When technology makes things worse, it’s probably because we’re doing it wrong

Editorial

Another couple of thoughts from the revelation of a book found in a public library that had not been out since 1997 is the change in stock management brought about by the introduction of self-service machines.  Back in the old days, weeding shelves were a simple matter for the librarian – one simply sat down and opened every book in turn, counting the number and frequency of date stamps on the date label. There were a load of other factors of course but the key one of how much the book was used was really easy to work out.  However, self-service changes that because, quite simply, there’s no date stamps any more.  The alternative is instead to use printouts based on whatever criteria one wishes (e.g. books that have not been out in six months in the thrillers).  This sounds simple but there’s two problems: the first is that it is surprisingly time consuming looking individually for every book and the second is that these printouts use proprietary technology that the library management system companies charge a hefty sum for.  So, if one does not pay or cannot afford to pay, one may have to use other ways (the state of the book, local knowledge, the Force) to weed instead.  Not ideal.

Another related matter to this is from a letter listed in this post about issuing films in a self-service library.  Now, ideally, the whole process should be done by the public (hence the term “self-service”) but in reality in many areas, this is not (literally) the case … and the reason is, simply, box security is not sufficient.  It’s easy to vandalise a DVD or game case and steal the item from it.  So, libraries have to go back to putting high value titles in locked drawers again, meaning that the member of the public has to both go to the machine and a member of staff. Oh dear, that’ll make the process twice as long then.  If they’re really unlucky, some self-service machines will then (completely unnecessarily in my view and that several authorities I know about it) demand their library card number and PIN number when they return it. This is not to say that I am against self-service: I’m not and I think that, realistically, there’s going to be a whole lot more of it as budgets decline. But we should not pretend that it does not come with its own problems because if we ignore them, they simply will not go away. After all, when technology makes things worse, it’s probably because we’re doing it wrong and the first step to correcting it is to admit there’s a problem in the first place.

For more on self service, see this page.

Please send any comments or news to me at ianlibrarian@live.co.uk or via the comments option.  Thank you for reading.

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  • Fun runs to raise funds for libraries.
  • STEAM events same as STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) but also includes Arts.

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What does it mean if your library has a book in it unloaned since 1997?

Editorial

A newspaper reports that a book in Sheffield has not been loaned since 1997 and is still on the shelf: other books noted have been similarly friendless since 2000 and 2001.  Other reports I’ve seen from there suggest that this isn’t due to poor stock management in the city but rather lack of new books over the last few years.  After all, it’s easy to weed books – quite apart from going through each shelf by hand, you can just get a printout of all the books that haven’t been taken out for x number of years and remove them from the shelves and then automatically delete off the computer any you can’t find.  Generally, if a book has been on the shelf since 1997 and not been taken out, it means there’s not enough money and books have been left on the shelves to make them look full … or there simply has not been enough staff to take them off.  There’s also a small chance that the book has been left on the shelf because it fills a vital stock gap of course but that does not appear to be the case here.  For more information on this, see the PLN page Stock management – A complete beginners guide.

Please send any news or comments to ianlibrarian@live.co.uk

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Lincolnshire and Canada

Editorial

You’ll notice a new advertising banner if you visit PLN for the next couple of months: I’m advertising the Save Lincolnshire Libraries campaign bid to raise funds for their judicial review.  I don’t live anywhere near Lincolnshire but I’m supporting this as one of the grounds they are challenging on is that the reduced service will not meet the provisions of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.  If they win on that point then there may be national implications for other councils.  It may also stop all those media reports who call libraries “non-statutory”.

Meanwhile, a Canadian union campaign against part-time paid workers caught my eye.  Yes, over in the UK unions are concerned about paid staff losing their jobs entirely and/or being replaced by volunteers while over in Canada, the situation is so different they’re concerned about workers not working full-time.  I have difficulty in seeing how a standard public library can survive without casuals and part-time staff myself but I envy the Canadians their funding.

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Get out and meet people

Editorial

So public librarians know that, far from being the quiet shy people stereotyped in popular culture, we’re actually dealing with people all the time.  Being an extrovert is a positive advantage in this profession.  Library staff deal with the public every day but probably not enough with other library staff outside of their own organisations, especially in these days of limited and sometimes non-existent training budgets. But it is worth the effort to get out there and meet people with different experiences and views.  I think this is one of the reasons why the Librarycamp movement is doing so well as is #uklibchat.  I recommend both even though I’m not involved enough in either.  More traditionally, there’s a pile of events listed below, from the biggest like CILIP 2015 to webcasts.  I’d also recommend for your perusal the Library Campaign AGM because these are people who give up their time to fight for libraries and your jobs.  They work really hard and they care and, I think, they’d really appreciate a few librarians along to give them support and some inside (and totally confidential) views on what is really going on.

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Andy McNab at Oxgangs Library Edinburgh May 2014 - 2 (1)

What do library 3D printers and buses have in common?

Editorial

3D printers look to be the same as buses: you wait for one for ages then two come at once.  Dundee have let me know that they had their machine set up last Tuesday while Exeter, tardy things, only opened theirs up to the public on Thursday.  The Scottish library service is using theirs in quite a novel way too: to print out characters which are then used in story-telling sessions for those with additional needs. It will also be used for printing items for reminiscence packs. Genius.

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Three changes to public libraries due to the local elections

Editorial

Right, let’s talk about the local elections and not mention a certain anti-EU party. What the media has not talked about, strangely, is what the results mean for libraries.  Well, let’s remedy that odd omission. The three key things here:

  • Hammersmith and Fulham is now Labour controlled.  This will place strain on the Tri-Borough council which, originally, consisted of three Conservative councils (with Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster being the other two). Whether such a cross-council partnership will survive different party allegiances will be closely watched.
  • Croydon is now Labour controlled.  The Labour party beforehand promised to reverse the decision to outsource its libraries to a private company (Laing and then Carillion). It’ll be interesting to see if it tries to do so and what problems it will raise.
  • The Local Government Association (LGA) now has Labour as its largest grouping. One can expect them to be more vociferous against cuts to services because of this … but by how much and to what effect remains to be seen.

