Enterprising community libraries?

The Enterprising Community Libraries event took place today (5th March) in London.  It’s aim was to look at the ways volunteers are taking over threatened libraries and how this can be developed in the future.  Senior figures such as the libraries minister Ed Vaizey, Direct of Libraries for Arts Council England Nicky Morgan and Miranda McKearney of the Reading Agency were in the room.  Certainly, from photos taken, it looks busy:

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EDGE Award 2013 - digital skills sharing project win

Going Dutch: Private company takes over 4 Dutch libraries for half the cost.

Some news from Holland surprised me today: a private company is taking over four branches for half of the current cost.  It is not known what the service level agreement is but that kind of puts the current deals in the UK in perspective.  By the way, there is no statutory provision for libraries in Holland so there have been some very heavy cuts of up to 100% (yes, 100%) in some authorities.  However, I understand, that although 80% of library services are facing cuts 2010-14, most are facing a maximum 10% cut.  So, the overall situation is four times better (yes, libraries in the UK are facing up to a 40% cut) than in the UK but individual authorities have more carte blanche to make their public libraries a lot worse, or even non-existent, than here.

Mind you, just before we think “it could be worse”, it was pointed out to me today that the standard maximum distance to a city library has being going up quickly over the last couple of years:

  • Library standards to 2008 – 95% within 1 mile; 100% within 2 miles
  • Welsh standards (and Bolton Council 2011) – 95% within 1.5 miles
  • Manchester (2013) – “most within 2 miles”

The brings home the fact, of course, that there really is nothing really “standard” any more, at least in England.  With no clear, let alone enforceable, guidelines in the UK and a government (and an opposition too) that is highly unlikely to intervene, each authority effectively has carte blanche to push the boundaries as far as they like.  Expect the first proud boast of “most perople are still within 3 miles” at any time.

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2011-02-01 West Suffolk College 3

Librarians better start knowing the price of everything they do or they risk their value becoming nothing

It is becoming more and more obvious that public libraries are being asked to prove, in cold and harsh terms, that they provide sufficient return for councils.  If they cannot prove this simple fact, they’re being closed and will continue to be closed in large numbers. Merely being libraries, serving what is widely seen as shrinking numbers of users and providing services that libraries think that they should (local history meetings, homework clubs) is not, it appears, going to be enough in the terrifying new world where it is envisaged that education and social welfare will soon take up all of the council’s ruthlessly cut budgets.  “Mission creep” of libraries into other areas – where libraries become jacks of all trades but, sadly, masters of none – is ruthlessly attacked by a Labour Lambeth councillor, Sally Prentice, who attended an Arts Council seminar on the future of libraries.  Rather, she says, libraries need to re-focus on their core purpose of:

“enabling people to access, explore and enjoy reading and knowledge in the digital age”

… and they’d better be able to prove it on statistical grounds to the accountants.

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How to spend £100k plus and get nothing while trying to save money: Laing surprise Croydon

John Laing Integrated Services (JLIS) have caused confusion in Croydon by, apparently, changing their offer – on staff pensions – at the last moment. This means the contract has to go back out to tender.  Regardless of how one feels about private companies running libraries, this is hardly looking to be a textbook advert for outsourcing library services.  The whole point of the process is supposed to be to save money, not spend more and more with nothing to show from it.  Tendering has already cost Croydon at least £94,000 with no end in sight.  Even when a bidder is finally chosen, it is the stated desire of Labour councillors to return libraries to public control if they become the party in power again – which, with nightmares like this, seems more likely by the day.  In a time when every penny is sacred for councils, getting the tendering out of services wrong is starting to look like a dangerous and expensive distraction.

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Without that library, I’d be working on a farm, or in jail, or dead

I get a lot of emails about how wonderful libraries are but this one struck a chord.  Read and be re-energised in your struggle for great public libraries, be you a library worker, a politician, campaigner or just plain interested bystander.

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Little acorns of hope from the austerity oak tree … and calls to cut costs

Councils have, over the last couple of years, got a lot cleverer at keeping branches open while cutting costs.  The different ways they’re doing this can be seen in the articles below. A few libraries (one in Kent and one in Worcestershire) will be transferred from county council control to that of the parish, with volunteers to some extent taking on the workload.  In another alternative to straight closure, a library building in Kirklees looks likely to be sold off, with the books and staff being co-located in the town hall. Meanwhile, a Somerset Library will move a children’s centre and extend its hours with self-service machines and volunteers. Finally, in a welcome reversal of trend, Hampshire have announced a refurbishment and, with the help of self-service machines, an extension of opening hours at Hythe despite an expected 20% cut in budget over four years.

There’s many other approaches being tried too, although one that notably hasn’t as far as I am aware is that argued for by Tim Coates – he of ex-Waterstones and now Bilbary fame – who has renewed his call for the standardisation of book processing and for a radical reduction in back-room costs.  Desmond Clarke agrees, pointing out that mergers of library services saves money but recent history has seen a fragmentation instead.  The strangeness of this division can be seen in Hull where a library is being closed partly because 12% of its users come from another authority and so don’t seem to count.  They’re just the wrong kind of users. An ending to this kind of divisive thinking would indeed be an acorn of hope.

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Here’s how we designed our own

Wales is not looking quite the safe haven for libraries it once did, with the announcement of substantial opening hours cuts in Cardiff.  Doncaster, fresh from cutting libraries last year, have converted their Central Library to self-service.

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£1m for Brum and Manc Central Libraries. Others not so lucky

Great to see £1 million being given to libraries by the Wolfson Foundation in order “to show the future shape of public libraries at a time of debate about their future role.”.  Clearly, Wolfson, thinks the future lies in mega libraries: half of the money is going to £190m Birmingham Central Library and the other half to the £48m Manchester one.  Drops in the ocean for them then but more than five times the cut announced in St Helens that will cut a fifth off their entire opening hours across the borough. This may be bittersweet for campaigners as they often care about the small local branch and not the massive showpiece five miles up the road. Great news, though, for the Government who have advocated philanthropy as a way of making up for public spending cuts.

Unalloyed good news from Portsmouth’s increase of 8% in children’s usage last year appears likely to be at least partially due to the issuing of library cards to all schoolchildren from July last year.  Portsmouth is a pilot scheme for the project which many hope will be brought in nationwide.

There’s some irony about the decision in Worcestershire to reduce the Gallery at Kidderminster Library due to the need to cut council costs. It was built less than twenty years ago with a third of a million pounds from Arts Council England. This is the same organisation that has been given £6 million by the Government last year to improve links between Arts and public libraries.  Just the sort of thing that the gallery at Kidderminster Library does.  Or, rather, did.

Health may be an expanding area for saving libraries. A Sefton doctor has said that closing her local library could cost more than it will save as it may “have a severe impact on physical and psychological wellbeing”.

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Pia Long

Guest post: Farnham Library, a fairytale library in the Internet Age

Pia Long first came to my attention when she wrote an excellent piece called “Are Public Libraries Obsolete?: The Shelf Life of a “Dream Vision” back in 2011. We talked to each-other about our mutual love of libraries and she promised to write a piece for Public Libraries News.  Here it is, sixteen months later.  I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s been worth the wait…

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Ways through the minefield

The future of libraries appears to be a theme that exercises minds on both sides of the Atlantic. From having read most of it, the main point that stands out is that the unique combination of local buildings and trusted neutral spaces mean libraries occupy an enviable position in reaching people,  Three examples of this are covered in the news today:

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