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.

 

 

 

 

 

Stronger Together

cilipI make no apologies for this post being unashamedly a recruiting drive for Cilip after seeing on Twitter that membership is still falling by 3%. However, as with everything, the context needs to be understood to see this fall as a positive and not necessarily a negative.

For years I was a harsh critic of Cilip, not because it had lost its way, but because it didn’t have a way forward at all. It was floundering under the pressure of austerity and the resulting widespread hollowing out of public libraries with the loss of jobs and thus membership. Worse of all, this was happening without Cilip speaking up for the profession or advocating the advantages of retaining a professional workforce.

It also faced the challenge of arresting the decline in membership. My own opinion was that members where leaving because they could no longer see the relevance of belonging to a professional body, and paying expensive subscriptions, that was too far removed from their everyday experience of year-on-year budget and job cuts.

But all this has thankfully changed. Cilip now has, and continues to develop, a strong voice in defence of its membership and championing library services in different sectors; public, schools, health. It challenges Government policy and intervenes, as much as it can, in local decisions to reduce services. Cilip is becoming the professional body its members need it to be.

I contacted Nick Poole for further information about the fall in membership and he sent this reply:

“The current rate of attrition is just over 3%. That’s actually around half what it was 3 years ago, but it’s still a declining number. We follow up with people who don’t renew, and the underlying reasons are informative. A significant proportion are due to retirement, which is why we’re working to improve the offer the retired members. Similarly, we see a significant drop-off in the transition from free student membership to full membership. We have seen a decline in the number of people leaving because of dissatisfaction with CILIP.

 Of course, over the past 10 years, the most significant decline in sector terms is membership among public library staff. This is one reason why we launched the new Careers Hub on the CILIP VLE – to provide support for public librarians who find themselves having to make a transition to other parts of the library sector. We know that public libraries are changing, but we see it as essential that public library staff are encouraged to engage with their professional body, develop their skills and maintain the connection to the wider library and information profession. This is why we are pleased to be working with SCL on the new Public Library Skills Strategy, which will help address some of these issues.

 We know from the workforce mapping project that there are around 69,000 people in the library & information workforce in the UK. With around 12,500 members, we currently represent around 18% of that workforce. The average for professional association membership in other sectors is around 20-22%, so there is scope to grow our membership base. It is important for us to do this because the more of the sector we can represent, the more credible we are when advocating for librarians and information professionals.

 When we went out to the wider profession, we found that a lot of people want to be part of CILIP as their professional body but don’t currently regard membership as affordable. The new membership model on which members are currently voting is designed to help us retain and support our existing members, and reach more of those people. We also found that there are a lot of people who want to be part of the profession but aren’t yet ready to commit to Professional Registration. Welcoming these people to the CILIP community and encouraging them to take up Chartership has been a major factor in the design of the new model.

Ultimately, the sector needs a strong independent voice – I’d argue now more than ever. We understand that people expect value for money from their membership, and we are working hard to deliver that. This is a model for growth and we are really hoping that members will support it and empower us to reach out to those people who could and should be members, but currently aren’t.“

All I ever wanted from my professional body, what I had the right to expect, is that it speaks up in defence of its members and profession. Cilip is absolutely doing this, which is why I have changed from critic to proponent for the body.

I absolutely understand why library workers have drifted away from Cilip in the past but I genuinely believe it has changed and would encourage all library and information workers, especially public library staff, to stay connected to the profession.

Here’s some very simple reasons I think you should stay with, join, or rejoin Cilip:

  1. Advocacy: a strong voice for the profession
  2. Lower subscriptions and better value for money
  3. Advice & support including access to employment law advice
  4. Professional development and networking

Ultimately, we are stronger together, and I look forward to Cilip expanding towards the 69,000 target.

Please do forward your question and indeed criticisms via the comments area and I shall ensure they are passed on to Cilip to answer.

Further information:

It’s Complicated!

