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Not the choice I would have gone with: General Election 2017

Editorial

So, we have another General Election coming up. It’s not unexpected and Theresa May would have been a fool to turn down such a chance to pile on more seats. But what does it mean for libraries?  Well, it almost certainly means a non-stop solid Conservative majority until 2021.  Whereas before there was a chance of a few MPs making a difference, and thus a need to care about smaller issues, this now seems unlikely. Marginal issues – and sadly libraries are most definitely this on a national stage that will be dominated by Brexit and its fallout – can therefore be ignored in the cabinet battles to come, and likely will be. Again assuming a Conservative victory this will mean a continued reduction in council funding and a desire to seek out “alternative” sources for funding such as volunteers, trusts and (perhaps the most vain hope of all) philanthropy.

I was asked recently to say which of the contending political parties would best serve library interests. You know which ones that would be. But forget them. That’s not who you will be getting, except perhaps if you live in Hamilton or elsewhere in Scotland. (and if they break away, it’s going to be rightwing governments south of the border for the foreseeable).  Make an accommodation to that fact now. Work out how to best position libraries in the continuing austerity environment they will surely stay in.  The library sector has so far attempted a Jack Of All Trades approach to proving its worth to government by claiming to be able to help with multiple agendas. I’m not sure if that’s the choice I would have gone with to help libraries stay alive. Rather, I would go with talking more but smiling less. To me, a clear message, a simple one would have been better. After all, if the public are not sure what you stand for, they will fall for anything.

Oh, and by the way, while I’m being depressed and cynical, I see a lot being written about the importance of public libraries to provide neutral and unbiased information and how useful that is at election time. But that’s not what is happening on the ground. Most libraries last year did not make a thing of having all the manifestoes and I’m not aware of a single one that offered a fact checking service. I doubt very much that will change in this one. But, please, surprise me. Don’t throw away this shot.*

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The USA spends twice the amount the UK does per head on public libraries.

Editorial

I hope you all had a pleasant bank holiday weekend.  There’s been an interesting variety of new over the last few days, with no stand-out big stories. The Libraries Taskforce are continuing to meet and progress, although at a speed which is unlikely to endear them to campaigners. The importance of parish councils to funding – something I’ve noticed for a while now after having a tip-off from someone – is mentioned in the Guardian, as is the importance of libraries to social cohesion. Abroad, the ineptness of the Trump administration continues to grate, but the responses to it – and to the challenges to libraries in other English-speaking countries – repay careful study. And, by the way, it’s worth noting that the USA spends twice the amount on libraries per capita than the UK. It’s interesting that the uber-capitalist Americans, who can’t even cope with the idea of a proper universal healthcare system, seem to so value their libraries which, by the way, have seen increases in use in recent years.

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Libraries Minister “Minded to intervene” in Lancashire.

Editorial

So, this could be a major landmark. The libraries minister Rob Wilson has said in an official letter to Lancashire County Council that his boss, Culture Secretary of State Karen Bradley is minded to hold a public inquiry into how Lancashire decided to cut its library service. This is where Lancashire decided to close 29 libraries from an original number of 73. The council has until 9th June to convince her to move to the council’s side on the following points:

  • The council failed to treat its own consultation seriously and had, in fact, already made up its own mind.
  • The council failed to consider all possible alternative methods of saving money. Considerable emphasis is put in the letter for the option of Mutuals,.
  • The council was not clear enough as to which libraries were under threat.
  • The council did not carry out sufficient research into how this would affect the disadvantaged or future trends.

The significance of this now is:

  • This is the first time the current, or previous coalition, government has issued a “minded to” letter. Before, the Government, under the laissez-faire Ed Vaizey, always considered cuts to libraries, no matter how deep or forced, as acceptable.
  • The council will have to consider the possibility that it will be forced to reverse all of its actions. Being it has already passed control, or put on sale, multiple sites, and made many staff redundant, this is quite the headache. The council may well therefore put any further transfers on hold while a decision is taken. Or it may call the minister’s bluff and carry on regardless, daring the minister to be anything other than the paper tiger he is normally seen as being since Ed Vaizey made the speak-softly-and-go-unarmed role his own in 2010.
  • The Conservatives look tough just in time for the local elections on 4th May. And, of course, they can then rescind the decision in June, once they have won the votes.

The significance of this if the government does run an inquiry is:

  • The DCMS ceases being a toothless laughing stock amongst cutting councils and starts being taken seriously.
  • All councils will start genuinely consulting and looking at alternatives, rather than that being the happy exception.
  • Mutuals are likely to become (even) more popular.
  • Councils may look elsewhere to cut before libraries.
  • The principle of Localism – where (in my somewhat cynical view, admittedly) government makes the big headline cuts and give councils the freedom to cut what they like in response – takes a bit of a tumble.

