Why some libraries should close … but some others definitely should not

Editorial

In an interesting piece, the chief executive of the Tinder Foundation – which is deeply involved with libraries – suggests that some libraries should close if they are not doing a good job at being community hubs. I’m going to doubtless cause shock and heart attacks from some of the readership of this blog (so if you’re of a nervous disposition, look away now) by agreeing to some extent.  Some libraries are in the wrong place or are too little used. Times change, places change and library provision should change too.

However – and you just knew that was coming – there is a world of difference between such cases and those libraries which are only not fulfilling a vital role in their community due to progressive hollowing out over the years. Just have a read of the shameful case of Birmingham’s Sutton Coldfield Library described below by a user who emailed me its story. Or have a look at the repeated deep cuts to the book-fund of Warrington’s libraries that is now being used by the trust running them, LiveWire, to justify closing them rather than seek equal cuts to other services it provides. Many libraries which are fighting closure, or are looking worriedly at their usage figures, are that way due to have successive cuts to their funding, to their staffing, to their maintenance, to book-fund or to their opening hours.  In such cases, the guilty party is most definitely not the library and they should be supported to the hilt.

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Ideas

  • Bookbenches – to encourage reading and library presence in towns.

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Say National Libraries Week, Not Save Our Libraries Day

Editorial

I remember when National Libraries Week – as it is now – started  in early 2011.  The first shock of hundreds of threatened library closures were affecting local communities up and down the country. The author and  library campaigner Alan Gibbons hit upon the idea of a Save Our Libraries Day (and checked with a fee people, including, and I am very proud about this, myself)  and simply announced it. The result was something amazing, as this article from the Guardian in 2011 shows. It completely caught the established library community of the time on the hop. Neither the SCL or CILIP initially got behind it and both seemed very much (publicly at least) to want to ignore it, especially as both were very much tied at the time (CILIP is now somewhat more confrontational) to being nice to the Government which was the cause of all of the cuts in the first place.  But it did not go away and it continued year after year, although never at the level of that first tumultuous year.

The advantages of having a public libraries day or week has been noted in other countries (notably the US since 1958) for years and so it’s a bit embarrassing that it took a grass-roots campaign to get one going in this country. However, over the last couple of years, the benefit of such a day (or, as it now turns out, week) have been noted by chief librarians and others, although not by all.  Indeed, it has always been a barometer to me of how deeply pro-austerity a council is as to if it allows its library service to commemorate the day or not. Gradually, and on the part of decision-makers quite deliberately, the Day has moved from one of protest to one of celebrating libraries. Some campaigners will see this as a co-opting  and castrating of something they did by others. Another viewpoint is that the metamorphosis of the event reflects the increasingly maturity and public relations savvy of the sector. The test will be what happens in October and in future years.

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House of Lords debate and the UK public library skills strategy

Editorial

It’s great to see public libraries being debated in the House of Lords, especially when the sector has the key support of John Bird of the Big Issue. The debate was a long one, with many useful points raised. The standard government response was to say how active they are.  However, it’s no point being active if one does not actually do anything.  Still, this is a new minister now. Let’s see if he’s any different. But let’s be positive and hope. Still being positive, it’s good to see a joint initiative on training coming from CILIP and the SCL.  There’s also a very good strategic look at public libraries by Leon’s Library Blog, with a very information comment by Nick Poole.

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Birmingham and Westminster

Editorial

I’m sorry to see cuts being extended in Birmingham to include closing two libraries, including in Sutton Coldfield one of its busiest. In addition, there’s a report that cuts have come to heart of London, with Westminster cutting libraries by £750k.  Both councils expect significant job losses. The decision by the DCMS to look into Lancashire’s deep cuts is also making noise. In other news, it’s great to see World Mental Health Day being celebrated – libraries do so much in this sector – and also, do find a short and simple piece on using social media in public libraries to best effect.

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DCMS intervenes in Lancashire: delay or something more?

