Libraries Deliver…

The following is an edited version of an article by John Vincent. It has been reproduced with permission from The Network Newsletter, Number 189, December 2016 (full article with appendices and footnotes). In it, John takes an in-depth look and analysis of the Ambition report and the correlation to social justice.

Libraries Deliver

The Libraries Taskforce report was finally published on 1 December. It has already had considerable media coverage, so this assessment is going to focus primarily on its approach to social justice (and how far the issues raised, for example during the consultation workshops, have been taken on board).

In addition, The Network responded at some length to the Independent Review of Public Libraries: a consultation, and again in May 2016 to the draft version of the report that appeared earlier this year; John Vincent also attended one of the consultation workshops – and this assessment will look at how many of these issues have also been taken on board.

Thinking about and analysis of the report are still in their early stages – no doubt there will be considerable additional comment that will need to be picked up at a later stage, but this assessment is intended to be a starter!

The social context

To start with some broader but vital points, in our response to the draft version of the report, we said:

“A key issue for us in looking at Libraries Deliver is how far it considers the context in which people are living in 2016 – and what we can forecast for the years 2017-2021 […]

We would want to see Libraries Deliver addressing some of the following issues, none of which is likely to have disappeared by 2021:

  • The increasing polarisation of rich and poor, and increasing inequality in the UK  
  • The increasing health gap between rich and poor  
  • The increase in poverty, for example as manifested by the growth of food-banks  
  • The removal of public services and the effects this has on people dependant on them  
  • The reduction in the public sphere, with, for example, fewer places where people can freely meet  
  • The growth in racism and Islamophobia, as well as hostility to migration  
  • The growing evidence of corruption at the heart of society, for example in the police (Hillsborough, undercover policing), in politics (expenses scandals)

Where are these issues – which the best public libraries are engaging with – reflected in this paper?” [p2]

We also argued that the suggested impacts of libraries “seem a bit too ‘safe’, and it would be good if they became ‘grittier’, for example including how libraries can have an impact on people’s lives in relation to the contextual issues mentioned above.”

Our response gave a few examples too: “[…] young people being bullied, trans people wanting to find out more about transitioning, BME people wanting to find themselves reflected in society somewhere, sex workers wanting to read up on contraception and sources of support.” [p6]

  • None of this has got into the final report. This is disappointing, and significant for several reasons:
  • It leaves an impression that libraries are not part of/engaging with the real political and social world. 
  • It also appears as though libraries are disengaged from the struggles that many in their communities face every day.  
  • It gives the impression that libraries are intended for only some kinds of people. For example, the figure, “Libraries are for everyone, throughout their lives” [p13], is a good illustration of part of what libraries do, but is targeted at ‘Active’ participants (“Children and young people”, “Active learners”, “Active citizens”, “Active ageing”); and, similarly, the figure on the next age, “Examples of targeted services which libraries provide for specific life situations” [p14], again gives some important examples, but is also quite unchallenging.
  • Libraries end up sounding ‘cosy’, ‘nice’, possibly ‘not-for-the-likes-of-us’.

Detailed response

Section 3: Context

The Context section in the report reflects, in many ways, a different ‘context’ from that we have noted above. It is completely understandable that, in setting the scene, this report does emphasise the positive aspects of library provision – why, otherwise, are libraries deserving of support? – but, at the same time, by doing so, it smooths over a lot of rough edges that should have been highlighted in this important report.

For example, it is important to emphasise that “Public libraries are a unique and valued public service” [p12], but this point is not helped with evidence that people thought libraries “[…] should be protected, whether or not they themselves were a regular user.” [p12]

The reach of public libraries is impressive, and there is considerable evidence of their impact on people’s lives, yet the paragraphs on p12 make it sound as though there is no problem with them: there is ample evidence of people who are not welcomed in libraries and do not use their services, and, of course, in the current dire financial situation, libraries are being starved of resources – which, in turn, is having a major impact on usage.

The sections on the legal position and on funding do not go nearly far enough in suggesting ways out of the current position; to say merely that “Councils will need to take these [funding and demographic changes] – and many other issues – into account when restructuring budgets to meet strategic priorities.” [p16] is not really very helpful.

Section 4: Vision

The final report has pulled together the vision statements (which were spread under the different ‘Purposes’ – now ‘Outcomes’ – in the previous version), and are more coherent and punchy set in one table.

These seem a useful set of overall ‘ambitions’ – for communities, public services and partners, and libraries themselves – but how will they be achieved?

