Malorie and Sarah

The high point of the year: Summer Reading Challenge 2013

Editorial

The Summer Reading Challenge is, each year, without a doubt, the best thing that happens to British public libraries. During the weeks it runs, hundreds of children come to my libraries asking to join, getting excited about the stickers and proud at the medals.  The parents come along of course as well.  The branches are a hive of activity.  Last year, over 500 (five hundred) children joined the Creepy House challenge from a town of only 30,000 people. That’s a take-up rate way beyond anything else that libraries do and way up on the year before.  Unfortunately, I could not attend the official launch this year but Laura Swaffield and Elizabeth Ash of the Library Campaign did and I indebted to them for the following write up (Laura) and photos (Elizabeth):

Malorie and Sarah

Malorie Blackman, Sarah McIntyre … and Medusa

“The 16th – yes, really! – annual Summer Reading Challenge (SRC) is now officially launched.  Congratulations to The Reading Agency (TRA) for this brilliant scheme that last year kept a record 810,000 kids enjoying books through the summer holiday (and ta to Arts Council England for chipping in with some of the funding).

It’s significant that the British Library provided a posh venue for the launch event plus an enthusiastic speech by BL boss Roly Keating, who clearly gets how important public libraries are. As he’s a member of the Sieghart inquiry panel, that has to be a good sign… I hope. “This is the kind of initiative we love,” said Roly, describing SRC as “a summer nationwide festival”. “It’s great, he said, “to have an occasion to celebrate the whole [public library] system… whatever we [ the BL] do, we want to have the on-the-ground impact that SRC has…” and more of the same.

Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman also took the chance to talk up “how vital public libraries are to our children, and to the whole process of reading for pleasure”. She quoted various kids and parents. One kid had “never liked reading, but I’ll definitely do more reading now”. A parent talked of her child’s new-found “confidence, fluency and, most of all, enthusiasm – reading for pleasure, not because the school said so”.

As local libraries crash and burn by the score, what are the chances of retaining a “whole system” of libraries? As more and more are dumped on to reluctant “volunteers” to do the best they can, what are via delivery on a national scale?

Sue Wilkinson, TRA’s chief executive, outlined some of this year’s goodies – developed via feedback from previous SRCs. Book recommendations, from participants and celebrity writers. Stickers and certificates are the classic and now proven SRC motivators. Some stickers Ed.] There’s also stuff for kids with visual impairments, thanks to collaboration with RNIB as well as quizzes, clues, quests, mazes and more. “Digital magic” by Solus, with (inevitably) an app, and all kinds of audio-visual content including messages from mythical creatures. Plus there’s loads of publicity material that (sadly) shows up the inadequacy of the usual public library “advocacy” stuff (what there is of it).

Above all, the promotion benefits from great illustrations. “The artwork is critical to SRC’s success,” said Sue. No worries here, with funny, colourful, imaginative images by the award-winning Sarah McIntyre. Sarah turned up in a suitably colourful outfit, including a writhing green Medusa hat. Sarah is already a favourite at The Library Campaign for her clever poster “A librarian is a powerful search engine with a heart“, which is still downloadable for free. Meanwhile, all is revealed at SRC’s website: www.mythical-maze.org.uk … and of course down your local library.”

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You know you’ve got problems when …

Editorial

North East Lincolnshire continue the run of authorities who are announcing that more than half their existing library provision is in danger of being closed or passed to volunteers. Cuts, of varying amounts, have also been announced in Poole, Torbay and Powys.  Meanwhile, things don’t look good for Lincolnshire Council who appear to have had an unpleasant second and final day in the judicial review.  When one of your main arguments is the strength of feeling against your own consultation, you know you’ve got problems. Mind you, if Lincolnshire win after what appears to be a chronically inept consultation and decision-making process, then we’ve all got problems.

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Library strike: when not working in a library is the best that one can do

Editorial

Many libraries will be closed tomorrow. That’s unfortunately hardly not a rare statement these days but this time it will not be by the Government and not by councils but by the library workers themselves in industrial action over a 1% pay offer.  As someone who will be on strike myself I need to say that such strikers do not take this action lightly.  I love libraries and all they stand for.  Every day in work and, heaven knows, every night I do Public Libraries News, it is made obvious to me how much people depend on libraries.  But any library (unless they are one of the increasing number passed to the unpaid) need well-paid staff in order to function and I have, like my colleagues, received a 20% cut in pay in inflation-adjustedl terms when compared to four years ago. That’s, I’ll say it again, 20%.  In fact, it’s more than that because I used to be paid time and a half for the Saturdays that I worked and I don’t any more.  I’m going to be brutally honest at this point therefore: it’s coming to the stage where I find it hard to pay the mortgage.  I love libraries but not enough to lose my house over them.  I care deeply about the job and above all I care deeply about the people I serve but I will need to go for a job outside the sector if these pay cuts (hidden as pay freezes or “increases” below inflation) continue.  Indeed, being that such cuts are not unknown in the private sector as well, then I may even need to leave the country.

