Tag Archives: Library closures

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.

 

 

 

The Positive and Negative Impact of Using Volunteers in Public Libraries

The following post is from Gina Baber a Library & Information student at UCL. Gina has produced an excellent paper looking at the positive and negative impact of volunteers in public libraries. The full article can be found on the UCL website.

I came across the article via Twitter and Ian Anstice also highlighted it from the Public Library News site. However, it’s well worth publicising a widely as possible and Gina has kindly agreed to it being posted here.

Gina can be followed on Twitter @Gina_Baber and I highly recommend that you do.

The Positive and Negative Impact of Using Volunteers in Public Libraries

Gina Baber

Introduction

‘Volunteers have long supported and provided highly valuable additional support, working alongside qualified and paid staff, and they should be acknowledged and valued for this role. They should also be given appropriate role descriptions, training and management. CILIP is opposed to job substitution where paid professional and support roles are directly replaced with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts to save money….If this happens services will suffer and will be unsustainable. What remains would be a library service unable to serve the community comprehensively, support people’s information needs or provide everyone with the opportunity for learning and development.’ (1)

The following essay is a discussion on the impact of using volunteers in Public Libraries. It will focus on the experiences of Library Professionals and Volunteers; and consider the overall effect of Volunteers on the Public Library Service.

Public Libraries are a vital resource, and according to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, are a statutory requirement (2). Public Libraries are a centre for communities; a place for lifelong learning; and a sanctuary for the vulnerable, including the elderly, mentally disabled and homeless. Libraries improve accessibility to information; help to develop literacy and information literacy; and are a catalyst for social empowerment and social mobility:

‘…A strong public library service is the foundation of a literate and inclusive society and a competitive knowledge economy.’ (3)

There has been a change in the way many Public Libraries are being run. Cuts to funding have forced some Libraries to reduce their paid staff and introduce unpaid workers, resulting in a significant increase in volunteers in some areas: ‘paid library staff fell by 5.3% from 18,028 to 17,064, volunteer numbers rose by 7.5% to 44,501.’ (4)

The Librarian as Volunteer Manager

Managing a sizeable cohort of volunteers is a complex undertaking, and there are many aspects of management that need to be taken into consideration. These include: the challenges faced in training volunteers with little or no experience of library work; the varying reliability of volunteers (some can only commit to a few hours a week, or less, and they are often unable to commit to a regular shift pattern); and the effect volunteers have on staff morale, including staff who have seen colleagues made redundant, and who are being required to train volunteers who have replaced paid staff.

According to a 2017 review of UK Public Libraries, the top 4 challenges of using volunteers were as follows: 1. 82% The time investment that is needed to manage and support volunteers 2. 62% The time investment needed to recruit volunteers 3. 62% The level of commitment among volunteers 4. 58% The time needed to train new / casual users on systems (5)

The Government’s ‘Good Practice Toolkit’ also reflects the need for constant and considered management of volunteers:

  • a volunteer policy needs to be in place
  • volunteer roles need to be agreed
  • volunteers will require training for their roles
  • volunteers require ongoing access to professional advice
  • resources are needed to manage the volunteer roles (6)

After discussions with several Librarians and Library Managers, many examples of Volunteer Management responsibilities were highlighted. These included ‘coming up with volunteer opportunities; writing role descriptions; creating & managing advertising; drafting Service Level agreements; obtaining references; DBS checks for certain roles; maintaining records; training; holding regular meetings; and hosting volunteer thank you events’ (7)

The Volunteer Manager role is almost always performed in addition to an existing Librarian or Library Manager role. For example, Maria Bernal, who is the part-time Librarian and Volunteer Manager at Woodberry Down Volunteer-run Library (London Borough of Hackney), is also the Librarian at Homerton Library.

