A Tale Full of Fact and Fiction

Much has been made within the profession of the need to adopt a positive narrative approach. In this, libraries are no different from other organisations, and the story we tell about ourselves drives the collective identity of the service. It also shapes the perception of how those outside libraries view us.

So adopting a positive approach to tell the story of an organisation, or in this context the library sector, is a widely acknowledged and effective strategy for influencing others.

This is the driving force behind calls to move beyond the negative aspects of austerity in which the defining theme had been one of cuts and decline in the sector. The inclination for a different narrative has gained particular urgency as continuing public sector cuts challenge not only library budgets but also the very identity and  value of public libraries.

The Narrative

In February 2015 internationally respected librarian R. David Lankes called upon the profession to ‘control the narrative’ and demonstrate how public investment in libraries could have a huge impact on the economic and social well-being of the communities they serve. He stated:

The narrative of crisis is useful, but fleeting in its impact and exhausting and demoralising for those within the profession. A cry of alert had to be matched with a call to action, and, important in times of economic hardship, a compelling value proposition.

We learned that value goes far beyond economics and business development (though we had ample data to make that case). Value can include contributions to economic development, but it must include clear contributions to how librarians and libraries make life better.

Equally, in the same year Kathy Settle of the Libraries Taskforce argued of the need to “break the negative narrative” around libraries. She said:

 “I think we need to break that negative narrative. I recognise that’s difficult because there really are cuts and closures happening. We certainly don’t want to make it look as if everything is sweetness and light because we know that it’s not. But equally, if we don’t turn that narrative round and collectively start talking more positively about libraries, no one else is going to. And why would anyone want to invest in a service that sounds as if it’s failing?”

To a certain extend these arguments are right. Libraries certainly should accentuate what they do well and promote the positive benefits libraries bring. This is particularly true as we begin another Summer Reading Challenge, one of the most important national literacy programmes.

In simple terms there are two aspects of the positive narrative approach . The first is to move away from only the discourse of crisis and focus on the very real and tangible benefits that libraries bring. The second is the return on investment of the improved narrative and the influence gained with decision makers e.g. national government and local authorities.

However, this is where the positive narrative model flounders somewhat as unfortunately there is no clearly defined outcome of what the approach should achieve.

David Lankes argued for a ‘compelling value proposition.’ In practical terms this means showing how libraries are valued, proving both social and economic worth, and demonstrating how effective they are in delivering national and local government priorities etc.

But after that, then what? What exactly is the outcome hoped for once this has been achieved? The arguments so far have focused on the establishment of a narrative without addressing what the cause and effect will be.

The positive narrative in practice

Recently, there has been two strong examples of the positive narrative argument. Firstly, the Shining A Light report from the Carnegie Trust. I’ve already discussed the report in a previous post and argued:

“…the research finally qualifies the ‘narrative’ argument. It demonstrates once and for all that both users and non-users value the library service and that libraries, contrary to some, are not in terminal decline, but remain a well used and valued service.”

Secondly, is the work done by the Libraries Taskforce at the Local Government Association conference this year with the aim to encourage:

“…decision makers to ‘think libraries first’ and events like this are a good opportunity to reach a wide range of different people – many of whom are not immediately involved in the library sector.”

This included:

“…an invitation to a morning fringe session on libraries from the New Local Government Network (NLGN), entitled ‘More than Book-keeping? A New Approach to Library Services’. Featuring presentations from Cllr John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council, Ciara Eastell of Libraries Unlimited, and Brian Ashley of Arts Council England, this was an excellent way to start our conference. It was a small session, but the quality of discussion was high, with half a dozen library services all looking to share ideas and thoughts about achieving successful service transformation.”

There were also further presentations during the event from Stella Duffy on Fun Palaces,  Paul Blantern (Chair of the Libraries Taskforce) describing the Library Plus approach in Northamptonshire,  Jan Holden from Norfolk Library Service on their work with public health, and Tabitha Witherick of Somerset Libraries on the Glassbox project.

There can be little argument that this is not effective advocacy to those with considerable influence over the running of libraries.

Continuing the story

Add to this the direct representation from the Libraries Taskforce to the libraries minister and the years of ongoing advocacy by the SCL and Cilip to the DDCMS and various other governmental departments.

The point being, that while there has been a natural and understandable tendency to focus on the negative side of the reductions in libraries, there has also been an ongoing counter-balance of positive advocacy, particularly at a higher level.

