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

More >

Libraries represent value, not cost … and cuts to them are not “savings”

Editorial

It’s always a little jarring when I see what is blatantly a budget cut in a library service described as a saving.  Middlesbrough are the latest to do this, saying that they will “save” £100,000 but halving the bookfund.  I’ve just googled saving and one of the definitions is “preventing waste of a particular resource”.  Since when was spending on books a waste? It’s a dangerous use of the language that concentrates on the cost of everything and the value of nothing.  It lays open every service, from libraries to roads to hospitals, to more and more cutting in the name of efficiency until there’s nothing left.  I have always used the word “cut” instead of “saving” in my summaries of changes to library budgets unless there is clear evidence that the reduction in budget has reduced waste.  But I don’t see much of that nowadays.  What I’m seeing now are cuts to services, to the good and to the value that services such as libraries add to their communities, almost every day.  It’s dangerous when the language changes to hide the reality … and that’s what the word “saving” is so often intended to do.  The indefatigable library campaigner Shirley Burnham has also, by coincidence, recently emailed me on the subject (to do with especially egregious descriptions of cuts in Leeds) and so I will leave her the last word:

Have you noticed the very negative language applied to Public Libraries nowadays?  Libraries require a ‘solution’, as if they are an epidemic that threatens public health.   It is considered that they must be closed, modified out of all recognition, taken out of statutory control, lose their paid staff and/or have their opening hours cut.  Not invested in, improved and made the backbone of their community.  So – any dismay that is voiced by politicians about a decline in library usage and  any rhetoric admitting that, albeit, they are ‘much loved’ – seems insincere.

Whilst cutting opening times is seen as less controversial – a lesser evil than mass closures – such cuts can only be harbingers of future closures.  They make each affected library less sustainable, leaving it vulnerable to the next round of cuts.  Then “bingo” your ‘much-loved’ library has gone, along with your access to the public computers you need to seek a job or apply for your benefits, etc. let alone access to information, expert assistance and the pure pleasure of browsing the shelves. I see two divergent views of your branch libraries.  Are they simply a drain on Leeds’s meagre financial resources, or are they  potentially a focal point for revitalising the city?

We should talk about them as our long-term investment in learning, skills and young people.  People deserve nothing less than good quality Public Libraries that are “open”!  The negative mindset and vocabulary of those in charge must change!”  Shirley Burnham

Changes

More >

“Poster child” Chester: cuts in Barnet and Walsall

Editorial

The Arts Council England chief, Sir Peter Bazalgette, visited the site of a new combined library/theatre/cinema in Chester and called it a “poster child” for showing what Arts and Culture can do to “turbo-charge” its neighbourhood.  He also points out the synergy of having all the Arts users, including library members in one place with all the cross-selling that that implies. I’ve noted interest in the project from around the world in the past.  It’s a strange one for me as it’s in my own library authority (and I don’t like reporting on that for obvious reasons) but it does look like something which could have national implications. Not least because Sir Peter holds quite a large budget and has libraries under his remit.

Major cuts in Barnet are being proposed with several options listed that could close or turn volunteer half of the branches. Two items of note on this one: the first is that the report notes that they have less volunteers than other councils and it’s time to catch up and the second is the suggestion that they rent out library car park spaces.  Both have some interesting implications. Walsall have also announced major cuts but, I guess, car parking spaces are less of a premium there.

Changes

Ideas

  • Streetlife - A social media site that encourages local communities and can provide free advertising for libraries.
  • Renting out parking space in library car parks – Barnet.

More >

The Library of Birmingham used as the icon of the city: on half-marathon shirt

Getting back to the future: Battle of Ideas debate + the rest of the public libraries news

Editorial

Libraries are no longer about “shush” and about telling people what to read … many librarians, myself included, care a great deal about keeping their libraries buzzing, with stock that the public wants to read as well as stock that the public should read.  And that, if we’re not careful, could cause us a great of support. My experience at the Battle of Ideas conference held at the Barbican over the weekend was that some of the key things that people value about libraries is quiet and quality bookstock and that, if we don’t have that, then they’re not so bothered about us closing because we’re not so much use to them any more.  The session lasted 90 minutes and attacked a pile of public library orthodoxies, mainly I suspect because it was not for and by public librarians.  Read my notes and thoughts on the day here.  I have heard complaints from users too much about the noise to wave away such complaints as middle class prejudices. There is a problem about noise in many of our libraries and we are failing in one our unique selling points if we ignore it.

I was surprised to see that Annie Mauger will be leaving her post as chief executive of CILIP early next year.  I know that the leadership of CILIP over the last few years has not had the easiest of rides, especially at AGMs (rebranding … Vaizey no confidence vote … governance) and I guess I could go on for a while giving a review of the “the Mauger years”.  I wont’ do so now but one key thing springs to mind: that the last five years have hopefully put CILIP on to a financial footing where they will hopefully survive … and a body like CILIP is very useful for public libraries when it comes to all sorts of things such as representation, publicity and advocacy.  But, like a library, it’s of no use if it’s not there any more.

Changes

More >

Going postal?

Editorial

What appears to be the first post office run by a public library has opened in Stradbroke in Suffolk.  Writtle Library in Essex already has a post office inside it but it is run separately by post office staff. Stradbroke post office, on the other hand, will have its own library staff providing the post office, as an income generation exercise, service to the community and as a way of increasing footfall … and you thought having to do badges for disabled parking was a stretch.

Changes

Ideas

More >

Russell Brand, social justice and surveillance. Seriously.

