Minister “leads fight back” + Torfaen

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Cipfa figures : despair and hope

Editorial

Another CIPFA account of changes in UK public libraries has been released. Putting aside its lateness, probable inaccuracies, omissions and stupefying cost (over £400) and secrecy (share it at your peril), it sadly remains for now the best we have to see what’s going on.  Hopefully that we change soon. What we see is a cut in budget in one year of 2.5%, a cut in staff of 5% and bookfund of 8%.  The cut in budget is not startlingly deep but comes after years of other cuts, meaning it’s tougher than one would think. There’s a decline in usage too, inevitably. How much of that is due to cuts and how much to other factors (internet, smartphones etc) is a moot point, although its clear from looking at other countries, it’s not just the budget that reduces usage. I’ve seen campaigners today squarely blaming library staff (mainly chief librarians but also others), and CILIP for the decline in usage. That strikes me as unfair, perhaps blatantly so. The reasons for the declines are manifold, with the keys being the obvious ones of budget cuts combined with technological change. Now, for the first time in years, at least, there is a plan to do something about it and organisations (such as CILIP and also, much to my delight, the SCL) pushing things forward.  Beneath the dark figures, there is hope. So let’s cling on to that, enjoy our libraries, fight for them (by working in them and using them) and aim to make the future brighter than the past.

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Ideas

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Charging for events can be good for you

Editorial

For a little while now, I have been doing research in work and in PLN on the pros and cons of charging for events in libraries. I also attended an excellent event today on promoting reading events that energised me a bit. Here’s a few basic things learnt, both today and over the course of the last few months:

  • If you charge for an event, you get more people, who say they will attend beforehand, actually attending.  That payment shows they have invested, quite literally, in the event. People are far more likely to be no-shows at free events. A no-show at a paid event rarely asks for a refund and their seat can be sold again if there is a queue.
  • You get enthusiastic library staff (essential for point of sale) if the event is a good one and they can keep some (ideally all) of the profits to spend on their branch.  This can create a virtuous circle where a successful event can pay for things (e.g. a microphone, even a decent tablecloth) to improve the next event. My thinking here is that expecting staff to do extra for no benefit, with all the money gained going into a central pot is communism and communism (or perhaps more accurately “the tragedy of the commons“) has been fairly comprehensively proven not to work.
  • Publishers prefer it if you charge for an author event.  It gives the author, and the event, value and prestige. Free too often means bog-standard or the perception that it is.
  • To the big worry that charging can block access to events: (1) nowadays there would often be no funding for events if we don’t charge (2) this is extra quality stuff being provided and not part of the basic service and (3) a charge can be made that is returnable on the night or against the cost of a booksale / drink. Discounts can also be offered for library members or those on benefits.
  • Charging means higher quality and so you’d better deliver. Professional theatre shows can be put on, animal handling events can be done at half-term. Moreover, people care if they’re charged so you need to deliver.  Second-rate is not good enough if you’ve spent your own money on it. And libraries should never be second-rate. So more effort is put in  because I don’t want to be the one who has to address why someone felt short-changed. In other words, charging gives both the carrot (better events, income) and the stick as well.

That’s just a bit of my thinking so far.  It’s not rocket science, and people who I know who work with in theatres, entertainment or publishing consider all this very basic, even elementary stuff.  But it’s new for many libraries, and for me.

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Public Libraries now have Ambition. Well, perhaps …

Editorial

Well, that was quick. I write an editorial bemoaning the lack of the publication of the Ambition paper on public libraries in the last post and a day or two later it gets published.  I hadn’t realised the government moved so fast at my command.  Not noticed that happen before. My next editorial must be about why I need to win the lottery …

Anyway, here are my first thoughts.