Similarly, Sophia Richards, the Community Librarian for Children, Families, Learning and Outreach at North Somerset Council, also manages the Volunteer programme in North Somerset (8). Inevitably, Librarians taking on these new responsibilities and often large numbers of volunteers, are frequently overworked and under a huge amount of pressure: ‘…We’re open 39 hours a week. I had 5 part time staff, now I have one full time member of staff and 102 volunteers…most of whom volunteer for only 2 hours once a week…It’s non-stop training and very tiring teaching 3 new people with minimal IT skills how to do frontline library work in 2 hour slot…the time it takes to train, the extra hours staff are putting in (unpaid, we don’t get overtime) just so we can keep on top of our admin and line management responsibilities is exhausting.‘ (9)

When a Library relies on volunteers, consistent availability and reliability can be an issue. As volunteers do not have a contract in the same way a paid worker does, their attendance is not an obligation. This can lead to casual and sometimes erratic attendance, which can disrupt and put pressure on the rest of the workforce; as well as leading to valuable community group activities being cancelled, the library closing early, and the integrity of the service being damaged, ‘…volunteers typically are less bound to follow regular schedules or to work for extended periods of time…Limited, irregular schedules are ill suited for tasks needing frequent attention.’ (10)

The Positive Effects of Volunteering: Social Empowerment and Social Mobility

Many volunteers are used in Community Outreach and Engagement roles, supporting paid staff and promoting the Library Service. Examples of these volunteer roles include: assistance with the Summer Reading Challenge; IT and Digital Literacy sessions; reading groups; and the Home Library Service for users who are unable to visit the Library due to a disability or ill health (11). As well as a desire to assist the Community, there can be many other reasons people volunteer. These can include volunteering as a way to improve self-confidence or sociability; to gain experience before applying for a paid position; or as a way of gradually integrating back into the workforce. Volunteering can have a positive effect on volunteers with learning difficulties; mental health issues; those dealing with loneliness, bereavement, social isolation and social anxiety; those dealing with unemployment and the struggle to find work or return to work; and those with extended periods of illness which have impacted on their confidence, self-esteem and motivation.

Interviewer: ‘Have you had any positive feedback from volunteers on the voluntary work they do?

Community Librarian: ‘I suppose the most obvious is those who have gone on to secure employment. One of the volunteers with autism secured a full time position with BT and couldn’t thank us enough for giving him an opportunity to have an up to date CV and a reference. A volunteer who had been a social services manager had been claiming sickness following complications after childbirth. She hadn’t been in employment for over 12 years and had significant anxiety issues. I worked with her, slowly re-introducing her to the safe library environment…Eventually she became a volunteer and developed the confidence to attend a counselling course. She is now working part-time in that field. (12)

Volunteers and Motivation

‘Volunteers are fearful they will lose their libraries, so rather than be faced with that, people think of volunteering…I can understand…but they should never have been in the position to have to make that decision…Volunteers have a brilliant role to play in boosting capacity and outreach but they shouldn’t be compelled to take over running the service.’ (13)

Volunteers come from different professional or non-professional backgrounds, frequently with little or no experience of managing a Library. The view of the Library as a cultural hub and centre of the community, motivates volunteers to keep the service running; often with limited resources, shorter opening hours and few or no professionally trained Library staff.

As mentioned previously, reliance on volunteers can be problematic for several reasons; and motivation is a particularly powerful influence on reliability and retention. The initial determination to ‘save’ a Library may be an ‘intrinsic motivation,’ built on a strong and focused desire to keep the Library open; and the idea that this is a positive and important act. Initially, volunteers may feel that they are taking control and managing change effectively. This action is also a result of an ‘extrinsic motivation’ and ‘external pressures’ upon the volunteer or voluntary group, caused by the potential closure of the Library. Volunteering must be ‘a choice freely made by an individual…both the volunteer and the organisation that the volunteer works with should benefit from the relationship; and the contribution of volunteers should be recognised.’ (14)

The initial motivation of the volunteer to make a difference or improve the situation may decrease, when external pressures become increasingly evident and their free choice as a volunteer becomes more of an obligation or ‘social coercion.’ (15)

External pressure may also come from volunteers having to take on more work than they were initially able to, and outside their capabilities. Untrained volunteers may not be able to cope with increased and unattainable expectations and workload. As a result, demotivation could occur as follows:

