Libraries of the Year

Editorial

There’s some great things going on in libraries. I see so much brilliant stuff in the news doing this blog and in my work regionally and locally. Up and down the country, library services are looking up from their books and reaching out the local community and beyond, working out what they need to succeed. Those services lucky enough to have both staff and have those staff be active and busy, rather than wait for people to walk through the door (and, yes, this still happens in places) can be something to behold. So well done to Liverpool Central, one of my favourite libraries, and to the others on the list. You do us proud and are, literally, examples for all. And, lest we forget, thanks also to the BookSeller who set up this award. It’s a magazine that’s taken for granted a little and perhaps not seen much in many libraries these days, with there often being limited numbers subscribed to it and perhaps just one paper copy per service, if that. But it does sterling work and its support for public libraries – comparable only to the Guardian – has been notable for as long as I can remember, with the current issue being a brilliant example of how it both reports on libraries and seeks to support them.

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Enough money for Trump

Editorial

Further from my last editorial on the new DCMS Secretary of State, none other than the great Bob Usherwood emailed in to point out Jeremy Wright MP defended the so-called “ban” on prisoners buying books. See this. Yay. On the plus side, in the same article the MP does advocate for using the prison library instead so it’s not all bad.

In other news, well done to Lancashire who has reopened its twelfth library after the change in controlling party there. As a reminder, and somewhat confusingly for some, it’s the Conservatives who are in control there now. In addition, one notes that Ealing are looking to close down a recently refurbished library and change it to a volunteer one, perhaps in a local church. Not that, it seems, they’ve actually asked the local church yet. And Ealing is Labour. And Labour are as likely to cut libraries as the Conservatives, with both fine with volunteers (although Labour perhaps more hesitantly). What’s clear is that the overall political environment in England is austerity and so whoever is in charge looks around to make cuts. It’s not that the world is turned upside down – it’s just you have to zoom up a little to see the real cause, which is a continued national deep cut in spending on local services. There’s still enough UK money for Trump (who must be the anti-librarian in so many ways) to have at least £5 million set aside for his golf trip to Scotland. As ever, when it comes down to it, spending is a political choice. But that choice is more forcibly made in central rather than at local level.

Note: I described Nominet as a private company yesterday in my coverage of Two free guides for small businesses: Why get online, and How to get online. It is effectively a non-profit trust. My thanks to the Libraries Taskforce for pointing this out.

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Mr (W)right? A new Culture secretary appears.

Editorial

One of the dominoes falling from the current government changes means that we have a new person in charge of the DCMS (Mr Ellis’s boss), which has oversight of public libraries. A quick google search shows Jeremy Wright MP has had at least one advice surgery at Kenilworth Library, which is great, and I don’t begrudge him, when he at the time earned £190k per year, the 90p he claimed to drive from there to a local firework display at all. He was also at the opening of Southam Library. where he is on record as saying ““This is a huge achievement and this building will become, and already is, at the heart of the community for everyone – from the very youngest to the very oldest.”.  Other than that, he looks very much a normal non-rebellious Conservative MP who had become attorney-general a couple of years before. Its worthy of note, though, that Mr Wright – whose brief includes digital – does not have an active Twitter account, although he is on Facebook. If you need lessons, Jeremy, I am sure the library can help you …

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Balancing and philanthropy revisited

Editorial

Excellent piece from Leon about the need for a more balanced narrative about public libraries. You know the sort of thing. Campaigners on one end only reporting bad news and being angry on side while, on the other, official professional library stuff only emphasising the good news, with neither side really acknowledging the truth of the other. Leon argues that we should be happy to talk about the good as well as the bad, the bad as well as the good, and I agree. I thought Isobel Hunter’s first impressions about libraries after taking the helm at Libraries Connected was the closest I’ve seen for a while and Nick Poole can do balanced too. But too often I read only one side or the other in the news, and I am as guilty sometimes as anyone else, so Leon’s blog is timely and welcomed.

