Tag Archives: Leadership for Libraries Task Force

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Libraries Deliver…Social Justice?

The following is an extract from the response by The Network to Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021, with thanks to John Vincent:

Social justice

In broad terms, “Social Justice is about every one of us having the chances and opportunities to make the most of our lives and use our talents to the full.” Working towards social justice is vital for all kinds of library services. It must involve in outline:

  • Embracing equality and diversity 
  • Focusing on a needs-based service and targeting resources towards those who need them most 
  • Having a clear understanding of the whole context in which the local community operates 
  • Knowing and understanding the components of the local community 
  • Having an active, collaborative role in empathising and working in partnership with the local community
  • Fully engaging the community, moving as far as possible towards co-production of service provision

A key issue for us in looking at Libraries Deliver is how far it considers the context in which people are living in 2016 – and what we can forecast for the years 2017-2021. There is certainly some consideration of this, particularly in the “Assumptions” section (18.2), although some of these are very woolly and some, to be frank, are fatuous – eg “Libraries will continue to focus on not only having a seat at the decision-making table but setting the table”. Social justice hardly seems to touch this world …

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

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

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

Taken from: Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021 Response from “The Network – tackling social exclusion

Libraries Without Boundaries

My england-regionsnew post Libraries Without Boundaries can be found on the Libraries Taskforce blog. In it I argue for:

  • Adoption of a set principles to underpin and clarify the 1964 Act
  • Creation of regional library consortia or organisations
  • Direct central government funding for libraries
  • Creation of an independent advisory body
  • Adoption of library standards

Papering Over The Cracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whole Story..?

image_galleryLove them or loath them ‘community libraries’ are an uncomfortable fact of life. I have great respect for volunteers that complement library services and paid staff, and libraries have a long history of working with volunteers, contributing as they do time, energy and additional skills. But since 2010 ‘volunteer led’ libraries have become ubiquitous and many authorities have them in one form or another.

A recent post on the Libraries Taskforce blog: Meeting the teams in community run libraries discusses work towards the development of a good practice toolkit for such libraries.

What comes through from the post is that many of the groups prefer core support from the parent library service and being connected to the wider library network. Such support can include oversight from paid staff, buildings and maintenance costs being met, and provision of stock and IT. This version of the model centres on volunteers replacing paid staff, and the subsequent budget savings this brings, but with the running costs being met by the local authority. Volunteers also support the library by fund raising activities to a greater or lesser degree. How much this genuinely meets the overall costs will differ from library to library, even ones within relatively short distances of each other.

However, while the posts goes as far as recognising the contentious nature of the issue and states that no endorsement of the volunteer model is implied I do find it unbalanced in tone and the emphasis is very much on the strengths and successes of the volunteer model.

This would be acceptable if recognition was also given to the pitfalls inherent in the system as a counter-point. Certainly any informed advice from the Taskforce needs to balance the pro and cons in a realistic narrative, if only to avoid the accusation of bias towards the government’s localism agenda.

For instance, despite all the wonderful work being done at Manchester Central Library, volunteer libraries in the area are struggling, with visitor numbers and opening hours falling dramatically. The challenges are nothing new and in both 2013 & 2014 a frustrated volunteer library manager vented her concerns to Public Library News about the reality of running a community library.

The situation is no doubt complex. Some volunteer libraries are thriving, some surviving with support from the parent service, and others barely managing to stay open. What we lack is data. Data to know how many volunteer libraries there are, what their experience is, and how we measure their success through standardised metrics. Will they be judged on visitor numbers, loans, events, or merely keeping the doors open?

So in the interest of balance and telling the whole story the Taskforce should highlight not just why community libraries succeed but also why and how they fail.

 

 

 

 

Winning Hearts and Minds

It’s a new year but the same old battle continues. The battle that started five years ago and the coalition government’s introduction of the austerity agenda. Less public services and less libraries. However, the initial rush to closure quickly ran into trouble and the government was genuinely surprised at the strength of opposition, particularly those politicians who couldn’t see out of their rose tinted digital glasses: everything was available online and digital was the future. Whereas libraries were an anachronism, old fashioned, had had their day? Except they hadn’t and plenty of people were on hand to point that out. With placards, demonstrations and judicial reviews if necessary.