1. The reduction in paid professional Library staff could result in a lack of support and training for volunteers

2. This constraint on volunteer training and development could then result in volunteers feeling isolated or unable to fully assist Library Users

3. A lack of training and consequent limited understanding of information resources, could result in lower levels of self-confidence in volunteers; leading to frustration and disappointment that they are unable to fulfill the role

4. Frustration and negative feedback from library users, unable to receive the information or services they require, could result in a volunteer feeling that they are no longer in control

5. As a result of this lack of control, a volunteer may develop a negative association with the workplace and volunteer role. Volunteers may feel anxious, defiant, and demotivated; ultimately leading to amotivation and them leaving the volunteer position (16)

It is important to provide volunteers with consistent and thorough training and support, as well as a variety of tasks that suit their individual skills and experience ‘…having managed volunteers myself, I’m very aware that you have to make sure people are happy, stimulated, befriended and given a cup of tea and a chance to sit down and chat. Also, if they’re there for the long term, they need some autonomy over a task (this has to be appropriate for their level of ability), and a chance to change up tasks and routines when they get bored (or they’ll get burned out)’ (17)

Paid and unpaid staff require professional and personal development, including positive and constructive feedback and staff appraisal. If a volunteer does not receive consistent feedback and encouragement, they may feel undervalued. Similarly, if a working environment is hostile, isolating, apathetic, or not stimulating for a worker or volunteer, there will be little or no incentive to achieve goals. Problems may also occur when the paid workforce feel undermined or threatened by the increased use of volunteers. With many paid professionals losing their jobs or facing redundancy, there is a definite sense of unease, and sometimes a lack of respect or understanding from both paid staff and volunteers:

‘…without a doubt, many of the volunteers do not value nor respect our experience….It’s obvious that most of the volunteers don’t really know or understand what public library staff do. They aren’t intending to start a career in libraries, they haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the same way an applicant for a job vacancy would.’ (18)

Diversity: The Effect on Service

Interviewer: Do you think Equality and Diversity are fairly represented in Libraries that rely on volunteers?

Library Manager, Wirral: NO! The vast majority of our volunteers are elderly, white & middleclass/ retired teachers, engineers etc. (19) Community Librarian, Conwy County Borough Council: ‘My experience is that I haven’t seen someone from an ethnic minority, with a disability or anybody under the age of 60 volunteering. The simple answer therefore is no! However, I don’t think libraries are doing enough to attract these groups anyway and our users remain older retired and white and those with young children. That’s leaves a huge part of the population!’ (20)

Another issue with Volunteer recruitment, is the lack of equality and diversity amongst volunteers recruited. This lack of equality and diversity can have an impact on the relationship between the volunteer and Library user; and the quality of the service provided. The less diverse the workforce, the less diverse the range of knowledge; experience and understanding of different cultures; attitudes; beliefs; and lifestyles.

A lack of diversity, coupled with little or no understanding of information literacy, may ultimately lead to a biased or limited information service provision. Volunteers may be unaware of appropriate data protection laws and copyright, for example; and be unaware of the most efficient, accurate and ethical ways of finding information, such as using the most current databases to search for medical information.

Volunteers may also have little or no experience of how to manage the needs of a user with specific learning needs, a disability, or mental illness. It is important for a Public Library to employ professional staff to maintain as balanced and fair a service as possible, ‘…public librarians should provide expert assistance and advice to users as a public service without prejudice against persons and without a hidden motive of staff affecting search results…public librarians have an obligation to protect and promote the rights of every individual to have free and equal access to sources of information without discrimination.’ (21)

The Librarian Identity: Deprofessionalisation

‘What the profession needs to be vigilant of and something that should be challenged is appointing candidates to post as ‘librarian’ or equivalent without qualification or the need to pursue one. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of volunteer libraries it is the responsibility of all of us in the profession to uphold the integrity of what it means to be a qualified librarian. Anything else fundamentally undermines the concept of professional Librarianship’ (22)

Library volunteer roles are sometimes given titles with a professional association, for example ‘Marketing Assistant’, Library Ambassador’ and ‘Library Events Facilitator,’ which suggest a more serious position, with greater responsibility; and may result in an increased level of commitment from the volunteer. The language used can be encouraging for Volunteers, but problematic in its confusion with professional roles. Job titles used on the ‘Volunteering Wales’ website, for example, include ‘Assistant Librarian’ and Library Administrator.’ The requirement for the ‘Assistant Librarian’ role requests that the volunteer has ‘no particular skills, and training will be given.’ The role involves ‘talking to the public and using the computer to log books in and out.’ (23) Language and role descriptions like this, are in danger of undermining the view of the Library Professional.

