Tag Archives: Library volunteers

The Gordian Knot

Gordian-Knot-and-Pain

The list of volunteer libraries grows almost daily with perhaps Herefordshire providing the most extreme example, proposing that all but one library should be run by community groups. However, the approach is fast becoming ubiquitous across the country with examples at Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Southampton, Kirklees, Leicestershire, Sheffield, etc. The list goes ever on. Unfortunately, it might be easier nowadays to list those services that haven’t handed, or want to hand, libraries over to volunteers in one form or another.

In fact it’s become the norm to the extent that Lincolnshire Council can boast that “Volunteers are now at the heart of Lincolnshire’s library service, giving communities a chance to do things their own way.” So we finally have a local authority that regards volunteers and not paid staff to be central to its library service. In a similar vein Lewisham Council claim’s that making staff redundant and handing libraries over to volunteers ‘…will in fact enhance the service.’ Hampshire appears to be going one better than even using volunteers and aims to replace 74 staff with self-service technology.

Unfortunately, the volunteer model is leading to the fragmentation of library services, not only nationally, but also locally with a two-tier service developing within the same county, city, or town.

Obviously, the approach is not without it’s difficulties for Councils as the judicial challenges in Lincolnshire shows. A recent story from Lincolnshire also illustrates that not all libraries are viable with volunteers saying there is not enough money to keep going. Equally worrying is that volunteer libraries in Manchester have seen visitor numbers plummet by as much as 90%.

So while volunteer libraries are not necessarily the answer they do seem to the model favoured by many local authorities faced with an ever decreasing settlement from central government. A situation that is projected to get far worse by 2020 according to the LGA.

Communities are offered very little choice in the face of closures. It’s long been recognised that there is an element of blackmail in forcing communities to take over the running of libraries or face closure. It’s also very difficult to oppose plans that are targeted at individual libraries as each community fights to save their local library rather than the whole network. I’ve always found it puzzling that councils can trumpet that charities and trusts are a preferred option for individual libraries, which can sometime amount to the majority of libraries in that authority, but somehow the trust/mutual approach is not considered suitable for the whole service. At least that way it is the experts, the library staff, that retain control. Work that one out!

In both Lincolnshire and Leicestershire the attitude is that local communities …know best what their library needs, whether it is different opening hours or staging more events’ and that volunteer libraries are capable of ‘…creating an even better service that the county can be proud of.’

Some councillors and volunteers might actually believe this. Others take a more pragmatic view. Bob Mynors, a volunteer at Stannington Library in Sheffield acknowledges “While volunteers cannot ever fully replace the work done by professional, qualified librarians, libraries remain important local, social spaces.” He also states that the volunteers have greater flexibility to do things that would not have been possible under local authority management such as a murder-mystery evening , accepting book donations, and a story festival.

It’s a pity that such simple things are considered an improvement when they should have been part and parcel of the council run library offer. What all of the above demonstrates however is the importance that both councillors and communities place on libraries, with the prevalent attitude being that a volunteer library is better than a closed library.

This is a conundrum for both the library profession and campaigners alike. The Gordian Knot that we must find an answer to. It is one thing to protest cuts and closures but it is another to develop a viable alternative. From a cash-strapped council point of view volunteer libraries offer a cheap and politically palatable alternative to closure even if the local community have to be compelled to take on the running. For the past five years it is the one argument that many campaigns have foundered on.

It should be obvious that volunteers cannot replace the knowledge and expertise of paid staff and qualified librarians. However, regardless of how bitter communities feel about the loss of paid staff they would still rather lose staff than the library, which is why councils know that ultimately volunteers will, in most cases, step forward.

The Speak Up For Libraries conference is next month and unless campaigners can develop a narrative to counteract the volunteer model and advocate an equally simple and affordable option then volunteers libraries will be the reality for the next 5 years and possibly beyond.

