Tag Archives: William Sieghart

Libraries Without Boundaries

My england-regionsnew post Libraries Without Boundaries can be found on the Libraries Taskforce blog. In it I argue for:

  • Adoption of a set principles to underpin and clarify the 1964 Act
  • Creation of regional library consortia or organisations
  • Direct central government funding for libraries
  • Creation of an independent advisory body
  • Adoption of library standards

Bridging the Gap

I enjoyed attending the Speak Up for Libraries conference this year; meeting and talking to very passionate campaigners and library users about the importance of libraries. Nick Poole, Cilip CEO, started the conference off with a excellent welcome speech extolling the virtues and values of libraries, including welcoming David Cameron to the ranks of library campaigners after his intervention in Oxfordshire, to much laughter! More detailed notes of the conference can be found on Public Library News and the transcript of Nick’s speech on the Cilip website.

For many the main draw this year was the opportunity to listen to and question Paul Blantern and Kathy Settle of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. This was never going to be an easy ride for them and while not necessarily agreeing with all their views they mostly retained grace under fire from very understandably frustrated campaigners, with only the occasional flare up!

Paul Blantern had a prior engagement so arrived in the afternoon but credit to Kathy Settle who was around all day and took the opportunity to talk to many attendees.

Both Paul and Kathy made no disguise of the fact that the Taskforce is both limited in scope and influence and that they are a task and finish group. Given the time limited nature of such groups the emphasis of the Taskforce appears to be identifying trends in a national context, researching and sharing good practice (although that beggars the question who decides what good practice is?), and exploring potential alternative sources of funding that libraries can tap into. The other role of the group that Paul and Kathy were keen to reinforce was as a strong advocating voice to ministers and other national decision makers.

This is all very laudable but for some campaigners does not go far enough. The difficulty is one of expectation, with the Taskforce being perceived as having more influence and authority than it actually does. The most misleading misnomer is the use of the term ‘Leadership’ when in fact, at best, it’s more of a facilitating body. Able to talk to a wide variety of individuals, organisations and ministerial departments at both national and local level but without the ability to enforce adherence.

Given the limitations in both scope and power it is easy to argue that a genuine strategic leadership body is still very much lacking within public libraries nationally.

But then again this should not come as any surprise. William Sieghart’s report, despite claims to the contrary, was not actually that independent, as it’s difficult to reconcile the outcomes of the report with the feedback given by many individual campaigners and library bodies such as Cilip, ASCEL and the SCL.

Given the delay in publication and the amount of time sat in Ed Vaizey’s office many campaigners have long suspected  a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down recommendations that did not chime with government policy.

What we finally got was a report that recognised the challenges libraries faced but with solutions that were politically palatable to the current government. For example many submissions raised the issues of national library standards and the merging of library authorities. In its submission Cilip remarked:

“The focus on localism has been a barrier to the development of national standards that would support local delivery and identifying major economies of scale. The public library is a national brand and some elements of it can be delivered more effectively on a national scale.”

And:

“In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient.”

And yet both issues were noticeably absent in the report. Sieghart would have been well aware of these but either decided they would not be acceptable and dropped them as a matter of pragmatism or as a result of ministerial intervention.

Whether this was a pragmatic approach or political interference depends I suspect on your political outlook.

A similar conversation took place at the SUFL conference with the view from the Taskforce that neither issue would be acceptable to the LGA or ministers and incompatible with the trend towards greater localism and regional devolution.

Looking at the report Sieghart’s three main recommendations were:

  • The provision of a national digital resource for libraries, to be delivered in partnership with local authorities
  • The setting up of a task and finish force, led by local government, in partnership with other bodies involved in the library sector
  • The task force, to work with local authorities, to help them improve, revitalise and if necessary, change their local library service, while encouraging, appropriate to each library, increased community involvement

Right from the outset the Taskforce was always meant to be subservient to the views of government and particularly the LGA . So, far from being ‘independent’, the report actually outlined a framework for the continuation of government policy.

This is again made clear in the recommendations concerning the oversight of the Taskforce, which he recommended:

“…will jointly report to Ministers and the Local Government Association. This partnership will foster and promote a new and dynamic way of working for libraries.”

Thus, the Taskforce was never intended to be an independent voice for libraries but rather a vehicle by which ministers and the LGA could drive forward their own vision for libraries. The composition of the Taskforce reflects established interests with calls to include campaigners and unions falling on deaf ears, leaving the only potential dissenting voice on the group being Cilip. 

Is it any wonder that many campaigners are suspicious of the Taskforce’s motives and view it as little more than a smokescreen for enabling government policy regardless?

