Tag Archives: public libraries

Challenges and Opportunities

After some initial confusion it was finally announced that Rob Wilson was to be the new Minister for libraries. Given the government’s emphasis on localism it’s not surprising that libraries have been placed as part the civil society agenda. The minister immediately set out his stall by emphasising volunteering, community action, and developing new governance models including mutuals, trusts and co-operatives.

The departure of Ed Vaizey and appointment of Rob Wilson has also led to a delay in the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Ambitions report to allow him time to review the document, visit libraries and talk to colleagues. In all honesty I’m not sure this will make any substantial difference to the outcomes of the report. The direction of travel has always been clear: localism, devolution, community libraries, new governance, commercialisation etc.

So the trajectory will remain the same but what we will see, I suspect, is a more explicit statement on how this will be achieved. Equally, I don’t see Rob Wilson being any more interventionist than his predecessor except perhaps to encourage local authorities to go down the trust route.

Obviously, this will be bitterly disappointing to campaigners fighting to keep libraries as a public service directly accountable to elected members. As it will be for those fighting for a more national approach to libraries that is evident in other parts of the UK.

For the profession there will be both challenges and opportunities and far from the uniform service that has traditionally been offered the new landscape will be a dizzying mosaic of local provision. Over the next few years what I expect to see is a growth of:

  • Hub and spoke model: a central library or small number of libraries providing a core offer, supported by community libraries or alternative provision such as book collections
  • Greater involvement by parish/town council’s in running or funding local libraries
  • Increased commercialisation with more paid for and traded services
  • Relocation, co-location, and core library space given over to other council services or commercial opportunities
  • Reliance on open access technology and volunteers to replace staffed hours and/or extend opening hours

Last but not least a change in how libraries are run. There has been a marked reluctance amongst most authorities to fully embrace the trust route or share services with other councils. Perhaps the new Minister will provide the impetus for this to become the norm, not the exception. None of the above is new and exists in various forms to a lesser or greater degree across the country already. What will happen is an increase in the pace of change.

For those of us in the profession the challenge will be how to manage and adapt to these changes while still providing a core service that reflects the Libraries and Museums Act, and taking advantage of new opportunities for partnership working and income generation.

For some the whole idea will be anathema. But until there is a change in administration, an ideological move away from austerity, and a commitment to plug the funding gap in council budgets then I genuinely don’t see the landscape changing for a long time to come. For campaigners the next few years will be ones of damage limitation and compromise rather than outright victory.

An unintended effect of such changes will impact on the SCL, which until now has offered a safe space at regional meetings for heads of service to support each other. Whether such trust can be maintained around a table where some heads will be eyeing up their neighbours as potential expansion opportunities remains to be seen?

Personally, I would like to think that as a mainly supportive and friendly profession trust and collaboration will continue despite changes to governance models.

Another impact will be the skills needed by senior librarians and heads of service, with less emphasis on traditional skills, and more on managerial and leadership competencies, plus the ability to build partnerships across a wide variety of public, third sector, and commercial bodies.

Whether or not this brave new world is an opportunity or challenge will depend on your viewpoint and politics. But like it or not, it is the new reality to which those of us in the  profession will have to adapt.

 

 

 

 

That Was Then…

untitledI published my first post in October 2013 outlining the Cilip AGM of that year. The context to my beginning this blog was almost utter disillusionment with Cilip: it’s lack of campaigning for public libraries, the continuous increase in subscriptions, and the constant navel gazing culminating in the ill-advised proposal to change the body’s name (‘ILPUKe’ or ‘I’ll Puke’ anyone!). It was hemorrhaging members by the hundreds and seemed lacking any relevance to the battles being fought daily by campaigners and library staff on the ground.

Thankfully, the name change was defeated and the one positive outcome of the AGM was a vote of no confidence in Ed Vaizey. I think if the name change had gone through and the vote of no confidence failed I and many other members would have voted with our feet. More battles followed and I make no apologies for being a staunch critic of Cilip in several areas, particularly membership fees.

In 2015 I gave a cautious welcome to the appointment of Nick Poole as the new CEO but within a few short months I could detect a sea-change in the organisation; a willingness to listen and engage, advocate for the membership, and address the difficult issues and decisions facing the profession. Quickly Nick began to raise the body’s profile during a round of radio and TV interviews talking about library closures and advocating for the profession.

