The best of times, the worst of times

Editorial

It’s been a very busy few days for me, with lots to think about for the future of libraries interspersed with more prosaic but no less important domestic matters. The thing that has come from it most clearly for me though is the need for a positive, open and optimistic frame of mind.  It is all too easy in UK public libraries in 2015 to get depressed or focus on the tasks immediately ahead of you and not further afield.  Sometimes, perhaps, at the moment it’s impossible to do otherwise.  But if one has the chance to look up (and one is not fearing immediately for one’s job) then, and I’m going to annoy a few people here, this is actually a most interesting time to work in the sector.  Libraries have never been in such pressure as now and so, counter-intuitively, there should be never a better time to try something new, to re-examine priorities and to (heavens above) look what the community wants and try to serve those needs.  This may even be concentrating on what libraries have traditionally been good at (study areas, expert advice and free materials are actually pretty good unique selling points) or it could be something radically differeny.  The point is that there’s a world of innovation out there and it needs to be critically examined.  We need to look atthe things we do and ensure that they’re right and we need to look at new innovations – and I’m loving the books on buses idea – and how to fund them if they stand up to scrutiny.  This is not easy, perhaps the hardest thing to do we can but, you know, we have to.  And, by doing so, we can make public libraries better than they ever have been before. Especially if we can take the decision makers with us. More on that, perhaps, in another post soon.

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So if it’s going so well over there …

Editorial

One for the things I notice scanning the library press is how different the situation is in different countries.  Reports today show libraries are booming in the US and Australia yet here they are not doing so well.  There is more than one answer to why that is the case there but not so much here. Libraries have more independence in those countries to campaign and do long-term planning for a start.  In the US, also, the divide in society is such that so many more people don’t have access to the internet or indeed space that the library is vital, especially in a country that does not appear to have Job Centres or the other paraphernalia of a caring state that we are (still) familiar with.  In Australia, adult literacy is seen as a big thing for libraries and they get funding for that.  In some places in the US like Columbus it’s educating children outside of school that is key. In the UK, none of these, not even internet access, are such big deals and thus the libraries have less leverage for the final big over-arching factor. That other big difference is, of course, money.  The other countries have cuts to be sure but nothing, apparently, in the same league as the UK.  To keep the sporting allusion going, therefore, we need that strategy quickly if we are not to get demoted yet another division.

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March photo

Strife in Fife? Library cuts go further than expected

Editorial

16 out of 51 libraries are under threat in Fife.  That’s a lot of buildings and more than I can remember seeing in danger in Scotland, a country that has avoid the cuts better than England.  Doubtless some of those branches are unsustainable in terms of usage or the state of the building (or both) but the scope of the cuts there are more than most people were expecting.  Expect a whole bunch of voluntary (probably not compulsory) redundancies.  This, while it sounds fairly civilized, and may well be welcomed by some in that library service will affect and worry even some others who accept it.  After all, most people work in libraries because they love them (see the great Guardian article on the magic of libraries for more about this) so having to leave them will be a shock and, also, a gamble, for some involved. Working in libraries for twenty or thirty years is not uncommon and voluntary redundancy can feel like being cast adrift. This cut will not disturb the sleep of the DCMS as Scotland does not come under their responsibility so it cannot be used in the debate that Alan Gibbons confirms will go ahead with Ed Vaizey.

Meanwhile. the first annual report is to be debated for Explore York, a mutual which is being seen as a possible model for libraries elsewhere in England.  I look forward to reading it.

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Legal action against the DCMS over cuts to public libraries: appeal for information

Editorial

Paul Heron from Public Interest Lawyers has been in touch with regard to gaining national information on the failure of the DCMS to properly investigate and respond to cuts to public libraries.  The full details are below. Please respond if you can help.

Judicial Review challenge of Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s failure to investigate Sheffield library closures 

What we’re doing 

Public Interest Lawyers are acting on behalf of a client who lives in Sheffield, and is supported by Broomhill Library Action Group (‘BLAG’).  We are challenging the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (‘DCMS’) and their failure to conduct an inquiry into the changes of library services in Sheffield.

We have sought permission to make an application for judicial review. This is the first step of a judicial review claim, in which we have to show that we have an arguable case against the Secretary of State. If we are granted permission (which is not guaranteed) the matter will be heard at a full hearing in the High Court.

Why? 