Previous work on demonstrating value to policy makers, while not perfect by any means, should not be disregarded. For example there has been regular contact between the libraries minister and SCL over the years and he would have had ample opportunity to discover direct from HoS the socio-economic contribution of libraries.

So there is a danger of promoting the view that leaders within the profession have been consistently poor at showing the value of the service and thus libraries have suffered a negative perception and decline in funding as a consequence. In other words ‘it’s our own fault’ and all the advocacy undertaken by the SCL, Cilip, and more recently the Taskforce has been irrelevant.

Therefore, there needs to be a greater acknowledgement of the more nuanced complexity between the robustness of the advocacy and the willingness of decision makers to fully engage, listen, and take remedial action.

One observation in the Shining Light report was the:

“Lack of understanding and buy-in among decision makers and the public regarding the broader aims and purpose of libraries.” 

Partly, the problem is the profession defining the aims and purpose of libraries for decision maker to understand as the strategic direction nationally is vague at best. Equally, libraries now offer a smörgåsbord of activities and partnerships from service to service that, even allowing for the Universal Offers, it’s no longer clear what the library brand and identity actually is.

Nevertheless, I would argue that while the broader aims might still be unclear, it’s difficult for even the most hardened supporters of the ‘positive narrative’ approach to argue that libraries are not valued and appreciated by the public and decision makers alike. The vital ingredient in this mix is the willingness, or even ability, of decision makers to intervene particularly where the lack of buy-in is due to political dogma.

This is one of the fundamental flashpoints between campaigners and the ‘official’ representatives of the library sector.

Opposing views

The inherent dichotomy between the positive and crisis aspects of the library narrative is exacerbated  by a profession that places great value on objectivity, especially concerning information, as the ‘facts matter’ campaign illustrates. Conversely politicians prefer messaging that promotes government and local initiatives, even around reductions, in a positive light. Facts versus ‘messaging’ creates a toxic mix, quickly leading to distrust and suspicion.

This is perfectly captured in a claim by Kathy Settle:

“Libraries Taskforce chief executive Kathy Settle made the mind-boggling claim at a recent local government conference that public libraries are currently flourishing. “While people focus on libraries that have closed, there aren’t that many of those — and there are hundreds that have been opened or renovated,” she insisted.  “That message doesn’t always get out.”

Minutes of the last taskforce meeting, just 16 days earlier, record that Settle was present while the taskforce discussed complaints about the lost libraries in Lancashire, Swindon, Southampton, Barnet, Bedfordshire and Darlington.  Maybe she was confused by the fact that in the minutes of a three-hour meeting, covered by more than 4,500 words, “closures” were not mentioned once, instead referred to obliquely as “ongoing changes by library authorities”.”  Library News-  Private Eye – Issue No. 1448

 

Unfortunately, a narrative based mostly on facts appears too didactic, lacking emotional appeal, and unpalatable to the general public. Equally, a narrative devoid of facts is simply hot air and spin, leading to deluded over-optimism. Therefore, there needs to be a balance between the ‘fact’ and the ‘fiction’. No easy task when both sides have become so mired in their conflicting views and stuck on opposing ends of the narrative spectrum.

Another difficulty between the campaigners and official representatives is one of perception. One side sees itself as pragmatic, taking steps to ensure the sector survives, and to some extent thrives, under challenging circumstances. By implication other approaches are considered naïve or idealistic.

 

In contrast the opposing view is one of complicity in the devaluation not just of service quality but in the fundamental principles underlying public libraries.

What would be useful for both the profession and the public is engagement. And by this I mean genuine engagement with a willingness by both sides to consider each others narrative with an open mind.

There has been some attempts at engagement in the past but this has mostly been on an ad-hoc basis. What is needed is a neutral space with the opportunity for both sides to meet and debate openly.

Sadly, the chances of this happening is slim. Both sides appear to prefer silo approaches and the safety of insular meetings or conferences with little or no opportunity to dispute opposing views.

That said, I would argue that the onus should be with the official representatives towards more transparency, openness, and a willingness to justify their work to the public. Closed workshops and conferences that only include parts of the profession and vested interests is not the way to build bridges.

What next?

All credit should go to the individual library services and staff that, despite financial challenges, still drive forward creative initiatives. The demonstrable value of such projects in their local community are not just obvious but measurable as well. Most importantly, they are, in the main, promoted extremely well and libraries have become accomplished at marketing their achievements to local decision makes.