  • Those looking for this to fundamentally change the playing field for libraries will disappointed. There’s no extra protections for libraries and little in the way of new thinking or, at least, anything that would come as a surprise to even a casual observer.  What we have here is a document, pragmatic and well-meaning, that has gone through a lot of committees and had to be watered down a lot.  I suspect, but don’t know, that one of the key water-downers would be the LGA who, faced with having to work out enormous cuts to overall budgets, would not have taken kindly to being told that libraries had to be somewhat protected. The government, wedded to austerity as it still is, also would not with a credible face be able to have both its cake and eat it.
  • There’s an underlying presumption that libraries have to be more innovative and efficient in order to survive, with a heavy emphasis on looking at more library trusts.  Co-locations also come in for praise. The message here is, look, your budgets are going to continue being cut, you’re on your own, so be cleverer with what you have. And if you don’t innovate, then it’s your fault if you close. This is hardly fair but ties in with a lot of Government and Daily Mail thinking. The fact that one can co-locate, be innovative and still be doomed if budgets continue to be cut is not addressed.  As an example, I was in Cardiff Central Library this weekend. It used to be a great library but now half its space is council services, there’s security guards at the door and the surviving shelves are reduced and crammed. It’s a library, in other words, that’s going to see its use plummet because of co-location. Other funding, such as social investment stand some chance of success, although listing philanthropy comes across as wishful thinking and the beloved private sector partnerships will almost certainly be veiled advertising unless carefully checked (and I suspect it will rather be embraced, no questions asked and no ethics mentioned).
  • The Taskforce is going to package libraries as useful to local and central government for their other agendas.  At long last, effectively, public libraries will have an advocacy department within government and a national public relations arm, pushing out good news stories. This is good, to a point, but it looks like those who have been pushing out negative news stories (e.g. what is actually happening) are being blamed for the state of public libraries. I’m going to swallow hard and try not to take it personally. Actually, I have noticed myself that the media like to concentrate on bad news about public libraries and I take it as a hopeful sign that some media-savvy public relations may be in the offing. I’ve wanted national marketing and promotion for years and I’m really hoping this is going to be it
  • Now to the money. Yes, there is some. Actually, quite a lot compared to what libraries normally have to deal with. An (apparent) one-off of £4 million no less, albeit with a ridiculously short application timeframe of one month (including Christmas). Seems a shame to have to rush bids in that way, and it will result in some waste if that end-date is kept to. I hope it is extended.
  • English public libraries still, officially, have no standards. There’s going to be voluntary benchmarking and some very easy-going guidelines (to give you an idea the first guideline, literally, is try not to break the law) which will be of some use in at least giving an idea of what should be aimed for. However, being this is a Government funded department doing the benchmarking, don’t expect the standards to be so high as to not allow cuts in budget, and there will be no penalties (how can there be with a system so wedded to localism?) if one fails.
  • There’s a skills strategy for the aging workforce and a look at how to get good new staff but at the same time developing volunteers. This looks like, as much of the paper does, an attempt to square the circle but fingers crossed.
  • Dedicated DCMS support for library authorities to go mutual (“masterclasses” will be held) with a possible new support body for mutuals.  I see library trusts as a ray of hope – if done right – for the sector so this is promising. A look at franchising support services will also please some, although presumably not those currently employed in them.
  • There are 7 outcomes  for public libraries, similar but these are not identical to universal offers. Expect to be quizzed on what they are in management meetings, Memorise them now so you can impress.

So, my final verdict is that this is not earth shattering but is still helpful for the sector.  Where there is an issue, it is, amusingly, when one considers what it is called, a lack of ambition for the sector but it is at least deeply pragmatic. Also, there’s not really a specific roadmap for implementation of how some of this is going to be achieved so it will be interesting to see how that developed.

Now, excuse me while I develop an idea and write a bid for funds for four weeks time and work out how to turn every news story of a cut into a good news one. That’s going to prove tricky (see Swindon below) but, hey, councils appear to be able to do it without blinking (see Sheffield below) so it’s got to be possible.

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No Ambition

Editorial

I was sorry to see deep cuts to Swindon confirmed, although with one fewer library loss than expected.  50 FTE job losses means, in the part-time dominated world of libraries, far more actual jobs lost than that, with families affected as well, a month before Christmas.  Moreover, it means two-thirds of all libraries in the borough being closed or passed to volunteers. Meanwhile, up in Redcar and Cleveland, branch closures (apart from the mobile) have been avoided but a loss of over 100 opening hours per week is still fairly major.

These reductions, repeated seemingly in every post, are serious enough to warrant urgent action but that’s the opposite of what we’re getting from the Government.  While the Ambition document waits yet more days/months/eons until it is finally published, the Taskforce has to wonder about its purpose in life.  To avoid it simply becoming known as the Blogforce, the Government needs to actually do something, at the very least allowing it to go in one direction. Minister, you’re employing these people, now use them, sort of thing. However, the tale of the last six years has been of general neglect of the sector even while deep cuts mean the service is diminished as ever before.  This lack of ambition for the sector by libraries ministers is shown by the continuing, well, lack of Ambition.

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Ideas

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The usage of the Summer Reading Challenge is down. Why?

Editorial

Three quarters of a million children undertook the Summer Reading Challenge (SRC) in the UK this year.  That’s a brilliant achievement for public libraries and cannot be understated. From direct personal experience, I know how well this promotion improves the reading of children over the holidays and, also, how much excitement my children gained from it. The theme was excellent and the promotional materials professionally produced (unlike so much so many libraries have to put up with) and benefitted from economies of scale.  In the two authorities I directly know about (neither of which experienced significant cuts last year), usage went up by over 10% and it was the most successful year ever in both library services.  So why the drop nationally? Well, the most obvious answer has to be the cuts to library services, as the quote from Lambeth below shows. If there are fewer libraries in an authority, fewer staff and fewer books then there’s going to be fewer users.  It’s not rocket science.  In addition, some library authorities have withdrawn from doing the SRC, which to my mind is a real shame. Oh, and by the way, overall library usage (especially in terms of book issues) is down year on year.

