So who was Speaking Up For Libraries?

Editorial

I spent my Saturday typing like a mad thing at the Speak Up For Libraries conference in London.  The annual event brings together library workers, campaigners, volunteers and senior decision makers in a day discussing what’s happening to libraries and, normally, how we can stop things getting worse.

This year was marked by Paul Blantern and Kathy Settle of the English public Libraries Task Force (officially “Leadership for Libraries Task Force” but normally just plain called the Libraries Task Force) speaking and taking questions.  It was never going to be an easy ride for them and they did face some difficult questions.  It became clear that despite first claiming that no-one knew what a good national public library service was, they actually did know exactly what it was (well-funded local and central libraries with wide opening hours, lots of stock, computers and staff) but that it could not be afforded any more.  They were keen to stress all the work they were doing spreading the good word about libraries to different departments and agencies.  The Task Force will also be busy creating best practice guides for local authorities and other decision makers about the pros and cons of different options (I haven’t yet had a call for them to use my multitude of pages on this but I remain hopeful) and also what needs doing if one’s last option is turning libraries volunteer.

The other take away from me was how connected and switched on the new CEO of CILIP, Nick Poole, is.  He certainly seems to be more of a campaigner and evangelist than we have had before and I wonder whether some of the criticism of him is a hangover from people who were angry with the organisation before he took it over. Like Paul and Kathy, he also has to be a pragmatist, although he is naturally far more on the side of a paid skilled and professional workforce. Someone very funny and talented, but probably not a pragmatist is the children’s author John Dougherty who gave a very funny speech at the end, including singing a song, reproduced below, that probably will not have him in the good graces of the DCMS in the lifetime of this government. My full notes from the conference have been given a full page here as has the introductory speech by Nick Poole on this page.

On a separate topic, Dr Malcolm Rigler has asked me to mention a project he is working on tying in public libraries with public health. Dr Rigler is trying to set up a Special Interest Group on the topic.  If you’re interested, please email him at m.rigler@nhs.net  .

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Why all the placards? A few theories on the reasons behind the level of library protest

Editorial

So I got into a brief exchange with a librarian on Twitter who said “Would there be a riot if your library closed? If not you need to look at your role in the community”.  This got me into thinking about what actually affects the level of protest when a library is closed, using my reading of the all the stories of library cuts and campaigns over the last five years.  The following are my thoughts, I’d be interested in hearing yours (comment or email ianlibrarian@live.co.uk):

  • The more prosperous area, the louder the protest. It seems a sad truth that the areas where one would think libraries are most needed – in areas of high disadvantage – are precisely those areas where people are least likely to protest. This may be for all sorts of reasons but are most likely down to lack of awareness of the possibilities and, also, a feeling of powerlessness. On the other extreme, close a library in a leafy suburb and all hell will break loose. This is because the people living there are likely to know how to protest in a way that will make the headlines. Simply speaking, retired professionals or those skilled in public speaking, organising and communications can raise one heck of a stink.
  • The level of co-option. If a council says that the library is going to close, tough, then there’s going to be a lot of protest.  People are going to rage against the dying of the light and be angry with council.  If, on the other hand, the council says that volunteers are the only way of saving the library then those people who would naturally campaign against the closure could well be co-opted into running it.  They may not be happy but they’ll be too busy working out a way to keep the place open than protest. Seen on one side, this is the “divide and rule” or “blackmail” approach. Councils themselves will likely use phrases like “exciting opportunity” and “empowering local communities” but it all amounts to the same thing.  People won’t protest if they think it will be counter-productive.
  • The more obvious the cut, the more placards.  I noticed this when I started: councils which said a few of their libraries would close hit a brick wall of campaigners but those councils who said that, hey, we’re going to reduce opening hours by one-third received very little notable problems. Like with co-option, this greys the issue and does not make it black and white.  People will get angry if they think a decision is evil or wrong but are likely to do nothing if they’re not sure.  Simply put, people don’t care about compromises but they’ll get positively angry about diktats.
  • The personal touch. This can manifest in all sorts of ways.  Negatively, a particularly obnoxious council leader or spokesman is not going to help. Positively, making a much-loved team of library workers unemployed is going to really miff off their friends. In addition, there seems to be the need for a co-ordinator or a figurehead in a library campaign.  Unless one person stands up and shouts, many people won’t make a stand themselves.
  • Fairness, open-ness and genuine consultation.  Close a library which has more usage than one which stays open and you’re going to get a world of pain if people notice. Make clear that you’ve bent over backwards to think of all options, that you’ve talked to everyone and are putting forward the best possible solution then you’re going to be, more than likely, OK.  Arrogance or a corporate way of doing things, which only pays lip service to listening to the community, and that’s a good way of seeing the inside of a court room.
  • How great or used the library is in the first place.  If a library has faced cut after cut for years, is open for only a few hours, has computers pretty much out of order all the time and no new books then people are more likely to go meh than j’accuse. If however, the library is shiny and well used then people are not going to be happy.