Many people who have worked as a Librarian or are working towards a professional role, have extensive practical experience, training, knowledge and skills – the Librarian role is far more complex and exhaustive than this simplified job description suggests. Deprofessionalisation is hugely problematic, and volunteers are rarely able to take the place of a trained information professional ‘…The shift towards volunteer-run libraries also promotes the misconception that being a librarian is not a profession. Working in a library isn’t just about flicking a date stamp about and re-shelving a few books…’ (24)
Some Public Libraries do not believe in the importance or necessity of qualified Library staff, and the retail customer service model is often favoured over the knowledge and professionalism of a Librarian ‘…Being a qualified librarian is desirable, but not essential for front line staff.

Also, a colleague was telling me recently that “…CILIP’s own research shows than only 46% of those polled think that librarians provide trustworthy information. This does put librarians in the top 5 professional nationally, but at the same time it’s not a full endorsement either”…’ (25). It was interesting to hear that the Idea Store do not use volunteers, believing that ‘…services are lessened by the use of volunteers, so Idea Store do not take on volunteers to do the work of professional, trained staff.’ (26) There appears to be an awareness of the current situation, where volunteers have been frequently replacing professional staff; but one cannot help but feel that management is missing out on valuable expertise, knowledge and service development potential by not employing qualified Librarians.

Conclusion

‘We, as members of the public, deserve better. We deserve (and are legally entitled to) a library service that delivers not only books but is a free public access point to information. We deserve someone qualified in knowledge and information management who is best able to provide that service – and that’s a real librarian.’ (27)

The general view amongst Library Professionals and many users, seems to indicate that replacing paid professional staff with volunteers will result in a lower quality service provision. Volunteers should, where possible, only be used to support experienced, qualified staff. Volunteers are a positive addition to a workforce, when used to support certain activities, but should not be relied on to run a Library service ‘…experience would suggest that the most effective use of volunteers is to support paid staff in delivering specific activities (storytimes, job clubs, reading schemes, etc.), rather than taking on the day-to-day logistics of running a library’ (28).

Personal experience of using (or attempting to use) a volunteer-run Library, has been problematic and disappointing, with the Library in question frequently closing early, or being unable to open due to lack of volunteer availability. For users reliant on accessing resources, including computers and internet access, this can be greatly inhibiting and frustrating. The impression created, is one of an inefficient Library Service – a service that is unreliable and nonfunctioning. Ultimately, the user may be forced to look elsewhere for information and resources; and the trust in the service is reduced. Reduction in paid professional staff and reliance on volunteers, also has an impact on the availability and discovery of accurate and balanced information sources; and there may be issues with volunteers’ inexperience with intercultural competences and diversity. Volunteers can be used in a positive and effective way, and volunteering can have a positive impact on those who volunteer. In a Public Library context however, volunteers need to be managed carefully. Where possible, they need to support and not undermine professional paid staff; and they need to be offered regular training, support and feedback.

Volunteers should not be expected to take on the responsibility and workload of experienced, trained Information Professionals. There should be a clear distinction between the role of a volunteer in supporting the Library service, and representing it entirely. Evidence shows that volunteer-run libraries are not sustainable, and cannot run in an efficient, freely accessible and wholly ethical manner. Leadership and management from paid professionals is essential in maintaining the standard of a Public Library service. Without paid information professionals working as true representatives of the service, perception of Public Libraries will be further degraded and the public may lose an important resource capable of empowering and mobilising individuals and communities.