Editorial

The new libraries minister has announced that his department will be investigating Lancashire over its shotgun closure of at least 21 libraries. Several Conservative MPs have called for an investigation into the Labour-led authority after considerable public protest about the deepest cuts to libraries in the country this year.  A dilemma now confronts Lancashire: whether it will continue with its plans or hold on until the DCMS makes up its mind. West Berkshire put its plans on hold when it was faced with concerns from the ministry that it had not done things properly.  However, things have perhaps gone too far already if libraries have been closed. This will be a key test for the Rob Wilson MP: will he wave through such cuts like his predecessor Ed Vaizey or will he show a different character.  We shall, as ever, see.

My article on the Idea Stores in Tower Hamlets has received a great deal of interest, with several different organisations asking me for more information and contacts, which I have supplied.  Below is an email from an Idea Stores managers who has emailed with the full permission of his managers. I hope it is of interest.

More on Idea Stores

You are spot on with everything you say. Having worked in lots of public libraries across London and the South East many are experimenting but getting it totally wrong. Massive cuts to staffing and opening hours make things worse. None of that applies here, if anything there are long term plans to expand the number of Idea Stores and to offer more services.

I would recommend a look at Idea Store Watney Market where they have incorporated a council ‘One Stop Shop’ into the Idea Store (Separate staff) you can pay your council tax, chase up about rubbish collection, find out your councillors contact details and then read some newspapers/ take out some books. All under one roof which takes One Stop Shop to a whole new level. There is massive potential for councils with vision to implement similar in their boroughs’ unfortunately there is so far (as your article mentions) little to no coherent vision (or attempts to build one) anywhere else in the UK.

One thing I would like to expand on is the Idea Stores retail focus. Have a good look at the way Waterstones presents their stock (merchandising). Front facing books, staff recommendations (shelf talkers). Add lots of clear signage, plus very tidy shelves and Idea Stores start to look very much like book shops. Why no one else has caught on to this is baffling as it’s so much easier to find things. It also promotes certain stock which ties in with the physical book displays and what’s on the screens (as you mentioned). All of this is commonplace in retail and Idea Stores, it’s time for libraries to catch up.” Mark Johnson, Idea Store Coordinator, Bethnal Green Library.

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Minister says the future is social enterprises

Editorial

Rob Wilson, the minister responsible for public libraries, has gone on record as saying libraries should move towards a “community hub” model, probably with social enterprises running them and ties in with health and wellbeing.  Being the chair of the Libraries Taskforce is boss of Northamptonhire, whose model Rob Wilson is so approving of, this is no surprise. The Taskforce – a major source of information to the minster – is hardly going to diss the views of their boss. In addition, Rob comes from a background of being very pro volunteer and social enterprise so it ties in with his pre-existing thinking. But, look at the webpage for “First for Wellbeing“, the Northants social enterprise, and you’ll see you need to scroll down for a first mention of libraries, if you can find it at all. It may be that FTW (great acronym, by the way) are indeed good for libraries but there’s sufficient worries in other non-library led trusts (hello again Warrington Livewire) to be more cautious of this approach than the minister apparently is.

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Don’t Keep It To Your Shelves

Editorial

One of the issues in public libraries is lack of promotion of the services they provide. For years, most library authorities have had zero publicity budget and have even had to bid with other council departments for use of the public relations and graphic design services .. and lack of budget,  heaven knows, is not going to get go away soon.  In two ways, though, public relations is easier than ever for public libraries.

The first way is when the library service is no longer under direct council con control.  In those library services which are run by library trusts, the internal bureaucratic barriers to publicity that councils excel in are removed. Library trusts can also have more freedom in allocating the budgets (sadly, no bigger than before) how they want, which can mean at least some is spent on public relations.  An exemplar of this is Suffolk which has (uniquely in my experience) a public relations officer and is pretty nifty with publicising everything it does. An anti-example, though, are those library services unlucky enough to be part of leisure trusts dominated by leisure officers who do not understand libraries and are negative about them. Warrington, at the moment, is the biggest instance of this, where glossy public relations is apparently being deployed by the Livewire Trust to justify cutting, not improving, the service.