Section 5: Outcomes

  • Section 5 looks at how the ambitions may be achieved via focusing on seven Outcomes:
  • cultural and creative enrichment 
  • increased reading and literacy 
  • improved digital access and literacy 
  • helping everyone achieve their full potential 
  • healthier and happier lives 
  • greater prosperity 
  • stronger, more resilient communities [p21]

(These are also looked at in more depth in Appendix 1 – please see below.)

Interestingly, the wording and order of the Outcomes have changed since the previous draft, which gives them some more power. Here are brief comments on each:

  • Cultural and creative enrichment: this Outcome has moved to the top of the list. It very much relates to the Arts Council agenda, especially with the emphasis on libraries-as-venues:

“We’ll encourage libraries to establish themselves as a focal point for community cultural life, hosting and running a range of activities in partnership with amateur and professional groups. As a result, we’d expect to see increasing attendance and active participation in creative arts by people of all ages and backgrounds.” [p23]

  • Increased reading and literacy: whilst citing research to show that reading does have a positive impact on health and wellbeing, this section is not strongly argued. Having argued for the positive impact of reading/literacy, it then says that there is a lack of basic skills, but does not suggest ways that this might be overcome; and the case study used is, again, the Summer Reading Challenge, the impact of which on literacy levels is unknown.
  • Improved digital access and literacy: this includes a good section on the role of libraries to support digital inclusion (but could have done with a case study other than the Tinder Foundation).
  • Helping everyone achieve their full potential: this is one section where a link to the wider world would really have been of benefit. At a time when social mobility is a ‘hot topic’, some detail here about libraries’ positive role in this could have made a significant impact.
  • Healthier and happier lives: the case for libraries’ role in health is not well made here (for example, had some of the examples from the Norfolk case study – which is mentioned on p28 – been drawn out, this would have signalled much more clearly what libraries can offer.
  • Greater prosperity: this is an important role, and one which many libraries are already involved in. The British Library Business and IP Centres are a valuable opening up of the BL’s resources – but surely meet the needs of only certain kinds of small businesses? There is a concern here that we are seeing this as a complete solution when it is only a partial one.
  • Stronger, more resilient communities: this section really does need further development. Given that there have been two very recent reports on the growing lack of social cohesion – and the dangers this poses – much more should have been made of libraries’ role in building cohesive societies; and the strong evidence of the key involvement of the library in Ferguson could also have illustrated this. As one of the messages from this review is that we need to ‘sell’ ourselves to partners and to local authorities, surely this could have been a great way of doing so?

Section 6: How we’ll achieve this

This section argues that, to make the vision and Outcomes a reality, “further development of library services” [p32] is required. The report suggests that “strong local leadership” [p32] can be supported nationally by the Taskforce, and that, together, there is a set of actions that need to be taken. These include the following:

  • Encouraging common design principles 
  • Planning public library services to meet local needs  
  • Considering different models for local service delivery  
  • Funding library services in varied and sustainable ways
  • Defining what an excellent library service looks like  
  • Helping libraries use better evidence to support decision-making  
  • Stronger co-ordination and partnership working  
  • Developing the library workforce, now and for the future

These seem very sensible courses of action – but, of course, are entirely dependent on adequate resourcing and political support.

Section 7: Making the case for libraries

This section pulls together all the points made in the previous draft report about improving the image of public libraries and people’s awareness of what they offer.

It includes:

  • Championing libraries to decision-makers: this has four connected priorities:
  1. “developing influence with local councillors and decision-makers to secure local support and funding, promoting ‘library first’ approaches whenever new service developments are planned 
  2. using data and evidence to make decision-makers aware of what public library services have to offer and how libraries can help achieve their wider strategic goals 
  3. ensuring that future policy and regulation at a national level supports public libraries 
  4. promoting achievements where local leaders have supported and worked through their public library service” [p52]
  • Creating wider public awareness of what libraries have to offer
  • Promoting positive messages about libraries in the media

Section 8: How we’ll take this forward

This brief section outlines the next steps for the Taskforce – primarily regularly reviewing progress on the actions listed in the report and in the separate Action Plan11 [also, please see below].

This is followed by 5 Annexes:

  • Annex 1: The 7 Outcomes the public library network supports [to be considered in more depth below]
  • Annex 2: Action plan [also see below]
  • Annex 3: Summary of the consultation and responses: this sets out the main changes to the draft report, which have been taken on board
  • Annex 4: Role and remit of Taskforce member organisations
  • Annex 5: Image credits and references: this incudes weblinks for some 167 footnotes.

Annex 1: The 7 Outcomes the public library network supports

This is where the detail about the seven Outcomes and what they involve is. As noted above, the Outcomes have been re-named and re-ordered, and there is more depth to them. Here is a quick assessment of each.

