Tag Archives: Library advocacy

The Library Commonwealth

This is likely to be my last post although I will continue to be active around libraries via social media and can be followed on Twitter @librareon.

So I thought I would end this blog with some general observations and try to encapsulate some of my thoughts from the past five-and-a half-years.

The state of public libraries in England

Crisis…what crisis!

Libraries are facing an existential crisis. Not because they are danger of disappearing altogether but rather a crisis of identity; who they are, what they are, what they stand for.

This goes beyond the closures, hollowing-out, deprofessionalisation, and amatuerisation – all critical factors – but these are symptoms rather than the cause. Austerity has been a major driving force behind the changes but again this is not the whole story.

Nor is the lack of strategic leadership within the sector. Although this is without doubt a significant factor especially as the library leadership are enabling government policies in return for organisational funding. The very same policies that are causing the current crisis!

But as always, when you follow the money, you end up in someone’s pocket!

Despite this there is also a deeper malaise and it’s one that as a profession we all have to accept responsibility for. And that is a loss of belief in the profession itself. We have lost our sense of identity and by doing so lost our sense of purpose.

And because we have lost this self–belief we have allowed others to fill the void with short-termism, self-interest, and organisational and technological fads.

We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that libraries are just victims of technological and societal changes. A sector shaken by political and financial whims to which the only pragmatic response is compliance. This is ‘realpolitik’ so grow-up and get with the programme!

Partly through not having a unified voice, partly through fear for jobs and livelihoods, partly because we never believed it would quite get this bad, we acquiesced, we kept our heads down and refused to speak out.

After all, as the Americans say, ‘you can’t fight city hall’. Not when ‘city hall’ is the DCMS, LGA, Libraries Taskforce, Arts Council, and the SCL/LC. Not when they tell us they are right and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Not when they hold all the political cards, the patronage, the funding.

And the profession, full of doubt, and fear, and a loss of belief in who we are and what we stand for have played right along.

As austerity took hold we fell for that typical neo-liberal con trick: ‘things can only get better in the long run by becoming worse in the short-term.’ Deal with it!

We slashed budgets, reduced staff, bought less and less stock, closed libraries, recruited volunteers, merged services, co-located, changed job roles (from dedicated, knowledgeable library staff to Jack and Jill of all trades), re-organised, restructured…and when that didn’t work we did it all again…repeatedly!

The small state ideology has become the accepted dogma within libraries. We have adopted the language of commercialism, become entrepreneurs, instigated corporate practices, and explored alternative delivery models. But guess what, things haven’t got better, they’ve got worse and continue to get worse with each passing year.

In February this year the Institute for Government published 10 key facts about neighbourhood services. It revealed how badly councils services have been hit with libraries facing amongst the worse reductions. Highlights included:

  • Since 2009/10, libraries have borne real-terms day-to-day spending cuts of 41%.
  • Between 2009/10 and 2017/18, the number of full-time equivalent library staff declined by 38%.
  • Local authorities have increased their reliance on volunteers. The number of library volunteers increased by 187% between 2009/10 and 2017/18. The number of volunteer hours tripled over this period, increasing from 500,000 to almost 1.7m.
  • There were 17% fewer libraries in 2017/18 than in 2009/10.

Another recent investigation into libraries in the North East revealed the scale of  closures, reduced hours and huge drop in spending on books in the region.

But sadly, far from being unique, this is merely indicative of the degree that library services have been impacted and how much provision has been degraded throughout the country.

That was then!

It can be argued that the evolution of the public library service has until recently been one of upward progression, despite some faltering steps and periods of inactivity. Certainly, the creation of libraries can be counted as one of the most important social reforms of the Victorian era with the Public Libraries Act of 1850.

[As an aside it will come as no surprise that the Act, designed for the ‘improvement of the public through education’, was opposed by the Tories of the day. It appears that very little changes!]

Along with many other institutions it was mainly due to philanthropy that saw the expansion of libraries so that by 1914 approximately 62% of England’s population lived within a library authority area. By 1919 a new Public Libraries Act gave responsibility for libraries to county councils.

This is not to downplay periods of stagnation of regression for library services but ultimately library provision was an upward trajectory culminating in the 1964 Museums and Libraries Act with the goal to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. Not just locally but for the whole nation.

