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Bye Bye Byelaws

Hertfordshire Council has just announced a proposed change to its library byelaws. Now, library byelaws might seem slightly archaic, if not downright boring, but actually provide an important function in that they give library staff (‘library officers’ as described in the byelaws) the authority to enforce rules & regulations governing the library, particularly around users behaviour.

Ostensibly Hertfordshire want to do away with the byelaw that prevents the use of mobile telephones, portable computer or recording equipment. All well and good and it’s unlikely anyone would have objections to this in the age of smartphones, tablets and laptops.

But the Council wish to take it one step further and more significantly also broaden the definition of a ‘library officer’ to include volunteers. Currently library byelaws consider ‘library officers’ as being paid employees of the Council. So this proposed change would put volunteers on an equal footing with paid staff.

It’s not particularly easy to change byelaws. Any amendments have to be referred to and approved by the Secretary of State at the DCMS. However, given the evidence of the past nine years it’s highly unlikely the DCMS will rule against the further encroachment of volunteers into the sphere of library provision or be overly concerned about the role of library workers and paid staff.

The Council report notes that the byelaws:

“…assist the library workforce in their daily role, they can be used when necessary to deal with the more extreme cases of behaviour experienced and they allow for flexibility in dealing with local concerns.”

In its own statement the Council itself has highlighted an important principle in that the byelaws are for the ‘workforce’, that is ‘paid’ employees. Legally, volunteers are not employees and should not be treated as such.

Hertfordshire Libraries responded to criticism on Twitter by stating:

“Hertfordshire has had Community Libraries, managed in partnership with volunteers, for several years. The Council is seeking to update its byelaws to reflect this reality.”

Hertfordshire currently have thirteen community libraries run by unpaid volunteers as part of its statutory service. This means that those libraries are subject to the byelaws , which are technically not enforceable by volunteers!

So while it might appear Hertfordshire are seeking a pragmatic solution it ignores the fact that the council created the problem in the first place by removing paid staff. It also becomes clear that giving volunteers the same authority as staff allows the claim of running a ‘statutory service’.

With that in mind it will come as no surprise that the Council is considering outsourcing the library service and looking for a further £500,000 budget reduction on top of an already £2.5m saving in the last four years. Far from being pragmatic it is a cynical manoeuvre to enable further service and staff cuts.

So what has been the response in the profession been so far. Well, as expected Libraries Connected sought to defend the move and in a Twitter statement that could have equally been written by the Council, said:

“The byelaws are not a change in policy towards staff and volunteers. The change is to ensure that public and staff have an equally safe experience @hertsLibraries by ensuring that volunteers have the permission to manage situations in libraries when they arise.”

To be fair I had little hope that Libraries Connected would respond in any other way given their goals are so closely aligned with the DCMS via the Libraries Taskforce and are funded to provide training for volunteer-led libraries.

It’s worth observing though that while all publicly funded library sectors are under pressure including HE, FE and especially schools, public libraries must be in a unique position of having a self-appointed ‘leadership’ body that actively facilitates de-professionalisation and the replacement of paid staff with volunteers.

But surely members could expect a more robust response from Cilip?

Sadly, Cilip seemed unsure on how to approach the issue. From initially liking the Libraries Connected tweet, which would seem to imply agreement, Nick Poole then approached Shelia Bennet, Head of Libraries Strategy and Delivery at the DCMS:

“one for an @DCMS view perhaps? A quiet word with the Council might discourage the use of an expression intended for paid staff to describe what is clearly volunteer substitution.”

While I commend Nick for approaching the DCMS, a more formal response aiming to protect members interest would be preferable.  But the issue actually goes deeper. Cilip is in a difficult position of its own making as it counts Libraries Connected as a strategic partner but the aims of both organisations don’t necessarily match.

It’s also not the only Cilip partnership that has drawn criticism. Concerns have been raised about Cilip’s promotion of Information as an Asset by partnering with KPMG

Now this might make perfect sense for the IP/KM sectors but sits less well with public libraries. As I noted in a previous post KPMG was severely criticised and investigated over its role in the collapse of Carillion, which particularly hit the public sector, and left the taxpayer to pick up millions of pounds of debt.

Recently they have also been criticised for leaving out negative findings from a study of its own flagship literacy programme.

And let’s not forget that in 2011 KPMG published a report on public sector reform in which they stated

“…giving councils total freedom on libraries could mean that they create huge social value from engaging a community in running its own library, backed up with some modern technology, whilst also saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff, poor use of space and unnecessary stock”.

Unfortunately, the Government and many councils took this advice to heart to the utter detriment of a professionalised national library service.

Cilip seems to be tying itself up in knots by trying to be the representative body for all information sectors but such a broad church approach can lead to tensions between the different areas. Whether Cilip can reconcile the conflicting missions of different sectors and partner organisations, to its members satisfaction, remains to be seen.

However, as ably demonstrated in politics lately, tensions have a way of festering and can only last so long before schisms occur.

Returning to the issue of the byelaws I’ll end with two tweets around the issue. The first from Luke Fowler who wrote:

“What’s maybe telling is that this thread seems to show a total divide between “leaders” and the rest of the profession? Many Info Pros have commented in the thread – but the only ones seemingly supporting this as positive are two CEOs and the HoS proposing the change?”

And the second from Lesley Martin:

“So my years of study & training, professional qualifications, experience and professional development are worthless? I am sick of this idea that being a librarian or library worker is some sort of little hobby.”

Precisely!

The Importance of Public Library Computers

Below is a press release from Lorensbergs and Cilip about a new book ‘More Short Stories from the People’s Network’ which outlines twelve new case studies underlining the importance of public library computers.  This builds on the original publication ‘Short Stories from the People’s Network

I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy at the Cilip conference in July and was impressed with the range of activities taking place in libraries across the UK. Despite the perception of everyone owning a digital device there are still large numbers of the public reliant on the computers provided in public libraries and the digital support provided by staff.