The fact that Cilip seemed to be turning a corner was illustrated in an interview with Kathy Settle, discussing the November spending review, in which Nick stated:

“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.”

The AGM in September 2015 brought another surprise when the Cilip Board fully supported the motion opposing the amateurisation of public libraries. Not everything was rosy however and I continued to oppose increasing membership fees. That said, the campaigning and advocacy aspects were improving dramatically.

It appeared that at long last Cilip was evolving into the professional body its members needed it to be. This has included a growing list of positive initiatives:

Not bad for a CEO who has only been in post for 12 months. Credit should also go to the dedication of the Cilip Board Members and staff. As President Dawn Finch is a straight talking proponent for libraries, the Board appears to address the more contentious issues head on, and this is underpinned by hard working staff that make proposals and policies a reality. Long may it continue.

As part of the Fit for the Future proposals there is a short survey for both members and non-members to express an opinion. I encourage everyone to do so. The idea of a leaders network is also intriquing so I look forward to more details being made available about the scheme.

It is also gratifying to see the proposed reduction in subscriptions fees and free student membership abolished. I voted against free membership in 2013 on the basis that what students really needed was for a professional body to be relevant rather than free.

Now I understand and sympathise that for some campaigners Cilip is not as radical or political as they would like it to be. But I would argue that it is still early days and more has been done to change and improve Cilip in the past 12 months than in many years previously. Cilip is also a broad church so has to strike a balance between the different aspects and sectors it represents.

That said, Cilip still has work to do, particularly in it’s relationship with the Libraries Taskforce. Many disagreements still exist between government policy and aspirations that Cilip and individual members have expressed for public libraries. Whether or not these differences will be ironed out and a consensus reached through the Taskforce’s Ambitions document remains to be seen.

I also remain critical of the small cadre of Taskforce members making decisions on behalf of public libraries around commercial sponsorship without wider discussions in the sector. In a recent Twitter exchange I, Nick Poole and other campaigners discussed the development of an ethical policy to help inform such partnerships, which is something I hope the Taskforce will take on board.

So, from my first post to this one I see the beginnings of real change in Cilip and as an individual member feel more positive about my professional body than I have done for a long time.

Every Little Helps..!

publiclibrary.jpg2There has been disquiet for a long time in the library field over commercial sponsorship such as Tesco with the Summer Reading Challenge in Scotland or Barclays Bank sponsoring wifi in public libraries in England. However, this brave new world of commercialisation and entrepreneurial one-upmanship chimes perfectly with the government’s neo-liberal economics, plans for a smaller state, and self-funding – or at the very least income generating – public services.

This is an approached accepted by both the Libraries Taskforce and SCL. For some it is seen as a pragmatic solution to fund projects and services that might otherwise not happen and there is no denying there is validity to this argument.

But equally commercial sponsorship is fraught with difficulties and ethical dilemmas for libraries and it’s wrong to consider those who raise such concerns as naive or un-realistic. The fundamental nature of public library provision and who funds it is at issue.

This is because much is made of libraries as safe, trusted, and neutral places. But in this context what does ‘neutral’ actually mean? Does it mean neutrality in terms of the endorsement of a product ? Do users ‘trust’ us not to promote the interest of one commercial company over another or indeed promote them at all?

An interesting and informative blog by Ian Clark, Barclays and the library marketing opportunity, highlights the difficulty regarding the use of Barclays Digital Eagles within libraries:

“BUT signing them up for a Google account, and visiting the Barclays Internet Help pages in the same session will significantly increase the chances of the individual in question receiving targeted ads in their inbox promoting various services Barclays delivers. In short then, Digital Eagles in libraries is a great opportunity for the bank to deliver direct advertising to individuals who are not currently online, who lack digital skills and, potentially, are not existing customers of Barclays (their Internet Help page also promotes their online banking services).”