I doubt that many people, when the coalition government came to power, could predict the precarious state that public libraries would find themselves in five years later, particularly in England. Obviously over that time local authorities have responded in unique – at least as far as libraries were concerned – and not always popular ways including establishing volunteer led libraries, reducing library networks through closures, and hollowing services out by cutting hours, budgets and staff.  A few have gone down the route of commissioning out, mainly in the form of not for profit trusts.

However, the situation has become so fluid that solutions which appeared robust even a couple of years ago are looking unstable in the current climate. This is not necessarily the fault of the managers involved. I admit that my own views have changed, driven by the fact that it is one thing to develop practical alternatives to mitigate a 10%-20% reduction in funding and another to design a service around 40%-50% cuts, with more to follow. Services are being contorted by the unremitting grind of austerity into misshapen delivery models that ill-match their purpose: from a shop front of ragbag, mismatched council services to financially brittle libraries dependent on the availability and philanthropy of the local community.

That said, it’s also undeniable that councils are under immense financial pressure as the setllement from central government is substantially reduced year on year. According to the LGA central government has cut the settlement to councils by 40% since 2010 with a further reduction by 2018. The current furore between David Cameron and the leader of Oxfordshire Council shows that even the most ardent tory councils have had enough.

No wonder some local authorities seek to transfer assets, co-locate services, and turn libraries into ‘community hubs’, whatever that phrase means.

However, such approaches do not lend themselves to genuine service development and the outcome is that library services become pale imitations of their former selves, far removed from the ideal of ‘comprehensive and efficient’, which is sacrificed on the altar of austerity economics.

Library staff, campaigners, and local communities are often faced with a difficult dilemma when threatened with library closures. The option of choice for most councils appears to be to off-load parts of the network individually to local community groups and volunteers. Another option is to hand over to a private company but thankfully there are few examples of this in the UK. The main one being Carillion, which appears to be an unmitigated disaster. That said, Self-service and Bibliotheca’s Open+ are being used as an excuse to replace staff altogether. This is not a criticism of such technology but it is being used increasingly not to enhance service development but merely to enable staffing cuts.

A pragmatic solution? Personally I prefer my libraries with the human touch.

Another option that fewer councils have adopted is the mutual/trust approach. Many campaigners rightly point out the pitfalls in taking such a path and the pros and cons are summed up on Public Library News.

The main concern about trusts seems to be that they are viewed as a backdoor to privatisation, lack accountability in the way they operate, not least regarding FoI, remove accountability out of the hands of elected representatives, and offer lower employment terms and conditions  for staff. I have great sympathy for some of these concerns particularly over withholding information under the guise of commercial confidentiality.

Data around trusts is also hard to come by so how successful they really are in comparison with a council run service is difficult to reliably quantify.

However, despite these qualms we should not just dismiss the trust approach. Now I have previously argued in favour of trusts, not because I believe they are the ideal solution, but because they offer a pragmatic option over fragmenting library networks by closure or handing over to volunteers. I’ve also never been entirely convinced that this undermines local accountability, mainly because it’s the elected representatives that have helped to create the current crisis. Ask campaigners in Sheffield, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Kirklees…in fact almost anywhere in the country how well local accountability is working!

Yes the ideal might be a fully funded and council run service but in the current political climate and a government ideologically opposed to properly funding public services this is a unrealistic expectation. Maybe circumstances will change in the future under a more sympathetic government but we have a long way to go before we get there. In the meantime we need to develop pragmatic interim solutions.

The latest authority to go down the trust route is Devon, with the adoption of a new identity as Libraries Unlimited South West, which Ian Anstice observed could imply ambitions beyond the Devon area. I’ve explored regional library trusts in previous posts comparing them to  NHS trusts and surmising that perhaps similar cross boundary cooperation could work well for libraries.

Often staff are supportive of the trust model as an alternative but prevented from pursuing this by council members who, for some unfathomable reason, prefer threatening to close libraries as a way of coercing communities into running them.