As the Cilip President, Ayub Khan, states in the foreword:

“Free library computers are a lifeline to the digitally disadvantaged in our increasingly online world. It’s getting harder to do essential, everyday things offline – like shopping, homework, or applying for jobs. The Government’s ‘digital by default’ policy aims to make everything from taxing the car to applying for benefits, online-only transactions. Government figures for 20171 revealed that 90% of households had internet access – but that still leaves around three million households without it. Plus many other lower income households are without broadband and rely solely on mobile phones, which offer connectivity but are less suited for making benefit or job applications.”

Both books are available for download and provide further evidence of the valuable services offered by public libraries and library staff for the benefit of their communities.

More Short Stories from the People’s Network

Twelve case studies evidencing the continuing importance of public access computers in UK libraries have been published in a new book ‘More Short Stories from the People’s Network’.

The stories have been compiled for publication by Lorensbergs, and supported by CILIP, the UK’s library and information association. The book shares the experiences of twelve public library authorities and provides vital insights into the progress achieved and challenges overcome when helping customers to access and use the internet.

Many opportunities to participate and progress are available only to those with the means and skills to get online. It’s essential for many life critical tasks, yet 10% of UK households are without connectivity to the internet, and many more are without broadband. Millions make use of library computers – collectively known as the People’s Network – to apply for jobs, benefits, find new opportunities and remain socially included.

The book is the second volume of case studies on how the People’s Network remains an essential piece of national infrastructure provided by the UK’s public library service. Its chapters describe the many initiatives taken by library staff to keep their communities connected and inclusive.

Libraries Minister Michael Ellis said: “Internet access is now an integral part of a modern library service. Public libraries offer both the facilities and the practical support to help people get online and develop their digital skills. This is hugely important to society, now and in the future.

“I welcome this publication, which helps the sector share experiences, learning and best practice to improve services for library users across the country.”

Anna Crilly, Managing Director of Lorensbergs, comments: “This new collection continues to communicate the national story of the value of the people’s network. Today, nearly half of libraries are seeing requests for help with digital skills rising, with the vast remainder needing to satisfy a constant level of demand for this support from their communities. These stories provide the narrative behind the statistics and explore the difference libraries are making to people’s lives.”

Ayub Khan, CILIP President, who provides a foreword to the book, said: “These stories offer a compelling message on the continuing importance of the People’s Network. It’s a book that deserves to be read by all those with a stake in the welfare and development of our society.”

Press contacts

  • Philippa Bryant, Head of Marketing, Lorensbergs – philippa.bryant@lorensbergs.co.uk
  • Mark Taylor, Director of External Relations, CILIP – mark.taylor@cilip.org.uk

No Plan B: The Closure of a Schools Library Service

The following guest post is from Elizabeth Roberts, former staff member of the Walsall Schools Library Support Service, which sadly closed in March this year due to funding cuts.

The irony, like many closures affecting school and public libraries, is such reductions happen while the Government announces plans to improve literacy, early reading, and language skills through the establishment of a Centre of Excellence for Literacy Teaching.

But sadly School Library Services, like school libraries, have no statutory standing and are susceptible to local decision making and  dwindling school budgets.

I wish the ex-SLSS staff the very best of luck in their endeavour to form a new company to continue delivering library services to schools. However, the  fact they need to do so is a damning indictment on government policy despite the lip service paid to improving literacy and an illustration of the real life impact of starving public services of desperately needed funding at a local level.

Walsall Schools Library Support Services

On 29 March 2018, after 50 years of service to children in Walsall, Walsall Schools Library Support Service (SLSS) closed its doors for the last time. Even on our final morning, staff were still out in schools delivering literacy support. Demand for our services was still extremely high. The questionnaires completed annually by schools showed a 100% satisfaction rate. So how could such a vibrant, thriving service close?

SLSS offered a wide range of library and literacy support to schools. Its offer was vast. Its loan collections encompassed reading for pleasure termly loans, class readers and topic boxes. In addition hundreds of artefact boxes were on offer to schools covering every aspect of the curriculum. Our service was flexible and proactive – you want Harry Potter, the World Cup, carnivals…..? No problem!

Alongside the loan collections, experienced SLSS staff worked in schools to deliver activities designed to inspire and enthuse. We revitalised school libraries, ran book clubs, told stories, gave information literacy sessions, performed poetry, ran quizzes, provided booklists and advised on purchases. Our staff were experts on children’s books. The list was endless. Where a school had a literacy need then we would do our utmost to fulfil it.

Our downfall, as it had been for our colleagues in Walsall public libraries the year before, was finance. For some years we had been funded by a dedelegated budget – money that headteachers had agreed could be top-sliced and invested in our service. We knew that this would have to end by 2019 and were planning for the transition to a fully traded service. However, in October 2017 the Heads Forum voted to end dedelegation a year early. Instead of the money being top-sliced, it would be returned to schools and they could choose how to spend it. For us, this meant that our money would run out in March 2018, at which point we would either have to trade or close.

At this point a variety of things happened which affected our ability to get a business plan together. The approval by senior managers that we could trade with schools was not given until November 2017, by which point schools were in the throes of Christmas preparations. In addition, appalling bad weather saw schools closed across the borough. Add to this the need to keep our service running and the time actually available to us to plan and negotiate with schools was tiny.

We were set a target of £120K that we would need to make through trading with schools. We were given until February 2018 to get schools to commit to this or else we would have to close. As soon as we came back after Christmas, staff on 12 weeks’ notice were issued with their redundancy notices. We all knew we were living on borrowed time.

