Yes we can

Northants gets taken to court over library cuts, twice

Editorial

Northamptonshire Council, already becoming a by-word for mismanagement, with the Government expected to bring in Commissioners to run it, is now facing not one but two legal challenges against cuts to its library services. Such challenges can be very hit and miss but Northants has been such a good example of what not to do that I reckon there’s a good chance. Just to drive the point home, the council is now, apparently in all seriousness, aiming to use libraries as advertising spaces to bring in extra money. Whether there be any space left, what with the protest placards, though, is hard to say. As a counterweight to this desperation, it’s important to remember good things are happening elsewhere. For example, I’ve included a few Designing Libraries stories in this post, as I often do. These show refurbishments and new library buildings (although many are co-locations) and the pictures are often a joy to behold. I advise you to have a quick look at one to wash off the disgust if you read one of the Northants articles.

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15:1 ACE General Council plus something taught in library school

Editorial

Congratulations to Ciara Eastell, chief of the Devon libraries (including Torbay) trust Libraries Unlimited who becomes part of the “General Council” of Arts Council England. No, I had never heard of the General Council either – but here’s some info on it. It looks to me that Ciara is the only representative from public libraries out of the sixteen members so I hope more are appointed from the sector soon.

I mentioned the Bromley library strike last post and was accused of pro GLL bias on Twitter for providing info sent to me by GLL as well as the info in the local newspaper and union webpages. I rather hope that it wasn’t anti-union bias – I was a steward myself (although for Unison, not Unite) for years  – but rather pro-information bias, showing all the info available to me at the time. In the same spirit, I include info from both sides below again. As background to this decision, if it is needed, I see PLN as a place for getting all information on public libraries and so think this is appropriate. It is up to the reader to then make up their own mind on what is going on there but I refuse simply to show one side simply because I may agree with it more.  I’m human and so bias will creep in but it’s not something that I deliberately build in (although the “editorial” and other sections where it’s clearly me speaking on my own behalf will be personal). This dedication to facts was something taught to me, I think, in library school.

And if ever we need a clear picture then it’s now, with so much clearly biased info in other sources. Indeed, I think this is something that is a strength of libraries. If you want the answer that ties in with your pre-conceived view, go to the left or right-wing media source of your choice. If you want the facts, one should always go to a library.

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“A pair of armbands for many in the UK”

Editorial

Derbyshire have announced major cuts, with up to 20 out of 45 libraries, plus two mobiles passed to community groups. The councillor announcing the news managed to keep a straight face on video as he described this as “good news” for Derbyshire, which is impressive. He’ll doubtless go far. There’s also a smattering of other news in the UK, including co-locations and refurbishments. Notably, Cornwall continues its quest to pass a major part of its library service down a tier to town/pass councils. This is apparently working out fairly well, with no apparent problems with worries over double taxation.

There is a also a strike going on in Bromley where library workers are striking for more than the 2% pay increase (really just another in a line of pay cuts to local government stretching back to 2010 as inflation is estimated at around 2.5 to 3%) that is being accepted nationally. The strike is being described by Unite as being against the greed of GLL, which runs Bromley Libraries, although 2% is the standard national rise for councils, and GLL according to its press release agreeing to raise everyone to the London Living Wage level in the library service for the first time.

In other news, we have several interesting articles springing from the NUT conference about the importance of libraries, including the lovely description of them as “a pair of armbands” for many in the UK, helping keep them afloat. Finally, we have more information on what is happening with the Taskforce, with a lot of their staff being transferred to ACE and the DCMS this year. Although there is funding two more years for the Taskforce to go, it looks like it is already winding down, with other bodies taking over staff and workload, with the final details being hammered out over the next year.

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Library, Library, Library? A TV show featuring libraries, plus SCL on London choice

Editorial

A couple of emails to share with you ..

First, a television company has been in touch, saying it is looking for areas of the UK which have either never had a library or lost one more than a few years ago. The aim is to build/provide a top-class library in that area and show the impact it can have. The company has been impressed by research from New York that building a library had a positive impact on unexpected things like the crime rate and spousal abuse. There’s no promises – and the series has not even been commissioned as yet – but if it comes off then it could be amazing. Naturally there are concerns about how the library would be funded, and especially if it had paid staff, which I will pass back but I think this is too good to miss. If you have an area in mind for the proposal, email me or Beth Morrey direct on beth.morrey@rdftelevision.com.

