Category Archives: SCL

Society of Chief Librarians

Review of Public Libraries 2017

Last year I looked at the possible trends in public libraries for 2017 and unfortunately the challenges I identified remain unabated. The situation has deteriorated even more so and the release of the recent Cipfa data details a sector in continuing crisis. What has remained a constant since the start of austerity is deep reductions in funding, staffing, resources, and hundreds of library closures. Conversely, there has been an increase volunteer led-libraries, co-location, and technology enabled access.

There is no evidence that this trajectory is likely to change under the current administration and all indications are for deeper and more damaging cuts to the national network in England over the coming year.

However, it would be unfair to imply that nothing good is happening within libraries. Library staff have managed to drive forward creative projects and service improvement despite the challenging circumstances. For the best examples of this see the Libraries Change Lives website. Equally, new library builds and improvements are still happening and welcomed by the communities they benefit. Public Library News provides the most comprehensive and regular updates from across the sector including a list of new or refurbished libraries. The Libraries Taskforce blog also highlights good work happening and best practice from other services. Unfortunately as a government funded body, the bias is for highlighting only positive stories rather than acknowledging the difficulties that beset the sector, and as such it lacks both impartiality or gives balanced coverage.

While not entirely doom and gloom the positives above need to be set in the overall context of ongoing funding cuts to local authorities and the continuing drivers of localism and devolution. All of which continue to provide a challenging environment for libraries. Not just public libraries but all those that rely on public funding either directly or indirectly such as schools, FE, HE, and health libraries.

Commercialism

Libraries are increasingly being challenged to adopt a more commercial approach in the way they market and charge for services. In principle this is nothing new and fees and charges have always played a role in raising income; from fines, room hire, photocopying, DVD rental etc.

What has changed is the emphasis placed on income generation as central to the core budget. That is, a failure to meet an income target can have a direct impact on service delivery with the need for further efficiency savings such as reducing the stock fund or even losing staff as a result. This is particularly true of library mutuals I would guess who no longer have the safety net of the local authority to soak up any overspends.

It also highlights the dichotomy as to why library services can attract large amounts of project funding from the Arts Council but still be subject to cuts and closures. Such funding is tied to a specific project work and does nothing to alleviate the underlying structural issues such as revenue funding.

While many in the profession object to libraries being treated as profit making organisations the approach is in keeping with government policy and ideology so is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.

Recruitment

Sadly, years of austerity, hollowing out, and de-professionalisation of the sector have made public libraries an unattractive proposition for new library graduates. An article in the bookseller described the relentless cuts as turning the sector into a ‘war zone’. The sad fact is public libraries are no longer an appealing long-term career prospect.

Speaking at a round table discussion with the APPG on libraries Nick Poole argued that despite the difficulties the sector needed to invest and encourage new talent. Looking at the information sector in the round I would agree. Many opportunities exist and will continue to expand, particularly in the areas of information and knowledge management, specialist libraries, and Higher Education.

However, it’s more difficult to argue a case for public libraries, when both national and local government, and all main political parties regard library staff, including qualified librarians, as replaceable by volunteers.

The recommendation by William Sieghart to encourage and develop the library workforce and especially new recruits and graduates’ seems unachievable now. The ambition to develop a programme similar to the TeachFirst concept for librarians appears to have been dropped by the Taskforce in favour of the more achievable goal of encouraging apprenticeships, although this too is not without its difficulties.

Pay in the public sector will continue to be depressed with either a real term pay cut or wages struggling to keep pace with inflation, also make public libraries less attractive to those entering the profession.

Despite this some councillors seem to enjoy increases or pay outs far in excess of those they expect of their workforce. While no means an isolated case the leader of East Sussex Council is to get a 37% increase in his allowance and proudly states that he is “worth the money and more”. It appears you can volunteer and still be paid the equivalent of a full time wage for doing so!

This from a council leader who is threatening to close libraries unless they are funded wholly by communities or other organisations. Presumably, any volunteers taking over the threatened libraries cannot expect the same level of recompense as Councillor Glazier.

