Category Archives: William Sieghart

What about social justice?

The following is by John Vincent who is a tireless campaigner for promoting social justice through public libraries. In 1997 he was invited to become part of the team that produced the UK’s first review of public libraries and social exclusion from which The Network originated.

John now runs courses and lectures, writes, produces regular newsletters and ebulletins, and lobbies for greater awareness of the role that libraries, archives and museums play in contributing to social justice, and is also the author of LGBT People and the UK Cultural Sector and along with John Pateman, Public Libraries and Social Justice. John was deservedly awarded a Honorary Fellowship for his work by Cilip this year.

What about social justice?

John Vincent

Leon and I bumped into each other at the CILIP “Big Day”, where we were celebrating the achievements of the three finalists for the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award, and he invited me to write a piece about social justice and community libraries.

This seems an entirely appropriate moment to consider this issue, as, at the “Big Day”, we were urged by William Sieghart to go out and copy the work of the three outstanding finalists (the winners, Northamptonshire Library and Information Service and the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership Enterprise Hubs; and the finalists Hertfordshire Library Service and KidsHub library sessions, and Leeds Library Service Studio 12 – Writing Leeds) – William also declared that:

“We need to do something urgently. We’re at a Beeching moment – the review that led to the closure of railway branch lines – which many regret, and that’s why this is urgent.”

However, the one issue which William Sieghart’s talk seemed to gloss over was the role of libraries in working towards social justice!

An aside before we begin: some public libraries are working to tackle social exclusion, and have been doing so (albeit under different names) long before the introduction of the formal policy in 1997 – think, for example, of the community librarianship and outreach heydays of the 1970s and 1980s. However, it is also worth reminding ourselves that the research which led to Open to all? [1], published by the then Resource in 2000, demonstrated that:

“… there are wide differentials between UK public library authorities [PLAs] in terms of activity relevant to social inclusion:

  • The survey estimates that only one-sixth of PLAs approximate to a comprehensive model of good practice for social inclusion. Most PLAs (60%), although having developed some initiatives, have no comprehensive strategy and uneven and intermittent activity. A final group of one-quarter of PLAs are those with little apparent strategy and service development
  • Targeting of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and social groups is used comprehensively by only approximately one-third of PLAs. Recent service developments in libraries, such as the development of ICT networks and literacy initiatives, tend to be targeted at socially excluded people in only a small minority of cases
  • Most PLAs report fairly high levels of community involvement by their staff but this tends to be at a general level, rather than focussed on disadvantage or exclusion
  • Most PLAs have no consistent resource focus on exclusion, and this is sometimes very marginal indeed. A minority of PLAs are very active in developing partnership projects but this is not a dominant factor in most PLA social exclusion strategies
  • Many of the UK’s most marginal and excluded people are not considered to be a priority in PLA strategy, service delivery and staffing. This applies especially to a number of social groups who commonly face stigma and discrimination: e.g. Refugees; Homeless People; Travellers.” [p ix]

There was a concerted effort by some public library services after 2000 to put inclusion at their core. However, I think that social justice involves taking this a stage further still, for example by recognising the current harsh and discriminatory treatment of all kinds of groups in society (claimants, single parents, migrants, disabled people) and finding ways in which the library can provide information and other support (eg meeting spaces) to assist communities to fight for their rights, and also to help people think through where “the truth” may lie. In its policy guidelines, What makes a good library service?, CILIP says that:

“A good library service will deliver against key policy objectives and provide:
• … Equality, community cohesion and social justice …” [p2]

So, how are we doing?

As the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award finalists (and, indeed, the other applicants for the Award) have demonstrated, despite the gloomy economic and political climate for public libraries, there is brilliant work going on in some libraries – work which not only supports communities that may otherwise be marginalised (unemployed people; children with special needs and their families; and young people from BME communities, many were excluded from school, experienced poor formal education and many have been long-term unemployed – to take the three finalists), but also shows how vital a public library can be.

However, is this pattern universal across the UK? To take two examples, if, ten years ago, you looked for examples of public library websites that strongly promoted their LGBT provision, there would have been many good examples. Today, there are hardly any.

When the Welcome To Your Library project finished in 2007, there was growing interest in developing provision for ‘new arrivals’ (refugees, asylum-seekers, migrant workers, etc), not only from the six WTYL partner areas, but across the UK – now, provision is minimal, with only a very few libraries targeting and providing services.

We know some of the reasons why this is happening: lack of library staff, time and resources; communities overwhelmed by other demands on their time; possibly political views about ‘new arrivals’.