The Government and councils were quick to get the message and unfortunately closures quickly morphed into two more insidious strands that hid the true picture from the wider public: hollowing out and volunteer led. Both approaches causing just as much damage to the national public library sector but far more difficult to challenge and fight. Libraries, more than any other service, became the poster child for the Big Society.

In the early days many within the profession saw a opportunity to modernise the service, make it more flexible, more entrepreneurial, with more public engagement. After all weren’t we here to serve our communities? So greater involvement could only be a good thing. Public services, including libraries, had become too directive: doing onto communities rather than working with them. Thus, the inclination to change and involve communities was genuine.

Unfortunately, very few could imagine the scale of change to come, could envisage that by 2020 the core grant from government would no longer exist. This is all part of the governments push to greater regional devolution, with alleged spending powers to match. Some bodies, such as CIPFA and LGA, have welcomed greater financial autonomy for regions seeing it as a way of decentralising control from Westminster. This is to be a brave new world of local self-determination.

Despite the claim that retention of local taxes and business rates will support local services, in practice there are still huge gaps in funding. This has led to many councils becoming commissioning bodies, rather than directly delivering services, in order to survive financially. Nevertheless, this is raising some serious questions regarding the lack of legal protection contracting out gives to service users. It also means that universal and some statutory services, such as libraries, losing out badly.

The professional bodies were slow to act to the rate of change. Both Cilip and the SCL have to accept responsibility for wanting to continue with a more conciliatory and collaborative approach in the hope of retaining influence despite the very obvious negative impact on the profession.

The abolition of the MLA with oversight being transferred to ACE made matters worse, with libraries being shoehorned into an arts-centric model they were ill-equipped to deliver. Equally, ACE were determined to deliver a prototype of libraries that fitted the government agenda, frequently commissioning Locality to inflate the voluntary sector’s ability to run them.

Both Cilip and SCL continued to drive forward valuable initiatives such as the Universal Offers, growing the Summer Reading Challenge, copyright, digital, and e-lending. These are all important areas that require professional input and partnership working but by ignoring the political consequences of austerity and the impact on the profession such  initiatives were merely papering over the schisms and strains appearing in the sector. Between 2009 – 2014 Cilip lost over 4,000 members through job losses and those leaving the body out of sheer frustration with perceived political inactivity.

Something had to give and fortunately with both the appointment of a new CEO and pressure from members Cilip has now taken a more oppositional stance to the government agenda. This has included taking legal advice regarding the Secretary of State responsibilities to libraries and the launch of the My Library By Right Campaign. I shall return to the campaign in a future post but encourage every library campaigner, user, paid staff, and Cilip member to get behind the campaign regardless of the slight misgivings some have raised (and for goodness sake sign the bloody petition!).

The SCL continue with a more conservative and conciliatory stance, preferring to work in tandem with the LGA and the  Libraries Task Force. This has led to accusations of merely helping to bring about government policy rather than standing up for the best interests of the sector.

The difficulty when discussing the SCL is the sheer opaqueness of how it operates and the lack of any clear decision making mechanisms such as how it seeks feedback and consensus from members over controversial decisions. In fact do members get to actually vote on issues at all? While it appears to derive authority from high level partnership working with the LGA, the Reading Agency, etc. it also appears to lack any democratic processes, and thus lack a mandate, to genuinely claim to speak on behalf of the wider profession.

Campaigners have led the fight against library closures. However, campaigns have been piecemeal and lacking genuine national focus. So the biggest challenge for campaigners is to articulate an alternative narrative but accepting that, while major differences exist, it needs to include an element of compromise with vested groups such as the LGA and taskforce.

