A “New Radical” library service, more no fines, and some sad news

Editorial

Libraries Unlimited, although not untouched by controversy, is having a rather food year. It has taken over neighbouring library service Torbay, claims 60,000 new members and is now being held up as a model for others to follow. Other news includes the now normal smattering of staff cuts, new volunteer libraries, reviews, co-locations and, more thankfully, a multi-million pound repair jobs. Also increasingly normal now are reports of library services removing fines. There is now stronger evidence than ever before that removal of fines does not affect returns and can increase use. I expect to see more library services, who can afford it (or who can persuade their councillors it makes excellent public relations) going down this route. Finally, on a sad note, there’s been news that long-time library campaigner Alan Gibbons has lost a son in a road accident. See the fundraising page below and do read the poem, even thought it may have you in tears afterward.

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In praise of Chris Riddell and Neil Gaiman

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There’s been a few things which have been brilliant in the last ten years of public libraries. The Orkney Library Twitter account (and their wannabe rivals Shetland) is one. The Summer Read Challenge as well The brilliant art of Chris Riddell and words of Neil Gaiman have been another. They’ve both been resolutely pro library for all of this period, with some of the best advocacy artwork and writing coming from them. Do have a read of their essay in pictures and feel proud of being involved in libraries.  Michal Ellis MP, Conservative minister, clearly thinks big new libraries is another good thing in the last decade – me too – although doubtless in his case it’s more a look-what’s-that-behind-you and a nothing-to-do-with-me excuse to the deep cuts in library funding and usage since his party came into office.

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Crowning achievement

Editorial

The big news, especially for those who have been following the drama these last two years, is the announcement that Crown Street Library in Darlington will stay open. This simply would not have happened without the strong public response to the new, the campaigning and protest and, indeed, the legal challenge. The real challenge, though, now will see what the surviving library will look like – the fear is that cuts will be made to staffing and that other services will be brought in, reducing the space and “offer” that has made the library so successful in the first place. But, for now, well done Darlington campaigners. Well done.

Other news that strikes the eye is the large amount of refurbishment going on in Hampshire – well done again – and the confirmation that open technology, which is relatively slowly but surely spreading like self-service did, will be universally adopted in Bracknell Forest. Finally, interesting to note King’s Lynn – not a name that shouts urban deprivation to me – has had to call in the security guards. As a result, I’ve started a twitter poll on security guards in libraries which I’d love it if you could contribute to. Thank you.

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Themes of fewer fines, US ideology, co-locations and the increasingly obvious failure of CIPFA

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Public Libraries News is back, due to PlusNet slightly messing up a change in internet provider, from a longer than expected Summer break. There are a few main themes over the last few weeks. The first is that there is a continuing move away from charging fines, especially in the USA, that can only be applauded. I also love the idea of providing free telephone access and utilizing Instagram for storytelling. For those entirely envious of our American friends, though, it’s also noticeable that libraries there are under ideological attack from, normally, right-wing evangelical and pro-gun sources. The furore, easily findable on the internet, over drag queen storytimes is quite amazing and compares badly with their easy reception in the UK. Speaking from the standard anti-gun position prevalent in the UK. moreover, it’s easy also to be horrified by the need in some US states to allow the public to come in with hidden firearms.

In England, there’s a continued move towards combining public libraries with other services, often in new but smaller builds. This has clear budgetary and footfall advantages but is sometimes somewhat over the top, as in Newcastle where someone thought it would be a good idea to include a drug and rehabilitation centre in the same building as the children’s library – a move that has not gone down well with residents, especially as this aspect of the development was kept secret until the last moment.

The continued, and embarrassing, failure of the public library sector to get its act together over statistics has hotted up with the Taskforce publicly pointing out the shortcomings of the ridiculously old-fashioned, limited and egregiously expensive CIPFA statistics. The current provision is redolent of the 1950s in its slowness, limitations and blatant secrecy but also combines profiteering so any improvement is to be welcomed. For that to happen, though, the multitude of risk-averse public library services need to actually be willing to openly share data. What they’re scared of – the public becoming aware of reduced usage and cuts in budgets as a result – has already come to pass but this has not yet resulted in concrete action. One hopes the day will come soon.

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There was a time …

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A funny thing happened on the way around the library

Editorial

A few “extra” features today, Craft Council have been in touch about their collections and resources for library loan and Silva Linings have similarly contacted in order to let libraries know about a carer-based theatre show they’d love to tour in libraries. There’s also an email from Bristol to let everyone know about the weekly lunchtime lectures they put on there. I love this sharing of info and glad to be service. But I must say I love the idea of entering librarianship “to engage my passion for pushing in other people’s chairs” (and if you don’t know why, you don’t work in a library) even more. And the BookStart Bear guidelines absolutely cracked me up. Working in libraries, I often think one has to have a sense of humour and it’s not shown on PLN enough. What funny thing has happened to you recently?

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2018: when merely being life-changing is not enough

Editorial

There are now two councils, Northamptonshire and East Sussex, who have announced that they aim to provide a “legal minimum” level of service. This is due to deep (nearly 50%) cuts in government funding since 2010 and, at least in the case of Northants, fairly gross financial incompetence. It’s suspected that more will be added to the list. So, that’s bad news for libraries. The sector has “statutory” protection but that is overseen by the DCMS minister who has resolutely failed to effectively uphold any standards in the past and has yet to intervene despite some fairly (75%+ I believe) cuts in some council library services. And it’s not even like English public libraries have any standards to begin with, although they once did. I like the “libraries change lives” motto but when councils are aiming for a “We’ll try not to be directly responsible for killing anybody” level of service, merely life-changing may not be enough.