Schools began to reply to us. Some said that they would rather buy their own resources than pay for SLSS. However, a sizeable number agreed to pay for some or all the elements of our new service. We were overwhelmed with messages of support from these schools, some of whom could not envisage how they would manage without us. What broke our hearts were the schools who said they would love to buy our services, that they valued us but that they could not afford us as they were having to make their own staff redundant.

One teacher said to us “For us the resources and books you provide help to take the child on a journey. The resources show them visually and the books take them on an emotional rollercoaster allowing them to escape, they are then able to develop their own ideas and personalities. Pupil premium kids certainly need the provisions you provide.”

Despite all our efforts, we didn’t make the target we had been set by the Council and were given formal notice at the end of February that we would have to close. We were around £40K short of our target. We tried to negotiate in order to keep SLSS running. Would the Council accept a slimmed-down service with fewer staff we asked? Could they lend us £40K contingency money to support us for 12 months to allow us to build a stronger business case? Could we be absorbed into public libraries to minimise the central running costs that other Council departments required from us? The answer was a firm “no”. We were told that there was “no plan B” for SLSS – it was all or nothing.

Ironically, in February 2018 it was announced that the planned refurbishment of Walsall Central Library would cost £250K more than originally budgeted for, because of problems with the roof. Councillor Mike Bird was quoted as saying “It seems they have started a project and haven’t done the due diligence and have found a lot more needs doing than first anticipated.” A fraction of this money would have kept SLSS going.

In the last 12 months 9 of the 16 public libraries in Walsall have closed. Those that remain have been chosen on a geographical basis – distance from the library as the crow flies. Unfortunately people don’t travel as the crow flies! We have spoken to schools who have been forced to end class visits to the library. Since the closure of SLSS, Walsall public libraries no longer have staff that specialise in supporting children’s literacy. The biggest losers in all these library closures have been the children of Walsall. In 2015 Walsall schools were in the bottom 10 authorities in the country for literacy. Shouldn’t the Council be investing more in supporting them, rather than cutting the services they rely on?

Looking to the future, some of the SLSS staff have begun working together to form a company Read For Your Life which aims to offer literacy support into schools  We are currently talking to schools about their requirements. From this we hope to carry on the best of Walsall SLSS, supporting our children to grow as readers.

Nothing to laugh at in Northants

The crisis at Northamptonshire continues with sudden drastic cuts announced to library opening times with less than twenty-four hours notice and with the immediate withdrawal of the mobile library. Many of the libraries are now only open for one day per week. The Council has issued the following statement on the library’s website:

“The Section 114 Spending controls currently in place within Northamptonshire County Council restrict expenditure on recruitment, temporary staff or existing staff working overtime. As a direct consequence of this Northamptonshire County Council instruction, the library service (operated by First for Wellbeing) has to remove temporary staff and additional hours from its staffing allocation. This has a direct and immediate impact on the ability to keep libraries open.”

KMPG has also advised the cash-strapped council to close 21 of the smaller libraries or hand them over to volunteers. This from an authority once lauded by the Libraries Taskforce as a flagship, innovative, library service for others to emulate.

Although many authorities face difficult budget challenges some of the financial decisions made by the council appear ill-advised such as paying their ex-CEO, and ex-chair of the Taskforce, over £100k for simply retiring. It has also been revealed that the council re-engaged an ex-member of staff and paid them a £1,300-a-day consultancy fee, along with another member of staff  who was given a £50,000 pay-off, and then the firm she owned was  paid £650 per day to oversee an IT project.

These instances are the ones that have been made public so it has to be wondered at how many other examples exist of what is at best poor oversight of council expenditure.

Such payments will be a smack in the face to those library workers now facing job losses and redundancy and none will receive anything like the above rewards.

Apparently staff morale among the library workers is, not surprisingly, at rock bottom. My thoughts are with all the library staff caught up in these horrible circumstances and the uncertain future they face.

All of this is happening on the doorstep of Northamptonshire MP and Minister for libraries, Michael Ellis. Given the DCMS woefully inadequate response to other major library cuts nationally I have no reason to think that Mr Ellis will be any more likely to intervene than his predecessors. After, the root cause of all this distress can be directly laid at the feet of this government’s policies.

Lastly, given the rushed nature of the proposals no consideration seems to have been given to any form of consultation or provision under the Equalities Act. It will be interesting to see how the Council justifies such a move.

UPDATE:

As the only library body willing to publicly speak out on behalf of libraries Cilip has released a statement calling for the proposed cuts in Northamptonshire to be halted pending a national inquiry and are writing to the DCMS to intervene. They statement says:

“it is clear that the very significant cuts will result in a library service that can in no way be seen to be ‘comprehensive and efficient’, as required by the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. CILIP will be writing to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to call on them to mount an inquiry into this failure of provision. We urge Northamptonshire County Council to suspend the implementation of this decision pending any such inquiry.”

Nick Poole expressed Cilip’s solidarity with and support for all of the staff and library workers affected by the decision. He also urged CILIP members affected by the decision to make contact with the Member Services team for advice and support. Nick has also appeared on BBC Radio Northants challenging the Libraries Minister to intervene.

 

 

 

A Few Interesting Things!

It’s been a busy time recently and with so many things happening I haven’t managed to keep up with the number of posts I would like to write. So instead I’ll touch briefly on areas of interest and then follow through in greater depth at a later stage:

Trust me I’m a professional!

Cilip commissioned research by YouGov that revealed which professionals the public believe are most likely to provide trustworthy information. Librarians and library staff came in the top five. This is a real boost of confidence to the profession especially in an era where internet searches and over-reliance on Google by the public do not necessarily provide reliable and unbiased results.