Not to be outdone Paul Blantern former CEO of Northamptonshire County Council and Chair of the Libraries Taskforce enjoyed a pay out in excess of £100k when he quit his post this year. This at the same time 21 libraries were threatened with closure as the council can  apparently no longer afford to run them.

Performance

I won’t dwell too much on the recent Cipfa figures as a very good in-depth analysis has been provide by Tim Coates on UK Library News.

The figures sadly illustrate the continuing decline of the sector, with the Bookseller describing the results as showing the “catastrophic” scale of library closures in Great Britain. Overall the figures confirm huge drops in funding, increase in library closures – 449 since 2012 but other commentators have put this higher – a drop in expenditure by £66m for 2016-7 alone, and a decline in visitor numbers 14% over five years.

However, not all councils have returned their figures so the situation is likely to be much worse.

That the situation requires urgent strategic action on a national scale is obvious. What is not obvious is where this action will come from. All the major players, ACE, DCMS, Libraries Taskforce, have so far fundamentally failed to address or halt the decline.

Part of the issue is also the loss of focus on what public libraries are for and what they should deliver. Some of the underlying problems are due to technological and societal changes, but these effects have been exacerbated by political ideology around public finances and service delivery.

The SCL Universal Offers where partly meant to address this by formalising those areas that libraries where good at and how they could adapt to meet the changing information needs of the public. Despite being a continuing critic of the SCL as a organisation I have always been broadly supportive of the universal offers. However, after years of failing to alter the decline in usage we need now to start questioning the validity of the offers as an effective strategy.

While this might be heresy to some, and I certainly don’t advocate for immediately discontinuing them, I do believe the themes need revisiting to gauge if they continue to be fit for purpose in their current form. Equally, adding to the number of offers is both counter-productive and misguided.

Leadership

There still remains a lack of strategic leadership for the sector within England. Obviously, the government would not accept a body highly critical of it’s policies, which is why the make-up of the Taskforce is as it is. The majority of those round the table are beholden to the government either politically or financially.

That’s not to say that some of the organisations don’t carry out valuable work beneficial to the sector, such as the British Library. However, in 2016/17 79% (£93.9m) of the British Library funding came from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Equally, the SCL has benefited from closer engagement and have been successful in attracting additional money. This year it was awarded £2m over four years by the Arts Council as a ‘Sector Support Organisation’, allowing it to pay up to £65k for a new Chief ExecutiveEqually, six library services were also awarded National Portfolio Organisation status attracting just over £4m in funding between them. As Ian Anstice observed:

“It’s interesting to see that 3 out of the 6 library services to get the funding, by the way, are non-profit trusts. This is proportionately way higher than one would expect. The bids were also not public so it’s unclear, apart from what can be gained from press releases, as yet, as to what they will mean.”

So it’s no surprise that the SCL is heavily involved in promoting a cultural and arts agenda for libraries and advocating support for volunteer led libraries, both mainstays of government policy. As the latest minutes of the Taskforce noted:

“The Taskforce also undertook to provide support to community managed libraries to share good practice, and help develop sustainable community managed library business models and approaches. It is working in partnership with SCL and Locality to support a new Community Managed Libraries Peer Network…”

What was encouraging for those of us critical of the arts path being foisted on libraries with no debate was the Cilip interview with Gill Furniss, Chair of the APPG:

‘I am a bit disappointed. I did think public libraries fitted better in Civil Society. To me they are community assets and don’t go terribly well with arts, museums and culture. I see public libraries serving communities’ information needs and that they should be very much placed within a community and be valued by the community.’

She also believes the arts label comes at a cost. ‘It makes libraries seem very grand when you’re talking about arts and ­museums. We’ve got to get away from grand. We’ve got to be there with our sleeves rolled up in communities. I’d put it with housing and neighbourhoods.’

Whether Labour adopts this approach remains to be seen. Kevin Brennan, shadow library minister, is currently working on library policy but over the past seven years most Labour controlled authorities, including Gill Furniss’ home area of Sheffield, have followed their tory counter-parts in cuts, closures, and the replacement of paid staff with volunteers.

Independent voice

As such there is no independent body, with perhaps the exception of Cilip, that is willing to be publicly critical of government policy. Although a recent APPG round-table discussion in Westminster produced some heart-felt warnings there appears little political appetite to change course from any of the parties.

