Lobbing it all away: shocking Library of Birmingham cuts

Editorial

The announcement of deep cuts to the Library of Birmingham so soon after opening are shocking.  Nothing shows the short-sighted nature of the supposedly long-term-focused austerity spending cuts than nearly having the opening hours of a £188m building opened the year before.  This is a building that serves so many purposes – a haven for those to learn, an icon for the whole city and a tourist attraction – and yet now it will forever be associated with short-term idiocy.  Naturally, everyone is blaming everyone else, with the current (Labour, not that it matters) administration blaming the previous one … and it is true that taking out such a large commitment just before the credit crunch is something that could only be done by an organisation that was, at the very least, engaged in boom-time groupthink. But, just think, at least they decided to build something as obviously useful as a library with the money.  I’m hardly going to blame them for building something that will have such obvious benefits. If you’re going to choose a symbol for your city, there’s few better than a place of learning open to all.

There are others, not in Birmingham, to blame as well for this mess.  The BookSeller report says that the “oleaginous” (it means oily, apparently) libraries minister had the cheek, when it had nothing to do with him, to be at the opening ceremony last year. Despite his presence then, you can bet he is feeling very hand-off and localist about it now.  But, really, he’s just one of a group, and no-one can accuse him of being a ring-leader. The blame also lies on all of those who think that cuts can be made to local government because they’re wasteful and lazy and that their cost outweighs their value.  In actuality, what is wasteful, lazy, costly and valueless is thinking like that.  Five years of cuts means there’s nothing left of that culture, if there was ever anything like it in the first place.  Take all the credit you want for that, Mr Vaizey, but don’t think it hasn’t come without a tremendous amount of pain and hurt and, if you are hell-bent (and that is a very appropriate phrase) to go for more, don’t think it’ll be as easy (as it doubtless seemed from your nice chair in Whitehall) as the last five years.  And don’t think the short-term savings you’re making now will make up for the long-term losses that cutting back on such value-giving services is going to involve.

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Librarians with swords, “libraries” in pubs

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The perils of a discretionary service and localism

Editorial

Tim Coates has just sent me some figures from the most recent CIPFA library statistics.  They show a lot of trends that one working in libraries can well believe: the first being the drastic drop in usage.  Since 1997, we have seen a halving in book borrowing and a reduction of a third in the number of library visits. In the same time we have also seen the loss of two-fifths of professionally qualified staff (only two-fifths?) and a lost of a fifth of total staff. E-books are starting to make an appearance but are still at pathetically small levels, with total number of borrows being the same as New Zealand, which has one-twelfth of our population.

So which came first the reductions in usage or the reductions in budgets? Tim disagrees with me and argues that budgets haven’t been much shrunk (he entirely disregards inflation) but everything I know, experience and has been told ties in with my view that the money has been cut by around a third over the last parliament. That alone could count for much of the reduction, as experience from the USA, Australia and New Zealand suggests usage is, unsurprisingly, far more buoyant in areas where spending has been protected.  The problem with libraries, you see, is we cannot force people to use them – they’re a discretionary service and if people see the buildings looking tatty, with harried staff and not many books, well, they’re going to walk away.  So a vicious circle is created.

But there is more to it than that. The cuts in budget are masking and distracting library services and politicians from the massive change in people’s reading habits. Moreover, the fact that UK libraries are still experiencing such cuts in usage even in a time of recession when people should be wanting to use the free public library service more is as clear a pointer as anything that something is going on over and above cuts in investment.  Technology is changing how people view libraries and, there, again, the UK library service is suffering more than elsewhere  … because it takes pro-active planning and investment to transform a library service to what is more in keeping with today and such things are in short supply where all councils are doing is working out what to cut next.

We can hope that the Sieghart Report (come on Mr Vaizey, you’ve paid for it, you publish it) can give a new impetus to providing that transformation because, left to themselves, 151 English library authorities are just not going to be up to the task.  Like it or not, the current mantra of localism is inadequate for this task.  We need national direction and we need it now.

CIPFA facts at a glance

With thanks to Tim Coates who has crunched the numbers. My thoughts are in italics.

