Merry Christmas everyone. Here’s to a better 2015.

Editorial

I often get asked how I find the time to do Public Libraries News. For any of you who don’t know (and I deliberately don’t emphasise this on the blog for reasons all of you will be able to guess) I do have a full-time job as a librarian and, yes, I also have a family that demands full attention as well. The answer therefore is that PLN is my leisure time.  Before, you see, I would slob out in front of TV or play computer games (strategy games mainly: I don’t have the quickest of reflexes) and now in some ways I have simply contributed one form of computer activity for another.  But of course this is far more rewarding than any computer game: this blog appears to actually be useful to people and does, in its small way, hopefully, help public libraries and library workers.  Being able to understand what is going on and to get the chance to know or at least meet many of the major characters involved are also bonuses.  And if you do something you enjoy you find the time to do it.  It helps also to have a supportive and long-suffering wife and family (my youngest child, who is eight, cannot remember me without the blog) as well.  So PLN, I guess, is now part of me and it’s got to the stage now when I’m not sure what I would do without it.

Thanks to all of you for supporting the website. Do please keep sending me your news and views.  Let me know if you want a particular topic covered or if the views expressed herein are simply wrong.  PLN depends on knowing what is going on and that involves on knowing all sides of the argument.  A correction or an opposing viewpoint is not an offense to me: rather it is a vital gift. So, please,  may I take this opportunity to wish you all – even in these dark times – a very merry Christmas and a happy, a better, 2015.  Keep on with your good work and remember to enjoy, celebrate and continue to fight for public libraries.

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Special on Sieghart: The Independent Library Report

Editorial

The description of public libraries as a golden thread that is present throughout people’s lives is what will stick with me from this report but I am unsure what else will, for this appears to be a report written with the current government and politics in mind.

Sieghart knows that the Coalition is not going to accept a report that requires large amounts of money or goes against the doctrine of localism so he looks at what is needed and tries to pull the appropriate lever.  Need investment in getting new computers? Go for pushing the digital by default agenda and very carefully avoid giving a figure for anything.  Frustrated by the lack of central direction? Get together all of the current leaders in libraries, along with digital people (two birds, one stone) and give them priorities and times scales. As such, one way of viewing the report is to admire the Machiavellianism of people working out what is needed and couching it in terms that are acceptable to the decision makers. You can see the whole thing as being written in a careful code, tiptoeing around the reality of dire budgets and an increasingly atomised and demoralised service in order to try to keep something alive for better times. Indeed, one wonders why the Government, normally completely ignorant of subtlety, appears to have deliberately buried this key report on public libraries on the very last possible day before Christmas.

An opposing view of course is that this committee has been packed with people who think like the Government does.  Such a viewpoint would note that Ed Vaizey will not be choking while sat on his antique furniture over this one.  Indeed, the Report appears argues what he does, that massive cuts to public libraries can somehow be squared with a thriving service, that 151 local authorities will somehow be more efficient than a regional or national service and that best practice and nudging will do the work that in other countries require national strategy and direction. The Report thus misses the chance to make a big statement or a big headline and, one worries, a big impact. There’s no mention of standards or the possibility of them, which is a great shame as that is one thing that could make a change and, although there’s no way Vaizey would have gone for it, there’s another party out there and a general election in the offing.  Let’s face it, if the Conservatives get in next time then libraries as we know them are gone. The worry is that Labour will read this report and do too little to change.  Or it may be the committee believes that both parties are effectively the same (and there’s so little between them in so many things they may not be wrong) and so it’s time to get used to the new order, salvaging what one can.

The message that the media has taken away from this is that libraries should be like cafes.  But the country already has cafes.  What libraries are, can be and should be for the future health of the country is so much more than that.  To their credit, the committee does show their awareness of this many times but the media appear to have gone for the simple lowest common denominator description. So what do I believe? I think that this report is fine and the hard work that went into it is worthy of praise, however faint it may sound. It’s  frankly hard to argue with too much of it and what there is, if it happens as suggested,  will change things for the better.  But I also believe that it misses the chance to make big points.  It is just another, despite its protestation, report.  But then I guess all reports are.  If it stands a chance to be more than a report depends on the energy and motivation of those involved. This government, when it comes to libraries, has neither … so it will be up to the rest of us.  Therefore, whether the Independent Report will have long-term positive effects I cannot tell – the future of this, and thus the public library service, is hanging by a thread.  Golden or otherwise.