So if it genuinely comes down to a choice between the option to keep the network mostly intact and run mostly by paid staff and qualified librarians or face the fragmentation of services and handing over to volunteers I know which option I’d choose. In fact where a council is intent on off-loading a large proportion of its library network then campaigners should challenge the council to adopt a trust model.

However, as I say, it’s complicated, and for the foreseeable future likely to get more complicated still.

When is a librarian not a librarian?

There has always been a confusion in the mind of the public to what actually constitutes a ‘librarian’. From experience I know that many users refer to any and all staff in libraries as librarians. For most of my career that’s never bothered me overmuch. However, over the past few years it’s become more important as the government has tried to redefine terminology to enable the reduction and deprofessionalisation of the public library sector.

For example ‘community library’ used simply to mean a library that was part of a particular community or denoted size/level to distinguish it from larger counterparts. Nowadays the phrase has become synonymous with a library that has been riven of paid staff and run by volunteers. After all ‘unsustainable book swap run by unpaid amatuers’ doesn’t quite have the same attractive ring as ‘community library’. So in best marketing style the term has been hijacked to mask the reality.

Unfortunately, those that should be concerned with maintaining high standards of library provison: DCMS, ACE, SCL have all bought into this notion and readily propagate such disingenuous definition.

That’s why as a profession we should be cautious when terminology is subverted to suit the current political and austerity agenda. A recent newspaper article about a volunteer run library in Lincolnshire uses the term ‘volunteer librarian’. Now  I assume that this oxymoronic phrase (unless they genuinely mean qualified librarians actually volunteering!) has been coined by the local newspaper. However, all such terms need to be challenged before they gain common currency as does any other erroneous assumption that librarianship is anything other than a highly skilled profession.

I was very disappointed when the Arts council averred in Envisioning the Library of the Future that an essential ingredient of the public library was “well trained and friendly ‘people’ (my italics) to help users to find what they want…” when all evidence points that what the public actually wants is ‘well trained and friendly paid staff’. One phrase justifies volunteer run libraries, the other does not. As always terminology matters.

However, it is beholden of the profession to also be wary of accidently perpetuating such an approach. A case in point is the appointment of non-qualified candidates to professional posts. Now to be fair there is a long history within libraries of bringing in candidates with the appropriate skills set from other sectors and this is a perfectly legitimate approach in order to attract the best individual for the job. Such people can be very talented and bring much needed skills and perspective to the service.

However, it is also common for such candidate to undertake further training, perhaps through distance learning or the Cilip Chartership route, to gain qualified status. This is often a requirement for accepting the role.

What the profession needs to be vigilant of and something that should be challenged is appointing candidates to post as ‘librarian’ or equivalent without qualification or the need to pursue one. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of volunteer libraries it is the responsibility of all of us in the profession to uphold the integrity of what it means to be a qualified librarian. Anything else fundamentally undermines the concept of professional librarianship.

No one should use the term ‘librarian’ who has not earned the right to do so and this right includes being appropriately qualified.

Dysfunctional and devalued

I’ve been quiet on the blogging front lately during which time there seems to have been a never ending stream of negative news about public library provision, either threatened closures or handing over to volunteers. Even in Wales, where in the main they have sought to protect library services, there is definitely a sea change driven by the continuing austerity measures and major reductions in funding. This was further reinforced by the details of the Autumn statement and the massive cuts to public spending that are being forecast. Given such projections it’s difficult not to be despondent about the future of public libraries at the moment.

This brings me to Sieghart, who appears to have finished his report and it is now with Ed Vaizey, no doubt glaring accusingly from a ministerial in-tray. If early indications are anything to go by it will make uncomfortable reading for the Minister as it seems to be the antithesis of his own approach and at odds with the expectations of localism and the big society. I suspect there will be a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down those areas which make the current coalition’s approach to libraries look as bad as they genuinely are.

It also comes as no surprise that Sieghart has described the current system as dysfunctional. Many campaigners and those within the profession have been pointing out the same for a long time now. But it’s good that Sieghart appears to be so forthright and honest over the situation. It appears that the notion of standards, a national coordinating body, views about volunteers, and if earlier indications are anything to go by, libraries as trusts might also form part of the document. There’s a good piece about the awaited report by Guy Daines on the Cilip website.