Editorial

I’ve had various responses to the news that the Reading Agency’s annual lecture will be by Russell Brand.  The most common reaction is that he is way cool, funny and is bound to get the headlines … but there’s a strong minority (well, we are librarians) not impressed with his scandals and general demeanour.  Whatever, I think that no matter what he’s going to be good entertainment and is going to make headlines which reading surely needs.  Well done to the Reading Agency for getting him.  Now, let’s hope he isn’t so scandalous that I’ll have to eat my words.

A good piece also on social justice today. In these times where we can barely keep libraries staffed, where the majority of those librarians employed five years ago have probably left the profession and where volunteers are taking over branches, social justice is perhaps understandably not as high up the agenda as it once was.  It appears that many authorities consider it, consciously or otherwise, something that can be downplayed when the going gets tough.  We must ask ourselves if it is really the luxury that some of our (in)actions suggest it is.  There’s also the question of how aware of the issues those volunteers who are taking over libraries are.

Finally, I’ve been reading a lot about US librarians being strongly anti-surveillance and ensuring that the personal privacy of users (OK, customers.  OK, clients. Damn it, what should we call them?) is not abused by the police and others.  I wonder how many library workers are aware of the ethics of the profession. Are you? And do we ensure the police have a warrant? If you’re not sure of the situation, check out the CILIP Code of Professional Practice (D4 is the one).

Changes

Ideas

More >

Let’s BOP until we drop

Editorial

It is good to see the success of the Books on Prescription scheme.  Public libraries sorely need national publicity campaigns and resources, as well as alliances with major partners, and it doesn’t get much bigger than the NHS. I know from direct personal experience how useful it is to be able to have the right book at hand to answer a problem from an, often ill and worried, member of the public so this is all good.  It need not stop there of course.  We need to work ever closer with the health profession to provide easy access to information (online as well as print) and staff need to be trained in how best to deal with the, often tricky, situations that this field presents.  As such, I’m looking forward to doing the Public library Universal Information Offers (shortened to the Italian sounding PLUIO) training over the next few weeks. This is going to take a while for all of the short-staffed libraries to do but, heaven knows, we don’t get enough training so it’s something to cherish.  I hope it lives up to my expectations.

Finally, the names of the councils under the “changes” sections are increasingly like old acquaintances, although it is worth pointing out that the cuts have already been announced earlier and these are merely more information.  These are councils who have already seriously cut their budgets once in the last few short years and are now doing it all over again. Havering already have 380 volunteers and so confidently expect to be able to replace the 50 (out of 94) paid staff that it will be losing.  My rule of thumb with such things is that you need between five and ten volunteers to replace one paid full timer so let’s hope there’s at least two to three hundred more people in that borough fancying working in a library. Getting them all trained on PLUIO is going to take a while too.

Changes

More >

That's not a shelf of print books, you know

Library Walls, Liverpool petitions, Scottish Book Week

Editorial

One of the more interesting things happening at the moment in libraryland is putting virtual bookshelves in public places.  Titles on these “bookshelves” are often accessed by QR codes and are then downloaded on to the user’s device.  Sara Wingate Grey of Artefacto caught my interest with a “Library Wall” that she helped design that is attracting attention in Haringey.  Read her post for more information.  I especially like the way that the “Wall” tweets what people has borrowed from it. Anyway, I got into contact with Sara and she answered a few of my questions.  Here they are:

That's not a shelf of print books, you know

That’s not a shelf of print books, you know

Q. Do you have the copyright free ebooks on a website somewhere to allow download?  If so, are you able to give me the address?  Is it via something like Gutenberg or GitHub instead?

A. You’re right that we’re hosting the specific Library Wall content – we got the original source texts from various PD sources we found available online (see my blogpost) and then spent time (a lot of time, it turned out) creating epub files suitable for download. We’re not intending that where we’re hosting the content be accessed except by mobile device when Library Wall is scanned at point of access, and the book downloaded as an epub file then (or bookmarked to save for later etc.) so there’s no web address to give out.

Q. Also do you have a LibraryBox or something hiding behind there too to offer the download and/or connectivity for those without smartphones?

A. No. You’re right that a LibraryBox would have enabled those with an electronic device eg. tablet, phone, laptop, to logon and grab any books we provided on that network, but this would make then make interaction with the actual physical Library Wall irrelevant and not really required, and so for this, and the reasons detailed above we did not go down this route this time.

Q. I’m also curious about where the funding is coming from.

A. Only the materials for the project were funded, and Kate and myself (working as Artefacto) and all those who collaborated with us in various degrees gave their time freely. The materials fund came from Haringey Arts (again, see blogpost for more details). We’re really happy to talk to anyone who’s interested in Library Wall, our aim for the project was just to demonstrate what it’s possible to imagine (and then go and #makeithappen!)

Ideas

More >

Martina Cole plus readers

Donation boxes, longer mobile stops and other changes

Editorial

Norfolk have started putting donation boxes into its libraries.  While not a new phenomenon (the new Manchester Central Library has them and others), it’s strange to see them at the flagship Millennium Library, which is normally named the most used library in the UK. It’s an odd for one users too: to donate will only beget more donation boxes but not donating may mean deeper cuts. A difficult decision for the user but, doubtless, no easier for the proud Norfolk librarians.

Another library authority is involved in changes which, on the face of it at least, have less to do with budget cuts than may be assumed.  Oxfordshire is more than halving mobile library visits from 463 to 200 but this is not because they’re cutting the number of mobiles but rather that they’re making stops longer.  Anyone living with a mobile that stops for only 10 or 15 minutes each fortnight could probably see the point of this – what if your clock is 5 minutes fast? – but it’s unfortunate for those who lose their stop. It will be interesting to see what happens to mobile library usage there.

Changes

More >

Brent usage up; volunteers reopen and win awards; Library of Things

Changes

Ideas

More >