School Librarians and Why Our Children Need Them

This is the second in a series of five articles about the importance of school libraries. Elizabeth Hutchinson is Head of the Schools’ Library Service, Guernsey, and a strong advocate that access to a good school library is a right of every child.

In the following post Elizabeth argues strongly for the role a professional school librarian and the positive benefit it can bring to schools, teachers and most importantly students.

 

School Librarians and Why Our Children Need Them

I offered to write this to raise awareness of the importance of school librarians, which may seem a bit strange as the head of a Schools’ Library Service (SLS) where we are the only professional librarian support on our Island of Guernsey. It may seem that I am trying to do myself out of a job but that is not the case.

Even where schools do have a full-time professional school librarian the support from an SLS can save schools money and be invaluable. I feel that if schools understand the role of the school librarian they will also begin to understand what is on offer from SLS’s too benefiting schools, teachers and most importantly their students.

The relationship between teachers and the school librarian is a special one. The best schools are those who have school librarians, where the Head teacher has employed them for the very fact that they are qualified. Providing a specialist who can help embed research skills and support literacy development across the curriculum. These schools have Senior Leadership Teams where teachers are expected to work with the librarian when they are planning any kind of research or where the focus is on literacy.

From using the school library for books or online resources, teaching digital and information literacy, supporting literacy intervention to encouraging reading for pleasure these schools understand the benefit of collaboration for their student. This relationship leads a better understanding of the needs of the teacher and students, which in turn leads to time saved, better quality resources and students who are independent learners.

These nurtured relationships also lead to collaborations that is not immediately associated with the school librarian such as help to organise international collaborations, attending parents evening to support students and parents outside school, create makerspaces, help with coding and yes, librarians still have time to run book clubs, reading initiatives and as Barbara said in her last post, also be there for that child who needs a quiet space and someone to talk to at lunchtime.

In the last year alone librarians from SLS have co-taught from reception to 6th form. We have planned schemes of work and curated the right resources for our students. Our librarians have connected our students with students from America, Mexico and India and have plans for many more. We have increased the use of online resources through teaching in the classrooms, we have taught referencing and copyright to e-safety lessons helping to engage students in critical thinking and independent study.

We have brought authors and experts into the classrooms and with the support of our public library run numerous events from Carnegie and Greenaway lunches to Non-fiction November and World book day quizzes bring students from different school together to celebrate books and supporting literacy. We have run training sessions for teachers, created reading lists, written blog posts, attended parents evenings and generally spent time raising awareness of the importance of school libraries to a child’s education and the world of work. However, none of this would be happening if our teachers and schools did not understand the librarian’s role in teaching and learning.

If every Head Teacher, Senior Leadership Team member and teacher understood that this is what happens when librarians are engaged and supported the benefits to their students would increase seven fold. Schools need access to qualified librarians and Head Teachers need to understand why it is important.

Over the years as school budgets were cut the school librarian was commonly the first person to go. When schools started to use the Internet many thought that school librarians were no longer essential and books were no longer important as there was another way for children to get all the information they needed. They did not realise that an important skill set that was currently being taught was at risk of being lost and was going to be needed more than ever.

Now whilst I agree the opportunity to find information has become quicker it is also essential to teach our students the skills to assess, evaluate and find good quality information. Schools who no longer have a school librarian do not have this skill set available to them and we risk having a world of people who don’t have time or understand the importance of making sure that the information they read is correct. Unfortunately, teachers who have grown up where they as children were not taught or had the opportunity to use a school library do not always understand the need for them and along with that do not have the skill set to teach their students these essential research skills.

What can teachers do?

Your starting point is the school librarian. Go and find out what books are in the library for the subject you teach. Arrange a meeting with the librarian and talk about what your curriculum topics are and find out if there is any budget left to order more. What else do you need to ask?

• Does the library have any online resources that can support your topic?
• Can the librarian help you search these resources and explain how the citation tool works?
• Do they have any tools to teach referencing?
• Are they willing to teach your students these skills?
• Can they help you with global collaborations?
• Are there any online tools that they have used that would be useful for you to know about?
• Do you have any reading lists for my year group or topic? If not can you make one for me?
• Is there a book club for students/teachers?
• Little Jonny (not his real name) is not performing well do you know how much he reads? Can you help to find a book he might enjoy?

Students the message to you is simple. Go to the school library, if you read you will do better in school.

Parents, the last message is for you. Go and find out if your school has a good library and a qualified librarian. If not then ask them why. Your children deserve the best and this is the perfect place to start.

The Oft-Hidden Role Of The School Library

The following post is written by Barbara Band, School Library, Reading and Literacy Consultant, Features Editor of The School Librarian, and Ex-President of Cilip.