Ian Anstice recently reported back from Spain, where there appears to be a general acceptance that libraries are more than just buildings and stock. There is apparently a third ingredient that makes libraries a ‘service’ rather than just a ‘function’. Yes, you’ve guessed it…the librarian! It is the professional element that allows us to manage and develop services, deliver on the universal offers, and contribute to the many local, regional, and national initiatives. This is in direct contrast to the view that any Tom, Dick or Harriet can run a library.

No wonder professional staff abroad are appalled at the changes and damage being done not just to individual services but to the profession as a whole in the UK.

Perhaps even more than closures the real damage is through the hollowing out effect while trumpeting that no libraries have been closed. This is one of the biggest divergences between the library profession and politicians. On one hand the profession points out quite rightly that libraries are more than just buildings and stock, that service quality and development also counts, and for that you need professionally qualified librarians. On the other is the politicians view that any unqualified, well meaning amateur…well, see above.

Equally, library services are increasingly being used as a shop front for council services, which is indicative of the narrow view of libraries as just buildings and thus an outlet for other services, rather than as a unique and valuable service within their own right. I am not against partnership working or authentic collaborations but restructuring and integration at this level are ‘cuts’ driven and have very little to do with improving operational efficiency or the strategic development of libraries.

Unfortunately, there appears to be another insidious thread worming its way into public libraries, which is the downgrading and disappearance of senior library roles. In my experience it seems that the role of Chief Librarian/Head of Service is being shunted down the management structure, ever further away from the senior echelons and decision makers. Obviously, this represents a loss of influence and while some HoS enjoy good working relationships with senior officers many have to wade through several layers of intervening management, each with their own agenda, to get the library message heard. It is one thing to say libraries must do more to influence key policy makers but the reality is one of services being corporately sidelined and merged with other areas, with the danger that libraries are devalued and no longer viewed as a distinctive service but just another council outlet.

Another worrying aspect is the deletion of HoS posts, with the resulting loss of substantial professional experience and knowledge, and the replacement (usually at a higher grade) by generic managers with little or no familiarity of the sector.

I am still idealistic enough (perhaps naively so!) to believe that it is the professional component that makes libraries a genuine service rather than merely a function. Whether this is a view shared by the Sieghart report we shall have to wait and see.

The Axeman Cometh!

Closures and professional library posts

There was a Guardian article recently bemoaning the destruction of the national library system and highlighting job losses and library closures. With both actual and threatened closures so widespread campaign groups have also become ubiquitous and to my knowledge most, if not all, support the retention of paid staff. However, we also need to recognise that while many local campaigns would prefer to keep library staff the majority will also step forward to run their local library if they believe there is no other choice to closure. Understandably, the primary focus of the campaigner is the library not the librarian. It’s also a sad fact that many professional staff are lost not through branch closures but through ‘efficiencies’, cuts to ‘backroom functions’, ‘management delayering’, and other innocuous sounding mislabeling.

Given the scale of proposed reductions in places like Cornwall, Havering, Staffordshire, and Kirklees (the list goes on!) the rate of attrition of professional posts is likely to increase.

The loss of professional staff contributes to the hollowing out effect and represents a lessening of the quality of service. There are many good sites explaining what library staff do and extolling the virtues of a professionally run service so I won’t go into all the advantages of having both a professionally led and delivered service here except to refer to the Why Public Libraries? section of the Voices for the Library website for a fuller explanation.

My own observation regarding the loss of so many posts is one of limited career advancement and less mobility as professional staff struggle to hang onto the posts they already have.Now I could go into ‘spin’ mode and say that despite this staff still manage to deliver an excellent service to the public, which is absolutely true. But the problem with such counter-balancing is it that does a disservice to those who struggle with managing services on a day-to-day basis and deal with year-on-year reductions, an uncertain future, low morale, job insecurity, and an ideology that regards the replacement of highly qualified and experienced staff with unqualified and inexperienced volunteers as acceptable.