The post ends on a very telling point about the future of library services if we hand over the responsibility for digital literacy:

“The skills and knowledge we have around using the internet effectively we are not passing onto the general public, we are asking providers of financial services to do it for us. How did we get into this mess? Is it a question of leadership? Is it the hollowing out of public services by central government? Is it the decline in professional ethics? For me it’s all these things and more. One thing is for certain, the future is bleak if we continue to believe that others can do it better than us.”

So, by encouraging and accepting commercial sponsorship and external help does the profession relinquish the right to claim libraries as safe and trusted spaces? Even more so, are we inadvertently allowing our users to be targeted for specific commercial interests? In which case, the claim for trustworthiness rings hollow.

Advocates for sponsorship would argue that this is a small price to pay for the continuation or development of library services.

However, the potential for reputational damage to such a trusted brand is high. Certainly, if we are to learn from the commercial sector then this is a valuable lesson to consider. After all, companies are quick to react over scandals that might impact on brand reputation, cases in point being the withdrawal of sponsorship over scandals affecting Fifa and the IAAF.

Barclays is a bank that has been beset by financial scandal resulting in a staggering £20 billion in fines and taxes imposed in recent years (imagine how little of that money could fund a well resourced and genuinely national library service). This includes Barclays being handed the biggest bank fine in UK history over manipulating the foreign exchange markets.

The Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and HSBC have all faced fines for similar misdemeanours. In fact Britain’s biggest four banks have racked up almost £50billion in charges to cover fines and lawsuits since the financial crisis, with HSBC admitting to money laundering and then last year paying a huge fine over allegations its Swiss private bank helped rich clients avoid taxes.

And it’s not just banks. Tesco is the largest retailer in the UK, third largest in the world, and through its banking arm sponsors the Tesco Bank Summer Reading Challenge Scotland.

All fairly innocuous and philanthropic it might be assumed. However, Tesco itself is not free from scandal. It has been under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office and faces a £500 million fine for accounting irregularities. This is in relation to a shortfall in the retailers 2014 accounts and rigging its financial results to cover falling sales.

In addition, the Groceries Code Adjudicator, Christine Tacon, stated that Tesco “knowingly delayed paying money to suppliers in order to improve its own financial position”, and said the supermarket had seriously breached the industry’s code of conduct. She found extensive evidence that Tesco had acted unreasonably when delaying payments to suppliers.

Recently Tesco was also accused of inventing fictional farm brands that misled customers into thinking they were buying British produce, when in fact the produce was often sourced abroad.

So the question becomes, does the profession’s alliance with scandal riven banks and retailers undermine the very trust and neutrality we so often boast of?

But then again perhaps such ethical considerations are secondary to attracting funding, not just to conform with government expectations, but in order to ensure libraries continue to operate and offer much needed services. Perhaps, even, the public don’t actually care who funds wifi or literacy in libraries.

After all, every little helps..!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mythomania

Despite the constant misinformation from the government such as only 110 libraries have closed since 2010 we at least know what to expect from this administration as in practice public services and therefore libraries have never been under greater threat. This is down to ideology and dogma, and the rigid adherence to the economically dubious austerity agenda.

I came across the wonderful term ‘mythomania’ recently. Apparently it refers to the behaviour of habitual or compulsive lying…or in other words, spin! The mythomania developed by the government around libraries is almost admirable in its simplicity and effectiveness. Even the Prime Minister has got in on the act recently by claiming that library closures are due to ‘technological change’, whilst totally ignoring the massive reduction in funding.

If Conservatives hold a totally skewed view of libraries you would reasonably expect Labour to have an opposing narrative. Unfortunately not! The Labour view of libraries is rather conspicuous by its absence. This is compounded by major figures such as the new London Mayor. During the mayoral election race, the now successful Sadiq Khan, failed to respond in any meaningful way to campaigners request for support, no doubt cautious over criticising Labour controlled Lambeth.

The equally silent Maria Eagle, Shadow Minister for Culture, Media & Sport seems to have no apparent opinion – or should that be knowledge – of the library crisis, certainly if her Twitter feed is anything to go by. I’ve tried to contact Miss Eagle a number of times by email and Twitter but have, as yet, received no reply.