Further details can be found at the dedicated area Trusted professional, which include infographics to share and links to a survey asking librarians what makes them a trusted professional. Those on Twitter can also use the hashtag #TrustedProfessional

The Arts Council Speaks

An interview with Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of the Arts Council was revealing in how libraries should reinvent themselves and remain relevant in contemporary society including adopting a more entrepreneurial approach. There was also an appeal regarding conceptual change in the profession with the explanation:

“We need to use that breadth of experience to help in particular places, because breadth of experience is like oxygen, you need it in the room, and you need to be open to it and you need to be prepared to breathe it – even if it feels as if its got a different smell from the air that you normally breathe.”

Just so! On a positive note it’s clear that Sir Nicholas is very knowledgeable about the arts and museums sector.

Sir Nicholas joined the Arts Council after 28 years at the Tate gallery and it has to be said his tenure was not without controversy. This included accusations of bullying within the organisation, outsourcing of jobs, staff being paid below the London living wage, and the removal of a staff canteen discount. Perhaps this is what Sir Nicholas means by adopting a more entrepreneurial attitude?

It’s quite strange really that as the development agency for public libraries the Arts council very rarely attracts much criticism from campaigners. After all, this is the agency which is mandated to oversee libraries, direct funding to libraries, and advise the government on libraries. If any agency has the authority to highlight the difficult situation libraries face to the government, it’s the Art Council. The fact they appear to have failed to do so should come as no surprise. Like any publicly funded body they are perhaps wary of causing offence that might affect the rather substantial grant they receive from Central Government to bother with something as simple, and dangerous, as speaking truth to power.

That ACE treats libraries as a poorer cousin was highlighted with the recent appointment of a Director for libraries and the Birmingham area, effectively making the focus on libraries a part-time one. In contrast the Museums Director was appointed as a full-time post and at a higher grade. This despite the fact that libraries attract far higher visitor numbers than museums and feed into a wider range of local and national government agenda priorities.

Libraries and co-location

Co-location of libraries with other council or cultural services is a controversial issue. With both proponents and detractors willing to argue for or against but with little or mainly anecdotal evidence to draw upon to prove the point.

Certainly, there appears a sound financial argument in co-locating services under one roof in terms of consolidating the council estate and reducing expenses such as utility costs and rates (NNDR). Further savings can also been made by merging staff roles across the combined services. Proving an increase in footfall is also relatively straightforward as the public come in to use multiple services.

However, this is where the issue becomes complex as increased footfall does not necessarily equate to improving other library measures such as increased loans, PN usage, and membership.

There are also obvious disadvantages to co-location such as decreased space for activities and stock, the use of generic customer services roles and the loss of library specific knowledge, and the dilution of the library brand.

The other factor is co-location is often the result of a new build/refurbishment to re-site the services, which attracts greater interest. This is nothing new. Over the years many new stand-alone libraries have opened and attracted new members and usage.

For example Beeston Library, Nottingham re-opened in August 2017 following extensive refurbishment. In the first two months the library received 30,000 visits, an increase from 21,000 in the same period in 2016, and over 800 new members joined the library. I suspect an extended range of activities and 10,000 new books were a significant factor. It’s almost certain that other new stand-alone libraries such has the recently opened Colliers Wood will experience a similar upsurge.

In other words it is the ‘novelty’ and greater promotion of such new builds/refurbishments that attracts the interest. My own opinion is that applies to co-located services as well.

While not excluding the wider range of services within libraries, there are many in the sector who argue that it is the provision of good quality book stock, as part of a strong core offer, that attracts and retains library users. I count myself amongst them. But again, much more in-depth research is required to evidence this.

That is not to say that libraries cannot benefit from being part of a wider cultural centre. The Story House in Chester and the new Central Library in Halifax are examples of this approach.

However, what has not been independently researched and proven is that libraries benefit from increased/sustained usage either by co-location or as part of a multi-use building with several council (or other) services.

The Shining a Light report for England indicated that access to other council services might encourage greater use of library services. However, this view was highest amongst non-users and those that rarely or never read books. Conversely regular users and prolific readers wanted better information about services and improving the range and quality of books.

So, the evidence is limited and further research is required particularly to show that non-users and irregular readers, coming into a multi-use building, are actually encouraged to become library members and users, and that such data is captured.

Given the greater spread and convenient locations of libraries compared to other council services it might just be that what non-users actually want is ease of access to services rather than necessarily wishing to use the library itself.

This highlights the complexity of co-location and lack of data around libraries as multi-use buildings. Without such evidence the danger is to conflate correlation with causation.

 

 

 

 

Keeping Them Hooked – Research Opportunity

A PhD studentship is being offered at the University of Northumbria, for a research project into the use of volunteers in public libraries. This is a fully funded opportunity and will add to the rather limited research in this area.

What it study might eventually reveal around the sustainability and quality of the volunteer service model remains to be seen but it is an important area that requires a more disciplined and academic approach to gathering and presenting the evidence, which is why I have agreed to highlight the opportunity.

On a personal note I undertook my postgrad in librarianship at Northumbria University. Not only is it a great Library School but Newcastle is wonderful place to study so good luck to the successful candidate.

Keeping them hooked: An investigation into the drivers and barriers to successful volunteer use in Public Libraries

Project Description

Volunteers have become a crucial part of public library delivery within the UK, such that between 2010 and 2016 a quarter of all UK library jobs disappeared, 343 libraries closed, and 15,500 volunteers were recruited (Wainwright 2016). This increasingly mixed delivery of public libraries is part of a more general shift to reduce the role of the state in providing services, and therefore move towards the Conservative Government’s vision of a shared society. Wallace (2013) suggests that we are currently experiencing a dramatic shift from a welfare state to an ‘enabling state’, providing opportunities for the development of new relationships between citizens, communities and public services, however this results in challenges with regard to social inclusivity and fairness.