Outcome 1: Cultural and creative enrichment

This Outcome is much stronger than in the draft report, and has developed the sense of libraries as cultural hubs. There still is no link between this and Outcome 3 – makerspaces can be cultural and creative as well as STEM based. (This work will also be further developed as SCL creates the Creativity Universal Offer.)

Outcome 2: Increased reading and literacy

Here the “Success in 2021 will look like” section is shorter but mostly better defined than in the draft. The new ‘ambitions’ are:

  • “improvement in England’s international literacy rankings 
  • all library services offering a range of reading/literacy programmes and activities with an increase in the number of children, young people, adults and families participating (both as readers and volunteers) and, as a result, increased reading for pleasure 
  • stronger partnerships between public libraries and local schools” [p61]

It would still have been useful for the report to spell out what the “stronger partnerships between public libraries and local schools” would actually involve.

The outline of the role that libraries play in developing reading and literacy is clearer, and the report has moved away from what seemed to be quantitative approaches; there is also a wider range of reading programmes listed (although it would have been good to have included some local library service initiatives – which do not form part of a national programme – as well, such as Warwickshire’s creative reading festivals12.

Outcome 3: Increased digital access and literacy

The “Success in 2021” section is, again, stronger, although it would have been valuable to have linked digital skills and access to overcoming some of the social context issues outlined above.

The description is much stronger, with good emphases on outreach and digital inclusion.

Outcome 4: Helping everyone achieve their full potential

This has replaced “Learning” which was what was in the draft. It is much simpler and clearer, and more community-related, and less focused on measurable outcomes.

Outcome 5: Healthier and happier lives

The “Success in 2021” section is much improved:

  • “libraries are perceived as important partners for achieving improved health outcomes in communities by Public Health England, NHS providers, local health bodies, clinical commissioning groups, Sustainability and Transformation Plan Committees, and other health and wellbeing commissioners and providers 
  • people perceive themselves to have improved wellbeing/to be happier as a result of participating in library activities
  • people who are housebound, or who have dementia or autism, and their carers feel more connected and supported to manage in the community, and maintain their independence and wellbeing as a result of their contact with libraries 
  • library users are enabled to self-care and self-manage their health, participate in shared decision-making with healthcare professionals, and are more health literate” [p67]

There is a wide range of types of library work included in the description, as well as some national programmes.

Outcome 6: Greater prosperity

The report now includes both ‘bigger’ schemes, such as the British Library Business and IP Centres, and the smaller-scale – but vital – work that libraries undertake around literacy and digital literacy, job clubs, help with preparing CVs, and so on.

Outcome 7: Stronger, more resilient communities

The description of this Outcome has some real strengths, eg:

“Library services should work with local people to define, develop, plan and deliver the right mix of services to meet local needs and priorities; no two places will have the same mix. For example, rural and urban areas will need different ways of delivering services. Doing this will reinforce the library’s role as a focal point for local community activity.” [p72]

and some patchy paragraphs, eg:

“Public libraries contribute directly to community cohesion by creating a sense of place for their users. Local studies work brings communities together by exploring and celebrating local people’s differing and shared culture and heritage. Libraries also provide a valuable introduction into a community for newcomers, through assistance with specific needs (such as language training and citizenship support for recent immigrants where required) and, more generally, by using their knowledge to marshal a wealth of information on the local area, services and community.” [p72]

Examples of exactly what this work involves would have been of real benefit here. The examples given are strong, but there is no real sense of an active approach by libraries to foster community cohesion.

As the report goes on to say, “Libraries can also play a major role in work to combat disadvantage.” [p72] However, it would have been helpful if some of the ways in which this happens were spelled out here.

Finally:

“Libraries also provide an inclusive, free and safe space for all, both physical and virtual, making local people equally welcome irrespective of their age or background. They are one of the few remaining places where people from different backgrounds or generations can come together to learn from and appreciate each other (for example, through reminiscence sessions helping with local history understanding, or by younger age groups helping older people with digital learning). Innovations like ‘human libraries’ […] challenge prejudices and stereotypes by stimulating social interactions that people might be unlikely to experience otherwise. We want to see libraries developing these inter-community and intergenerational activities to increase understanding and draw communities closer together.” [p73]

This is certainly true of the best library services, but, sadly, not of all. Perhaps there needs to be a clearer ‘ambition’ that this description is what every library should be aiming to achieve.

Action Plan

As noted above (in relation to Annex 2), the Action Plan13 has also been published.

This includes 25 actions to be taken by the Taskforce; 5 challenges to Central Government; and 12 challenges to Local Government/Library Services.