So, what next? We have, and continue, to do our part as a profession; we demonstrate more than ably the value of libraries and the work they carry out; we have a direct conduit to government via the Taskforce, SCL and Cilip. We have won the hearts and minds of the public; we have informed the decision makers many times over, we have collected evidence and highlighted the data where it exists. And now..?

According to the positive narrative approach we should be rewarded; with recognition, influence and appropriate funding. But perhaps it’s too soon. Perhaps not enough decision makers have been informed and influenced. Perhaps the whole approach should be viewed as long term…very long term.

And perhaps after a few more years, with the eventual change in the economic climate, or administration, we will realise that it was ideology and funding to blame after all. And that the ‘positive narrative’ was in fact just another ‘tale’. A tale, to misquote Shakespeare, full of fact and fiction…signifying nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Changing Times, Changing Roles

My latest post can be found on the Libraries Taskforce blog: Changing Times, Changing Roles

45ea7abe81a766e78aed8ed432fd280eIn the post I reflect on the skills needed to successfully manage a public library service in the current environment. Whether we agree with it or not, we face a new reality for libraries and operating in such a landscape requires a high degree of adaptation and flexibility from all library staff.

Equally, the importance of strong strategic leadership is paramount to provide vision and aspiration. Library leaders will need the mental flexibility and managerial adaptability to bring distributed elements into a coherent whole to ensure the continuing success of libraries into the future.

 

Parish Councils, Localism & Libraries

I’ve previously written about the trend of moving services over to Parish and Town Councils, which at the time appeared not to have gained much notice in library campaigning circles.

This development has gained traction with more and more authorities looking to second tier councils to take responsibility for services, including libraries (single tier Unitary or Metropolitan Authorities operate slightly differently).

The rationale being that first tier authorities e.g. County, District or Borough Councils are capped by central government in terms of raising council tax but parish councils are not. Previously this stood at 2% but the 2016-17 financial year saw the Government propose a threshold of 4% for local authorities with social care responsibilities and 2% for district councils.

Any proposed rise above this limit would require a local referendum, which few councils have the appetite for. Currently, parish and town councils are not subject to such limitations and can raise precepts above the 2% threshold. Thus, cash-strapped local authorities have sought to exploit this loop-hole to pass services downwards.

The transfer of responsibility has been window-dressed in the terminology of Localism: the desire to  encourage decision making at the lowest practical level of local government in order to decide what level of services should continue e.g. street cleaning and grounds maintenance.

However, regardless of the jargon used it is not the desire to empower communities that is the driving force but the harsh financial settlement imposed by central government year on year on councils. Unfortunately, with no lessening of the overall council tax, plus a rise in the local precept, many people regard this as paying twice for the same service.

It also puts greater pressure on parish councils not only to provide additional services but to raise income and resources within a small locality. This is coupled with a fear that continuing excessive rises in the precept will lead to the introduction of a cap similar to the limit on first tier authorities. There are also technical issues around ‘General Powers of Competence’ and the need to employ a qualified Clerk in order to deliver such services.

The counter-argument runs that if local people do not see the value in a particular service then it will discontinue, with the principle that communities will only get those amenities they are willing to pay for.

In practice this leads to another two-tier model of winners and losers. The winners are those lucky enough to live in an affluent parish, with an articulate community willing to save their local library. The losers are those communities without the social structure to mount a robust defence, which will see library provision disappear.

This is the downside of localism. Relocating services not to empower communities but to divest financial responsibility and place libraries in a more precarious position so that if they fail the blame lies with the local community and not the local authority.

Pragmatic, a cynical ploy, or just a matter of financial survival for the local authority? Sadly, in the current political and financial climate, it’s likely to be all three.

 

The Price of Everything…

Regardless of any other reservations campaigners might have about the Libraries Taskforce there should be no argument about the quality of the recent series of posts around the theme of how libraries deliver.

The seven posts highlight a core set of nationally important outcomes around literacy, culture, communities, prosperity, digital, wellbeing and lifelong learning. As a valuable promotional tool for campaigners and library staff alike the series evidence how vital the work of libraries are, not just nationally, but to local communities.

I would encourage all librarians to ensure that their lead members and senior corporate officers are aware of the posts.  