This is the first of a series of guest posts around the importance of School Libraries and in support of the recent letter from Dawn Finch to the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening to highlight ‘the shocking decline of library provision and the numbers of qualified librarians in state-funded schools and colleges in England.’ The letter has over 150 co-signatories including authors, illustrators, presenters, the Bookseller Association, National Literacy Trust, and Society of Authors.

All publically funded libraries; public, school, FE etc, are facing a sharp decline in funding, staffing, and resources. That’s why it’s important we work together to highlight the essential and valuable work done by libraries across all sectors.

The Oft-Hidden Role of the School Library

The figures concerning mental health and young people are rather alarming. Sixteen million people in the UK experience a mental illness with 75% of these starting before a child reaches their 18th birthday. Figures also show that 75% of young people with a mental illness are not receiving treatment causing many of them to self-harm, become suicidal, violent and aggressive, or drop out of school. The mental health and well-being of students needs to be addressed so they can develop – socially, emotionally and academically – a young person who is dealing with mental illness is unlikely to reach their full potential with consequences both on a personal level and for their future within society.

At a time when a young person is transitioning from child to adult, when they have a need to be accepted and find their place within the world, the school environment can feel very hostile. Busy days are measured out in short periods of time, punctuated by bells ringing and people rushing about – the pressure is on to achieve, meet targets and deadlines with the resulting increase in stress and anxiety.

The school library is a unique space. It is often described as “the heart of a school” yet I also feel that it is frequently an “oasis”, an area of calm within a frantic milieu. A place that supports the whole child – their reading and literacy needs, their study and curriculum needs, and their well-being. This latter pastoral role is too often overlooked and undervalued.

The school library with a librarian provides a safe environment with a member of staff who is not a teacher and does not have to rush off to deliver a lesson to a class somewhere. We have very different relationships with the students; when I was nominated by two students for the SLA School Librarian of the Year Award, one of their comments about me was “It’s a formal relationship but we think of her as a big friend”.

During break and lunchtimes, students are able to step back from what they have been doing in the classroom and “just be”. Many of them hang around the desk, chatting, and it’s at times like these that an often seemingly innocent remark can ring alarm bells – all school librarians will have received safeguarding training. In my previous school, students who were dealing with stress, anxiety, panic attacks and depression, and were unable to cope for the whole of the school day, were often sent to the library. Some people may see this as “babysitting” and yet I recognised that I was providing a distinctive service they could not get elsewhere.

How much worse would these students have been if there hadn’t been a library for them to use? What would have been the impact on their long-term mental health and academic achievements? Over the years I have supported so many students in so many ways.

Benefits

– School librarians are able to provide authoritative and trustworthy resources to those who, perhaps, have just heard a family member has cancer, have been told they have dyslexia, are being bullied, want information on managing exam nerves, coming out or improving their self-confidence. Alongside this comes the time to just listen or answer questions.

– Bereaved students can often feel overwhelmed in the school environment. As an adult, I know how grief can suddenly overtake you and yet I am able to step away from my desk to collect myself. Students aren’t able to do this – they have no other option and they don’t want to cry in front of their peers. Many times such students were sent to the library – I would give them the box of tissues and space, or stop what I was doing and let them talk, depending on their needs.

– Students with Asperger’s Syndrome can find school a confusing and sensory overloaded environment. Being able to spend “downtime” in the library at breaks enables them to reset and cope with the rest of the day. Many of my Asperger’s students would have their “own” chair and table where they would sit and read, ignoring everyone else, and I made sure that nobody disturbed them.

– I had a very active pupil library assistant team, many of which had SEN (Special Educational Needs). I nurtured their strengths so they could become active and useful members of the team, gaining valuable workplace skills and increasing their self-confidence. The then Headteacher remarked that “it was no surprise that all of them found the transition to University life straight forward”.

– Break-times can be tough on those who have not yet found their “place” at school. This is especially true for younger students who have come from smaller schools and find the larger older groups of students a bit intimidating, as well as those who are not sporty, arty, musically inclined or part of the “popular clique” – the school library gives all of these a place they can escape to until they find their feet.

– The school library is an ideal place for projects and activities which bring diverse groups of students together engendering a sense of community and belonging. In the past I have seen miscellaneous students connect over a chess board or Warhammer game; in fact, it is rather wonderful to see those slightly lonely souls being drawn into the group by a common interest, and to see them laughing and interacting with the others.

The school library has a huge role to play in the well-being of students which should not be underestimated. If we are serious about improving the mental health of young people then we need to recognise that school libraries and librarians are part of that agenda.

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

A Question of Identity

Who are we, what are we for, and who do we serve? Fairly important questions for any profession but I doubt many of us actively spend much time, if any, pondering the existential and ethical underpinnings of our profession.

So it was interesting when Nick Poole tweeted from the recent IFLA WLIC conference the question as to whether Cilip saw itself as an association for libraries or librarians or both, and then invited views. The question has implications for our identity and how we conduct ourselves, both individually and as a profession.