Speaking of balancing acts, now its time to go back to philanthropy for a bit. I’ve been thinking about my previous editorial. First thing is that after some rooting around, I find that  philanthropy funding public libraries directly, even up to 100% of the service, is legal as far as I can see as long as the local authority is still providing a service that satisfies the minister (not exactly hard) and other legislation such as on equalities. So I was wrong there. Secondly, of course, in reality, it’s a rare to non-existent council that would say not to any private donation as long as it was politically or ethically abhorrent.  So, as much as pretty much everyone in libraries would say that they’d want the sector to be paid for properly by taxation, when it comes to it, pretty much every council would take the money. And I suspect staff would too, if their jobs depended on it. Moreover, the current government would clearly strongly welcome such moves – they’d get rid of funding public services entirely if they could, and see no problems with MacDonalds Library with Fries  – and Labour would not be far behind them. So, OK, pragmatically, thank you Banksy. Make the cheque out to … oh, what do you mean, you’ve not actually said you’d pay anything yet? Darn it.

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Go big or don’t make the offer: Why we shouldn’t Banksy on public library philanthropy

Editorial

Two big stories in libraries this week for me. The first was the announcement that Bristol had been contacted by the artist Banksy to ask if he could help in some way after the council there announced they were cutting the budget and possibly closing 17 out of 27 branches. Just recently, after a storm(zy) of protest, the mayor u-turned and gave a reprieve until 2020. On closer inspection, it looks like Banksy hasn’t actually given any money to Bristol. Observers have also pointed out that he couldn’t legally pay for public libraries anyway (that statutory thing I think) and, moreover, depending on the whim of local rich people to fund what is a much-needed public service is no way for a civilized and wealthy country to behave. Indeed, my twitter feed was, and is, full of people saying this.

So let’s have a look at the big picture. Well, public libraries are perhaps the most famous beneficiaries of philanthropy ever. Mr Carnegie’s donations are still around in many beautiful buildings and the work of the Carnegie UK Trust. More recently, the Wolfson Foundation provided a lot of the original money for the People’s Network, and – perhaps less known – the lucky librarians of Hull have received £4 million in the last six years due to the nice James Reckitt Library Trust. On a smaller scale, Rochdale has a literature festival due at least in part to the good wishes of a couple who fell in love in the libraries there.  But, look, Carnegie is so well known because he gave $350 million. That’s easily over £6 billion in today’s money or perhaps seven times the total British public library annual budget. And all of the others have very definitely provided things additional to the core service. And libraries are for life, not just for Christmas.  Just like in the case of volunteering, relying on the whims of nice rich people is no way to run a library service. Unless a new billionaire comes along of course or you’re willing to spend a lot on long-term assistance for one authority.

Perhaps someone can hassle Bill and Melinda Gates to look to the UK. But I doubt very much that there’s any chance  ultra-capitalist Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon has done so much to destroy libraries and bookstores while paying a pittance to his warehouse human drones and avoiding tax, will much help. Perhaps, rather, we should look to, oh I don’t know, our taxes to cover such a service. Just don’t expect many billionaires to think similarly. My view, as stated in this Big Issue article, is “go  big or don’t make the offer”.

Secondly, it’s CILIP Conference week and there was big speech about how the US does its campaigning. Looks like it made quite an impact. Have a look below. And there’s a nice piece about the People’s Network in there as well.

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The hijacking of a common noun

Editorial

Dawn Finch has written an excellent article on public libraries that deserves an attentive read. One of the things in it is what shouldn’t be a library, such as those telephone or big bird-box book exchanges you see around the place. I love the word “library” and part of me thinks that if other people are appropriating it then it shows what a strong brand it is. After all, people use it not just for these Little Free LIbraries but also for software/code “libraries” and children’s collections like “My First Library”. People know, and like, what it means. That’s why I can never understand when people want to change the name of a library to something else. “Community Hub” or “Learning Resource Centre” doesn’t do it to me, nor for others, as Tasmania recently found out. People have a clear idea of what a library means. And it has less syllables than the alternatives.

I’m tempted to go off on one now about how volunteer libraries “community libraries” is a debasement of the term, much like inflation leads to a lower of the cost and quality of metal in coins but I don’t want to insult volunteers, who are doing unpaid work with the best of intentions. However, I would say that almost everyone agrees that council-run public libraries are the ideal. So, ideally, I’d like the word “public library” to keep meaning what it used to mean.  But there’s no appellation d’origin controlee for the word “library”. Or volunteer-run “community libraries” would have needed to have been called something else. Like “hubs” perhaps.