But is there more to it? Could it be that, surreptitiously, we’ve become worn down by the calls to return to building-based services, to concentrate on existing users and their demands, to abandon ‘risky’ types of service, or services that do not show ‘high returns’ such as increased issue figures and visitor numbers? We do know that the sort of work that is required to make public libraries really relevant is time-intensive, and often involves relatively small numbers of users.

In addition, how many public library services have actually taken this sort of work into their core? Is social justice (or tackling social exclusion) embedded in everything they do, for example in making funding priority decisions? Or is it an add-on? Is it seen as a core activity, or a ‘project’? (And, by ‘project’, I mean something that is time-limited and short-term funded.) One of the dangers is that, when funding diminishes and when external funding sources dry up, so ‘social justice work’ also stops, instead of its being seen as a core activity.

And this then brings us to community libraries. I am arguing here that, currently, social justice is already on the ‘back-burner’ for some libraries, and, with politicians’ apparent urgent desire to decimate local services (at a time when, ludicrously, Britain is starting to commit vast sums of money to a highly risky and unproven war strategy in the Near East and North Africa; and the anomaly of savage cuts to local services whilst giving huge grants to businesses is only just being explored by the media), libraries – along with other vital provision – continue to be at risk.

The pros and cons of community libraries are neatly summed up in the new report from OPM and Locality, Rural library services in England: exploring recent changes and possible futures:

“Where communities have become more directly involved in supporting or managing their rural libraries, they can evolve into more effective, positive and well-used venues than their predecessors. This can involve the nurturing of a
library’s role in supporting social interaction, strengthening community ties, hosting events and activities to appeal to a wider range of people and creating space for clubs and societies to flourish.

In other cases, however, library friends groups might save a branch but bring with them very limited perceptions about what that facility will offer. As such, library service managers are sometimes concerned about the inability of some of their community libraries to live up to what should be expected of a local library from the point of view of standards / consistency of service and inclusivity.” [pp5-6, emphasis theirs]

It is this approach that has led to library provision becoming something of a postcode lottery, particularly where libraries have been ‘cast adrift’ by their local authority, losing the steer that they had previously.

Libraries must be properly funded and properly staffed if they are to take their rightful place in the struggle for social justice – and working towards social justice has to be their core aim. Without that, what is their purpose?

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[1] Dave Muddiman, Shiraz Durrani, Martin Dutch, Rebecca Linley, John Pateman and John Vincent. Open to All? The public library and social exclusion: volume one: overview and conclusions. Resource (Library and Information Commission Research Report 84), 2000.

Cilip AGM 2014

Today is something of an anniversary for me. It was the debate over the renaming proposal last year that reignited my interest in Cilip and attendance at the general meeting, which led directly to me starting this blog, with the first post being a report back on the AGM 2013.

Since then I have widened the posts to include issues around library closures, service reductions, campaigns, and advocacy, as it is libraries in the political arena that mainly interests me. Most of all I have tried to bring a librarian’s view to the debate as I firmly believe that professionally qualified librarians are fundamental to the very nature of a library service and integral to the best possible service delivery. Quite simply, a library without a librarian is not actually a library.

Now obviously there are practical caveats is to this statement such as smaller libraries would be overseen and have consistent access to a community librarian (or similar) rather than one being based in each library but overall the general principle stands.

Sieghart: Anyway, back to the Cilip Big Day and AGM. The keynote speaker was William Sieghart who was obviously very supportive and sympathetic to public libraries. The main thrust of his speech was that libraries need a change of narrative to highlight how valuable they are. As well as updating the infrastructure and governance models, with Suffolk libraries being held up as what could be achieved when libraries are released from the bureaucratic constraints of local authority control. Overall, the talk was high on aspiration but low on substance. Anyone attending expecting a detailed analysis will have been disappointed so will have to wait for publication of the report for the specifics.

Governance: Although less controversial than the name change last year there had still been quite a furore caused over the proposed changes to the governance model, which on the day needed a two thirds majority to pass. Given the barbed comments at times on emails lists and social media the debate on the day was good natured, with the result being the adoption of the new model of governance but keeping a fully elected Board.

Credit to Cilip for allowing the proposals to be voted on separately as most members agreed that a new model was needed but many were not convinced about the proposed changes to Council.

Fees: I was in a minority regarding the subscription fees and the increase was passed. I think a debate over fees was lost amongst the changes to the governance model but I am hoping this will be the last rise for a while otherwise I see another argument brewing for the future.