The Taskforce actions are taken from the report, and are grouped under:

  • Priority actions, such as ensuring that a ‘Libraries First’ approach is adopted, and that a core dataset is produced
  • Raising public awareness of what libraries have to offer 
  • Identifying and showcasing good practice and supporting innovation 
  • Supporting workforce development 
  • How we will take this forward: monitoring and reporting on progress.

The challenges are all also taken from the report and are intended to assist in the ‘Libraries First’ approach, encouraging new approaches and partnership working.

Provided the monitoring does take place and is thorough and transparent, this should give a good way of following and checking on progress (possibly not as good as a proper library planning process, but important).

Other actions

Workshops

The Taskforce is organising a series of workshops14 in January 2017:

“The events will start with a series of presentations about Ambition, followed by workshops on topics covered in the action plan. These will be an opportunity for you to learn more about the actions and enable you to give your views. Workshop topics will include:

  • mutuals and other alternative delivery models 
  • alternative funding streams 
  • communications (covering barriers to involvement and how to overcome, and shared and reusable assets) 
  • data  workforce development”

Community-managed libraries

In addition, Kathy Settle has just published a new Taskforce blogpost, “Community managed libraries – the next phase …”, which outlines the next stages in the work to support community-managed libraries – this will involve the Taskforce in:

  • Undertaking research into community managed libraries, and 
  • Working with partners to create a new peer support network to make it easier for communities to share good practice and to learn from each other.

In terms of the research, DCMS have commissioned SERIO17 (part of Plymouth University) to carry out a survey of:

“[…] all known community managed libraries in England. The survey focuses on areas such as:

  • the different types of service(s) the library delivers and their effectiveness 
  • any barriers to service delivery 
  • staff/volunteer satisfaction and training 
  • current and future resourcing plans 
  • the financial sustainability of the library […]

An analysis of the responses, along with more detailed case studies from a representative sample of community managed libraries, will form the basis of the final report to be published in March 2017.” 18

There is further information about the peer network which intends to offer support and guidance, including:

  • “extensive range of online tools and resources 
  • series of expert webinars 
  • local networking events 
  • advice and learning from others in the network on fundraising and business development 
  • platform for shared learning 
  • signposting to other external resources 
  • Q&A forum for practical advice and support 
  • sector news and debates – how can you make a difference?”

Libraries Opportunities for Everyone Innovation Fund

ACE have also announced this new funding stream20 which “will support projects that develop innovative library service activity to benefit disadvantaged people and places in England.”

Principles for the Leadership and Development of Public Library Services in England

Finally, CILIP has issued a challenge to “HM Government, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Local Government Association, the Arts Council England and fellow members of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce” to support ten principles. These are:

1. “England’s public libraries are part of a successful network which delivers key outcomes including learning, health and wellbeing, digital inclusion, civic participation and stronger local economies.

2. Securing these outcomes for the long-term depends on effective leadership through a fully-funded and evidence-based National Public Library Plan for England that is owned jointly by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association.

3. Implementing this plan requires appropriate governance of the library network, including partnerships for local delivery, regional and national support and with appropriate engagement with the equivalent strategies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

4. It also requires a national strategy for the development of the professional library workforce alongside the appropriate use of volunteers.

5. Effective national support for the library network requires an appropriately-resourced and mandated national development function, the responsibilities of which should include quality standards, targeted investment and development support and a transparent approach to monitoring and impact evaluation.

6. HM Treasury must make available to Local Authorities emergency relief funding and transitional support to ensure they are adequately resourced and funded to meet their statutory obligation for the provision of a quality public library service and to set in place appropriate plans for long-term governance and sustainability.

7. Library service points should not be transitioned out of statutory provision unless all alternative options for their maintenance have been explored, a full cost/benefits analysis has been conducted in consultation with the community and a realistic plan for long-term support is put in place.

8. Where a Local Authority fails to meet agreed standards on statutory public library service delivery (so-called ‘hollowing-out’ of services) DCMS and DCLG should use effective strategies for early intervention & improvement, including options for sanction and the removal of library services (and funding) into a national or regional Library Service.

9. Public libraries must work in partnership with other local community organisations to sustain and amplify the reach and impact of their services.

10. Public engagement with libraries should be promoted and encouraged through a joined-up programme of media and public relations led jointly by members of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce (and in future by the organisation with responsibility for the national development function for public libraries).”

Conclusions

The report has met with a mixed reaction, with some saying it’s a good way forward, with others saying it is ‘too little, too late’ and/or being critical.

In terms of social justice, there are real strengths (and it’s a huge improvement on the earlier versions), but still does not really touch the reality (as outlined above in the ‘Context’ section). The result is a vision of libraries that is very positive and proactive – but also somehow unrealistic, and unrelated to the austerity cuts and to the severe disadvantage and discrimination that large sections of the UK face.

