Category Archives: Public services

The Library User Comes Second

The phrase that ‘staff are an organisation’s most valuable asset’ was at one time so ubiquitous that it became accepted as a truism. Unfortunately, this belief was fundamentally undermined by globalisation as companies outsourced and focused on short-term gain and maximising profits, with employees seen as an expensive overhead and therefore expendable.

Despite this public services were to a certain extent protected. That was until five years ago and the introduction of the Government’s austerity programme and a political agenda that viewed centrally funded public services as a burden rather than an asset to the state.

That staff are a valuable resource is still accepted in principle, with plenty of lip service being paid, but in practice, particularly in local authorities, the reality is somewhat different. Over 500,000 workers having lost their jobs since 2010 and according to the Office for Budget Responsibility a further 500,000 more jobs are still to go, making the loss of a million jobs between 2010 – 2020.

Budgets have also decreased significantly with central funding to councils reduced by 40% and the spending review in November set to scale the grant back even further. The National Audit Office has warned that some councils may struggle to provide services they are legally obliged to and no doubt this will include libraries.

Nowhere is the perceived value of staff in principle and their replacement by untrained amateurs in practice more evident than in libraries, with views from some councils bordering on the absurd regarding the capacity and capability of volunteers. This approach is underpinned by the unevidenced belief that it is communities at the micro level that are best placed to determine the needs of that particular locality. Despite the fact that this very rarely applies to any other council or outsourced service in the area.

This is not to preclude the local community from having influence into the service via appropriate fora such as friends groups, but there is a fundamental difference between input and actual responsibility for delivering the service.

Despite the primacy afforded to communities I would argue it is the opposite; that it is staff and not the user that is most important. This has long been recognised in the commercial sector with many advocates of the approach of it’s staff who provide customer satisfaction so by keeping staff engaged a better customer experience is delivered. There are many books on the subject with perhaps Hal Rosenbluth The Customer Comes Second being one of the best known.

If this can be true in the commercial sector it is particularly true for the public sector delivering as it does vital public services. Many councils have a ‘vision’ and ‘brand’ that they expect staff to translate into practice. However, it is difficult to support any vision while at the same time being under constant threat of restructuring, increased workloads, reductions in conditions and pay, and redundancy. And in the case of library staff, replacement by volunteers.

What is perhaps surprising is that library staff actually do remain engaged despite such threats hanging over them, which is testimony to their resilience and belief in the social value of what they do. It is paid staff that deliver on services which include social equality, economic benefits, health & wellbeing, digital skills, learning, and literacy. It is not enough to have a passive service where the doors remain open, you need trained staff and qualified librarians to engage in outreach and activities that encourage people to come through the library doors in the first place. The work delivered around the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, and the Carnegie Library Lab are shining examples of this.

While volunteers do their best to keep services running they lack the skills, knowledge and experience to develop and deliver such strategic and innovative programmes for the good of the wider community. Offering a passive service, with the expectation that users will come to the library without continuous innovation and maintaining high-quality services, is one reason why many volunteer libraries struggle to maintain visitor numbers.

Library staff and librarians offer a whole range of skills and knowledge that ensures a service is professionally managed and developed. Importantly, they offer a service for the benefit of the whole community and not just for a local ward or parish. For an extensive list of the type of work carried out see ‘What Librarians Do’ on the Voices for the Library website.

Many volunteers recognise this fact and even when forced to take on libraries regret the loss of paid staff as demonstrated in Lincolnshire.

Library users are incredibly important, as are their views on libraries, but it is paid staff and librarians that are essential to the running of an comprehensive and efficient service. To use business parlance libraries are not a start up scrabbling to place an untried product. Libraries are an established business with recognisable products, services, and a brand, and most importantly customer base. The challenge is to maintain and grow that customer base by offering products and services that customers want. Not that I agree with commercial terminology being applied to public services but for comparison purposes it’s useful in this particular context.

Thus, it is staff that are best placed to manage, develop, deliver, and innovate services that will keep the public coming through the doors and ensure that libraries have a long-term future.

 

Where does it go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libraries: think, act and vote small!

Save our libraryI watched the leadership debate last night and regardless of which candidate or party you support, and it’s unlikely the debate would have done anything to alter your view, the fact is mainstream politics in the UK is changing rapidly. The traditional, monolithic stranglehold of the two big parties is being slowly pried apart and most commentators agree that multi-party politics in Britain is here to stay.

Personally, I thought it was the three women in the debate, Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Natalie Bennett (Green Party), and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) that came out of it the best and all challenged the prevailing austerity myth of the Westminster parties. Well done to Natalie Bennett for mentioning libraries as being one of the public services being irrevocably damaged by the Coalition’s slavish commitment to austerity.

However, it’s surprising how many within the library world are put off as soon as the ‘P’ word is mentioned; and by that I mean politics. Any attempt to equate the fight for public libraries with the wider political situation is met with uncomfortable shuffling and muttering. Quickly followed by an attempt to turn the conversation back to ‘real’ library issues such as copyright, LMS suppliers, the theme for this year’s SRC, or the ongoing gripe about the cost of Cilip subs.

It’s as if, for some, libraries should be insulated and set apart from the grubby reality of every day politics and the sad truth is, as a profession, librarians are shockingly disengaged in the fight to protect services, relying instead on the public to fight our battles for us.

