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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For your information, there's a whole A to Z free to use

Liverpool, East Renfrewshire and an A to Z

Editorial

Two significant events: the first is that the Mayor of Liverpool has declared that he can keep all his libraries open after all.  Budgets have been got from various places, there’ll be some co-locations, some opening hour cuts … but none will be closed. The Mayor points to the hard work of his council, the campaigners point to them not letting the council forget how important libraries are.  The answer, as always, probably lies somewhere in between. The second event is that, as if to put the damper on things, East Renfrewshire is going to go all English and force 6 of its 10 libraries to be volunteer or co-located or close.  Bet you wish you voted the other way in the referendum now, Scottish folks. And so the cycle starts all over again.

By the way, I’m in Spain the rest of this week, talking to Spanish librarians (and probably people on the plane – I do that, it’s annoying) about the situation there and here.  I expect to learn much and, if I’m very lucky, I will come back with different views (however slightly) than when I went. I’ll tell you about it on my return. Adios.

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The music they’re making in Manchester will be heard around the country

Editorial

There’s been some major coverage of public libraries in the media over the last few days.  The Times and The Mail took up an article I wrote here a few days ago on the need for quiet study spaces in library, with the former publication devoting its third leader to it. The Mail evenwent so far as to say there was a “campaign” starting to restore hush to libraries, which I doubt. Just to make clear my position on this: I love loud and buzzing libraries and can do as loud a children’s story time as anyone but my article was also pointing out the unique selling point of libraries as quiet study spaces as well.  The challenge is to do both, not one or the other … and to let everyone know how fantastic and irreplaceable libraries are to boot.

As such, the Everything Everything residency at Manchester Central Library is already fantastically successful. Even the NME has covered it, for goodness sake, as has the Independent and the Guardian.  Moreover, Radio Six are devoting two whole weeks to the wonders of public libraries, including broadcasting from Manchester and the British Library. The whole thing promises to be a tremendous showcase for libraries and all involved should take a bow (just do it quietly if you’re in the domed reading room b).  Another showcase was the Jeremy Vine Show article on libraries on Friday.  Listen to that (especially the child … but well done to Ciara Eastell of the Society of Chief Libraries and Devon as well) to give you a boost all week.

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Now’s the time to do something for libraries: and there may never be a better opportunity

Editorial

At the recent Westminster Media Forum on “Prospects for books, publishing and libraries”, several important statements were made that may well have a bearing on the future of public libraries:

  • William Sieghart gave some pretty big hints at the contents of the Government commissioned report on public libraries that he was tasked to writing.  Crucially, reports from the event say that he made clear that he does not consider volunteer-run libraries a long-term viable option.,
  • Ed Vaizey has had the report for a month and has not published it as yet.  Suggestions made to me include the possibility that it says things he does not want people to hear (e.g. on volunteers), especially as he has recently stated he is “not minded” to intervene in Sheffield where it is precisely that model that is being proposed.
  • Lord Tope said “I have to say, from a political point of view, the answer lies with all of us. Don’t let Government forget it. We have a general election coming up, and members of parliament are remarkably willing to listen when they come around. Use that opportunity”

All of this ties, in my mind at least, with the need for as many individuals and groups as possible to write to Ed Vaizey to argue against his “not minded” decision there.  The more letters the better and it does not matter where you come from.  Let him know why you think libraries are important and let him know the strength of your feeling.  Don’t just take my word for it. The Broomhill Library Action Group have written a letter asking this which I publish in full below and they’ve even typed a draft letter for you in case you don’t want to do one from scratch.  While you’re writing it (and you will, won’t you?), you may also wish to consider asking Ed Vaizey why he has not published the Sieghart Report yet.  Strangely, he has not replied to me on this subject.

A cut and paste template is provided, into which people can just insert their own name and library, or can alter as they please – emails need to be sent by 20 NOVEMBER 2014 to: Ministerial Support Team enquiries@culture.gsi.gov.uk.

Dear Library Supporter

You may have seen media reports about the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey, conducting an inquiry into Sheffield City Council’s plans for public libraries. He has just issued a letter stating that he is ‘minded not to’ intervene but before he makes a final decision he wants to know what you think. The Minister has a duty, under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, to superintend library provision and to intervene if a council is failing to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service” for all who want to use it.