Secondly, I was querying the decision by the Society of Chief Librarians to base its offices in London. This is the official reply:

“… at the moment SCL doesn’t employ any staff it only has freelance self-employed workers like myself who work from their own offices but once they have a CEO and support team in place they wanted an office base for them. Having approached a number of libraries and scoped a selection of locations across England SCL decided on a London office. Some of the reasons for this decision were that a large number of partners such as the BBC, British Library, CILIP, The Reading Agency etc. are London based and many of the partnership meetings take place in London. London is also easily accessible for people to travel to from across the UK, we were offered a space in a library which met our budget and office requirements and this was the location where our new CEO is based. SCL are currently in the process of signing a tenancy agreement so I can’t announce the precise location until it has all be signed off and agreed.” Helen Drakard, Society of Chief Librarians

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Ideas

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Meanwhile, in bookselling, Amazon takes over

Editorial

Something which passed by at the time, possibly because it made no mention of public libraries, was a report by Arts Council England late last year on trends in the British book market. It makes interesting companion reading to those of us (probably including everyone following this blog) who know what’s happening to public libraries. Before I get into that, though, I should say ACE are aware of libraries – I was at a meeting with them and publishers last week and libraries came up a lot, it’s just it got missed in the report.

First thing is that fiction sales are down by nearly one-half since 2008, with hardback fiction price-per-book down 44% since 2001 and paperback books down 25%. The reason for the book price drop is assigned to the removal of the net book agreement (1997), the massive success of online book discounter (mainly Amazon), and a “general collapse in the price of content” due to the internet. Capping all of this off is the impact of the ebook, which from 2010/11 reached 33% of all books sold (with up to 90% of those on the Kindle, a monopoly run by Amazon). In recent years, prices have improved slightly, as have print sales, although ebooks are still officially a quarter of the market, and may be more (as a substantial part of Amazon’s ebooks are not included). So, basically, the decline in issues in public libraries is not unique to that but a general thing. Well, I think we knew that. And book issues decline is not far out of whack with the trend in book sales in the same period.

But what drew my attention was something that was skirted around with in the report. Basically, the biggest impactor on book sales has been (a) book discounting, near-monopolised by Amazon and (b) ebooks,, also dominated by Amazon. Remember that the next time your finger hovers over the “buy” button on their site.

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Size isn't everything

The austerity genie has well and truly left the bottle: volunteer libraries

Editorial

I’ve been following some of the tweets from the Community Managed Libraries Conference and look forward to the blogging/posts that will result from the event. But for now I think it’s useful to say that, look. we all know the issues surrounding volunteer libraries is a painfully difficult one. Heck, when there’s even a disagreement about their very name, you know there’s a problem. But it needs to be remembered that volunteers are persuaded to work for free in public libraries because, largely, they love them. They want to see libraries surviving in their local communities and conferences like this one will assist in making such branches more professional and sustainable. On the other hand, and this is the cruel thing, the more successful volunteer libraries are then the more councils will close down paid-staff libraries.

It’s all so sad when the natural strongest supporters of libraries are inadvertently, and with the best will in the world, used against paid staff. But I don’t think this is part of an evil political master plan. And I have a lot of sympathy for councils faced with difficulty budget decisions and, most of all, with the pro-library volunteers themselves. I also of course, not least because I am one of them and (self-interest aside) I know what staffing and managing a library involve, have sympathy with paid staff. But that’s just how it is.  Bottom line is, I think all of this is the result simply of budgetary pressure and local steps resulting from it. As austerity goes on, and despite hopeful headlines, it shows no signs of stopping, the ranks of volunteer libraries will swell above their already impressive 500+ number. Some will fail. But some will also succeed, at least in terms of staying open. I doubt any will ever become fully paid staffed ever again, as has sometimes been hopefully suggested. There are no perfect answers for any side. Paid staff will be threatened. Volunteer staff largely realise paid staff will be better. National organisations realise that, at the very least, the situation inevitably leads to atomisation. But volunteer libraries are here and it’s best to get used to it.

The genie is out of the bottle but it looks like no-ones (apart from a few ideologues we may never meet) wishes have been granted.

Changes

Why Suffolk chose to build our own self-service kiosk system, by Leon Paternoster, Suffolk Libraries

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IFLA and good news from St Helens

Editorial

Northamptonshire is again in the news, with the DCMS announcing they will look at complaints about cuts to its library service. There’s also more news about cuts in Somerset and East Sussex amongst other places. I more positive news, the Arts work that St Helens Libraries undertake has played a role in giving the borough city-wide recognition.

I don’t normally pay much attention to IFLA. It’s the global librarian association and I tend to concentrate on more parochial issues of direct concern to British public librarians. Small-minded possibly but I often find it hard to associate with their publications, initiatives and conferences. But I suspect this is my failing and not theirs. So have a look at the various links below about their recent conference and make up your own mind.

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Out with outsourcing? Northants fatally injured.

