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Bristol delays cuts due to government funds, and a CILIP-led school library protest letter

Editorial

Two key news stories for me this post. The first is from Bristol, which has temporarily a deep cut to its libraries while it looks in to the possibilities of mutual and co-locations. This is coming about from government money designed to encourage mutual and it’s unusual for such a delay in libraries due to Government funding, although the strong push towards such trusts has been notable for years. I suspect the depth of the cuts and the level of protest had something to do with it.

The other is a CILIP-led protest letter, signed by authors and others, against cuts to school libraries. It started with a tweet and snowballed into a major (well, for libraries, anyway) news story. I got some serious deja vu from it as you may recall a similar mass protest letter against public library closures a few years ago. The difference now is that CILIP was key to the action, while back in the old days of 2011, it hadn’t quite got the hang of protest or realised how deep and prolonged the cuts will be. That has all changed now and the organisation is earning its subscription fee to both public and school libraries.

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Libraries are here to share info, not hide it: the joy of Open Data

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I was at the rather marvellous “Voyage of the Data Treader” unconference yesterday. There were quite a few big learning points for me during the day. The first was that “open data” if done properly can help reputation (not damage it, as many fear), save money (fewer Freedom of Information requests) and can lead to unexpected things. This last shouldn’t have surprised me because – you see that map on the righthand side of the website? – that was done by Libraries Hacked using PLN blog entries. I had no idea it was possible before he did it as I just don’t code. What made it “open data” is that I had taken the decision years ago to publish with a creative commons license meaning anyone could use it. I hadn’t realised that it was “open data” at the time (and it was 2010 so very few probably did) but I’m glad I made that decision. Newcastle is too, by the way – apparently, it’s adherence to publishing its data saves it £250k on FOI requests.

Another thought. Public libraries suffer a lot from not having their enough about them public. The Libraries Taskforce lacks the power to force authorities to make them public and there’s no chance the current government would give them that power. So “open data” in libraries has to be voluntary. To do this, there will need to be awareness of both the carrot (save money, look good to your public) and the stick (“what is your council hiding?”, how come it’s not one of the “open” ones?). We’ll see if that works. But the mood yesterday was clearly that things were moving towards more “open” sharing of information. And that can only be a good thing. After all, I’m sure none of us joined the library sector to hide information.

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Library chuggers coming soon? Suffolk Libraries decides the best person to run it is not a librarian

Editorial

Library trusts in England haven’t been around for long, with the oldest being just two or three years old. As such, their chiefs are the library managers who took them out of council control. So the first changing of the guard, caused by the retirement of the Suffolk boss Alison Wheeler, was an interesting one to watch, and not least because of the 17-page vacancy pack. No, it was one to watch to see who would get it and where they would come from. And now we know. It’s someone from a charity and with apparently no library experience. That gives a clear indicator as to the direction of travel Suffolk has already gone on: the skills needed are now those of an independent fundraiser and not of a public librarian. It’s a truism that the higher up an organisation one goes then the less specialist skills you need and that’s the case in libraries as well as elsewhere, and Suffolk is not the first library service to have a non-librarian running it by any means. But it gives a view into the future, and the present, that would perhaps have surprised those in the library sector ten years ago and shows the financial and political pressures that such services are expected to have to face.

Interestingly Hertfordshire have just announced that they’re thinking of going down to the libraries trust route because it is “supported by national government” and it’s certainly true the Taskforce is heavily pushing the model. As funding is reduced in authority after authority, on a cycle of every two to four years, the siren call of the Trust is going to get louder. But it means that library services will become more akin to charities than statutory council run services, with all that implies. The first library chugger may not be far away.

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A quiet few days: Cumbria, Anglesey and a fracking fund

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A reasonably quiet couple of days with a few libraries threatened in Cumbria and more detail on what is likely to happen in Anglesey. There’s a somewhat hard to believe report that fracking will result in £1 billion of community grants for groups, but it specifically mentions libraries so here’s hoping. There’s also a couple of things about health and wellbeing from the LGA and Task Force.

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The future is here, so just look around

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“The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet” is a quote by William Gibson that I have had a chance to reflect on recently. I was asked to do a 15 minute lightning talk on the future of libraries by Oxford University Press, which got me thinking. How on earth do you know what the future holds? Well, taking Gibson at face value, you can just look around. One of the key things I noticed was that three of the library services around the table had been quite happily giving library membership for years without any ID requirements and with no ill effects. This came as a shock to the other library services who are still, presumably, turning away prospective members on an hourly basis due to the tradition of not trusting people. The future was there, around the table, and one only needed to look. I notice this repeatedly. What is done in one authority, sometimes neighbouring ones, is simply not known or not trusted in others. It’s a case of “not invented here” on a national scale and one which does not bode well for the sector.

