I had the privilege of being invited over to Paris last week to speak to the Association des Bibliothecaires de France about the English experience with volunteer libraries.  Those of you with long memories will remember that I attended the same conference last year in Lyons and so my thoughts here are meant as a companion piece to my blog article then called The Road Not Taken.

The first thing that came apparent is that there are indeed, like here, lots of small volunteer libraries.  Again, like England, many of these are supported by the local councils, as long as they are seen as sustainable (which can mean them just being opened four hours per week with four volunteers).  There are often professional librarians going out to support these branches: one librarian I had the privilege of talking to managed 19 volunteers doing wonderful things in a manner very similar to some  council-supported libraries here. So far so similar to the emerging English picture.   But there the resemblance ends … because these volunteer libraries are mainly only in tiny communities (500 to 1000 strong) and exist in areas where there is no paid library service. The idea of having a volunteer library for a sizeable town (say 15,000) was a hard one for the French in the audience to fathom.

“no librarian in France has been replaced by volunteers”

Moreover, as far as I could tell, no librarian in France has been replaced by volunteers. Although there have been budget cuts, these are of a far smaller percentage than here and staff are not made redundant.  What happens instead is that only one paid librarian is appointed for every two that leave.  This means, as I discovered speaking to a young professional still looking for her first post, that it is very hard to get a job but it does at least mean that there are new jobs to be had.  I stopped encouraging people to work in a public library three years ago but that sad state of affairs has not yet come to France.  Nor even to countries worse off: in Portugal they have the strange situation where they have not bought new stock for years (room hires are charged for in books, not Euros) but have not lost any staff.  Library staff are protected in these countries in a way that seemed like a dream to me.  Moreover, there was sincere shock in the audience when I talked about volunteers replacing staff.  That shock turned to disgust when I said that some retired librarians went back to work as volunteers.  I think some refused to believe that.  One asked what the professional library association was doing about the situation, almost in a way that suggested that in France such things held any sway over government decisions.  Needless to say, they were not impressed by the actions of CILIP and the Society of Chief Librarians in this field.   I gained the impression that the French librarians (let alone the public) would be marching on the streets if such happened there.

“there was sincere shock in the audience when I talked about volunteers replacing staff”

Last time. I noted that the maintenance by law of high book prices meant that there were a lot of bookshops (confusing called librairies) around.  This time, I realised that it meant more than that.  It meant libraries were needed more.  Why?  Simply because books are not as disposable here than in England.  It costs a lot of money to buy a book in Paris and exactly the same amount, by law, to buy an e-book.  The result is that e-books are less popular, books are more of a commondity and the free lending service that libraries provided commensurately still required.

Hypotheses: that higher book prices in France means more library usage

Hypotheses: that higher book prices in France means more library usage

So the situation is a lot less dire in France for public libraries but that is not say that there is not changed.  The theme of the conference was technological and social change: something that is still to some extend being shrouded in England due to the scale of the cuts.  The change in usage and services that public libraries face was being discussed in the framework of a well funded public library system which has some breathing space to do something about it rather than in England where we have more pressing matters to hand.  Whether the seeming lack of urgency and more measured approach that is apparent in France will mean that they can face the change in a better way than the short- term nature of our country is going to be interesting to observe.  It may be that in England the sheer direness of the situation inspires action. I was brought in mind of the imagery of the frog [no insult intended to the French, far from it] being slowly boiled in water.  The story goes that the frog will not jump out if the temperature raises slowly.  Well, in England, the water (that is, the budget) was quickly turned to boiling and changes are being made hand over fist.  In France, the water is slowly being heated and changes are being made more slowly.

Something else happening, although in the Netherlands and not as far as I know in France, is the movement towards merging library authorities in order to improve efficiency.  I had the privilege of chatting to a Dutch librarian called Ingrid Bon who reported that, once upon a time, in the Netherlands every parish council would have its own library or libraries resulting in dire inefficiencies of scale.  This has now changed with the central government buying all the books and the parishes being consolidated into larger groups of five to twenty library branches.  Still smallish by UK standards of course but it is interesting that the government there felt it right to intervene rather than going with the localist, massively cut their budget and see what they do, approach of Ed Vaizey.