Obviously, the task should not be left to campaigners alone as it’s important that any narrative is shared and supported by all, which includes Cilip, SCL, and the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. However, until a solution is found, and hopefully found quickly, then before too long it really will be volunteers rather than library staff and qualified librarians that will be at the heart of the service. To the detriment of all.

Addendum

The following was received from librariesmatter and it certainly is food for thought:

On a point of logic – the Lincolnshire CC statement does seem extraordinary since the community hub/volunteer libraries are not part of the Lincs statutory library service. How can the heart of the service be outside the service for which the Council has the responsibility?

Whilst the issue around the possible over use of volunteers in public libraries is well publicised, the issue of Councils’ redefining the extent of their statutory library service by leaving out libraries from their service has hardly received any attention. Lincolnshire is an example of this. My understanding is that for the 30 community hub/volunteer libraries – Lincs CC doesn’t have any obligation to support these libraries into the future. It has chosen to provide some short term support (4 years) presumably as a more palatable way of pushing through its reduction in service.

The redefining of the statutory service allows a Council to provide a worse and lower funded library service into the future. English councils are able to do this because there are no library standards (abolished 2008) nor any library performance indicators (abolished 2010) and government policy is clearly one of non-intervention. Shouldn’t campaigners and CILIP be paying more attention to this point?
If a library is part of the Council’s statutory service then it is under an obligation to fund and support it.
This doesn’t necessary mean the Council has to run the library itself or even that there have to be paid staff present (alternatives in smaller branches could be volunteers or ‘open+’ technology).
 
The places where community run libraries are more successful are surely those that are part of a statutory library service and are thus (hopefully) properly supported.

 

 

 

 

Cilip AGM 2015

Cilipres4I was unable to attend the AGM this year but thanks to the wonder of technology and the excellent work of Cilip staff I was able to follow the proceedings via a live video link.

As usual the Libraries Change Lives Award was inspirational and full of ideas for other services to emulate. Well done to all the shortlisted candidates and particularly well done to the winner, North Ayrshire Libraries, with their ‘Appiness’ digital programme for pre-schoolers and parents.

There were six worthy recipients of the Honorary Fellowship award this year including Ian Anstice of Public Library News fame. Never has an award been so richly deserved and Twitter was alight with people (including myself) offering congratulations. There are not enough superlatives for Ian’s excellent work so I will stick with saying incredibly well done, without his hard work and dedication the library world would be a poorer and less informed place.

Unfortunately, the subscriptions were raised once again on a vote of 105 for, 33 Against & 5 Abstentions. My opposition to the rise is well known and at the meeting there was a lot of criticism of the £17-£42k band. Mike Hoskings, Cilip Treasurer has indicated  that this will be looked at, and despite promises to the same for the past five years, perhaps this will be the year something actually changes. I remain ever hopeful.

Nick Poole highlighted the increased advocacy by Cilip this past year and announced the launch of the Strategic Plan 2016-2020, called Shape the Future:

‘Shape the Future is an open, collaborative project to develop CILIP’s Strategic Plan 2016-2020. We want to ensure that as many people as possible have a chance to contribute to this plan including members and non-members, external parties, staff and partners in all 4 nations of the UK and internationally.’

One of the most urgent areas to be addressed will be the continuing decline in membership. Apparently, there are now only 3000 members from public libraries left in Cilip. It’s difficult to decide if there is one over-riding factor for the decline but I would hazard a guess that weak advocacy from Cilip over the past 5 years has played a major part. Equally, the loss of 37% professionally qualified staff in public libraries since 2009/10 won’t have helped either.

That said, I do see some change in Cilip’s approach and certainly since becoming CEO Nick Poole has been more overt in advocating for the profession as evidenced by the string of TV and radio interviews recently. Equally, the Board backed resolution 4 last night opposing the amateurisation of public libraries. Again, well done to Andy Richardson & Anna Brynolf for submitting the motion and presenting it so eloquently.

Most people were in favour of the motion. Some minor amendments were made with the replacement of the word ‘manned’ by ‘staffed’, and the resolution was easily passed.

