It is becoming more and more obvious that public libraries are being asked to prove, in cold and harsh terms, that they provide sufficient return for councils.  If they cannot prove this simple fact, they’re being closed and will continue to be closed in large numbers. Merely being libraries, serving what is widely seen as shrinking numbers of users and providing services that libraries think that they should (local history meetings, homework clubs) is not, it appears, going to be enough in the terrifying new world where it is envisaged that education and social welfare will soon take up all of the council’s ruthlessly cut budgets.  “Mission creep” of libraries into other areas – where libraries become jacks of all trades but, sadly, masters of none – is ruthlessly attacked by a Labour Lambeth councillor, Sally Prentice, who attended an Arts Council seminar on the future of libraries.  Rather, she says, libraries need to re-focus on their core purpose of:

“enabling people to access, explore and enjoy reading and knowledge in the digital age”

… and they’d better be able to prove it on statistical grounds to the accountants.

  After all, doing what seems like a good idea at the time is not going to be enough when councils face a shortfall in their budget of two-fifths and the Government is insistent on no increase in tax.  This all reminds me of the adage that “if you can’t count it, it’s a hobby” and it may be no coincidence that a new book has just come out that addresses the issue.

In some ways, this mission statement is back to the future.  Victorians would have had little problem with it.  In others ways, it’s very barbaric, philistine and harsh.  However, libraries appear to be living in a barbaric, philistine and harsh world so, it is clear, they can either bemoan their lot and die or become a bit more bottom-line themselves.  A bitter pill to swallow but, critics (and many supporters) of libraries would point out that there’s no point arguing against reality. Don’t mistake the messenger for the bad news perhaps … and, if the good councillor is to be believed, Arts Council England are about to come up with views that will be very bad news for the softer and gentler side of public libraries, where Arts graduates are in preponderance.  Which is kind of ironic, being they’re the Arts Council and are investing £6 million in Arts and libraries, precisely the kind of thing that the Councillor appears to be attacking in her post.

One of the responses to the bad news of cuts has been very noticeable over the last week.  This has been the push by notable campaigners led by Desmond Clarke for a reduction in the number of library authorities.  Desmond points out that the last local government reorganisation led to a multiplication of such authorities, with following inefficiencies and extra management and back-room costs.  Some library authorities only have four branches. It’s also not just campaigners saying this.  Another prominent campaigner, Geof Dron of Bolton, points out that the LGA have been pointing out the benefits of shared services for a while. This seems to makes sense – for instance, the tri-borough merger has claimed savings of one million pounds.  If many more authorities did the same then the country would save a lot of money and a lot of libraries. As Geof goes on to say:

“there’s a crisis.  Let’s not waste it.”

Even some very senior librarians such as Martin Molloy of Derbyshire [which controls a reassuringly large 45 libraries and 11 mobiles] have been prevailed to write in support of this view, pointing out that:

“I agree that the direct savings from closing community libraries are often small and that the DCMS, ACE, the SCL and local government should be looking at opportunities for structural and organisational change which deliver significant savings while protecting front line services. It can be difficult to justify retaining separate services with their own infrastructure to manage say 5, 10 or even 20 libraries. We must be willing to consider mergers, the sharing of services and the promotion of national standards for e-business.  We also have a duty to ensure that all our transactions and processes do actually add value to the service our users experience.  ACE and the SCL can help to take the lead.”

However, sadly, that old enemy Reality may come into play.  Councils, and councillors, hate giving up power, most especially when they’re of different political parties.  This would not matter if the Government felt the need for a new bout of local government reorganisation but it’s just not going to do it.  Localism is the mantra of both main political parties and is likely to stay that way for some years yet.  In addition, of course, some of the small authorities, for example Halton, seem to be doing quite a good job. In addition, the fragmentation has led to different computer systems, RFID and other individualities to multiply that means that mergers, far from saving money, could be very expensive indeed in the short-term.  It will also, of course, be very bad news for back-room staff and a lot of managers but, it appears, this is just plain tough.