However, it would be wrong to disregard the Taskforce altogether. Paul Blantern made the point that without their intervention libraries would have one less tank in the armoury. They are able to make representation to government and the LGA that individuals cannot. Equally, both Paul and Kathy indicated that they were happy to talk to individual councils and advise on the pros and cons of the different options available such as the viability and sustainability of volunteer libraries.

Another interesting point raised was the how the Taskforce operates behind the scenes. Paul mentioned a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith regarding the vital role libraries play in developing digital skills for Universal Credit. He indicated that the Taskforce could encourage funding for libraries that deliver services which benefit the DWP.

This would certainly find favour with many services who struggle to cope with the rising demand from job seekers. However, the success of such an approach can only be judged by how quickly such funding becomes available, if at all.

This leaves campaigners in somewhat of a conundrum. They can ignore the Taskforce and continue with outright opposition to government policy in the hope that a eventual change in administration will result in a better deal for libraries. Or they can accept the limitations of the Taskforce, that it will never be the leadership body they would like, but work together where interests coincide.

Whatever happens bridges need to be built on both sides whilst recognising that there are major differences in ideology and attitudes. Perhaps one small start would be for campaigners not to attack Paul Blantern, in his role as Chair of the Taskforce, over changes made in Northamptonshire . It’s hard for a CEO not to be defensive about his own authority. In return, perhaps Paul could refrain from holding his own library service up as an exemplar in recognition that many campaigners disagree with the changes he has made.

There are at least three more years of austerity and five years of the current government left. Campaigners, the Taskforce, and all interested bodies and organisation must try to work together, where circumstances and interests coincide, to ensure that even if library services don’t thrive they do at least survive.

What shape those library services will take over the next few years I’ll leave for another post.

 

 

 

Much ado about nothing…the Sieghart report

Well it’s finally here, the Independent Library Report for England, and as expected it caused frenetic activity and reaction on social media. Despite being published on the same day as the local government settlement for 2015-16 and the day before Parliament broke up for recess, the report still managed to garnish plenty of media coverage. I listened to Sieghart and Mark Taylor (Cilip) being interviewed on Radio 4 on my drive into work.

Other coverage included the BBC’s ‘libraries must emulate coffee shops’, an editorial in the Independent Romantic fiction: A review of libraries that fails to address the real problem, which the Bookseller thought was wrong and rejoined with Sieghart: on the money. Cilip regarded the report as offering a ‘convincing road map‘ albeit with some reservations. The Library Campaign also welcomed the report although considered it ‘pallid’ in places (the comment by Shirley Burnham and reply from Laura Swaffield are also worth noting).

Lauren Smith makes some telling observations on her blog and no doubt the report will continue to be digested and debated on social media for weeks and months to come. So a very mixed bag and wide spectrum of opinions with more to follow.

The report contained some important positives particularly around improved IT e.g. universal Wifi, supporting digital literacy, e-lending, and improving standards of service and the physical estate. All very sensible but equally quite costly, and there’s the rub; there was no mention of where the finance to accomplish this was to come from.

Another sensible, at least at face value, suggestion was the creation of a national task force to lead on the recommendations of the report. While sound in principle the execution however leaves much to be desired with the task force consisting of the same organisations and bodies that have so far failed to provide the strategic leadership needed in the sector. Unfortunately, it’s a case of the usual suspects with the man tasked (excuse the pun) with leading the group, Paul Blantern, having very definite and preconceived notions on how libraries should operate.

There is much more within the report to analyse and it is perhaps more nuanced that it first appears. It is a topic I will be returning to time and again especially as the outcomes of the report become more apparent. That said I have to admit that my initial response is one of disappointment. This was perhaps the best opportunity for a long time to create a serious and realistic narrative around libraries. Unfortunately, it appears to be more of a superficial short story than a deep, meaningful novel, defined more by what it didn’t say than what it did.

Pushing the boundaries

There was an interesting news story regarding the Met Police Commissioner’s comments that forces in England and Wales should merge and share resources with other police authorities or emergency services as a way of saving money and operating more effectively in the face of stringent cuts (Scotland has already adopted the approach and have a single merged service).

Now this is not just a salient reminder that even police forces are under pressure from the austerity measures but raises the issue once again of how public services should respond effectively to ever decreasing funding.

There is a lesson for library services here. In the rush to cut costs by reducing staff, service points, hours, stock funds, and introducing volunteers the one idea that has failed to gain ground with politicians is the idea of regional, rather than county/unitary, library services. However, there are many advantages to doing so including the sharing of expertise, back office functions, and merging staffing structures to achieve economies of scale.

