Archive for July, 2017

A week is a long time in public libraries

Editorial

I have just had a week off from all things library with the family, hence this bumper post now. Doing the news from the last ten or so days in one perhaps gives a clearer impression of what is going on. Which is a lot. One of the surprising things to the innocent bystander is the large number or refurbishments going on, often linked with co-locating with other services. The other thing is not so unexpected but a week’s list really brings it home: volunteer libraries are now a key part of the changing library world.

There are two contrasting non-profit stories. GLL continues their expansion, this time in Bromley, having already taken over Dudley this year on top of Greenwich, Wandsworth and Lincolnshire. They’re also involved, less happily, in Lambeth. The other story is from Suffolk, which is – while still a non-profit – a very different beast to GLL, being a library mutual. Their independence and undoubted innovation has not saved them from deep council funding cuts. The irony that they have received a big Arts Council England fund, which they can’t use to help the shortfall, is sadly a familiar one. Finally, I’ve received emails after the post on Carillion losing Hounslow, pointing out that the company have recently suffered a major share slide (from 301p to 71p) and that other councils have cut contracts with them too. Many strongly suspect Hounslow will not be the only library contract they will lose.

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500

Editorial

I’ve been adding up the figures month by month as news comes in and today’s the day. I count 500 libraries in the UK that are now staffed, if not entirely run, by volunteers. Of that number, the great majority are branches which have lost paid staff and the library users have been presented with the choice of volunteering or seeing their library close. Some are entirely new additional libraries. Each one is different, with some largely funded and stocked by councils apart from the staff and others entirely self-sufficient. What all but a handful have in common is that they have come on the scene since 2010. They’re a new phenomenon in many ways and, all the pros and cons aside, show how much people care for their local library service.

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The public libraries news divide

Editorial

There’s a strong divide in interpreting news about public libraries. On the one side, we have campaigners who tend to emphasise the negatives (hollowing out and closures) while on the other side we have organisations such as the Task Force who stress the positives. One point of view is angry at the reductions to library service and sees this as the important point to get across to mobilise public opinion. The other fears that such an approach misses out on positives and could give cuts to public libraries a feeling of inevitability. There’s fears I have heard many times  that emphasising the negatives means that people think that public libraries are tainted as doomed. Similarly, campaigners see the devastation going on and are outraged if asked to play it down. It’s hard to see how both sides can agree and, often, they don’t. Which is a shame because they’re actually, in many ways, otherwise mainly on the same side. Such slants can lead to disconnects like the one noted by the Private Eye below where it’s noticed the Task Force (and they’re hardly alone) use euphemisms for cuts.

I try to include both sides, the negative and the positive. I didn’t used to: to my shame, I tended only to include bad news (well, there was such a lot of it) for the first couple of years of PLN.  I did everyone, including myself, a disservice for doing so. In some ways I’m still with the campaigners (for instance, I use the term “cuts” and call volunteer libraries, well, volunteer libraries) but in others I will defend the Taskforce and others if they’re doing good work. I’ve even been known to defend the odd library closure. This can lead to situations where I’m criticised privately (and sometimes not so privately) by both sides for bias, on one memorable occasion for the same editorial. Well, at least I now know what the BBC feels like. What I’m trying to say to all of you is, public libraries should be the most neutral of places but news about them is often biased. Make up your mind based on the verifiable facts and who’s reporting it. As all public librarians should do in their work.

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Breaking news: Carillion loses Hounslow libraries

Hounslow has had a private company running its library services for longer than any council in the UK. Carillion purchased the Hounslow contract from Laing as part of a £65m deal to take over John Laing Integrated Services (JLIS) in 2013. Before that, the service was run by JLIS as a trailblazer for private running of libraries since 2008. I looked at the experience of Hounslow in a piece for CILIP Update way back in 2011.