The APPG has yet to publish it’s list of activities so it’s difficult to know yet what it’s priorities will be and how it will bring together different political opinion into a coherent strategy. The LibDems are as equally to blame as the tories for the current crisis and despite both the Chair and Vice-Chair being Labour, as noted above Labour have a poor record on differentiating their stance in any meaningful way from that of the Conservatives.

What is needed is a clear and meaningful strategy that addresses the structural and financial difficulties besetting the sector, and a strategy that is intent on building relationships with all  stakeholders rather than creating division.

Unfortunately, Sieghart’s recommendations deliberately set to exclude campaigners, unions, and library users from the Taskforce. Given the emphasis on communities having a say it’s rather ironic that the users voice was intentionally left out at national level.

Sadly, the perhaps unintended but very foreseeable consequence has been to create a toxic relationship of distrust, accusation and counter accusation between groups that should be united in fighting for libraries.

Besides being politically petty the decision has built walls rather than bridges and bodes ill for the future should a new administration establish a different body. It would be very difficult for those currently at the table to cry foul if they were to be excluded.

It also raises the question of legitimate engagement and how far library organisations should allow themselves to be part of policies that are so at odds with the good of the profession and sector. Within any situation there is always nuance and complexity. Very few issues are black and white. That said, it is difficult to pinpoint any advantages to public libraries that engagement with the government has brought.

The campaigns run by Cilip in support of public, school, and health libraries, the outspoken criticism from authors and celebrities, all highlight the damage being done. So the question becomes at what point does engagement become collusion or self-harm? At what point are organisations putting their own needs above the good of the wider profession?

As Nick Poole recently tweeted as part of a thread: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Round-up

For myself, I see another challenging year of quiet desperation for public libraries with no obvious solution in sight. The government is too caught up in Brexit to give domestic issues much consideration. That’s not to be overly pessimistic but the evidence leads only one way and as we have all affirmed in the past year #factsmatter. To pretend otherwise is a dis-service to the profession.

For other reviews of the year see Nick Poole’s 2017 Review and Ian Anstice English Public Libraries key trends 2017

 

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.

 

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.

Not Waving but Drowning

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It’s difficult to take a balanced view of public libraries at the moment. Concentrating overly on bad news around closures and cuts appears so much doom-mongering. Equally, highlighting only positive news stories smacks of pollyanaism. Obviously, both aspects exist and will differ from region to region, authority to authority, and even community to community within relatively close proximity. Amongst the cuts there is still opportunity to find examples of good practice, valuable partnership working,  and innovation within the sector.

That said, the bad news does appear to have the upper hand at the moment, especially with the announcement that local councils face an ever deepening hole in their finances: A story in the Bookseller outlines how:

“According to the Local Government Association (LGA), the long-term funding crisis means local government will continue to face an overall funding gap of £5.8bn by 2020 and that more than two thirds of the 375 councils in England and Wales will be forced to find millions in savings to plug the funding gaps in 2017/18.”

This was put into stark context with a warning from the Leader of Liverpool Council that:

‘…even if he closed all 19 libraries in the city and its nine sports centres, stopped maintaining its 140 parks, halted all highway repairs and street cleaning and switched off 50,000 streetlights, he would save only £68m—which is £22m short of what he must cut by 2020. So there will have to be a further 10% reduction in the social-care budget.’

Many other councils are facing equally unenviable choices, which is the consequence of a path determined by the coalition government in 2010. According to the government, at the start of the 2010 almost 80% of council expenditure was financed by the central government grant but by 2020 this will have reduced to 5% with the ultimate aim that it will disappear altogether.

The consequences for libraries are obvious, with a litany of severe cuts from all around the country, and figures showing that UK libraries had lost £25m from their budgets in just one year. Nick Poole has warned that library closures will double unless immediate action is taken, stating that:

“We have already lost 340 libraries over the past eight years and we think that unless immediate action is taken, we stand to lose the same number over the next five years.”

This leaves bodies like the Libraries Taskforce, SCL and ACE in a difficult position. Tasked with developing libraries it seems the best that can be assumed is a slow rout with an eventual retreat in many areas to the consolidation of a central library underpinned by varying levels and quality of community provision.