“The over-riding difference for me between England and France I saw was one of protection and intervention”

The over-riding difference for me between England and France I saw was one of protection and intervention.  French libraries, and public services, are protected more.  The free market does not reign supreme.  Cuts are not made from the top and each individual council left to work out what to do about it.  Volunteers are seen as they were in England five years ago as people to be used to improve on the basic service rather than being something to replace the basic service.  I’m not making value judgements by the way here – for one thing, I was shocked by the cost of books for instance and that has to be a real problem for many in France – but rather just stating that things are different.  The French librarians though, were most definitely making value judgements.  They’re horrified at what is happening over here.  They’re shocked by the ease in which library staff are being lost and they are disgusted at library staff helping volunteers replace paid staff.  For them, England is fast becoming a horror story to tell each other in the staff room and an object lesson in how not to run a library service.  Quelle Horreur.



  • 2014 Speak up for Libraries conference date announced – Speak Up for Libraries.  “After the success of their 2013 conference Speak up for Libraries are planning to hold another one on Saturday 22/11/14. The venue will be CILIP HQ in Central London.  Speakers and a full programme will be announced shortly, so put the date in your diaries and watch this space.”
  • A digital Magna Carta: is Tim Berners-Lee on the right track? – Computer Weekly. “The founder and inventor of the worldwide web, Tim Berners-Lee, has repeated his call for a bill of rights or Magna Carta for the internet, and urged mass action to achieve it in the face of powerful opposing interests.  Berners-Lee first discussed his ideas for a global Magna Carta earlier this year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the development of the worldwide web at Cern and the launch of the Web We Want campaign”
  • Get set for literacy/reading success with The Reading Agency’s 2015 Six Book Challenge – Reading Agency. Libraries, colleges, workplaces and prisons around the UK are celebrating the life-changing achievements of readers who have successfully completed The Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge 2014. We’re now launching materials for the 2015 Six Book Challenge to mark Adult Learners’ Week so that organisations can order them ready for the start of the new academic year in September.” … “For more information about the Six Book Challenge see readingagency.org.uk/adults/quick-guides/six-book-challenge/ To order materials see readingagency.org/shop”
  • How to save libraries from the e-predators – TES. “The biggest mistake from certain sections of the School Libraries Group is to demand that England’s education secretary Michael Gove makes school libraries statutory to guarantee their future. Cinderella librarians are desperate to have their roles formally recognised; they must be the only school professionals who want to be inspected by Ofsted. This panicky plea to have their worth weighed and measured also means that librarians tend to justify themselves using the language of utility. They boast that they’re crucial to delivering curriculum outcomes, offer to monitor pupils’ library usage and formally assess reading attainments. They claim that their ICT expertise makes them best-placed to equip pupils with the skills necessary “to be successful in our increasingly information-driven, technology-powered world”. Yet one of the virtues of libraries is precisely that they are free from the bureaucratic target culture found elsewhere in schools.”

“If librarians – who should be the guardians of a literary culture – believe that books need to be sexed-up to stand a chance against Call of Duty or Super Mario Bros., surely the war is already lost? This approach implicitly accepts that there’s little special about the unique pleasures of reading; it is just one of the forms of entertainment vying for young people’s attention.”

  • PanLibus Capita. Free online magazine includes articles on Suffolk Libraries’ e-books and e-readers and  Northamptonshire’s entrepreneurial library strategy.
  • Public Libraries Stock Gay Fairy Tale Book That Teaches Children Gay Marriage Is OK – Christian Post (USA). “A children’s book that promotes same-sex marriage is being added to public library bookshelves throughout the United States. The Princes and the Treasure, a gay fairy tale book, aims to teach children about same-sex relationships and same sex-marriage.”.  Christian says “the bottom line is that no responsible library should ever include a book like this on its shelves” [homosexuals appear to not have demanded the banning of the Bible in libraries in response – Ed.]

“We have had the responsibility now for 32 months and I think you were about to go on to describe our relationship with the libraries, which is different from the other two in that we have policy responsibility for the development of libraries—that is, thinking about libraries’ future—but we have no funding responsibilities at all. That is entirely local government. We have a small grant in aid pot of about £600,000 that we can use in various ways to encourage enterprise in libraries or to encourage libraries to think differently about other things. We have a pilot with the British Library, for example. Our funding leverage there is much less, but what I can say is that when we are having conversations with local authorities about culture as a whole—having that single conversation about what is happening in the performing arts, what is happening with their museum and what is happening with their library and encouraging local authorities to think across those three areas and perhaps apply to the lottery fund that we created within our vires to fund arts activity in the libraries, because libraries have a far greater geographical reach than many arts organisations—those conversations can be very fruitful. As I say, it is a different kind of relationship with each of the different responsibilities, but I think it does make sense and it is working well overall.” Alan Davey describing Arts Council England’s role in public libraries to Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 10th June 2014.