If the sector has failed to produce the national strategic leadership required then campaigning groups have also failed to fill the void sufficiently.  This is not a criticism but a recognition that opposition in itself is not enough.

What is needed is one body, or campaign group, speaking with one voice, with a vision for libraries and a realistic roadmap of how to achieve it. The individual elements already exist but bringing it together into a unified narrative to challenge the government’s account is for me the single most important issue for 2016.

I started the post by referring to the fight for libraries as a battle but rather than rely on a coercive approach, through funding and ideology, as the government is doing we must instead concentrate on winning hearts and minds across the political spectrum as well as amongst the general public. To do this we need a very clear, positive, and realistic vision for libraries.

 

 

 

Shape of things to come

I’ve been rather preoccupied recently with proposed changes in my own local authority, about which, obviously, I cannot comment. But needless to say has kept me busy, with little time or energy to write a new post.

I did have every intention of following the last post with a rather downbeat synopsis of what public libraries can expect to face over the next four years in relation to government policy and funding, or lack thereof. Much of which might  still happen. However, the one glimmer of hope recently is that Cilip, at long last, has decided to take the government to task and insist they fulfil their legal duties under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, as well as provide statutory guidance for local authorities.

The My Library By Right campaign has been launched on legal advice received by Cilip that the Secretary of State, John Whittingdale, is failing in his legal duty  to provide clear statutory guidance on the definition of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service.

For many campaigners this more muscular opposition is entirely welcome. For others it smacks of ‘too little, too late.’ Personally, I think it’s a campaign that has the potential to unite together campaigners, library staff, Cilip and others concerned about the parlous state of library provision. It provides a very clear campaign focus and is a marked change in direction from the last Cilip administration. For this Nick Poole, Cilip Board and Cilip staff should be congratulated.

The campaign would also benefit from a statement of support from the SCL, who as individual Heads of Service, suffer under the same cuts as all library staff do. However, given SCL’s rather conservative stance over such matters, this might not be forthcoming. Perhaps SCL needs to consider that what the LGA wants is not actually in the best interest of the sector or their members.

One positive step that all library staff can take is to sign the online petition and encourage family and friends to do the same. I cannot urge colleagues enough to do this one little thing in defence of a profession we all care so much about.

However, before I get too congratulatory, it’s still early days and realistically it is likely to be a long, hard battle as the campaign proposes an approach that is directly at odds with the government’s vision for libraries, and runs counter to localism and devolution agendas.

In tandem with this news Ian Anstice has highlighted a number of trends influencing public library provision. Out of the 10 trends (and an eleventh in a subsequent post), the two that I think will have the most impact are the reduction in funding to local authorities and conversely the additional funding for the continuation of the Libraries Taskforce over the next four years.

The Government aims to totally remove the central grant, which has always been the mainstay of local government funding, by 2020. Instead the shortfall will have to be made up by new funding streams such as business rates. Unfortunately, this will not plug the very real financial gap. Many councils will still face significant shortages and struggle to deliver anything other than adult social care and children’s services. Also, the expectation is that extra revenue raised from the business rates will be used for infrastructure projects rather than maintaining services.

Thus, the trend towards commissioning services out and expecting a greater entrepreneurial approach – even from services ill-suited to such – to generate income will continue. For libraries this means more of the same: closures, volunteers, community groups, hollowing out, and trusts. Another aspect that’s not often mentioned is transferring responsibility for local services to parish and town councils, funded through the parish precept.

The next area is the scope and work of the Taskforce. Its impact has been rather limited until now with the emphasis on facilitating the government’s and LGA perspective of libraries. So far it has failed to display any genuine leadership of the sector or reach a consensus with those who view it as little more than a vehicle for delivering government policy. But that perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s funded by the government and therefore the old adage of not biting the hand that feeds you holds true.

The likelihood is that the Taskforce will continue to support changes that make libraries more financially independent of council funding, delivered through a variety of models and governance such as community groups and parishes. Aligned with this will be the drive to generate higher levels of income and attract funding and grants from the private and charity sectors. The creation of trusts, mutuals and perhaps even library authority mergers will almost certainly play a part also.

