Too Many Chefs…

Well another general election is upon us and sooner than most could have predicted. The indications are the Tories are on course for another victory with the only point being how large the majority will be. That said, polls have been wrong before so we can but hope.

Labour have at least mentioned libraries in their manifesto with a promise to increase council funding and reintroduce Library Standards. Both are very welcome but for me miss the main challenge facing the sector.

Unfortunately, both parties offer little in the way of innovation. For the Tories it will be the continuing path of localism and devolution leading to even greater fragmentation of the sector. For Labour it is primarily a funding issue. However, funding is only part of the overall challenge, what’s really needed is addressing the structural issues facing the sector.

There has been a tendency to focus on funding and to apportion the lack of financial support as the main reason for the current crisis in libraries. However, the problem goes deeper than this: it is about vision, about what libraries are, could, and should be. And just as importantly who should run the service. In my opinion, after seven years of mishandling the situation, councils are a fundamental part of the problem. The traditional model of local authorities delivering library services is no longer fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul.

The lack of strategic vision is further exacerbated by the lack of leadership, which in turn is the result of the chaotic nature in which libraries are overseen, funded, and influenced. From the libraries minister, DCMS, DCLG, ACE, Libraries Taskforce, and LGA,  to professional representation by Cilip and the SCL, down to local authorities, and increasingly parish councils, community groups, charities, and mutuals.

Far from the concept of ‘distributed leadership’ once inappropriately advocated by the Arts Council the current framework of oversight and delivery is a prime example of organisational dysfunction. Rather than addressing the structural challenges of the sector the current approach creates a toxic mix in which add-hoc project funding merely places greater pressure on an already creaking network.

The Libraries Taskforce has failed because it has been unable to address two central issues: the provision of on-going revenue funding and the creation of a unified strategic vision that addresses the structural challenges and is not merely a rehash of government policy. No amount of positive spin, blogging, or occasional funding can cover this deficiency.

Nick Poole captured the above difficulties when stating:

“The reason for this is that the Government has more or less direct control over the priorities of lottery and other providers of project funding, but due to the overarching policies of devolution and austerity has elected not to exert control over the ‘core’ funders of libraries and civic museums – the Local Authorities themselves. By withdrawing funds from Local Authorities and leaving them, essentially to their own devices, Government is forcing them into a position whereby core structural issues cannot be addressed and, by association, creating the very real danger of significant inequality between communities in different parts of the four nations of the UK.”

Those of us on the ground see the outcome of these policies everyday; the creation of a two-tier, post code-lottery in local library provision. In turn this leads to greater inequality throughout the country, with the already socially deprived being the most disadvantaged.

Libraries are a national resource and should be treated as such. However, this approach is very much at odds with current political ideology, which does nothing to address genuine sustainability for the future and impedes long-term planning. What we face is a systemic failure of oversight in the sector to create a unified, sustainable model of provision.

As a working librarian I have to accept the current political reality of the fragmentation of services, the downgrading of libraries as a shop front for a mish-mash of council services, and the deprofessionalisation of the sector.

However, I can also hope and aspire towards a better future. For a strategic vision and leadership that leads towards a national approach for library services; that provides genuine oversight, development, and resources to enable libraries to be the best they can be for the benefit not only of local communities but for society as a whole.

This should be the aspiration of the whole library profession while recognising the current political challenges that make this unlikely for the foreseeable future.

What is comprehensive & efficient?

Providing a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ is considered the touchstone of library provision and a constant refrain during campaigns to save libraries from closure. The notion is enshrined in law through the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and until 2010 there was little reason to fully discuss, let alone define, what this actually meant. After all, we all knew what it meant, right! In the best progressive tradition libraries were not only considered a good thing by their very existence but de facto ‘efficient & comprehensive’ became synonymous with expansion: more libraries, more staff, more resources to cater for a growing population and expanding towns and cities.

Only twice has a government felt compelled to conduct a formal public inquiry into local authorities plans for library closures: once in Derbyshire in 1991, and more significantly in the Wirral in 2009. Unfortunately, such intervention was short-lived as were the lessons learned.

The election of 2010 and the introduction of an austerity driven coalition government resulted in a rude awakening for the library sector including the abolition of the MLA and the Advisory Council on Libraries. Faced with large scale reductions, deprofessionalisation, and the steadfast non-intervention by the Minister of State for Culture – who for decades it was thought would always intercede for the benefit of libraries – the great cornerstone of library protection turned out to be more fiction than fact.