Sue Williamson, Head of Library Services at St Helens, felt is was unfair to apportion blame to senior library managers as they often had little choice in making such changes. No one, certainly not Heads of Service want the amateurisation of the profession. I quite agree with Sue’s comments and have often written how difficult it is for managers to resist such changes since decisions are made by councillors.

This is where the Society of Chief Librarians have a vital role to play. While individual HoS, as paid council officers, have no choice but to implement changes – and many do argue quite strongly behind the scenes – SCL, as the body representing senior library managers, could make an unequivocal statement opposing volunteer run libraries and the loss of paid staff.

However, this might not be realistic given that only a year ago the President of SCL as part of her inaugural speech stated that a priority was to “…explore how we might develop resources and a framework to support community-led libraries.” It might be that Cilip and SCL’s positions on this issue are starting to diverge significantly.

Another interesting factor will be reconciling the principle of the resolution with the fact that Jan Parry, President of Cilip, has been appointed to lead a task-force charged with working out how Liverpool’s libraries will be funded from 2017 onwards. On the face of it the resolution would appear to preclude Jan recommending that Liverpool hand over further libraries to community groups or volunteers. We shall just have to wait and see what models are eventually suggested.

So, another AGM over with lots of changes afoot. I’m certainly looking forward to the Shape the Future consultation, greater advocacy and opposition to volunteer run libraries, but most of all, to finally sorting out the subscription bands.

 

 

When is a librarian not a librarian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep library staff to keep changing lives

For anyone who has missed it there is an excellent interview with Kathy Settle, Chief Executive of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce and Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP, talking about library priorities particularly in relation to the Government Spending Review in November.

You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said but there are some very important points for library staff and campaigners alike to reflect on. Amongst the many comments the following from Nick Poole really stood out for me:

“My biggest concern is that we allow services to be hollowed-out in the name of keeping up appearances, keeping the doors open while reducing the range and quality of services offered by skilled and qualified staff.

We can’t afford to focus on the short-term situation while allowing library services to be systematically under-funded. We need to fight the battles ahead while remaining focused on the real aim – which is to deliver the modern and comprehensive library network that the public need and have a right to expect.”

I doubt there is anyone within the sector that would disagree with these sentiments and all credit to Nick for making such assertions so publicly. This acknowledgement of the importance of paid staff is further evidenced by Cilip Board members support for the resolution on the ‘amateurisation’ of public libraries proposed by Andy Richardson. The reason for the proposal is explained by Andy here.

The importance of skilled and qualified staff delivering a meaningful service to communities is highlighted through the Libraries Change Lives Award. Every year this provides a showcase for wonderfully innovative projects that have a real social impact within communities. It’s worth reading through the list of past winners and this year’s shortlisted finalists to get a flavour of how important libraries are and can be to their communities.

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The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives.

And let’s not forget that this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the projects that happen everyday within libraries. The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives. Without them none of this innovation would be possible.

Unfortunately, the steady encroachment of volunteer run libraries threatens to undermine all of this. As Martyn Wade, Chair of Cilip Board states:

“Volunteers should be an asset. We should recognise the valuable skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, experience and fresh perspectives that volunteers can provide. But we must act when the quality and long-term sustainability of library services is at risk.”

Even innovation that is now taken for granted and considered standard service e.g. reading groups and film nights were first and foremost instigated by library staff or developed in partnership with individuals and organisations. Other initiatives developed with bodies like the Reading Agency have become mainstays of library provision such as the Summer Reading Challenge or Reading Ahead (previously the Six Book Challenge).

Staff continue to provide innovation from the library based Fab Lab in Exeter to the Get it loud in libraries project. Despite the challenging financial reductions and the fragmentation of services innovation is in the blood of librarians.

However, for this to continue skilled and qualified staff need to play a central part in all libraries; not just as managers and supervisors of volunteer run libraries, the overseers of the charity shop or hub and spoke model run by unpaid amateurs but as innovators embedded in their communities delivering core services.

