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.

 

 

 

Make a difference

differenceIt’s easy to forget after the initial rush of enthusiasm that campaigns and consultations can go on for months and support naturally peters out as other, newer battles emerge. Anyway this is a reminder of two important engagements that are still ongoing.

My Library By Right continues and deserves to be supported by all library staff, information professionals, the public and campaigners. If you haven’t already done so take time to sign the petition. Thus far over 16,500 supporters have signed so please add your name. Get your friends, family and colleagues to sign…heck! even get your pets to sign!

In the past Cilip has come under fire for not being proactive enough in campaigning and challenging the fragmentation of library services and the amateurisation of the profession. This is a positive campaign to try and redress some of those issues so regardless of your views of Cilip in the past (and I’ll admit that mine have been critical!) please find the time and inclination to support this particular endeavour.

Equally, the Libraries Taskforce continues to seek feedback over Libraries Deliver: an Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021. ‘The document reflects on the evolving role of libraries in light of changing public expectations. It presents a vision for the future and discusses how it should be achieved.’

This is at the draft stage so needs input from as many interested parties as possible. It’s a given that feedback will be sought right across the spectrum of the profession including strategic partners, stakeholders, and decision makers.

But most particularly the Taskforce needs to hear back from library staff of all levels and not just the senior managers and lead members. It’s important that those working on the frontline have their say as well. So fill out the survey and spread the word amongst colleagues.

You can also get involved by registering to attend workshops or email comments directly to the Taskforce librariestaskforce@culture.gov.uk. Apparently, you can even write in. Now that’s radical!

I cannot emphasise enough that the document is at the draft stage so if people want to influence it, to ensure it reflects the aspirations and concerns of ordinary library workers then as much feedback as possible is needed. You have until 3rd June to contribute.

I have made my own views clear in that it’s a good starting point but eventually needs to be far more radical in scope and aspiration.

If, as a profession, we want it to be a ‘deliver’ a genuine ‘ambition’ for public libraries then we need to influence the direction of travel and be willing to speak out to make it happen.

It’s not enough to be against something, you have to be for something to make change happen. So get involved, have your say, make a difference.

 

 

Libraries Without Boundaries

My england-regionsnew post Libraries Without Boundaries can be found on the Libraries Taskforce blog. In it I argue for:

  • Adoption of a set principles to underpin and clarify the 1964 Act
  • Creation of regional library consortia or organisations
  • Direct central government funding for libraries
  • Creation of an independent advisory body
  • Adoption of library standards

Bridging the Gap

I enjoyed attending the Speak Up for Libraries conference this year; meeting and talking to very passionate campaigners and library users about the importance of libraries. Nick Poole, Cilip CEO, started the conference off with a excellent welcome speech extolling the virtues and values of libraries, including welcoming David Cameron to the ranks of library campaigners after his intervention in Oxfordshire, to much laughter! More detailed notes of the conference can be found on Public Library News and the transcript of Nick’s speech on the Cilip website.

For many the main draw this year was the opportunity to listen to and question Paul Blantern and Kathy Settle of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. This was never going to be an easy ride for them and while not necessarily agreeing with all their views they mostly retained grace under fire from very understandably frustrated campaigners, with only the occasional flare up!

Paul Blantern had a prior engagement so arrived in the afternoon but credit to Kathy Settle who was around all day and took the opportunity to talk to many attendees.

Both Paul and Kathy made no disguise of the fact that the Taskforce is both limited in scope and influence and that they are a task and finish group. Given the time limited nature of such groups the emphasis of the Taskforce appears to be identifying trends in a national context, researching and sharing good practice (although that beggars the question who decides what good practice is?), and exploring potential alternative sources of funding that libraries can tap into. The other role of the group that Paul and Kathy were keen to reinforce was as a strong advocating voice to ministers and other national decision makers.