The last time a shadow minister tried to formulate an opinion around libraries was early 2014 under Helen Goodman. Unfortunately, she was a blink-and-miss-them appointment. Followed by the equally  ‘I don’t really want this role’, Chris Bryant, whose approach to libraries was so akin to Ed Vaizey’s that you couldn’t wedge a piece of paper between them. When challenged Chris’ mantra was ‘silence is golden’, refusing to engage with campaigners or support a fight against closures in his own constituency. Again by a Labour controlled authority.

Labour’s last attempt at writing a policy resulted in the risible Libraries: Innovation, Co-location and Partnership, which again was so similar to the Tories you could be forgiven for thinking they had been written by the same team. And herein lies the problem: the current government has no difficulty with libraries being cut, closed, hollowed-out, or out-sourced. We can disagree with and oppose this approach all we want but at least it’s a clear stance.

Labour on the other hand lack any sort of vision, policy or inclination around libraries and seem supremely unwilling to engage with campaigners to develop one. Unfortunately, for a party committed to public services under Corbynism this presents a conundrum as Labour controlled councils – stand up Sheffield – are just as likely to close and cut local libraries as Tory authorities.

Where there should be a stronger commitment to public services, we get the right of the Labour Party espousing the same free market terminology and localism mantra as the current government. On the other hand the left of the party seem willing to sacrifice valuable local services in order to indulge in petty point scoring against Tory austerity. Added to this mix are senior leaders who refuse to be drawn on the whole issue of the library crisis.

Many have an high expectation of Labour rolling back the devastating damages done to public services and libraries. Given the sheer lack of interest by previous and current shadow minister in the issue, campaigners are unlikely to see a viable alternative to Tory policy developed anytime soon. In fact given how quickly culture shadow ministers come and go it’s unlikely any will have time to develop a proper response.

But then again perhaps the perception that Labour will restore public services to previous levels is in itself a form of unintentional mythomania!

Libraries Deliver…Social Justice?

The following is an extract from the response by The Network to Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021, with thanks to John Vincent:

Social justice

In broad terms, “Social Justice is about every one of us having the chances and opportunities to make the most of our lives and use our talents to the full.” Working towards social justice is vital for all kinds of library services. It must involve in outline:

  • Embracing equality and diversity 
  • Focusing on a needs-based service and targeting resources towards those who need them most 
  • Having a clear understanding of the whole context in which the local community operates 
  • Knowing and understanding the components of the local community 
  • Having an active, collaborative role in empathising and working in partnership with the local community
  • Fully engaging the community, moving as far as possible towards co-production of service provision

A key issue for us in looking at Libraries Deliver is how far it considers the context in which people are living in 2016 – and what we can forecast for the years 2017-2021. There is certainly some consideration of this, particularly in the “Assumptions” section (18.2), although some of these are very woolly and some, to be frank, are fatuous – eg “Libraries will continue to focus on not only having a seat at the decision-making table but setting the table”. Social justice hardly seems to touch this world …

We would want to see Libraries Deliver addressing some of the following issues, none of which is likely to have disappeared by 2021:

  • The increasing polarisation of rich and poor, and increasing inequality in the UK 
  • The increasing health gap between rich and poor 
  • The increase in poverty, for example as manifested by the growth of food-banks 
  • The removal of public services and the effects this has on people dependant on them 
  • The reduction in the public sphere, with, for example, fewer places where people can freely meet 
  • The growth in racism and Islamophobia, as well as hostility to migration 
  • The growing evidence of corruption at the heart of society, for example in the police (Hillsborough, undercover policing), in politics (expenses scandals).

Where are these issues – which the best public libraries are engaging with – reflected in this paper?

Taken from: Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021 Response from “The Network – tackling social exclusion

Make a difference

It’s easy to forget after the initial rush of enthusiasm that campaigns and consultations can go on for months and support naturally peters out as other, newer battles emerge. Anyway this is a reminder of two important engagements that are still ongoing.

My Library By Right continues and deserves to be supported by all library staff, information professionals, the public and campaigners. If you haven’t already done so take time to sign the petition. Thus far over 16,500 supporters have signed so please add your name. Get your friends, family and colleagues to sign…heck! even get your pets to sign!

