Libraries Week 2017

Welcome to Libraries Week 2017. A celebration of how fantastic and vibrant libraries can be. This is not to ignore the continuing crisis in libraries but for this one week let’s celebrate how awesome libraries and especially library staff are.

All the following information can be found on Cilip’s Libraries Week site:

 

Did you know..?

  • 250 million visits were made to public libraries in Great Britain last year – that’s more than cinema and theatre visits, visits to the UK’s top ten tourist attractions and the number of people that went to live music gigs COMBINED
  • Over 1.6 million visits were made to the Library of Birmingham last year, making it the UK’s busiest library
  • Young people are the group most likely to use public libraries. 15-25 year olds are more likely to use libraries than over 55s across the British Isles.
  • Three out of every four people in the UK and Ireland say that libraries are important or essential to their community.
    51% of us have a current library card and 47% have used a public library in the last twelve months. (Backed up by Carnegie UK Trust data)
  • There was a 330% increase in coding clubs Mar-Dec 2016

One Hundred And Two!

The following guest post is from @ALibrarian1 on Twitter who has to remain anonymous due to censure they would incur for speaking out about their experience dealing with library volunteers. Obviously, this will not be everyone’s experience and neither does it detract from some of the great work volunteers do in libraries around the country.

However, it will resonate with many library staff, especially those who have had volunteers foisted on them after losing dedicated colleagues to cutbacks. It’s also an antidote to the sometime hollowness of the ‘positive narrative’. Not quite ‘alternative fact’ but never the whole story either.

It’s a serious issue told with tongue-in-cheek humour and not a certain amount of frustration. if you don’t already follow @ALibrarian1 on Twitter I highly recommend you do.

One Hundred And Two!

Hello. I recently started tweeting as @ALibrarian1 to vent my frustration/shout into the void about what it’s like working with volunteers in a public library. It’s been quite a surprise to find that there are lots of library folks out there who are interested, are listening, and who have offered both support and advice. Thank you everyone. Particularly to those who have reacted with horror, surprise and horrified surprise at some of the things I’ve tweeted about. You are doing an excellent job of reminding me that some things just aren’t acceptable, particularly when managers go out of their way to reassure me that ‘everything’s going so well!’ I accepted the offer to write this guest post so I can expand on some of the things I’ve been tweeting about and offer a bit more of an insight into my situation.

In April 2017 my library authority implemented an ‘efficiency based’ restructure which replaced about 60% of our staff with volunteers (or at least that was the intent, as many branches hadn’t and still haven’t recruited the numbers of volunteers they’d need to cover their opening hours). Every single one of our branches now has volunteers delivering frontline library services. We have three tiers: core libraries, the big branch libraries which are 60% staff 40% volunteers; hybrid libraries which are 40% staff 60% volunteers, and community libraries which are fully volunteer run with staff who drop in maybe one day a week then are on call as support by phone for the rest.

I’ve been working in this library service for just over 10 years, and work full time (37 hours) supervising a busy hybrid branch. We’re open 39 hours a week. I had 5 part time staff, now I have one full time and 102 volunteers. One hundred and two volunteers, and we still need more. One. Hundred. And. Two. I have to keep track of one hundred and two people, most of whom volunteer for only 2 hours once a week. I don’t know all their names and I probably never will.

Luckily, I’m not responsible for recruiting, interviewing, checking references or arranging a rota for them. That’s the job of the volunteer committee. A committee of volunteers we recruited to manage the recruitment of volunteers. Writing this, I’m well aware of how ridiculous this sounds. And it is. It is absolutely insane. The committee were formed from the small number of people who, in response to the 2015 council consultation on the future of libraries, gave their contact details and said they’d be interested in volunteering. Because they couldn’t volunteer while staff were still in post, and management needed to keep hold of them, they were formed into a committee. Then they weren’t given anything to do for about 6 months.

In January this year management started holding meetings with them in the branch to discuss what would happen from April. Staff weren’t involved in these meetings and both staff and the committee were told that we shouldn’t speak or have any interaction due to the “sensitive” situation – staff being on notice and the committee readying to replace them as volunteers. We already knew who had been granted voluntary redundancy, who was staying in post and who was being made redundant. Being pointlessly secretive about what we all knew was going to happen didn’t assist good relations between staff and the council. Staff contracts ended on the last day of March, volunteers took over on April Fool’s Day.