  • Since 1997 the number of books available for lending has gone down by 20m from 92m. Overall book lending in public libraries has gone down by 49% since 1997
  • The number of people using libraries to borrow books has halved since 1997
  • The number of library visits has gone down by 33% since 1997
  • The numbers of copies of e-books held in libraries in 2014 are England 526k; Wales 204k ; Scotland 60k; N Ireland 21k This is the same as New Zealand, which has one-twelfth the population.
  • The number of ebooks loaned in 2013/14 as a portion of total book lending is England 0.86%; Wales 1.54%; Scotland 1.70%; N Ireland 0.71%
  • The number of libraries open 10 hours or more has fallen since 1997 by 9.8%. There are 4,282 library public services of all kinds in the UK of which 101 are reported as being not managed by their local council (2.4%)These are surprisingly low figures and suggest that not all volunteer libraries are reported as such by councils (my figures count far more, and are linked).
  • 48% of libraries in the UK offer wifi. This is a shockingly low figure at a time where even bakers offer it.
  • Capital Expenditure on public libraries in 2013/14 was the highest ever at £163m. If one takes inflation into account, it is not the highest – that was £161m in 2009/10.  I also imagine a lot of this expenditure was to convert libraries to self-service or to install other services such as One Stop Shops.
  • Council annual expenditure on library operations fell in 2013/14 by 2.8% to £940m (it was £967m in 2012/13). Inflation was 3% so the real fall was 5.8% if one takes that into account.  Again, if inflation is taken at full face value, combined expenditure on libraries has fallen by a full third (33%) since its peak in 2005/6. See the figures using the Bank of England calculator.
  • Expenditure on books (including ebooks and digital content) fell 14% to £77.6m, which is its lowest level for 20 years. It is 7.6% of library spend.
  • There has been a sharp rise in property costs from 11.9% of expenditure to 13.5% in two years.  It’s hard to see this as anything other than a budget grab by central council departments.
  • In 2014 There are 19,307 paid staff of whom 3,106 are qualified professional. There are 35,813 (full time equivalent) volunteers. In 2007 there were 25,769 paid staff of whom 5,298 were qualified professional and there were 13,417 (full time equivalent) volunteers.  This means that there has been a cut by a fifth of all paid staff in seven years, rising to two-fifths of professionally qualified staff.  Volunteers have almost tripled in the same period.

“The real concern must be the marked decline over several years, especially in England, in library usage and borrowing.  That is the urgent issue that the DCMS, Arts Council England and the professional bodies need to properly understand and take urgent action.” Desmond Clarke

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Peak Library, the perils of competitive tending, double taxation and disaster relief

Editorial

Well, it’s been a few days since my last post (due to illness) so there’s a bumper edition today.  One of the advantages of this is that themes emerge – forests of new trends appear from the trees of individual news stories.  So, looking down the page, we have problems with central libraries, competitive tendering, parish councils and the weirdly self-contradictory beacon of libraries as disaster relief.  Let’s look at these one by one.

 I can see that the people of Cardiff are pretty darn peeved, not least because they stand the chance of losing their beautiful new-ish central library (what is it with Wales? Newport suggested the same thing last week) in order to stave off branch closures. The same Big New Shiny Expensive Library problem is also of cause haunting the biggest of them all – Birmingham – where barely two years after opening, they’re struggling to pay the bills.  This ties in with another post from Will Self who compares the big libraries of the last few years with the Skyscraper Index, the theory that says that the biggest skyscrapers are always built at the peak of booms and open in the crashes.  This theory actually ties in quite well, except that Mr Self then goes on to claim that libraries are not needed any more due to digitisation: something that will come as a shock to those who have had to push their way through the crowds at Liverpool, Birmingham or Manchester Central Libraries recently.  No, the reason for the problem there is purely financial and whose blame lies with theory of Austerity than the illusionary theory that people don’t use big libraries any more.

Something that has been expected for a while has finally happened: the acceptance (in large part forced by a judicial review) by Lincolnshire that GLL has put in an eligible bid for its service has meant that its service is now open to tender. This has always been a worry with this: that a socially acceptable mutual or trust could be used as a stalking horse for their darker kin, for-profit companies, to get into markets otherwise closed to them. Lincolnshire looks like it’s going to be a test case for this so it will be interesting what happens in 2015: campaigners may think twice about judicial reviews if they are then see Carillion making 5-10% profit at the taxpayer’s expense two years later. Not that that, private companies would argue, is necessarily a problem – their claimed efficiencies and economies of scale have been used to justify the profit – but few waving placards outside a threatened branch can be doing so in the hope that it would help shareholders.