In the past Cilip has come under fire for not being proactive enough in campaigning and challenging the fragmentation of library services and the amateurisation of the profession. This is a positive campaign to try and redress some of those issues so regardless of your views of Cilip in the past (and I’ll admit that mine have been critical!) please find the time and inclination to support this particular endeavour.

Equally, the Libraries Taskforce continues to seek feedback over Libraries Deliver: an Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021. ‘The document reflects on the evolving role of libraries in light of changing public expectations. It presents a vision for the future and discusses how it should be achieved.’

This is at the draft stage so needs input from as many interested parties as possible. It’s a given that feedback will be sought right across the spectrum of the profession including strategic partners, stakeholders, and decision makers.

But most particularly the Taskforce needs to hear back from library staff of all levels and not just the senior managers and lead members. It’s important that those working on the frontline have their say as well. So fill out the survey and spread the word amongst colleagues.

You can also get involved by registering to attend workshops or email comments directly to the Taskforce librariestaskforce@culture.gov.uk. Apparently, you can even write in. Now that’s radical!

I cannot emphasise enough that the document is at the draft stage so if people want to influence it, to ensure it reflects the aspirations and concerns of ordinary library workers then as much feedback as possible is needed. You have until 3rd June to contribute.

I have made my own views clear in that it’s a good starting point but eventually needs to be far more radical in scope and aspiration.

If, as a profession, we want it to be a ‘deliver’ a genuine ‘ambition’ for public libraries then we need to influence the direction of travel and be willing to speak out to make it happen.

It’s not enough to be against something, you have to be for something to make change happen. So get involved, have your say, make a difference.

 

 

Libraries as Social Hubs

Libraries are about physical spaces. That’s what the public values about them. Campaign after campaign has started not necessarily because of threatened withdrawal to services, although this undoubtedly plays a part, but because of the danger to the actual library building itself. The threat, or even the perceived threat, of closure is what galvanises public reaction.

The difficulty for public libraries is the same as for many public spaces, in that they act as “a shared resource in which experiences and value are created. These social advantages may not be obvious to outsiders or public policy makers.”

The report from which the above quote is taken, The social value of public spaces by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation goes on to state that:

“To members of the public, it is not the ownership of places or their appearance that makes them ‘public’, but their shared use for a diverse range of activities by a range of different people.”

The report identified a range of such spaces, from school gates to boot sales, to shopping malls and community centres, where people met to create spaces of engagement.

To this group I would very firmly add libraries. The tendency amongst policy makers over the past few years to insist that libraries become ‘community hubs’ misses a vital point: libraries are and have always been social hubs of their communities.

Over the years public libraries have offered an increasing range of services to reflect evolving societal and technological changes. Libraries now, quite rightly, offer 24 hours access to online services, support local and national government ‘digital by default’ agendas, provide e-books and e-magazines, online resources and academic journals, 3D printers and coding clubs, digital literacy and computers, and enable digital citizenship. But all of these services can be delivered outwith the library space, which has led some to conclude that libraries, as a concept, are outdated and anachronistic.

2015%20-%206But beyond the technology what the public really values is the library as a community space and social hub. Campaigners and volunteers understand this better sometimes than the profession itself. When looking at the range of activities and services on offer in community libraries there is nearly always a tendency to concentrate on the social value of the library as a physical space. The bringing together of people and activities that enable social cohesion and engagement such as reading groups, coffee mornings, knit & natter, film clubs, creative writing, and as a community meeting space.

The MLA report What do the public want from libraries showed something similar in that people who used public libraries valued the social contact they provided. Equally, the ACE report Envisioning the Library of the Future recognised public libraries as trusted spaces, free and open to all, and as “a safe, free, creative community space that is enjoyable and easy to use, both physically and virtually.”

For some this would indicate that community centres or hubs providing a combination of council services could fulfil the same function. This is true in some respects and libraries can be successfully relocated within shared space or co-located with complementary services. However, the opposite is also true and I would argue that there is something intrinsically unique about the library as a social space that is diluted when its core purpose is subsumed within an array of non-related services or facilities.

The public still value libraries and value them as a physical space. Those responsible for reshaping library networks within current financial constraints need to acknowledge that re-location, co-location or closure runs the risk of weakening existing social networks within libraries and undermining the very community resilience they seek to build.

