Lament for Lambeth

Editorial

Lambeth council’s decision to cut libraries dominates the news today, with even a Labour MP coming out against the decision of her own party’s councillors. The decision to keep some libraries open by installing “gyms” – GLL-run mini leisure centres – within them has not gone down well but the main ire is against the council for cutting libraries at all.

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Lincolnshire - "Cheers for Volunteers".  Council brochure celebrates volunteers replacing paid library staff.

Not so bright in Brighton

Editorial

I was really sorry to read about the potential closure of Hove Library.  This was the site of one of the most famous campaigns against closure back in 2003/4 where five thousand people put up “save the library” posters and it made national news. The plan is for Hove to move into a museum and two other libraries to move into a school and a children’s centre. They’re not closing as such so the public response is likely to be muted.  We’ll see how muted in the next few weeks.

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Lambeth - Tate South Library Fado Evening. "This library is in Lambeth's 'Little Portugal' - gets people of all nationalities together, possibly better than a pay-to-use gym would..."

Library Campaigner, Pragmatist or Believer: which one best describes you?

Editorial

It’s always interesting to hear viewpoints from loads of different people and, as sole proprietor of Public Libraries News, I read messages from pretty much the full way across the spectrum.  I have for some while been mentally categorising different people, groups and organisations about where they are on an imaginary “library line” and I’m going to share this with you now, along with the important caveat that not everyone is always the same on every topic, people can move position or may be not quite one label or another and I’m not going to place “good” or “bad” labels on anyone:

  • Campaigners. Those often wanting no cuts to libraries at all. Often either from the left wing or from those who care deeply for public libraries or who work in libraries or all three.  Very likely, but not always, to question the whole belief in austerity or wanting a special exemption to be made for libraries on the grounds of the great things they do for the country. Highly likely to be completely against volunteers (calling them different names but not “community libraries”) replacing paid staff, outsourcing or any commercialization of libraries, believing that giving ground will irrevocably damage the merit of public libraries and lead ultimately to their adulteration. Likely to be concerned about the co-location of libraries with other services but not always automatically against them. Likely to call reductions in budgets “cuts” and unwilling to accept that the government actually has any strong feelings of support for libraries at all and, indeed, may be maliciously cutting them for ideological reasons. Could well be trade unions, Corbynites [Addition to original post: I mean this as those who voted for Jeremy Corbyn so really I mean Labour – Ed.]  or (pretty obviously) campaign groups but, really, could be anyone who really likes libraries.
  • Pragmatists.  Often with beliefs around the centre of the spectrum, although can be left or right wing on many issues. Those who accept, even if they don’t like it, that austerity is happening, and likely to continue to happen until at least 2020 and that they need to work within that framework in order to do the best they can for libraries. They may also note that the government has been democratically elected, however imperfect that democracy may be. While privately (and even occasionally publicly) against austerity, volunteers or any of a thousand cuts to the service, this group will do what is necessary to meet budget cuts (they are likely, but not always, to call these “savings”), seeing it as something that needs doing.  Frankly, many would lose their jobs if they didn’t. Very likely to accept co-location of services as a more or less desirable option. So this is the group that may, with gritted teeth, install volunteer-run libraries (likely to call them “community libraries”) or indeed be library volunteers.  They will also look at the government agenda and see how libraries fit into it, arguing the case for them in terms the politicians understand and use themselves. Likely to be more senior librarians, professional bodies or New Labour but, again, could be anyone from any field.
  • Believers.  Normally, although not absolutely always, on the right wing of the political spectrum.  Firmly believe in the need for austerity and the efficiency of private enterprise over public authorities, may even argue that “community-managed libraries” can be not just cheaper but often better than those run by paid staff.  Will see no problem in private enterprise taking over public services and may even see this a preferred option, with a willingness to see all sorts of services taking over large parts of public libraries if they will make money.  This group will see co-locating any other services with libraries as a no-brainer win. May be strong believers in libraries (and genuinely want to reform them for their own good) or may not see any “special” place for libraries at all and will expect them to fight with other public services for their slice of an ever decreasingly sized pie.  Very likely to call reductions in budget “savings” or “efficiency savings”. Likely to be technophiles, Conservatives (many Liberal Democrats and some New Labour too) or non library users but, as with all other groups, could be anyone.