The council began a county wide recruitment drive for volunteers in earnest in late 2016 by announcing that since we no longer had enough staff (and glossing over the ‘how odd that lots of staff would be leaving at the same time’ problem; some library customers still don’t realise there were redundancies) we’d need volunteers to help us keep the libraries open. I believe this call for help to run the libraries “because we’re short of people” has been interpreted by some of the volunteers (particularly those who make up the committees) as a call for help to run the libraries “because we aren’t sure what we’re doing anymore”. Without a doubt, many of the volunteers do not value nor respect our experience. The council devalued staff by announcing that anyone can have a bash at running a library, so why should they think otherwise! We’ve made it very clear that we can’t run this service without them, and in doing so have given them licence to interfere with core service provision. We now need to bend over backwards to keep them onside. Should they decide to quit, we’re done for and libraries will close.

What’s it like each day in the library with volunteers? Short answer: bloody hard work. It’s non-stop training and very tiring teaching 3 people with minimal IT skills how to do frontline library work in 2 hour slots. There are many things I find intensely frustrating, the things that drive me to vent on twitter: The repeated daily reminders not to overfill transfer boxes so they aren’t too heavy to lift. Not to leave boxes stacked where they block a fire door. Not to shelve adult graphic novels with toddler’s picture books. The difference between a DVD and an audio book on CD (call me naïve, but this is not a thing I’d ever expected to have to explain more than once). Not to leave name and address details visible on the computer screen when they’ve finished registering a new borrower and wandered away…

The volunteers all have an introductory training session before their first shift which covers the layout of the shelves, fire safety, where the loos are, the usual sort of first-day workplace induction. Then they’re turned loose in the library for me to find something for them to do. That’s the question my colleague and I are asked throughout the day, “what shall I do now?” I haven’t a problem with them being keen, and wanting to be helpful and keep busy, but there’s an impression I get that helping customers who have enquiries doesn’t seem to be an option they always consider in answer to this. There’s a list of routine daily tasks but they seem to want special ‘volunteer’ tasks to do, and as a result I’ve seen volunteers straight up ignore customers who are waiting for assistance. I’ve seen volunteers tell customers “I can’t help you, I’m just a volunteer”. At this point we do step in and prompt them to offer help, but it feels strange that we must keep reminding them that their ‘job’ is to help people.

It’s obvious that most of the volunteers don’t really know or understand what public library staff do. They aren’t intending to start a career in libraries, they haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the same way an applicant for a job vacancy would. There’s a deeply ingrained idea that all we do is lend out books. “I’ll come and volunteer, but I just want to tidy books” is a regular comment. We have volunteers who refuse to do anything involving computers. I wouldn’t have recruited them, it would be impossible to employ a member of staff who said that, but it’s up to the committee to decide who is recruited. I just have to find them something to do.

All the volunteers have been surprised by the variety of services we offer. That we can recommend a book for someone aged 9 or 90, but can also help with finding crossword answers, that we can process bus pass applications, help people print boarding passes, family history searches, shotgun licences, give out town maps, that we almost never say no, sorry, we can’t help you with that. It’s been a challenge to communicate that this is what I need them to gain the skills to be eventually be able to do. In their defence, it is quite a daunting request, but this is what a public library service is.

The volunteers are stepping into a role which was done by paid professional staff. I’ve deliberately used a small-p-professional, none of my staff had library qualifications, but they were dedicated, professional, and all of them had been working in libraries for longer than I have been. We all know library work requires a massive amount of training as well as experience. It’s a real difficulty now. Post restructure, we don’t have enough staff left to run training sessions as well as cover frontline services so the volunteer committee are intending to take over some of the more structured training. Any training materials we give the committee, they insist on re-writing so they are more suited for volunteer’s style of learning. That’s just rude frankly, given that we’ve already purposely written them for volunteers and the committee aren’t familiar with library work.

We’re nearly 6 months in and it’s not really getting any easier. I don’t think this is sustainable indefinitely. The number of volunteers we need, the time it takes to train, the extra hours staff are putting in (unpaid, we don’t get overtime) just so we can keep on top of our admin and line management responsibilities is exhausting. I get to work early and stay late just to fit everything in. I’m needed on the library floor almost all the time helping the volunteers, as it’s usually too busy for my colleague to manage on their own, and the volunteers just don’t yet have the experience or confidence for enquiry work.
I was working as library supervisor in this branch before the restructure. I had to reapply and be interviewed to prove my suitability to supervise volunteers instead of staff.

Many of my colleagues took voluntary redundancy rather than go through the interview process. I never even contemplated voluntary redundancy because I wanted to carry on with the job I was already doing, but I’m not getting very much satisfaction out of it. I’m learning new skills – mainly relating to crisis management, short term planning, and how to triage my to-do list. I’ve limited career prospects here now. The council need me to help them keep the library doors open, but they aren’t offering anything inspiring in return. We’re repeatedly instructed to attend resilience training, change management, team building, persuasion and influencing training… all acknowledgement that things aren’t so great, but shifting of the fault onto staff. Some of my colleagues are having real trouble coping with the stress and the workload and being treated as an inconvenience by their committees who want to do things their way.