This is now!

So can the current crisis be viewed as a regression from which the sector will recover? While it would be wrong to say that the pendulum will never eventually swing back towards investment and expansion, the damage done nationally to the underlying infrastructure will, in my opinion, take a long time to recover from. That’s assuming the political will and inclination is even there.

The fragmentation of services, the closures, the increase in volunteers in service delivery or to run libraries, the split between statutory and non-statutory provision, expansion of public service mutuals, delivery by second-tier authorities such as town and parish councils, all mitigate against a quick return to a national model for libraries.

This disintegration of the library eco-sphere, along with the dramatic decrease in funding, will take years, if not decades, to reform. And based on current evidence there appears to be a distinct lack of political will to even attempt such a task.

Unfortunately, while this current crisis can be laid squarely at the feet of the Conservative Government and its predecessor the Coalition – which means the LibDems also carry responsibility – no mainstream party has a coherent strategy for libraries. Labour councils have been as quick as their tory counterparts to adopt localism and the Labour Manifesto states the party’s commitment to both localism and devolution. Equally shadow ministers have been as unwilling to criticise library closures and cutbacks as government ministers.

This lack of strategy has turned into farce in some areas. The move by Derbyshire Council to hand 20 libraries over to the community was dubbed ‘devastating’ by the local Labour Councillors who demanded a professionally-run service. Meanwhile next door in Sheffield Labour heaped praise on volunteer run libraries and lauded them as innovative!

Sadly, there seems to be very little to choose from between both main parties with some of the worse reductions seen in Labour controlled areas such as the aforementioned Sheffield where ironically the Chair of the APPG on Libraries, Gill Furniss, is a local MP.

So the expectation that the worse depredations of the current crisis will be rolled back with a change in administration is not supported by any evidence or facts.

Localism: the road to nowhere

While Localism has been presented as a way of empowering communities and giving residents a greater say in decision-making unfortunately the reverse is true where libraries are concerned.

Far from being empowered to influence decision-making residents are forced to contend with highly biased consultations with limited options. The outcome of which is usually a binary choice of closure or the forced imposition of responsibility onto an ill-prepared community. All dressed up in the language of localism, community empowerment, and local control.

In an excellent piece written for the Guardian by Laura Swaffield, a long-time and tireless campaigner for libraries, she writes that we no longer have a national public library service:

“Until very recently, every local public library was part of a joined-up national network. In even the smallest library, people could be sure to find certain basics such as books and PCs, plus trained staff able to provide a gateway to national assets, including standard online reference works, national newspaper archives, a link to the British Library, access to the summer reading challenge for children in the summer holidays, and much, much more in terms of books, educational resources, reference material and contacts. The whole point was to provide a standard service nationwide. But that has now gone.”

But ignoring the national nature of libraries in favour of localism means the underlying issues and challenges are discounted. For example residents are misled into believing that funding is a problem to be resolved locally rather than as a national issue shaped by government policy.

This reflects the imbalance in local democracy whereby residents have responsibility forced on them but without genuine access to the mechanisms of political influence.

Ultimately volunteer libraries are a highly visible but shallow form of localism and by concentrating solely on local problems communities are treating the symptom rather than the underlying cause. This in turn leads to the implementation of government reforms that exacerbates rather than resolves the library crisis.

Rather than bringing people and communities closer together the crisis in libraries has created division, fragmentation, and lower quality provision. As the Civil Exchange report on the ‘Big Society’ noted:

“Fewer people feel they can influence local decisions, disenchantment with the political system remains widespread and communities are less strong. A market-based model for reforming public services is concentrating power in the hands of new ‘quasi-monopoly’ private sector providers rather than in those of local people and is reducing, not increasing, transparency and accountability.”

If anything the localism agenda has lessened accountability, entrenched inequality of provision, and created library elites at the expense of a more equitable and fairer distribution of resources.

In other words those library services more willing to embrace and implement the government’s agenda, especially in terms of PSMs, commercialism, and volunteer participation have been rewarded with greater opportunities through funding and influence.

Unhappily, this is the politics of division rather than cohesion but rather than challenge the inequities of such a model the library leadership has embraced it.

However, you cannot promote equality by adopting delivery models that actually entrench the opposite.