It’s also worth observing that the question of identity is intrinsically linked to the question of ethics as the ‘who we are’ dictates ‘what we do’ and ‘how we behave’. Both function and form should be closely aligned to shape a coherent organisational ethos.

In terms of ethics many of us will adhere to intrinsic personal standards – and obviously our workplaces also have codes of conduct – but professionally, such matters tend to be codified and promoted by a professional body. In this case, Cilip.

The two main areas of guidance are contained in the Royal Charter and the “Ethical Principles and Code of Professional Practice for Library and Information Professionals”  which is currently under review. In simple terms, the first document defines ‘who we are’, and the latter ‘how we should act’.

Professional bodies can have a variety of roles but most will cover the following areas to a lesser or greater extent:

  • Promote the advantages of the profession to the public
  • Promote the interests of the members of that profession
  • Maintain standards through education, training, and accreditation
  • Safeguard the public interest e.g. code of conduct to guide professional behaviour

Cilip does all of the above. But returning to Nick’s question, why do we do it? For libraries, librarians, or both, or for something else entirely?

Royal Charter

For all practical intents and purposes the answer lies in the Royal Charter, section 2: Objects and Powers. The ‘Objects’ represent the aim of the organisation, and the ‘Powers’ the objectives, or the means Cilip uses to achieve its aim(s).

Broken down the aim of the organisation covers two main areas.

Firstly, “…to work for the benefit of the public to promote education and knowledge through the establishment and development of libraries and information services…” And secondly, “…to advance information science (being the science and practice of the collection, collation, evaluation and organised dissemination of information).”

It is the former that provides the main insight into the question of Cilip’s purpose and again can be split into two aspects: (1) to work for the benefit of the public (2) by establishing and developing libraries and information services.

So it’s clear that Cilip exists for the benefit’ of the public and this goal is served by developing library and information services for public access and use. If we allow that ‘public’ equates to a customer base then this covers all areas of the library, information, and knowledge sectors as no matter how specialised the work area all members will have a public/customer base they serve.

In and of itself the principle seems fairly straightforward. However, the issue then becomes one of definition. What does ‘benefit’ and ‘development’ actually mean? Who defines it?

Without adding context beyond the stated aim(s), arguments can be made that are counter-productive to the association, such as de-professionalisation. That is; whatever is defined as being for the public benefit should be the goal of the association even if it works against the interests of its members.

For example; a volunteer library is better than a closed one (equals benefit) and a peer support network helps sustain them (equals development). Ergo, Cilip should by its own aims, support volunteer led libraries.

But as usual, the issue is not that straightforward and emphasising the ‘public benefit’ argument to the exclusion of all else ignores the overall context. And it is the ‘powers’ that provide the context.

Powers

If the aims of the Charter encapsulate the ‘why’, the ‘powers granted’ represent the ‘how’. Given the importance of these objectives for establishing the wider context it’s worth reproducing what they actually say:

(a) to foster and promote education, training, invention and research in matters connected with information science and libraries and information services and to collect, collate and publish information, ideas, data and research relating thereto;
(b) to unite all persons engaged or interested in information science and libraries and information services by holding conferences and meetings for the discussion of questions and matters affecting information science and libraries and information services or their regulation or management and any other questions or matters relating to the objects of the Institute;
(c) to promote the improvement of the knowledge, skills, position and qualifications of librarians and information personnel;
(d) to promote study and research in librarianship and information science and to disseminate the results;
(e) to promote and encourage the maintenance of adequate and appropriate provision of library and information services of various kinds throughout the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man;
(f) to scrutinise any legislation affecting the provision of library and information services and to promote such further legislation as may be considered necessary to that end;
(g) to represent and act as the professional body for persons working in or interested in library and information services;
(h) to maintain a register of Registered Practitioners;
(i) to ensure the effective dissemination of appropriate information of interest to Members;
(j) to work with similar institutes overseas and with appropriate international bodies to promote the widespread provision of adequate and appropriate library and information services;
(k) to provide appropriate services to Members in furtherance of these objectives;
(l) to form and promote the formation of branches, regional member networks, sections or groups of the Institute in any part of the world and to dissolve branches, regional member networks, sections or groups so established;

Basically, this can be distilled into four broad areas:

  • Research: the promotion of librarianship and information science as an academic pursuit and discipline and to disseminate appropriate research
  • Education: to promote education, training, and the knowledge, skills, position and qualifications of librarians and information personnel
  • Collaboration: to act as a professional body for members, to provide a framework of opportunity for member collaboration e.g. conferences, to engage with similar overseas bodies
  • Advocacy: to promote adequate and appropriate library provision, to comment/challenge legislation affecting the sector

What I take from these objectives is that the aim of the organisation, ‘to work for the benefit of the public’, is best achieved through a knowledgeable, skilled, and qualified workforce. One that is organised, collaborative, and outward looking so that it learns from best practice both nationally and internationally, and which is informed by solid research.