For me, the series shows that even amongst continuing bad news around library cuts it’s still not difficult to find exemplars of innovative library developments and the positive and demonstrable impact such services have on users. The mounting evidence reveals what those involved in libraries have known for a long time; that is, the essential societal, educational, and economic benefits that libraries bring.

Another project that will hopefully provide further evidence is the Arts Council funding to Libraries Unlimited and Exeter University’s Business School to run a two year research project around the social value of libraries. 

In practice this is what I believe R. David Lankes meant when he challenged UK libraries to follow their US counterparts and take control of the narrative around libraries and to demonstrate their worth to the wider public and politicians alike.

The rationale being that a positive message around the beneficial effects of libraries to decision makers would lead to a greater understanding and appreciation, resulting ultimately in a lessening of closures and cuts.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened and it’s not for want of understanding by decision makers or profile-raising activity within the sector.

There are many eloquent advocates for libraries both within and outwith the profession, from big name authors, actors, and politicians, to high profile public organisations such as the BBC, to a host of ordinary people campaigning to save their libraries at a local level. Libraries are rarely out of the local and national newspapers.

A recent example of support for libraries is from the Big Issue founder, Lord Bird. In an excellent and well informed speech to the House of Lords around the difficulties facing libraries and small booksellers he highlighted the many positives that libraries bring and the consequences of closing them.

So the message for libraries is clearly out there, the narrative is changing, despite the still occasional uninformed comment from individual politicians and councillors.

Unfortunately, the underlying challenge is not one of narrative but funding; not messaging but money.

As Baroness Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House publishing group stated during the Lord’s debate:

“Central government also need to address the funding deficit in local authorities, where competing essential services too often result in library closures. Our trajectory towards one library per 50,000 people is simply a disaster.”

And this is the single biggest challenge for those parties involved at the strategic level nationally; the DCMS, Taskforce, Arts Council, Cilip, LGA, SCL etc. The solution needed is sourcing funding streams that provide ongoing revenue rather than just project based funds.

 The Taskforce has also set out to collect and publish a model data set for libraries with the aim that:

“…access to timely, accurate, comparable library data is critical to enabling the library sector and users to monitor the delivery of library services and improve their quality. This includes everything from the information librarians need to manage their service day-to-day and that decision makers need to consider the strategic direction on library service provision, to the facts that will inform anyone who wants to know how their local service fits into the national picture.”

This will help provide a regular insight into the state of public libraries in England. It will be interesting to note as the data is released if continuing advocacy has any real impact on slowing down or reversing the rate of attrition amongst services and staff.

One aspect of the library story, unpalatable as it might be, is that libraries will continue to decline, not for want of being valued, but due to simple, unforgiving economics.

To use a common idiom ‘money talks’ and that is the real narrative that needs addressing. Especially against a government economic agenda that knows the “price of everything and the value of nothing.”

_______________________________________________________________

Addendum: reply from Nick Poole:

Leon, as ever, you raise arguably the central point in terms of where we go next with the library lobby. I would argue that we have always had ‘hearts and minds’, but have lacked influence and evidence. Now, thanks to the coordinated efforts of individuals and organisations across the sector, we are securing both. But these things are only useful if we are crystal clear about the tactics we are deploying and the end-game we are looking to achieve.

We have to assume that our objective is to secure the outcomes which only a great library service can deliver for our society. It follows that we should not be closed to the idea of progress – we’re not looking to prevent any library from closing ever, but to replace the current chaotic culture of financially-motivated closure, hollowing-out and volunteerism with an ongoing, effective mechanism for the management of our capacity according to clear evidence of need, supported by professionals who know what they are doing and are committed to delivering the best possible service for the people who depend on them.

This needs money, as you rightly say, but I think we need to be clear about what – precisely – we mean. Which means being absolutely clear about some key principles:

– Whichever side of the political spectrum you are on, the British electorate voted for a Government in 2015 which clearly signalled an agenda based on austerity, cuts to public services and diminishing Local Authority budgets. We may see a reversal of this policy under the new Government or following a General Election, but for the time being we are not going to reverse the dominant economic policy of low taxes and diminishing investment in public services.

