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.

 

 

 

 

 

Shining a Light – Complaint from Tim Coates

An article appeared in the Bookseller today (27/04/17), which outline a complaint made to the Carnegie Trust UK about it’s recent Shine a Light Report. Below is the full text of the complaint from Tim Coates.

Carnegie UK Trust Report on Public Libraries-  April 2017 – “Shining a light”
 
Formal complaint to the Trustees of the Carnegie UK Trust-   by Tim Coates April 2017

Headline
My complaint is that the report ‘Shining a Light’ seriously avoids the truth of what is happening in public libraries. It omits evidence of long term decline it should have included. It fails to draw the right conclusions from data in the research it has carried out.

It should be withdrawn and changes made in the operation of the Trust in respect of their future work on public libraries
The danger is that poor management of the public library service is reinforced.

This complaint is absolutely not directed in any sense at all at Ipsos Mori who were commissioned by the Carnegie UK Trust to carry out research.

Tim Coates 
Tim Coates is a former managing director of Waterstone’s, Sherratt and Hughes, Websters Bookshops, the London Bookshed, Bilbary Ltd  and of WH Smith in Europe.  He is also former UK general manager of YBP (UK), the leading supplier of academic books to libraries worldwide. He is a consultant who has advised in the public library and academic library sectors in the UK and in the US for eighteen years. He is an expert on book industry supply chains.  He gave evidence to the House of Commons select committee on libraries in 2005, which was used extensively in the report of the committee.

He is a graduate of both Oxford and Stirling Universities, from the latter of which he holds a master’s degree in Management Economics. He is a published author and the editor of two series of titles of the history of the UK and the US: ‘Uncovered Editions’ and ‘Moments of History’.  He is the author of the report ‘Who’s in Charge? responsibility for the public library service (2002)’. He is currently an active contracted advising consultant to leading library vendors in the US on matters of both digital and print supply of material to libraries. He works in New York, California and London

Complaint
The report published in the name of the Carnegie UK Trust called ‘Shining a Light’ avoids the factual evidence of the essential, continuous and destructive decline of use in public libraries in the UK. It draws conclusions without evidence; it fails to highlight key findings; it has not researched the views of lapsed users (which are the most important group of consumers in a time of decline) and it is misleading in its summary. It is too closely aligned with the management groups who operate public libraries and their policies, who have generally failed to stem the decline. It does not correctly identify the general view, need and opinion of the public and their desire for the benefit of public libraries. On these grounds its policy advice is flawed.

This  complaint centres on the avoidance of important available evidence and three pieces of information that are contained in the research but wrongly described in the report

1. The data that has been omitted are the CIPFA annual reports on library usage, drawn directly from local councils and the CIPFA PLUS (public library user surveys) that are conducted regularly in local councils.

2. The first piece of evidence in the data in the report which is wrongly described is that a large number of people understand the importance of public libraries, but only a small portion of those find within them what they need. The report wrongly draws the conclusion that therefore people need more personal service. There is no evidence for that conclusion.  But the gap between the theoretical importance of libraries and the actual satisfaction they give, should provide the opportunity to finding out exactly where the disappointment lies. It could be and probably is the reason why use of the service continues to fall. It provides an agenda for constructive management action in a way that the report has not underlined or hardly mentioned

3. The second piece of evidence is the finding that is not sufficiently emphasised is that only 6% of library use is of computers and 70-80% is dependent on the quality of available printed reading material in the library Public Library User Surveys of 10 years ago show that the figure for computer use was then was about 15-20%: it has declined dramatically in ten years (Table 4.1)

4. The third piece of information in the report that is not given sufficient weight is that among library users the single improvement they seek most is an improvement in the range of books available when they visit and online  (Data booklet page 44)

5. In simple terms the significance of these findings is that the comments we so often hear from local councillors, library professionals and government officers that ‘library use is changing’ and that ‘we need to emphasise that libraries are not just about books’ are misleading for both the public and for library managers. Those officials imply that increasingly the public use libraries to access the computers and reading in digital forms that are available and that libraries should concentrate less on their book collections and pursue other activities than book reading.  This research shows that the opposite is true.  Use of computers in public libraries is less than half what it was a decade ago. It is a very small part of library use. What matters to users are the collections of available printed material when they visit and their ability to obtain quickly what they need.  Improving these features is the key to increasing use.   That is a really important management finding that the report fails to highlight or even mention.