The second way is social media. This has revolutionised what publicity can be done on a seemingly zero budget. Almost all library services, now, have at least Twitter and Facebook accounts and many have blogs and others as well. Most I see also do regular publicity emails to those who have signed up. There’s also the joy of working with partners (BIDs, hyperlocal news, blogs etc) who will publicise your event for you at the cost a single email. This is now such a key part of library services that one would be very suspicious of any member of library staff with any publicity duties at all who is resistant to it or, even worse, claims it’s not part of their job.

Because public relations is a key part of the job and it always has been.  It has just been that for years public libraries have been able to avoid it,  because the public kept coming in anyway. That’s now not always the case and, as our services expand while the budgets contract, we need to shout more and more about them. Make a noise in your library today.

PS. The phrase “Don’t Keep It To Your Shelves” was used at an Oxford University Press meeting I attended last week.  I love it. Feel free to use it yours(h)elves. I’ve promised to promote them (see how this game works?) in return so do have a look at their webpages for librarians.

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What are the ideas behind Idea Stores?

Editorial

Wherever I go, the most successful libraries are those who have a clear strategy and vision.  In Tower Hamlets, it’s based on location, on combining with adult education and on reading for pleasure. They have also, root and branch, changed their staffing.  There’s no bibliographic services department, at all. There’s no actual long term specialists, at all. There’s also no freedom to blue tack an amateur poster up or to say that an event isn’t happening, or say a computer problem can’t be fixed because that person is on holiday.

They’re pretty hard nosed about that, and rightly so. In times of crisis, inertia and existing working practices can kill. So now, in this time of crisis, they’re not facing a crisis. Because they know what they’re doing, they’re well used and they can defend everything they do in easy to understand terms. Sound good? Bite the bullet and see how you can learn from them. Because it’s kind of embarrassing that so many aren’t. The week I was there, they had a delegation from South Korea for goodness sake. But there’s not been much about Tower Hamlets seen in the UK recently.  It’s like because it has been there for a few years it’s not important any more.  Well, it is. And here’s why …

Read more at Idea Stores: what the ideas are and why they’re important – Public Libraries News. 

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Viciously reducing bookfunds

Editorial

There’s a chicken and the egg thing going on with bookfund and book issues.  Or rather, a vicious circle. Councils are reducing bookfund claiming that fewer books are being read and then claiming that being that there are lower book issues they can cut bookfund more.  And then, when things get really bad, they can close libraries too. But, of course, if you have fewer books in the first place, you’re going to see declines in usage. It’s hard to borrow something that isn’t there. The fact that it is always easier to reduce bookfund than staffing is a contributory factor in the popularity of this strategy.

Lancashire, who close 20 libraries this week, reduced their bookfund from £2,423,923 in 2011-12 to £1,554,814 in 2014/15 (source: Cipfa).  That’s a huge reduction of 35.8%. Warrington LiveWire, in the news for wanting to close seven branches, including the oldest public library in England (which they will try to move into a, I kid you not, ex shoe shop) have cut their bookfund from £231,496 in 2012/13 to £103,944 in 2016/17.

Look, book issues (but not booksales) may be falling but they’re not falling that much.  A council can admit that they’re reducing libraries because of reduced budgets – like Lancashire, to be somewhat fair, has – but to claim that you’re cutting libraries because no-one is using them after you have annihilated their bookfunds – should be no-one’s idea of a valid argument.

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There’s more than one way to ban a book

Editorial

There’s more than one way to ban a book. Forcing people to pay for it, when they can ill afford to, is one. Not letting people know of its existence is another. Downplaying the importance of it, or saying it’s evil, a third. Getting rid of people who know about that book and will recommend it at just the right time is a fourth.  Oh, there are many ways. The UK counts itself fortunate that it does not censor like so much of the world and do not have the kneejerk “Harry Potter Is A Satanist” viewpoint of some in the USA but we need to be careful: censorship can be subtler than simply having a Censor. The link between closing librarians and losing librarians and Banned Books Week is rightly drawn out by a few articles in the UK – I think for the first time – in the post below. Worth a read. Like so many things which are banned.

Also, please note that it’s #FollowALibrary day this Friday. Get your social media tweets scheduled in now. Tell your friends. And your politicians.

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