In a recent interview, Librarian of the Year 2014, Jacqueline Cooper, made the following telling point:

“With fantastically bad timing,I met the common place service cuts of recent years coming in the opposite direction. Five years ago we had 6 full time equivalent librarians in West Berks; now we have 3 and none of us works full time. As a result, in recent years I’ve often had paid work outside libraries as well and perhaps this has given me a different perspective.”

While Jacqueline seems to take a positive approach to the opportunities this has presented, her comments highlight very clearly the issue of ‘underemployment’ for librarians in a rapidly dwindling job market.

Given the limited opportunities I wonder how many graduates leaving library school actually avoid public libraries as they no longer consider the sector to be a viable career option?

Number crunching

The loss of professional posts is not always easy to assess even relying on Cipfa figures. Recently, along with Jo Richards, I undertook a snapshot of how many professional posts had been lost within county council library services over the past five years (table below).

Now, obviously such figures should always be approached with caution. One of the difficulties is defining what is meant by a ‘professional’ post as not all authorities require staff to hold library qualifications. For example, Norfolk stated that only 15 of its 26 community librarians held library qualifications, although those without a library qualification are encouraged to undertake certification (ACLIP) through Cilip.

In Surrey only 6 posts are required to have professional library qualifications as a condition of employment and a further post requires an information management degree. However, the remaining 43 posts are not required to hold library qualifications at all although some will. Equally, North Yorkshire shows quite a high number of professional level posts but according to the information provided none are actually required to hold a library qualification as a condition of employment, although again, some obviously will.

Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing how consistently each authority interpreted the FOI request so perhaps a safe assumption is to take the figures to mean those employed at a professional level but not necessarily professionally qualified. There will always be debate about how a ‘professional’ post is defined and therefore the exact level of losses or reductions within the profession will be open to interpretation.

Equally, some authorities stated that the figures represented FTE while others did not. Only Worcestershire indicated that numbers were based on a headcount. I have made the assumption therefore that with the exception of Worcestershire all other figures represent FTE although this would require further clarification to be absolutely certain. Only one service showed an increase in numbers, ironically enough Lincolnshire, from 6.8 to 9 FTE.

Obviously, an analysis of Cipfa returns would give a more in-depth indication of the loss of professional posts throughout the country whereas the table below is based on a limited number of councils but I suspect is generally indicative of losses within all authorities. Unfortunately, it paints a rather depressing picture of the continuing de-professionalisation of the public library sector.

Number of professional library posts by county council for the financial years 2009/10 to 2013/14

County Council  2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 Loss as %
1.Buckinghamshire 16 11 11 11 10 37.5
2. Cambridgeshire 33.38 37.82 37.10 20.70 19.61 41.2
3. Cumbria 33 30 28 28 28 15.1
4. Derbyshire 55 47.6 38.5 38.9 35.1 36.1
5. Devon 39 39 39 29 29 25.6
6. Dorset 18.3 19.3 17.3 14.3 No information 21.8
7. East Sussex 27.3 27 25.2 24.7 22.3 18.3
8. Essex (1) No information provided No information provided No information provided No information provided No information provided
9. Gloucestershire No information No information 23 23 17 26
10. Hampshire 15 15 13 7 7 53.3
11. Hertfordshire 67.7 67.3 49.7 52.5 54 20.2
12. Kent 69.31 61.89 54.96 49.93 44.61 35.6
13. Lancashire 22 22 19 16 12 45.4
14.Leicestershire(2) 25 20.5 20.5 (25) see notes (24.3) see notes (2.7) See notes
15. Lincolnshire 6.8 6 10 9 9 + 32.3 (increase)
16. Norfolk (3) 48.6 42.7 36.8 36.2 36.2 25.5
17.North Yorkshire (4) 55 55 55 43 43 21.8
18.Northamptonshire 31 30.5 26.5 26.5 18.5 40
19.Nottinghamshire 55 57 32.5 32.5 32.5 40.9
20. Oxfordshire 47 43 47 36 34 27.6
21. Somerset 25.4 23.3 21.9 20.2 17.0 33
22. Staffordshire 43.3 40.8 33.3 29.5 No information 31.8
23. Suffolk 25 24 20 18 12 52
24. Surrey (5) 51.7 51.3 48.8 52.2 50.4 2.5
25. Warwickshire 29.4 24.1 No information No information 15.5 47.2
26. West Sussex 62.8 44.8 41.3 41.3 41.2 34.3
27. Worcestershire (6)Numbers based on headcount and not FTE 36 29 32 29 28 22.2