The last two inquiries, by the way, were Wirral in 2009 and Derbyshire in 1991, so they’re not exactly common. Both, interestingly, ended up being local inquiries, paid for by the councils concerned, in order to avoid the ignominy of the Government Inspector.

So, interesting times. But at least hopeful ones, if a little late for Lancashire.

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Front page of the Shining a Light report

Shining a light on public libraries in the UK? Carnegie reports.

Editorial

The new “Shining a light” report by Carnegie UK has just been released. As you can see, it dominated media mentions of public libraries, with much of it being positive, which is great. I wrote a blog post for Carnegie on the subject so I won’t go into detail here, other than saying I’d be delighted to hear and read your views.

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Ideas

  • Elder in Residence – A community figure helping public library users be more aware of a minority.

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Autism-friendly does not mean having a book on the subject on a shelf

Editorial

I remember the days when I thought that a dementia-and-autism-friendly library meant having a book on both subjects available for lending. Thankfully, with the help of dementia friends and autism-friendly libraries, those days have gone. Hopefully, all library staff will soon understand what the conditions mean and how to best serve those with them and that every library will have a social story to help their usage. However, it needs to be that everyone working in those buildings understands the training. The story of the security guard from the private company who expelled a parent reading loudly to his autistic daughter needs to become one of those shocking tales of how things were in the past, like workhouses. This also needs extending to volunteers. Speaking of which, last weekend marked the start of many North Yorkshire libraries becoming fully volunteer. What that means to the community, and to the staff who have had to see it happen, can only be guessed at but this heart-rending article in the Big Issue perhaps gives a clue.

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£150k for health and wellbeing from Carnegie and Wellcome

Editorial

It’s good to see some funding from Carnegie and Wellcome for public library projects being announced.  I’m pleased to see too that it is about health and wellbeing. The Taskforce are also keeping up their impressive article production by publishing a couple more posts, both of which may be useful if they have backing from the Minister. By the way, I’d also like to note that New South Wales has just invested the pro rata equivalent of £17m in their public libraries. That puts the rushed £3 million from the Government that’s just been doled out in perspective and, sadly, also the £150k from Carnegie/Wellcome. However, there’s some more time, at least, with these to do it right.  And, if you don’t have time, library services should start keeping a couple of ideas / bids (proto-bids?) to one side for next time. With any luck, more will come along. Although not as many as in Australlia.

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Big protests in Lambeth and Bath, and Billy “No-Mates” Dataset

Editorial

Some more fall-out from the release of the abbreviated mailing list, er, sorry, dataset of English public libraries today – no-one is impressed and, I mean, no-one – but also there were a couple of big protests this weekend in Lambeth and Bath. I know Bath, I worked as a library trainee there back in the 1990s. It’s not a hotbed of political discontent. To get a big protest there is going some. So, well done to Bath and North East Somerset Council, I guess,  for mishandling the situation so terribly that there was a sit-down protest involving hundreds in the town-centre there. Doing wonders for political activism there.

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The weirdly limited information world of public libraries

Editorial

The news is dominated by two releases from the DCMS / Libraries Taskforce. Both are useful, welcome and flawed.

The first set of releases are all about the process of moving library services away from direct council control and towards being non-profits. The libraries minister is clearly invested in this, as his video to a “masterclass” on the subject showed, and you can expect to see this as part of a concerted push to there being more library trusts in the future. There are case studies from library trusts who have gone through the process with fairly detailed guides on how to check if such a move would be good for the particular part of the country you are in. While honest and open, sadly, these reports would not be approved by a scientific journal as the writers of them are the trusts themselves, who would be foolish to criticise their own actions, not least because the four in question have now formed a service to sell their expertise on the subject to hopefuls. As such, one can only consider them as the “pro” part of any diligent survey on whether you should change to a trust. No-one, of course, is being encouraged or paid, to do the “con” part. Which is a shame because I actually quite like library trusts but I think all options need to be deeply looked at, and biases or gaps in the data (however unconscious) will not help clear decision-making.