– This means that public library services are intrinsically linked to a host (Local Government) that will continue to see significant real-terms losses in cash income (mostly likely in the aftermath of the Autumn Statement on the 23rd November). This leaves us with four options:

i) Seek Government intervention to ring-fence Local Authority funding for libraries, which would fly in the face of Treasury policy and the Government’s preference for localism. I have looked into the eyes of the people that would be responsible for trying to implement this and see no appetite for doing so at all;

ii) Encourage the ‘good’ Authorities (the ones that are managing to sustain investment in public libraries despite budget cuts) to continue their support by celebrating their actions in defence of libraries and providing real, credible evidence of the positive impact of their support for their local communities and economy;

iii) Discourage the ‘bad’ Authorities (the ones that are closing libraries, transitioning too rapidly into unsustainable governance models, cashing in on estate and building stock with scant regard for their statutory duties) through public intervention, the intervention of DCMS and – where necessary – direct action, local campaigning and local media activity;

iv) Support the ‘struggling’ Authorities (the ones where there genuinely isn’t the money to deliver a full statutory service, nor is there likely to be from business rates, Council Tax and other local revenues) to make informed decisions which focus on medium to long-term user need and outcomes over in-year cash savings.

– If we can stabilise the ‘core’ investment in library services through Local Authorities, then as you say it follows that we need to look to where new and additional sources of development investment may come from (in other words, if we can stop the rot – financially – we need money to invest in improvements). There are really 3 possibilities here:

i) That we address the question of how lottery funding is made available to libraries through the Arts Council England, and whether this supports the kind of core development (as opposed to a cycle of projects) which public libraries need. We have argued many times that libraries need the same kind of development support from the Arts Council that museums currently receive – a dedicated team, a UK-wide funded Museum Development Network, a clear Accreditation Scheme (and associated quality expectations) and dedicated ‘Resilience Funding’ to help strengthen the core delivery of services;

ii) That we petition the Government (as was included in our briefing to the Lords debate) for an Emergency Relief Fund to help libraries escape the short-term cycle of in-year cuts to staffing and buy time to transition to a more sustainable footing (emergency relief funding was made available by the Arts Council in 2013-14 to help struggling arts organisations transition into new, more sustainable operations);

iii) That we seek to create an alternate stream of Improvement, Development and Transitional funding for public libraries which is targeted specifically at strengthening the resilience of the public library sector.

– Finally, we are currently prone to the accusation that public libraries already receive a significant amount of taxpayer investment every year. Depending on which source (and which Nation) you take as your focus, the UK taxpayer spends between £640m and £715m on public libraries each year. It is too easy to dismiss or claims for support on the basis that this is already a significant amount of public money. With this in mind, we need to be absolutely sure that we are doing everything in our power to minimise duplication, reduce complexity, negotiate better prices for products, services and content – which also means looking at issues like shared data platforms, consortium procurement, bringing Authorities together and encouraging region-level planning and collaboration.

So, effectively from this our tactics to address your point about money would be:

1) Slow and eventually stem the rot of ‘core’ investment in libraries by Local Authorities

2) Improve the availability of development funding to help public libraries develop, improve and promote their services

3) Review the way we currently spend money either locally, nationally or (most likely) as natural clusters of library services

Unless we drive these 3 priorities collectively as a sector with focus and tactical impact, the best-intentioned ambition for public libraries won’t have a material impact on the financial realities so long as the dominant political and economic agenda remains a combination of localism, devolution and austerity.

 

Reply from Owen Smith

I was intriqued, like many library observers and campaigners, by the recent comments from Owen Smith, the Labour MP making a challenge for the party leadership against Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Smith has pledged that he will spend more on public libraries and re-open them if closed.

But as always the devil is in the detail so I wrote to Mr Smith asking him to clarify his comments and for his views on the following areas:

  • Library closures
  • Hollowing out of services
  • Replacement of staff with volunteers
  • Labour’s lack of policy on libraries

Labour has a very poor record on providing any meaningful answers to previous queries or for having any policy on libraries whatsoever. This latter point wasn’t addressed unfortunately or even acknowledged that one is needed. And while I fully agree that austerity is the driving force behind the cuts there was no recognition that Labour councils could be at the forefront of redesigning library services to mitigate against the cuts instead of emulating Tory practices.

Whether or not the reply below will give campaigners hope that a future Labour government would take the dismantling of the public library network seriously will depend on how it’s interpreted. Obviously, this would also depend on Owen Smith being the leader of that future government.

Dear Leon

Please find a reply from Owen below;
Thank you for taking the time to get in touch and for sharing your work on the important issue of libraries.
 