References:

(1) CILIP Public Libraries use of Volunteers [online] 19 April 2017 (original date of Policy June 2012) [accessed 04/02/17] Available from: https://archive.cilip.org.uk/research/sectors/public-libraries/briefings-statements/publiclibraries-use-volunteers

(2) Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964: 7. General Duty of Library Authorities https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1964/75

(3) CILIP Public Libraries 2016 Available from: https://archive.cilip.org.uk/research/sectors/public-libraries

(4) Kean, D. UK Library Budgets Fall by £25m in a Year The Guardian Thursday 8 December 2016 [online] [accessed 19/02/2018] Available from: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/08/uk-librarybudgets-fall-by-25m-in-a-year

(5) Axiel A Review of UK Libraries in 2017: A Guide for Delivering Sustainable Communitycentric Services [online] May 2017 Axiel Ltd. [Accessed 11/04/18] Available from: http://www.axiell.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Axiell-Report-A-review-of-UKlibraries-in-2017.pdf

(6) Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Libraries shaping the future: good practice toolkit: 3.3 Volunteering [online] [accessed 05/02/16] Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/libraries-shaping-the-future-good-practicetoolkit/libraries-shaping-the-future-good-practice-toolkit

(7) Library Manager, Wirral Interviewed by Anon 15/04/18

(8) Meet the Volunteering Team! https://northsomersetlibraryvolunteers.wordpress.com

(9) @ALibrarian1 ; Bolton, L. (ed.) One Hundred and Two! in Leon’s Library Blog [online] 20/09/2015 [accessed 25/03/2018] Available from: https://leonslibraryblog.com/2017/09/27/one-hundred-and-two/

(10) Leonard, K. B. Volunteers in Archives: Free Labor, But Not Without Cost USA: Journal of Library Administration 52 2012 p 316

(11) North Somerset Library Volunteers Available from: https://northsomersetlibraryvolunteers.wordpress.com

(12) Community Librarian and Volunteer Manager, Conwy County Borough Council Interviewed by Anon 16/04/18

(13) Powell, M. in Flood, A. Save your Local! Should Volunteers Help Keep Our Public Libraries Open? [online] The Guardian 8 August 2017 [Accessed 20/02/18] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/08/public-libraries-at-thecrossroads-should-volunteers-be-keeping-them-open

(14) Paine, A. E. ; Hill, M. ; Rochester, C. ‘A Rose by Any Other Name..’ : Revisiting the Question: ‘What Exactly is Volunteering?’ [online] 2010 UK: Institute for Volunteering Research p 9 [accessed 09/04/18] Available from: https://www.scribd.com/document/352352785/A-rose-by-any-other-name-Revisiting-thequestion-what-exactly-is-volunteering

(15) Ibid. pp 12-13

(16) Adapted from the points in: Taylor, B.M. Table 1,2, and 3 of Motivation : The Hierarchical Model of Motivation: A Lens for Viewing the Complexities of Motivation USA: Performance Improvement 2015 [online] 54 4 p 38 [accessed 04/03/18] Available from: https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/doi/epdf/10.1002/pfi.21475

(17) Library Assistant and Library Volunteer, London Interviewed by Anon 11/04/18 (18) @ALibrarian1 ; Bolton, L. (ed.) One Hundred and Two! in Leon’s Library Blog [online] 20/09/2015 [accessed 25/03/2018] Available from: https://leonslibraryblog.com/2017/09/27/one-hundred-and-two/

(19) Library Manager, Wirral Interviewed by Anon 15/04/18

(20) Community Librarian, Conwy County Borough Council Interviewed by Anon 16/04/18

(21) Kargbo, J. A. The Role of Public Librarians in Disseminating Information for True Democracy Public Library Quarterly 33:4 pp 362-371 [accessed 16/02/18] Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2014.937216

(22) Bolton, L. When is a Librarian Not a Librarian? in Leon’s Library Blog [online] 20/09/2015 [accessed 25/03/2018] Available from: https://leonslibraryblog.com/2015/09/20/when-is-a-librarian-not-a-librarian/

(23) Volunteering Wales: Opportunities [online] [Accessed 11/04/18] Available from: https://www.volunteering-wales.net/opportunity/28652/