This is all very laudable but for some campaigners does not go far enough. The difficulty is one of expectation, with the Taskforce being perceived as having more influence and authority than it actually does. The most misleading misnomer is the use of the term ‘Leadership’ when in fact, at best, it’s more of a facilitating body. Able to talk to a wide variety of individuals, organisations and ministerial departments at both national and local level but without the ability to enforce adherence.

Given the limitations in both scope and power it is easy to argue that a genuine strategic leadership body is still very much lacking within public libraries nationally.

But then again this should not come as any surprise. William Sieghart’s report, despite claims to the contrary, was not actually that independent, as it’s difficult to reconcile the outcomes of the report with the feedback given by many individual campaigners and library bodies such as Cilip, ASCEL and the SCL.

Given the delay in publication and the amount of time sat in Ed Vaizey’s office many campaigners have long suspected  a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down recommendations that did not chime with government policy.

What we finally got was a report that recognised the challenges libraries faced but with solutions that were politically palatable to the current government. For example many submissions raised the issues of national library standards and the merging of library authorities. In its submission Cilip remarked:

“The focus on localism has been a barrier to the development of national standards that would support local delivery and identifying major economies of scale. The public library is a national brand and some elements of it can be delivered more effectively on a national scale.”

And:

“In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient.”

And yet both issues were noticeably absent in the report. Sieghart would have been well aware of these but either decided they would not be acceptable and dropped them as a matter of pragmatism or as a result of ministerial intervention.

Whether this was a pragmatic approach or political interference depends I suspect on your political outlook.

A similar conversation took place at the SUFL conference with the view from the Taskforce that neither issue would be acceptable to the LGA or ministers and incompatible with the trend towards greater localism and regional devolution.

Looking at the report Sieghart’s three main recommendations were:

  • The provision of a national digital resource for libraries, to be delivered in partnership with local authorities
  • The setting up of a task and finish force, led by local government, in partnership with other bodies involved in the library sector
  • The task force, to work with local authorities, to help them improve, revitalise and if necessary, change their local library service, while encouraging, appropriate to each library, increased community involvement

Right from the outset the Taskforce was always meant to be subservient to the views of government and particularly the LGA . So, far from being ‘independent’, the report actually outlined a framework for the continuation of government policy.

This is again made clear in the recommendations concerning the oversight of the Taskforce, which he recommended:

“…will jointly report to Ministers and the Local Government Association. This partnership will foster and promote a new and dynamic way of working for libraries.”

Thus, the Taskforce was never intended to be an independent voice for libraries but rather a vehicle by which ministers and the LGA could drive forward their own vision for libraries. The composition of the Taskforce reflects established interests with calls to include campaigners and unions falling on deaf ears, leaving the only potential dissenting voice on the group being Cilip. 

Is it any wonder that many campaigners are suspicious of the Taskforce’s motives and view it as little more than a smokescreen for enabling government policy regardless?

However, it would be wrong to disregard the Taskforce altogether. Paul Blantern made the point that without their intervention libraries would have one less tank in the armoury. They are able to make representation to government and the LGA that individuals cannot. Equally, both Paul and Kathy indicated that they were happy to talk to individual councils and advise on the pros and cons of the different options available such as the viability and sustainability of volunteer libraries.

Another interesting point raised was the how the Taskforce operates behind the scenes. Paul mentioned a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith regarding the vital role libraries play in developing digital skills for Universal Credit. He indicated that the Taskforce could encourage funding for libraries that deliver services which benefit the DWP.

This would certainly find favour with many services who struggle to cope with the rising demand from job seekers. However, the success of such an approach can only be judged by how quickly such funding becomes available, if at all.

This leaves campaigners in somewhat of a conundrum. They can ignore the Taskforce and continue with outright opposition to government policy in the hope that a eventual change in administration will result in a better deal for libraries. Or they can accept the limitations of the Taskforce, that it will never be the leadership body they would like, but work together where interests coincide.