Localism and libraries

Libraries, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain on a downwards course, which began with the introduction of austerity. Service provision will continue to be fragmented along with deep reductions in funding, staffing, resources, and library off-loading with the occasional closure.

There is no evidence of change by a government divided and distracted by Brexit and indications are for deeper and more damaging cuts to the national network yet to come. Until recently this was mainly a problem in England but funding cuts are now starting to impact in Wales and Scotland as well.

But cuts and closures are only partial aspects of the situation. Off-loading libraries to other providers seems to be the preferred approach, either to community groups, or as I’ve noted before parish/town councils, with Cornwall leading the way.

Even a cursory glance at Ian Anstice’s Public Library News site, despite the occasional new library or refurbishment, reveal a depressing pattern of cuts and threatened closures with Derby and Essex being the two current stand-out proposals.

Again, local people are fighting hard against the proposals, and again it is likely their wishes will be discounted. Many will be expected and required to step in to run libraries themselves.

It is this total disregard for public opinion that reflects what localism actually means in practice to many communities.

But to be fair these two services are only the latest in a long list of failing services. Perhaps the rather dubious award of the most failed service should go to Northamptonshire who outsourced so many aspects of council services, including libraries, and did it so badly, that the council almost went bankrupt (see my previous posts Nothing to laugh at in Northants and Damned if we do and damned if we don’t)

The ex-CEO of Northamptonshire Paul Blantern was also Chair of the Libraries Taskforce and along with other members promoted outsourcing libraries, greater commercialisation, and enabling the replacement of paid staff with volunteers. Rather than learn from the mistakes of Northamptonshire the current Taskforce members continue along the same discredited route.

Recruitment to the sector, particularly new talent, will remain flat. Sadly, years of austerity, hollowing out, and de-professionalisation have made public libraries an unattractive proposition for new library graduates. An article in the bookseller described the relentless cuts as turning the sector into a ‘war zone’, which hardly makes public libraries an appealing long-term career prospect.

Even at the senior level of Head of Service we have seen changes that while not quite a trend have worrying implications for the future. Suffolk and Devon, both mutuals, have recently appointed charity bosses as CEOs rather than someone with a library background.

It seems that having a library qualification is no longer adequate enough for staff with aspirations to become HoS. Hardly a welcome thought to ambitious new graduates.

And in fact many library service managers are no longer HoS in the traditional sense but merely the most senior grade in a diminishing service reporting to an ever rotating carousel of departmental managers; leisure, culture, children’s services, housing etc.

It also appears that the role of 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.

Added to this, is the proliferation of volunteers in service delivery and the widespread view amongst local councillors and national politicians that library staff are unnecessary. In fact the situation has become so dire that technology such as Open+ is considered a suitable replacement to having paid staff on site.

And yet far from defending the role of paid staff SCL/Libraries Connected is heavily involved in advocating for volunteer led libraries. It provides direct training and support for volunteers and along with Locality has set up the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network to ‘help develop sustainable community managed library business models and approaches.’

It’s always puzzled me as to why so many librarians support the work of a body that quite happily accepts government funding to bolster their own organisation while enabling policies that replace paid staff with volunteers and undermines the delivery of a quality library service.

However, their willingness to drive government policy has seen them rewarded with £2m from the Arts Council as a ‘Sector Support Organisation’. A further £75,000 was given to investigate how to strengthen the regional LC groups so no doubt more funding is likely to be forthcoming in the near future to accomplish this.

Oddly it appears to be OK for the government to give funding to library organisations as long as they come up with ways to make actual library services survive with less!

After a hundred years of support through the public purse libraries seem to be regressing backwards to a model that is overly dependent on ad-hoc philanthropy, the good will of volunteers, a two-tier system that entrenches inequality of provision, and commercial partnerships that undermine the value of a ‘safe, neutral and trusted’ place.

And the irony is that absolutely none of these approaches will alleviate the underlying structural issue of sufficient revenue funding.

In years to come Localism will not be seen as saving libraries but rather as a political dead end that destroyed the principle of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service. More damning will be that the profession itself was complicit in allowing it to happen.

Libraries as a commonwealth

Far from being just a local resource, libraries should be viewed as part of a national commonwealth. Rather than localism with the emphasis on ‘community led’ a more joined-up approach should encourage services to be ‘community focused’ while adopting a coherent and cohesive model underpinned by a set of national standards.

