The Vacuum Cleaner performs his autobiographical one man show Mental. (copyright Karen Thornburn)

Necessity is the mother of invention? Libraries in 2015

Editorial

There’s a ton of imaginative stuff going on in libraries, if one pushes past the heavy curtain of budget cuts.  My thanks to St Helen’s libraries for sending me details of their Arts in Libraries project, which was brought to my attention after a piece written on the need for more theatre in libraries.  The boss of their service tweeted me saying they’re already doing a ton of stuff … and indeed they are. The thing is, of course, that these things are now never dependent on internal resources: ideas have to be free (see the fantastic Hovermark idea below), cost very little or have the capacity for commercial sponsorship (I have hopes for Awesome Boxes in that regard), receive outside funding (like St Helen’s) or require partnership (see this excellent US article). There’s more stuff going on as well: a conference in Edinburgh next month will be covering innovations and I’m including further details about this today: I’m going so I hope to see you there and would love to hear from you about what is going on in your service.

Changes

  • Hertfordshire - (Clarification from council) – £2.5 million cut in library service per year expected to be reached by third year (£1m cut each Year 1 and Year 2, £500k cut Year 3).

Ideas

  • Awesome boxes - Customer puts the library book they loved in a special box when returned in branch or online.
  • Hovermarks - Downloadable copyright-free bookmark that points towards the spine, not cover, allowing the bookmark to be read when books is shelved and not on display.
  • “Play stations” at story times - Provide toys, with play activities and “play tips”, integral to programme.

Arts in Libraries – St. Helen’s case study

Since 2011, St.Helens Council’s Arts and Libraries services have been working together to programme high-quality arts participation projects and performances. The Cultural Hubs programme, funded through The National Lottery and distributed through Arts Council England’s Grants For The Arts (Libraries) fund, began in 2013. It has enabled a programme of performances, plays, gigs, workshops, courses, events and exhibitions in all 13 libraries within the borough of St Helens.

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A week of public library news

Editorial

A bumper edition of a week of news today.  The lateness is partly due to library stuff – organising the county final of a schools poetry competition (Poetry By Heart) and staffing a stall at a community event on Saturday.  Anyway, let’s look at what’s going on – more details about the cuts in Hertfordshire and more on volunteers in Staffordshire combines with cuts to Shropshire and the ongoing saga in Lincolnshire.  Breaking news from the last is that the DCMS will be looking into the cuts after it agreed to take a letter of complaint from a campaigner seriously.

Changes

Ideas

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Glory days

Editorial

Some positive news today.  The good people of Cardiff have campaigned mightily to save seven threatened branches and the council has agreed to save them all, although it is unclear in what format. Meanwhile, in Scotland, West Dunbartonshire has not only backed down from closing Balloch Library but is going to buy it a new public toilet as well as spending a mighty £500k to improve Clydesbank Library. Meanwhile in Walsall, it has been announced that, while eight libraries will still be closed, it’s going to happen three or more months later than expected.  That last one provides a bit of a hint as to what may be going on – councils may not be keen on closures in May, what with the election and all. Indeed, the next few months may be glory days for saving threatened libraries as councils realise a closed local civic building is not a votewinner. But only if people campaign.

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It's a bit colourful.

Sanctuary, celebration and love: not bad, people, not bad.

Editorial

It’s been a great weekend.  Loads of people have used libraries, of all ages and backgrounds, finding in them what they need, regardless of their ability to pay.  By their presence, the buildings have contributed to local communities, provided equality in a world increasingly without it and been appreciated by hundreds of thousands.  Oh, and it’s also been National Libraries Day. There’s been a lot said (and great to see the Sunday Mirror printing an application form) about closures and cuts and anger but the main words that have sunk into my mind are sanctuary, celebration and love.  Those are not half bad words for any job. Be proud.

Changes

David Whitehouse on the importance of libraries More >

LibrarianFirst?