Equally, to promote the position (point C) of librarians. Traditionally, this has been viewed as being protectionist and sometimes rather precious about the status and hierarchy of the term ‘Librarian’. However, Cilip has addressed this issue head on and the Professional Knowledge and Skills Base offers a broader and more inclusive approach to CPD for all levels of staff. Recently, Cilip has also jointly launched a public library skills strategy to invest in and develop the skills of the public library workforce in England.

The presence of the professional librarian role – and allowing for how many routes there now are for achieving this – from specialist posts, to management expertise, and Head of Service, should be at the heart of any professionally run and managed service. A skilled, educated, and knowledgeable library workforce is, in my opinion, the single most important factor for ensuring that the public benefit is best served.

And for me, this is what promoting the ‘position’ of the librarian, and all library staff, means. Thus, my answer to Nick’s question would be it’s for both and by building a strong professional body we provide the best possible service for libraries, librarians and ultimately the public. However, I would like to leave the last word to Nick Poole himself:

“Everything CILIP does is defined under our Royal Charter, which gives us our charitable status and our mandate. The Charter is quite clear that our role as a professional association covers both libraries and librarians (and information professionals in all types of library and information service). Specifically, it states our responsibility to “promote the improvement of the knowledge, skills, position and qualifications of librarians and information personnel” and to “promote and encourage the maintenance of adequate and appropriate provision of library and information services”. This is why we took the Charter as the basis of our current Action Plan, launched last year.
 
Having an independent member-led professional association which leads on both sector and workforce development is important. It means that we can maintain the status of librarianship as a recognised profession, scrutinise and influence policy and legislation relating to our sector and maintain a strong connection to our shared values, set out in the Code of Ethics. The staff, Trustees and Presidential Team at CILIP are committed to doing this job to the very best of our ability to secure the long-term interests of our profession.”

 

 

Through the Barricades?

Chatting with a fellow campaigner this week we observed that anyone following news and updates about libraries via social media could be forgiven for thinking that two entirely different sectors are being talked about.

On one hand is the pessimistic view of libraries in which the narrative of austerity, closures and cuts is dominant. Most campaigners tend to fall into this camp and with little wonder as local and national campaigns are the direct result of cuts to library services. You only have to throw a stick a short distance to find an example such as the battle taking place around Bath Central Library.

Sadly, this means that campaigners, on a national level, are reluctant to acknowledge when positive changes or projects take place within library services, and despite massive reductions, there is still some fantastic work happening within the profession.

On the other end of the spectrum, are the optimists who only highlight positive stories and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the extent of damage being done to the library network. The main culprits of this approach are the Libraries Taskforce and SCL. Trawling through their social media accounts it’s as if cuts to library services don’t actually exist in the brave new world of shiny central libraries, co-location, and the all-singing, all-dancing community hubs.

 

The Forum, Hemel Hempstead’s new council, library and voluntary services hub

What saddens me is both sides are guilty of closed-minds sets with a refusal to acknowledge the others point of view, and so closes down any meaningful discussion.

While I fully sympathise why many campaigners have become jaded over government policy I disagree with the sometimes vociferous and vocal attacks over even minor issues.

That said, the Libraries Taskforce and SCL are to as equally blinkered with an almost pathological unwillingness to debate publicly. Only wanting to promote ‘good news’ ignores and glosses over the real issue of library reductions and makes the official bodies as guilty as the more negative campaigners of skewing the narrative.

Unfortunately, it looks like neither side is willing to debate rationally or honestly preferring instead to sling stones at each other over the ideological barricades.

There are no easy solutions here and much would depend on goodwill from both sides. What I would personally like to see is a public libraries debate (but not forgetting school libraries either). This could take the form of a conference (one/two days perhaps) in which groups, organisations and individuals would be invited to give presentations, backed by evidence, and ending with a panel discussion.

This would be a good way of bringing all interested parties together in one place; Speak Up for Libraries, Library Campaign, Cilip, Libraries Taskforce, SCL etc. And not forgetting individuals such as John Bird and Ian Anstice for example.

The difficulty is having a body with the gravitas and neutrality, trusted by both sides, to organise this. My suggestion is that the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group, who have been very quiet since their launch, might have a part to play in setting this up.

 

 

A Tale Full of Fact and Fiction

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

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

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

The Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The positive narrative in practice

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

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

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

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

This included:

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

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

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

Continuing the story

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

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

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

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

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

One observation in the Shining Light report was the:

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

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

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

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

Opposing views

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

This is perfectly captured in a claim by Kathy Settle:

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Too Many Chefs…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Poole captured the above difficulties when stating:

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

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

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

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

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

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