(24) Ash, E. in Flood, A. Save your Local! Should Volunteers Help Keep Our Public Libraries Open? [online] The Guardian 8 August 2017 [Accessed 20/02/18] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/08/public-libraries-at-thecrossroads-should-volunteers-be-keeping-them-open

(25) Dogliani, S. Deputy Head of Idea Store Interviewed by Anon 17/04/18

(26) Ibid. 22/02/18

(27) Finch, D. The Harsh Truth About Volunteers Available from: https://dawnfinch.co.uk/2015/04/05/the-truth-about-volunteers/

(28) Librarian, Adults & Communities Team, North Lincolnshire Library & Information Services Interviewed by Anon 16/04/18

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

Date Set for Dataset?

Further information

Well this saga runs and runs! Apparently it’s not that Taskforce holding up the dataset but Downing Street. Should we be honoured or horrified! Perhaps a little of both. Would that this information had been shared with the profession by the Taskforce and the Minister. But that’s my political naivety coming through: expecting government bodies or minister’s to share something as simple as the truth!

On the face of it would appear to let the Taskforce off the hook over the issue but it also lays bare a fundamental flaw: that the Taskforce has very little influence or ability to enact real change in the sector, except the change dictated by government policy. And we all know where that is leading.

So perhaps they should just continue with what they are becoming best known for: publishing a blog and arranging workshops. It’s not much but it is something.

Looking at the comments below it might be that the way forward is to collate and release such data through the profession itself. More on that to follow.

__________________________________________________________

It’s been brought to my attention in the comments section that a parliamentary question had been asked:

Question From Kevin Brennan – 20 Dec 16
To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, what the timetable is for the release of data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries; and if she will make a statement.

Answer from Rob Wilson – 9 Jan 17
The data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries will be published in due course.

Due course…soon…shortly…any minute…before long!! How many more excuses can Rob Wilson give?

_____________________________________________________

Since publishing the post below a few interesting facts have emerged. In a tweet even the Chair of the Libraries Taskforce has implied the information is being withheld:

https://twitter.com/RosaSignum/status/837564952403718144

And if even the Chair of the Taskforce cannot release the data collected then it rather undermines their credibility as a body.

Paul indicates that the data is not quite as bad as anticipated but if that’s the case why the reluctance to publish? Unfortunately, even when eventually published the information will be out of date especially given the raft of changes to libraries since last year. It also makes a mockery of the Taskforces ambition to collate and release such data on a regular basis. Much longer and even Cipfa will be faster with library statistics!

There has also been a FOI submitted about the dataset by Ian Clark and Cilip. The Cilip one was dismissed as Nick Poole explains:

So we have a situation where both the Chair and a member of the Taskforce are being ignored and stonewalled. Also makes you wonder what the DCMS definition of ‘soon’ is as it appears to be a substantially different one to what most other people would accept!

Given the delay and the suspicion that the data will have been manipulated to put a positive spin on it I believe that the raw data should also be published to allow the public to make their own assessment (re: open data below).

The SCL have an important part to play in this as the information comes from SCL members and Heads of Service. In fact it would be an easy task for SCL to gather and release the data themselves. Perhaps Neil McInnes and the SCL Executive can to take this forward.

Another body that could get involved is the APPG for Libraries and I’ve emailed Gill Furniss as Chair to ask them to do so.

Ultimately, the decision rests with Rob Wilson as Libraries Minister. I will be tweeting and emailing regularly to urge the dataset is published immediately. That said, Rob Wilson has shown an almost contemptuous silence when it comes to answering difficult questions about libraries.

Therefore, I have decided to keep tweeting to Rob Wilson until the information is released or until he blocks me. I invite all interested parties to do the same.

If anyone has actually had a actual reply from Rob Wilson I would be interested in knowing so please do contact me.

_______________________________________________________

Post

Data matters because it helps to form evidence and evidence informs the truth. This has become increasingly important in a world in which post-truth, alternative facts, and fake news have become mainstream topics. Libraries have a important role to play in ensuring public access to trusted information sources, promoting information and media literacy, and where possible, encouraging users to think critically about the types of information and news available to them.