Editorial

The findings of the Independent Report on Public Libraries included the suggested action to do something like Teachfirst for public libraries in order to encourage new and talented young people into the sector at an affordable price. With the help of the Society of Chief Librarians, The Creative Society and Arts Council England, that suggestion has now become reality.  The details are:

  • 50 paid internships for unemployed 16-24 year olds in England to work in the public library sector.
  • Only for posts where “where job roles and skill sets are common to arts organisations. For example: front of house, education and outreach, marketing, digital media.”
  • Organisations can apply for “part wage grant”, explaining what post it is for, its sustainability etc.
  • For one year or more, “Learning how to do the job by doing it”.

The press release is here and more details are here. If I understand this right then that second point means there is a barrier against the apprentices being used, as some fear, to simply replace paid employees or to fill vacancies.  The challenge for library services will be to find roles that fill the criteria and are sustainable. But that is fine. After all, we want new people coming in doing this kind of thing and if it means that library services can experiment, at cut rates, with new roles then there will be few complaints.  At the not exactly young age of 44, I am often the youngest working in some branches I visit and so an initiative like this is to be welcomed. It is also great that action points in a report on libraries is actually being implemented, rather than being just talked about and bodes well for the other suggestions as a whole.

Changes

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Changing the narrative

Editorial

R David Lankes has written an excellent piece for National Libraries Day where he looks at how US libraries faced cuts and declining usage but survived and have grown stronger than ever.  This was achieved, he says, by “controlling the narrative”, making public libraries being creative and inspiring places to be rather than their old image of books and social welfare.  Strangely, this was a sentiment also echoed by a Canadian in the useful #uklibchat debate on public libraries who said “Libraries & Librarians must be prepared to change from traditions, must take risks try new things. Get out in the community”. My glib response to him at the time was “Agreed. Now try that with 50% less budget over 4 years, half the staff and no political will. Report back” but it strikes me that, actually, libraries across the country are radically changing from their traditions and going out to the community. Albeit in radical ways that, ironically, the Canadian would probably be shocked with, but no one can see UK libraries have not been changing, just only not in ways entirely controlled by the libraries themselves.

The question is for UK public libraries not should we but can we change the narrative.  The narrative of the last few years has been of saving libraries and of reduced usage.  The campaigning message may be useful for a short while nationally but, like Save the Whales, reduces its impact over time.  The reduced usage narrative is that of defeat and is poisonous: we need to get away from it.  But it seems to me that budget cuts have been so deep, the political lack of understanding of public libraries so disconnected from the reality and, yes, the lack of leadership (structurally at least) so dysfunctional that to blame librarians for the failure to change into 3D community workshop engineering hi-tech wunderkinds is a bit much.  But that’s the challenge, my friends.  We need to convince the politicians that libraries are relevant to their goals and the public that libraries are places to be cherished (and not just with placards).  This may be very hard with some public-service hating anti-professional and deeply ideological politicians but there are other people out there and even the most dyed in the wool reactionary is not demonic.  The SCL and CILIP are trying to do what they can (albeit within tightly controlled parameters) in this.  There are, in some of the things I see in reports innovation (such as the BL Business Centres, the one Maker Space, the joy of the Summer Reading Challenge) that say there’s hope but there needs to be more.  And that’s going to be hard.  But it needs to be done. Frankly, if it would improve things, I would even say nice things about Ed Vaizey.  Now that really would be changing the narrative.

Ideas

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Nothing Rotten about that quote. This work, "John Lydon National Libraries Day 2015", is a derivative of "John Lydon Mosaic by Ed Chapman" by dullhunk, used under CC BY 2.0. "John Lydon National Libraries Day 2015" is licensed under CC BY 2.0 by cilipmarketing.

Should one save all the libraries all the time?