There’s probably more reasons than that but those are the ones which jumped out at me.  The key to me to all this is that, sadly, the actualy need of the community for a library plays only a minor role. Indeed, there’s a case to be said that areas who need libraries because they can’t afford books or computers are precisely those areas which will be more likely to be easy to cut. That’s a whole lump of unfair but, thankfully, equality impact assessments and judicial reviews can come into play at such times, as long as someone somewhere is there to set the wheels in motion. And, actually, the level of protest can have little (or a lot – but it depends, it’s not a golden rule) to do with what the librarians actually do.

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"Libraries are the essential oxygen of the mind’ says Melvyn Bragg

LibraryLab, Open+ and Melvyn Bragg

Editorial

It’s good to see the Carnegie Library Lab programme open for bids again. The scheme led to some notable excitement and creative thinking in a whole pile of public libraries last year and I hope the same happens again. Even if you don’t win the funding and support, the scheme gives library services a chance to think about initiatives and that’s worth a lot. If you win, then it’s a whole new ballgame and I envy you.

An initiative that needs no Carnegie funding I’ve been noticing a lot recently is libraries experimenting with the remote-controlled library technology that is Open+. So many in fact that there’s now a new PLN page keeping track of them all with 15 libraries listed over 8 authorities.

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Ed Vaizey and SCL President Ciara Eastell, along with other dignitaries at the launch

It’s code green for everyone

Editorial

More news as promised today about the launch of Code Green and the Learning Offer from the Society of Chief Librarians.  Code Green does indeed look like a very useful resource and I am sure that it will be welcomed across the country. Ed Vaizey chose the occasion of the launch to welcome the efforts of library campaigners in fighting cuts to local libraries and also in volunteering in them. Some have questioned whether the minister in charge of libraries should be welcoming the efforts of others to protect libraries when that is in fact his job but far be it from to belabour that obvious point. His speech rewards careful reading, with a notable withdrawal from his previous stance that libraries were “thriving” and a move, noticed before, to see volunteers as an unalloyed good.

In other news, the normal pattern of cuts shows itself, but it’s interesting to point out another library authority using new technology to allow for unstaffed libraries (that is, not just no paid staff but no staff at all) and one more going for lone staffing. At this rate, volunteers will start worrying about their jobs.

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Libraries Unlimited

Editorial

More details on the transfer of Devon Library Sevices to a non-profit trust, a company limited by guarantee with charitable status.  It’s about to be voted through and will mean it joins Suffolk and York as England’s library non-profits.  What interests me most, though, is the name chosen – Libraries Unlimited South West. The first two words show laudable ambition, suggesting expansion of libraries into exciting new fields (like the Maker Space already in Exeter Library). Those last two words, though, suggest geographic ambitions outside of Devon and, as such, shows the company to be part of a new entrepreneurial breed of library service which looks for opportunities where it may.  This is in a similar manner to the start of GLL which, faced with limited incomes at home, look at economies of scale and opportunities both inside and outside its territorial bounds. It’s like the start of an old library consortia but on steroids and we’ll see if it is a flash in a pan or the shape of things to some soon. In a weird way it took the extreme financial situations libraries are now in to take the chains off libraries and allow them to do stuff like this. Whether that is a move to be welcomed or feared depends on one’s viewpoint and how things pan out. It is certainly a more encouraging move than simply sitting there and taking the cuts.  Well, at least if you’re one of the first to make the move, that is.

In other news, a very good digital making kit has been put online by the SCL: it’s part of an official national launch.  More details on that shortly.