And that’s just me … and I’m a manager, albeit a very junior one.  Now what about those other library and council workers? Well, two-thirds of council workers are paid below the Government’s own poverty threshold.  Two thirds. One third are paid even below the living wage. If I think it’s bad, with what my parents would call my lower middle class life, then heaven knows what some of my colleagues are going through.

Alright, so that’s tough isn’t it?  There’s no money, right? Well, no. Local authority reserves have risen from £2.9 billion to £19 billion during this time of “austerity”. Even the government deficit doesn’t demand it when looked at historically. Moreover, over half the cost of a decent rise would be recouped by the Government in terms of increased tax revenue and decreased benefits.  Now this strike may do no good. The Government and the majority of the media care not a jot for council workers and they’re unlikely to care more after tomorrow.  But David Cameron and the Mail and the rest have been at war with providing decent council services since before 2010.  The money is there, what we’re looking at is an ideological campaign against council provision and for lower taxes, and higher private profits at any price. We’re getting to a point where we can’t take much more and still offer a good service. So we need to do something … and this is the only thing left for us to do.

Thanks for reading this.  I hope that this will be the last strike I am in.  I hate striking.  I want to keep libraries open, not closed.  But sometimes a library worker has got to do what a library worker has got to do.  Including not working in a library.

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Lincolnshire Judicial Review Day 1, school libraries parliamentary group report , Staffordshire

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Public Library change in use

Less are taking part … but why?

Editorial

Well, this is depressing but perhaps not unexpected. Figures released on Friday from the DCMS Taking Part survey show a 23.2% decline in visits between 2005 and 2013.  This tallies well with CIPFA statistics which showed a 28.3 % reduction in borrowing  from 2005 to 2013.  So, why the decline?  Well, the obvious one is decline in budget and, interestingly, other figures show that the public libraries budget did indeed go down almost identically by 29% in the same period if one takes into account inflation.  However, a look at the individual years show not such a strong correlation, with visits and membership going down even in periods when budget went up.  Certainly, the declining trend in visits seems to have halted at the time of an increase in budget but the decline in membership looks like it didn’t.   There is also an issue with taking inflation into account as some argue that inflation does not affect libraries budget so much.  For example, staffing is a large proportion of the total budget but pay freezes mean this has barely risen since 2010. However, this is so much sophistry to me: budget is doubtless to my mind a big factor in the decline but we have to say that it is not the only one.

So what other reasons could there be?  Well, the obvious one is technological change.  The adoption of ebooks and an increasing amount of people with online access has doubtless hurt visits and membership, especially as the spread and depth of  e-lending has been distinctly mixed in England … and I say England because this trend is not apparent in some other countries.  After all, the US has seen budget cuts as well but their overall library is actually going up.  So, either there is a big difference between the two countries’ library services (and there certainly is: the US doesn’t have as high household online use or even job centres for a start … but is that enough?) or there’s something going specially wrong in England.

It would, at this point, also be great to compare trends in the EU.  It would be especially useful to look at usage in comparatively well-funded France and Germany with numbers in badly-hit Portugal and Greece.  This would be doubly beneficial as Portugal at least has gone for keeping staff and cutting book buying while in the UK we’ve gone all out in both.  That comparison will have to wait until another day (Public Libraries News is a part-time hobby, after all, not a full-time occupation) but it needs doing.  Because otherwise we’re simply guessing at what is going on and that is a truly terrible situation, with councils keen to cut funding on one side, commentators like Tim Coates (see below) blaming library leaders on the other side and those same library leaders working under high pressure in a research-free haze caught in the middle.

Public Library change in use

 

Comparison budget and use

Tim Stats

Combined statistics courtesy of Tim Coates

 

“When you look at the table – as I hope you will -  you will see clearly, I hope, why Desmond [Clarke] and Shirley [Burnham] and Alan Gibbons and others are so angry about the operation of the public library service. From idiotic so-called ‘ library professionals’ to overpaid civil servants and public officials, to highly rewarded operators of charities and do -gooding consultancies – we have an army of idiots who are responsible for public libraries. It might be a surprise to look at such appalling figures, if we didn’t know that – at exactly the beginning of the period they record (2005) Gerald Kaufmann and the Culture Select Committee had not looked at the same figures for the previous ten years and observed the same story of miserable incompetence in every quarter.   His sensible recommendations were raucously ignored in every quarter – and now we see the results. To put alongside that the simple information that this decline has occurred only in the UK -   it is not mirrored in European or Asian or American countries – is to ward off the pile of excuses to which we will be exposed.  Nobody should fund a service which is so incompetently managed.  The public library service pays more in salaries and fees, than the entire UK publishing industry – it is not a trivial endeavour in any way ….    Tim Coates via email

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East Renfrewshire to turn to Trust, Enfield refurbishes Palmers Green

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The Great Equalizer: the public libraries elevator pitch