However, before boasting too much about our role in this area we need to set our house in order and collect, collate, and publish reliable data about libraries themselves. Unfortunately, the last seven years have highlighted the difficulty in providing accurate and comprehensive data regarding the depth and breadth of changes to the library network. This has allowed many councils and certainly many politicians to play loose and fast with the truth about libraries; some out of ignorance but others with the aim of furthering a political agenda. This in itself is a form of ‘fake news’.

So step forward the Libraries Taskforce, who are running a range of workshops with the aim:

“The core dataset is intended to be a series of data which all library services will, collect, use and publish. The plan is to have a consistent dataset which can be used to help inform and improve local library service delivery, as well as being used for advocacy purposes at local and national level…”

And there is certainly an urgent need for reliable, objective statistics for libraries. Ed Vaizey deliberately refused to collect data so he could continue to claim, quite wrongly, that there was no crisis in libraries, and ignore the claims by campaigners regarding closures and reductions to services. This led him to publish risible and misleading ‘desk-top’ research in an attempt to refute such claims. Make no mistake this was a deliberate act of obfuscation by the then Minister.

Most data around libraries come from a cross-section of sources. Cipfa being the most reliable ‘official’ stats but also additional information from the Taking Part Survey, Public Library News, BBC, and variety of ad-hoc sources.

However, there was, and continues to be, no definitive evidence concerning library closures and creation of volunteer led libraries. So it was welcomed when the Libraries Taskforce announced that they would start developing a model data set to better understand the level of library provision within each local authority in England. The first workshop was held in  December 2015. As Kathy Settle stated:

“We believe that access to timely, accurate, comparable library data is critical to enabling the library sector and users to monitor the delivery of library services and improve their quality.”

This was also followed up by a survey to SCL members and Heads of Service asking for information about the number and type of libraries in each area. In August 2016 it was announced that the data set would be published at the end of September and then in October it was announced that there would be a short delay in the publication but with the promise:

“Look out for a series of posts in the next few weeks. The first will point to the data set itself and share some early visualisations of the data.”

The weeks went by with no further announcements. Six months later we are still waiting. And yet the data has been gathered, collated, and no doubt relevant graphs and charts drawn up. So just what is the hold-up?

My assumption is that, as with everything associated with the Taskforce, they are subject to the self-interested political wrangling of its members, with no doubt one or another being particularly obstructive.

But here’s the conundrum; given the delay how can we trust the Taksforce in the gathering of data from the current workshops? Or is it perhaps they are looking to gather less contentious material to take our focus away from how politically unpalatable the first dataset is proving to be.

Ironically, I was at a recent Libraries Taskforce Sector Forum and attended a presentation on evidence-based, long-term and sustainable planning. One example was that of Newcastle Library Service which has adopted an open data approach:

“We are the custodians of this information, but it does not belong to us: it belongs to the citizens of Newcastle. And we need to give it back to them: freely, clearly, openly.”

You could use a similar argument for the data held by the Taskforce in that it belongs to everyone who uses libraries and should therefore be out in the public domain. If the issue is not one of politicking but capacity, if the Taskforce does not have the resources to fully collate and analyse the data, then they should simply release it. As Newcastle has found out:

“Just start publishing, it starts the conversation with data owners and data consumers and you will learn so much more this way.”

If we are to build a strong narrative on the value of libraries it needs to be underpinned by evidence and evidence needs to be supported by data.

With that in mind I encourage everyone to contact the Taskforce or individual members and urge them to release the data immediately. As always please keep such requests polite.

Contacts:
Rob Wilson: (Minister with responsibility for libraries)
Email: robwilson@parliament.uk
Twitter: @minforcivsoc or @robwilson_rdg

Paul Blantern (Chair of the Libraries Taskforce)
Email: pblantern@nrothamptonshire.gov.uk
Twitter @RosaSignum

DCMS: (FAO: Simon Richardson, Head of Libraries, DCMS)
Email: enquiries@culture.gov.uk
Twitter: @DCMSArts

Libraries Taskforce
Email: librariestaskforce@culture.gov.uk
Twitter: @LibTaskforce

The library profession also has direct input into the Taskforce in the form of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (Cilip) so please contact them and ask they request the dataset is released.