Engagement: What continues to perplex me is the continuing low turn-out and voting on issues by the membership. I’ve said before that £200 is a lot of money to pay to then more or less ignore the workings of the professional body. Even where members are unable to attend AGM’s the proxy voting system is quite straight forward (although I look forward to the day when as an information profession we manage to do this online) so I find such indifference puzzling.

Fellowship: Another highlight was the awarding of the Honorary Fellowships of which there were six worthy recipients including John Vincent for his work around social justice and equality, and Janene Cox for championing the development of the Universal Offers.

However, this is not a blow by blow account of what happened on the day – full details can be found here – but rather my impressions. A highlight for me was Philip Wark’s comments during the Library Change Lives awards defending the professional integrity of library services over them being handed to volunteers. Philip is head of the award winning Midlothian library service and a honorary fellowship recipient.

On a personal note it was good to catch-up with colleagues from other services or that I had worked with in the past. Equally, it was good to talk to Council members such as John Dolan and Martyn Wade. It’s easy to forget in the cut and thrust of disagreement that Council is made up of genuinely decent individuals, giving their own time and doing what they think is best for Cilip. It’s OK to disagree but let’s remember do it professionally.

So one year on and while many things have changed the battle for public libraries continue. With the Sieghart review due for publication and a general election on the horizon we are certainly living in interesting times professionally, and I wonder what my reflections will be in a year’s time?

Time to share?

Catch 22

In the drive towards savings in libraries the greatest losers have been paid staff and in many circumstances the axe has fallen heaviest on professionally qualified staff as, from a local authority’s point of view, these are the most expensive asset of the library service.

Equally, library assistants (or equivalent) have also suffered in the drive towards volunteers taking over smaller, local libraries, either outright or by replacing staff. Now this is not a criticism of volunteers per se, many communities are put in an unenviable position and step forward in order to prevent the withdrawal of a valuable and valued service.

It is unfortunately a catch-22 situation: by taking over the running of the library or by replacing paid staff volunteers enable authorities to claim the success of such ventures and thus risk the domino effect as more and more libraries are given over to the unpaid. Volunteer libraries beget volunteer libraries. But what would happen if communities refused to step forward and volunteer? Would the council still enact such widespread closures or would they fear the political backlash? It would be a very brave community that put this to the test and many are not prepared to play such brinkmanship for fear of losing the service.

So an unpalatable aspect of volunteer libraries is the exploitation of reluctant communities to take on resources they would prefer to be professionally run and staff being deprived of often cherished livelihoods within that same community. Not a situation that is acknowledged in the official spin surrounding so called ‘community libraries’.

Better than closure?

This leads me to a second observation regarding attitudes towards library closures. There have been a number of comments recently to the effect that a volunteer run library is better than a closed library. However, this is too simplistic a conclusion. For instance, closures can have a devastating impact in rural areas but the same cannot always be said for urban areas.

I realise this is a contentious point but large rural counties such as Lincolnshire and Devon with libraries in small rural communities with challenging transport links for example require a different strategy to that of a large urban area with relatively good transport. Strategic based closures can have a part to play in order to protect the integrity and quality of the overall service but this is dependent on many local factors. Therefore, a blanket generalisation that a volunteer library must automatically be better than closure is a logical fallacy.

Equally, the automatic acceptance of volunteer libraries over closures also discourages investigating and challenging councils to consider other alternatives, such as charitable trusts and shared services. A point raised by the judge in the recent judicial review for Lincolnshire libraries. A more contentious alternative is challenging senior officer and chief executive pay, increased allowances for councillors, or the reduction of services in the face of massive underspends and reserves.

Shared services

One alternative that appears to receive almost brick-wall indifference or outright opposition is that of councils sharing library services. Although some very limited moves have been made in this area such schemes are few and far between.
I have referred to shared library services in past posts and also highlighted that many within the profession would like to see a merging of library authorities. Recently the New Local Government Network (NLGN) stated that “Councils should find alternative ways to sustain local arts and culture… (and) should now look to share services such as libraries and theatres as funding cuts are handed down to local cultural sites.”

While not underestimating the difficulties involved there is definitely potential in the shared services approach for libraries (for further information see PLN – Efficiencies: Sharing services). For instance, integrating operational arrangements e.g. stock units and management systems, or merging libraries that are geographically close to each but in  in different authorities. Larger authorities could increasingly deliver services for a smaller services such as Essex and Slough, or staffing structures between neighbouring services could be shared.

