I’ve seen several times in the media recently a suggestion that the merging of library authorities in London would help save them from the cuts.  Here below are my thoughts on the matter, listed as ever as pros and cons. Let me know if you think of anything else that should be included or what you think.  Normal news reports are below.
Pro
  • Economies of scale. These would be considerable as an unified service would replace 29 separate management structures (there are currently 32 authorities: however 5 have already merged with eachother to some extent) with just one. Purchasing, distribution and transport of books would all be unified.  There could conceivably be one single library website, headquarters, chief librarian, etc.  An example of what can be achieved is Bexley and Bromley who hope to save £350,000 by merging staffing.  Advocates could argue that multiplying that for all of London means a possible saving of over £5m.
  • On top of this, Boris has suggests a united authority would become a Trust, allowing millions to be saved in tax.
  • The poor record of some London library authorities, e.g. Brent or Barnet, shows keeping things local is not always the best option for libraries.
  • A capital wide library service would instantly become a strong voice for libraries in London unlike the current picture.
  • Capital wide marketing and promotion of services.
  • A pro library mayor would be able to spread best practice examples (such as the often quoted Hillingdon) through all boroughs.
  • This would rationalise provision of branches.  Of course, this means, some branches could close but it would make it more likely that there would be a fair spread of libraries rather than the current postcode lottery.
  • One membership card needed for all branches.
  • Being able to order to and from all branches.
 Con 
  • Mayors don’t have the best of records with libraries.  See the example of Doncaster.  Such a mayor, or an indifferent one, could do great damage to libraries over the length of their term.
  • Loss of local specialist staff.  Economies of scale could lead to the loss of many staff with local knowledge.  While we’re at this game, it is worth bearing in mind that economies of scale often means job losses.  Bromley and Bexley aim to lose 70 jobs in their merger.  Multiply that by fifteen for all of London means over a thousand jobs could go.  That’s a lot of unemployment.
  • Localism.  This highly influential (amongst all major parties) doctrine means a hands-off approach to local authorities in the belief that those in local areas know best how to serve their communities.  Making things thirty times more remote by central diktat goes directly against this.
  • Trusts come with their own problems.
  • Some libraries could close in any rationalisation of services.  This would go against the whole reason for unifying libraries in the first place.
  • Loss of local identity.  This may or may not happen depending on the policies of the Greater London Library Authority.
  • The London Libraries Consortium already exists, with 15 out of 32 London boroughs sharing procurement (e.g. book purchasing) costs and best practice.
  • Rebranding all libraries costs money.  New logos and signs cost thousands.
  • Library authority computer systems often cannot talk to eachother meaning the unification could be theoretical rather than practical.  Different types of self-service machine is the most recent example of this.
  • It’s going to really annoy Kensington & Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham and Westminster who have recently combined their library services into a “Tri-borough” system.  Presumably they’d have to start all over again.
  • Similarly, some library authorities are, or will be soon, opted out of direct council control, with presumably expensive contracts to sign out of – e.g. Hounslow.  Soon, Greenwich, Croydon and Wandsworth will also be opted out.

Additions (16/4/12) to Cons

  • Unifying all councils in London would require a change to the law and thus would take a reasonable amount of time to enact.
  • In addition to the London Libraries Consortium, there is the Civica-run SELMS library management system. 
  • London Library Change programme has increased co-operation and efficiency.
  • Lack of clear public support or demand for the change.

