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.”