For an overwhelming argument in support of paid staff look no further than the Libraries Change Lives Awards. Good luck to all those shortlisted.

The ‘Amateurisation’ of Public Libraries

The 2015 CILIP AGM takes place on Thursday 24 September at CILIP Headquarters and unlike previous years is a fairly low key affair estimated to take just over two hours. As usual I would urge all those members who cannot attend to at least use their proxy votes.

The two areas that have grabbed my attention are the proposal by Andy Richardson and Anna Brynolf (below) and the, as usual, ever increasing subscription rates. The unnecessary increase in subs is something I argued against last year but it seems that Cilip is determined to treat members as milch cows despite the job losses and limit on public sector pay. This is a matter I will return to in a future post.

Well done to Andy and Anna for submitting the following proposal and saying what many within the profession think. The phrase ‘amateurisation of the Public Library services’ sums up the current situation succinctly and encapsulates in a single word the reductions, hollowing out, deprofessionalisation, and handing over to volunteers. Amateurisation indeed!

The wording of the proposal is:

“That CILIP actively oppose those public authorities and senior library staff over the “amateurisation” of the Public Library service by offering library buildings and contents to be run by the local community with little or no funding for professional or paid library staff. This is resulting in public libraries being run by volunteer staff and taking away work currently done by paid professional and library assistant staff. All current public library service points manned by paid local authority library staff should be the current base-line – and where such actions are suggested by the local authority and senior library staff, CILIP should support the opposition to such proposals and say so publicly.”

 

Vol stats

The loss of staff and increase in volunteers is starkly illustrated in this graph from the Guardian.

Recently Cilip has raised its profile around advocating for libraries and Nick Poole has done a round of radio and TV interviews talking about library closures. However, I still think Cilip’s approach is too softly-softly so will be supporting the proposal and urging Cilip to be more adversarial in its opposition to the removal of paid staff.

This proposal transitions interestingly into the announcement that Jan Parry, President of Cilip, has been appointed to lead a task-force charged with working out how Liverpool’s libraries will be funded from 2017 onwards. From one perspective this is a positive move to involve those who actually know about libraries, from another it could be seen as glossing over the relinquishing of 5 libraries to volunteers and the loss of paid staff.

So this is a precarious position for Cilip. Any move to find a solution which involves volunteer libraries will be met with outrage from members and campaigners alike and will run contrary to the above proposal if passed.

Cilip has released a statement in support of the work Jan has been asked to do. Unfortunately, it is couched in terms that immediately gives rise for concern and suspicion in that it is similar to the vague terminology and management-speak that seeks to disguise reductions to service and removal of staff.

Cilip needs to clarify in plain English whether or not this will mean supporting, even indirectly, volunteer run libraries. It would be reassuring if Cilip were to offer a base-line affirmation, along the lines of the SLIC recommendation, that volunteer run libraries without paid professional staff are not the preferred option.

There is a basic financial imperative for Cilip in all of this. It is paid staff, not volunteers, that pay subscriptions and without employment they are unable to do so. So less employment for members means less members for Cilip. Simple really!

Addendum

Interesting comment from librariesmatter:

Just a thought …..if CILIP had wider membership then perhaps it wouldn’t need to raise subscription rates and it wouldn’t be seen so much as a narrow professional body merely protecting its members interests.

For example the American Library Association provides personal membership to Library Friends, Trustees and Associates. CILIP for some reason doesn’t embrace such people.

 

 

 

Exciting operating models!

I came across the following tweet by Paul Blantern, Chair of the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, today (Wednesday 15th April 2015).

really great conference in Nottingham today looking at many of the exciting operating models that now exist libraries in England
.
.

Among the many exciting operating models I presume are Lincolnshire, which is hell-bent on handing over 68% of libraries to volunteers despite a judicial review and the threat of a second. Sheffield, which has given over 46% of its libraries to volunteers, Coventry, which is suggesting reducing its libraries from 17 to 5, a decrease of 70%, and Staffordshire, which is proposing 50% of its libraries are run by community groups. To name but a few!