There’s a fair few protests in North Yorkshire and elsewhere at the decision to push yet more libraries onto volunteers.  The perceived success of the first few waves has led to more and more areas being given the Hobson’s Choice of volunteering or closing.  One wonders, though, if the low hanging fruit here has already been picked.  Branches in prosperous socially cohesive Buckinghamshire villages may be able to sustain volunteer libraries but is there a stage where libraries are just too big for this treatment?  Also, some parish councils are getting a little uppity about their larger country brethren suggesting that they take over the task of running branches.  The principle of double taxation has been raised.  As the larger councils push more and more onto the smaller, at some stage the elastic is going to snap … and we may be already reaching that with some.

Finally, a word of praise for Ferguson Library in the USA.  This branch, with a clearly inspirational new library manager, has coped so well with the riots there that it has become a beacon of peace in what is clearly a community in danger of breaking. This role of the library as disaster relief is a common one in America: Hurricane Sandy led to many libraries being used as emergency centres.  It’s not something, thankfully, that I have seen the need for British libraries to do but the possibility is there.  So make sure that libraries are included in your council’s disaster management protocols and get another feather in your library survival bow.

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Claim your space

Editorial

It is a truth universally acknowledged amongst public librarians that they serve a wide variety of purposes, from literacy to online provision to social welfare to quiet study space to community living room to unofficial childcare.  It is another truth, almost as widely accepted, that because we serve so many purposes, we are in danger of becoming Jacks of All Trades and, therefore, sadly not as well funded as the Masters of Any.  The Public Library Universal Information Offers are an attempt by the profession to at least put forward the main reasons – Health, Reading, Information and Digital – and is to be commended.  Another way is to look at your community or region at something that is not being done that libraries fit into.  In Queensland, the State Library was successful in gaining funding due to identifying their space as being cradle to grave literacy: everyone else worked in silos – schools, adult learners, nurseries, employers – but it was only the library that worked across all age groups and thus had a natural co-ordinating role.  In the USA, public libraries are often seen as being involved with the Maker Space movement, encouraging people to create content rather than just consume it.  There, also, libraries have a disaster relief function (shown, this very week in the human-created disaster in Ferguson).  In Northamptonshire, libraries are claiming the space – not always happily – vacated by children’s centres and they’re also doing a ton with business. In many other English councils, on the other hand, they’re very literally having their space used by others – One Stop Shops, other councils services and even the police. Such services can be beneficial to the library but they run the risk of diluting the message even more.

I can’t prove it but I suspect that public libraries are often most prone to failure, to decline and cuts (and most often both) where they’re not claiming their space in their local council.  Just being reactive (and I know that “just” is masking a lot of pain and effort: it’s difficult to even stand still these days) is not enough.  You need to somehow get ahead of the game and get known for something councils and society need and will fund.  It would have been great if libraries had managed this in the pre-Austerity years but, frankly, the library profession fluffed it.  In hindsight, there was a whole of echo chamber and complacency going on even in what appeared at the time as being bad years.  Well, it’s tougher now but that doesn’t mean we have excuses.  Public libraries are too important for that.  So go out there, do your research, get your arguments and claim your space.  Because otherwise, in this nasty philistine world in which we now live, someone else will push you out of it.

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Opening the world

Editorial

So I grew up in Newport in South Wales.  Let’s be honest, it’s not a beautiful town and it’s not got any better since the philistine council ripped down the Chartist mural a short time ago. But I remember the one thing that made me go to that town centre regularly was the library.  My first trips were for the Asterix books and gazing wide-eyed at the lady’s hands as they moved in blurs over the Browne Issue cards set out in rows over a long line of tables.  Then, when I’d grown up a little more, I took the bus from Magor on my own and the central library provided me with thousands of friends and a chance to go into space, fight post-apocalypse monsters and command armies.  Girls were also involved, although sadly almost all in Heinlein novels. That last got me quite excited for a while but, anyway, the point here is that there was a big central library in Newport that was important to me.  So I read with sorrow and, frankly, anger that it may be under threat of closure.  It was never a beautiful building – a bit too brutalist 60s/70s for my taste and it smelt of concrete and cleaning fluid – but, damn it, the place held wonders. And now, due to what sounds like chronic underinvestment, they’re thinking of closing the place.  And one questions comes to my mind.  Since when did we decide that civilization was too expensive?