You should be able to recognise everyone, or any organisation, involved amongst one of these three headings.  So, have fun putting people in these groups … but then bear in mind that life is never quite as easy as that and, people always have the capacity to surprise.  In case you’re wondering what CILIP is, I think it is in  the difficult position of being somewhere between campaigner and pragmatist. The Society of Chief Librarians is most definitely pragmatist (although it has elements of all groups amongst its members) and Judy Terry quoted below is stongly on the “Believer” side.  It’s pretty obvious who the campaigners are, although even within that group you will find disagreements.  What has happened with CILIP yesterday and today is the organisation trying to be pragmatist but coming up against the fact that many members (or ex-members) of CILIP are, naturally, campaigners. That’s quite a disconnect but one probably inevitable considering the situation … how CILIP react and learn from this and the developing situation (expect George Osborne to announce extra deep cuts to council budgets soon) will say much about it.

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Ideas

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Bibliotheca buys 3M Library Services / Barnet, Lambeth and Lord Tope on Sutton

Editorial

Doubtless the big news today for public libraries isn’t about a public library service: it’s Bibliotheca (or rather its shareholders) buying out one of their major competitors, 3M Library Systems.  I know that for many of us these are the two big players when it comes to RFID and self-service so it’s going to have a possible bearing for when it comes to getting best value … or it may make things more efficient and wonderful, of course.

Other than that, we’ve got three London boroughs making waves. There’s a lot of action, notably from Unison, about Barnet’s proposal to cut library services and almost half their library staff in the process. Amazingly, the Shadow Chancellor comes out with a fulsome note of support for the protestors.  That’s a real, very real, change from pre-Corbyn days. Whether it’s a good change or a bad change depends very much on where you sit politically. Secondly, people are really not impressed about changing libraries into “gyms” in Lambeth, are also unimpressed about the consultation and are not happy as well (again this is Unison) about losing a quarter of the staff there. Finally, I quote Lord Tope on the recent announced cuts in Sutton.  He was the ex-lead of the Libraries all-party parliamentary group before the election until the rules changed which means the lead needs to be an MP.  His points can be summed up as get involved in the consultation and there’s going to be cuts and so it’s up to you help decide where they’re going to fall.  A tough message but a true one.

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Richard O'Neil at ChorltonFest 2014

Cuts in Barnet and Lambeth … and the joys of storytelling

Editorial

Bad news in Barnet as major cuts are announced, although library opening hours will actually be increased due to using Open+ self-service remote-control technology.  Lambeth also announced major cuts but, again with far fewer closures than expected, due to GLL taking over some libraries as “healthy living centres”.  This adds another borough arrow to GLL’s quiver as it already runs libraries in Greenwich and Wandsworth.  Both Barnet and Lambeth represent challenges to the traditional view of libraries as, in both, considerable numbers of library staff will lose their jobs but the councils can claim, with a clear enough conscience to appear to the media with, that they have maintained a library service.  Meanwhile I am receiving via email and Twitter heart-rending stories of library staff losing their jobs and the impact it will have, in reality, on the service that councils provide.

I am also including today a feature about a storyteller and what he does for libraries and literacy.  This is the sort of project that Arts Council England, amongst others, support (although I don’t know if they have done so in this case) and shows the power of outreach and not being limited  to the buildings themselves.

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Electric dreams

Electric dreams, digital inclusion and uncertainties

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Lewisham claim making staff redundant “enhances” their service … and refugees.

Editorial

Some bad news from Lewisham, not made any better by the council claim that making the paid library staff redundant and replacing them with volunteers may “enhance” the service.  There’s one for CILIP to get their teeth into, if it becomes official council policy.

Otherwise, the thing I’d like to draw your attention to is the joint SCL and ASCEL statement welcoming refugees to the UK and the short notice from John Vincent below.  For me, one of the many strengths of public libraries is that they provide refuge for all, from the poorest to (if they choose to) the wealthiest.  I remember when hundreds of Poles suddenly made their appearance.  I also remember knowing about a community of East Timorese moving into the town before anyone else, simply because they joined the library first in order to gain online access.  I am sure public libraries will have similarly important roles to play with the Syrians and others coming in and we should be very proud of it.