Were I to hand in my notice the branch would have to close for part of the week because I know there’s no-one they could spare from another branch to cover for me. I cannot change what the council have done in restructuring the service (and I’ve had a hard time dealing with the feeling of being complicit in ‘making it work’), but I will hold things together here as best I can. Perhaps I’m overestimating my abilities, but if I can keep my little branch afloat and steer it through the wreckage then that’s what I’m going to do. I do still like working in libraries, there’s so much to learn, there’s so much I still need to learn and I do not want to give that up just yet.

 

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.

Libraries: think, act and vote small!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much ado about nothing…the Sieghart report

Well it’s finally here, the Independent Library Report for England, and as expected it caused frenetic activity and reaction on social media. Despite being published on the same day as the local government settlement for 2015-16 and the day before Parliament broke up for recess, the report still managed to garnish plenty of media coverage. I listened to Sieghart and Mark Taylor (Cilip) being interviewed on Radio 4 on my drive into work.

Other coverage included the BBC’s ‘libraries must emulate coffee shops’, an editorial in the Independent Romantic fiction: A review of libraries that fails to address the real problem, which the Bookseller thought was wrong and rejoined with Sieghart: on the money. Cilip regarded the report as offering a ‘convincing road map‘ albeit with some reservations. The Library Campaign also welcomed the report although considered it ‘pallid’ in places (the comment by Shirley Burnham and reply from Laura Swaffield are also worth noting).

Lauren Smith makes some telling observations on her blog and no doubt the report will continue to be digested and debated on social media for weeks and months to come. So a very mixed bag and wide spectrum of opinions with more to follow.

The report contained some important positives particularly around improved IT e.g. universal Wifi, supporting digital literacy, e-lending, and improving standards of service and the physical estate. All very sensible but equally quite costly, and there’s the rub; there was no mention of where the finance to accomplish this was to come from.

Another sensible, at least at face value, suggestion was the creation of a national task force to lead on the recommendations of the report. While sound in principle the execution however leaves much to be desired with the task force consisting of the same organisations and bodies that have so far failed to provide the strategic leadership needed in the sector. Unfortunately, it’s a case of the usual suspects with the man tasked (excuse the pun) with leading the group, Paul Blantern, having very definite and preconceived notions on how libraries should operate.

There is much more within the report to analyse and it is perhaps more nuanced that it first appears. It is a topic I will be returning to time and again especially as the outcomes of the report become more apparent. That said I have to admit that my initial response is one of disappointment. This was perhaps the best opportunity for a long time to create a serious and realistic narrative around libraries. Unfortunately, it appears to be more of a superficial short story than a deep, meaningful novel, defined more by what it didn’t say than what it did.

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.

Reforming Cilip

Since the merger of the LA and the IIS to form the rather insipid Cilip, the organisation has been on a downward spiral. Intent on transforming itself into some sort of generic Knowledge & Information (KIM) based organisation, it is now, unfortunately, neither one thing or another – neither fish nor fowl as the saying goes – much to the detriment of its membership.

This became abundantly apparent during the renaming debacle as the membership could not agree on a name that represented all the disparate elements Cilip claims to represent: libraries, information, knowledge. It spoke volumes about the proposed names that we voted to maintain the status quo and retain the rather dull and uninspiring title of Cilip.

Seeking to shed its library based heritage it has also shed members at an alarming rate, from 25,000 to 13,500. However, what is not clear is why? Currently, Cilip represent librarians by default in that there is no other professional body for us to join but as the organisation becomes more KIM based perhaps librarians no longer feel Cilip is the body to represent their views and concerns and therefore vote with their feet.

This in itself leads to a Catch-22 situation, where more librarians leave and Cilip is forced to look at other professional areas to bolster numbers, thus changing the nature of the organisation and making it less relevant to librarians, who then in turn leave!

So if Cilip can be reformed to appeal to librarians and draw them back into the fold (and that’s a very big ‘if’) what should it do? For a start, I suggest two areas:

  • A high profile and targeted recruitment drive towards librarians and library staff (within all areas: public, school, academic etc.) to increase membership numbers
  • More overt advocacy, again for all areas. After all it’s not just public libraries that face cuts.

That said, Cilips reaction to public library cuts has so far been inadequate at best, leaving it to individual members and campaigners to do their job for them. I’ve always thought that Cilip should have instigated and run something similar to the superb PLN site. The fact that it has been created and maintained by one librarian is testament to the dedication and passion of Ian Anstice but it also highlights how woefully inadequate Cilips own response has been.

There are of course other areas that need reforming including the relationship between the AGM and Council. However, that as they say, is a topic for another day.