We should develop the narrative, whether it’s politically palatable or not, that libraries are a national asset and as such should be wholly, and fairly, publicly funded for the common good.

Services should also be publicly accountable. An essential point that is being lost as some morph into quasi-business entities that hide behind charity law or commercial sensitivity.

Without overly simplifying, library provision should centre around three areas: stock, buildings and staff. Time after time this is what patrons and communities say is most important to them – we need to start listening.

Added to which our core purpose should be to develop and promote literacy, education, and access to information and knowledge, particularly around widening access, facilitating opportunity, and helping disadvantaged individuals and communities to close the attainment gap.

These are not abstract issues but a fundamental challenge to defining libraries place in society. Equally, we need to put aside the fads and fashions that seem to plague the profession.

Traditionally libraries have always prided themselves on providing access to knowledge and learning, of being the champions of literacy, but slowly, exacerbated by the austerity, these principles have been eroded.

Unfortunately, libraries are increasingly used as a shop front for other council services, which is indicative of the narrow view of libraries as just another building, rather than as a unique and valuable service within their own right. While libraries do have an essential social role to fulfil, merely viewing them as ‘community hubs’ mistakenly puts them on par with almost any other space.

Leisure centres are community hubs, parks are community hubs, pubs are community hubs. But libraries are unique in being a community space and something else, something extra, something special.

Libraries are more than just another meeting space, somewhere were people come together. They have a higher purpose and value. That’s what we need to bear in mind, that’s what we need to cherish and preserve for future generations.

Despite social and technological changes the core purpose of the library is as valid today as it’s always been.

I reject the narrow vision of localism, the fragmentation of a national resource, the inequality of provision. Public libraries are not a luxury dependent on philanthropy. They are a common resource for all. And despite current political dogma they do not belong to individual communities but form part of the wider commonwealth of the nation.

I hope and aspire towards a better future. For a strategic vision that leads towards a national approach to 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 and we should demand better not just from the politicians but from our own leadership.

Protecting Library Services?

There is a petition calling on the government to ringfence funding for libraries by Frances Belbin. The text reads:

“Libraries across the country are being closed, cut back and/or outsourced to volunteers as a result of government cuts to local authority budgets. Councils are unable to keep staffed library services open when faced with the competing demands of social care, child protection etc.

Local libraries are a vital resource for the promotion of reading, literature and culture. They are a necessity for the digitally excluded who need to go online to access benefits, health, education and employment resources.
While the commitment of volunteers is welcomed, volunteer-run library services are unsustainable long-term.

The government must ringfence funding to ensure councils can fulfil their statutory duty to keep libraries services available to the general public.”

As of today (Sunday, 21st October 2018) the petition had attracted 7,035 signatures. At 10,000 signatures the Government will provide a response. Whether that response will be substantially different to those replies received by various MPs and Peers in the Houses of Commons and Lords remains to be seen. At 100,000 signatures the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.

Given the continuing popularity of libraries and coming off the back of the Summer Reading Challenge and Libraries Week I’m hoping that the 10,000 barrier can be reached relatively easily . So if you haven’t already done so please sign and encourage friends and family to do so.

The tone of the petition is in keeping with a recent article in the New Statesman; The deepest cuts: austerity measured, outlining the real-terms funding cuts to local authorities including a section on public libraries. Despite the Prime Ministerial claim that ‘austerity is over’ the Institute for Fiscal Studies has  stated that “without substantial tax rises or much better growth prospects there is no way for the chancellor both to end austerity for public services and to eliminate the budget deficit.”

The spending cuts within local authorities are set to continue until at least 2020 leading the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association (LGA) to warn that “…after eight years of austerity during which £16bn has been stripped from municipal budgets in England, councils risked being “damaged beyond recognition” and communities depleted of vital services.”

Whether the spending review set for 2019 will ease some of this burden is not yet clear but with a 49% reduction in finances since 2010 it will be a long time before authorities bounce back and are unlikely to ever fully recover to pre-austerity levels.