Papering Over The Cracks

After a bit of light hearted satire I welcome the Taskforce’s aim to establish a communications sub-group to promote more positive news around libraries and what they do. Specifically:

“The role of the group is to co-ordinate communications activity across the sector with a view to shifting the narrative on public libraries from one that is primarily focused on cuts, to one that shows a more balanced view.”

In the current environment of grinding public sector cuts any news about the value of libraries is to be supported. Although whether or not that ‘shows a more balanced view’ is open to debate. While welcoming the initiative I would argue that the real balance is tempering good news with the reality of the cuts. The danger otherwise is to simply present stories out of context and promote the view that despite the funding crisis ‘all is well’ and ‘aren’t library staff a wonderful bunch for carrying on’.

Such a ‘rose tinted’ approach would do the public library sector a disservice as we know from bitter experience that Ed Vaizey is a master of using rose-tinted stories to justify his own inaction around library closures.

Libraries do indeed accomplish wonderful things and quite rightly celebrate them: the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, Summer Reading Challenge, Reading Ahead, and National Libraries Day, amongst many other programmes, not to mention all the wonderful regional and local initiatives. All of which are feted and promoted by the SCL, Cilip, ASCEL, Reading Agency, Arts Council, and libraries up and down the country.

The issue therefore becomes how will the establishment of a communications sub-group improve the message, or the understanding of the political paymasters, when years of the above bodies doing so hasn’t?

Even reports highlighting the societal, health, and economic benefits of libraries have so far failed to improve the narrative or protect funding for libraries. The information is out there but falling on ears deafened by the overwhelming roar of austerity and the pressure of providing adult social care.

David Lankes made a similar argument for the profession to take control of the narrative while at the same time recognising:

“… that budget cuts have been so deep, the political lack of understanding of public libraries so disconnected from the reality and, yes, the lack of leadership (structurally at least) so dysfunctional that to blame librarians for the failure to change into 3D community workshop engineering hi-tech wunderkinds is a bit much.  But that’s the challenge, my friends.  We need to convince the politicians that libraries are relevant to their goals and the public that libraries are places to be cherished (and not just with placards).  This may be very hard with some public-service hating anti-professional and deeply ideological politicians but there are other people out there and even the most dyed in the wool reactionary is not demonic.”

This is a legitimate argument and one the Taskforce is taking on board. But it’s not just about changing the narrative, such communication needs to underpin concrete action and improvement.

However, a positive narrative around libraries is going to be difficult to achieve when the reality is so grim. Even the BBC, which is represented on the Taskforce, have highlighted the extent of the cuts, including:

• 343 libraries closed, 207 of them buildings, 132 mobile and four “other”
• 232 transferred, 174 to community groups and 58 outsourced
• 111 proposed for closure over the next year

The media coverage is to be welcomed as an opportunity to celebrate what is important about libraries and counter the misleading data over closures. Certainly, the BBC’s research and analysis is to be more trusted that Ed Vaizey’s notorious use of desk research to compile misleading data, despite having the full resources of the DCMS at hand. The Guardian newspaper has stated that libraries are facing the greatest crisis in their history.

So it becomes a difficult chronicle to challenge while at the same time treading the fine line between government dogma re: localism and devolution, and the expectations of the profession and campaigners.

Highlighting good news stories and ‘golden moments’ while important is unlikely to produce an epiphany regarding the value of libraries within government circles.

Libraries do need positive stories, positive reinforcement about their value, and the Taskforce are right to take this on. The dichotomy however is that such stories during a period of deep cuts and widespread cynicism regarding government policy on libraries could lead to a disconnect from the reality of the crisis and the accusation of misplaced Pollyannaism.

Or to put it another way; it’s one thing to want to change the décor but it’s another to merely paper over the cracks.

The Whole Story..?

image_galleryLove them or loath them ‘community libraries’ are an uncomfortable fact of life. I have great respect for volunteers that complement library services and paid staff, and libraries have a long history of working with volunteers, contributing as they do time, energy and additional skills. But since 2010 ‘volunteer led’ libraries have become ubiquitous and many authorities have them in one form or another.

A recent post on the Libraries Taskforce blog: Meeting the teams in community run libraries discusses work towards the development of a good practice toolkit for such libraries.