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Libraries have innovation all sewn up

Editorial

Innovation is not a problem in libraryland. Have a read of the new ACE report “Libraries welcome everyone” to see this in action and then read the article by Carnegie on the Taskforce website. You can then have a wistful browse of an article about French beach libraries (come on Llandudno!) and then read about toy sleepovers. Then, perhaps have a giggle at the silliness of the reactionaries who worry about Drag Queen Storytimes. Moving on to tech, it’s good to see Somerset having 360 degree pictures of all their branches on their webpages (a boon for those with autism) and browse their open date on library usage. I remember when “knit an natter” and “adult colouring” classes were new ideas and now they’re basically everywhere. No, innovation is not a problem. And successful ideas spread – I’m seeing toy sleepovers happening in many places and more and more DQSTs happening in the UK. Both started out in the USA (I think) and have spread. This innovation is to be encouraged. And is encouraging.

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A city square with a roof

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Libraries Unlimited

Editorial

I included in the last post, and tweeted, an open letter from an ex-member of Devon (Libraries Unlimited staff) which raised serious questions about the way Devon’s library services were being managed. There was a lot in the post that was concerning so I emailed Ciara Eastell,, Chief Exec at LU for a response on four specific questions I had from it. Ciara has now sent the following back to me, which I publish below in full. I also asked another question about why some staff have needed to sign non-disclosure agreements, but I am told this is not happening at all and so the question has not been included.

 Have the number of managerial grades gone up, and frontline staff gone down, since the start of Libraries Unlimited? Why?

Changes to staffing structures since our transition from a local authority service to an independent organisation, and the increase in management staff, have been largely due to creating a number of new roles for work that would previously have been carried out by Devon County Council. This includes HR, communications, premises, IT, security, finance, health and safety and others, plus the creation of our Creative Director role that is funded by Arts Council England through our National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) status.

At the point of transfer, 34% of our staff (in FTE) were in supervisory roles or above – this includes supervisors of medium sized libraries up to senior management level. In comparison, we had 66% on lower grades (library assistant/senior library assistant levels). As at end of March 2018 (latest available figures), we have 38% of our staff on supervisor level or above and 62% of staff on lower grades. As stated above, the changes are as a result of increased support services needed to run an effective independent organisation.

Where does money received from donations go?

All money that we raise through our range of fundraising activities is invested directly back into library services. This includes investing in extra events and activities and better equipment and resources for our libraries, to enhance our core offering. >We fundraise for both specific projects and resources (such as our Adopt A Book scheme and our recent fundraising campaign for increased activity in prison libraries), as well as fundraising generally. All money raised through general fundraising is put towards specific projects and events, with 50% of local library donations being put directly into that library and the rest invested into county wide improvements and enhancements, such as improved services for children and young people.

We gained registered charity status in November 2016, and launched our first fundraising activities towards the end of last year. Many library services and cultural organisations are able to fundraise to enable greater impact within their local communities. We welcome the opportunity to share our experiences and learn from others as we all seek to ensure that libraries and cultural organisations reach and engage with more people. As a charity, we have the added benefit of being able to benefit from Gift Aid, which means the money we generate from many fundraising activities can go even further.

Is there is a route of communication between frontline staff and trustees?  

We have two staff trustees on our Board, so those members of staff are freely available to be contacted by any member of the team. We also have two community trustees who are members of Friends Groups and are therefore directly in touch with their local library and with Friends Groups across the county. In addition, our trustees get out and visit libraries as much as they can. Their Board meetings are held in various libraries across the county, and they regularly attend events and activities at libraries. Just in the last month we had an event at Northam Library which was attended by one of our independent trustees and the Chair of our Board was also at the launch of the Summer Reading Challenge in Exeter Library. We also organise an annual trustee tour, hosted by library supervisors to ensure trustees visit as many libraries as possible during their tenure.

In terms of more formal opportunities, we have an Annual General Meeting (AGM) which both staff and trustees attend. Every year our AGMs have offered staff and trustees the chance to engage with one another.  However, it’s important to understand the differing roles of trustees and senior managers. Trustees, including staff trustees, are there to drive the broader strategic direction of the organisation; as with all charities, they are volunteers giving their time freely in support of the mission and vision of Libraries Unlimited. The day-to-day running of the organisation is rightly the responsibility of senior managers. As well as two staff trustees, we also have an elected Staff Forum, who meet on a regular basis with the Chief Executive and senior managers. The Staff Forum is an important route for any member of staff to raise concerns, queries, issues or suggestions, and the staff representatives on the Forum decide where and who the particular item needs to be raised with.

Is there anything else you want to say?

At Libraries Unlimited we are incredibly proud of the difference we make to people’s lives on a daily basis. All of our libraries, large and small, offer a variety of services that meet the varying needs of the communities of Devon and Torbay. Our team of over 350 staff work hard to provide support and encouragement to those who visit. They greet people with warm, friendly smiles, with knowledge and professionalism. As a charity, everything we do is focused on our core mission, to bring ideas, imagination, information, knowledge and creativity to people’s lives. All of our staff and volunteers, from customer service assistants to the senior management team and our trustees, are absolutely committed to our cause. We are proud that, working closely with Devon and Torbay Councils, we have not closed any libraries, and each one is run and managed by paid and experienced members of staff. We believe that what libraries need is positivity. They need the people that love and value libraries to help spread the word about what it is that makes them special, and for people to work together to raise awareness of the excellent community resources that libraries provide. At Libraries Unlimited, we continue to focus on our six core purposes and on delivering diverse and high-quality library services for the benefit of people and communities of Devon and Torbay.”

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