Speaking of biases and gaps, the second set of releases is all about the much-heralded and delayed new “dataset” for English public libraries. The new file presents a list of all the library buildings reported by councils in July last year. It simply contains the name of the branch, address and contact email. This is the very minimum that one could expect and represents no improvement (other than an updating) over the last dataset released in 2012. Well, except that one covered all of the UK. There are strong hopes that this one, at least, will be updated and there are fairly ambitious plans to expand it into something more than a direct mailing list. However, it took ages (remember this data is nine months old) to get even this sorted and I imagine there are all sorts of strong local and national pressures to limit the release of anything, well, embarrassing … almost as if the decline of the library service due to budget cuts is somehow a secret. For any sector this is embarrassing, but for one which pretends to deal with information, this is bordering on the humiliating, as the image capture of the “no data” screen below shows. It’s not a pipe dream – the Netherlands has managed it but, as the Dutch discovered, it needs to be done over the protests of senior managers, be they public librarians (at least officially) dedicated to free information or their seniors, who may not like others really seeing how they’re doing.

Finally, thank you for all your kind comments about my previous post on the end of the tri-borough experiment and what it means to merging of library services.  LibrariesWest have quite rightly been in touch to point out they’re doing a very nice combined service in the South West, thank you, although not to the depth of the erstwhile London scheme.  For a list of all such partnerships I know about – see this nicely open and freely available list . Do you see how useful that is, library chiefs? Just think if all data was available that way. Think of the wonders that could be achieved. Stop thinking of worst case scenarios. Because you’re in one. Start thinking of ways out.

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Goodbye Tri-borough, but there’s a way different parties are still combining library services

Editorial

I’ve seen many people argue for the combining of library services across council boundaries in order to save money.  And, indeed, 151 library services just for England does seem a tad excessive. The Tri-borough (*deep breath*: Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster) has been held up as a great example of how this can work, with the three councils combining many different services, including libraries. Here’s an article from 2012 describing how well it was working. However, sadly, the BBC reports today that the partnership is ending in a divorce where the warring councils are each accusing the other of insincerity. So, why? Well, Hammersmith claims it was losing from the deal. Which may be true, but I suspect the real reason is that in 2014, Hammersmith became Labour controlled and the other two remained Conservative and it’s taken this long for it all to unravel. Imagine how much fun the councillor meetings between them must have been until they’ve finally now decided to go their separate ways.

Reality has a rich sense of irony sometimes as, on the same day, Bournemouth has confirmed it will combine its library services with Poole. Both councils are Conservative controlled so they may have a chance, for now. But I suggest buying the popcorn and settling down in a comfortable chair to watch if one of the two councils changes party control. However, I understand all of Dorset is looking to go unitary so that could solve that one.

So does that cast a shadow on combining library services? Well, there may be a way for councils of all stripes to happily share control. That magic partnering option is outsourcing.  The non-profit leisure trust GLL currently run Greenwich (Labour), Wandsworth (Conservative) and Lincolnshire (No overall control, Conservative leader) libraries, are doing things with combined gyms and libraries in Lambeth (Labour), will soon be taking over Dudley (No overall control, Labour leader) and are trying for Bromley (Conservative). That’s what I know of but I’m sure there’s more. I suspect GLL gain all sorts of economies of scale from this, and so in this age that weirdly combines localism and austerity, they may be the closest we have to combining library services. Albeit at one remove and almost by stealth.

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I tweeted this - Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) retweeted it. My Twitter feed has been going crazy ever since.

Philanthropy, Neil Gaiman and the rest of the library news

Editorial

I was interested to see the news from Birmingham today that the trust intended to seek philanthropic donations is being closed down. Turns out it’s costing more money that it was taking in, mainly because people are wary of simply paying for something cut by the council. It caught my eye especially as there was a recent CILIP piece on philanthropy that was largely in favour of it.  I’m wary of it myself. While, philanthropy is nothing new in the UK, as the many Carnegie libraries show, but it’s a lot less common here than it is in the US. Also, as Birmingham shows, it seems to be a case of success breeding success … so philanthropy may only accentuate the increasingly obvious divide between library services who are doing well and those who are cutting like no-one’s business. Moreover, the Government naturally loves it as philanthropy reduces their need to support the library service.  I suspect they call it “imaginative” and “innovative” quite often. While I welcome any money for libraries, I suspect (like volunteers) it’s no way to run an important national service and the key must be proper funding in the first place.

I tweeted this - Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) retweeted it. My Twitter feed has been going crazy ever since.

I tweeted this – Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) retweeted it. My Twitter feed has been going crazy ever since.

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Media mentions heatmap

This shows longer term trends in authorities than this post alone.  Only authorities with 6 or more are included. :

  • Lancashire (14, +2), North Yorkshire (9, +3), Plymouth (7, -1), Essex (6: largely positive), Lincolnshire (6, largely positive),

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