The use of volunteers to enhance the work of public librarians is not a new concept, however their increasing utilisation as a solution for financial austerity, has resulted in the development of a series of ‘unintended consequences’ that impact on delivery of a user centred public library service (Casselden 2016). Key issues relate to the capacity for social exclusion of the wider community, arising from the existence of key social groups involved with volunteering, reduced service accountability and quality, and a blurring of boundaries between the professional paid staff and volunteers (Casselden 2017). The delivery of an equitable, consistently high quality public library service requires careful thought regarding the sustainability and inclusiveness of the volunteering effort. Therefore adopting a volunteer relationship management approach (similar to ‘customer relationship management’ used in marketing) may enhance communication, build trust and relationships between existing stakeholders, and serve to mitigate some of the key challenges that exist (Casselden 2017). This also provides a base from which to develop digital solutions that would further enhance volunteer sustainability, and inclusivity to more marginalised social groups.

The Libraries Taskforce (2017) proposes that further research is required examining the longer-term impact on volunteers and the communities that they serve, in addition to exploring good practice evident in other sectors. Therefore, this research seeks to investigate and identify the key drivers and barriers to successful volunteer use, and explore more fully the mechanisms that would enhance relationships. It will also explore the ways in which digital technology might best work to support development of these relationships. A case study approach will be utilised, exploring a range of community managed libraries and their immediate community users, in addition to the third sector, and museums. A qualitative method will enable the creation of a rich picture that therefore provides an evidence base for policy development, the creation of technological solutions, and the sharing of good practice and strategies for success in creating a joined-up inclusive UK public library service.

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:
• Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
• Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
• Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see:
https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/research/postgraduate-research-degrees/how-to-apply/

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF18/…) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 28th January 2018

Start Date: 1st October 2018

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff. We welcome applications from all members of the community. The University holds an Athena SWAN Bronze award in recognition of our commitment to improving employment practices for the advancement of gender equality and is a member of the Euraxess network, which delivers information and support to professional researchers.

Funding Notes

The studentship includes a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2017/18, this is £14,553 pa) and fees.

References

Libraries Taskforce. (2017) Corporate report: Libraries Taskforce: future research priorities. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/libraries-taskforce-research-programme/libraries-taskforce-future-research-priorities.

Wainwright D, Bradshaw P, Sherlock P, et al. (2016) Libraries lose a quarter of staff as hundreds close. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35707956.

Wallace J. (2013) The rise of the enabling state: A review of policy and evidence across the UK and Ireland. Available at: https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/carnegieuktrust/wp-content/uploads/sites/64/2016/02/pub14550114991.pdf.

Casselden B, Pickard A, Walton G, McLeod J. (2017) ‘Keeping the doors open in an age of austerity? Qualitative analysis of stakeholder views on volunteers in public libraries’. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. ISSN 0961-0006 (In Press)

Casselden B, Walton G, Pickard A, McLeod J. (2017) ‘Issues of quality and professionalism of library volunteers: reporting from a qualitative case study’. Performance Measurement and Metrics, 18 (2). pp. 118-126. ISSN 1467-8047

Casselden B, Pickard A, Walton G. (2017) The challenges of delivering a public library service using volunteers: a qualitative investigation examining key stakeholder experiences. In: 2017 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference, 7th – 8th September 2017, Nottingham.

Casselden B. (2016) A Delicate Balancing Act: an investigation of volunteer use and stakeholder perspectives in public libraries. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

Casselden B, Pickard A, McLeod J. (2015) ‘The challenges facing public libraries in the Big Society: The role of volunteers, and the issues that surround their use in England’. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 47 (3). pp. 187-203. ISSN 0961-0006

Casselden B. (2013) The challenges facing public libraries in the Big Society: focusing on the role of volunteers, and the issues that surround their use. In: Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Umbrella 2013 Conference and Exhibition, 2-3 July 2013, Manchester, UK.

Casselden B. (2016) A Delicate Balancing Act: an investigation of volunteer use and stakeholder perspectives in public libraries. i-School, Department of Computer and Information Sciences. Northumbria University.

Casselden B, Pickard A, Walton G, McLeod J. (2017) ‘Keeping the doors open in an age of austerity? Qualitative analysis of stakeholder views on volunteers in public libraries’. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. ISSN 0961-0006 (In Press)

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

 

School Librarians At Their Best!

The last post in the current series on school libraries is by Caroline Roche, Chair of Cilip’s School Library Group. Caroline explains about the work of the group, the work they do with 2000 school librarians, and the importance of collecting reliable data for the sector to help encourage informed decision making.

A peek into the world of SLG – school librarians at their best!

The SLG Committee is composed of around 17 members, and we serve a large group of school librarians – currently about 2000. Our main focus is to support school librarians with resources and professional advice. Our committee is a busy one – we are currently organising our biannual Conference being held in April 2018; collecting book reviews ready to go into our fifth Book Pack to be launched in April; we have just published our School Libraries in View annual magazine which showcases scholarship and research in the profession; and we have numerous other projects.

This year, however, we have been working closely with Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, on a School Library Data Project. This project has arisen from the work the committee did previously to inform the APPG on School Libraries. The APPG published a report entitled ‘The Beating Heart of the School’ but were unable to proceed any further, both because parliament was dissolved and re-elected, but also because we were unable to provide any meaningful data.

This last point is the crux of the matter for school librarians. Although SLG knows that many school libraries are either closing, or downgrading from having a skilled professional in place to have someone just minding the books (or nobody), we are unable to provide any figures for this. This is because unlike public – and indeed prison – libraries, school libraries are not statutory. Which means, in effect, that every single Head makes their own decision on whether to have a library or not. Neither do Ofsted include the presence (or lack of) a library in their reports, meaning that schools can be rated excellent for literacy and learning without having a library, which is a nonsense in our opinion. Heads therefore feel that cutting the library as a cost saving is consequence free, and in these hard financial times, many close them. As every school is individually run, and school librarians in those schools are often muzzled if they wish to have a good reference from the school, finding out the true scale of the devastation is very difficult.

