The music they’re making in Manchester will be heard around the country

Editorial

There’s been some major coverage of public libraries in the media over the last few days.  The Times and The Mail took up an article I wrote here a few days ago on the need for quiet study spaces in library, with the former publication devoting its third leader to it. The Mail evenwent so far as to say there was a “campaign” starting to restore hush to libraries, which I doubt. Just to make clear my position on this: I love loud and buzzing libraries and can do as loud a children’s story time as anyone but my article was also pointing out the unique selling point of libraries as quiet study spaces as well.  The challenge is to do both, not one or the other … and to let everyone know how fantastic and irreplaceable libraries are to boot.

As such, the Everything Everything residency at Manchester Central Library is already fantastically successful. Even the NME has covered it, for goodness sake, as has the Independent and the Guardian.  Moreover, Radio Six are devoting two whole weeks to the wonders of public libraries, including broadcasting from Manchester and the British Library. The whole thing promises to be a tremendous showcase for libraries and all involved should take a bow (just do it quietly if you’re in the domed reading room b).  Another showcase was the Jeremy Vine Show article on libraries on Friday.  Listen to that (especially the child … but well done to Ciara Eastell of the Society of Chief Libraries and Devon as well) to give you a boost all week.

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Now’s the time to do something for libraries: and there may never be a better opportunity

Editorial

At the recent Westminster Media Forum on “Prospects for books, publishing and libraries”, several important statements were made that may well have a bearing on the future of public libraries:

  • William Sieghart gave some pretty big hints at the contents of the Government commissioned report on public libraries that he was tasked to writing.  Crucially, reports from the event say that he made clear that he does not consider volunteer-run libraries a long-term viable option.,
  • Ed Vaizey has had the report for a month and has not published it as yet.  Suggestions made to me include the possibility that it says things he does not want people to hear (e.g. on volunteers), especially as he has recently stated he is “not minded” to intervene in Sheffield where it is precisely that model that is being proposed.
  • Lord Tope said “I have to say, from a political point of view, the answer lies with all of us. Don’t let Government forget it. We have a general election coming up, and members of parliament are remarkably willing to listen when they come around. Use that opportunity”

All of this ties, in my mind at least, with the need for as many individuals and groups as possible to write to Ed Vaizey to argue against his “not minded” decision there.  The more letters the better and it does not matter where you come from.  Let him know why you think libraries are important and let him know the strength of your feeling.  Don’t just take my word for it. The Broomhill Library Action Group have written a letter asking this which I publish in full below and they’ve even typed a draft letter for you in case you don’t want to do one from scratch.  While you’re writing it (and you will, won’t you?), you may also wish to consider asking Ed Vaizey why he has not published the Sieghart Report yet.  Strangely, he has not replied to me on this subject.

A cut and paste template is provided, into which people can just insert their own name and library, or can alter as they please – emails need to be sent by 20 NOVEMBER 2014 to: Ministerial Support Team enquiries@culture.gsi.gov.uk.

Dear Library Supporter

You may have seen media reports about the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey, conducting an inquiry into Sheffield City Council’s plans for public libraries. He has just issued a letter stating that he is ‘minded not to’ intervene but before he makes a final decision he wants to know what you think. The Minister has a duty, under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, to superintend library provision and to intervene if a council is failing to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service” for all who want to use it.

The campaign group, Broomhill Library Action Group, have always maintained that the council’s plans result in a service that does not meet these requirements. We presented many arguments, backed up with data, to support our claim. Nonetheless the Minister has chosen to disregard our evidence, and has sent a letter saying that he is “not currently minded” to intervene

In the past, nine other library campaign groups from around the country have tried to get the Minister to intervene. He has rejected all of these. In fact, we are only one of at least 10 library groups across the country for whom he has similarly failed to intervene. We believe that the Minister is not only wrong, but that ultimately we need to persuade him he is wrong.

The Minister has asked for further representations to be presented by 20 November 2014. We are therefore asking as many people as possible to write to the Minister, and to tell him to organise an inquiry to protect this valuable service. We need you to state your support for an ongoing ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service in Sheffield.

A cut and paste template is provided via this link, into which people can just insert their own name and library, or can alter as they please.  E-mails need to be sent to: Ministerial Support Team. Please send it on to all your friends to complete.