Then there’s the thousands of job losses, hundreds of library closures, the hollowing out effect, drastic reductions in funding, and the many consultations ignored by councils and the Government alike when the public expressly state they want a professionally run and managed service with paid staff.

If Paul Blantern views all of this as ‘exciting’ I dread to think what it would take for him to consider the library sector to be in crisis!

The devil is in the detail

I had an interesting, if rather short, exchange recently on Twitter with Chris Bryant, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Culture. He was criticising Lincolnshire Council over their plans to force local communities to operate libraries. I asked how these plans differed to Sheffield’s and why attack one but not the other. To the more cynical amongst us the obvious answer being one is a Conservative council and the other Labour controlled.

I share his criticism of Lincolnshire but the real issue is that library closures and cuts traverse the political divide and are to be found in Labour as well as Tory authorities. Therefore, only attacking his opponent’s plans appears more petty political point scoring rather than a genuine concern about public libraries.

Mr Bryant did affirm that public libraries need leadership. If elected Mr Bryant will be in a position to provide such leadership – and let’s hope it’s better than the misapplied ‘distributed leadership’ the Arts Council offers – however, we have been here before when Ed Vaizey was in opposition. Support for public libraries is an admirable thing but not if Mr Bryant is unable to articulate how he will differ from the current incumbent whose non-interventionist approach and slavish commitment to localism has been so disastrous for libraries.

In a story in the Independent Mr Bryant accused the Government of “utterly failing” library users and said library closures had “accelerated rapidly” since the election.”

He then went on to say that “Labour would provide “genuine national leadership” in reversing the decline in library use, encourage greater cooperation between England’s 151 library authorities and give councils longer-term funding settlements so they can plan ahead better.

So far, so good. He also stated that “Libraries are a vital part of the social and cultural life of this country. They extend opportunities for people, whatever their background, to read, learn and explore and they help to bridge the widening inequality gap in the country.”

All highly commendable but also, unfortunately, short on detail, big on ‘soundbite’.  It is one thing to say you support libraries but quite another to state how you would support them. The devil, as always, is in the detail and Chris Bryant is not providing any.

Now Labour should be in a very strong position to have an informed view on libraries. Helen Goodman, Mr Bryant’s predecessor, began her own review of libraries last year and equally the review by William Sieghart is available to refer to. So there’s plenty of information and research for Mr Bryant to draw upon.  Also, as a Welsh MP, he can look to the Expert Review of Public Libraries in Wales for inspiration.

Perhaps he could make a commitment to introducing national standards for England, or creating a genuine oversight body, or merging library authorities (not just ‘encourage greater cooperation’ which quite frankly the current Government has tried to little effect). Perhaps he could indicate a desire to revisit the 1964 act and define clearly what a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service should actually be. Equally, Labour has pledged to boost Sure Start centres and re-expand the scheme should they be elected so perhaps Mr Bryant could make a similar commitment to public libraries. And then there’s the thorny issue of consistent and adequate funding.

Returning to the Twitter exchange, one point that emerged was Mr Bryant supports volunteer run libraries in ‘some circumstances’. What those circumstances are he failed to elaborate on. Unfortunately, sharing the same belief as his opponent, that volunteer libraries are part of the solution, will hardly inspire library staff and campaigners to view Labour as offering anything substantially different to the current government.

Before the conversation on Twitter I had already emailed Mr Bryant (twice) inviting him to share his views, just as Helen Goodman had done, about public libraries. I reiterated the invitation as part of the Twitter exchange. Whether or not he accepts remains to be seen but if he does let us hope for something more substantial than he’s offered so far.