To me this is an extremely naive and myopic view. From local campaigns, legal challenges, judicial reviews, bitter infighting amongst councillors, the changing terminology of cuts, and even the composition of the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, politics imbues and influences everything libraries do. Libraries are a public service and as any politician or councillor will tell you, public services are political at both local and national level.

However, it would be wrong to say that no fightback has taken place during the past five years and advocacy work has been carried out by many dedicated individuals both within and outside the profession.

One of the biggest criticisms about library advocacy so far  is that even quite compelling evidence about the value of libraries has had little effect. The usual response is to blame the library sector for not advocating strongly enough but the real issue is that the arguments have been ignored because they run contrary to government policy and ideology (for an excellent blog on this see Libraries, Advocacy and Austerity).

The only sop to libraries from the Government has been the setting-up of the libraries task force.

Whether the task force will be a genuine agent of change or merely a cover for the continued enforcement of government policy remains to be seen. Certainly the rather narrow emphasis on digital services or commitment to supporting and extending volunteer run libraries does little to solve the deep rooted problems facing the sector.

It’s also hard not to be cynical over the recent £7.4 million budget announcement for wifi in libraries when set against the very real 30%-40% reduction in library budgets over the course of this parliament. Less cuts would have resulted in wifi already being available rather than having to be grateful for this rather paltry and obvious pre-election bribe.

What is clear is none of this will change under the mainstream parties.

So let me argue why the new multi-party politics is a good thing for libraries. It’s good because the smaller parties give library supporters and campaigners more chance to influence policy. Regardless of the rhetoric of Labour and the Conservatives a vote for the SNP, Plaid Cymru, or the Greens is not a wasted vote. Maybe this election, or maybe the next, but certainly at some point, one or more of these parties will be a power broker and a party that has a positive view of and genuine commitment to libraries will bring this influence to bear, hopefully pushing back some of the the damage that has already been done.

Thousands of library staff, campaigners and library supporters, as well as millions of everyday library users will be going to the polls on 7th May and while libraries might not be the deciding factor in who they vote for it might just well be ‘a’ factor in their decision.

The big parties offer no positive alternative for libraries but the small parties might. So in order to make a long-term difference to the future of public libraries now is the time to think, act and vote small.

Libraries: an anachronism?

I was following a twitter conversation about the potential changes to Bristol Libraries and campaigners were angry with a piece in the Bristol Post  saying libraries are an anachronism. It’s not the first time that this ill-informed view has been aired and unfortunately it won’t be the last. Sometimes it’s from genuine ignorance of what libraries are and do and sometimes it’s an opposing ideological or political viewpoint to what libraries represent.

Rather than using facts, figures and stats (although they can be a useful weapon in the armoury of our arguments) my reply was one based on the principles that libraries are emblematic of. An acknowledgement that in the narrow neoliberal, consumerist society that many politicians and corporate interests are trying to enforce on us, libraries can indeed be seen as an anachronism, but one that represents the best of civic mindedness, and of which we should be proud and treasure.

publiclibrary

Libraries are an anachronism, a wonderful, beautiful anachronism: a free space, with access to unrestricted thoughts and ideas, in a world of narrow minded gain and bottom line economics.

They create communities and build society in the face of selfish individualism. They promote tolerance and openness in the face of bigotry and hatred.

They educate, inform and entertain, all for free, at a time when the powers that be wish us all to be good little consumers, vacuous and unquestioning.

They are a symbol of a public service for the common good when the authorities want sell our public services to the highest bidder for private gain.

They are an anachronism in the eyes of an elite that want to dis-empower us, keep us down and ill-informed.

A philosophical anachronism from a different era when radicals and visionaries understood you created a more just and equal society by lifting, not demonising, the poor and vulnerable sections of society. 

Libraries were and continue to be an essential part of the journey towards social equality.

Libraries are everything that neoliberalism and its acolytes undervalue and scorn and so should be everything that we love, cherish and fight to preserve.

Support Libraries, support public services

Libraries are a public service and as such are very much part of the political arena. Politicians have found to their chagrin that members of the public are proactive in defending libraries and campaigning to prevent closures. From Moray in Scotland, Devon in South West England, and Rhydyfelin in Wales, the message is the same, ‘hands off our libraries’. In both rural and urban areas people fight passionately to save a service they value even when local councilors and national politicians don’t. Sometimes the campaigns are able to influence the outcome initially or, as in Lincolnshire and Sheffield, sometimes not. However, the fight goes on.

But the damage being done to libraries is only part of the undermining of the whole public sector by mainstream parties yoked to an ideology of unrestricted markets and neoliberal values. As such, the fight for libraries should be seen as part of a wider struggle to protect public services. As the We Own it site states ‘public services for people not profit’.

As mainstream politics fracture under the weight of public disillusionment many have turned away from the hegemony of extreme centre politics to smaller parties such as the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Equally new pressure groups articulate a different vision of political engagement and offer a campaigning voice on behalf of a public distrustful of the link between politicians and big business.

Individuals concerned with upholding the public service ethos and preventing the commercialisation of valuable public services such as the NHS are finding different ways, mostly through social media and the internet, to debate, challenge, and engage. Sometimes they take more direct action such as the Occupy movement. The one thing they all have in common is seeking a fairer, more equitable, society than the one we have now. This is the new politics of the 21st Century. Whether it will have lasting impact remains to be seen.

Public services are under attack as never before and it’s up to us as users and public sector workers to defend them. So support libraries, support public services, support the common good.