By the way, the 31st July of this year will be fiftieth anniversary of the Public Libraries and Museums Act which made public libraries statutory. This completely passed me by.  Is anyone doing anything for this day?  Do let me know.

Please email any thoughts, news or comments to ianlibrarian@live.co.uk

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Just giving out library cards doesn’t hack it … and more on Exeter

Editorial

A report on Radio Four “You and Yours” about giving library cards to babies is worth a listen.  It’s part of a number of pilots funded by Arts Council England on encouraging library membership.  The results are good but Brian Ashley, the ACE libraries boss, points out just passing over a library card “doesn’t hack it” and the service needs to constantly engage with the user in order to join a library card owner into a library card user.  Laura Swaffield from the Library Campaign interviewed in the same programme points out that young families are more seriously affected by cuts than others as those prams make long journeys to a surviving library more difficult.

Then there is more today on the reopening of Exeter Central Libray’s after its refurbishment.  Some more pictures show a definite retro look that gives it, in my mind, a different look which is to be welcomed.  After from that stylist difference, the presence of a Fab Lab (the first in a public library in the UK I think – although St Botolphs has had one for a while) needs a mention as is the fact that the refurbishment came with significantly more books rather than the cuts in bookstock one often sees in such cases. Money came for all this, at least in part, from the sale of Exeter Airport.

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Mergers, charitable trusts and retro Maker Spaces

Editorial

Well, a lot going on today, in the headlines and behind them but the key stuff is fairly obvious.  In no particular order, we have two London boroughs (Camden and Islington) looking to merge library services, with a view to rationalising library provision where they both have branches close to eachother on the border.  Think of this, perhaps, as a Labour-run Bi-Borough to rival the Conservative Tri-Borough (Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham).  Because that’s how it seems to go: the councils need to be of the same party in order to get along, at least initially.  

Secondly, we have Kent – one of the very biggest councils in terms of branches at least (nearly a hundred depending on your definitions) – thinking about moving libraries (and Registrars and Archives) into a charitable trust similar to that currently being run in Suffolk or York.  This model is getting a lot of attention at the moment and I expect to see more going this way soon.

Finally, we have the refurbished Exeter Central Library reopening.  From the pictures I have seen it looks weirdly retro – the building is 1960s and it was decided to go with that look – but it also has the country’s first public library library Maker Space within it.  This opening is coming at a time when Devon is going through a painful review with 28 out of 50 branches being potentially under threat (although definitions are disputed) and it is notable that there is a certain “that’s nice, what about us with our library maybe closing?” chatter on Twitter on the subject.  But I am sure Exeter needed the upgrade and I’m not going to diss a new library project in this day and age.  I really hope it goes well and I’m looking forward to seeing more about it.

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“For all persons desiring to make use thereof”

Editorial

That thing about public libraries being a statutory service is well-known and most librarians can quote the “comprehensive and efficient” bit but those three words are not the whole sentence.  No, the whole sentence is:

“It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof” General duty of library authorities, 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.

Now that’s important because it says for all persons: not just those with transport to get to the big town library and not just those who have use of their legs.  It says “for all persons”.  It seems to me that this is vital because it goes a lot further than the woolly “comprehensive” and the even more indefinable “efficient”.  It is also clear from the drafter of the Act that it was always meant to be a stronger piece of legislation than some current council legal departments think it is.

What makes those words even more important is that almost all legal challenges to library cuts have not been on procedural grounds and not on the level of service.  It’s on Equalities Act stuff or on the consultation precisely because it’s hard to win a case on such woollyness as the 1964 Act has previously been famous for.  As it is, councils don’t have to worry about minimum provision: they can simply redo the offending thing if they get caught out and cut away.  In a country like England with no Library Standards then it’s even more crucial we have something.  What is needed is some sort of legal challenge, successful legal challenge, on minimum provision …. and those forgotten line “for all persons desiring to make use thereof” could be handy.  Frankly, it could save public library provision in smaller towns.  So let’s not forget those extra lines and let’s hope someone clever in the legal provision can do it. Because then councils will be scared of cutting libraries, will give them more protection and that will give public libraries some valuable breathing space.  And we all need to breathe.

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The new children's library

Last library service standing

Editorial

In the last editorial I wrote on the poor showing that Carillion appear to be giving for those who would argue for outsourcing library services.  It is worth mentioning, as one commenter did to me, of course, that there are other options for outsourcing.  There’s not too many others, admittedly, but they are there. There is in fact only one other, GLL, which are present in the UK market as a multi-council operation and, unlike Carillion, they are a social enterprise and so are not in it (strictly speaking) for the profit. LSSI are the other obvious contender but, as yet, despite running a fair few in the US, they do not currently have a single UK libraries contract.  They’d also like to distance themselves from Carillion as shown by this tweet I received from one of their senior UK people: “if they’re going to be outsourced, the profession should seek out the ONLY professional libraries operator! “.

There are also of course libraries run by non-profits in single councils: with York and Suffolk being the libraries-only concerns and the others being leisure services as well.  So, outsourcing remains an option but, as in other things (not least individual traditional council-run libraries, some of which are excellent and some of which are dire) there is quite a variation.  Working as we do in a time of tremendous stress, we will see over the next few years if this option is a successful and viable one … forced evolution will do its work and we will see which one these new options, and the old ones as well, are left standing.

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