The difficulty is that no one is able to define what comprehensive and efficient actually means, at least not to the extent that meets general consensus and acceptance. For some the term is associated with an extensive network of physical buildings and paid staff, while to others the term is equally applicable to few service points but with reliance on technology such as RFID, 24/7 online services, wifi, and mobile apps for libraries.

Some authorities consider volunteer libraries to form part of their statutory provision and thus retain the characteristics of a comprehensive service, while many campaigners would take issue with this approach. Because the term is not defined in the 1964 Act it is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

Even during judicial reviews the courts have refused to get drawn into the quagmire of a legal definition, concentrating instead on the technical aspects of the consultation process.The MLA had produced a checklist for local authorities to use but again this has more to do with the process rather than defining terms or meaning.

Thus, the concept has failed so ‘comprehensively’ (pun intended) that Herefordshire Council can now seriously suggest reducing library provision down to a single main library, with the remaining taken over by volunteers or being self-service only.

So the question becomes that if the notion is no longer fit for purpose does it need replacing and if so what with? I realise this will be a contentious and in some quarters heretical suggestion but to continue with a principle that has become so outdated and impractical allows others to control the narrative to the disadvantage of meaningful library provision.

In my submission to the Sieghart Review I suggested that a set of core principles and values should be established similar to that which underpins the NHS. These principles should be regulated nationally but with scope for local interpretation.

For example, principles for the public library service might include:

  • Free access and membership for all  
  • Provision of and access to information in appropriate formats e.g. online resources
  • Access to books in all formats
  • Provision of a community space – for individual study, lifelong learning, workshops, and changing expectations e.g. maker spaces/hack spaces
  • Access to economic wellbeing opportunities – recognising the economic roles of libraries e.g. providing access to employment and benefits information, facilities for job hunting, re-skilling, and innovative approaches such as business hubs and enterprising libraries

The Voices for the Library manifesto is similar in advocating for a defined level of service including paid staff and professional librarians.

Such core principles should be overseen by an independent body that recognises the specific opportunities and remit of public libraries, enables evidence based research, sets standard, shares best practice, and provides advice to the relevant government departments and Minister for Culture. Perhaps along the lines of the Scottish Library & Information Council.

The term ‘comprehensive’ and efficient’ is no longer helpful and is inadequate to capture the changing nature of library provision. It lacks definition, is relative, and in many instances unquantifiable and could more usefully be replaced with a set of core principles and values as outlined above.

The principles and values should be based on continuing free access to literacy, learning and information and underpin the social value and instrumental role libraries play in creating a literate and educated population.

Addendum

A detailed account of the now defunct library standards and relation to the 1964 Act can be found on Public Library News: Public Library Standards in England.

In a twitter conversation with Nick Poole, CEO of Cilip, he quite rightly points out that standards and regulation are needed to underpin the principle of ‘comprehensive and efficient’. I totally agree and the NHS principles & values I highlighted are obviously underpinned by standards & regulation.

Nick also points out that industry standards might prove useful. Again I agree and look forward to Cilip developing some as well as stating what its view of ‘comprehensive & efficient’ is. After all, if the professional body for librarians is unable to define the term what hope has anyone got!

Situation in Wales (from Alyson Tyler)

Wales is a lot smaller than England, but your readers might be interested in the Welsh Public Library Standards, which have been in operation since 2002. Frameworks run on a three year cycle. The current framework has 18 core entitlements which sound much like your principles and values, and also 16 quality indicators, some of which have targets, some of which can be benchmarked, and some of which are impact measures. No system is perfect and not everyone agrees on everything of course. http://gov.wales/topics/cultureandsport/museums-archives-libraries/libraries/standards/?lang=en

Where does it go from here?

Well, despite the best of intentions to write more widely about politics I have actually found, after numerous aborted attempts, that the only area I really enjoy blogging about is libraries. So with that in mind Leon’s Library Blog is once again up and running.

I still firmly believe that the fight for public services is the fight the libraries. The genuine despondency felt by many staff struggling to deliver public services is summed up in a heart-felt letter by Corinna Edwards-Colledge, a Brighton and Hove Council Officer. In it she accuses David Cameron of deliberate contempt for council workers, outlines the devastating cuts to public services, and the negative impact on local communities.

Libraries are part and parcel of the struggle to deliver meaningful services to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities: from the housebound, to the job seeker who cannot afford internet access, and the families who are unable to buy books to effect the many positive benefits that reading for pleasure brings.