I am reminded of the image of the Little Dutch Boy holding back the incoming flood, with the Taskforce vainly attempting to stop the torrent of cuts while the dyke around them steadily spouts leaks labelled Kirklees, Plymouth, Walsall, West Berkshire, Bristol, Bury, Lancashire…the difference being, in the story at least, the Little Dutch Boy was successful at plugging the gap!

Or to use a bleaker literary reference the sector is ‘not waving but drowning.’

Unfortunately, the Taskforce is operating to a deeply flawed report that is hopelessly outdated just a mere two years on, with little in Ambition to offer concrete help or financial support. But most of all it is curtailed by political intransigence.

To a large extent the malaise goes even deeper than just funding. Councils have shown themselves to be unimaginative at best and inept at worse when dealing with library services. Parochial to an incomprehensible degree, very little has been done to genuinely merge services across boundaries or treat them as part of a national infrastructure. Localism is part of the problem not the solution.

But let me end on a positive note, which is the re-launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries. So welcome to the new Chair, Gill Furniss MP, who stated that:

“I was brought up on a council estate in Sheffield and my dad was a reader. When I was four he took me with him to the public library and it was like walking into an Aladdin’s cave…If my dad hadn’t taken me to that library I do not think I would be stood here as a Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. I’ve got my career and the knowledge it gave me which drove me on to go and get a degree and eventually become a Councillor.”

Whether the APPG is capable of providing the life-line desperately needed by the sector remains to be seen.

 

 

 

Sometimes I Get So Angry..!

There’s no one theme to this post but observations about several issues. First and foremost is the lack of traction on the My Library By Right Campaign, an area I promised to explore further in my last post. The lack of signatures is very saddening and led to an outburst from Cilip ex-president Phil Bradley on his blog entitled ‘Really angry…’

I share his frustration with the apparent apathy out there. At the time of Phil’s blog there had only been 6,000 signatures, which has now increased to just over 9,000. This is embarrassingly low. There are 13,000 Cilip members so at the very least there should be 13,000 signatures. The fact there is not speaks volumes for the stronger together approach of Cilip representing different sectors. The number of signatures also doesn’t reflect all the library campaigns and individual campaigners out there. If everyone opposing closures at a local level signed the petition it would make a huge difference.

So here’s some things that everyone can do:

  • Sign the petition (no brainer)
  • Share not just once but repeatedly on social media
  • Ask family and friends to sign
  • If allowed share in the workplace and ask colleagues to sign
  • Some workplaces will not allow such open campaigning so talk to colleagues individually and ask to sign. At the end of the day this is a professional issue and you have every right to discuss it
  • Have the campaign poster or Cilip Update (Dec/jan 2015/16) prominently displayed in your office or at your workstation to help generate discussion and show your support
  • For the more adventurous campaign publicly and ask people to sign. Give out leaflets and engage with the public. Certainly this could be driven by Cilip groups regionally and equally by campaigners as part of local campaigners.

I’m sure there’s lots more so please share suggestions on social media.

Ultimately, as it states on the Cilip website, this is about holding “…the Government to account for these legal duties, including working with the Secretary of State to provide a clear and meaningful statement of the characteristics of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service for Local Authorities to follow.” And surely no campaigner or Cilip member can disagree with that?

This leads me on to the SCL and the apparent lack of support from them, with no obvious statement, or link from the SCL website, acknowledging the campaign. Phil Bradley tweeted the SCL about the matter to which I replied, only partly tongue in cheek, to give them time as they needed to ask permission from the LGA first!

SCL’s status as firmly in the camp of the establishment rather than representing the best interests of the profession are surely beyond doubt. There is certainly a distinct lack of openness, transparency and accountability about the body. So here’s a simple challenge to the SCL: contact all the members and ask if there should be link to the My Library By Right campaign on the SCL website. Show the profession that there is at least some inkling of democracy about the organisation.