Certainly, the £4m from ACE is very welcome – but does not really go anywhere near replacing the core funding lost by public libraries over the last eight years or so.

Overall, probably of most importance is the lack of any real monitoring process which would hold local authorities to account. Much as people grumbled about Annual Library Plans, they did ensure that a planning process was in place; plans were assessed and they and the assessments were made publicly available.

So – there are huge improvements in this version of the report compared to earlier drafts; some areas of library work come through really strongly (including aspects of their social justice work); but the real context – in the social, community and political senses – seems to have gone missing.

 

Abbreviations and acronyms

  • ACE = Arts Council England
  • BME = Black and minority ethnic
  • CILIP = Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
  • DCLG = Department for Communities and Local Government
  • DCMS – Department for Culture, Media and Sport
  • IP = intellectual property
  • SCL = Society of Chief Librarians
  • STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Cilip AGM 2016

The highlight of the Cilip AGM is the Libraries Change Lives Award, providing as they do an inspiration for the rest of the sector. This year was no exception.

Congratulations then to the winner, Norfolk Libraries for their  Healthy Libraries’ initiative; a countywide programme promoting healthy living and targeting the county’s most serious health priorities through the Norfolk library network.”

But equally well done to all those shortlisted for showing how vital and needed libraries and staff are for their communities.

Congratulations also to the winners of the UKeiG Information Manager of the Year and Mentor of the Year awards, and the Honorary Fellows.

Typically in the build up to AGM I would write several posts, usually critical and usually about the increase in subscription fees or lack of political campaigning and advocacy for libraries.

Two factors have conspired to keep me quiet this year. Firstly, work events and demands have meant that my attention has, by necessity, been focused elsewhere. Secondly for the first time I broadly agreed with all the items on the agenda including the proposals regarding membership fees. The AGM agreed to:

  • Freeze to subscription rates for the majority of members in 2017
  • End the trial of providing free student membership and returning students to a heavily discounted rate
  • Include a minimum annual subscription of £40 for newly qualified members and the removal of access to a 50% discount for newly qualified members if earning over £42,001
  • Modest fee increases for Professional Registration enrolment and portfolio submission

This now paves “…the way for CILIP’s proposed new approach to membership from January 2018. The proposed structure is designed to be more affordable, better value for money, more open to everyone in the sector and provide clearer benefits.” To which I add is more equitable and fairer to members.  

Added to this is my growing satisfaction with the direction of travel that Cilip is taking and that within a relatively short space of time a convergence of views has evolved.

From being  perceived as soft on library closures we have seen quite increasingly strong statements from Cilip, Nick Poole as CEO, and the current President Dawn Finch, against closures, hollowing out, and the loss of paid staff.

Nick has engaged in a round of media coverage to promote the value of libraries, and even written to councils where cuts have appeared rather draconian. Equally, Dawn is an outspoken defender of library services and fierce critic of closures and cutbacks.

Last year the Cilip Board fully endorsed the resolution to oppose the ‘amateurisation’ of public libraries services and we have seen the launch of the My Library By Right campaign, challenging both local and central government to fulfil their legal responsibilities and provide a quality library service.

Cilip is also ensuring that librarians and staff have a strong voice on the Libraries Taskforce.

And while this is still not enough for some I see it as evidence of an increasingly confident and vocal professional body, willing to champion the value of libraries and librarians.

So this year the other winner is Cilip itself in achieving what some people would have considered impossible; giving me nothing to be grumpy about.

The problem is, I do like being ever so grumpy…thanks a lot Cilip!

 

 

 

 

 

My Way

So it’s finally happened. Ed Vaizey, the longest serving Minister for Culture has finally left the building, or at least been asked to leave as part of the new Cabinet reshuffle. It would be unfair to blame Vaizey for the all the problems of the public library sector over the last six years. The overriding factor has been one of ideology; from austerity, to localism, to devolution. But the ex-minister was certainly a strong advocate for these policies and ensured that libraries became a poster-boy for DIY community services.

It would also be unfair to lay the blame at the feet of just Tory local authorities. Councillors of all hues have been keen to support and adopt both localism and devolution, sometimes as a pragmatic solution to budget cuts, but equally as a means of distributing power from central government. And Let’s not forget that Labour and LibDem councils have been just as quick to reduce library services and hand over to volunteers as their conservative counterparts. Equally, it could be argued that the profession had grown complacent with comfortable funding and cosy political links so was ill-prepared to respond to the severity of the public spending cuts agenda.