What comes through from the post is that many of the groups prefer core support from the parent library service and being connected to the wider library network. Such support can include oversight from paid staff, buildings and maintenance costs being met, and provision of stock and IT. This version of the model centres on volunteers replacing paid staff, and the subsequent budget savings this brings, but with the running costs being met by the local authority. Volunteers also support the library by fund raising activities to a greater or lesser degree. How much this genuinely meets the overall costs will differ from library to library, even ones within relatively short distances of each other.

However, while the posts goes as far as recognising the contentious nature of the issue and states that no endorsement of the volunteer model is implied I do find it unbalanced in tone and the emphasis is very much on the strengths and successes of the volunteer model.

This would be acceptable if recognition was also given to the pitfalls inherent in the system as a counter-point. Certainly any informed advice from the Taskforce needs to balance the pro and cons in a realistic narrative, if only to avoid the accusation of bias towards the government’s localism agenda.

For instance, despite all the wonderful work being done at Manchester Central Library, volunteer libraries in the area are struggling, with visitor numbers and opening hours falling dramatically. The challenges are nothing new and in both 2013 & 2014 a frustrated volunteer library manager vented her concerns to Public Library News about the reality of running a community library.

The situation is no doubt complex. Some volunteer libraries are thriving, some surviving with support from the parent service, and others barely managing to stay open. What we lack is data. Data to know how many volunteer libraries there are, what their experience is, and how we measure their success through standardised metrics. Will they be judged on visitor numbers, loans, events, or merely keeping the doors open?

So in the interest of balance and telling the whole story the Taskforce should highlight not just why community libraries succeed but also why and how they fail.

 

 

 

 

Parish or Bust!

A new phrase is set to enter the lexicon of library reductions: ‘parishing!’. It’s something I’ve warned about in previous posts but has mainly happened at a low level and very much under the radar. However, some recent high profile examples are bringing the issue to the fore. Parishing is the natural outcome of the localism and devolution agendas and in simple terms is the process whereby local authorities pass responsibility for universal and discretionary services to parish and town councils.

This is a rather cynical political ploy. The rationale being that councils don’t want to raise taxes above the referendum threshold but parish councils can raise the local precept to pay for services. With many councils set to raise the council tax by almost 4% this represents a double whammy of tax hikes for local communities, with low income families particularly vulnerable.

According to the BBC ‘thousands of parish and town councils in England increased their share of the annual bill, raising £18.9m in extra funds.’ The analysis shows that 5,217 parish and town councils increased the bill, 3,659 increased the basic demand by above 1.99%, and 60 parish councils at least doubled their bills in 2015-16. This is set to continue in the 2016-17 financial year with some parish and town councils significantly raising the precept.

What the article makes clear is the reason for the rises is to take on services previously provided by the principal local authority such as libraries, youth provision, and community buildings.

This is the approach being proposed by Cornwall under a devolution agenda. The Council’s Cabinet Member for Localism, Jeremy Rowe states

“Across Cornwall, our most significant current devolution priority is in relation to libraries and one stop shops, but there are a number of other exciting devolution projects underway locally, relating to a wide range of services and assets including open spaces, recreational facilities and community buildings.”

However, it’s not just in Cornwall but across many counties and unitary authorities that devolution is the catalyst for forcing additional responsibility onto lower tier councils and increasing precepts.

The justification for parish and town councils taking on services, such as libraries, is that if local people want the service then local people should pay for it. Unfortunately, such an approach and attitude lends itself to increasing social inequality between those communities that can afford services and those that cannot. It also continues the decline and fragmentation of library services, which further exacerbates such inequality.

This is rather at odds with the aim of creating robust, sustainable communities and services. Instead it appears a desperate  race to the bottom to provide the least service for the least cost, with some communities in danger of losing out altogether.

Equally, how parish councils taking on libraries fits into the 1964 Act remains to be seen and perhaps challenged. What is almost a certainty under these proposals is more job losses for library staff, replacement by volunteers, and a fall in the quality of service provision.

So it seems that along with localism and devolution, ‘parishing’ is yet another disingenuous term for drastic cuts to important local services including libraries.