Thank you.

Broomhill Library Action Group

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Other library authorities were a bit Miffed

Briefing 4th November

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Ed Vaizey “not minded” to intervene in Sheffield

Editorial

To few people’s surprise, Ed Vaizey, the minister technically responsible for libraries, has said that he is “not minded” to intervene in the proposed cuts in Sheffield.  The council there has proposed to reduce council libraries to one central library and eleven “hub” libraries.  These “hubs” are to be open only 31 hours per wee which, for a city of over half a million people,  is not much.  It had been hoped by campaigners that Ed, normally a by-word for inaction, would wish to intervene in order to embarrass the Labour-run council and possibly also cock a snook at Nick Clegg, whose constituency is in the town.  However, it looks like this is not to be.  If one was of suspicious mind, one could even think that the surprise decision by Ed to look into Sheffield in the first place was simply to show that he was doing his superintendence of local library service, statutory under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, properly and therefore could not be taken to court himself.  I, for one, am sure that he does not consider such base motives … well, probably not consciously.  He probably has legal advisors for that sort of thing, anyway.

Key points and related articles on the decision are below.

  • Representations can still be made to Ed Vaizey on this issue until 5pm 20th November.
  • Ed argues that the availability of resources is “highly material” to what is acceptable as library provision. Therefore, the definition of what is “comprehensive and efficient” is effectively at least semi-elastic, depending on what finances the council chooses to put in.  Being the minister makes it clear that he believes it is up to the local council to decide on how best to divide up resources and provide services, this therefore effectively severely limits any possible application of the 1964 Act.
  • Ignores volunteer libraries because 11 “hub” libraries (open only 31 hours per week) and one central library is enough to provide a comprehensive and efficient service.  Considering that Sheffield has a population of 551,800, this therefore means that one library open 31 hours per week (plus one central library) per 46000 people is considered adequate.  Opening hours per 1000 population under this new dispensation would be, roughly by my quick calculations, 37 (number of aggregate openings hours in one year divided by 1000 population).  It’s interesting to note that this compares to 128 being the target in the Library Standards of 2001. Ed is therefore willing to approve opening hours 3.5 times lower than his predecessor set as a target just over ten years ago.
  • He considers that the consultations and needs assessment were undertaken properly and were genuine.

“The Secretary of State is of the view that a comprehensive service does not mean that every resident must live close to a library. He also notes that the Home Library service is being retained and expanded through a combination of paid SCC staff and volunteers to enable those who are unable to visit a library to access library materials.”

  • Assumes that low expenditure per 1000 population compared to other comparator authorities shows it is “efficient”.

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Judicial Re … phew.

Editorial

Judicial reviews are a key part of the library campaigner arsenal, even if they may be viewed with dread by senior council staff. To my view, the threat of a review keep, at a basic level, councils honest.  Sometimes, councils, especially in the safest of safe seats (although, admittedly, the rise of UKIP is throwing all this into doubt) can look like an elective dictatorship rather than a democracy.  In a world of hands off central government (well, apart form brutally cutting budgets and then saying “go play”), the judicial review can be the only real way that the public can intervene in council decisions.  It makes sure that councils abide by the letter (if not the spirit) of the law and it means that consultations, just occasionally, are consultations rather than merely a way of telling the public what is going to happen.  It also means that several library services have, to a greater or lesser extent, been saved from the most over dramatic of cuts.  It is therefore good news that the House of Lords has thrown out Grayling’s (he of the ban on books in prison) attempt to severely restrict judicial reviews.  Long live democracy, even if it occasionally has to be saved by peers.

A lot of changes today, including the announcement of cuts at Bristol, Denibighshire, Gateshead and Hartlepool. Suffolk, very much the flavour of the month (possibly the year) in UK library circles bucks the depression with an ACE grant and a new business centre.  Success breeds success and Suffolk is gaining from that.  The aim must be for all of the sector to do the same, with William Sieghart expected to publish his report over the next month or so (and expected to laud Suffolk to the rafters) we can hope to share some of the pixie dust.  In the meantime, read the “ode to libraries” by Wendy Maddour.

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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

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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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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