Editorial

I get asked for an “elevator pitch” (what reasons you’d give for funding if you were stuck in a lift with a decision maker for a minute) for public libraries every now and again and I keep on tailoring my response as I learn more and think further on the subject.  I normally throw in a whole load about libraries as third spaces, about Digital By Default and all that sort of stuff.  Well, my “pitch” is going to change a bit because I came across a wonderful US article which simply talks about libraries as the “great equalizer”. Yes. That is so true.  Libraries provide the books for those who cannot afford the books, the help with computers for those who don’t know computers, the online access for those with no online access and the study space for those without study space . We’re the community chest of resources that means that, even if you have no money, you can learn and communicate with the best of them.  Even if you don’t speak the same language. And by providing that, we provide the social welfare, the literacy, the jobseeking, the you name it that means that all of the population has a chance to become equals.  So when you’re next in a lift with a person in sharp business clothes who is wondering who you are, tell him.  Tell him that your service is vital for a fair society, for improving incomes and outcomes.  And then sting him or her for some money.  It’s only fair.

And if you want any more factual information about what I’ve just said, see the pages on the menu on “Why Libraries?” on that toolbar at the top of this page.  See, I’ve made it easy for you.  All you have to do is go to your HQ and hang around in a lift.

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Asking questions in Parliament is a great way of finding information out and scoring points off the other side.  The Shadow Minister for Libraries, Helen Goodman, however, appears to be using her questions to show how little research she has done.  Her latest question on statistics shows a lack of understanding of basics and also little idea of any strategy.  What was she expecting Ed to say? For goodness sake, ask about what efforts he is making to repair bridges with CILIP after their historic vote of no confidence in him.  Or about what he will do in the Wirral about the cuts to libraries there, especially since he was positively seething about the lack of action by the minister in precisely that authority when he was in opposition.  Those questions I can see the point of.  Let’s hope she gets a clue soon, because there are open goals there.  She just needs to learn to shoot straight.

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“We hope she grows up to be a real book lover”

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The lesser of two evils

Editorial

It was very informative to see the Sunday Politics programme on the BBC about cuts to library budgets.  Alan Gibbons was, as ever, excellent in defending libraries.  What was really interesting though was how similar both the Conservative and Labour MPs were on the issue: indeed, they completely agreed on every point (apart from, perhaps, charging market rate rents to volunteers).  Both praised co-locations and saw volunteers as a viable solution and had no problem with professional libraries being available only in the largest branches.  If public libraries play a part in the General Election at all, this may prove a problem for Labour because there just doesn’t seem to be a difference between them and the Conservatives on the issue.  Mind you, the same could be said about many issues and one does wonder if libraries would fare much better under Labour.  Many would argue that they would be the lesser of two evils but, so far at least, it is hard to see a renaissance coming for the sector should Ed Milliband become Prime Minister next year.

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Sieghart plans out our future: plus strike action and volunteers walking out

Editorial

William Sieghart, who is producing a national report on public libraries on behalf of the DCMS, has revealed some of his key thoughts so far.  The key points appear to me to be:

  • Focus on co-locations and shared services.
  • Library authority structure to remain the same.
  • One national online library network inc. one library management system, one library card and one training system
  • Network to expand into joint procurement, best practice and “improving the leadership”/vision.
  • Expansion of network into community buildings inc. public houses
  • Funding to be from bids to e.g. Transformational Challenge Award.
  • More thoughts and invites for visits welcomed.

Leaving inside the groaner that is pubs, the big thing for me here is how pragmatic and relatively unrevolutionary this is.  I can almost see some of this happening. A single LMS is going to cost a fortune but it’s worth a go if it unites all authorities and Mr Sieghart is not just coming up with ideas but working out how best to fund them.  He knows that there’s zero chance of central government going against the key tenets of localism and forcing library authorities to merge so he’s going for things which will encourage the benefits of merging without the actual, um, merging. I also love the bit about improving training for “New graduates into the profession”.  I don’t know about you but I’ve not seen any new graduates in the profession for about three or four years and the idea of actually getting new recruits is a bit startling.  The least that can be said is that the man has hope.  It’s not going to please those who were hoping for a “saving” of the public library service but then, frankly, there’s no chance either Labour or Conservative would ringfence funding anyway.  What he’s going for is trying to modernise, rationalise and,, in some ways, revolutionise the service in realistic ways.  We will see over the next couple of years how realistic, or not, this approach turns out to be.  What it has going for it is the General Election.  Both parties would benefit from being able to say they’re doing something about public libraries.  Some of this stuff may even end up, if we’re lucky, in a manifesto.

Two other key things today is that Unison have announced that the strike action will be on 10th July.  It is likely that many libraries will be closed on that day as library workers express their discontent at losing over 10% of their spending power over the last four years.  The other thing is that the withdrawal of funding in Lincolnshire has meant that a dozen volunteers helping out in one council-supported library have decided not to help any more.  It’s a classic example of a council, on the face of it, shooting itself in the foot and casts some doubt over the sustainability of a model it wants for more than half of its libraries.

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