Community libraries

“Community libraries: Learning from experience” – The most important libraries report of the year examined and summarised, with initial reactions.

Community libraries

The official view on volunteer libraries has been released (Community Libraries; Learning from experience: summary briefing for local authorities – Locality).  Firmly supporting the Big Society view, its ten case studies and survey of the national picture, suggests that such libraries are a viable alternative to paid staff and indeed may provide longer hours and more services.  It also states that volunteer libraries are statutory as long as they are free, receive some form of council support and that the relevant council has decided that they are statutory. The survey finds that each and every authority is approaching the subject differently and that, even within councils, different volunteer branches are doing things in their own way.  However, this is seen as a positive thing, encouraging local solutions.

Indeed, “positive” is the over-riding theme of the report.  Although the current financial crisis – the over-riding factor, one imagines, in almost all cases of transfer so far – is acknowledged, it is seen as only one driver of four, the other three being technology, localism and joining up services.  The oft-reported view that volunteers are almost always volunteering simply to keep the library open rather than in the belief that it should not be job of the Council, as shown in the recent WI report, is also perhaps not given sufficient attention.  Anyone reading the report without an awareness of what is happening to local government budgets would think that unpaid staff are superior to paid staff and that councils have been wasting their money for all of these years.  Similarly, the ad hoc creation of unpaid branches that are different to eachother is seen as the best way of doing things, rather than any attempt at a standardised facts-based approach.   To be fair, though, the report does go some way towards providing guidelines for authorities and does concede that volunteering may not be the solution in some areas, presumably in those of high family stress, that most need libraries.

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Local Poem Prize

Library Friends may not necessarily be Council Friends

Some news items on the different new ways of running public libraries grabbed my attention today.  First off, one on outsourcing. As august a body as the Committee on Standards in Public Life suggested that outsourcing public services (presumably including libraries) raised a “significant new risk” to public ethics.  This has now been added to other reasons on the “con” page for outsourcing libraries.

Then we have a couple of articles on library volunteers. Oxfordshire has finally appointed a £35,000 per year libary volunteer co-ordinator post after eight months of searching.  However, it may have come too late.  After all, an article reporting the fact makes it clear that the Friends groups already have definite ideas and the co-ordinator may end up being co-ordinated.  Lambeth Council, on the other end of the political spectrum, is equally discovering that Library Friends May Not Necessarily Be Council Friends with a lead councillor coming under attack for saying that they should be “broadly sympathetic” to the Labour Party.  Times are changing for libraries and councillors in some authority may be learning the hard way that it may not be all one way traffic.

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A library is about more than books but a library without books is not a library

A theme for today’s news appears to be a debate about how far libraries should go down the line of moving from books (and even e-books) into something else.  A LinkedIn strand, populated by a wide range of librarians, decries libraries as simply stores for printed books and, it seems, the book generally.  That many people deeply care for the printed book was obvious as one campaigner described the views expressed as “anathema” to her.  She’s not alone, as this heartwarming post from Mashable demonstrates.

That times are changing is irrefutable.  Amazon are lending books, not just one at a time but also on a pay-more-the-longer-you-keep-it model A respected survey of the near future suggests we can expect augmented reality and open content within 2 to 3 years.  That’s way beyond the current social media / e-book stuff that libraries are still struggling with. Little wonder then that people think that the printed book, and sometimes the library, just ain’t what it used to be.

Librarians are trying their best to keep up and there are many positive moves in this direction.  The Public Libraries Information Offer is a very hopeful move, albeit one unlikely to be welcomed by the ultra-traditionalist. Library services are trying all ways, up to and including pole dancing, to get their message out, although due to a lack of anything near a national advertising budget or marketing plan, this is still very ad hoc and disappointing to manyNational Libraries Day is one of the few national pushes in this regard and it is heartening that some authorities are going all out in this regard.  It is very disheartening, though, that some authorities last year avoided doing any events for the day and that there are suspicions this year that this is happening again.

There can be very few other services where celebrating it is viewed with suspicion, even by a minority of its workers.  Similarly, there can be few other services where the main reason for the existence of the service – I’m talking the book here, in all its forms – seems to be unpopular amongst some professionals.  Let’s be clear on this.  A library is about so much more than books.  It can be a community centre, an IT suite, a health desk and a council information point and a hundred other things.  But a library without books (I include e-books in this) is not a library.  It is a community centre or a council One Stop Shop or … something else … but not a library.  It is the book that defines the library in the eyes of the public and it’s wonderfulness should be shouted about constantly by the profession.  Or the barbarians will treat us as merely community centres or One Stop Shops or … something else … and something unique and beautiful will be lost.  It would certainly be a brave move when the Government and local authorities are demanding so much bottom line from the sector.  However, we can see what is happening at he moment by claiming we’re the wonderful Jack of All Trades.  It ain’t pretty.

Anyway, I get tired of writing depressing summaries so I’m going to end with a laugh.  Below is a highly amusing Lord of the Rings parody that surprisingly turns into a celebration of libraries as they should be, with a good joke or five thrown into the mix.

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Westminster Libraries and Pole Dancing

The Westminster Libraries staff letter has resulted in a swift response from the chief and a fair bit of approving comment from campaigners (and, possibly necessarily muted) from existing library staff.

Pole dancing at a Midlothian library, presumably because of its salaciousness, has made a big splash in the national media today.  The “pole dancing” is in fact a fitness session to be held on National Libraries Day.  Campaigners are less concerned about the pole dancing and more worried about the table-tennis-with-books-not-bats that are also being planned.  To me, it sounds great and shows how thinking differently can really capture the media’s interest.  The three articles (Telegraph, Guardian and Independent) are linked below.