In fact the ‘reading for pleasure’ element of libraries has been poorly regarded and often disparaged by politicians. However, a recent report, The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, by the Reading Agency demonstrates the real, tangible benefits of reading for pleasure. As such, the loaning of books, in all formats, should remain a mainstay of library provision. An excellent blog by Dawn Finch outlines the main aspects of the report and why reading for pleasure is so important.

We are faced with 5 more years of ideologically driven austerity, the dismantling of public services, and the almost certain continuing reduction and fragmentation of public libraries. So the fight continues and I have decided to return to my musings mainly on the political and campaigning aspects of the ever changing library landscape (and yes, you can accuse me of doing a ‘Farage’ like u-turn!).

I cling to the hope that despite the changes to come we can continue to articulate a vision for public libraries, that while perhaps being a long way from the reality of current provision, nevertheless should be the ideal we aspire to, and which we will one day hopefully achieve.

We’ve got five years..!

save our library

It’s something of an understatement to say that the results of the general election were  disappointing, not just on a personal level but also for what it means for libraries. It’s difficult not to be despondent over the ramifications, which are outlined by Ian Anstice on Public Library News, with the headlines being:

  • Continuing deep cuts to budgets and increasing co-location
  • Off-loading more libraries to volunteers or closure
  • The removal of paid staff, continuing deprofessionalisation, and increasing anxiety about job security
  • Reducing the ability to mount legal challenges and continuing non-intervention by the culture minister
  • Continuing reduction of mobile services

This, unfortunately will be the new realism of the next five years and I believe Ian’s analysis will prove to be depressingly accurate. What we will see now is the re-invigoration of Big Society principles, underpinned by Localism, which will transform the whole public library landscape. The Conservatives are ideologically driven by the desire for a smaller state, less direct government intervention, and reduced public services delivered increasingly by third sector, voluntary organisations, and the private sector.

Libraries will continue to be, along with other public services, hostages to such ideology with little in the way to restrain the inevitable outcome and decline. I have no doubt that public libraries will continue to exist in the future but in a form that is radically different to that of 10 or even 5 years ago in terms of delivery and funding. Whether they will remain comprehensive and efficient in their new form will be open to intense debate.

For many campaigners therefore the battle to protect libraries continues but perhaps there needs to be a period of reflection and consolidation in order to formulate, if possible, a unified national strategy to resist the coming changes. I am not directly involved with the Library Campaign, Speak Up For Libraries, or Voices for the Library but it seems to me that these organsiations would be best placed to begin such a conversation.

Unfortunately, campaigns of the past five years have had only limited success. To be more effective in the future library protest needs to evolve and align with different local and national campaigns, over hospitals, education, tax avoidance etc. There is strength in unity but too many campaigns for libraries have acted in isolation. Such insularity will be even less effective in the face of rampant Tory ideology. It’s not just public libraries but all those in the public sector; schools, colleges, university, and NHS libraries that will be under threat.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity have organised a mass protest in London on June 20th. It would be an empowering gesture if there were a large library contingent there made up of campaigners, organisations – dare I hope for Cilip input – save library groups, staff, and of course library users. Not just speaking up for libraries but shouting out for them.

What has become increasingly obvious is that it’s difficult to campaign for libraries without appreciating what is happening to public services overall. When I first started this blog it was in response to a very narrow debate within Cilip over a name change. It quickly morphed into advocating for libraries and library staff as reductions and closures increased in pace. But against this background was always the hope that the coalition would be ousted and a slow recovery could begin. That hope has been well and truly dashed.

After the election David Cameron announced his aim was “…to govern on the basis of governing for everyone in our United Kingdom” under the mantle of ‘One Nation’. Almost immediately we found out what sort of ‘one nation’ he meant with massive welfare cuts, attacks on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, scrapping the human rights act, destroying workers rights, and more damaging austerity measures.

But we are not ‘One Nation’ and many of us do not agree with the vision Cameron offers. This government does not represent the majority. It is the result of an archaic and increasingly undemocratic voting system in which the Conservatives are governing with only 24% of the vote. This is not a mandate.

Thus, the fight for libraries is also the fight for public services and changing the system so that it works for everyone not just an elite. The downside of the election is we have 5 more years of Tory government, the upside is we have 5 years to fight for real and lasting change.

And with that thought I have decided that now is a natural stopping point and this will be my last post on Leon’s Library Blog. I shall be launching a new site shortly, which will have a stronger political slant as well as advocating for public services, and electoral reform – although I’m sure I will still make the occasional foray into library matters!