Public libraries offer each and every one of us a portal to the cumulative wisdom of the ages and the vast expanse of the human imagination. They do so for free and on the simple principle that, by sharing resources and building common institutions, we can all learn more and take greater pleasure than is possible when we act alone. There is nothing more democratic, nothing more socialist and nothing more Labour than a public library.
 
The vandalism inflicted upon our libraries by this rotten Tory Government is a national scandal. 343 libraries have closed, but that is only the thin end of the wedge. Opening hours and book funds have been slashed across the country.  8,000 jobs have disappeared and our libraries now rely upon volunteers, who do great work and deserve better than being used as a fig leaf for unsustainable cuts.  The sad truth is that the libraries that remain are offering a diminished service.
 
Labour Councils have been put in an impossible position by a Tory Government tying both hands behind their backs.  The only way that services will be restored and libraries re-opened is if austerity is ended and local governments are properly funded.
 
Not just do we need to end austerity, we also need to learn from the past 6 years if we are to safeguard our libraries in the future. Despite their statutory duty under the 1964 Act to “superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service”, Tory ministers have not provided any national leadership. I would work with councils to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation between the 151 library authorities in England, and give councils longer term funding settlements so that councils can better plan ahead and meet local needs. 
Under my leadership we would rebuild a democratic, socialist and Labour public library system fit for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
 
Yours Sincerely
Owen Smith

 

 

Challenges and Opportunities

After some initial confusion it was finally announced that Rob Wilson was to be the new Minister for libraries. Given the government’s emphasis on localism it’s not surprising that libraries have been placed as part the civil society agenda. The minister immediately set out his stall by emphasising volunteering, community action, and developing new governance models including mutuals, trusts and co-operatives.

The departure of Ed Vaizey and appointment of Rob Wilson has also led to a delay in the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Ambitions report to allow him time to review the document, visit libraries and talk to colleagues. In all honesty I’m not sure this will make any substantial difference to the outcomes of the report. The direction of travel has always been clear: localism, devolution, community libraries, new governance, commercialisation etc.

So the trajectory will remain the same but what we will see, I suspect, is a more explicit statement on how this will be achieved. Equally, I don’t see Rob Wilson being any more interventionist than his predecessor except perhaps to encourage local authorities to go down the trust route.

Obviously, this will be bitterly disappointing to campaigners fighting to keep libraries as a public service directly accountable to elected members. As it will be for those fighting for a more national approach to libraries that is evident in other parts of the UK.

For the profession there will be both challenges and opportunities and far from the uniform service that has traditionally been offered the new landscape will be a dizzying mosaic of local provision. Over the next few years what I expect to see is a growth of:

  • Hub and spoke model: a central library or small number of libraries providing a core offer, supported by community libraries or alternative provision such as book collections
  • Greater involvement by parish/town council’s in running or funding local libraries
  • Increased commercialisation with more paid for and traded services
  • Relocation, co-location, and core library space given over to other council services or commercial opportunities
  • Reliance on open access technology and volunteers to replace staffed hours and/or extend opening hours

Last but not least a change in how libraries are run. There has been a marked reluctance amongst most authorities to fully embrace the trust route or share services with other councils. Perhaps the new Minister will provide the impetus for this to become the norm, not the exception. None of the above is new and exists in various forms to a lesser or greater degree across the country already. What will happen is an increase in the pace of change.

For those of us in the profession the challenge will be how to manage and adapt to these changes while still providing a core service that reflects the Libraries and Museums Act, and taking advantage of new opportunities for partnership working and income generation.

For some the whole idea will be anathema. But until there is a change in administration, an ideological move away from austerity, and a commitment to plug the funding gap in council budgets then I genuinely don’t see the landscape changing for a long time to come. For campaigners the next few years will be ones of damage limitation and compromise rather than outright victory.

An unintended effect of such changes will impact on the SCL, which until now has offered a safe space at regional meetings for heads of service to support each other. Whether such trust can be maintained around a table where some heads will be eyeing up their neighbours as potential expansion opportunities remains to be seen?

Personally, I would like to think that as a mainly supportive and friendly profession trust and collaboration will continue despite changes to governance models.

Another impact will be the skills needed by senior librarians and heads of service, with less emphasis on traditional skills, and more on managerial and leadership competencies, plus the ability to build partnerships across a wide variety of public, third sector, and commercial bodies.

Whether or not this brave new world is an opportunity or challenge will depend on your viewpoint and politics. But like it or not, it is the new reality to which those of us in the  profession will have to adapt.