Recommendations

1. The report should be withdrawn immediately and its findings and conclusions be re-written

2. The Trust should change its relationship with the library profession and management so that it is not so closely associated with them and it can be more objective in its work

General 

1. The decline in numbers of visits and book issues in all countries in the UK has been going on relentlessly for over twenty five years. That is the evidence reported annually by councils responsible for the operation.  It has been noted in many government and independent reports. There is no diminution in the rate of decline and it is particular to the UK as is shown in the attached set of 4 slides (page 7 and 8) which are taken from published data.  No management action of those twenty-five years has stemmed the decline, let alone reversed it. The report does not show this long term evidence. It should

2. The effect of the decline in use is now to be seen in councils closing libraries, handing them to volunteers and hollowing out the service by reducing material collections and reducing opening hours, all of which activities cause further decline. It is therefore a downward spiral out of which it will be hard to move.  The report does not mention these events, the reasoning behind them or causes of them, nor does it identify the consequences of them for the public

3. From the public point of view therefore, and in the interests of the wellbeing potentially provided by libraries, any report into the state of libraries in the UK must start by honestly facing up to these problems

4. The valid questions that can then be researched, from a public point of view, are

a. What are the causes of decline?

b. What are its consequences?

c. Is there any mitigation?

d. Is there any remedial action?

e. Who can take action?

f. What informs council decisions about libraries?

g. Do councils fully understand the public need for public libraries?

h. Do councils act fairly, economically, properly, legally and responsibly in response the public desire for libraries?

5. The report ‘Shining a light’ does not attempt to address these issues.

Sections of the report

A. Policy report

1. The ‘Foreword’ and the ‘Key Statistics’ that precede it, do not mention the general decline in use over the last twenty years.  In the whole UK in that time, numbers of annual library visits per person have gone down by 37% and the number of books loaned per person per annum have gone done by 63%. Both visits and issues continue to decline.  These are key and important pieces of relevant information that should have been shown.  They are part of a proper and honest understanding of the state of the service.

2. As a headline figure the report states that “Around half of people ..use the library”. Yet the DCMS taking part quarterly survey reports consistently and that the number of people using libraries is now below 35%.  This is a huge difference. The difference is mentioned later in a section of the report comparing results but no reconciliation is offered between the two figures. It makes this report difficult to read.

3. The ‘Introduction’ describes ‘two pictures’ of the public library service and a ‘debate’ between the two groups who have created those pictures: one of decline, the other of positive innovation.  The truth, however is that both these groups have particular interests and are not typical of people who use, no longer use or do not use libraries.  As in all consumer matters, the general view of the public is silently expressed –  by use or non-use.  That is what matters most. That is the purpose of research. It is not  the public debate that should concern management and the Carnegie UK Trust but rather the public use as shown in actual usage figures.

4. The ‘introduction’ lists 5 ‘lessons’ which, it says ‘are drawn directly from the data’.

a. ‘(The library service should) demonstrate value to policy- makers, decisionmakers and funders to maximise public and other investment’’.  There is absolutely nothing in the evidence in the report from which this conclusion can be drawn …  nor is it likely to be something that would cross the mind of library users.  Nor is it a function of libraries described in the 1964 Act which generally legislates for library funding. The 1964 Act defines the value of libraries as being to individuals – not to policy makers or local councils. There is a huge and important difference.  It is misleading to signal this as a lesson drawn from research when it is not.

b. ‘(Libraries should) increase focus on tailored personalised services… ‘.  This is a prejudiced and incorrect reading of the responses in the research which do not say this at all.  Common sense shows that respondents to the research questions are saying that ‘libraries are a good thing in principle but my current experience is that they don’t provide what I need’.   That is not the same as saying that ‘libraries should focus on tailored personal service’ (whatever that may imply).  An editor should have questioned the whole assertion in this paragraph

c. The finding, however,  – which stands out in the evidence –   that ‘libraries are important but they currently do not provide what I need’ is an absolutely crucial piece of information that should have been heavily underlined in the introduction to and the headline of this report. It could have led to very useful and constructive further work to find out what is meant and why this is true – but that opportunity is not clearly expressed, anywhere in the report. That is a major omission.

d. ‘(Libraries should) accelerate the development of a strong online presence ‘. Library managers have been saying they should develop a strong online service for twenty years and the key point in this research is that the respondents are clearly saying that the library service has not achieved anything so far of which they are aware.  That needs to be said, because whatever management mechanisms are in place, they clearly are not working effectively. That is the lesson that should have been underlined.

e. ‘(Libraries should) invest in innovation, leadership and outcomes based partnerships ‘.  There is nothing in the research from which this conclusion could be drawn.  From a users’ point of view, it is obscure government management jargon, which merely implies that the management of the services is lacking in obvious basic abilities.   It would be better simply to say ‘management of the service needs to be improved’ and describe what that means in words related to the research.

f. ‘(Libraries should) enhance learning between libraries and across jurisdictions (countries)’.  This implies that in some places there are practices that could be used in other places.  However, there is nothing in the evidence presented that shows that there is any good practice that is worth sharing or where it might be.  Nor does such evidence exist anywhere else.  Evidence – which is available (for example see former MLA reports) – certainly shows that projects of ‘peer review and learning’ in the library sector have generally been a failure – and if that evidence had been looked at it would have raised a question about whether this is key ‘lesson’ at all. It should not have been included

B. Ipsos Mori comparison with other available data

1. Ipsos Mori are a highly reputable market research company of international standing. They have worked for many years in the public library sector in the UK and have a fund of experience and information upon which to draw.  Any criticism in this document of the report ‘Shining a light’ is not and cannot be a criticism of Ipsos Mori.  If there are concerns about the report, they can only lie in the way that Ipsos Mori were briefed and how their information has been interpreted. Criticism falls on The Carnegie UK Trust.