 As you will be aware library provision has changed dramatically across the country over recent years, with many Local Authorities making cuts to jobs and services. Some libraries have been shut and in others volunteers are expected to bridge the gaps.  The DCMS has a responsibility to oversee library provision across the country, and to ensure that Local Authorities satisfy statutory provision requirements.  We are aware of at least seven library campaigns who have asked the DCMS to hold an inquiry into the changes. Each of those requests have been refused. Indeed the Secretary of State has not conducted an inquiry since 2009 in the Wirral.

At this stage it would appear that the DCMS is either:-

  1. Not considering requests for inquiries properly or at all, or
  2. Has a ’blanket policy’ which has lead it to refusing to conduct inquiries, or
  3. It is not fulfilling the duty to superintend library provision

What can you do? 

We would like to hear from individuals or campaign groups who have contacted the DCMS, asking for them to consider an inquiry into local library services.  Did you request an inquiry but receive no response? If you received a response what did it say? This information will assist us in building up the bigger picture of the DCMS and their apparent refusal to engage in any inquiries into local library provision changes.

Please contact Emily or Paul if you think that you could help: Emily.mcfadden@publicinterestlawyers.co.uk or Paul.Heron@PublicInterestLawyers.co.uk or 0207 404 5889.

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Library stereotypes in the national media + the volunteer dilemma

Editorial

The BBC will soon be recording – in front of a live studio audience so, hey, get a ticket – a radio comedy about libraries.  Sounds good but the title of it – “Shush!” – and the description of the characters are absolutely hideous and cling to every stereotype going.  On a similar note, the stereotypes in the article on the Express on Stoke changing its bye-laws to allow people to be loud and to sleep did not surprise me.  Many journalists have problems with the fact that libraries have changed in the last fifty years.  What did surprise me was the need that Stoke has to have its bye-law change ratified by the DCMS. In this age of minimal funding combined with minimal interference, the fact a local council has to ask the minister before allowing people to speak loudly seems a bit behind the times.

In other news, figures from Warwickshire show book loans from libraries taken over by volunteers has halved.  That’s pretty bad but the council points out that without volunteers there’d be no loans there at all.  I am aware that some librarians, fearful of their jobs and the national implications, would much rather have seen the library close than be passed to the unpaid but, on the ground, that’s a far harder call to make. If I was not a librarian, I suspect I would much rather live in a community with a volunteer library than none at all. But then one has to wonder about the quality of those volunteers and their training: would I be (to the delight of the BBC and the Express) be shushed as I entered? Would I be able to contain myself if I saw something that would not be acceptable in a council library? Or would the volunteer library, full of enthusiastic people who want to be there, be better than what they replaced (and I hear in some poorly funded areas where staff were poorly managed before that this was the case)? What would be my – or your – feelings about that?

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Wales feels the pinch; SCL and ASCEL positivity

Editorial

Interesting to see how many items today are from Wales: looks like the cuts are having an impact there as much as in England now. In other news, there’s some positive stuff from the SCL and ASCEL.  That last stand for the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians and, to my shame, I had to check that up.  It’s not an organisation that has played a prominent role in public libraries news and that’s odd because there’s no more important demographic for public libraries as children.  I look forward to seeing more from them.

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Finding a warm welcome and navigating to a new life

Editorial

Malorie Blackman has been an excellent children’s laureate and it’s been a pleasure to follow her work over the last two years.  I’m saddened therefore that her tenure has come to an end but also really pleased that Chris Riddell is the next laureate, especially as he is so clearly (like Malorie) pro library.

Interlending has continued to be a hot topic on Lis-pub-libs and I have reported snippets on PLN.  This is due to a suggestion from one authority looking to end interlending in order to cut costs.  I know that some authorites have already de facto ceased interlending already so it is good to get this out into the open.  As budgets get tighter, public libraries are forced to re-evaluate their costs and what they can charge for.  Rather than making such decisions alone, such debates help better inform. Which is good because public libraries are supposed to be good at information but all too often councils appear to do things in vacuum.

Ed Vaizey makes some prominent appearances on this post. He seems to be reconnecting with public libraries, which is fantastic, despite the cynicism that this may raise in many quarters.  Sieghart and the Libraries Task Force can take at least partial credit for this, even though Mr Vaizey still has clear difficulty (as to be fair any politician raised in our dysfunctional political system would) facing up to the impact of cuts to the service and the reasons for it.