News

  • Awards for libraries that improve economic wellbeing - NAPLE (EU).  EIFL (Electronic Information for Libraries) has launched its first Public Library Innovation Programme (EIFL-PLIP) Innovation Award call – for libraries offering services that use information and communication technology (ICT) to improve economic wellbeing of the community.”.  $1500 prize plus publicity.
  • Guest post #6: Social media is becoming vital to real-world relationships - Envisioning the Library of the future Arts Council England (Mandeep Hothi).  Public libraries need to embrace facebook, twitter and the rest of the web. See also Social Media RevolutionCILIP executive briefing event.
  • Information that we want to be free - Guardian.  Letters on the need for free access to academic journals.  One letter points out “This situation will not improve due to funding cuts to public libraries. So much for the widening of the UK research base and making use of skills and knowledge built up over many years.”
  • Librarians role vital, says former National Head - Education Review (Australia).  “Books last for 300 years but the obsolescence of some digital devices reinforces the need for experts to manage various storage techniques.” Interesting article.  “the role of the librarian is still relevant in the 21st century. “They’re mediators, they help people, they point out directions. Librarians are still critically important, and while the physical space might be less so, there’s always a need for someone to show the way, to tell people, to let them think in different ways.”
    Given the new enthusiasm for shared resources it is difficult to understand why so many local authorities have failed to take a fairly simple step to make this possible. Those using RFID technology to provide self-service will find it increasingly difficult to find ways to deliver the ‘joined up’ service envisioned in this article as a result of their failure to mimic their European colleagues by adopting a common standard for identifying stock. The result is that while countries like Denmark already have the facility to lend and borrow across authority boundaries their UK counterparts cannot do the same if they have purchased their solutions from different suppliers.” RFID consultant Mick Fortune comments on Guardian article

  • Outsourcing: public and private sectors still have much to learn - Guardian.  Only a minority of outsourced services are measured to see if they have been of net benefit.  “just as much as any perceived skills gap, ineffectual management of outsourcing could also be due to over-prescriptive contracts that are no longer fit for purpose.”  Comments below article suggest that giving money to shareholders is not the most efficient use of taxpayer money.
  • Vaizey: Avoiding icebergs is not the captain’s job - Campaign for the Book (Alan Gibbons).   “They are unable to superintend the service. They are unable to use their powers under the 1964 Act to protect a comprehensive and efficient service. They are unable to intervene until the ‘process of change’ has run its course. They are unable to come to a judgement how many libraries there should be in a certain area. They are unable to come to a decision over the rights and wrongs of the Surrey case. That is the court’s job. This is essentially what Vaizey told Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson, John Holland, Gary Green and I at our meeting on February 1st. If you think I am being unfair to the Minister read the interview published below. Read Mr Vaizey’s unedited words and come to your own conclusion. In my opinion it is evasion, prevarication and abdication. Time and again, in Brent, Somerset, Gloucestershire and now Surrey campaigners have had to try to seek justice through the courts because the Minister refuses to play the role assigned to him in law.”
  • Why librarians don’t matter - The Busy Librarian (USA).   Infographic claims Wikipedia wipes the floor with libraries.  “According to this infographic, you don’t matter. You are replaceable. You are overpriced.You are irrelevant in a world embracing Wikipedia. You are obsolete.”.  Comments below argument refute the view of the image.

Changes

  • Barnet - Due to several reported worries over the proposed library at the ArtsDepot, I am not counting this as a replacement library as yet.  Tally of threatened libraries therefore goes up by one.
  • North Lanarkshire - Opening hours were increased in 2010.  However, book borrowing  “has more than halved in the last two years from 91,342 to 45,582″
  • Northamptonshire - 34 libraries will open from 1pm to 4pm every Sunday and the Central Library in Northampton open from 11am to 4pm.  Cuts in hours elsewhere in week to compensate, although overall number of hours increases by eight.

Local News

  • Barnet – “Library strategy tearing the heart our of our communities” - Barnet Today.  A Barnet librarian has criticised the council’s library strategy, arguing that it is “taking the heart” out of communities and damaging services by putting pressure on already stretched staff.  The librarian, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Press that residents and library staff felt betrayed by the decision to close Friern Barnet Library, and to cut 16 full-time staff throughout the borough over the next three years.”
“The employee said the council had misled residents over its controversial library strategy, which was agreed by cabinet last year and pledged to merge North Finchley and Friern Barnet and refurbish others.  The common understanding of a merger is to have two libraries and you put them as one,” said the librarian. “But they have got nothing ready; artsdepot is absolutely not a good replacement.”