Nick Poole therefore set up the School Library Data Group to see if we can devise a way of ascertaining what library provision is available in schools, ensuring this information is detailed enough to exclude books in classrooms, or a room with books in that is occasionally open some lunchtimes. We are negotiating with both the Government and Ofsted to see if the questionnaire we are working on can be endorsed officially. We are due to have the questionnaire ready for some time in 2018 – we only get one shot at getting this right! SLG are working in partnership with the School Librarians Association, The National Literacy Trust, Booktrust and other partners on this project.

As part of this campaign to find out better information and statistics so that we could feed back to the APPG, Dawn Finch, past president of CILIP and previous school librarian, composed a letter to the Education Secretary Justine Greening asking her to halt the closure of school libraries. This was signed by over 200 authors and notable educators, and was reported on by the BBC, the TES, the Guardian, the Independent and the Bookseller. That campaign is ongoing and we are looking to build on that success. In addition, we are also working with Ofsted to see how they can include school libraries in their inspections. This in itself is controversial amongst school librarians.

Most don’t want to be inspected by Ofsted directly because what a school librarian does in a school is determined by the Head. Some act as teacher librarians teaching many periods of library lessons, some administer reading programmes, some (like my assistant) run the Extended Project Qualification and some, like me, have their main focus on books, eBooks and wider resources, as well as library strategies and projects. Coming up with a common standard to judge us all by would be a nightmare – but that doesn’t mean we should be ignored during an inspection either which is usually the case.

Raising the status of school librarians and ensuring that we are all treated as professionals is one of our key objectives in SLG. Schools will often appoint people with no qualifications so that they can pay them less. However, even qualified school librarians find that they are often lumped in with the secretaries and maintenance crew, and are paid and treated accordingly. One of the keys to a school librarian being able to work successfully in a school is being considered a member of the academic staff and working on a par with other heads of department. We continue to fight against the deprofessionalisation of school librarians, which seems to be wholly driven by economic reasons, and for us to be recognised as academic Heads of Department and paid accordingly.

SLG is also striving within CILIP to ensure that school librarians are visible. Some appear to believe that because we work in an academic setting, that we are more or less the same as university or college librarians, but that is not the case. The role of a school librarian is much wider and all encompassing. We do everything from buying the books, cataloguing, covering, mending, issuing, stocktaking and weeding resources. We answer queries from staff, students and parents, set up online databases, buy furniture, advise teachers on resources and create reading lists, arrange author visits – and those are only the ‘library’ jobs we do, let alone the teaching side. University and academic librarians tend to specialise in one or two of those areas. No other librarian job I believe covers everything from stock purchase to disposal, and everything in between! So we have been advocating to get our voice heard at Conference, at Careers events, and other special CILIP events where we generally have to ask to be included. But we’re a determined bunch – we have to be to work in schools! – and we are slowly getting there.

Please continue to support us by tweeting and retweeting @CILIPSLG, by following #schoollibrariesmatter and if you are a parent going round a school, checking to see if the school has a library, and asking why not! And if you would like to add SLG as one of your groups, we would be very happy to have you.

Cilip Board Elections 2017

Cilip members have the opportunity to vote for three new Board members over the coming weeks, 2nd – 27th November. There are four people standing, including myself, and further details can be found on the Cilip website. The fact that there are more candidates standing than positions available is good for the democratic process and demonstrates the willingness of the nominees to work for the good of the profession. Dawn, Naomi and John have kindly agreed for their details to be listed below.

Elections are a two way process, which require candidates and membership to be engaged. That’s why I encourage all members to vote, not just for this, but in all relevant Cilip elections. I shall be returning to the topic of the Board Elections over the coming weeks as well as tweeting regularly and I hope members also take to social media to find out more about the candidates and to promote the poll.

A professional body is only a strong as the people who speak out for it. Please make your voice heard by voting, so we can make our voices heard on your behalf.

Leon Bolton: Librarian and Blogger

I am a strong advocate for libraries and library staff and the benefit they bring to society. However, as individuals we can only accomplish so much which is why the interests of the sector is best served by a strong professional body that champions library and information services nationally. Cilip brings together not just public libraries but school, academic, health, etc. as well as those from the related IP and KM sectors.

I started out as highly critical of the body but my view has changed thanks to Cilip itself changing as it continues to  advocate for library and information services in all sectors. I would like to be part of this change and contribute to Cilip becoming the professional body its members need and making it relevant to current, new and potential members.

I recognise that the work of the Board is to ensure that the organisation maintains a secure financial footing and meets all the legal accountabilities of its charitable and chartered status. This is the foundation for ensuring a sustainable association and if elected I am committed to working with the staff, fellow trustees, and presidential team to help secure the long-term interests of the body for the good of the profession.

 

Dawn Finch: Librarian and Children’s Author

As my time on the CILIP Presidential Team draws to a close, I am keen not to lose touch with the work and the campaigning I have done over the past three years. I feel that the campaign for libraries (sadly) has a long way to run, and that we all face a much tougher struggle ahead, and I want to be at the sharp edge of that process.

There are also issues of ethical concern within the profession, and as chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee, I feel that having a vote and a voice on the Board will strengthen that role. Speaking personally, I would also like to make a difference to my own sector – children’s and school libraries. This campaign is hotting up and I think that having someone on the Board who represents and understands the needs of school librarians, and the children they work with, is essential.