It just remains to say thank you to everyone who has been kind enough to read, contribute, and share my ramblings and musings over the past couple of years. A very big thank you indeed.

Leon

Vote For Libraries

keep-calm-and-vote-libraries-Blue

Well, it’s here. After five years of austerity, attacks on public services, widening inequality, and of course the continuing decline of public libraries, the election is with us. During this time, according to Cipfa, there has been:

• The loss of 337 libraries
• Reduction of staff from 25,648 to 19,308
• Increase of volunteers from 15,894 to 35,813
(figures from the Guardian)

Added to which, 30-40% reduction in budgets, hollowing out of services, and deprofessionalisation. Let’s also not forget the high profile judicial reviews of Lincolnshire and the eye-watering percentage of libraries forced on reluctant communities by authorities such as Sheffield.

Despite all of this Ed Vaizey recently defended his handling of libraries and averred that the scale of library closures had been exaggerated. This view was quickly contested by the redoubtable Alan Gibbons, who has challenged Mr Vaizey to a public debate on the matter. While I would dearly love to see such a debate I hope the electorate passes a more compelling judgement and that Vaizey and his party are unceremoniously ejected from office

What makes the claim by Ed Vaizey so outlandish is that his own department, DCMS, does not keep track of library closures so he has no reliable figures to draw on other than those supplied by Cipfa, which he appears to have ignored. A more comprehensive and realistic estimation of library changes is provided by Public Library News.

One issue surrounding the election is the accusation of it being dull and that all the parties are the same. I absolutely disagree.

As mainstream politics fracture under the weight of disillusionment with the Westminster parties the smaller parties have a greater opportunity to influence both the results and aftermath of the election. This is the new politics of the 21st Century. Whether it will have lasting impact remains to be seen but one thing is certain; we live in exciting, if somewhat bemusing political times.

Robert Peston, BBC economics editor, has written an excellent post around this theme and argues that this election really matters.

Although, libraries are not on the scale of the NHS or Education in terms of generating political headlines they are a valued and much loved service that the public genuinely cares about. Unfortunately, libraries and other public services cannot stand another 5 years of Tory government, whether propped-up by another party or not.

Everyone who cares about the survival of libraries: staff, campaigners, and users should think carefully when casting their vote. Give libraries a fighting chance of recovery by not electing those whose avowed aim is to continually shrink and undermine public services.

 

Libraries: think, act and vote small!

Save our libraryI watched the leadership debate last night and regardless of which candidate or party you support, and it’s unlikely the debate would have done anything to alter your view, the fact is mainstream politics in the UK is changing rapidly. The traditional, monolithic stranglehold of the two big parties is being slowly pried apart and most commentators agree that multi-party politics in Britain is here to stay.

Personally, I thought it was the three women in the debate, Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Natalie Bennett (Green Party), and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) that came out of it the best and all challenged the prevailing austerity myth of the Westminster parties. Well done to Natalie Bennett for mentioning libraries as being one of the public services being irrevocably damaged by the Coalition’s slavish commitment to austerity.

However, it’s surprising how many within the library world are put off as soon as the ‘P’ word is mentioned; and by that I mean politics. Any attempt to equate the fight for public libraries with the wider political situation is met with uncomfortable shuffling and muttering. Quickly followed by an attempt to turn the conversation back to ‘real’ library issues such as copyright, LMS suppliers, the theme for this year’s SRC, or the ongoing gripe about the cost of Cilip subs.

It’s as if, for some, libraries should be insulated and set apart from the grubby reality of every day politics and the sad truth is, as a profession, librarians are shockingly disengaged in the fight to protect services, relying instead on the public to fight our battles for us.

To me this is an extremely naive and myopic view. From local campaigns, legal challenges, judicial reviews, bitter infighting amongst councillors, the changing terminology of cuts, and even the composition of the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, politics imbues and influences everything libraries do. Libraries are a public service and as any politician or councillor will tell you, public services are political at both local and national level.

However, it would be wrong to say that no fightback has taken place during the past five years and advocacy work has been carried out by many dedicated individuals both within and outside the profession.

One of the biggest criticisms about library advocacy so far  is that even quite compelling evidence about the value of libraries has had little effect. The usual response is to blame the library sector for not advocating strongly enough but the real issue is that the arguments have been ignored because they run contrary to government policy and ideology (for an excellent blog on this see Libraries, Advocacy and Austerity).

The only sop to libraries from the Government has been the setting-up of the libraries task force.