Carillion ran the service as part of its non-profit arm “Cultural Community Solutions” (CCS) which also operates library services for Croydon, Ealing and Harrow. However, some question how non-profit CCS really is…

You will have noticed that I am using the past tense about Carillion and Hounslow.  This is because I have just received, after checking up on rumours , the following message from Hounslow council:

Contract with Carillion for library services

Councillor Samia Chaudhary, Cabinet Member for Green Policy and Leisure, Hounslow Council said: “The council is ending the contract for library services by mutual agreement with Carillion. Responsibility for the library service will transfer back to the Council on Tuesday 1 August. We believe that by bringing this back in-house, we can further improve what is a very valuable service for our residents and integrate this across our wider leisure and cultural services. Over the next three weeks, the Leisure team will work closely with HR, ICT, FM and Finance to transfer the service in-house. It will be challenging to complete the process quickly, primarily relating to the IT infrastructure, but our ICT team is confident that the necessary systems will be in place by 1 August.Our intention is that the service to the public will not change, and there are no plans to close any of the libraries during the transfer.” Official response from London Borough of Hounslow (received direct via email). Councillor Samia Chaudhary, Cabinet Member for Green Policy and Leisure, Hounslow Council.

It’s unclear as to what is behind the ending of the contract in such haste. One would normally expect such contracts to end at the same time as the financial year at the end of March. The last definite news in the public realm I noted was news of a new Marylebone Library and a move for Hounslow Library in February. The council has been Labour controlled since 2010.

I am sure the full story will eventually be heard but, for now, this has to weaken the case for privately run companies taking over library services.

More information on Carillion:

 

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The real reasons may not be so black and white

Charities and volunteers replacing public libraries is not so black and white

Editorial

I was interested to read about a charity that is delivering books to children, fulfilling a niche vacated by closing or closed public libraries in that area. The irony of it is that the charity. if I’m reading the figure right, are doing the same job at a far higher cost than the public library was able to achieve before. This ties in with an article in LocalGov that asks if cutting public services is a false economy. Certianly, the research I’ve on the subject concentrating on public libraries seems to conclusively show it is. David McMenemy, speaking at the CILIP conference last week, said that the replacement of paid public servants by volunteers and charities may be seen as a positive plus by politicians and others regardless of the need to do so and that seems to be the case. Well, at least sometimes.

The real reasons may not be so black and white

The real reasons may not be so black and white

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Bursting bubbles: CILIP Conference week

Editorial

I took a couple of days off work in order to be able to attend and speak at the CILIP Conference. The stand-out moment for me was, and was always going to be, listening to the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. A truly inspirational librarian. Then there was the chance to hear about what else was going on in the country (you’d think I’d know all that, but there’s nothing better than hearing the people themselves), a chance to think deep thoughts (on future trends and on the nature of information), actually consider ethics for one of the few times in my life and, of course, meet a whole ton of people who I’d seen on the internet for years but never actually met. And, of course, it was great that the conference was in Manchester, which benefits from some beautiful libraries, and whose ten-year-plus long-term library strategy seems to be paying off. There were a few announcements, such as on ethics and the public library skills strategy that I will doubtless cover separately later.

Outside of the conference bubble, this was the week that Lancashire promised to bring back 14 libraries (albeit with 5 run by community groups). It was also the week that Shropshire announced a long-term plan that will cut its libraries fro a respectable 28 in 2015 to a handful in five years. The Conservative LGA chief also warned that there may be no libraries by 2020, which to me sounds like major scare-mongering and as an opening negotiation position but was still downright gob-smacking to see in print.

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In praise of the People’s Network … and conferences.

Editorial

We take public computers in libraries for granted now. There’s often rows of them and they’re normally one of the busiest places in the library. People use them for all sorts of reasons: social, buying stuff (boarding passes a speciality), job-hunting, everything. And there’s normally a member of staff nearby helping out, working out why something hasn’t printed or patiently explaining how to do something to someone who simply does not have the computer experience to know. It’s one of the key ways that public libraries go some way to helping equality of access to people who would otherwise be barred by ability to pay. So it’s good to see a free e-book launched celebrating the People’s Network, without which libraries and communities would be poorer places than they are today.

That the launch was in the same week as the CILIP Conference in Manchester is not a coincidence and do expect further announcements this week to tie in with that.  I’ll be there both days and will tweet what people say. Well, not while I’m doing my session obviously but I’ll probably share that later anyway. I always find conferences tremendously useful but then I’m in the privileged position of being a speaker at the ones I attend (or these days can blag a press pass) and therefore get in for free. It’s notable that the numbers of those going to them from public libraries is reducing in this country as councils cut back on training.

That’s a long-term false economy but not a surprising one, when one sees the reductions going on. Thoughts this week to the paid staff of the 12 libraries who are either now volunteer or soon will be. I wish the volunteers well but it is a tragedy that such an important public service as libraries is being given to amateurs.

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2nd July 2017

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