  • Where next? Playing by the Book is at a crossroads – Playing by the book. “I’m that librarian who (with no warning) has been made redundant. I can type it today without bursting into tears, which is certainly progress from earlier in the week. The council which funds the school is virtually bankrupt and has been cutting jobs by the thousands [sic], (the School Library Service was one of its first services to be cut) so it is no surprise to hear that the school’s budget has been cut and therefore they need to save money. It is (not just personally) heartbreaking; this is a school which invested a great deal just two years ago in a fabulous new library opened by a brilliant author, a new library management system, and a (albeit part-time) member of staff who was passionate about her job. Ultimately it’s the children who lose out.”


  • City Forces 9-Year-Old Boy to Move “Little Free Library” From Front Yard – Time (USA). “City officials in Kansas shut down a “little free library” that a boy set up in his front yard because it violates city code, and the family is fighting the decision. Spencer Collins, 9, set up “Spencer’s Little Free Library” in Leawood, Kansas, so neighbors could “take a book, leave a book.” As he told Fox 4 News. “Reading is one of my favorite things to do. We built it on Mother’s Day as a present for my mom because she really wanted one.” … “Spencer’s Little Free Library is part of a movement to promote literacy and lifelong learning that claims to boast about 15,000 of these homemade libraries nationwide.”
  • Digital discoveries – American Libraries (USA). Special free online magazine looks at eBooks, Google Glass, public library engagement.
  • Kick-Starting Community Partnerships – Illinois Libraries Matter (USA). Good guide to the advantages of partnering with local businesses and groups and ideas about how to go about it.
  • U. of South Florida Libraries Will Begin Lending Drones For Aerial Photography This Fall – Library Journal (USA). “Students, who will be provided training in advance, will be able to check out the small remote-controlled airplane containing a video camera, which can be used to capture footage from an aerial view.”
  • What’s Next for E-books in Libraries? – Publisher’s Weekly (USA).  “when it comes to libraries and e-books, there’s been progress. All the major publishers are now participating in the library e-book market, and there are a number of competing platform providers in the space. The big question now is, can the library e-book experience meet users’ expectations?” … “In one of the more provocative proposals, Mitchell Davis, founder and chief business officer of BiblioBoard, a digital platform provider, told the audience that libraries should consider moving away from their focus on e-book bestsellers. Instead of spending money on a limited number of frontlist e-book titles, generating long waits in hold queues and patron dissatisfaction, why not concentrate limited resources on building a better user experience, based on the library’s “long tail” collections?”