  • Brent – All Souls College regrets Brent Council’s decision to hand back Kensal Rise and Cricklewood Libraries - Brent & Kilburn Times.   ““However, as we are a charity our main focus now has to be on what will benefit All Souls College and we will be undertaking discussions in the future to determine the best route to take for the future.” The spokesman also confirmed that should library campaigners want to occupy the buildings they would have to either pay commercial rents or lease the building, subsequently taking on repair and maintenance rates.”.  Campaigner says of council that “They strung us along for months during the court case by saying they would discuss plans after the conclusion and then just threw it out.”.

“What is happening is nothing short of perverse”, says Margaret Bailey, a director and trustee of the Friends of Kensal Rise Library. “It is extraordinary that it is Brent, and not All Souls, that has been the driving force in asserting that the reverter has been triggered.” “The Friends are well aware of the reverter issue and so have sought, since Brent first announced plans to close the library, to preserve the building for the benefit of the community by offering to take on the running of the service ourselves. Rather than supporting us, Brent has consistently undermined our efforts, contrary to its most fundamental duty to the residents of this community. Today’s announcement is just the latest act of sabotage by a Council apparently intent on depriving its residents of a cherished landmark and community resource.” … “The Friends also dispute whether the reverter has, in fact, been triggered, given the continuous operation of a pop-up library service [pictured above] on the property ever since the library’s closure by Brent in October, and the existence of a viable proposal for long-term library operations on the site. They intend to seek legal advice.” Friends of Kensal Rise press release

    • Campaigners urge council to shelve library plans - Harrow Observer.   “The Keep Willesden Green group has asked Brent Council to stop the process which will see Willesden Green Library Centre demolished and rebuilt into a library and cultural hub.” … “The group has pleaded with the authority to Stop, Listen and Reflect because it claims it has not properly listened to local people, thousands of whom are against the loss of the treasured building, part of which dates back to 1894.”  Only 15 out of 220 people consulted were in favour of the plans.
  • Croydon – “Don’t close Upper Norwood Library, I really like it” pleads Errol, five and three quarters - This is Croydon Today.  Errol writes letter to council “He urged them not to close the Westow Hill facility because he liked it – even drawing a picture of himself running into the library with a big smile. And his efforts led to around 30 of his classmates at Rockmount Primary School, in Chevening Road, Upper Norwood, penning letters as well.”
  • Liverpool – Library protest letters - Alan Gibbons.  Joint letter from trade unions against three closures.  Another letter also makes interesting reading: “Residents of Speke, Childwall and Walton now have no access to a library at the weekend at all. Worse, people in most areas, including Old Swan, Toxteth, Dovecot and Breck Road, find their libraries open only four days a week. And Woolton, Edge Hill and Gt Homer Street now have no libraries at all! Libraries are a sign of a civil society, where people of all ages can meet, talk, read and discover. The pathetic sight of a locked and boarded up library, on a weekday, Saturday or Sunday in any Liverpool district, shames our council and impoverishes our communities.”
  • North Lanarkshire – Council bosses: Wishaw and Craigneuk libraries won’t close - Wishaw Press.   “… the total number of books withdrawn from all libraries across North Lanarkshire has more than halved in the last two years from 91,342 to 45,582″ … “The reduction in numbers of people borrowing books is a national trend and, while it’s disappointing, it’s important to remember that people are still using libraries and in large numbers, it’s just that they are using them in different ways; for example, film rentals, sessions for younger readers and dedicated areas for teenagers within our libraries. In addition, we have a huge online resource facility for people to use.”
  • Northamptonshire – Northants Libraries to open on Sundays - About My Area.   “The new opening hours will see 34 Northamptonshire County Council libraries open from 1pm to 4pm every Sunday and the Central Library in Northampton open from 11am to 4pm.” … “To allow Sunday opening, there will be a change in opening hours on other days, including some closures on a Monday or Tuesday. The new opening hours will begin from 16th April” … “I’m pleased to say we’ve actually increased total library opening hours by nine more every week.” … “A consultation about the changing opening hours was held earlier this year.  66.5% of people consulted said they could use the service on a Sunday.”