Equally, regional library trusts could potentially deliver economies of scale, have access to different funding streams (including direct fund raising), and provide non-traditional services to fund the core offer. Locality have just produced a report outlining possible areas of income generation for public libraries, with some excellent examples and intriguing suggestions.

However, sharing library services seems to be the exception rather than the norm. Equally, it also looks like the idea of library mergers will be missing from Sieghart’s final report if recent comments are anything to go by, which seems to me both a great pity and missed opportunity.

Elected!

I’ve written before about the Cilip Governance Review (Fit for the future? & Chairman of the Board), which will be debated and voted on at this year’s AGM in September. Cilip Council met recently (8th July) to discuss the proposals and comments from the membership. The minutes and comments can been seen here.

It seems a number of reservations have been expressed regarding several areas of the review but overall there doesn’t seem to be that much opposition to the proposals from the wider membership, certainly not in the way that the name change last year generated opposition. Whether this amounts to approval of the suggested changes or just simple indifference is difficult to tell. Maybe librarians are more concerned about pay and conditions than the esoteric maneuverings of their professional body. Certainly there are a lot less of us nowadays in public libraries to be worried about Cilip’s shenanigans.

That said, I still believe that this is an important issue that will see Cilip being less democratic in principle than before, particularly in relation to co-opted members being given voting rights to elect the president.

The issue took on a new twist with the resignation of Tom Roper from Cilip Council who has also expressed concerns about the review and in the way Council conducts itself. Tom is considered a leading light in the library sector and has challenged Cilip over issues previously, particularly the vote of no confidence in Ed Vaizey, but whether Tom’s exit will rock the boat enough to knock the review off course remains to be seen.

There are some very sensible suggestions in the review and in the main I support more of the proposals than I don’t. However, the recommendations form a single package so it seems a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater to vote against them. And perhaps that is what Cilip Council is hoping for to get the plan through without too much resistance. Then again, perhaps some members will feel strongly enough about the issue to submit amendments to the proposals.

What would be interesting to know is what other professional bodies Cilip looked at and considered to reflect good practice. If they could highlight how the model has been successfully achieved elsewhere without undermining the fundamental link between the membership and leadership it might go a long way to allaying mine, and I suspect other members, fears. Comments from Cilip Councillors welcome.

One way or another the issue will either fizzle out due to members having more pressing concerns, such as trying to hang onto their jobs, or it could be an interesting few months of infighting similar to what we saw last year.

Given the potential for conflict and the fact that the keynote speaker is William Sieghart who’s recent comments about the future of libraries didn’t exactly garnish overwhelming approval it could be an interesting AGM once again this year.

I very much look forward to it!

The insidious phrase!

One size does not fit all

Along with ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA), one other phrases that has gained in popularity when discussing changes to libraries is that one size does not fit all, usually followed by a reduction in the level of service! In the debate over library provision it has become one of the main declarations by both politicians and councillors to justify libraries leaving local authority control.

The phrase was used recently by William Sieghart when commenting on his report into the future of libraries. Whether the comments indicate a pragmatic approach towards libraries or one of political expediency – that is, taking us down the path the DCMS and ACE wish us to follow anyway – remains to be seen. Sieghart is still consulting so perhaps the final report will deliver more than his comments indicate.

As a profession, librarians have known for a long time that one size does not fit all, and in practice there has always been different levels of service and provision depending on library size, usage, and locality. What was common however was the effort to uphold standards and ensure all communities received a basic level of service regardless of location. In this sense one size did fit all. It was a concerted effort to provide and uphold the quality of service, particularly around the now defunct national standards

Unfortunately, the phrase has come to mean something more insidious: as an excuse to undermine professionally run and managed services and to justify off-loading libraries to community groups. It seems rather ironic that despite being told one size does not fit all there appears a fairly standard, uniform response by local authorities, which is to hand over libraries to volunteers. In classic doublethink terms community groups are apparently the one size that fits all!

Rather than involving the community to genuinely tailor and improve services – which is easily done through focus groups, friends groups, and volunteers in added value roles for instance – the phrase is now used to cloak cuts and pressure communities into taking on libraries regardless of local opinion or capacity. This was highlighted tellingly in a comment by Liz Waterland Chairwoman of The Friends of Deeping Library in April this year:

‘May I correct an impression that readers may have gained, following your news item about Nick Worth’s opinions on library closures. The word ‘volunteers’ is only correct in so far as we are unpaid and are preparing to run a Community Library should we have to. We haven’t volunteered to run a library; we are being forced to do so because Lincolnshire County Council have threatened us with the closure of our popular and well used facility if we don’t. We will do our very best to step in if we have to but we would much rather that our library stayed open as the professionally run, properly staffed and funded community asset that it is at present. Neither alternative, of closure or community take over, is of our choice; we are being forced into this position because we are not willing to see the end of our library in The Deepings. The Friends of Deeping Library have been told we must ‘do it or die’ – the choice between them is NOT voluntary!’