Number of times the word “book” is used, without being denigratory (e.g.”libraries are more than books”) = 3

Number of times the word “digital” is used =63

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Pathways

Editorial

I emailed Brian Ashley from the Arts Council about the grants thing (see my last post). His reply bears repeating in full.  The fact remains there’s almost no money for this sort of thing normally so well done to ACE for supplying it in this instance. Other things to notice this week include the multitude of ideas coming in to Bristol as part of its consultation (you can rate other people’s ideas, which I think is excellent, even if some of the ideas are yeah … but …) and also the call from the York Mutual for members for its AGM. I don’t know enough about York for some reason – it doesn’t get the publicity of it’s southern counterpart Suffolk – but it’s striking its own path, which others may wish to follow.

The funding for the Grants for the arts programme is from the Arts Lottery and we are required to ensure that it is used to deliver arts based outcomes. This still allows for a broad range of activity to be supported. In particular we encourage library services to consider how they can work in partnerships with arts organisations to advance their broader objectives.  

With this fund the Arts Council has ring-fenced resources for applications that are led by library services which makes it easier for them to secure funds this way than is the case for our more general Grants for the arts programme. Having committed to this for the first three years since we took on the development agency role for libraries in England, we are pleased to sustain that commitment for a further three years. At a time when many library services have found it difficult to develop new activity, this scheme has been successful in animating library spaces in new and imaginative ways.  

We are very aware that library services face financial pressures across the full range of their role, and our other development funding is used more widely, for example by supporting the SCL Universal Offers and the work of The Reading Agency. Responsibility for funding and delivering libraries sits with local authorities, and our contribution is not there to directly address these wider funding pressures.” Brian Ashley, Director, Libraries, Arts Council England.

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“This is not our Britpop anthem. This is dedicated to everyone trying to keep libraries open.” Manic Street Preachers at Roundhouse concert this week.

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The money has been shown to count … so make it count

Editorial

So I did some calculations on the CIPFA figures yesterday (a national newspaper had emailed wanting some info – this sort of thing happens a lot: I had already helped Radio 4 earlier this week) and one thing jumped out.  This is that there may be a decline in English public libraries but there  is not in Wales, with the major difference between them – and I’m Welsh and living in England so I know of where I speak – is that Welsh budgets have been OK up until now while the English ones have been slashed. How slashed? Well, statistics are wonderful things but if you completely ignore inflation the minimum that English budgets are down  is 18% since 2010 and, if you include inflation using the Bank of England calculator, then the most that they’re down is a whopping, a gigantic, 38.6%.  Nearly two-fifths in four years?  Let’s just be quiet for a second, contemplate the horror, and then move on (See this page for more statistical details). There are also other differences tooof course – Wales actually has Standards and a nationwide e-book/e-zine offer for instance – that will have made an impact but the key for my money is, well, the money.  Let’s hope then that England becomes more like Wales, and not vice versa. Get those singing voices trained now, Limeys, because, trust me, I’ve been in enough English churches to know that generally you lot need the practice.

One money thing that has stayed the same in England the last few years, and it has been announced will do so for another three years, is the Arts Council England grants for arts in public libraries.  I’ve always been ambivalent about this.  On the one hand, they’re a great resource for libraries to gain publicity and to encourage new audiences.  On the other, well, it’s just plain strange to see often the same library authority announcing deep cuts and also some fancy arts library project in the same year and sometimes even in the same month.  The challenge for libraries taking on these projects therefore should be to make them count.  The time has gone, if it ever was here, where a service can get away with a nice feel-good project, employ a few artists, and then move on to the next grant.

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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 >