East Renfrewshire to turn to Trust, Enfield refurbishes Palmers Green

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The Great Equalizer: the public libraries elevator pitch

Editorial

I get asked for an “elevator pitch” (what reasons you’d give for funding if you were stuck in a lift with a decision maker for a minute) for public libraries every now and again and I keep on tailoring my response as I learn more and think further on the subject.  I normally throw in a whole load about libraries as third spaces, about Digital By Default and all that sort of stuff.  Well, my “pitch” is going to change a bit because I came across a wonderful US article which simply talks about libraries as the “great equalizer”. Yes. That is so true.  Libraries provide the books for those who cannot afford the books, the help with computers for those who don’t know computers, the online access for those with no online access and the study space for those without study space . We’re the community chest of resources that means that, even if you have no money, you can learn and communicate with the best of them.  Even if you don’t speak the same language. And by providing that, we provide the social welfare, the literacy, the jobseeking, the you name it that means that all of the population has a chance to become equals.  So when you’re next in a lift with a person in sharp business clothes who is wondering who you are, tell him.  Tell him that your service is vital for a fair society, for improving incomes and outcomes.  And then sting him or her for some money.  It’s only fair.

And if you want any more factual information about what I’ve just said, see the pages on the menu on “Why Libraries?” on that toolbar at the top of this page.  See, I’ve made it easy for you.  All you have to do is go to your HQ and hang around in a lift.

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Asking questions in Parliament is a great way of finding information out and scoring points off the other side.  The Shadow Minister for Libraries, Helen Goodman, however, appears to be using her questions to show how little research she has done.  Her latest question on statistics shows a lack of understanding of basics and also little idea of any strategy.  What was she expecting Ed to say? For goodness sake, ask about what efforts he is making to repair bridges with CILIP after their historic vote of no confidence in him.  Or about what he will do in the Wirral about the cuts to libraries there, especially since he was positively seething about the lack of action by the minister in precisely that authority when he was in opposition.  Those questions I can see the point of.  Let’s hope she gets a clue soon, because there are open goals there.  She just needs to learn to shoot straight.

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“We hope she grows up to be a real book lover”

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The lesser of two evils

Editorial

It was very informative to see the Sunday Politics programme on the BBC about cuts to library budgets.  Alan Gibbons was, as ever, excellent in defending libraries.  What was really interesting though was how similar both the Conservative and Labour MPs were on the issue: indeed, they completely agreed on every point (apart from, perhaps, charging market rate rents to volunteers).  Both praised co-locations and saw volunteers as a viable solution and had no problem with professional libraries being available only in the largest branches.  If public libraries play a part in the General Election at all, this may prove a problem for Labour because there just doesn’t seem to be a difference between them and the Conservatives on the issue.  Mind you, the same could be said about many issues and one does wonder if libraries would fare much better under Labour.  Many would argue that they would be the lesser of two evils but, so far at least, it is hard to see a renaissance coming for the sector should Ed Milliband become Prime Minister next year.

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Sieghart plans out our future: plus strike action and volunteers walking out

Editorial

William Sieghart, who is producing a national report on public libraries on behalf of the DCMS, has revealed some of his key thoughts so far.  The key points appear to me to be:

  • Focus on co-locations and shared services.
  • Library authority structure to remain the same.
  • One national online library network inc. one library management system, one library card and one training system
  • Network to expand into joint procurement, best practice and “improving the leadership”/vision.
  • Expansion of network into community buildings inc. public houses
  • Funding to be from bids to e.g. Transformational Challenge Award.
  • More thoughts and invites for visits welcomed.

Leaving inside the groaner that is pubs, the big thing for me here is how pragmatic and relatively unrevolutionary this is.  I can almost see some of this happening. A single LMS is going to cost a fortune but it’s worth a go if it unites all authorities and Mr Sieghart is not just coming up with ideas but working out how best to fund them.  He knows that there’s zero chance of central government going against the key tenets of localism and forcing library authorities to merge so he’s going for things which will encourage the benefits of merging without the actual, um, merging. I also love the bit about improving training for “New graduates into the profession”.  I don’t know about you but I’ve not seen any new graduates in the profession for about three or four years and the idea of actually getting new recruits is a bit startling.  The least that can be said is that the man has hope.  It’s not going to please those who were hoping for a “saving” of the public library service but then, frankly, there’s no chance either Labour or Conservative would ringfence funding anyway.  What he’s going for is trying to modernise, rationalise and,, in some ways, revolutionise the service in realistic ways.  We will see over the next couple of years how realistic, or not, this approach turns out to be.  What it has going for it is the General Election.  Both parties would benefit from being able to say they’re doing something about public libraries.  Some of this stuff may even end up, if we’re lucky, in a manifesto.

Two other key things today is that Unison have announced that the strike action will be on 10th July.  It is likely that many libraries will be closed on that day as library workers express their discontent at losing over 10% of their spending power over the last four years.  The other thing is that the withdrawal of funding in Lincolnshire has meant that a dozen volunteers helping out in one council-supported library have decided not to help any more.  It’s a classic example of a council, on the face of it, shooting itself in the foot and casts some doubt over the sustainability of a model it wants for more than half of its libraries.