Editorial

OK, I’m going to say it.  Sometimes, closing a library is the right thing to do.  It’s usage has fallen, the place is falling apart and no-one cares for the place, either staff or public. When the announcement is made, there’s no protest outside.  It’s a fair cop, the place closed.  I’ve been in libraries like that on occasion and it’s a depressing experience, best to sell the land and spend the money elsewhere.  Of course, these days far more than the defunct are being closed down.  You can tell this because, in place after place, people protest, march through town, take their council to court.  People don’t do this because they fancy a spot of light placard waving after Jeremy Kyle.  They do it because their library means that much to them. Those libraries should be saved.  But how on Earth is that done when money is so cut each year?

Sadly, in times of 50% “savings” (how I hate that word) to budget, heads of service need to make tough choices.  And they are tough, and would have been unimaginable in 2009. No boss enjoys cutting his or her budget, there’s no gleam of schadenfreude as the red line goes over the five least performing branches in their borough.  I know of senior staff, real decision makers, who have cried when doing this – no library chiefs are as devoid of humanity or intelligence, or as full of short-sighted selfishness as some suggest.  It’s horrible, and worse for the staff and communities most of all.  But in a time where the choice is either retrenchment into fewer branches or spreading budget so thinly that no-one wants to come into them that choice has to be made.  The third option of volunteer libraries also has to be considered, with all the problems and opportunities it entails, with its unfair postcode lottery and blackmail implications not least in my mind.

So I accept the need to close the occasional library through gritted teeth.  I’m a librarian, a library user and a lover of libraries.  But the reality that has to be faced with the governing ideology is of Austerity is that it is not just the failed defunct library that should be gone but libraries that are (or should be if funded enough) vibrant and teeming.  The over-riding cause of all of this misery is the historic decision to cut local councils by the biggest percentages seen in the last century or two.  Until that ideology dies, along with its allies of just plain disliking local services, loving private profit, and believing that such cuts will improve efficiency rather than ruining the neediest people’s lives, then that is what is going to continue to happen.  And it will happen, worse and worse, until something breaks so badly the whole thing is discredited. Or we live in the ultra-efficient world that Luke Johnson (ex owner of Borders, although strangely this is not mentioned much in his bio) suggests in the Sunday Times. When councils finally do run ultra-efficient multi-partnership behind-the-scenes economy of scale machines off their own bat. Perhaps that will happen. Or, instead or at the same time, the fact that people love libraries, depend on libraries and need libraries gets through to those – way above the level of library chief – in actual real power in Downing Street.  And that has most certainly not been David Cameron up until now.

Changes

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News for 28th-29th January

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Ideas

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A public library news miscellany

Editorial

Lots of changes today, with some new libraries, some closures and plenty in-between. Other notable stories include the launch of Dementia books on prescription and the tale – very rare someone is brave enough to write publicly – of what it is like to be a librarian in an authority that’s trying to get rid of you.

Changes

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the dilemma of a good librarian in austere times

Editorial

An interesting exchange went on in the House of Lords last Thursday.  A question on libraries, including one or two attempts to try to ring-fence funding for them, was waved away by reference to innovations – and especially the move to volunteers – going on in public libraries.  Cuts of up to 50% were acknowledged but with a feeling that councils are doing their best, and doing well, at avoiding these cuts actually affecting the public.  This presents a bit of a problem to local councils, and not only in the realm of public libraries.  For by doing the best they can, by working hard to minimise the impact of the deepest cuts in peacetime history, on the voter, councils are making more cuts more palatable to the politicians and to the electorate.  Of course, it would be even worse, at least in the short and medium terms, if councils failed to do the best they could.  They would be accused, quite rightly, of self injury and the public would show no mercy.  In this they would be, goaded on by political parties whose ideology values skilled public workers very little and which does not understand the difference between the words “cut” and “saving”. It’s especially sad to see stalwart defenders of public libraries, who have become volunteers, used in this way.  But in this new world of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, everything is fair game.  The trick is to learn how those in public libraries can change the game and win it.

Changes

Ideas

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