This all complements the current political view and move to greater localism and regional devolution. Whether the Taskforce will wish to deviate from this approach, or more importantly whether it will be allowed to, and move closer to a position advocated by campaigners and Cilip remains to be seen.

That said, if a week in politics is a long time, then four years is a lifetime and we could all yet be surprised.

It only remains for me to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I’ll see you once more on the ramparts in 2016!

 

 

 

Bridging the Gap

I enjoyed attending the Speak Up for Libraries conference this year; meeting and talking to very passionate campaigners and library users about the importance of libraries. Nick Poole, Cilip CEO, started the conference off with a excellent welcome speech extolling the virtues and values of libraries, including welcoming David Cameron to the ranks of library campaigners after his intervention in Oxfordshire, to much laughter! More detailed notes of the conference can be found on Public Library News and the transcript of Nick’s speech on the Cilip website.

For many the main draw this year was the opportunity to listen to and question Paul Blantern and Kathy Settle of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. This was never going to be an easy ride for them and while not necessarily agreeing with all their views they mostly retained grace under fire from very understandably frustrated campaigners, with only the occasional flare up!

Paul Blantern had a prior engagement so arrived in the afternoon but credit to Kathy Settle who was around all day and took the opportunity to talk to many attendees.

Both Paul and Kathy made no disguise of the fact that the Taskforce is both limited in scope and influence and that they are a task and finish group. Given the time limited nature of such groups the emphasis of the Taskforce appears to be identifying trends in a national context, researching and sharing good practice (although that beggars the question who decides what good practice is?), and exploring potential alternative sources of funding that libraries can tap into. The other role of the group that Paul and Kathy were keen to reinforce was as a strong advocating voice to ministers and other national decision makers.

This is all very laudable but for some campaigners does not go far enough. The difficulty is one of expectation, with the Taskforce being perceived as having more influence and authority than it actually does. The most misleading misnomer is the use of the term ‘Leadership’ when in fact, at best, it’s more of a facilitating body. Able to talk to a wide variety of individuals, organisations and ministerial departments at both national and local level but without the ability to enforce adherence.

Given the limitations in both scope and power it is easy to argue that a genuine strategic leadership body is still very much lacking within public libraries nationally.

But then again this should not come as any surprise. William Sieghart’s report, despite claims to the contrary, was not actually that independent, as it’s difficult to reconcile the outcomes of the report with the feedback given by many individual campaigners and library bodies such as Cilip, ASCEL and the SCL.

Given the delay in publication and the amount of time sat in Ed Vaizey’s office many campaigners have long suspected  a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down recommendations that did not chime with government policy.

What we finally got was a report that recognised the challenges libraries faced but with solutions that were politically palatable to the current government. For example many submissions raised the issues of national library standards and the merging of library authorities. In its submission Cilip remarked:

“The focus on localism has been a barrier to the development of national standards that would support local delivery and identifying major economies of scale. The public library is a national brand and some elements of it can be delivered more effectively on a national scale.”

And:

“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.”

And yet both issues were noticeably absent in the report. Sieghart would have been well aware of these but either decided they would not be acceptable and dropped them as a matter of pragmatism or as a result of ministerial intervention.

Whether this was a pragmatic approach or political interference depends I suspect on your political outlook.

A similar conversation took place at the SUFL conference with the view from the Taskforce that neither issue would be acceptable to the LGA or ministers and incompatible with the trend towards greater localism and regional devolution.

Looking at the report Sieghart’s three main recommendations were:

  • The provision of a national digital resource for libraries, to be delivered in partnership with local authorities
  • The setting up of a task and finish force, led by local government, in partnership with other bodies involved in the library sector
  • The task force, to work with local authorities, to help them improve, revitalise and if necessary, change their local library service, while encouraging, appropriate to each library, increased community involvement

Right from the outset the Taskforce was always meant to be subservient to the views of government and particularly the LGA . So, far from being ‘independent’, the report actually outlined a framework for the continuation of government policy.