National funding for libraries in this context will remain a difficult challenge and calling for a national approach  runs contrary to the recently released Civil Society Strategy in which:

“People are empowered to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods. Power is decentralised so that local officials and professionals are properly accountable to local people, and trusted to do their job without bureaucratic interference. The provision of services is seen as the business of the community, not solely the responsibility of government, and providers are drawn from a broad range of suppliers from the public sector and beyond.”

The reports highlights the positives of communities taking on responsibility for services previously provided by local authorities, encourages closer working with Town and Parish Councils, voluntary organisations, social enterprise organisations, and actively encourages the adoption of public service mutuals.

Libraries get several mentions, including a case study of Suffolk Libraries, and the statement that:

“Many public libraries have an established track record in providing opportunities to facilitate this. Many are actively developing their role as community hubs bringing together local people, services, and organisations under one roof. There is a growing number of public libraries which are directly run or managed by the communities themselves or as mutuals by the people who work in them (or as a combination of the two), with varying levels of support from local councils at all levels.”

This is further supported by the promotion of the Mutuals Support Programme 2 and the mutuals masterclasses commissioned by DCMS and run via the Libraries Taskforce and strategic partners.

Whether the rosy ideal of the Civil Society Strategy matches the actual reality on the ground remains open to vigorous debate. It certainly seems mismatched with the warnings coming from the LGA and the many instances of hollowing-out taking place in library services.

A recent analysis by CIPFA reported in Public Finance outlines how the ‘Government is increasingly shifting the costs of public services on to citizens as the effects of austerity continue.’  The article states that “One way the government has tried to save money and avoid the need for tax increases is by asking members of the public to contribute more in other ways – from volunteers running libraries to people paying a greater share of the cost of defending themselves in court.”

The report states that many neighbourhood services – such as waste collection, food safety, road maintenance and libraries – have sustained the deepest spending cuts of all the services looked at.

The fact that libraries, like many public services, need additional funding for revenue and infrastructure rather than just project funding, should be uncontestable.  How and by whom that funding is provided is very much an ongoing conversation.

The direction of travel advocated by the present government would seem to indicate a delivery matrix of a smaller core statutory service with a mixture of in-house and commissioned models, underpinned by a second tier service (mostly non-statutory) run by community groups, volunteers, and parish/town councils.

Whether this satisfies the definition of a comprehensive and efficient library service seems a moot point when Councils are faced with very real budget reductions and in some instances the issuing of 114 notices.

But to a certain extent to only concentrate on the issue of funding is miss the point as to why libraries need protecting in the first place. And it has never been because of any failure in relevance or adaptation on the part of libraries.

Finance is only one part of the equation. The main issue is ideology and for the past eight years the government has been wedded to austerity, privatisation, and the ‘small state’ doctrine. And it is this dogma, coupled with fiscal policy, that has resulted in the contraction, commercialisation, and outsourcing of public services such as libraries.

 

 

 

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 current administration is on course for victory. Sadly, it’s a victory that will mean the  continuing reduction of the central grant paid to local authorities and the consequence this has for libraries at a local level.

Labour have 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 Conservatives 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 the traditional model of 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.

Dataset – Call to Cilip & SCL

Following up from my previous post ‘Nothing to Yell About’ it’s become obvious that the Libraries Taskforce is not the vehicle for collecting and distributing data for and about public libraries. Despite the best of intentions as a body it is too susceptible to interference, including having to scale back it’s activities during the pre-election period.

The snap general election is thrown up the need for reliable data more than ever and Cilip has announced the launch of the ‘Facts Matter’ campaign “to promote the need for evidence-based decision-making as a foundation of a strong, inclusive and democratic society.” 

As such the library profession itself needs to take responsibility for gathering and distributing data around public libraries, without reliance on politically controlled bodies, and for making such data as widely accessible as possible.

Ultimately, as a profession we should encourage an open data approach by local authorities. However, it is likely to take a some time for this principle to become embedded and regarded as the norm as protectionism around data and political nervousness will make this a slow process. Another issue will be around governance models and whether or not public service mutuals would sign up to releasing data in such a way.

I wrote to Cilip and SCL asking for their views around the Taskforce’s recently risible dataset and where they thought the profession should go next. Nick Poole replied saying:

My own view is that, as a sector, it is important to think long-term about how we ensure that the development of public libraries, individually and nationally, is informed by the best possible body of evidence and up-to-date data.