Localism

The idea that one size does not fit all has in part been driven by the principle of localism. The rationale being that councils and communities have a greater say in how funding is allocated and spent locally. However, as the comment above highlights local opinion is often over-ridden in the drive to deliver savings.

While many aspects of localism are praiseworthy, in practice it has been used to justify deep cuts to relatively small areas of council spending. A point noted by the chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association recently:

‘The cuts are falling disproportionately on leisure, libraries, culture, art, transport…and environmental health. The smaller services…Some of those smaller services will no longer be viable. You cannot continuously improve a service that you’ve cut by 40%. It’s just a logical fallacy. We need to think very carefully about the future of some of these smaller services.’

Such cuts are set to continue and the LGA warned yet again that:

‘In spite of cuts, local authorities will continue to try and protect spending on adult social care next year as much as possible, which could be at the expense of popular services like buses, libraries and leisure centres.’

So given that large parts of council budgets include social services or protected priority areas the actual pot that local communities can influence is relatively small.

Professionalism

The attitude underlying the phrase, and indeed the localism agenda itself, appears to be a rejection of professionalism in the mistaken belief that it is more important for services to be community rather than expertly run. This certainly seems to be the case for libraries (many would also argue that the same view applies to free schools).

One point in favour is that it allegedly gives local communities more influence in local service delivery. But having a say in library services and running them are completely different. The first is a genuine impulse to involve and thus improve services, the second to cut costs and operate with unpaid labour, with the lessening of expertise and quality this entails.

Despite the spin about engaging communities and given them a greater say ultimately it is about savings and as such it is disingenuous to claim that services can be improved in the face of severe budget cuts and reduced professional input.

Equality

The one size does not fit all approach also undermines the progressive impulse of libraries towards alleviating inequality in terms of learning, health, social wellbeing, and digital inclusion, amongst others. The continuing drive towards community managed libraries risks the creation of a two-tier service that exacerbates rather than alleviates inequality.

There is also a misguided belief that communities possess either individuals or groups with the capacity and resilience to deliver local services. Recently, a group of volunteers in Lincolnshire resigned en masse in response to the increasing and unrealistic demands made upon them by the local council.

Unfortunately, the slogan has now become a superficial excuse to impose inferior levels of provision on communities. It is an approach that also favours higher level socio-economic groups and disadvantages socially deprived areas.

Localism vs regionalism?

Localism is also counterproductive to wider approaches such as the universal offers, the desire to reintroduce national standards, and a more strategic approach to libraries that we see in Northern Ireland and Wales. Greater interoperability between local authorities was one of the main points made by both campaigners and organisations in submissions to Seighart. For instance, Cilip argued that:

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

In Northern Ireland, five former Education and Library Boards have become one new authority, the Northern Ireland Library Authority (NILA) operating outside Government. The economies of scale achieved have helped NILA deal more effectively with the reductions in funding it has faced recently.

In Wales there are now also serious proposals to reduce the current twenty two local authorities by about half to improve the cost efficiency of service delivery.”

From his comments Sieghart seems to have rejected this proposition. While I think it is unlikely that the national approach we see in Northern Ireland would genuinely work in England there is no reason why reducing the number of library authorities and operating on a regional basis would not be effective.

Certainly, greater regional autonomy and power was the basis of Lord Heseltine’s No stone unturned: in pursuit of growth report, and a similar approach advocated recently by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. However, it is difficult to envisage how such a regional approach could work without first removing responsibility from individual local authorities and amending the 1964 Act.

Words matter

Terminology matters. In the battle of ideology over library services, words and phrases dictate the underlying philosophy and attitudes towards current and future provision. The over-use of trite phrases such as one size does not fit all risks rendering quite complex arguments into meaningless sound-bites and souring genuine dialogue between councils and campaigners over very real budgetary constraints and challenges.

Sometimes one size does indeed not fit all but equally when it comes to quality and standards, sometimes it can. In contrast, localism is creating only fragmentation, inequality, and a hodge-podge of inferior library provision.