Addendum (09/02/2015): Chris Bryant has called the handover to volunteers in Lincolnshire ‘exceptional‘. I keep coming across slightly different figures but it appears that Lincs has handed or will hand over 68% of libraries to volunteers. Lincolnshire is a Conservative controlled council. Sheffield, which is Labour controlled, has given over 46% of its libraries to volunteers. Coventry, also Labour run, is suggesting reducing its libraries from 17 to 5, a decrease of 70%.

So it seems ‘exceptional’ is fast becoming the norm…for both parties!

(Happy to be corrected on the above figures)

 

 

Illiteracy…continued

As an addendum to my previous post I came across the following letter – via the Speak Up for Libraries Facebook page – from the Coventry National Union of Teachers. For me it encapsulates not only the importance of library services but also what Nick Clegg should be trying to prevent in order to eliminate illliteracy by 2025. If he is genuine about such a goal then the Liberal Democrats need a strong and clear message concerning public libraries, which should include not closing or handing them over to volunteers. Unfortunately, the Deputy Prime Minister has taken the usual coalition approach of washing his hands clean while laying all the blame on local authorities.

Plans to reduce number of public libraries and other cuts to services – Coventry Telegraph Letters for January 23 2015

“As a representative of the National Union of Teachers in Coventry, representing over 1,800 teachers, we are extremely concerned with the city council’s intention to reduce dramatically the number of public libraries in Coventry. We believe that libraries are uniquely placed to help foster engagement in reading. They offer free access to learning and a ‘safe’ space for children and young people to study and access resources.

They can help students to develop their confidence and motivation, seeing themselves as readers outside school and, therefore, read more widely and independently. They will offer a far wider range of reading materials than the school can offer, inspiring students to extend their reading tastes. Librarians are key to this service. The fact that councillors are even suggesting that we can run libraries on a ‘charity shop’ model with volunteers is an insult to our library service.

Councillor Kershaw rightfully points to them being a ‘golden thread running throughout our lives’ (Telegraph, Jan 16). These cuts, supported by both political parties, will turn that 24 carat gold to fool’s gold if they succeed with this plan.

Libraries are a treasure of information and imagination and we must all join together to fight to keep all our libraries as well as oppose all cuts. Let’s unite to defend the services that matter to us and not be divided by the canker of austerity.”

Jane Nellist
Joint secretary and national executive member,
Coventry NUT

Illiteracy and the Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg recently pledged that the Liberal Democrats would eliminate child illiteracy by 2025, which while a worthy sentiment has to be taken with a pinch of salt from the Deputy Prime Minister.

During his time in office – and unequivocal support for overly stringent austerity measures – the gap between the rich and poor has become a chasm. Research by Poverty & Social Exclusion UK revealed:

  • Almost 18 million cannot afford adequate housing conditions.
  • 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat the home
  • 2.5 million kids live in properties that are damp
  • More than half a million children live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly
  • 12 million people are too poor to have a social life
  • 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing
  • One in every six adults in paid work is still poor

The link between poverty and low educational attainment has long been acknowledged so it seems almost absurd to boast of eliminating illiteracy on one hand while creating the conditions for illiteracy to flourish in the first place.

Even in the lead up to the general election when we expect the political rhetoric to flow thick and fast Nick Clegg’s statement appears crass in the face of increasing social inequality, driven in no small part by the government’s economic policies.

Equally, one of the historical cornerstones to challenging illiteracy – free access to books and reading via public libraries – has been consistently undermined by the coalition. Public libraries have long been concerned with raising literacy standards and the current Reading Offer is the latest in a long line of literacy based initiatives.

Despite incredible efforts by the profession to raise standards and instill the habit and pleasure of reading in children the Liberal Democrats have helped to create an environment in which there have been hundreds of branch closures, substantial job losses, and communities forced to take over libraries or face losing them.

John Leech, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Culture, stated that he supports the ‘…creation of volunteer managed libraries as a last resort in the event of the closure of a local authority funded library’ and ‘that a volunteer run library is better than no library at all, though I would not like to see this to become the norm.’ Unfortunately, under the coalition this has very much become the ‘norm’ with libraries being handed over to volunteers almost daily.