So how should we judge Ed Vaizey’s time in office? Certainly the SCL appears to have regarded him as a positive force for championing libraries as the following tweet shows:

I have to say my own view is not so charitable. This was a minister who refused to intervene in any library reductions whatsoever, and who despite having the resources of the DCMS at his disposal preferred to rely on desktop research to assess library closures. The government figure touted was totally at odds with both CIPFA, independent BBC research, and what the public could see happening to their local libraries. Incompetence or deliberate spin? Take your pick.

According to the BBC the last six years have seen:

  • 343 libraries closed. Of those, 132 were mobile services, while 207 were based in buildings (and there were four others, such as home delivery services)
  • The number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 buildings shut
  • The number of paid staff in libraries fell from 31,977 in 2010 to 24,044 now, a drop of 7,933 (25%) for the 182 library authorities that provided comparable data
  • A further 174 libraries have been transferred to community groups, while 50 have been handed to external organisations to run. In some areas, such as Lincolnshire and Surrey, the move has led to legal challenges and protests from residents.

The BBC also estimated that a further 111 closures were planned, but since the research was published, I suspect the number is now far higher. This is alongside a funding reduction of £180 million since 2010.

Matt Hancock has replaced Ed Vaizey so it remains to be seen what stance he will take particularly in the light of a new Prime Minister and Cabinet. Will he continue a non-interventionist approach or actually engage to slow down the rate of attrition?

Anyway, I shall end with a personal tribute to Ed (with apologies to Old Blue Eyes!)

(Click to enlarge)

Ed Vaizey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mythomania

Despite the constant misinformation from the government such as only 110 libraries have closed since 2010 we at least know what to expect from this administration as in practice public services and therefore libraries have never been under greater threat. This is down to ideology and dogma, and the rigid adherence to the economically dubious austerity agenda.

I came across the wonderful term ‘mythomania’ recently. Apparently it refers to the behaviour of habitual or compulsive lying…or in other words, spin! The mythomania developed by the government around libraries is almost admirable in its simplicity and effectiveness. Even the Prime Minister has got in on the act recently by claiming that library closures are due to ‘technological change’, whilst totally ignoring the massive reduction in funding.

2498lambeth1If Conservatives hold a totally skewed view of libraries you would reasonably expect Labour to have an opposing narrative. Unfortunately not! The Labour view of libraries is rather conspicuous by its absence. This is compounded by major figures such as the new London Mayor. During the mayoral election race, the now successful Sadiq Khan, failed to respond in any meaningful way to campaigners request for support, no doubt cautious over criticising the incompetent debacle unfolding in Labour controlled Lambeth.

The equally silent Maria Eagle, Shadow Minister for Culture, Media & Sport seems to have no apparent opinion – or should that be knowledge – of the library crisis, certainly if her Twitter feed is anything to go by. I’ve tried to contact Miss Eagle a number of times by email and Twitter but have, as yet, received no reply.

The last time a shadow minister tried to formulate an opinion around libraries was early 2014 under Helen Goodman. Unfortunately, she was a blink-and-miss-them appointment. Followed by the equally blink-and miss-them,  and ‘I don’t want this role’, Chris Bryant, whose approach to libraries was so akin to Ed Vaizey’s that you couldn’t wedge a piece of paper between them. When challenged Chris’ mantra was ‘silence is golden’, refusing to engage with campaigners or support a fight against closures in his own constituency. Again by a Labour controlled authority.

Labour’s last attempt at writing a policy resulted in the risible Libraries: Innovation, Co-location and Partnership, which again was so akin to the Tories you could be forgiven for thinking they had been written by the same team. And herein lies the problem: the current government has no difficulty with libraries being cut, closed, hollowed-out, or out-sourced. We can disagree with and oppose this approach all we want but at least it’s a clear stance.

Labour on the other hand lack any sort of vision, policy or inclination around libraries and seem supremely unwilling to engage with campaigners to develop one. Unfortunately, for a party committed to public services under Corbynism this presents a conundrum as Labour controlled councils – stand up Sheffield – are just as likely to close and cut local libraries as Tory authorities.

Where there should be a stronger commitment to public services, we get the right of the Labour Party espousing the same free market terminology and localism mantra as the current government. On the other hand the left of the party seem willing to sacrifice valuable local services in order to indulge in petty point scoring against Tory austerity. Added to this mix are senior leaders who refuse to be drawn on the whole issue of the library crisis.

Many have an high expectation of Labour rolling back the devastating damages done to public services and libraries. Given the sheer lack of interest by the previous and current shadow minister in the issue, campaigners are unlikely to see a viable alternative to Tory policy developed anytime soon. In fact given how quickly culture shadow ministers come and go it’s unlikely any will have time to develop a proper response.

But then again perhaps the perception that Labour will restore public services to previous levels is in itself a form of unintentional mythomania!