The campaign group, Broomhill Library Action Group, have always maintained that the council’s plans result in a service that does not meet these requirements. We presented many arguments, backed up with data, to support our claim. Nonetheless the Minister has chosen to disregard our evidence, and has sent a letter saying that he is “not currently minded” to intervene

In the past, nine other library campaign groups from around the country have tried to get the Minister to intervene. He has rejected all of these. In fact, we are only one of at least 10 library groups across the country for whom he has similarly failed to intervene. We believe that the Minister is not only wrong, but that ultimately we need to persuade him he is wrong.

The Minister has asked for further representations to be presented by 20 November 2014. We are therefore asking as many people as possible to write to the Minister, and to tell him to organise an inquiry to protect this valuable service. We need you to state your support for an ongoing ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service in Sheffield.

A cut and paste template is provided via this link, into which people can just insert their own name and library, or can alter as they please.  E-mails need to be sent to: Ministerial Support Team. Please send it on to all your friends to complete.

Thank you.

Broomhill Library Action Group

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Other library authorities were a bit Miffed

Briefing 4th November

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Ed Vaizey “not minded” to intervene in Sheffield

Editorial

To few people’s surprise, Ed Vaizey, the minister technically responsible for libraries, has said that he is “not minded” to intervene in the proposed cuts in Sheffield.  The council there has proposed to reduce council libraries to one central library and eleven “hub” libraries.  These “hubs” are to be open only 31 hours per wee which, for a city of over half a million people,  is not much.  It had been hoped by campaigners that Ed, normally a by-word for inaction, would wish to intervene in order to embarrass the Labour-run council and possibly also cock a snook at Nick Clegg, whose constituency is in the town.  However, it looks like this is not to be.  If one was of suspicious mind, one could even think that the surprise decision by Ed to look into Sheffield in the first place was simply to show that he was doing his superintendence of local library service, statutory under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, properly and therefore could not be taken to court himself.  I, for one, am sure that he does not consider such base motives … well, probably not consciously.  He probably has legal advisors for that sort of thing, anyway.

Key points and related articles on the decision are below.

  • Representations can still be made to Ed Vaizey on this issue until 5pm 20th November.
  • Ed argues that the availability of resources is “highly material” to what is acceptable as library provision. Therefore, the definition of what is “comprehensive and efficient” is effectively at least semi-elastic, depending on what finances the council chooses to put in.  Being the minister makes it clear that he believes it is up to the local council to decide on how best to divide up resources and provide services, this therefore effectively severely limits any possible application of the 1964 Act.
  • Ignores volunteer libraries because 11 “hub” libraries (open only 31 hours per week) and one central library is enough to provide a comprehensive and efficient service.  Considering that Sheffield has a population of 551,800, this therefore means that one library open 31 hours per week (plus one central library) per 46000 people is considered adequate.  Opening hours per 1000 population under this new dispensation would be, roughly by my quick calculations, 37 (number of aggregate openings hours in one year divided by 1000 population).  It’s interesting to note that this compares to 128 being the target in the Library Standards of 2001. Ed is therefore willing to approve opening hours 3.5 times lower than his predecessor set as a target just over ten years ago.
  • He considers that the consultations and needs assessment were undertaken properly and were genuine.

“The Secretary of State is of the view that a comprehensive service does not mean that every resident must live close to a library. He also notes that the Home Library service is being retained and expanded through a combination of paid SCC staff and volunteers to enable those who are unable to visit a library to access library materials.”

  • Assumes that low expenditure per 1000 population compared to other comparator authorities shows it is “efficient”.

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Judicial Re … phew.

Editorial

Judicial reviews are a key part of the library campaigner arsenal, even if they may be viewed with dread by senior council staff. To my view, the threat of a review keep, at a basic level, councils honest.  Sometimes, councils, especially in the safest of safe seats (although, admittedly, the rise of UKIP is throwing all this into doubt) can look like an elective dictatorship rather than a democracy.  In a world of hands off central government (well, apart form brutally cutting budgets and then saying “go play”), the judicial review can be the only real way that the public can intervene in council decisions.  It makes sure that councils abide by the letter (if not the spirit) of the law and it means that consultations, just occasionally, are consultations rather than merely a way of telling the public what is going to happen.  It also means that several library services have, to a greater or lesser extent, been saved from the most over dramatic of cuts.  It is therefore good news that the House of Lords has thrown out Grayling’s (he of the ban on books in prison) attempt to severely restrict judicial reviews.  Long live democracy, even if it occasionally has to be saved by peers.