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You’re all heroes

Editorial

One of the things that has become obvious to me writing Public Libraries News over the last three years is that avoiding change is not an option.  It’s going to happen, like it or not and, if anything, the pace of change is accelerating.  This is both in terms of financial constraints and technological change.  Those library services which respond well to change are not immune to cuts, far from it, but such an attitude surely helps limit damage to the service as a result. One notably forward-looking library service the last few years has been Northamptonshire.  It’s not perfect – it’s had cuts, staff reductions and usage drops like so many other places – but the positive energy is noticeable.  They do things differently there: from running library conferences for other authorities, setting up a charity for business income and providing code clubs.  Now that new approach is reaping rewards, with the library service winning the prestigious Municipal Journal award for Best Council Services Team. Well done to them and well done to everyone of you who are facing down the challenges of today’s public library world, seeking a better way and keeping libraries open.  You’re all heroes.

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Polarised enough already? Unison votes to strike

Editorial

The UNISON strike ballot over pay has resulted in a 3:2 vote in favour of action.  The average salary of a local government worker was frozen 2010 to 2013 and then went up only 1% in 2013.  This means that, due to inflation, workers – including public librarians – have experienced a cut in theirs spending power of 15% or so.  Which, in case if you’re in any doubt, is pretty majorly life changing.  That sort of cut means that many (especially in a household where there is no other income or both work in local government) will be not only forgetting such things as holidays but starting to be worried about mortgage payments.  Indeed, taken in that context, that margin of 3:2 is looking surprisingly small, probably because of a combination of worries over (a) losing yet more pay if one strikes (b) a strong doubt the Government will back down and (c) a feeling that such a move may backfire and cause a loss of sympathy.  Certainly, the Government and the majority of the media seem to positively enjoy strikes from the point of view of showing how militant and greedy unions are.  It’s also true that others are suffering equally as much and many of those cannot strike. Strikes are polarising things, therefore, but those who vote yes may feel – with the rich getting richer and the poor being seemingly penalised – that things are polarised enough.

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Hypotheses: that higher book prices in France means more library usage

Quelle Horreur: further reflections on the differences between the French and English public library services

Editotial

I had the privilege of being invited over to Paris last week to speak to the Association des Bibliothecaires de France about the English experience with volunteer libraries.  Those of you with long memories will remember that I attended the same conference last year in Lyons and so my thoughts here are meant as a companion piece to my blog article then called The Road Not Taken.

The first thing that came apparent is that there are indeed, like here, lots of small volunteer libraries.  Again, like England, many of these are supported by the local councils, as long as they are seen as sustainable (which can mean them just being opened four hours per week with four volunteers).  There are often professional librarians going out to support these branches: one librarian I had the privilege of talking to managed 19 volunteers doing wonderful things in a manner very similar to some  council-supported libraries here. So far so similar to the emerging English picture.   But there the resemblance ends … because these volunteer libraries are mainly only in tiny communities (500 to 1000 strong) and exist in areas where there is no paid library service. The idea of having a volunteer library for a sizeable town (say 15,000) was a hard one for the French in the audience to fathom.

“no librarian in France has been replaced by volunteers”

Moreover, as far as I could tell, no librarian in France has been replaced by volunteers. Although there have been budget cuts, these are of a far smaller percentage than here and staff are not made redundant.  What happens instead is that only one paid librarian is appointed for every two that leave.  This means, as I discovered speaking to a young professional still looking for her first post, that it is very hard to get a job but it does at least mean that there are new jobs to be had.  I stopped encouraging people to work in a public library three years ago but that sad state of affairs has not yet come to France.  Nor even to countries worse off: in Portugal they have the strange situation where they have not bought new stock for years (room hires are charged for in books, not Euros) but have not lost any staff.  Library staff are protected in these countries in a way that seemed like a dream to me.  Moreover, there was sincere shock in the audience when I talked about volunteers replacing staff.  That shock turned to disgust when I said that some retired librarians went back to work as volunteers.  I think some refused to believe that.  One asked what the professional library association was doing about the situation, almost in a way that suggested that in France such things held any sway over government decisions.  Needless to say, they were not impressed by the actions of CILIP and the Society of Chief Librarians in this field.   I gained the impression that the French librarians (let alone the public) would be marching on the streets if such happened there.

“there was sincere shock in the audience when I talked about volunteers replacing staff”

Last time. I noted that the maintenance by law of high book prices meant that there were a lot of bookshops (confusing called librairies) around.  This time, I realised that it meant more than that.  It meant libraries were needed more.  Why?  Simply because books are not as disposable here than in England.  It costs a lot of money to buy a book in Paris and exactly the same amount, by law, to buy an e-book.  The result is that e-books are less popular, books are more of a commondity and the free lending service that libraries provided commensurately still required.