The bottom line is that, when it comes down to it, if it’s a choice between closures or staff, it’s the service that needs protecting, not the service providers.  If this means that a lot of library staff can be done away with, with little notable reduction in impact on the front-line then, the argument goes, so be it.  This is also the underlying reason for the self-service machines that many users, and some staff, dislike.  It may not be touchy-feely, but such technology means that libraries stay open, even if the staff are thinner on the ground. After all, an open library of any type is better than a closed one.  Library workers have to prove that they earn the money or they’re out on their backsides, with volunteers and accountants filling the gap.  The fact that librarians have demonstrably not been good at doing this in the past does not mean that they should not doing it now.  Rather, it means they have to work harder to do it now.  This is not fair, librarians have been working hard for years, but it has nothing to do with being fair.  Rather it has everything to do with the current horrible reality.

News

  • An Amazing New Library By David Adjaye, Woven From Timber And Glass – Co. Design. “The fate of the library has been in jeopardy for decades now, as funding–and readers of physical books–continue to decline. While there are plenty of plans for revitalizing libraries, ranging from digitizing them to putting them inside of malls, a new neighborhood library from London architect David Adjaye reminds us of the simple pleasures of a beautiful reading room.”
  • Arts Council discussing with councils what libraries will be like in 2022 – Sally Prentice.  Arts Council round table discussions included Sally: “The seminar concluded that libraries need to much clearer about their core purpose and the outcomes that the library service will deliver to justify continued public funding.”  Librarians blames for the number of non-users and, to some extent, for adult illiteracy.  Libraries need to prove the need for every pound of tax in cold ways. Serving children and local history sessions is no defence as schools and colleges can do that.  Libraries need to focus more on “community engagement, using digital technology, communications and marketing, advocacy and audience development”

“Advocates for libraries need to be able to answer the question that every Treasury official will ask: what is the public value or outcome that tax payers money is being used for? ” … “core purpose is and should continue to remain, enabling people to access, explore and enjoy reading and knowledge in the digital age.”

  • Beat bobbies to use schools, libraries and community centres to work – This is Grimsby. Police “could soon be able to log on to the Humberside Police database in public libraries, schools and community centres. The move is part of a scheme by Virgin Media Business to link public sector organisations through the sharing of computers. It is being rolled out across the Yorkshire and Humber area as part of a new public services network (YHPSN) initiative.”
  • Branches of opportunity - Centre for an Urban Future (USA).  Describes New York’s libraries as a “key component of the city’s human capital system”: providing help for immigrants, senior citizens, unemployed, schoolchildren, business.  Libraries have to “break out of their boxes and form creative partnerships offering different services in sometimes unconventional spaces”
  • Does self serve really offer the library user a choice? – Stop the privatisation of public libraries / Alan Wylie.  Argues that councils are forcing self-service onto customers who do not want it and that staff are being lost in the process.
  • Evaluating the Impact of Your Library – Facet Publishing.
  • Even Google won’t be around for ever, let alone Facebook – Guardian. “the librarian was right. He had to think about the next 400 years. But the number of commercial companies that are more than a century old is vanishingly small. Entrusting the world’s literary heritage to such transient organisations might not be entirely wise.”
  • ‘It’s not about the books’ at Shettleston Library – Scotsman.  Library cuts are coming to Scotland.  Article looks at if libraries are still needed. Writer discovers a vibrant library, fulfilling a key role in the community, as much a community centre as anything else.

“It doesn’t seem to me sentimental to regard such places as important to the communities they serve, especially communities which are struggling in so many ways.”

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central, Labour) To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if she will undertake a full assessment of the needs of the local population for the services provided by libraries.

Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries), Business, Innovation and Skills; Wantage, Conservative) “Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service that is based on local need within available resources. It is therefore the responsibility of each local authority to determine, through consultation, the local needs and to deliver a modem efficient library service that meets the requirements of their communities. The Government’s response to the Select Committee report on Library Closures, published on 29 January, reported that a number of publications have already been produced by ACE and the LGA which provide guidance for authorities to interpret what they consider local circumstances.”  Hansard, 27th February.

  • Re: some sensible and interesting debate - LIS-PUB-LIBS / Mick Fortune. A comprehensive look at the technological issues facing libraries and how authorities are facing, or failing to face them.  This article is one in a string on merging library authorities in order to cut costs which bears examination.

“Yet at this critical time we have de-skilled the public library service when it should be extracting the maximum value from its technological assets. Council IT departments – from personal experience – often have neither the time nor the inclination to provide the skills needed to help librarians build even the simplest solutions. The fortunate few library services – those that have retained their IT skills – will soon find they need them more than ever.”