 

Naomi Korn: Managing Director and Consultant

Since 2015, I have been proud to sit on CILIP Board as a Trustee and on CILIP’s Audit Committee. Apart from being a CILIP Trustee, my relationship with CILIP, its members and the wider information and library community is extensive, well established and goes back many years. I have worked closely on a variety of projects and activities with CILIP.

I became a Trustee in 2015 because although i had a well established relationship with CILIP, its members and the wider information and library community, I wanted to become more involved in the strategic direction of travel of CILIP at a crucial time of library closures and when CILIP was  planning its future. Running a small business myself, I felt I could offer valuable business insight, as well as a professional perspective on risk, compliance and business planning.

I have decided to run as a CILIP Trustee again because I love working with CILIPs talented Board and i want to do everything I can to support Nick and the Exec team in the successful implement of CILIP’s Action Plan and CILIP’s new membership offer.

I believe that my business acumen, professional compliance and risk skill set compliment the skills we already have on the Board, crucially bringing a synergy of sectorial understanding and business & compliance know-how at a critical time for CILIP and the members we represent.

 

John Trevor-Allen: Outreach / Reader Services Librarian

Over the past two years I have been extremely privileged to have been a CILIP Trustee, and I have worked hard to ensure I contribute to the development of CILIP as a strong professional association.
 
As a Trustee, I currently sit on the Ethics Committee as we work to develop and modernise the existing Ethical Principles and professional code of practice. Particularly in the current climate I believe it is essential that information professionals and librarians have a set of clear, modern values we can point to, demonstrating our commitment to open, reliable sources of information. I want to remain a Trustee of CILIP to help deliver an ethical framework that can support the profession and provide the tools we need to build a tolerant, open, just society.
 
As librarians, our value is not always obvious, and a strong professional association is vital to ensure that information professionals, at all levels of society, and in all sectors, are properly represented – and respected for what we can offer.
 
My first library post was as a pupil assistant in my school library, and as a professional I’ve worked in a number of sectors – academic, public, and now health. I’ve been lucky to always have a front-line role, and I’ve seen the ways in which we, as librarians, can have a direct and meaningful impact on our users.
 
I believe CILIP has a vital role to play in raising the profile of libraries and information skills and ensuring that everyone understands not only what a 21st Century library is, and how the support of trained information professionals can transform lives. What libraries offer is amazing, and CILIP is key to shaping how that offer should be supported, protected and expanded. I want to keep using my experience and skills to support CILIP as it works to achieve that vision.

 

 

One Hundred And Two!

The following guest post is from @ALibrarian1 on Twitter who has to remain anonymous due to censure they would incur for speaking out about their experience dealing with library volunteers. Obviously, this will not be everyone’s experience and neither does it detract from some of the great work volunteers do in libraries around the country.

However, it will resonate with many library staff, especially those who have had volunteers foisted on them after losing dedicated colleagues to cutbacks. It’s also an antidote to the sometime hollowness of the ‘positive narrative’. Not quite ‘alternative fact’ but never the whole story either.

It’s a serious issue told with tongue-in-cheek humour and not a certain amount of frustration. if you don’t already follow @ALibrarian1 on Twitter I highly recommend you do.

One Hundred And Two!

Hello. I recently started tweeting as @ALibrarian1 to vent my frustration/shout into the void about what it’s like working with volunteers in a public library. It’s been quite a surprise to find that there are lots of library folks out there who are interested, are listening, and who have offered both support and advice. Thank you everyone. Particularly to those who have reacted with horror, surprise and horrified surprise at some of the things I’ve tweeted about. You are doing an excellent job of reminding me that some things just aren’t acceptable, particularly when managers go out of their way to reassure me that ‘everything’s going so well!’ I accepted the offer to write this guest post so I can expand on some of the things I’ve been tweeting about and offer a bit more of an insight into my situation.

In April 2017 my library authority implemented an ‘efficiency based’ restructure which replaced about 60% of our staff with volunteers (or at least that was the intent, as many branches hadn’t and still haven’t recruited the numbers of volunteers they’d need to cover their opening hours). Every single one of our branches now has volunteers delivering frontline library services. We have three tiers: core libraries, the big branch libraries which are 60% staff 40% volunteers; hybrid libraries which are 40% staff 60% volunteers, and community libraries which are fully volunteer run with staff who drop in maybe one day a week then are on call as support by phone for the rest.

I’ve been working in this library service for just over 10 years, and work full time (37 hours) supervising a busy hybrid branch. We’re open 39 hours a week. I had 5 part time staff, now I have one full time and 102 volunteers. One hundred and two volunteers, and we still need more. One. Hundred. And. Two. I have to keep track of one hundred and two people, most of whom volunteer for only 2 hours once a week. I don’t know all their names and I probably never will.

Luckily, I’m not responsible for recruiting, interviewing, checking references or arranging a rota for them. That’s the job of the volunteer committee. A committee of volunteers we recruited to manage the recruitment of volunteers. Writing this, I’m well aware of how ridiculous this sounds. And it is. It is absolutely insane. The committee were formed from the small number of people who, in response to the 2015 council consultation on the future of libraries, gave their contact details and said they’d be interested in volunteering. Because they couldn’t volunteer while staff were still in post, and management needed to keep hold of them, they were formed into a committee. Then they weren’t given anything to do for about 6 months.

In January this year management started holding meetings with them in the branch to discuss what would happen from April. Staff weren’t involved in these meetings and both staff and the committee were told that we shouldn’t speak or have any interaction due to the “sensitive” situation – staff being on notice and the committee readying to replace them as volunteers. We already knew who had been granted voluntary redundancy, who was staying in post and who was being made redundant. Being pointlessly secretive about what we all knew was going to happen didn’t assist good relations between staff and the council. Staff contracts ended on the last day of March, volunteers took over on April Fool’s Day.