Papering Over The Cracks

After a bit of light hearted satire I welcome the Taskforce’s aim to establish a communications sub-group to promote more positive news around libraries and what they do. Specifically:

“The role of the group is to co-ordinate communications activity across the sector with a view to shifting the narrative on public libraries from one that is primarily focused on cuts, to one that shows a more balanced view.”

In the current environment of grinding public sector cuts any news about the value of libraries is to be supported. Although whether or not that ‘shows a more balanced view’ is open to debate. While welcoming the initiative I would argue that the real balance is tempering good news with the reality of the cuts. The danger otherwise is to simply present stories out of context and promote the view that despite the funding crisis ‘all is well’ and ‘aren’t library staff a wonderful bunch for carrying on’.

Such a ‘rose tinted’ approach would do the public library sector a disservice as we know from bitter experience that Ed Vaizey is a master of using rose-tinted stories to justify his own inaction around library closures.

Libraries do indeed accomplish wonderful things and quite rightly celebrate them: the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, Summer Reading Challenge, Reading Ahead, and National Libraries Day, amongst many other programmes, not to mention all the wonderful regional and local initiatives. All of which are feted and promoted by the SCL, Cilip, ASCEL, Reading Agency, Arts Council, and libraries up and down the country.

The issue therefore becomes how will the establishment of a communications sub-group improve the message, or the understanding of the political paymasters, when years of the above bodies doing so hasn’t?

Even reports highlighting the societal, health, and economic benefits of libraries have so far failed to improve the narrative or protect funding for libraries. The information is out there but falling on ears deafened by the overwhelming roar of austerity and the pressure of providing adult social care.

David Lankes made a similar argument for the profession to take control of the narrative while at the same time recognising:

“… that budget cuts have been so deep, the political lack of understanding of public libraries so disconnected from the reality and, yes, the lack of leadership (structurally at least) so dysfunctional that to blame librarians for the failure to change into 3D community workshop engineering hi-tech wunderkinds is a bit much.  But that’s the challenge, my friends.  We need to convince the politicians that libraries are relevant to their goals and the public that libraries are places to be cherished (and not just with placards).  This may be very hard with some public-service hating anti-professional and deeply ideological politicians but there are other people out there and even the most dyed in the wool reactionary is not demonic.”

This is a legitimate argument and one the Taskforce is taking on board. But it’s not just about changing the narrative, such communication needs to underpin concrete action and improvement.

However, a positive narrative around libraries is going to be difficult to achieve when the reality is so grim. Even the BBC, which is represented on the Taskforce, have highlighted the extent of the cuts, including:

• 343 libraries closed, 207 of them buildings, 132 mobile and four “other”
• 232 transferred, 174 to community groups and 58 outsourced
• 111 proposed for closure over the next year

The media coverage is to be welcomed as an opportunity to celebrate what is important about libraries and counter the misleading data over closures. Certainly, the BBC’s research and analysis is to be more trusted that Ed Vaizey’s notorious use of desk research to compile misleading data, despite having the full resources of the DCMS at hand. The Guardian newspaper has stated that libraries are facing the greatest crisis in their history.

So it becomes a difficult chronicle to challenge while at the same time treading the fine line between government dogma re: localism and devolution, and the expectations of the profession and campaigners.

Highlighting good news stories and ‘golden moments’ while important is unlikely to produce an epiphany regarding the value of libraries within government circles.

Libraries do need positive stories, positive reinforcement about their value, and the Taskforce are right to take this on. The dichotomy however is that such stories during a period of deep cuts and widespread cynicism regarding government policy on libraries could lead to a disconnect from the reality of the crisis and the accusation of misplaced Pollyannaism.

Or to put it another way; it’s one thing to want to change the décor but it’s another to merely paper over the cracks.

What I Didn’t Know Then!

I wrote a post recently about the SCL not supporting the My Library By Right Campaign. I think it’s fair to say that my irritation and pique came through more strongly than perhaps intended. It appeared at the time to be a failure by the SCL to show what I considered to be fairly simple support for the profession, Cilip, and the incredibly important aim to encourage the DCMS to provide statutory guidance regarding the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act.