Thinking of the SCL I am rather surprised that amongst all the Cilip groups there is not one for senior staff and heads of service. I assume historically they have relied on the SCL to represents such interests. However, perhaps now is the time for Cilip to consider establishing an alternative that is not so bound to the vested interests of the LGA and is obviously more democratic and accountable to members and the wider profession.

Lastly, I return to a number of tweets I posted recently inspired by an exchange I had with someone locally regarding libraries and book swaps. Unfortunately, there are many out there who regard book swaps and volunteer libraries as a viable alternative to properly funded and staffed library services. My argument is that it’s not enough for libraries just to be open, you have to give people a reason to come through the doors in the first place.

This means providing services, activities, and facilities developed and delivered by a knowledgeable and dedicated workforce, underpinned by targeted marketing and outreach. Every successful business and organisation knows this.

Without such knowledge and dedication passive service provision will ultimately fail.  Libraries need to be dynamic places delivering and evolving services for the good of the community. This requires professional knowledge and experience, a trained workforce, and adequate funding

It’s also why book swaps will never be libraries and volunteers will never be librarians.

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.

 

The Gordian Knot

Gordian-Knot-and-Pain

The list of volunteer libraries grows almost daily with perhaps Herefordshire providing the most extreme example, proposing that all but one library should be run by community groups. However, the approach is fast becoming ubiquitous across the country with examples at Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Southampton, Kirklees, Leicestershire, Sheffield, etc. The list goes ever on. Unfortunately, it might be easier nowadays to list those services that haven’t handed, or want to hand, libraries over to volunteers in one form or another.

In fact it’s become the norm to the extent that Lincolnshire Council can boast that “Volunteers are now at the heart of Lincolnshire’s library service, giving communities a chance to do things their own way.” So we finally have a local authority that regards volunteers and not paid staff to be central to its library service. In a similar vein Lewisham Council claim’s that making staff redundant and handing libraries over to volunteers ‘…will in fact enhance the service.’ Hampshire appears to be going one better than even using volunteers and aims to replace 74 staff with self-service technology.

Unfortunately, the volunteer model is leading to the fragmentation of library services, not only nationally, but also locally with a two-tier service developing within the same county, city, or town.

Obviously, the approach is not without it’s difficulties for Councils as the judicial challenges in Lincolnshire shows. A recent story from Lincolnshire also illustrates that not all libraries are viable with volunteers saying there is not enough money to keep going. Equally worrying is that volunteer libraries in Manchester have seen visitor numbers plummet by as much as 90%.

So while volunteer libraries are not necessarily the answer they do seem to the model favoured by many local authorities faced with an ever decreasing settlement from central government. A situation that is projected to get far worse by 2020 according to the LGA.

Communities are offered very little choice in the face of closures. It’s long been recognised that there is an element of blackmail in forcing communities to take over the running of libraries or face closure. It’s also very difficult to oppose plans that are targeted at individual libraries as each community fights to save their local library rather than the whole network. I’ve always found it puzzling that councils can trumpet that charities and trusts are a preferred option for individual libraries, which can sometime amount to the majority of libraries in that authority, but somehow the trust/mutual approach is not considered suitable for the whole service. At least that way it is the experts, the library staff, that retain control. Work that one out!

In both Lincolnshire and Leicestershire the attitude is that local communities …know best what their library needs, whether it is different opening hours or staging more events’ and that volunteer libraries are capable of ‘…creating an even better service that the county can be proud of.’

Some councillors and volunteers might actually believe this. Others take a more pragmatic view. Bob Mynors, a volunteer at Stannington Library in Sheffield acknowledges “While volunteers cannot ever fully replace the work done by professional, qualified librarians, libraries remain important local, social spaces.” He also states that the volunteers have greater flexibility to do things that would not have been possible under local authority management such as a murder-mystery evening , accepting book donations, and a story festival.

It’s a pity that such simple things are considered an improvement when they should have been part and parcel of the council run library offer. What all of the above demonstrates however is the importance that both councillors and communities place on libraries, with the prevalent attitude being that a volunteer library is better than a closed library.

This is a conundrum for both the library profession and campaigners alike. The Gordian Knot that we must find an answer to. It is one thing to protest cuts and closures but it is another to develop a viable alternative. From a cash-strapped council point of view volunteer libraries offer a cheap and politically palatable alternative to closure even if the local community have to be compelled to take on the running. For the past five years it is the one argument that many campaigns have foundered on.