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CILIP AGM and the art of not taking things personally

Editorial

The decision by the membership at the CILIP AGM to approve (130 for, 7 against, no absentions) the following statement has raised a few eyebrows:

“That CILIP actively oppose those public authorities and senior library staff over the “amateurisation” of the Public Library service by offering library buildings and contents to be run by the local community with little or no funding for professional or paid library staff. This is resulting in public libraries being run by volunteer staff and taking away work currently done by paid professional and library assistant staff. All current public library service points staffed by paid local authority library staff should be the current base-line – and where such actions are suggested by the local authority and senior library staff, CILIP should support the opposition to such proposals and say so publicly”

Leaving aside the perceived dig against volunteers (and, really, no-one is saying volunteers are a bad thing, just that they’re a pretty odd way to run a national and important service like libraries) the main problem has been with that statement about “and senior library staff”.  It’s worth pointing out here that few chief librarians actually believe that, long-term and structurally, unpaid staff are better than paid but rather have to do so in order to meet tough budget cuts. Indeed, I’ve heard stories of chiefs in tears, privately, because of what they’ve been forced to do publicly. The task, therefore, on both sides (CILIP and senior library staff) is to accept that it’s actually all about funding – by opposing “amateurisation” CILIP are effectively trying to protect budgets in a world where a volunteer run library is seen as far more politically acceptable than a closed branch. They’re not going to personally attack managers. Likewise, chief librarians should not take it personally but rather see CILIP as an ally to their real cause of protecting the service.  No one should take it personally. Everyone should see that this is how we can all help defend public libraries against the most difficult attacks upon them in history. Let us, in other words, all be professional about this.

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Say hello to the remote controlled library

Editorial

Remote controlled staffless libraries are up for an award, as “Customer project of the year”, in the V3 Technology Awards. This is the Open+ scheme where one can enter the library, in set hours, through security doors, as long as one has a library card and a PIN. The library itself can be open without any staff, paid or otherwise, within it, with security being provided by CCTV, tannoys and the ability to remotely control the computers.  Peterborough love it and argue that, instead of closing libraries, they were able to extend opening hours.  Whether library staff, already feeling a tad bit vulnerable after mass job losses and the sharp increase in the use of volunteers, will feel so welcoming remains to be seen.

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Barbaric Herefordshire and Rolf Harris

Editorial

I understand that as well as (a) keeping only one council library in all of Herefordshire, (b) hiving off a large part of the surviving one to other services and (c) closing that surviving library for an indefinite period due to asbestos, the good Conservative councillors of that county are also wanting to (d) cease supporting their Record Office (which opened at a cost of over £8m just this year), Museum and Archives over the next three years.  One hopes that the DCMS will have a quiet word and point out that cutting to just (part of) one library would either mean that the council itself would be legally challenged or that the DCMS itself would be open to challenge for not intervening, either of which would have to stand a very good chance of winning. However, I note with some ironic amusement that it was the Conservative MP for the very same area who was Chair of the DCMS Select Committee that gave the Secretary of State, John Whittingdale,  such a soft ride over libraries in the recent  hearing over his responsibilities. Mr Whittingdale probably laughed about it all the way back to his office, before dismembering the BBC distracted him once more.

The other story, as well as the normal disasters befalling libraries (notably the large numbers of staff lost in Hampshire), is the question of what to do about responses, like from the Kent councillor, to remove all the books produced by Rolf Harris. The arguments are that his crimes are heinous (they are) and that public lending right will mean he financially benefits from book loans (he does). This reminds me of similar mass withdrawals of biographies of Jimmy Saville and of Lance Armstrong. Unlike both of those, though, Rolf Harris did art books as well which presumably contained few outright lies about his life. It’s a tough one but I’m unsure about the precedent being set here if all his books are withdrawn.  Would we need to check who has been convicted every day and dispose of the books accordingly? It worries me that there’s no guidance I can spot on this and one wonders if library authorities are happily creating precedents as they go along.

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