This is again made clear in the recommendations concerning the oversight of the Taskforce, which he recommended:

“…will jointly report to Ministers and the Local Government Association. This partnership will foster and promote a new and dynamic way of working for libraries.”

Thus, the Taskforce was never intended to be an independent voice for libraries but rather a vehicle by which ministers and the LGA could drive forward their own vision for libraries. The composition of the Taskforce reflects established interests with calls to include campaigners and unions falling on deaf ears, leaving the only potential dissenting voice on the group being Cilip. 

Is it any wonder that many campaigners are suspicious of the Taskforce’s motives and view it as little more than a smokescreen for enabling government policy regardless?

However, it would be wrong to disregard the Taskforce altogether. Paul Blantern made the point that without their intervention libraries would have one less tank in the armoury. They are able to make representation to government and the LGA that individuals cannot. Equally, both Paul and Kathy indicated that they were happy to talk to individual councils and advise on the pros and cons of the different options available such as the viability and sustainability of volunteer libraries.

Another interesting point raised was the how the Taskforce operates behind the scenes. Paul mentioned a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith regarding the vital role libraries play in developing digital skills for Universal Credit. He indicated that the Taskforce could encourage funding for libraries that deliver services which benefit the DWP.

This would certainly find favour with many services who struggle to cope with the rising demand from job seekers. However, the success of such an approach can only be judged by how quickly such funding becomes available, if at all.

This leaves campaigners in somewhat of a conundrum. They can ignore the Taskforce and continue with outright opposition to government policy in the hope that a eventual change in administration will result in a better deal for libraries. Or they can accept the limitations of the Taskforce, that it will never be the leadership body they would like, but work together where interests coincide.

Whatever happens bridges need to be built on both sides whilst recognising that there are major differences in ideology and attitudes. Perhaps one small start would be for campaigners not to attack Paul Blantern, in his role as Chair of the Taskforce, over changes made in Northamptonshire . It’s hard for a CEO not to be defensive about his own authority. In return, perhaps Paul could refrain from holding his own library service up as an exemplar in recognition that many campaigners disagree with the changes he has made.

There are at least three more years of austerity and five years of the current government left. Campaigners, the Taskforce, and all interested bodies and organisation must try to work together, where circumstances and interests coincide, to ensure that even if library services don’t thrive they do at least survive.

What shape those library services will take over the next few years I’ll leave for another post.

 

 

 

The Gordian Knot

Gordian-Knot-and-Pain

The list of volunteer libraries grows almost daily with perhaps Herefordshire providing the most extreme example, proposing that all but one library should be run by community groups. However, the approach is fast becoming ubiquitous across the country with examples at Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Southampton, Kirklees, Leicestershire, Sheffield, etc. The list goes ever on. Unfortunately, it might be easier nowadays to list those services that haven’t handed, or want to hand, libraries over to volunteers in one form or another.

In fact it’s become the norm to the extent that Lincolnshire Council can boast that “Volunteers are now at the heart of Lincolnshire’s library service, giving communities a chance to do things their own way.” So we finally have a local authority that regards volunteers and not paid staff to be central to its library service. In a similar vein Lewisham Council claim’s that making staff redundant and handing libraries over to volunteers ‘…will in fact enhance the service.’ Hampshire appears to be going one better than even using volunteers and aims to replace 74 staff with self-service technology.

Unfortunately, the volunteer model is leading to the fragmentation of library services, not only nationally, but also locally with a two-tier service developing within the same county, city, or town.

Obviously, the approach is not without it’s difficulties for Councils as the judicial challenges in Lincolnshire shows. A recent story from Lincolnshire also illustrates that not all libraries are viable with volunteers saying there is not enough money to keep going. Equally worrying is that volunteer libraries in Manchester have seen visitor numbers plummet by as much as 90%.