2. The report contains a section called ‘Secondary Analysis : comparing data…’  It asserts that Ipsos Mori were commissioned to ‘conduct secondary analysis of existing data sets .. in order to compare the Trust’s findings with existing data.’

3. Yet the report contains no information derived from publications of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants’ (CIPFA) who have gathered detailed consistent library performance data from all councils responsible for libraries for more than thirty years.  There is no data from the Public Library User (PLUS) surveys regularly conducted to a standard method devised by CIPFA.  In fact these essential sets of data are ignored entirely by the report.

4. The authors of the report say that in the case of Ireland the only available data is from council returns (historically through CIPFA) and then say – without any reasoning or further explanation- ‘therefore there is no data at national level’ –  when clearly there is such data for each of the five countries (including Ireland) and it is very important.

5. Moreover, it is disappointing that Ipsos Mori were not invited to draw on their experience of analysing the performance of individual library authorities or on their other research in the past twenty years. There is no mention that they were so requested and there is no indication that they did so.

6. The data shown in the report from the research fundamentally contradicts the ‘secondary data ‘ (the DCMS taking part survey) and also the CIPFA data    (table 2.2) and yet no explanation is offered for the discrepancies. (For example, in England the Carnegie research asserts that 46% of people have used libraries in the last 12 months and both Taking Part and CIPFA place the figure at nearer 35%. –  and those differences appear in almost every table of data  –  that is a sizeable difference to which the report offers no useable explanation or reconciliation    – it does bring into question the methods that have been briefed and used)

7. This section of the report, which is not segmented into different types of library use, also shows that 70-80% of library use is dependent upon the reading materials available in the library.  That is an absolutely essential piece of information that should have been highlighted in the introduction and summary of the report (Table 4.1) It is not mentioned anywhere by the author of the report.

8. The report does not attempt to identify the views of lapsed library users.  In a state of decline that is the obvious source of management information. It should have been part of the brief.

C. Data booklet : Recommendations for how libraries could improve

1. The report has several tables suggesting ways that libraries could improve. In the data booklet pages 38-43 are devoted to tables listing ideas.  But these tables do not distinguish between the views of people who use libraries already and people who don’t use them at all.  The two sets cannot be mixed because the result of mixing can be misleading.   It is like asking what improvements could be made to the facilities of a railway station and combining the views of people who use trains (who might want more regular trains and clearer timetables) and those who never travel by train (who might like to see the building turned into a leisure facility).  It is not hard to see the danger of such confused presentation in the hands of a disinterested local councillor. In fact, we have seen good libraries (that needed more books and longer hours) turned into gymnasia simply because of this kind of confused analysis of the public need.

2. Some of the suggestions thus described are hard to believe. For example page 43 of the same section says that about 40% of people suggest that libraries could benefit from improved ‘maker spaces’. It would be surprising if 40% of the population had ever heard the expression ‘maker space’ (which is a library specific term) and that in turn makes one wonder just what question they were asked. It certainly seems unlikely to have been a spontaneous response and that the question asked must have led to directly to that answer.  And that in turn diminishes the value of the findings.

3. Page 44 does present a one page analysis which indicates the views of users and non-users, but still lists them alongside each other. That says clearly that the leading suggestion from library users is that libraries need more books.  That, too, should have been a headline of the report. It is a really important finding. It is not surprising.   However, it is not mentioned anywhere in the summaries.  It should have been. It is key to increasing use of libraries. It is also a point rarely made in government or local government documents.

4. It will be far easier to persuade library users to increase their use than it will be to persuade non-users to visit the library and the two marketing questions about how to achieve these two separate objects are completely different. The two findings should have been presented separately.

5. Pages 46-48 return to mixing the findings of users and non-users

6. Nowhere is there an analysis of lapsed users.  Lapsed users are the most informative group of all. When hearing their views we know that they have sufficiently valued the library in the past but now they do not – and they should be persuaded to give specific reasons. Lapsed users should have been the starting point, segmented by age.

7. Appendix 1 in this section (page 52)  –  shows that the questions suggesting improvements are indeed leading questions with , but it is not clear from where the ideas put forward have come. If they have come from separate groups of users and non-users it would help to make that all much clearer. If they have come from the authors of the report, that, too should have been said.