That’s not to say the SRC is perfect.  The biggest example is the need to buy year-specific medals each time that can cause real problems on limited budgets. Why? Because medals can only be bought months before the Challenge and they cannot be used the next year. So, one has to estimate numbers needed and hope you get the figures right. Buy too many and you’re wasting resources. Buy too few and suddenly the need to promote the SRC is replaced by panic that too many will complete, promotion is dialled back and, even, mad-dash searches for medals from other services or, even, shops, are made.  But, such annoyances aside, the SRC is still by far the biggest promotion any library service does (or, if it isn’t, it should be), still the best by a long shot and something we all should be participating in.  It’s part of what makes the Summer so busy and so job-affirming. And three quarters of a million children know the reason why.

Finally, I need to correct something I said in the last editorial.  Devon’s Libraries Unlimited are consulting on the removal of Saturday enhancements and I need to make clear that a decision has not yet been made on whether staff’s pay will be cut in this way.  My apologies that I intimated otherwise. Indeed, I’ll go further and point out that looking to reduce expenditures like this is something that every authority, Trust or not, will inevitably consider as budgets are reduced and so it’s hardly the unique fault of this non-profit. Rather, if you’re into blame, look to the council that cuts the budget, the government that cuts the council’s budget and, ultimately, the electorate that voted for such a government. The role of libraries, and their supporters, has to be to highlight the benefits of the service, what the loss is if it is taken away and – a key point – work out how best to deal with such cuts as are inflicted and turn out to be unavoidable. Campaigning is one aspect of this but the search for reductions that least affect the service is another.

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At least they can complain when they’re being cut: Suffolk Libraries speaks out

Editorial

Suffolk Libraries, one of the poster boys of innovation in the UK, is facing a cut to its budget. I can imagine some would see this as a vindication of their dislike for libraries being run by a non-profit trust. I, however, see things differently. All authorities, or many of them, are facing such cuts and the news from the Autumn Statement appears to suggest that this is not going to change any time soon.  However, while council-controlled public library services have to just accept the cut and hope for public protests, Trusts can be a little more active in their defence and the news from Suffolk shows precisely this. No council library chief could comment in a way that the Chair of the Suffolk Libraries board has. This gives such Trusts more defences than a traditionally run service. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, especially if they’re Leisure-dominated and thus (at least in the case of Warrington LiveWire) seemingly ignorant about libraries and willing to sacrifice them to protect their leisure arm. And it doesn’t mean they’re always nice, as the staff at Devon Libraries Unlimited are discovering, with their Saturday enhancements being taken away. But Library- run Trusts do have their strong suits. And this is one of them.

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Being free about being free: the charging survey results

Editorial

My big thanks to the many of you that took the time to do the quick survey on charges for crafts and drinks. I have put the results in full via this link. The results reveal that, six years into austerity, libraries are still reticent to charge for some small-scale extra services, although those that do report few problems about doing so.  Equally, even having a donations tin out on the table is a rare sight.  It’s a bit worrying to see several not being sure about the licensing laws, although this may just indicate how rarely alcohol is served in many branches. My personal experience is that people don’t mind having a donations tin out for crafts and other events.  In addition, such money can be kept in-branch to pay for future crafts and drinks, which is a real gift in some cash-strapped libraries which may otherwise struggle to supply such things. Moreover, there seems to be a public assumption made by many of the public that “free” means “not very good” and – almost universally – that missing a free event one has a ticket for (despite knowing this takes the opportunity away from someone else) is OK. So many branches may be missing out by giving things out for free, for all sorts of reasons. On the other hand, this does mean that the library is very much a charge-free zone for many people, including parents of young children, meaning that ability to pay, unique in the High Street, is not a concern.

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Refurbishments, commitments and shocked librarian reactions to President Trump

Editorial

A very positive (and rare) article in the Telegraph on libraries is a nice accompaniment to a couple of pieces in the Guardian on school and public libraries. Continuing the positive new, there’s three refurbishments of libraries – including one with 3D printers – as well as (well, hopefully positive, it’s too early to tell) the replacement of Nottingham Central Library. Rounding off the national news is a call from CILIP for (gosh) leadership and commitment to public libraries from the Government.

But the main thing I will remember this week is the absolute shocked reaction by US librarians to the news of Donald Trump being elected. They’re a lot more political over there than British librarians, I can tell you. With many on the ALATT Facebook group (normally a bunch of very nice and supportive librarians) almost hitting open warfare when anyone suggested that anyone who voted for Trump wasn’t a sexist or a racist. The battle lines have been drawn there. We will see how long the war goes on and if anyone outside of library staff rooms notice (and the implications if they do).

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Focus on school libraries

Editorial

Some impressive campaigning from children’s laureates, past and present, for school libraries plus the Read On Get On coalition notes the impact of their reduction on reading.  It’s good to see school libraries being highlighted.  Because of their less public nature, cuts to school libraries often don’t get the publicity that anything similar in public libraries would receive.  But the impact of the loss of a school library when it  comes to a child’s literacy is incalculable. Moreover, there is a natural partnership between school and public libraries. Here’s wishing them the best.

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