So while volunteer libraries are not necessarily the answer they do seem to the model favoured by many local authorities faced with an ever decreasing settlement from central government. A situation that is projected to get far worse by 2020 according to the LGA.

Communities are offered very little choice in the face of closures. It’s long been recognised that there is an element of blackmail in forcing communities to take over the running of libraries or face closure. It’s also very difficult to oppose plans that are targeted at individual libraries as each community fights to save their local library rather than the whole network. I’ve always found it puzzling that councils can trumpet that charities and trusts are a preferred option for individual libraries, which can sometime amount to the majority of libraries in that authority, but somehow the trust/mutual approach is not considered suitable for the whole service. At least that way it is the experts, the library staff, that retain control. Work that one out!

In both Lincolnshire and Leicestershire the attitude is that local communities …know best what their library needs, whether it is different opening hours or staging more events’ and that volunteer libraries are capable of ‘…creating an even better service that the county can be proud of.’

Some councillors and volunteers might actually believe this. Others take a more pragmatic view. Bob Mynors, a volunteer at Stannington Library in Sheffield acknowledges “While volunteers cannot ever fully replace the work done by professional, qualified librarians, libraries remain important local, social spaces.” He also states that the volunteers have greater flexibility to do things that would not have been possible under local authority management such as a murder-mystery evening , accepting book donations, and a story festival.

It’s a pity that such simple things are considered an improvement when they should have been part and parcel of the council run library offer. What all of the above demonstrates however is the importance that both councillors and communities place on libraries, with the prevalent attitude being that a volunteer library is better than a closed library.

This is a conundrum for both the library profession and campaigners alike. The Gordian Knot that we must find an answer to. It is one thing to protest cuts and closures but it is another to develop a viable alternative. From a cash-strapped council point of view volunteer libraries offer a cheap and politically palatable alternative to closure even if the local community have to be compelled to take on the running. For the past five years it is the one argument that many campaigns have foundered on.

It should be obvious that volunteers cannot replace the knowledge and expertise of paid staff and qualified librarians. However, regardless of how bitter communities feel about the loss of paid staff they would still rather lose staff than the library, which is why councils know that ultimately volunteers will, in most cases, step forward.

The Speak Up For Libraries conference is next month and unless campaigners can develop a narrative to counteract the volunteer model and advocate an equally simple and affordable option then volunteers libraries will be the reality for the next 5 years and possibly beyond.

Obviously, the task should not be left to campaigners alone as it’s important that any narrative is shared and supported by all, which includes Cilip, SCL, and the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. However, until a solution is found, and hopefully found quickly, then before too long it really will be volunteers rather than library staff and qualified librarians that will be at the heart of the service. To the detriment of all.

Addendum

The following was received from librariesmatter and it certainly is food for thought:

On a point of logic – the Lincolnshire CC statement does seem extraordinary since the community hub/volunteer libraries are not part of the Lincs statutory library service. How can the heart of the service be outside the service for which the Council has the responsibility?

Whilst the issue around the possible over use of volunteers in public libraries is well publicised, the issue of Councils’ redefining the extent of their statutory library service by leaving out libraries from their service has hardly received any attention. Lincolnshire is an example of this. My understanding is that for the 30 community hub/volunteer libraries – Lincs CC doesn’t have any obligation to support these libraries into the future. It has chosen to provide some short term support (4 years) presumably as a more palatable way of pushing through its reduction in service.

The redefining of the statutory service allows a Council to provide a worse and lower funded library service into the future. English councils are able to do this because there are no library standards (abolished 2008) nor any library performance indicators (abolished 2010) and government policy is clearly one of non-intervention. Shouldn’t campaigners and CILIP be paying more attention to this point?
If a library is part of the Council’s statutory service then it is under an obligation to fund and support it.
This doesn’t necessary mean the Council has to run the library itself or even that there have to be paid staff present (alternatives in smaller branches could be volunteers or ‘open+’ technology).
 
The places where community run libraries are more successful are surely those that are part of a statutory library service and are thus (hopefully) properly supported.