However, I am always ready to admit when either I have made a wrong assumption. So here’s some things I didn’t know then about the SCL that I do know now – and many thanks to the SCL members who have spoken to me about the matter:

  1. The SCL has no constitution: this was technically correct but only in so far that the SCL is incorporated as a company limited by guarantee and governed by Articles of Association.
  2. No individual membership fees: this was correct. Individual members are not required to pay membership fees but the local authority pays fees on the Head of Service (HoS) behalf.
  3. Consultation mechanisms: Members are able to effect policy through the regional groups, which are then taken to SCL Executive by regional representatives. The Executive has quite a lot of authority under the articles and are able to make decisions on behalf of the membership. Thus, it was the Executive that felt unable to support My Library By Right (January 2016 minutes refer – under AOB). The annual conference is also another opportunity to discuss and influence SCL decisions and direction of travel.
  4. Equally, members, like many membership organisations such as Cilip and ASCEL,  give freely of their time to ensure the running of the organisation.

That said, it’s a great pity that such information had to be conveyed verbally or the relevant documents sent. As a body made up of information professionals such information should be readily and publically available. SCL has to bear some responsibility for failing to do so.

I also refer back to another post in which the SCL indicated that they did not consider themselves a campaigning body, or as HoS, many of which are in politically restricted posts, able to overtly criticise central or local government policy. The consensus appears to be that they consider themselves more of a ‘development agency’ for libraries and as such can accomplish more for the profession as part of the Libraries Taskforce.

In the post I also recognised that the SCL has over the years promoted good practice, encouraged senior librarians to support each other and work together on a regional and national basis, and has been responsible for the Universal Offers. The Universal Offers are in my opinion one of the best schemes that libraries have undertaken. And for this the SCL should be given full credit.

Speaking to SCL members there also seems to be an acknowledgement that communication via the website could be improved and governance made more transparent. I welcome this move and hope it can be accomplished sooner rather than later. Perhaps a quick win would be publishing details of the upcoming conference.

Now all of this does not necessarily mean I agree with the SCL over its stance. To my untrained legal eye there is nothing in the Articles that would prevent them showing support – which is not the same as campaigning – for issues that affect their members as well as the wider profession. This includes support for statutory guidance around the 1964 Act, establishing a national strategy for England, and adopting a range of national standards. After all, in this, England is out of step with the rest of the UK so precedents have already been set.

However, while it is perfectly acceptable to disagree I broke my own rule about keeping such discourse courteous and professional.

That said, the SCL only represents the interest and opinions of 151 members so I maintain that it lacks the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the wider profession and that having fees paid for by the local authority compromises the independence of the SCL.

 

Community Tubs

8db82330006691b95ced0a718d83f9cbDespite Middlesbrough Council’s rush to rebrand libraries as community hubs Midshire Council has gone one better and teamed-up with a well-known DIY brand, BBQ Base, to launch the community library shed programme. As part of the scheme each library member will get a 10% discount card to use in-store.

Until now little light has been shone on the hitherto unknown issue of shed mountains. A bearded spokesperson for BBQ Base said that people often changed sheds each year due to new seasonal colours being available and more attractive tongue and groove models. “There’s plenty of life left in these poor sheds but people seem to want a different hue each year so the old one’s are abandoned and left out in the rain.”

Councillor Maureen Claim-More, Lead Member for Libraries, said the idea had occurred to her when visiting one of Tower Hamlets Idea Stores. “I was reading an article in Shed Monthly, on my tablet of course, about the problem and the idea just popped into my head. Now that wouldn’t have happened in a traditional library.”

The Save Libraries Right Now Campaign declared that this move would only continue the trend towards a two-tier library service. SLRN said its concern was that users in the most deprived areas would be offloaded with cheap overlapping rough sawn timber models, with more affluent areas being awarded the attractive shiplap cladding option.  Councillor Claim-More poo-pooed the objection and said it was spurious scare mongering but stated that volunteers would be needed to paint them. “After all we wouldn’t want them to fall out of fashion”.

She added that males were a falling library demographic but that men loved sheds so the programme would make libraries more attractive to men and drive up visitor numbers. The programme is also adopting the Open+ approach by removing the shed doors to provide access on demand 24/7.

She also confirmed that this is just the first phase of the programme, which if successful will herald the introduction of READING1community library tubs, with hot tubs being installed in the sheds, or summer houses for her own constituents.

Cilip warned that this might have an unfortunate detrimental effect on stock budgets as services struggled to replace water damaged stock. However, the SCL broadly welcomed the move saying “we agree with whatever the LGA say and regard this new and innovative project as part of the universal health offer.”

The Minister for Community Hubs & Amateurs, stated that despite being completely useless he welcomed the programme and would view any council that delivered library sheds and tubs as fulfilling their duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. He stated ” I have absolutely no idea what the 1964 Act entails but this seems perfectly fine to me.”

The Chair of the Taskforce tasked with following government policy on libraries noted the only thing that would improve the programme was it being delivered by a mutual or trust. The Arts Council meanwhile promised to fund Locality to produce a report which stated that what users really wanted was clean people to help them when they visited a library shed.