 The publication of the Taskforce dataset, while important, is only one aspect of answering the more fundamental question, which – to me at least – is that of how we as a sector organise ourselves to ensure ongoing access to a credible body of quantitative and qualitative data about public libraries which supports the overlapping needs of management, targeted development and advocacy.
 

The Taskforce is a time-limited task-and-finish group with the specific remit of enabling the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to respond to the recommendations in the original Sieghart Review. Any long-term solution to the data and evidence needs of the sector ought to address how the process of data-gathering will be governed and funded in the long-run by sector bodies with the remit for the development of the sector – specifically, the Arts Council England, SCL and CILIP with the support of DCMS and the Local Government Association.

Alongside the question of governance and investment, there is the question of ensuring that the dataset is valid and widely-used. In my view, the best means of achieving this is through the creation of an open, public-access dataset published via http://data.gov.uk and licensed for a wide range of commercial and non-commercial re-use. An open access public library dataset, enriched with persistent identifiers,  would facilitate the embedding of library data into Government statistics and reporting, promote the development of 3rd party applications and support activities such as Libraries Week. This, obviously, is an issue with Cipfa data, which remains paywalled and cannot be used in 3rd party platforms.  
 

In the School Libraries sector, CILIP has recently proposed an industry-led consortium with the responsibility for improving the evidence-base (qualitative, quantitative and impact/outcome-based) around school library provision. In my view, such an industry-led consortium ought also to be possible in the public library sector with a broad remit for defining not only how data is collected, but for improving the overall methodology, creating a comprehensive model for what should be collected and engaging with 3rd parties to promote its use.

As part of this, you will be aware that CILIP has announced its intention to develop a Library & Information Sector Research & Evidence Base in our Action Plan 2016-2020. While not primarily concerned with public library data, it would be valuable to consider how the scope of this would intersect with the kind of industry-led data-gathering for which CILIP is advocating.

 

Nick also reiterated that the “… most useful data is open data. We think it is important that this activity yields data that is openly licensed for re-use, and ideally that we start to foster a community of developers and creatives who will use it as the basis of interesting applications.”

 

Neil McInnes, President of SCL also replied agreeing that there was an need for up to date figures on libraries. Neil stated that the SCL agreed with many of Nick Poole’s points, including:

 

“…the need for current and credible data about public libraries that will support and enable the running of excellent library services, and promote libraries widely especially to non or lapsed users.”  

 

He added:

 

“As you know, CIPFA collects data from libraries and publishes yearly figures on use. We have long lobbied for this dataset to be widened to show what we feel would be a more accurate representation of the library sector. Each of our members collects some of the data you refer to—number and type of libraries, opening hours.”

 

So we have both the CEO of Cilip and President of the SCL agreeing that a more accurate picture of libraries is needed. With that in mind there are many advantages to both bodies working together to ensure the collection of accurate and objective data and the regular and timely publication of such information. Therefore:

 

I ask that the Cilip Board of Trustees and the Executive Committee for the Society of Chief Librarians work together and take direct responsibility for the gathering, collation, and release of datasets around public libraries for the good of the profession and sector.

 

I ask that a wide range of individuals and interested parties with the necessary expertise and/or professional credibility to gain the confidence of the profession, public, and campaigners be involved. I urge Cilip and SCL not to rely only on the input of the same bodies that have so far failed to deliver objective and credible data.

 

Further, I ask that as a matter of urgency, and as a first priority, that Cilip and the SCL collate and publish the data around the number and type of public libraries in England to date. This should include information regarding:

 

  • Type of each library within a service: local authority run, community run, commissioned, independent, closed etc
  • Open and staffed hours
  • Stock budgets
  • Number of professionally qualified and library staff
  • Other information deemed appropriate to give a reliable and accurate picture of the current state of public libraries in England

That this request be treated as a matter of urgency by both organisations with the view of establishing an appropriate group and publishing the above data as quickly as possible. 

One last point, both Nick and Neil raised the issue of finance for the project and the need for additional funding on an ongoing basis. The obvious candidates for this would be the DCMS and ACE. Although, whether or not the DCMS would fund a project it had no direct control over remains to be seen. The other, perhaps better, option would be to divert funding from CIPFA since it’s plainly not delivering what the sector needs in terms of appropriate, open data, in a timely and regular manner.