A lot of changes today, including the announcement of cuts at Bristol, Denibighshire, Gateshead and Hartlepool. Suffolk, very much the flavour of the month (possibly the year) in UK library circles bucks the depression with an ACE grant and a new business centre.  Success breeds success and Suffolk is gaining from that.  The aim must be for all of the sector to do the same, with William Sieghart expected to publish his report over the next month or so (and expected to laud Suffolk to the rafters) we can hope to share some of the pixie dust.  In the meantime, read the “ode to libraries” by Wendy Maddour.

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Copyright (creative commons): Christchurch City Libraries

Quiet, please? Why shushing may not be a thing of the past

Editorial

Should we? Image from Christchurch City Libraries Flickr

Should we?
Image from Christchurch City Libraries Flickr

My thoughts on the importance placed by the audience at the Battle of Ideas debate on quiet in libraries is continuing to receive replies and comment.  Public librarians, perhaps in reaction to the  old stereotypical “shush” image, have sometimes gone out of their way to be louder and more energetic and, in doing so, have alienated some of its clientele an core audience.  Now, don’t get me wrong, noise is not a bad thing. I love going into a library with a buzz, where children are being entertained, adults are talking about books and staff are helping customers.  To my mind, it’s a sign of a healthy environment, let alone I suspect a great way of introducing children (and parents?) to the joy of books.

However, it may need to be counterbalanced with one of the few remaining unique selling points that libraries should have: that of quiet.  Now, bear in mind that there’s very little absence of noise in our lives.  I live in a house where the TV is on all the time, children are often shouting (in a happy way; well, most of the time) and ipads and radios are blaring.  This afternoon, I had to move myself into another room to read a book (“Catastrophe” by Max Hastings, by the way: recommended).  Now, what if I did not have another room?  I could go to a coffee shop but that costs money and people have an annoying habit of chatting in there as well. What if it wasn’t leisure reading but study?  Then the library is, or should be, the only haven left for many people. But if I do go into one then the odds are there’ll be loud conversation going on in there, if not outright song.  By discarding the gift of quiet too easily, can it be that  libraries are making themselves vulnerable to criticism from those who don’t use it for any other purpose?  By those who have all the books they want, have Google and no social welfare needs … but crave quiet? To put it another way, by taking over the feeling of the community centre, public libraries may be opening themselves up to closure by those who point out that we already have community centres.

Now, the problem here is for many libraries that of size.  It’s easy for the excellent Manchester Central Library to have a quiet study area, although it is perhaps instructive that its wonderfully restored circular reading room has its silence safeguarded not by library staff but by its hundreds of jealously hushing students. It’s a lot harder for a smaller library, perhaps consisting only of one large (or even not so large) room.  The solution here – and it’s an old one – is to have different uses at different parts of the day.  Get that loud rhymetime out of the way early and then have a quiet atmosphere for the rest of the time until the schools come out.  Advertise quiet times as such.  Start off as one day a week, publicise it (the newspapers will love this, won’t they? Your more reactionary councillors may as well) and see how it goes.  You never know, you may – after putting up with the singing “wind the bobbin up” for the nth time in the morning, secretly relish the forbidden pleasure of saying “shush” in the afternoon?  You know you sometimes want to. Now you have a business case for it as well.

“I worked in public libraries until last year and there was no attempt to maintain a balance between what I characterise as the “Rhyme-time model” and the needs of users (often young people revising or doing academic course work) who valued a quiet space which they couldn’t necessarily find at home. The fact that the noise of children’s activities drove out other users was seen as a positive and the complainants denigrated as old fogeys and definitely not our target audience – the same staff who drive away bookish teenagers by emptying teen sections of books and replacing them with vending machines and uncomfortable orange and purple furniture, which they describe as ‘groovy’ without any sense of irony. Incidentally, I’ve never seen any evidence that a mic-ed up staff member enjoying herself singing and shouting with a group of mothers (and nannies) with pre-school children translates into a lifetime’s use of public libraries by those young children. Why would it?

Our enthusiasm for being customer-led is very selective. But as you say, it should be possible in most libraries to maintain a balance, without veering over to the silent halls of high culture model. One of the key points that celebrity defenders of libraries nearly always make is that libraries represent an oasis of quiet away from piped music, mobile phone conversations etc. which shows that they don’t actually use public libraries but for many that is one f the USPs and the audience at the debate seems to have reflected that view” Kevin Jewell by email

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