Even in his own constituency Nick Clegg was unable to convince fellow minister, Ed Vaizey, to intervene in Sheffield’s mass handover of libraries to volunteers. Despite initially questioning the Council’s plans Vaizey quickly back-tracked and would not order an inquiry into library provision in Sheffield.

As such, it is difficult to reconcile the avowed intent to end illiteracy from a man who has been an integral part of a government that has also overseen significant library closures and the replacement of expert staff with uninformed volunteers.

No wonder author Cathy Cassidy has stated:

“Does Britain really want to add the loss of libraries to an already shocking decimation of services? At a time when far too many British kids are subsisting on food bank handouts, will we take away their ladder to learning, imagination and opportunity as well?” 

So the question is, how exactly do you end illiteracy by closing libraries?

What about social justice?

The following is by John Vincent who is a tireless campaigner for promoting social justice through public libraries. In 1997 he was invited to become part of the team that produced the UK’s first review of public libraries and social exclusion from which The Network originated.

John now runs courses and lectures, writes, produces regular newsletters and ebulletins, and lobbies for greater awareness of the role that libraries, archives and museums play in contributing to social justice, and is also the author of LGBT People and the UK Cultural Sector and along with John Pateman, Public Libraries and Social Justice. John was deservedly awarded a Honorary Fellowship for his work by Cilip this year.

What about social justice?

John Vincent

Leon and I bumped into each other at the CILIP “Big Day”, where we were celebrating the achievements of the three finalists for the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award, and he invited me to write a piece about social justice and community libraries.

This seems an entirely appropriate moment to consider this issue, as, at the “Big Day”, we were urged by William Sieghart to go out and copy the work of the three outstanding finalists (the winners, Northamptonshire Library and Information Service and the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership Enterprise Hubs; and the finalists Hertfordshire Library Service and KidsHub library sessions, and Leeds Library Service Studio 12 – Writing Leeds) – William also declared that:

“We need to do something urgently. We’re at a Beeching moment – the review that led to the closure of railway branch lines – which many regret, and that’s why this is urgent.”

However, the one issue which William Sieghart’s talk seemed to gloss over was the role of libraries in working towards social justice!

An aside before we begin: some public libraries are working to tackle social exclusion, and have been doing so (albeit under different names) long before the introduction of the formal policy in 1997 – think, for example, of the community librarianship and outreach heydays of the 1970s and 1980s. However, it is also worth reminding ourselves that the research which led to Open to all? [1], published by the then Resource in 2000, demonstrated that:

“… there are wide differentials between UK public library authorities [PLAs] in terms of activity relevant to social inclusion:

  • The survey estimates that only one-sixth of PLAs approximate to a comprehensive model of good practice for social inclusion. Most PLAs (60%), although having developed some initiatives, have no comprehensive strategy and uneven and intermittent activity. A final group of one-quarter of PLAs are those with little apparent strategy and service development
  • Targeting of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and social groups is used comprehensively by only approximately one-third of PLAs. Recent service developments in libraries, such as the development of ICT networks and literacy initiatives, tend to be targeted at socially excluded people in only a small minority of cases
  • Most PLAs report fairly high levels of community involvement by their staff but this tends to be at a general level, rather than focussed on disadvantage or exclusion
  • Most PLAs have no consistent resource focus on exclusion, and this is sometimes very marginal indeed. A minority of PLAs are very active in developing partnership projects but this is not a dominant factor in most PLA social exclusion strategies
  • Many of the UK’s most marginal and excluded people are not considered to be a priority in PLA strategy, service delivery and staffing. This applies especially to a number of social groups who commonly face stigma and discrimination: e.g. Refugees; Homeless People; Travellers.” [p ix]

There was a concerted effort by some public library services after 2000 to put inclusion at their core. However, I think that social justice involves taking this a stage further still, for example by recognising the current harsh and discriminatory treatment of all kinds of groups in society (claimants, single parents, migrants, disabled people) and finding ways in which the library can provide information and other support (eg meeting spaces) to assist communities to fight for their rights, and also to help people think through where “the truth” may lie. In its policy guidelines, What makes a good library service?, CILIP says that:

“A good library service will deliver against key policy objectives and provide:
• … Equality, community cohesion and social justice …” [p2]

So, how are we doing?

