCL collate and publish the data around the number and type of public libraries in England to date. This should include information regarding:

 

  • Type of each library within a service: local authority run, community run, commissioned, independent, closed etc
  • Open and staffed hours
  • Stock budgets
  • Number of professionally qualified and library staff
  • Other information deemed appropriate to give a reliable and accurate picture of the current state of public libraries in England

That this request be treated as a matter of urgency by both organisations with the view of establishing an appropriate group and publishing the above data as quickly as possible. 

One last point, both Nick and Neil raised the issue of finance for the project and the need for additional funding on an ongoing basis. The obvious candidates for this would be the DCMS and ACE. Although, whether or not the DCMS would fund a project it had no direct control over remains to be seen. The other, perhaps better, option would be to divert funding from CIPFA since it’s plainly not delivering what the sector needs in terms of appropriate, open data, in a timely and regular manner.

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.