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Canada and Cheshire East

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My pick of the articles today is that by Stephen Abrams on the experience of Canadian public libraries. He explains the challenges they have faced and how they’re reacting to them, including some very good ideas such as open data (hmmm), marketing (ahhhh) and social media training. He addresses, quite correctly, that the main crisis facing Canadian libraries is the technological change, not budget cuts, and stresses the need to persuade decision makers. I suspect they’ve not had things as bad over there as here but he makes some interesting points and it’s worth a read. In other news, Cheshire East may be closing a few of its libraries and continues the trend of looking towards alternative forms of governance, in this case the local leisure trust, as an option.

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What’s possible: the best thing to learn from others

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Talking to colleagues in other services, finding out what works and what they do that you thought could not work or never thought of at all. That’s the thing. I’m not big on ideas but I know a good one when I see one and have never felt guilty about taking advantage of the skills and experience of others. After all, we’re in public libraries and are not in competition with each other, only with private companies (who would ruthlessly crush libraries if they could) and perhaps most of all with ourselves. So I was delighted to hear about the experience of Surrey yesterday (I was at the National Acquisitions Group conference in Leeds) who said they increased their children’s non-fiction issues by 30% over two years by the simple expedient of putting in zig-zag shelving (paid for by the book-fund in Year One) so the titles could be face on, and weeding the dross. They have found since that they can spend less on the stock but issue more simply by doing this. In other areas they’ve boosted issues by buying backlist, and not just new titles. Simple things and easy to copy.

This got me thinking about others things which I know are successful in different library authorities either in the UK or internationally but other library services are ignorant or dismissive of. They include:

  • Not asking for any ID at all when joining.
  • Not needing a library card (or, even, card and PIN) to return a book on self-service.
  • Floating stock, where books stay in the library where they’re returned.

Chances are your service will do one or two of these but have either never considered the others or think it’s not possible. But it works elsewhere. Probably in another library service neighbouring yours in fact. Have a visit. Learn from your colleagues. And if you still say no then make sure you have a reason rather than gut feeling of “ah, but that won’t work here”. Because that’s not a good excuse by itself. Is it? It seems to me we have a whole world of people showing us what is possible out there and that’s a gift, a free valuable gift, that we ignore or dismiss at our peril.

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GLL now the biggest provider of public libraries in the UK

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I failed to note in the last post the official transfer of Bromley Libraries to GLL. Greenwich Leisure Limited (marketed as “Better”) is now the largest supplier of public library services in the UK in terms of branches and, one suspects, other measures too. Having expanded outside of London (Greenwich, Wandsworth and Bromley), it now runs council services in Lincolnshire and Dudley and is looking for more. Taking advantage of a national base already established by its leisure services, it is in a strong position to bid when a service comes up anywhere in England. It appears somewhat ignored in Taskforce and other official reports, which intentionally or otherwise strongly favour library-run trusts such as Devon and York. However, I have it down as the one alternative provider to watch, now that Carillion appears to be crashing out. Library mutuals and single-authority leisure/library trusts don’t have all the same advantages – economies of scale, national spread – that GLL have, although they share with it it’s more commercial approach and semi-independence (ish) from councils.

Single-council library trusts will try to expand, and I am sure will pick up a neighbouring authority here and there, but GLL already has the national infrastructure in place. I suspect its going to be one of the big winners (possibly the big one) when the dust settles from all the cuts to libraries. Whether you see this is a good thing or not ultimately depends on where you stand on non-profits running libraries. But the cold logic of the shrinking “market”, and libraries are in one like it or not, ultimately does not care what one’s political beliefs are. It cares about who does the job as efficiently as possible. And that’s why GLL will be a strong competitor, nationally. Publicised or not.

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Privatised probation services in libraries and “jubilant scenes”

Editorial

Libraries have always been Jacks of All Trades and open to all. A warm neutral and welcoming place. That is a great strength but in times of stress, it can also lead to uncomfortable collisions like probation services loudly using spaces next door to the children’s books. Co-locations and sharing with other services is seen as a great hope for libraries by many but the danger is that the library is damaged if the wrong alliances are made. On the other hand, though, in times of cuts, eight years long now for many councils, beggars can’t perhaps be choosers. But equally they should not be exploited and lose the qualities for which they are so valued.

In other news, it’s great to see Silverdale Library reopening. The newspaper reports “jubilant scenes”. That brought a smile when I read that. Here’s looking forward to more.

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Manchester becomes a UNESCO Creative City of Literature

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I’m delighted to see Manchester has just been announced as a UNESCO Creative City of Literature.  The city has so many beautiful libraries, historic and modern, capped by my currently most favourite library of all,  Manchester Central Library. It’s a city with a lot of going on, not least a lot of creative writing and reading. I hope the announcement will serve to make it even more so.

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