Members of the Taskforce (as stated on the website) are:

  • Dr Paul Blantern, Chief Executive of Northamptonshire County Council and Chair of the Libraries Taskforce
  • Kathy Settle, Chief Executive of the Libraries Taskforce
  • Neil MacInnes, President of the Society of Chief Librarians (and Strategic Lead – Libraries, Galleries and Culture, Manchester City Council)
  • Nick Poole, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
  • Rebecca Cox, Principal Policy Advisor, LGA
  • Iain Varah, Chief Executive of Vision Redbridge Culture and Leisure Trust, and Immediate Past Chair of the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association
  • Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library
  • Brian Ashley, Director, Libraries, Arts Council England
  • Sue Wilkinson, Chief Executive of the Reading Agency
  • Felix Greaves, Deputy Director – Scientific and Strategic Information, Public Health England
  • Jane Ellison, Head of Creative Partnerships, BBC
  • Dominic Lake, Deputy Director of Arts, Libraries and Cultural Property, DCMS
  • Simon Richardson, Head of Libraries, DCMS

Following the Leader…

libraryFor anyone who hasn’t yet read it I would highly recommend the excellent post by Nick Poole ‘Giving public libraries strong leadership and commitment.’ In it he lays out a coherent vision and set of principles for public library provision , averring that:

“A strong public library service is the foundation of a literate and inclusive society and a competitive knowledge economy. Great local libraries are an investment in communities, providing a cost effective way to improve health, support business start-ups, improve literacy and skills, and do all of this in a way that is open to all.”

The 10 key principles outline a clear stance on developing public libraries in England to hopefully curtail the massive reductions taking place nationally. This includes calling for emergency relief funding and intervention from government bodies where local authorities are being shown to fail their statutory provision.

It’s certainly a vision that many within the profession and campaigners should be able to support. If there’s a drawback it’s the reliance on the proposals being adopted by the same bodies who have so far failed to provide national leadership or a framework of protection for libraries.

However, due credit to Cilip for taking the lead in articulating what the sector needs to firstly survive and then hopefully develop.

Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England

In marked contrast we are still awaiting the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Libraries Deliver: Ambition. Although, originally due for publication by the end of July this year, the report was held up due to the appointment of a new libraries minister, Rob Wilson.

A further update was provided by the Taskforce in September but with no firm deadline in sight. It’s concerning that a report that was on the verge of being ready for publication over 3 months ago is still languishing in the DCMS, while the sector remains rudderless, libraries closures announced almost daily, and hundreds more staff lost to the profession.

But never mind at least it allows the new minister time to get his feet under the table!

Obviously, we have no way of knowing if or how far the report has been amended, or if any changes will be for the better or worse. Certainly Ed Vaizey was no friend to libraries so perhaps Rob Wilson’s view will be more positive. That said, how long does it take to amend an almost complete document. Then again perhaps the new minister’s view is so different to his predecessor that it requires a major revamp?

It will be interesting if the final product will be recognisable to everyone who attended the consultation workshops and if it fits with the work done and expectations raised at them.

What Next?

Perhaps Cilip has chosen to deliberately steal a march on the Ambition report. Certainly, it has challenged fellow members of the Libraries Taskforce to support the Principles for the Leadership and Development of Public Library Services in England as outlined in the blog post. Whether they will or not remains to be seen.

Partly, Cilip’s reaction could be borne out of the frustration with the long delay in publication of the Ambition document. Equally, there might be a perception that the report will fail to provide the guidance that’s needed for the sector and Cilip is setting out its stall in advance. This remains to be seen and comparing the two side-by-side will no doubt be highly informative and perhaps not a little contentious.

The one thing that is clear however is that only Cilip is currently offering a strategic framework and the leadership that the sector needs, while the others lag behind.

The test to how successful Cilip will be is how closely aligned its vision is to the Taskforce’s and what the fall-out will be if there is a wide discrepancy between the two.