UK local news by authority

  • Brent – Kensal Rise Library development decision deferred pending legal advice on fraud – Wembley Matters. “Karl Abeyasekera, speaking as a member of the public drew members’ attention to the fraudulent email issue saying that the ‘guilty party’ could benefit materially from this application. He called for the Committee to defer pending the outcome of the police investigation.  Stephanie Schonfield of the Friends of Kensal Rise Library spoke in support of the application  and said they had put their trust in All Souls College and the developer and hoped they would reciprocate by supporting FKRL to manage the community space. She regretted that they were only the preferred bidder and not the named occupant.”
  • Devon – All libraries face changes in light of proposed cuts warns councillor North Devon Journal.  “A campaign to save Braunton library has attracted celebrity endorsement from Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine and author Margaret Atwood. Libraries in big towns could be safer under plans to create “Devon Centres”, incorporating adult learning and community groups into existing library buildings. But Mr Yabsley warns: Even the Devon Centres, for large libraries, may be subject to change.” … ““Changes in opening hours are certainly possible. To counteract this, local groups need to be looking at new ways to expand their library’s business.”
  • Devon – Kingskerswell group brainstorms ideas to save local library – Herald Express. “Friends of Kingskerswell Library delivered questionnaires to all houses in the area at the beginning of the month. Based on the five per cent response rate they received, the group put forward ideas at a public meeting today including becoming a charity to avoid paying business rates, getting volunteers to do the cleaning and running an annual lottery.”
  • Devon – Libraries figures need second look – Exmouth Journal 24. “It seems strange to me that Budleigh Salterton is deemed to be ‘less well-used’ because its catchment population is calculated at over 18,000, whilst Sidmouth’s is only 13,000 and Seaton’s less than 10,000. “
  • Leeds – Tour de Leeds Libraries  Tom Palmer. “During the next two weeks I will be visiting all of Leeds’ thirty-six public libraries. By bike. I am doing it because cycling is the big thing for kids in Leeds at the moment: the Tour de France starts in the city on July 5th and everyone is getting pretty excited about it. Also, because I want the next big thing for kids to be libraries. I’ll have half an hour in each library – four a day – to talk to a class of year three and four children, visiting from a local school.”
  • Leicestershire – Libraries petitions amid closure fears – Loughborough Echo. “Residents have set up two petitions in efforts to save Rothley and Mountsorrel libraries from potential closure.”
  • Lincolnshire – Business plans approved for new community and library facilities – Lincolnshire County Council. “The new [volunteer] hubs will complement the Council’s own comprehensive library service, consisting of 15 core libraries in key locations, plus online and targeted services. Councillor Nick Worth, Executive Member for Libraries, said: “Clearly a lot of work has gone into these proposals, and I’d like to thank all the groups for their ongoing efforts. “We do need to await the outcome of the judicial review, but in the meantime we’ll continue to work with them to develop their plans further.
  • Newcastle – Digital children’s library vision for Fenham – B Daily. “Your Homes Newcastle and Ryder Architecture are backing a vision for a children’s library of the future. It would be based in Fenham Library, earmarked for closure two years ago by Newcastle City Council before being saved by Your Homes Newcastle. It moved its offices there, carried out a major refurbishment and re-opened the library two months ago. Now plans have been revealed to build on that momentum by creating a children’s library for the digital age. The ambition is already being shared with libraries across northern England and will be discussed at a major international conference in Paris in August.”

“Children from a very young age are technologically and visually literate but might not grow up to be word literate.  We need to create libraries where people do not feel alienated and we believe technology will help achieve this.“

  • Perth and Kinross – Campaigners ‘fight on’ to save West Mill Street Library – Courier. “Campaigners are to take their fight to have a Perth library reopened to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. The Friends of West Mill Street Library feel this is their only option after receiving a letter from Bernadette Malone, chief executive of Perth and Kinross Council, dismissing most of their complaints.”
  • Staffordshire – County Council launching library consultation – Sentinel.
  • Staffordshire – MP worried about Kinver Library volunteer plan – Stourbridge News. “Mr Williamson is campaigning to see that libraries within his constituency continue to be professionally staffed and is seeking an urgent meeting with council leaders to obtain assurances. He fears library staff jobs will be at risk if proposals get the go-ahead.”
  • Swindon – Swindon leisure centres to be run by London companies – BBC. “Greenwich Leisure, which runs the Oasis Leisure Centre, will take over the town’s other leisure centres and Twigmarket its golf courses. The council cabinet will debate whether to recommend the transfer, on 25 June.”
  • Wirral – 15 libraries under threat in Wirral – BookSeller. “The possible cutbacks come five years after the council was forced to abandon proposals to close 11 of Wirral’s 24 libraries, after the then Labour culture secretary Andy Burnham intervened. Now, the council is looking to transfer up to 15 of its libraries to volunteer control. A report to be presented to the council’s cabinet tomorrow said that the move needs to be taken to cope with a 50% cut in government grants, and the need to save £43m.” Quotes Alan Gibbons and Laura Swaffield.
  • Wirral – Wirral Council chief steps in to deny library ‘closure plan’ – Wirral Globe. “The headlines have led council chief executive Graham Burgess to put his cards on the table by stating there are “no plans to close any sites.” … “”We are exploring all options for services, as is only right, but we have no plans to close any sites.” Library closures are an extremely sensitive issue in Wirral after a hugely controversial policy was launched in 2009.”
  • Worcestershire – Redditch Library could undergo transformation and house more services – Redditch and Alcester Advertiser. “proposals to incorporate other council services and local services on the second floor of its building go ahead. The proposal would  save approximately £55,000 per year, and would see a wider range of services all under one roof,  but there are  no plans to reduce the number of books or computers, adult learning or children’s activities.”