(1) Essex: only provided one set of figures and do not stipulate what year they covered. Despite follow-up requests for clarification I have received no further information

(2) Leicestershire: provided the following information to supplement the figures provided. Details can also be seen here.

The information below details the posts where the post of Librarian was explicit in the job title and required the holder to hold a professional qualification as an essential requirement.

2009 = 25.0
2010 = 20.5
2011 = 20.5
2012 = 8.0
2013 = 7.3

In 2011 the library service was significantly restructured and a new post of Library Development Worker, and Area Manager were created which is not detailed in this data, but where professional librarian status was desirable, and required many of the skills of the librarian to undertake. The number also includes a Head of Service. Numbers associated with these posts are set out below and are in addition to the first numbers.

2012 13
2013 13

In 2012 the library service became part of the Communities and Wellbeing service, an integrated libraries, museums and arts service. The following numbers incorporate management and support functions , although not needing a library qualification, are graded at a professional level and will require work at a related level, and again are in addition to the data above.

2012 4
2013 4

(Comment: what I think this means is that the total for 2012 = 25 and 2013 = 24.3. However, I am happy to be corrected if I’ve misunderstood the information)

(3) Norfolk: stated that there are 26 Community Librarians, 15 of which have library qualifications. People employed as Community Librarians and without a library qualification are encouraged to complete the Affiliate of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, (ACLIP).

(Comment: a later email stated that they didn’t keep records of professional qualifications, which possibly indicates that community librarians are not required to hold a degree level library qualification or chartered status)

(4). North Yorkshire: stated that no staff are required to hold a library qualifications as a condition of employment.

(5) Surrey: 6 posts require library qualification, 1 posts required an information management degree, 43.4 not required to hold library qualification.

(6) Worcestershire: figures based on headcount and not supplied as FTE

It’s New York!

In these days of doom and gloom it’s very rare that we see news that actually inspires us. Well, recently I saw exactly that. The inspirational story for me was York Libraries & Archive Services move to becoming a Mutual organisation from April 2014.

Looking at it from a library perspective the positives are:

  • There is a very clear vision that puts core library services at the heart of the venture
  • Decisions are made by professional librarians and managers
  • Continued staffing by professionals and experienced library staff
  • Working with volunteers but not handing over responsibility and libraries to the community

A clear message came through in the article; that a more professional service is provided and staff can focus solely on their business because as Fiona Williams (soon to be CEO of the new Mutual) stated ‘…being a librarian means something: being an archivist means something.’

It’s such a great pity that York is still a rare entity instead of being the norm. Many library campaigners and librarians themselves have been wary of going down the Trust or Mutual route, and sometimes with justification.

However, the alternative is proving somewhat worse. For many still under local authority control the reality is dominated by the morale sapping grind of salami slicing the service year on year, with councils spinning a smokescreen of not closing libraries when in actuality what remains underneath the façade is a hollowed-out shell that bears little resemblance to an effective and comprehensive service.

In a national climate that is too often dominated by a lack of strategic vision, political tribalism, uninspired thinking, the deletion of professional posts, and blackmailing communities into running local libraries – often with a resultant fall in the level of service, it is good to see a truly, innovative model being advocated.

The York model shows that there is another way, a more positive way, and one in which the library staff themselves have a vested interest in the long term success of the organisation.