I made a similar point in my own submission to Sieghart stating that we should seek to reduce the number of library authorities and merge services across local authority boundaries, either building on existing regional structures or creating new ones. This is nothing new and many within the profession including Cilip have made similar suggestions.

I have also argued for this approach in a previous post but unfortunately the idea continues to receive indifference at best and outright opposition at worse. Which highlights once again how local political expediency triumphs over innovation for delivering services.

I admit to finding it perplexing that more is not done in terms of merging libraries in different authorities that are geographically close, or larger library authorities delivering services for smaller ones such as Essex and Slough. Unfortunately, sharing library services is still the exception rather than the norm.

What’s not in doubt though is the spending commitments of the three mainstream political parties. The desire to protect funding for the NHS and education, as well as the rising cost of adult social care, will leave the rest of us scrabbling around for a smaller share of an ever decreasing budget.

The sharing of services across boundaries and different political affiliations might currently be unpalatable for many councils but in the not too distant future it may well become a financial necessity .

Dysfunctional and devalued

I’ve been quiet on the blogging front lately during which time there seems to have been a never ending stream of negative news about public library provision, either threatened closures or handing over to volunteers. Even in Wales, where in the main they have sought to protect library services, there is definitely a sea change driven by the continuing austerity measures and major reductions in funding. This was further reinforced by the details of the Autumn statement and the massive cuts to public spending that are being forecast. Given such projections it’s difficult not to be despondent about the future of public libraries at the moment.

This brings me to Sieghart, who appears to have finished his report and it is now with Ed Vaizey, no doubt glaring accusingly from a ministerial in-tray. If early indications are anything to go by it will make uncomfortable reading for the Minister as it seems to be the antithesis of his own approach and at odds with the expectations of localism and the big society. I suspect there will be a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down those areas which make the current coalition’s approach to libraries look as bad as they genuinely are.

It also comes as no surprise that Sieghart has described the current system as dysfunctional. Many campaigners and those within the profession have been pointing out the same for a long time now. But it’s good that Sieghart appears to be so forthright and honest over the situation. It appears that the notion of standards, a national coordinating body, views about volunteers, and if earlier indications are anything to go by, libraries as trusts might also form part of the document. There’s a good piece about the awaited report by Guy Daines on the Cilip website.

Ian Anstice recently reported back from Spain, where there appears to be a general acceptance that libraries are more than just buildings and stock. There is apparently a third ingredient that makes libraries a ‘service’ rather than just a ‘function’. Yes, you’ve guessed it…the librarian! It is the professional element that allows us to manage and develop services, deliver on the universal offers, and contribute to the many local, regional, and national initiatives. This is in direct contrast to the view that any Tom, Dick or Harriet can run a library.

No wonder professional staff abroad are appalled at the changes and damage being done not just to individual services but to the profession as a whole in the UK.

Perhaps even more than closures the real damage is through the hollowing out effect while trumpeting that no libraries have been closed. This is one of the biggest divergences between the library profession and politicians. On one hand the profession points out quite rightly that libraries are more than just buildings and stock, that service quality and development also counts, and for that you need professionally qualified librarians. On the other is the politicians view that any unqualified, well meaning amateur…well, see above.

Equally, library services are increasingly being used as a shop front for council services, which is indicative of the narrow view of libraries as just buildings and thus an outlet for other services, rather than as a unique and valuable service within their own right. I am not against partnership working or authentic collaborations but restructuring and integration at this level are ‘cuts’ driven and have very little to do with improving operational efficiency or the strategic development of libraries.

Unfortunately, there appears to be another insidious thread worming its way into public libraries, which is the downgrading and disappearance of senior library roles. In my experience it seems that the role of Chief Librarian/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.

Another worrying aspect is the deletion of HoS posts, with the resulting loss of substantial professional experience and knowledge, and the replacement (usually at a higher grade) by generic managers with little or no familiarity of the sector.

I am still idealistic enough (perhaps naively so!) to believe that it is the professional component that makes libraries a genuine service rather than merely a function. Whether this is a view shared by the Sieghart report we shall have to wait and see.

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?

_____________________________________________

[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.

Cilip AGM 2014

Today is something of an anniversary for me. It was the debate over the renaming proposal last year that reignited my interest in Cilip and attendance at the general meeting, which led directly to me starting this blog, with the first post being a report back on the AGM 2013.

Since then I have widened the posts to include issues around library closures, service reductions, campaigns, and advocacy, as it is libraries in the political arena that mainly interests me. Most of all I have tried to bring a librarian’s view to the debate as I firmly believe that professionally qualified librarians are fundamental to the very nature of a library service and integral to the best possible service delivery. Quite simply, a library without a librarian is not actually a library.