As the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award finalists (and, indeed, the other applicants for the Award) have demonstrated, despite the gloomy economic and political climate for public libraries, there is brilliant work going on in some libraries – work which not only supports communities that may otherwise be marginalised (unemployed people; children with special needs and their families; and young people from BME communities, many were excluded from school, experienced poor formal education and many have been long-term unemployed – to take the three finalists), but also shows how vital a public library can be.

However, is this pattern universal across the UK? To take two examples, if, ten years ago, you looked for examples of public library websites that strongly promoted their LGBT provision, there would have been many good examples. Today, there are hardly any.

When the Welcome To Your Library project finished in 2007, there was growing interest in developing provision for ‘new arrivals’ (refugees, asylum-seekers, migrant workers, etc), not only from the six WTYL partner areas, but across the UK – now, provision is minimal, with only a very few libraries targeting and providing services.

We know some of the reasons why this is happening: lack of library staff, time and resources; communities overwhelmed by other demands on their time; possibly political views about ‘new arrivals’.

But is there more to it? Could it be that, surreptitiously, we’ve become worn down by the calls to return to building-based services, to concentrate on existing users and their demands, to abandon ‘risky’ types of service, or services that do not show ‘high returns’ such as increased issue figures and visitor numbers? We do know that the sort of work that is required to make public libraries really relevant is time-intensive, and often involves relatively small numbers of users.

In addition, how many public library services have actually taken this sort of work into their core? Is social justice (or tackling social exclusion) embedded in everything they do, for example in making funding priority decisions? Or is it an add-on? Is it seen as a core activity, or a ‘project’? (And, by ‘project’, I mean something that is time-limited and short-term funded.) One of the dangers is that, when funding diminishes and when external funding sources dry up, so ‘social justice work’ also stops, instead of its being seen as a core activity.

And this then brings us to community libraries. I am arguing here that, currently, social justice is already on the ‘back-burner’ for some libraries, and, with politicians’ apparent urgent desire to decimate local services (at a time when, ludicrously, Britain is starting to commit vast sums of money to a highly risky and unproven war strategy in the Near East and North Africa; and the anomaly of savage cuts to local services whilst giving huge grants to businesses is only just being explored by the media), libraries – along with other vital provision – continue to be at risk.

The pros and cons of community libraries are neatly summed up in the new report from OPM and Locality, Rural library services in England: exploring recent changes and possible futures:

“Where communities have become more directly involved in supporting or managing their rural libraries, they can evolve into more effective, positive and well-used venues than their predecessors. This can involve the nurturing of a
library’s role in supporting social interaction, strengthening community ties, hosting events and activities to appeal to a wider range of people and creating space for clubs and societies to flourish.

In other cases, however, library friends groups might save a branch but bring with them very limited perceptions about what that facility will offer. As such, library service managers are sometimes concerned about the inability of some of their community libraries to live up to what should be expected of a local library from the point of view of standards / consistency of service and inclusivity.” [pp5-6, emphasis theirs]

It is this approach that has led to library provision becoming something of a postcode lottery, particularly where libraries have been ‘cast adrift’ by their local authority, losing the steer that they had previously.

Libraries must be properly funded and properly staffed if they are to take their rightful place in the struggle for social justice – and working towards social justice has to be their core aim. Without that, what is their purpose?

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[1] Dave Muddiman, Shiraz Durrani, Martin Dutch, Rebecca Linley, John Pateman and John Vincent. Open to All? The public library and social exclusion: volume one: overview and conclusions. Resource (Library and Information Commission Research Report 84), 2000.