  • Registering with the Library - British Library. Glossy video but, wow, that’s one restrictive membership policy.
  • Shh! About Saving Libraries - Huffington Post. Dave Clements argues that libraries are too loud nowadays so that “libraries just aren’t libraries any more”.  Criticises campaigns to save libraries and suggests that communities should run them.

“In truth what were once institutional embodiments of that Enlightenment spirit of learning and knowledge, of the need to collect under one roof the great works of our shared literary culture for the greater good, are no more. In defence of their library service Westminster librarians wrote an open letter telling councillors about how they ‘promote health, community and citizenship’ all for less than 1% of the council budget. If we need community hubs then let communities run them themselves.”

  • Supporting the library services provided by local authorities - Gov.uk. Lists, in commendably clear terms, the uncommendably few things the Government is doing for libraries.
  • Twitter Takeover : Laura Newsome, Deputy Branch Manager – Voices for the Library. “We are all aware of how out-dated the library stereotype is (in five years I don’t think I have actually ‘shushed’ anybody!), so I also want to take this opportunity to discuss the kind of people we actually get through our doors, the commitment of our fantastic staff, the changing role that libraries play in people’s lives today and what the future might hold.”
  • Two types of chair - Question Everything. Shadow Libraries Minister, Dan Jarvis MP replies to questions saying that if he is still responsible if Labour returns to power he will (1) re-examine meaning of “comprehensive and efficient” when back in power, 2) backs away from intervening in unsuccessful authorities, 3) in favour of encouraging the merger of  library authorities.  Mr Jarvis has said he will not make big promises for libraries as he does not wish to appear like the current Libraries Minister who was a lion in opposition but “has been much less effective at standing by his words in office”

Local News

  • Bath and North East Somerset - Chew Stoke residents to choose agenda for Community Library - This is Somerset. “The Stoke Inn project aims to develop the pub’s current book exchange into a Community Library. The library will support work that the Council and the Stoke Inn are planning with Bath College, Community Learning, and Age UK.”
  • Brent – Libraries Improve according to PLUS Survey – James Powney’s Blog. National survey “shows rising levels of satisfaction about Brent libraries” – people happier with opening hours, staff, books, pretty much everything, despite widespread closures last year.
  • Brighton and Hove – Books deliveries will take libraries to the people – Brighton and Hove. “A decision on whether to start a personalised door-to-door book delivery service, replacing Brighton & Hove’s mobile library, will be taken at the budget council on Thursday (February 28). It has emerged that bestselling local crime writer Peter James is backing the home deliveries plan, describing it as a ‘good compromise’.”
  • Buckinghamshire – Call for volunteers as library gets go-ahead - Advertiser and Bicester Review. “Winslow Library has been saved for the residents of the town and surrounding villages, thanks to the hard work of a group of local volunteers. This week, Bucks County Council (BCC)cabinet member for community engagement, Martin Phillips, approved a proposal by the Friends Of Winslow Library which will see the library relaunched as Winslow Community Library.”

“BCC will retain ownership and responsibility for the library building and will continue to provide the book stock, and other equipment.BCC will continue to employ a full-time equivalent professional librarian, but in future they will be assisted by a team of volunteers. Training will be provided.”

  • Croydon – Libraries contract up for grabs after deal falls through – This is Croydon Today. “Councillor Tim Pollard said the move followed JLIS making a last-minute change to its proposal, over library staff’s pension arrangements.” … “A JLIS spokeswoman confirmed that it did plan to resubmit a bid, and said it was “an exciting proposition” for the company”.
  • Labour’s Statement on #Croydon Libraries – Save Croydon Libraries Campaign. “Cllr Fisher’s Tory administration dream of selling off our much loved libraries lay in tatters last night as Laing’s integrated services spectacularly pulled the plug on Croydon – despite being handed hundreds of millions of pounds of our money as taxpayers from Croydon Conservatives.”
  • Hertfordshire – Library quest wins support – Royston Weekly News. “More than 700 signatures have been gathered to extend a town library’s opening hours. Local campaigner Clive Porter believes Royston Library’s limited opening hours are having a bad impact on trade in the town centre.”

“People are very keen to see the library open for longer and retailers realise it helps to bring footfall to the town.”

2011-02-01 West Suffolk College 3

Suffolk – A “human library” in action - one of the events for World Book Day