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York crowd-funder yields results to learn from

Editorial

A very interesting experiment has taken in place in York. The library trust there, Explore, launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for its summer reading challenge. At the end of the two month campaigning time, the service had reached its goal and raised very slightly more than its £11,117 target. On the face of it, this shows the success of the campaign and, I am sure, would encourage many others to think about going down the same route next year, even for something as fundamental as the main annual promotional push. However, crowd-funders allow one to look at who is donating unless they specifically ask to be anonymous so we can see where the money came from. Which is what I did:

  • £7350 – the vast bulk was one anonymous donation Friday before Monday deadline. I understand it was not from the council.
  • £2850 – 3 library friends group donations. This money would presumably have gone to the library service in any case for other projects.
  • £315 – 3 York Council employees (inc. £300 from the officer in charge of outsourcing: he clearly believes in what he’s doing).
  • £291 – 23 named donations, of which a quick google search comes up with no York Explore or council connections.
  • £290 – 13 anonymous donations, untraceable.
  • £239 – 8 York Explore employee donations inc. £160 from three very senior posts.
  • £50 – 1 donation from local children’s activity magazine
  • £20 – 1 donation from York bookshop

It’s clear from this that there’s no large number of small donors out there who funded the campaign, with the number of total donations being only 50 in total. Moreover, just 4 donations accounting for 10/11ths and one alone accounting for three quarters. Without that one big donation and, discounting the friends groups funding which would have gone to the library service anyway, the total amount raised would have been £1205, barely one-tenth of the total, with half of that coming from York Explore or council employees. So, the message if one digs deeper, for library services wanting to go down this route is that funding is not guaranteed and will come from a relatively small number of people.

Let’s be clear on this. I’m not attacking York Explore for trying crowdfunding. They’re actually doing well compared with many library services, having closed no libraries and this new library of theirs at Burnholme looks rather nice. No rather I see this as a test to see if there is widespread public support for this sort of funding in the ever harder financial environment that library services find themselves in. With budgets constantly being cut, it was only a matter of time before someone tried this and, in many ways, others will benefit from this experiment if it is learnt from. No, what I want to do is for the right lessons to be learnt. From my analysis, it’s clear that crowdfunding is not an easy answer and will result in small numbers of funders. It’s also rather high risk, which is what was discovered in an earlier experiment in Dundee, where a crowdfunder for £948k for a library expansion raised just £200 from a grand total of four donors. So, if you’re looking for non-traditional funding possibilities for what the public sees as fairly core services, it may be one should look elsewhere.

However, if anyone knows who donated that £7k, do let me now … I have a proposal for funding a news website on public libraries I’d like to talk to them about.

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Axiell Selflib: Simple, flexible self-issue softwared for any tablet

Dublin’ down: Eire bets the future of libraries on removing fines, staffless technology and investment

Editorial

The Republic of Ireland has come up with a strategy to double library usage. The key headline ways of doing so are by removing fines, upgrading buildings, and by increasing opening hours via staffless technology, with around 5 million euros (£50m equivalent pro rata) investment. This staffless technology is to be used in addition to staffing and, not as is often the case in the UK, part of a budget-cutting programme. Perhaps as interestingly, the scheme shows that Eire has the motivation and the infrastructure to impose such a plan.

Such is not the case in England, and to a lesser extent the other British nations, where the Brexit-obsessed government has done very little for libraries and is happy to neglect them, doing the least it can to ameliorate the effect of its own austerity programme while applauding those communities forced to replace paid staff with volunteers. In the vacuum that this creates, the remaining national bodies with responsibility for libraries, Arts Council England and the newly reminted Libraries Connected (SCL), are highly limited in what they can do with the 151 different English library services and it is up to individual councils as to what happens. Compared to Eire, this looks like not so much a strategy as trying to make do the best one can do without one. Few can doubt which of the two countries has more chance of success.

By the way, my apologies for being so slow in creating this post, almost a fortnight after the last one. I have been in some pain due to what I suspect was a mid-life-crisis inspired jogging injury but the new medication appears to help. Wish me luck for the MR scan tomorrow.

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11th June 2018

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Goodbye Society of Chief Librarians, Hello Libraries Connected: An interview with Isobel Hunter

I am delighted that the new CEO of the Society of Chief Librarians, Isobel Hunter, agreed to be interviewed. She very kindly opened up questioning to anyone and so the questions below are a mixture of mine and those received on Twitter and via email. The interview is tied in with the announcement that the SCL is now renamed “Libraries Connect“. This is to modernise and also to reflect its new role. Do have a read. The normal news bulletin is below the interview.

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