Anyway, the Guardian is finding lots of people who think that there should not be a price put on such things.  It looks like I have something in common with AL Kennedy, for instance … so I’ll leave her the last lines. More >

Speaking Up For Libraries, each in their own way?

Editorial

The Speak Up For Libraries event on Saturday was notable for having actual politicians attending.  Helen Goodman MP, the shadow minister for public libraries was there as well as Justin Tomlinson MP, who was the Conservative chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on public libraries.  Helen gave me the impression of being a lady who has worked hard to get on top of her brief.  She is somewhat hamstrung by her party’s unfortunate agreement with the Conservatives about austerity and was therefore reduced to identifying pots of money that are underused and shifting resources around rather than promising more investment per se. Helen is, however, persuaded of the need for a national development agency (hurrah!) and even more significantly of the need for at least some standards.

Justin came across as a very nice amiable bloke who cares for libraries but is very much tied to the mantra not just of austerity but of localism as well.  Basically this means that libraries will have to make do with less and less money and with no national co-ordination (except in the realm of new technology).  When asked about standards, Justin could basically only agree to standards within each authority so he’d be happy (and you see him thinking about this) a “Swindon Standard” but nothing more.  That’s not a standard, Justin.  He also made clear, in the normal politician way that includes never actually saying it, that intervention by the secretary of state is never going to happen under any circumstances ever. He was keen on staff wearing uniforms (not an enthusiasm or a priority shared by much of the audience) and said several times that local library managers should be “empowered”.  The local library managers in the room would have been speculating at that point on how empowered they’d need to be to cope with halving of budgets.  One envisages drug dens. He also said that it was a “crying shame” that on average libraries spend only 7.5% on bookstock and that this should be increased.  The local library managers in the audience then mentally crossed off any freedoms they allowed themselves to imagine a minute earlier.

The Liberal Democrats failed to send a representative, possibly, as one wag suggested, because so few people support them now that they couldn’t find anyone free.  It’s also possible that their singularly lacklustre, almost invisible, record on public libraries has left them with nothing to actually say.  There was a lovely bloke from the Greens, Martin Francis from Brent, who said all of the right things and knew his stuff.  Such a shame that the Greens will only get at most 1% of the MPs. Well, unless they suddenly start talking about immigrants and get their picture taken holding pints of beer in pubs … which leads us on to the ghost at the feast.  It appears that UKIP were not invited to the conference which, while understandable in terms of a general abhorrence amongst conference-goers of their policies, is unfortunate as it shows bias.  Like it or not, they’re now a parliamentary party and will have a voice on libraries which, unfortunately, we still have no idea about because they were not there.

For me, the big theme from a very well attended, well-organised and surprisingly well-mannered conference was the need for Government intervention in the form of standards, a national body and a willingness to take councils to task. No-one there apart from the Conservative MP believed (and to a lesser extent, one suspects, the Labour MP) believed that a hands off “let a hundred flowers bloom” approach to local library services was the answer.  The task will be to persuade the politicians that it is, that they occasionally need to get their hands dirty to weed their garden, will the challenge of the next few months.

My full notes on the conference can be found at Speak Up For Libraries Conference, 22 November 2014 Public Libraries News.

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Westminster Hall debate on public libraries

Editorial

The first Westminster Hall debate for a few years (the last one being in January 2011) has taken place, with Labour and Conservatives attacking each other’s record on the subject.  There was some interesting debate about the poor record of the Conservatives from the Labour Party and some accusations of Labour closing more libraries from the Conservatives.  In reality, both parties are cutting spending on libraries: who it is doing it depends simply on who is in power and how much their budgets have been cut by the Coalition Government.  It’s always amusing to see Ed Vaizey claiming that the situation with libraries is rosy and this time he excelled himself by even managing to claim responsibility for the new Liverpool and Birmingham libraries, both of which owe their revamps to decisions made before 2010.  Ed asking “what can one do from the centre?” in one breath and then claiming to be a “pro-active campaigner”for libraries almost in the next was pushing it a tad though.