It should be obvious that volunteers cannot replace the knowledge and expertise of paid staff and qualified librarians. However, regardless of how bitter communities feel about the loss of paid staff they would still rather lose staff than the library, which is why councils know that ultimately volunteers will, in most cases, step forward.

The Speak Up For Libraries conference is next month and unless campaigners can develop a narrative to counteract the volunteer model and advocate an equally simple and affordable option then volunteers libraries will be the reality for the next 5 years and possibly beyond.

Obviously, the task should not be left to campaigners alone as it’s important that any narrative is shared and supported by all, which includes Cilip, SCL, and the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. However, until a solution is found, and hopefully found quickly, then before too long it really will be volunteers rather than library staff and qualified librarians that will be at the heart of the service. To the detriment of all.

Addendum

The following was received from librariesmatter and it certainly is food for thought:

On a point of logic – the Lincolnshire CC statement does seem extraordinary since the community hub/volunteer libraries are not part of the Lincs statutory library service. How can the heart of the service be outside the service for which the Council has the responsibility?

Whilst the issue around the possible over use of volunteers in public libraries is well publicised, the issue of Councils’ redefining the extent of their statutory library service by leaving out libraries from their service has hardly received any attention. Lincolnshire is an example of this. My understanding is that for the 30 community hub/volunteer libraries – Lincs CC doesn’t have any obligation to support these libraries into the future. It has chosen to provide some short term support (4 years) presumably as a more palatable way of pushing through its reduction in service.

The redefining of the statutory service allows a Council to provide a worse and lower funded library service into the future. English councils are able to do this because there are no library standards (abolished 2008) nor any library performance indicators (abolished 2010) and government policy is clearly one of non-intervention. Shouldn’t campaigners and CILIP be paying more attention to this point?
If a library is part of the Council’s statutory service then it is under an obligation to fund and support it.
This doesn’t necessary mean the Council has to run the library itself or even that there have to be paid staff present (alternatives in smaller branches could be volunteers or ‘open+’ technology).
 
The places where community run libraries are more successful are surely those that are part of a statutory library service and are thus (hopefully) properly supported.

 

 

 

 

When is a librarian not a librarian?

There has always been a confusion in the mind of the public to what actually constitutes a ‘librarian’. From experience I know that many users refer to any and all staff in libraries as librarians. For most of my career that’s never bothered me overmuch. However, over the past few years it’s become more important as the government has tried to redefine terminology to enable the reduction and deprofessionalisation of the public library sector.

For example ‘community library’ used simply to mean a library that was part of a particular community or denoted size/level to distinguish it from larger counterparts. Nowadays the phrase has become synonymous with a library that has been riven of paid staff and run by volunteers. After all ‘unsustainable book swap run by unpaid amatuers’ doesn’t quite have the same attractive ring as ‘community library’. So in best marketing style the term has been hijacked to mask the reality.

Unfortunately, those that should be concerned with maintaining high standards of library provison: DCMS, ACE, SCL have all bought into this notion and readily propagate such disingenuous definition.

That’s why as a profession we should be cautious when terminology is subverted to suit the current political and austerity agenda. A recent newspaper article about a volunteer run library in Lincolnshire uses the term ‘volunteer librarian’. Now  I assume that this oxymoronic phrase (unless they genuinely mean qualified librarians actually volunteering!) has been coined by the local newspaper. However, all such terms need to be challenged before they gain common currency as does any other erroneous assumption that librarianship is anything other than a highly skilled profession.

I was very disappointed when the Arts council averred in Envisioning the Library of the Future that an essential ingredient of the public library was “well trained and friendly ‘people’ (my italics) to help users to find what they want…” when all evidence points that what the public actually wants is ‘well trained and friendly paid staff’. One phrase justifies volunteer run libraries, the other does not. As always terminology matters.

However, it is beholden of the profession to also be wary of accidently perpetuating such an approach. A case in point is the appointment of non-qualified candidates to professional posts. Now to be fair there is a long history within libraries of bringing in candidates with the appropriate skills set from other sectors and this is a perfectly legitimate approach in order to attract the best individual for the job. Such people can be very talented and bring much needed skills and perspective to the service.