In other news, there has been some criticism of the new Suffolk IPS by a councillor who questions the new reality where councillors are not involved in library decisions. There is also a story about charging for computers. Darlington Council raises £6500 per year for charging for internet use after the first half hour. However, the amount is dropping from a peak of £8000 a few years ago and such a policy goes against that seen in one or two other councils which are getting rid of charging for the internet in the first hour due to the Government’s Digital by Default policy potentially discriminating against those without internet access.

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Westminster library open letter criticising cuts: an unprecedented one-off or the first of many?

Manchester has announced five libraries may close and one other will be combined with a leisure centre.  But that’s not what’s making history today,  Announced plans for closures are hardly ground-breaking.  No, the big news is that, in the first letter of its kind during the current libraries crisis, an open letter from library staff – from Westminster Libraries – has been published criticising the cuts to the service.  It notes that the workload of libraries staff is going up while their budget and numbers are going down.  The letter also points out that the councillors have refused to take any pay cuts themselves while expecting library staff to take a 10% cut.  It goes on that the council has hired two new highly paid officers for the same amount of money than it would have cost to keep a closed library open.

The interesting thing about this letter is that Eric Pickles would have no trouble with it.  It does not question the need for cuts but blames the cuts on poor decisions by councillors.  If Westminster was a Labour council, the Government would approve of the letter and quote it.  But Westminster is heartland Conservative … and so the Government will not say one word.

It is the first word heard from serving library staff criticising their Council (and thus their employers) for a good reason of course – publicly criticising one’s employers is a disciplinary offence.  However, this is signed from all staff.  It will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens and if it encourages other workers in other parts of the country to protest in similar fashion.  Many campaigners have wholeheartedly welcomed the bravery of the letter.

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Sheffield survey says “quality and choice of books” of prime concern to public

The Guardian’s article on the state of libraries suggests that things are going to get “much worse” for the sector this year.  Looking at the last couple of years, that’s going to be a challenge, but there is some evidence to back up the claim. Newcastle, Islington and Sheffield – although to be fair, the Islington cuts are conditional and hypothetical and not this year – are used as evidence in this regard, as is the count on Public Libraries News, the WI volunteers report and information from CILIP.

In Sheffield, a large survey on library use in the city, with over six thousand responses, shows that the public most highly value “quality and choice of books” followed by “welcoming and comfortable” libraries followed by “within walking distance”.  Unfortunately, Sheffield is having to make cuts of £1.6m (a full quarter of its budget) so what a lot of the public are most likely to get is “far lower quality or almost no new books” followed by “run-on-a-shoestring” libraries that will only be “within walking distance” if they’re run by volunteers.

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TRA_Six_Book_Challenge_2013_Rugby_A4_landscape

Volunteer “sticking plasters” are not going to save libraries, says WI

The main news today is the production of a report by the WI (in which I must declare an interest in as I facilitated the workshop for it) that looks into volunteer-run libraries.  The main thrust of the report is that volunteers are doing great things but risk being only a temporary stage between council-run branches and closure.  For this to be any other way, there needs to be properly supported and well-managed, both locally and nationally. So far, in too many cases, they have been inadequately supported and left to sink or swim on their own.  Of course, to do any other than this is going to be hard for councils who are only considering volunteers in the first place due to unprecedented and urgent cuts to their budgets.

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“What does a library look like in 2013?” Summary of Guardian online chat

The Guardian Culture Professionals Network ran an online chat on the subject of public libraries on Friday 11th January.  It went on for two hours and had several prominent people on the panel.  It also, as importantly, had lots of interaction from the public, all of whom cared deeply about the service and made many many useful contributions.  Taken together it gives as good a snapshot as I have seen of how many of those involved but, importantly perhaps, not politicians, see the current state of play in libraries. It was, though, a bit long and rambling in places.  I have therefore tried to summarise it below.  In doing so, I may well have missed some important points and so would appreciate anyone letting me know what else needs including.

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Islington warn on closure of all its libraries

Islington Council have said that they may have to close all libraries in 2014 if the cuts continue.  The spokesman did not appear aware that libraries were a statutory requirement.  However, she can be forgiven for this being that the legal nature of libraries has been downplayed or just plain avoided in cuts up and down the country.  It only appears to be public protest that has an impact on proposed closure plans.  Sheffield have also signalled that they may cut everything but statutory services, with 14 already under threat.

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Libraries are more than about culture, Mr Vaizey: have a look at Newcastle, Gateshead and Liverpool

Quite a few items of note today.  Public libraries were a topic of debate in the House of Commons with Ed Vaizey defending their transfer to Arts Council England because they’re about culture.  I thought they were about literacy, information, community and education as well but, oh well, never mind.  Mr Vaizey makes a second appearance today in an announcement that he’ll be speaking at a press conference – along with the Society of Chief Librarians, the British Library and the Reading agency – “unveiling the exciting new initiatives that all public libraries across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, are rolling out throughout 2013.”.  Should be fun.  I’ve just been sent a video of one of the exciting things that happened last year, a 3D Printer / Tech Fair, that took place in Gateshead and is worth a watch.

The protest meeting in Newcastle was well attended (between 250 and 300 packed in) with some forceful speeches including a call for direct action. The campaign there is also still causing some brilliant articles that clearly show the continued need for libraries.  A city that is facing it’s own share of library cuts, Liverpool, is also about to reopen a somewhat amazingly refurbished Central Library, of which there is a video here, and hopes to double its visitors each year to an impressive one million.

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