Now obviously there are practical caveats is to this statement such as smaller libraries would be overseen and have consistent access to a community librarian (or similar) rather than one being based in each library but overall the general principle stands.

Sieghart: Anyway, back to the Cilip Big Day and AGM. The keynote speaker was William Sieghart who was obviously very supportive and sympathetic to public libraries. The main thrust of his speech was that libraries need a change of narrative to highlight how valuable they are. As well as updating the infrastructure and governance models, with Suffolk libraries being held up as what could be achieved when libraries are released from the bureaucratic constraints of local authority control. Overall, the talk was high on aspiration but low on substance. Anyone attending expecting a detailed analysis will have been disappointed so will have to wait for publication of the report for the specifics.

Governance: Although less controversial than the name change last year there had still been quite a furore caused over the proposed changes to the governance model, which on the day needed a two thirds majority to pass. Given the barbed comments at times on emails lists and social media the debate on the day was good natured, with the result being the adoption of the new model of governance but keeping a fully elected Board.

Credit to Cilip for allowing the proposals to be voted on separately as most members agreed that a new model was needed but many were not convinced about the proposed changes to Council.

Fees: I was in a minority regarding the subscription fees and the increase was passed. I think a debate over fees was lost amongst the changes to the governance model but I am hoping this will be the last rise for a while otherwise I see another argument brewing for the future.

Engagement: What continues to perplex me is the continuing low turn-out and voting on issues by the membership. I’ve said before that £200 is a lot of money to pay to then more or less ignore the workings of the professional body. Even where members are unable to attend AGM’s the proxy voting system is quite straight forward (although I look forward to the day when as an information profession we manage to do this online) so I find such indifference puzzling.

Fellowship: Another highlight was the awarding of the Honorary Fellowships of which there were six worthy recipients including John Vincent for his work around social justice and equality, and Janene Cox for championing the development of the Universal Offers.

However, this is not a blow by blow account of what happened on the day – full details can be found here – but rather my impressions. A highlight for me was Philip Wark’s comments during the Library Change Lives awards defending the professional integrity of library services over them being handed to volunteers. Philip is head of the award winning Midlothian library service and a honorary fellowship recipient.

On a personal note it was good to catch-up with colleagues from other services or that I had worked with in the past. Equally, it was good to talk to Council members such as John Dolan and Martyn Wade. It’s easy to forget in the cut and thrust of disagreement that Council is made up of genuinely decent individuals, giving their own time and doing what they think is best for Cilip. It’s OK to disagree but let’s remember do it professionally.

So one year on and while many things have changed the battle for public libraries continue. With the Sieghart review due for publication and a general election on the horizon we are certainly living in interesting times professionally, and I wonder what my reflections will be in a year’s time?

The insidious phrase!

One size does not fit all

Along with ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA), one other phrases that has gained in popularity when discussing changes to libraries is that one size does not fit all, usually followed by a reduction in the level of service! In the debate over library provision it has become one of the main declarations by both politicians and councillors to justify libraries leaving local authority control.

The phrase was used recently by William Sieghart when commenting on his report into the future of libraries. Whether the comments indicate a pragmatic approach towards libraries or one of political expediency – that is, taking us down the path the DCMS and ACE wish us to follow anyway – remains to be seen. Sieghart is still consulting so perhaps the final report will deliver more than his comments indicate.

As a profession, librarians have known for a long time that one size does not fit all, and in practice there has always been different levels of service and provision depending on library size, usage, and locality. What was common however was the effort to uphold standards and ensure all communities received a basic level of service regardless of location. In this sense one size did fit all. It was a concerted effort to provide and uphold the quality of service, particularly around the now defunct national standards

Unfortunately, the phrase has come to mean something more insidious: as an excuse to undermine professionally run and managed services and to justify off-loading libraries to community groups. It seems rather ironic that despite being told one size does not fit all there appears a fairly standard, uniform response by local authorities, which is to hand over libraries to volunteers. In classic doublethink terms community groups are apparently the one size that fits all!