However, it is also common for such candidate to undertake further training, perhaps through distance learning or the Cilip Chartership route, to gain qualified status. This is often a requirement for accepting the role.

What the profession needs to be vigilant of and something that should be challenged is appointing candidates to post as ‘librarian’ or equivalent without qualification or the need to pursue one. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of volunteer libraries it is the responsibility of all of us in the profession to uphold the integrity of what it means to be a qualified librarian. Anything else fundamentally undermines the concept of professional librarianship.

No one should use the term ‘librarian’ who has not earned the right to do so and this right includes being appropriately qualified.

The Leadership Void

I have to admit to admiring mavericks. Individuals that stand above the mainstream and are quite happy to challenge the system or status quo from without or within. Think Tony Benn. Such maverick behaviour is a time honoured and valuable political tradition. Principles before party and all that.

Then again, perhaps I just watched too many films such as Rebel without a Cause, Easy Rider or The Wild One when younger! The phrase ‘what are you rebelling against’, which elicits the reply ‘whadda you got?’ resonates down the decades.

Rebellion seems rife at the moment over the governance review with barbed comments flying thick and fast on LIS-PUB-LIBS. Even without Tom Roper’s resignation to add to the mix the issue was always likely to cause a furore. As far back as February I highlighted elements of the proposals, which to me, went against the democratic principles of a membership organisation. Equally, many other individual members also raised concerns in their feedback to Cilip. Certainly Tom’s resignation has not caused the resulting uproar but it has brought it into sharp focus.

Many campaigners and those outside the profession are both perplexed and as Desmond Clarke observed, appalled, by what they see as an unnecessary distraction to campaigning against library cuts and closures:

“All this energy being spent by the CILIP leadership on changing the structure of its Council at this time is appalling when the library service faces a major crisis and thousands of librarians are losing their jobs. Fiddling with the composition of council at this time is not going to help anyone, neither CILIP, its staff. CILIP members or the public that libraries exist to serve. No one would be affected if the changes were put off for a year or two while everyone focused on ensuring that a library service is available to the millions of people who need it.”

Now I have to say that I see things slightly differently. Despite the unfortunate tendency towards mud-slinging the debate has thrown-up, the governance of our professional body is an important issue. If a revised structure improves the running of the organisation than well and good. It’s been a long time in the planning and deserves proper consideration and debate by the membership.

Such discussion should obviously not distract us from the major changes going on in the library sector. However, debating these changes does not equate to there being any less willingness or time spent on advocating for public libraries either by individual members or Cilip itself. They are not mutually exclusive activities.

Maybe the real point then is not whether such activities distract Cilip from campaigning but whether Cilip is capable of the robust advocacy needed in the rough and tumble of the political arena in the first place. And that’s a whole different question and debate.

Perhaps this highlights the issue of the ‘leadership void’ that so many campaigners have complained about. Not individual leaders of which there are many fine examples in libraries but rather a body that proactively seeks to defend public libraries and staff.

Cilip

One of the difficulties that Cilip faces is that it lacks both the size and political influence that say a combined professional body and union such as the National Union of Teachers has. Neither does it have a strong history of political advocacy, which immediately put it at a disadvantage during the upheaval of the past few years.

A difficult point for many outside, and even inside, the profession to accept is that Cilip has never been a campaigning body. Why this is so is not always clear. It has been argued that the charitable and chartered status of the body sets certain restrictions on campaigning activity. Equally, as a body it has limited resources so has tended to rely on co-operation and conciliation rather than taking a more adversarial approach. Perhaps it has never needed to campaign strongly and the advantages that we have taken for granted until recently, such as professionally staffed libraries, have been given to us rather than fought for and earned.

The profession is, in the main, conservative with a small ‘c’ and overall members have shown a lack of appetite for direct campaigning. Partly, I suspect, this is related to job insecurity and not wishing to put heads above the parapet. Cilip has also become quite a broad based organisation appealing to other sectors such as information and knowledge management, as well as school, academic, and special libraries, which means it’s not just public libraries that have to be catered for.