Whether the task force will be a genuine agent of change or merely a cover for the continued enforcement of government policy remains to be seen. Certainly the rather narrow emphasis on digital services or commitment to supporting and extending volunteer run libraries does little to solve the deep rooted problems facing the sector.

It’s also hard not to be cynical over the recent £7.4 million budget announcement for wifi in libraries when set against the very real 30%-40% reduction in library budgets over the course of this parliament. Less cuts would have resulted in wifi already being available rather than having to be grateful for this rather paltry and obvious pre-election bribe.

What is clear is none of this will change under the mainstream parties.

So let me argue why the new multi-party politics is a good thing for libraries. It’s good because the smaller parties give library supporters and campaigners more chance to influence policy. Regardless of the rhetoric of Labour and the Conservatives a vote for the SNP, Plaid Cymru, or the Greens is not a wasted vote. Maybe this election, or maybe the next, but certainly at some point, one or more of these parties will be a power broker and a party that has a positive view of and genuine commitment to libraries will bring this influence to bear, hopefully pushing back some of the the damage that has already been done.

Thousands of library staff, campaigners and library supporters, as well as millions of everyday library users will be going to the polls on 7th May and while libraries might not be the deciding factor in who they vote for it might just well be ‘a’ factor in their decision.

The big parties offer no positive alternative for libraries but the small parties might. So in order to make a long-term difference to the future of public libraries now is the time to think, act and vote small.

Reply from the Green Party

I’ve had a reply from Martin Dobson, Culture Spokesperson for the Green Party. Apparently the Green Party, while having many activists involved in library campaigns, don’t have an official policy on libraries. What surprised me though was Martin’s openness about the issue, which I found both refreshing and a very human response. Certainly in contrast to the the avoidance tactics of Labour’s Chris Bryant and the obfuscation or downright misrepresentation of the Conservatives.

Perhaps the one area that I would question is point one. While local decision making is admirable, where there’s a clear dereliction of duty by the local council, Lincolnshire being a case in point, I believe it’s the Minister’s duty under the 1964 Act to intervene to protect local services. Unfortunately, the current incumbent Ed Vaizey has been rather remiss in this area for ideological reasons and the Tories avowed intent to reduce public services.

I have included the 3 questions that I asked Martin to give context to his reply:

Questions

1. Should local authorities be allowed to decide on the future of libraries in their own areas without intervention from the Minister for Culture or should the Minister intervene to protect library provision?

2. Many councils have blamed the decrease in central government funding as the reason for no longer being able to afford to run libraries. What would the Green Party do to protect funding specifically for libraries?

3. Do you believe that libraries should be run by community groups/volunteers even if that means replacing paid staff? If not, what would Green Party do specifically to prevent this.

Reply

Dear Leon,

I am glad that you have contacted us in the Green Party because many Green Party activists are involved in campaigns to save their local libraries. Having said that, I have looked and found that we do not have a lot of very specific policy around the management of libraries in our ‘Policies for a Sustainable Society’ – which are our long term policy aspirations.

So I am going to answer your questions based on my knowledge of the work of local councillors and our philosophical basis.

1. The Green Party believes that nothing should be decided at a higher level if it can be decided at a lower one. We therefore would prefer that decisions about local libraries be taken locally within each local authority rather than at the level of Minister for Culture.

2. The Green Party would straight away inject a substantial amount of money into local authorities so that they could restore local services. The amounts will be announced when we launch our fully costed manifesto hopefully later this month. I would expect that local authorities would use this money to restore libraries to the professionally run services that people have enjoyed for so long.

3. This is a very interesting question and we do not have any specific policy to answer it fully. However I know many Green Party members who believe, like me, that libraries should be run and managed by professionally trained and adequately remunerated librarians.

Your email has highlighted for me what little we have in our policies around our vision for libraries, which contrasts with the passion that many Green Party members feel about saving their local library service. As soon as this election is over I will, in my role of Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport start the process of thinking through a vision for libraries within a sustainable society. I am sure many people within the party will want to contribute to the discussions, but if you our your colleagues have any suggestions I would be grateful for your ideas.

I should explain that, unlike other parties, our policy is wholly made by the members at our twice yearly national conferences. It isn’t a short process, and often there isn’t enough time to discuss good ideas. However I am sure that there would be a lot of support to get this subject on the agenda sooner rather than later.

I hope that this answers your questions sufficiently for now. Hopefully we can give a better answer sometime soon.

With all best wishes,

Martin Dobson
Green Party Spokesperson on Culture, Media and Sports
and Parliamentary Candidate for Liverpool Riverside