Rather than involving the community to genuinely tailor and improve services – which is easily done through focus groups, friends groups, and volunteers in added value roles for instance – the phrase is now used to cloak cuts and pressure communities into taking on libraries regardless of local opinion or capacity. This was highlighted tellingly in a comment by Liz Waterland Chairwoman of The Friends of Deeping Library in April this year:

‘May I correct an impression that readers may have gained, following your news item about Nick Worth’s opinions on library closures. The word ‘volunteers’ is only correct in so far as we are unpaid and are preparing to run a Community Library should we have to. We haven’t volunteered to run a library; we are being forced to do so because Lincolnshire County Council have threatened us with the closure of our popular and well used facility if we don’t. We will do our very best to step in if we have to but we would much rather that our library stayed open as the professionally run, properly staffed and funded community asset that it is at present. Neither alternative, of closure or community take over, is of our choice; we are being forced into this position because we are not willing to see the end of our library in The Deepings. The Friends of Deeping Library have been told we must ‘do it or die’ – the choice between them is NOT voluntary!’

Localism

The idea that one size does not fit all has in part been driven by the principle of localism. The rationale being that councils and communities have a greater say in how funding is allocated and spent locally. However, as the comment above highlights local opinion is often over-ridden in the drive to deliver savings.

While many aspects of localism are praiseworthy, in practice it has been used to justify deep cuts to relatively small areas of council spending. A point noted by the chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association recently:

‘The cuts are falling disproportionately on leisure, libraries, culture, art, transport…and environmental health. The smaller services…Some of those smaller services will no longer be viable. You cannot continuously improve a service that you’ve cut by 40%. It’s just a logical fallacy. We need to think very carefully about the future of some of these smaller services.’

Such cuts are set to continue and the LGA warned yet again that:

‘In spite of cuts, local authorities will continue to try and protect spending on adult social care next year as much as possible, which could be at the expense of popular services like buses, libraries and leisure centres.’

So given that large parts of council budgets include social services or protected priority areas the actual pot that local communities can influence is relatively small.

Professionalism

The attitude underlying the phrase, and indeed the localism agenda itself, appears to be a rejection of professionalism in the mistaken belief that it is more important for services to be community rather than expertly run. This certainly seems to be the case for libraries (many would also argue that the same view applies to free schools).

One point in favour is that it allegedly gives local communities more influence in local service delivery. But having a say in library services and running them are completely different. The first is a genuine impulse to involve and thus improve services, the second to cut costs and operate with unpaid labour, with the lessening of expertise and quality this entails.

Despite the spin about engaging communities and given them a greater say ultimately it is about savings and as such it is disingenuous to claim that services can be improved in the face of severe budget cuts and reduced professional input.

Equality

The one size does not fit all approach also undermines the progressive impulse of libraries towards alleviating inequality in terms of learning, health, social wellbeing, and digital inclusion, amongst others. The continuing drive towards community managed libraries risks the creation of a two-tier service that exacerbates rather than alleviates inequality.

There is also a misguided belief that communities possess either individuals or groups with the capacity and resilience to deliver local services. Recently, a group of volunteers in Lincolnshire resigned en masse in response to the increasing and unrealistic demands made upon them by the local council.

Unfortunately, the slogan has now become a superficial excuse to impose inferior levels of provision on communities. It is an approach that also favours higher level socio-economic groups and disadvantages socially deprived areas.

Localism vs regionalism?

Localism is also counterproductive to wider approaches such as the universal offers, the desire to reintroduce national standards, and a more strategic approach to libraries that we see in Northern Ireland and Wales. Greater interoperability between local authorities was one of the main points made by both campaigners and organisations in submissions to Seighart. For instance, Cilip argued that:

In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient…there are lessons that could be learnt from the rest of the UK.

In Northern Ireland, five former Education and Library Boards have become one new authority, the Northern Ireland Library Authority (NILA) operating outside Government. The economies of scale achieved have helped NILA deal more effectively with the reductions in funding it has faced recently.

In Wales there are now also serious proposals to reduce the current twenty two local authorities by about half to improve the cost efficiency of service delivery.”

From his comments Sieghart seems to have rejected this proposition. While I think it is unlikely that the national approach we see in Northern Ireland would genuinely work in England there is no reason why reducing the number of library authorities and operating on a regional basis would not be effective.

Certainly, greater regional autonomy and power was the basis of Lord Heseltine’s No stone unturned: in pursuit of growth report, and a similar approach advocated recently by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. However, it is difficult to envisage how such a regional approach could work without first removing responsibility from individual local authorities and amending the 1964 Act.

Words matter

Terminology matters. In the battle of ideology over library services, words and phrases dictate the underlying philosophy and attitudes towards current and future provision. The over-use of trite phrases such as one size does not fit all risks rendering quite complex arguments into meaningless sound-bites and souring genuine dialogue between councils and campaigners over very real budgetary constraints and challenges.

Sometimes one size does indeed not fit all but equally when it comes to quality and standards, sometimes it can. In contrast, localism is creating only fragmentation, inequality, and a hodge-podge of inferior library provision.