Nevertheless, we should also recognise that as a professional body Cilip does many things well, such as training, networking, highlighting good practice, raising professional standards, organising conferences, cooperating with other library associations, and contributing to important professional topics e.g. copyright law and ebooks. As such it should be given credit.

However Cilip is not, and is unlikely ever to be, a strong campaigning organisation and those that expect it to be expect too much.

Society of Chief Librarians

Equally, looking to the SCL for political leadership is also unrealistic. The SCL is not an independent organisation but is accountable to the Local Government Association and as such will conform to restrictions imposed by the expectations and policies of the LGA. The recent announcement to support ‘community libraries’ being a case in point.

The SCL enjoys close links to governmental agencies that influence the direction of travel for libraries such as the DCMS and ACE. Over the years this has usually worked to the profession’s advantage. Equally, Ed Vaizey is still happy to talk to the SCL directly (unlike Cilip), which could be viewed as keeping open important channels of communication to the Minister responsible for libraries. Conversely, it also indicates how much SCL is part of the mainstream political machinery and regarded as a safe organisation for promoting the government’s view of libraries.

Now to be fair to the SCL they have always been open about their limitations. When meeting with campaigners in 2012 they made it very clear that:

• They were not and could not be a campaigning body
• As a body they were accountable to the LGA
• They could not criticise local authorities or oppose government or council policy
• They were not a voice for librarians but for local government and that it was CILIP that was the voice for librarians

That is not to say that the SCL does not carry out excellent work. It does. Over the years the body has promoted good practice, encouraged senior librarians to support each other and work together on a regional and national basis, and has been responsible for the Universal offers, to which the addition of a ‘learning’ strand is to be welcomed. The Universal offers are in my opinion one of the best schemes that libraries have undertaken. And for this the SCL should be given full credit.

So it’s unrealistic to expect the SCL to be anything other than it is. Those who expect the SCL to provide independent leadership for the library profession will be sorely disappointed. That is not its raison d’etre.

Rebels with a cause

In the main I am not a reformist. I do not believe that Cilip can be changed sufficiently to provide the strong focus, frank rhetoric, and forceful advocacy that public libraries need. So far this has been left to organisations such as the Library Campaign and Voices for the Library. But such groups, while providing an essential outlet, are not professional bodies or a voice solely for librarians.

The library sector is changing, driven by technology, societal pressures, and political ideology. As a profession we have responded positively to technological and societal changes but it is the ideology that is proving our downfall. In response we need to find another way to challenge the politics, to provide a united front, to fill the leadership void. One that is focussed solely on campaigning for public libraries and in which librarians are the central voice.

Not so long ago I wrote a post speculating about the need for another kind of professional body. At the time Tom Roper who was then a council member, disagreed with me (just as I disagreed with his viewpoint). There is absolutely nothing wrong with holding divergent views – which leads to debate and then hopefully consensus – but equally there comes a point when attacking organisations such as Cilip and the SCL becomes a waste of time and energy particularly if transformation is not possible or, more importantly, if they are not the most effective agents for the change that is needed.

Perhaps it’s time to stop rebelling for the sake of it, for asking ‘whadda you got?’ Public libraries are a cause worth fighting for, what we need is an organisation that can take that fight forward.

You say it best…!

There’s not much that I can add to the disappointing statement by SCL regarding the recent Cipfa figures that others haven’t already highlighted.

Even allowing for the fact that the SCL is part of the LGA the statement was misguided at best and disingenuous at worst, managing in one short phrase to offend not only library campaigners, but totally misrepresent the reality of what is happening for many at a local level. Perhaps it will be some comfort to those in Lincolnshire to know that their library service is being changed ‘in tune with local community need’…but somehow I doubt it!

That said, this was a no win situation in which the SCL were damned if they did or damned if they didn’t criticise the volunteer figures so perhaps they should have taken inspiration from the song lyrics, ‘you say it best when you say nothing at all’ or  for those of an older persuasion ‘silence is golden’.

The biggest disappointment is that although this is an official statement from SCL many individual heads of libraries will be just as dismayed as library campaigners.