Editorial

It looks like Northamptonshire is going to be split up, with the most likely option being commissioners coming in to take over the council services. It’s unclear what will happen to libraries – especially as they’re currently run by a mish-mash of council, university and NHS – but the next full council meeting on Thursday may give some idea. The first fun fact is that the chief executive who oversaw and created a lot of this mess was the first chair of the Libraries Taskforce and that his “outsource everythingapproach to life doubtless must have influenced it in some way, although from everything that I hear about him, I think he genuinely did care about libraries. Anyway, he’s now gone and hopefully the rush towards outsourcing, that has already taken a bashing with the demise of Carillion, has been further slowed by what has happened in his county. The next  Full Council meeting is scheduled for Thursday so we may hear more of what is happening to Northants libraries and their long-suffering staff and users.

Second fun fact is that the new Northants HQ. built with what is now becoming clear was a trademark lack of care to expense, will have some spare space in it. And possibly, due to the imminent end of the council, may all become spare space. Hmm, a big office building outside London suddenly becoming vacant. Perhaps this may be nice cheap accommodation for national organisations thinking of setting up in the capital. Just a thought.

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London

Editorial

One of the many odd things about the UK is the dominance of London. It’s where the big businesses are, where government is and where the money is. House prices there make it very hard for anyone established elsewhere to move to it without accepting long commutes or far smaller accommodation. Set against this, transport links are such that it often makes more sense to have a national meeting there, despite it being in the South East corner, than anywhere else, and this will only be increased when HS2 (specifically designed to save travel times to the capital) is completed. In the public library world, the DCMS (and hence the Taskforce), the British Library and ACE are of course based there, as is CILIP. However, there’s no real big public library there on the scale of the biggest regional libraries (such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham) due to the multiple number of London boroughs.

A wave of new appointments, is now going to concentrate power in the capital even more. The SCL, due to its previously tiny staffing, was not particularly London-centric but the decision has been made that it’s new expanded staff will be based there. This follows on from the interesting decision to base the person in charge for the single digital presence – surely a job which by its very nature could be handled largely by computer – in the British Library in London, amongst the most expensive real estate in the world. These appointments show the huge magnetic attraction of the capital and, to some extent, represent a pragmatic realisation a lot of the meetings and business is going to be conducted there. And also it needs to be remembered that the SCL is highly regional in nature, with its new President being from the North East and its current one from Manchester. However, the decision to place the posts there has necessarily barred many from applying and places the onus more than before on the new improved SCL to demonstrate that it is not becoming yet another London body but rather is still a local one to all the multi-distributed librarians throughout the country.

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A time to think is a bit of a luxury in council library services

Editorial

East Sussex have confirmed the closure of several libraries. Well, that’s depressing. Let’s look at their record before the current unpleasantness:

  1. 2018: Confirmed seven libraries and mobile to be closed.(2) Refurbished Hastings Library reopens (3)
  2. 2017: Reopening of Hastings Library after refurbishment delayed until Spring 2018. (6) Eastbourne Library to incorporate parking warden office. (7) 7 (Langney, Pevensey Bay, Willingdon, Polegate, Ore, Mayfield, and Ringmer) may close. (9)  £720k overspend on Hastings Library (12)
  3. 2016:  £2m cut: opening hours cut by 25%. Pevensey Bay Library has been closed since January 2015 while “a full assessment of the building’s condition takes place.”(2)
  4. 2015: Official opening of Newhaven Library (opened in March). (3) Library opening hours to be reduced by around 25%: £500k p.a. cut. (12)

Hmm, Looks like Pevensey Bay has been doomed for a while but good to see Hastings was refurbished. More importantly to the point of this editorial, looking back to 2015/16, we see the previous cut/s – quite as serious one. And that’s the thing, there’s not just one cut. There’s a definite pattern in many, possibly most, library services of cuts every 2 or 3 years. Now, considering consultations take around six months, plus planning before that, and there’s a lot of work to do when closing libraries, that leaves almost no time for the poor East Sussex (or any other) management team to get proactive. Indeed, it must seem like they’re just managing cuts and decline their whole time. That’s no way to get out of the vicious circle. Now, compare that to Suffolk which seems to have broken the cycle, even building a new library. They’re in a far better position. Some of that may be down to chance, to local politics or geography and not just the fact that it’s a library trust. We don’t really know. However, it looks to me that library trusts are doing better than traditional council ones, and have broken out of the cuts repetitions to some extent. Whether that’s random chance or something more strategic going on can be a subject of argument, and is, but to me it’s highly suggestive that it’s a way out of the cycle, at least for the period of time that the council has agreed the budget for with the trust. But at least the term of that agreement gives them some time to think. Unlike poor East Sussex.

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