The council began a county wide recruitment drive for volunteers in earnest in late 2016 by announcing that since we no longer had enough staff (and glossing over the ‘how odd that lots of staff would be leaving at the same time’ problem; some library customers still don’t realise there were redundancies) we’d need volunteers to help us keep the libraries open. I believe this call for help to run the libraries “because we’re short of people” has been interpreted by some of the volunteers (particularly those who make up the committees) as a call for help to run the libraries “because we aren’t sure what we’re doing anymore”. Without a doubt, many of the volunteers do not value nor respect our experience. The council devalued staff by announcing that anyone can have a bash at running a library, so why should they think otherwise! We’ve made it very clear that we can’t run this service without them, and in doing so have given them licence to interfere with core service provision. We now need to bend over backwards to keep them onside. Should they decide to quit, we’re done for and libraries will close.

What’s it like each day in the library with volunteers? Short answer: bloody hard work. It’s non-stop training and very tiring teaching 3 people with minimal IT skills how to do frontline library work in 2 hour slots. There are many things I find intensely frustrating, the things that drive me to vent on twitter: The repeated daily reminders not to overfill transfer boxes so they aren’t too heavy to lift. Not to leave boxes stacked where they block a fire door. Not to shelve adult graphic novels with toddler’s picture books. The difference between a DVD and an audio book on CD (call me naïve, but this is not a thing I’d ever expected to have to explain more than once). Not to leave name and address details visible on the computer screen when they’ve finished registering a new borrower and wandered away…

The volunteers all have an introductory training session before their first shift which covers the layout of the shelves, fire safety, where the loos are, the usual sort of first-day workplace induction. Then they’re turned loose in the library for me to find something for them to do. That’s the question my colleague and I are asked throughout the day, “what shall I do now?” I haven’t a problem with them being keen, and wanting to be helpful and keep busy, but there’s an impression I get that helping customers who have enquiries doesn’t seem to be an option they always consider in answer to this. There’s a list of routine daily tasks but they seem to want special ‘volunteer’ tasks to do, and as a result I’ve seen volunteers straight up ignore customers who are waiting for assistance. I’ve seen volunteers tell customers “I can’t help you, I’m just a volunteer”. At this point we do step in and prompt them to offer help, but it feels strange that we must keep reminding them that their ‘job’ is to help people.

It’s obvious that most of the volunteers don’t really know or understand what public library staff do. They aren’t intending to start a career in libraries, they haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the same way an applicant for a job vacancy would. There’s a deeply ingrained idea that all we do is lend out books. “I’ll come and volunteer, but I just want to tidy books” is a regular comment. We have volunteers who refuse to do anything involving computers. I wouldn’t have recruited them, it would be impossible to employ a member of staff who said that, but it’s up to the committee to decide who is recruited. I just have to find them something to do.

All the volunteers have been surprised by the variety of services we offer. That we can recommend a book for someone aged 9 or 90, but can also help with finding crossword answers, that we can process bus pass applications, help people print boarding passes, family history searches, shotgun licences, give out town maps, that we almost never say no, sorry, we can’t help you with that. It’s been a challenge to communicate that this is what I need them to gain the skills to be eventually be able to do. In their defence, it is quite a daunting request, but this is what a public library service is.

The volunteers are stepping into a role which was done by paid professional staff. I’ve deliberately used a small-p-professional, none of my staff had library qualifications, but they were dedicated, professional, and all of them had been working in libraries for longer than I have been. We all know library work requires a massive amount of training as well as experience. It’s a real difficulty now. Post restructure, we don’t have enough staff left to run training sessions as well as cover frontline services so the volunteer committee are intending to take over some of the more structured training. Any training materials we give the committee, they insist on re-writing so they are more suited for volunteer’s style of learning. That’s just rude frankly, given that we’ve already purposely written them for volunteers and the committee aren’t familiar with library work.

We’re nearly 6 months in and it’s not really getting any easier. I don’t think this is sustainable indefinitely. The number of volunteers we need, the time it takes to train, the extra hours staff are putting in (unpaid, we don’t get overtime) just so we can keep on top of our admin and line management responsibilities is exhausting. I get to work early and stay late just to fit everything in. I’m needed on the library floor almost all the time helping the volunteers, as it’s usually too busy for my colleague to manage on their own, and the volunteers just don’t yet have the experience or confidence for enquiry work.
I was working as library supervisor in this branch before the restructure. I had to reapply and be interviewed to prove my suitability to supervise volunteers instead of staff.

Many of my colleagues took voluntary redundancy rather than go through the interview process. I never even contemplated voluntary redundancy because I wanted to carry on with the job I was already doing, but I’m not getting very much satisfaction out of it. I’m learning new skills – mainly relating to crisis management, short term planning, and how to triage my to-do list. I’ve limited career prospects here now. The council need me to help them keep the library doors open, but they aren’t offering anything inspiring in return. We’re repeatedly instructed to attend resilience training, change management, team building, persuasion and influencing training… all acknowledgement that things aren’t so great, but shifting of the fault onto staff. Some of my colleagues are having real trouble coping with the stress and the workload and being treated as an inconvenience by their committees who want to do things their way.

Were I to hand in my notice the branch would have to close for part of the week because I know there’s no-one they could spare from another branch to cover for me. I cannot change what the council have done in restructuring the service (and I’ve had a hard time dealing with the feeling of being complicit in ‘making it work’), but I will hold things together here as best I can. Perhaps I’m overestimating my abilities, but if I can keep my little branch afloat and steer it through the wreckage then that’s what I’m going to do. I do still like working in libraries, there’s so much to learn, there’s so much I still need to learn and I do not want to give that up just yet.