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  • Literacy hub – including all organisations interested in literacy in an area including libraries.

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Jacqueline Wilson surrenders

The pain in Spain falls mainly not as much as here on the library staff

Editorial

I don’t know about you but I had Spain down as a country going through at least as much public service pain as we were. So I was surprised to see when I was there last week to speak at their public libraries conference, that, although they are indeed suffering cuts, things are different there.  For one thing, it looks to me like library staff are being retained while bookfunds are being slashed. Compare that to the attitude shown here recently, for instance in this recent quote from Leicestershire:

We understand these people are valuable but buildings, books or people and can’t cut books or computers. We have to cut the person.” Cllr Richard Blunt, cabinet member for libraries.

Well, that’s pretty blunt and that attitude shocked the heck the out of the Spanish when I told them about it.  To them, although there are some volunteer libraries in smaller places, they see the librarian as integral to the system, not as something easily replaced by the users.  There are other differences too, not least of which being that the conference was paid for by the State and not the professional association, keeping the attendance fee down to a mere 30 Euros for three days.  Because of that, there were over 200 public librarians there and the whole conference was about public libraries. To put that into context, the nearest thing to that we have in this country is the Umbrella conference which cost £340 plus VAT last year when it was in Manchester, with very very few public librarians being able to afford a place. So that’s a whole bunch of professional networking, best practice and learning just plain missing from the UK.

There were also other differences.  For one thing, amazing to me, there was until this year no Public Lending Right … and, my goodness, they’re annoyed about it.  The problem, you see, is that local library services have to pay it there rather than the painless national system. Which is not going well when there’s low budgets anyway and the fees payable can be pretty small and very fiddly.  A few were trying to work out the best way to avoid paying … which leads me on to yet another difference, which is the Spanish have a general distrust of the private sector with the assumption being that if a private company is doing State work then, probably, some corruption is involved. Another big difference, which is also the case in France, is that there a legal minimum price limit on books which means that books are expensive which means (bear with me) that libraries are (my theory any way) in more demand.  Finally, Spain is still building new libraries, although the new one I went too – with no self-service, big counters and an OPAC which (honest) had “OPAC” written on it – suggested to me state of the art here twenty years ago.  Mind you, before the more pro-techy of us get cocky, the Australian librarian I went around with pointed out that her libraries have moved beyond self-service machines now and have a fully mobile library system now.  Of that, perhaps more next post.

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“Libraries are how people fall in love with books” Michael Morpurgo

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Pointless security sensors, Southampton cuts, Bromley cuts and Bolton cuts

Editorial

It’s a bumper edition today due to not having reported for one week. The reason for this was a most worthwhile few days spent attending (and speaking at) the biennial Spanish national libraries conference.  There’s enough for about four different posts from my time there but the first I have already published, as a separate page, on the subject that apparently a lot of people know about but few have mentioned: the pointlessness in many libraries of having security sensors.  Experts have already given some feedback via the comments section of the page and via Twitter so you can be assured that it’s not just one man’s opinion.  Basically, it looks like most librarians agree with my view that security gates cost far more money than they save but, if you live in a high crime area and have expensive stock then they can be viable (or more than viable) as long as you have trained and motivated staff.  If, however, your staff (and be honest with yourselves here) are not then you’re basically wasting your money.  Which no one should these days … and it’s a world wide phenomenon because I’m getting lots of Australian librarians agreeing with me: isn’t social media wonderful? For the full page see Library security gates: why you should save money by not using them.

Big news this edition are cuts in both Bromley and Southampton, where the standard response to cuts of bringing in the volunteers is being made.  Bromley is perhaps more interesting as it is looking at alternatives, including outsourcing, to its current close relationship with the neighbouring borough of Bexley.  Another B, Bolton, also makes the news due to more information about its cuts, with ten people’s jobs being lost (you know, I’d really appreciate some research on what happens to these people) and a look at becoming a non-profit trust on the cards. I hope Bolton has chatted to its neighbour Wigan as they are looking to get rid of their own trust. Finally, a mention must be made of the Leicestershire councillor who has made it clear that bricks and mortar are more important to him than mere employees.  Nice. This, I should point out, is directly opposite to the response to cuts that I discovered in Spain, but of that more in a post soon.

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“In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed” Germaine Greer

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