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Middlesbrough play the community hub card

Editorial

So I’ve just read that Middlesbrough Council are going to call all their libraries but one “community hubs”. Now, ask anyone what a library is and they’ll tell you. People love libraries or at least have a strong mental image of what one is or should be. Ask the same people what a “community hub” is and you may get a lot of scratched heads.  It sounds, and is, like a management term and not one which has organically developed. “Community” sounds like a great positive word and “hub” is very 21st Century.   It’s a term that is used by people who think libraries are on the way out, don’t understand libraries anyway or who have lost touch with the public.  Sounds great in meetings though but why not just call it a community centre? It means exactly the same thing, word for word, as community hub.  The reason is people know what a community centre is while “hub” sounds just so much more now.  When those in charge of such a literate thing as a library start changing the words, you know there’s trouble. And the trouble too often is there is no money and, because of that, intrinsically non-money making things like libraries are now services non grata amongst bureaucrats who don’t care, or who don’t care enough.

The tragedy is that “library” is the strongest brand we have.  Libraries and librarians are trusted.  By changing the name of a thing you change the thing and, that is the hub, sorry, nub. With cuts being so deep, the stand-alone library is an increasingly rare beast because it’s never going to turn a profit.  Cafes don’t bring in the money, people don’t want just another shop and room hire alone is not going to pay the bills, certainly not if one has to pay for all these annoying books and public access computers anyway.  What stands a chance is co-locating all sorts of services from all the other agencies strapped for cash into one building and the library will lose space to them. Done right, there can actually be a lot of synergy in this, the library can be resurgent once more bringing together the whole into something greater than the parts.  Done wrong and you don’t have a library any more; you have just another untrusted council office that people only go to when they have to, plus a whole bunch of people looking (presumably) at their “community hub” cards and wondering what they can take out with them.

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There’s one mobile technology not doing so well

Editorial

Mobile libraries make the Independent today, who mourn the loss of all seven of them in Hertfordshire.  This is mirrored by the announcement from Hampshire that it too may lose its mobile library service.  My records tell me that Hampshire lost no less than 13 in 2011, lost more stops in 2012, and had 2 of the remaining 5 threatened last year so that’s a massive reduction from 18 to none.  Indeed, it looks very much like a long term strategy there to annihilate its mobiles, although more likely (as the famous phrase goes) it was just one thing following another.

The reasons put forward tend to focus on the cost per issue: driving a library to the user  has been known to cost far more per visit than a similar one to a library building In addition, the raison d’etre of mobile was to get to people who had no transport or access to information and councils argue that many now have cars and the internet.  Some librarians report anecdotally BMWs being driven to the mobile library stop or regular static library users commenting that they get their top ups from the mobile. Where none of this applies, councils are often at pains to increase their housebound service where staff (or more often volunteers) drop off books directly to the house.

However, that’s only one side of the story: councils have also been greatly reducing public transport (those buses cost) and so isolation is not something that is disappearing.  There’s some heart rending stories of regular users of mobile libraries now being left with no access to books at all and missing on their regular friendly chats (sometimes one of the few human interactions they have) with the mobile library staff. In addition, the library trend to reduce mobiles (the Independent reports numbers have dropped from 548 in the UK in 2009 to 362 in 2014) is hardly universal. Indeed, other authorities, as in Leicestershire, are looking to introduce more mobile library stops to replace closed branches. In such cases, it seems, the mobile or the smaller static library are in some sort of weird Darwinian competition as to which one survives.

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Investment in Hillingdon, Milton Keynes and Scotland

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All the library news that we know about

Editorial

Good news today about money for wifi from Arts Council England and there’s also an interesting piece or two on volunteer libraries as well as the normal mix of local, national and international news.  However, I am aware that this is not the whole story. Indeed, I sometimes get people asking me how come Public Libraries News doesn’t cover cuts in their authority, that affected a load of staff and has caused great problems. The answer is that, unless it makes the newspapers, I often don’t know about it. There is a ton of hollowing out going on in the UK that is below the surface and what an anonymous source from Leeds tells us today could be happening in a load of other authorities as well.

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When library branding fails

Editorial

We’re always told that library brands and marketing are important keys to the public library library service but we also need to make sure that they’re done right.  When Seattle announced a rebranding, full of management speak, the public there were unimpressed and have given it a resolute thumbs down, with the reputation of the library heavily damaged and the possibility of future budget increases reduced.  It is too easy for library staff, in our bubbles, to speak in terms that make sense to us in our world without remembering the people that really matter: the public … and forgetting that can be dangerous, as the US example shows. Marketing and promotion, like all library activities, should always start first with considering the user.

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