Whatever happens bridges need to be built on both sides whilst recognising that there are major differences in ideology and attitudes. Perhaps one small start would be for campaigners not to attack Paul Blantern, in his role as Chair of the Taskforce, over changes made in Northamptonshire . It’s hard for a CEO not to be defensive about his own authority. In return, perhaps Paul could refrain from holding his own library service up as an exemplar in recognition that many campaigners disagree with the changes he has made.

There are at least three more years of austerity and five years of the current government left. Campaigners, the Taskforce, and all interested bodies and organisation must try to work together, where circumstances and interests coincide, to ensure that even if library services don’t thrive they do at least survive.

What shape those library services will take over the next few years I’ll leave for another post.

 

 

 

Damned if we do…

Nowadays it’s not often that libraries receive funding rather than seeing it reduced but the Government’s announcement of £7.4 million to increase wifi coverage and internet access in libraries in England has been broadly welcomed in the sector. This was one of the recommendations in the Sieghart report and will bring kudos to the Leadership for Libraries task force.

Sieghart has stated that “I would hope within 18 months every library in the country – including community libraries – will have wi-fi” so it’s clear that the funding will also be extended to volunteer as well as local authority libraries.

That said, there is some questioning on whether or not this is the most effective use of the funding. Commenting on the above article Mick Fortune pointed out that “…leveraging the millions already invested in RFID and using Wifi to help link physical stock to relevant online resources – as is already being done in some European public libraries – and ticking three boxes at once – digital, WiFi and the exploitation of under-used resources” might be the best way forward.

So perhaps the scheme might be refined as it evolves in consultation with library services themselves. Given the IT expertise available in libraries (not just public) Cilip perhaps have a part to play in advising on the best way forward.

More controversial was the additional funding provided by Barclays and BT to provide free wifi and digital support to 57 libraries and 13 community centres in deprived areas across England. This includes support from “Barclays Digital Eagles, specially trained members of Barclays staff who…will work at the new Wi-fi sites to help local people build confidence and develop the skills they need to succeed in the digital world.”

Leaving aside the rather naff name of ‘digital eagle’ (in the public sector we just call them IT support!) many voiced concern via Twitter regarding the ethics of such funding. Particularly from a Bank that has been mired in scandals around Libor, mis-selling PPI, and manipulating energy prices, all of which have incurred massive fines along the way.

I share some of the concerns raised. Unfortunately, the political reality is that libraries are not masters of their own destiny and librarians do not get to make the final choice in these circumstances. Such decisions are made by councillors, cabinet members, and council leaders. Right across the political spectrum it would be a brave council that rejected funding for libraries on ethical grounds.

So while such considerations might give many within the profession pause it would be almost impossible to convince either the public or more importantly council members to reject corporate funding.

Equally, Sieghart has made it clear that this is just the beginning and says that “the government and the task force will [also] look at big corporations making donations of kit – tablets, screens, keyboards etc.”

So given Sieghart’s views and Paul Blantern’s, Chair of the task force, approval of his own library service establishing a donation scheme, it appears that greater corporate and commercial sponsorship of libraries is here for the forseeable future. Whether or not you approve of this will depend on your political outlook and opinion on how public services should – or should not – be funded.

What is becoming obvious however is the fact that the corporate approach is so closely aligned to the current government’s views and ideology that it undermines any claim of independence or impartiality from either Sieghart’s report or the task force. At best the task force represents a mix of political expediency and financial pragmatism. Given that Labour has broadly hinted it will continue with Sieghart’s recommendations I see no genuine change of course from that quarter should they form the next government.

After years of reductions and underfunding councils will take what monies they can get regardless of the ethical credentials of the donors. And I sometimes wonder if the public genuinely care as long as libraries doors are kept open?

So for librarians it’s a case of damned if we do and damned if we don’t, which just goes to prove that occupying the moral high ground can be a very lonely watch indeed.