Hypotheses: that higher book prices in France means more library usage

Hypotheses: that higher book prices in France means more library usage

So the situation is a lot less dire in France for public libraries but that is not say that there is not changed.  The theme of the conference was technological and social change: something that is still to some extend being shrouded in England due to the scale of the cuts.  The change in usage and services that public libraries face was being discussed in the framework of a well funded public library system which has some breathing space to do something about it rather than in England where we have more pressing matters to hand.  Whether the seeming lack of urgency and more measured approach that is apparent in France will mean that they can face the change in a better way than the short- term nature of our country is going to be interesting to observe.  It may be that in England the sheer direness of the situation inspires action. I was brought in mind of the imagery of the frog [no insult intended to the French, far from it] being slowly boiled in water.  The story goes that the frog will not jump out if the temperature raises slowly.  Well, in England, the water (that is, the budget) was quickly turned to boiling and changes are being made hand over fist.  In France, the water is slowly being heated and changes are being made more slowly.

Something else happening, although in the Netherlands and not as far as I know in France, is the movement towards merging library authorities in order to improve efficiency.  I had the privilege of chatting to a Dutch librarian called Ingrid Bon who reported that, once upon a time, in the Netherlands every parish council would have its own library or libraries resulting in dire inefficiencies of scale.  This has now changed with the central government buying all the books and the parishes being consolidated into larger groups of five to twenty library branches.  Still smallish by UK standards of course but it is interesting that the government there felt it right to intervene rather than going with the localist, massively cut their budget and see what they do, approach of Ed Vaizey.

“The over-riding difference for me between England and France I saw was one of protection and intervention”

The over-riding difference for me between England and France I saw was one of protection and intervention.  French libraries, and public services, are protected more.  The free market does not reign supreme.  Cuts are not made from the top and each individual council left to work out what to do about it.  Volunteers are seen as they were in England five years ago as people to be used to improve on the basic service rather than being something to replace the basic service.  I’m not making value judgements by the way here – for one thing, I was shocked by the cost of books for instance and that has to be a real problem for many in France – but rather just stating that things are different.  The French librarians though, were most definitely making value judgements.  They’re horrified at what is happening over here.  They’re shocked by the ease in which library staff are being lost and they are disgusted at library staff helping volunteers replace paid staff.  For them, England is fast becoming a horror story to tell each other in the staff room and an object lesson in how not to run a library service.  Quelle Horreur.

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Wirral II: this time, Ed, it’s personal

Editorial

The Wirral has a special place in the hearts of the many who care about public libraries.  It was there in 2009 that council plans to close 11 libraries led to the (semi) intervention of the then Labour Culture Secretary and the saving of the service.  At the time, the opposition libraries minister Ed Vaizey made great demands on the government about intervening, saving libraries and keeping library jobs.  Now, five years later, the Wirral has announced it is looking at not 11 but 15 libraries either closing or being run by volunteers.  The then shadow minister is now in Government with responsibility for libraries and no one is betting on him doing anything about the Wirral.  This is not likely to go un-noticed.

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So what else was the SCL President supposed to say …? And the report from the Library Campaign AGM

Editorial

The new president of the Society of Chief Librarians, Ciara Eastell, has outlined the new priorities for the organisation in a speech last week that has just been made public.  As to be expected from someone who is also chief of a service that has recently announced the need for 28 out of 50 branches to be taken out of direct council control or closed, she has made clear that volunteer libraries and non-council run libraries will be a priority.  She also wishes to work on how best to put the case for public libraries to political parties and the electorate with the General Election coming up next year.  Finally, her speech is noteworthy for mentioning some important projects which would otherwise have completely passed me (and presumably many of you by) which is the projects and funding recently (and quietly) announced by the Carnegie UK Trust.

Here are five new things I took away from Ciara’s talk:

  1. There is £150m of new government funding for community-led enterprises, with yet more government funds for “new models of delivery”.
  2. SCL will develop a new “Universal Offer” – Learning – Showing libraries support lifelong learning
  3. SCL will provide resources and framework for supporting volunteer libraries
  4. Carnegie Trust singled out as important new partner
  5. SCL will work out how best to put forward case for libraries in the run-up to the General Election

When faced with cuts of the scale she is facing in Devon and her colleagues (her presidential predecessor is facing moving volunteers to take over 24 out of 43 libraries*) are facing nationwide, what else could she say?  Especially with the current Government willing to both withdraw money to traditional services and throw it at non-traditional ones? That councils, including employees, need to avoid spending cuts to libraries and cut something else? That direct council control is so important that some should close to retain it? That public libraries should prefer death and glory in the form of closure rather than keeping open under volunteers?  No, she has to speak this way, at least until circumstance allows for a new narrative, and that can only happen in different political circumstances where national politicians realise the importance of libraries and are willing to invest in public libraries … and that can only realistically happen with a General Election.  So get your manifesto ready now people because getting our elevator pitch up and running for the the election could be vital.

*Being president of the SCL seems to be a very unlucky thing to be when it comes to having to convert libraries to being run by volunteers: with both Ciara and her predecessor facing some of the top ten worst library cuts in the country. 

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