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Another window-dressing review … and more on the increasingly disastrous Cambridge “Enterprise Centre”

Editorial

Ed Vaizey has announced another of his reviews of library cuts, this time in Harrow at the prompting of the local MP.  It’s easy to announce such a thing, and Mr Vaizey, has done so many times in the past.  It’s especially easy because everyone knows, include Ed (and probably the MP who asked for it as well) that no action is actually going to be taken.  When the review comes out, it will say that the council has taken adequate steps and that the decision is up to them – Mr Vaizey is moving non-interventionism into some sort of art form – but the headline looks good in the local newspaper.

The saga of the privately run “enterprise centre” that is to take over the third floor of Cambridge Central Library, which has already included heated discussions about lack of involvement and worries over tax avoidance, continues with news that the Kora businessman that led the negotiations is disqualified from being a company director until 2019.  This means that the council will again have to have a look at the proposals, which only squeaked through amidst much protest last week.  More widely, the case shows how desperate councils are to hive off parts of their buildings or services to others in a bid to cut costs, with such desperation sometimes leading – as it appears in this case – to corners being cut.  We’ll see how it pans out eventually but, in the meantime, this is a salutary lesson to councils to do their homework properly before they hand it in.

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This "green and pleasant" picture of the Kentish countryside was taken from Kemsing Library, Sevenoaks on Wednesday.  No ocean views but, still, what a lovely view

The Government will help those who help themselves

Editorial

Ed Vaizey has spoken at the Society of Chief Librarians conference, in a speech trailed by the Telegraph in the morning.  He made clear he’s in favour of wifi and of the national libraries task force.  He’s also keen on public libraries moving with the times.  All the non-official comment I have seen about this is of the “that’s easy for him to say” and “try that when you’re facing big cuts in budget” variety.  Certainly, we’re not going to get any funding or protection from him but, rather, he will support those who help themselves.  That’s also the spirit of the new Localities report (funded by Arts Council England) on income generation in libraries, which is worth a read, although there is no easy wins in it.  The message I took from that is that we may lose the ethos of what a public library is – and why people go to these wonderful free, welcoming and neutral places – if one has to chase income.

In a move I have not come across before, Northamptonshire is considering moving its library service into a non-profit along with other “well-being” services run by Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Northampton.  This would put libraries in the same organisation as one offering dietary and debt advice, as well as befrienders and stopping smoking. Now, weird as that may be sound, I can actually see some point in that, being aware every day of the health giving and beneficial effects of public libraries. More to the point, the chief of the council is of special importance to public libraries as her is Paul Blantern, chief of the English public libraries taskforce. We can therefore see this thinking as especially influential, even though the council itself seems to bury news of the proposal, with none on the library webpages and it being clear that libraries are being part of the proposals only if you get to the twelfth question of the consultation.

This "green and pleasant" picture of the Kentish countryside was taken from Kemsing Library, Sevenoaks on Wednesday.  No ocean views but, still, what a lovely view

This “green and pleasant” picture of the Kentish countryside was taken from Kemsing Library, Sevenoaks on Wednesday. No ocean views but, still, what a lovely view

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Scottish national library strategy: North Yorks deep cuts: Cambridge Central

Editorial

Scotland is the latest country to give English public librarians an inferiority complex by publishing a national library strategy. As it says, this is necessary to give an idea of destination and direction of travel over the next five years.  We have nothing like it in England, although the Public Libraries Task Force is saying similar things about wifi for all libraries and the need to look at alternative methods of provision.

North Yorkshire is continuing its bid to lead the field in the latter, due mainly one suspects to having one of the most cut library service in the country, with the recent proposals being represented as an improvement on the original proposals, even though they include a reduction of £4.23m.  Even the biggest libraries will have a cut in staff of 40%, with most being expected to get by almost entirely on volunteers.  It’s worth noting that the success of the first wave of volunteer libraries is being touted by this council: while that’s great, I wonder how those volunteer libraries already in existence feel about their example being directly used as a way of softening the news impact of the loss of large numbers of paid staff.  I also wonder (though one suspects one knows) about how those paid staff feel.  However, of course, there’s no saying that the two are causally linked and it’s fair to say that the cuts would have come anyway, considering the depth of the austere budget imposed.

It’s also probably fair to say that, further south, the decision to let out the third floor of Cambridge Central Library to a private company as an “enterprise centre” was not well received.  Problems don’t just include the loss of space for a busy library but also questions over proper political process (with not one of the meetings deciding the issue before it went public involving a councillor) and even tax avoidance. Readers of Public Libraries News will be very familiar with councils approving unpopular decisions and this one has proved no different but it’s notable that it only squeaked through by one vote.  Far from being a role model for other libraries, therefore, Cambridge may become more of a lesson on what to avoid.

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