Archive for January, 2013

Special report: “Libraries of the 21st Century” versus “offering a new dress to a plague victim”

A major effort to improve and protect public libraries was announced today in a joint conference by:

  • Janene Cox, President of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL)
  • Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture
  • Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library
  • Miranda McKearney OBE, Director of The Reading Agency
  • Nicky Morgan, Director of Libraries at Arts Council England.

A summary of what is planned is here and a full description is here.  I’m going to look at the good bits and then into the not so good bits in turn.  I will, as tradition dictates, start with the Pro:

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National Audit Office highlight libraries as suffering from cuts

I’ve been in touch with the Cabinet Office regarding their support for the move to mutual status for York Libraries.  It was reported yesterday the Government was offering a share of £10 million to assist authorities in making such a transfer, with £100k being given to the northern city.  I was wondering if other authorities had been in touch and if they were aware that Suffolk had already got a similar model up and running (York was described as the “first”).  This is the response:

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£10 million from Government to take your library out of direct council control

The Cabinet Office has sent out a press release about the £100,000 it is giving to York to help on its way to forming a mutual to run its library service.  Many will already know that Suffolk was the first to go down this route and it is perhaps too early to see how successful or not it will be.  There are 65 mutuals in other sectors already working and there is a map showing them for those who are curious. The people of Suffolk have learnt that being in an IPS (Industrial and Provident Society) does not necessarily protect it from closures, with some mobiles likely to close in that county, but it’s certainly now seen as one of the main future directions library governance is taking, with the others being straight closure or passing to volunteers (although of course, Suffolk IPS has a fair amount of volunteers involved in governance and fund-raising).  Whatever one thinks of trusts ( and unions tend not to think much of them), the money will be welcome to many councils who, I am sure, will be looking at this route:

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Around three or four mea culpas

Some reality checks have come in from other people.  This is good.  It’s important to be constantly open to what is going on, as regardless of prejudice as possible.  Otherwise what’s the point of facts?  So in the grand tradition of people who did not do their homework properly, I needed to look at what I said – and the evidence – again:

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An “entirely insane week” for public libraries

Continuing disagreement with the Arts Council England report on volunteer libraries seems to the order of the day. Some reports suggest that the evidence – at least in Camden where the move to volunteers resulted in a collapse in usage – may not have been given the attention it should have deserved in what will be seen by many councils as a blueprint for shedding paid staff.  The feeling is that the “cons” of volunteer libraries have been downplayed in the report.  The use of workfare volunteers, apparently by Eco Computers in its Lewisham libraries is also not a popular move. The spectre of people being forced to work in libraries for free has been raised, although the owner of Eco Computers disputes this.  It’s therefore not surprising that Phil Bradley called last week an “entirely insane” one for public libraries.  Also not popular, at least amongst those holding the purse strings, are mobile libraries, with three more announced as likely to disappear.

In amongst this carnage, questions about the use of technology in libraries may seem academic, but there is some discussion in the US – presumably where survival is not such an all-consuming topic – about how this should be approached, with 3D printers being the poster boys/girls.   Pew Research apparently shows the public want books and reference librarians first, though, and a 21-point list of when it is wise not to innovate include at first glance up to 16 (can you spot which ones?) that may mean it’s not an overly wise thing to do in the UK at the moment.

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Guest post: @ My Library, the Laos “medicine chest of the soul”

We can sometimes get sucked in far too much into our own little world of sorrows in the UK.  Public Libraries News does cover stories from the rest of the world but I am all too aware that so much is going on that is not mentioned.  So, when veteran anthropological researcher Dawn Starin got in touch about a remarkable library in Laos, I was interested. Dawn is evangelical about what good work this library does and, after reading this piece, I can see why.  Perhaps the decision-makers in this country could benefit from reading it too.  So, over to Dawn and a trip to Laos….

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That would have paid for a lot of library volunteers: Arts Council England decision to give its outgoing Exec £200k for a “sabbatical” attracts ire

CILIP have come out against the ACE report on volunteer-run branches saying that volunteers cannot run a comparable service and that the document “wrongly implies” that they can without producing the necessary evidence. While forcing people to volunteer in libraries or lose their benefits is not covered in the report, it has been alleged that this is what is happening in Lewisham where the libraries taken over by Eco Computers are taking part in the workfare scheme.  Suffolk is covered in the report but the limitations in how it can maintain services may be shown in the news that is has stopped three out of six mobile libraries, on the grounds that this  was the Council’s decision and they are just the “providers”.   Brighton and Hove is also not mentioned, with one of the reasons being that it failed to find volunteers to run its mobile library and so – after a long battle and a 1500 name petition – is closing it.

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Meanwhile, in England …

The Welsh Minister in charge of libraries has spoken strongly in favour of libraries and directly contrasted this with the less-than-forthright approval shown in England.  This continues the trend where Wales and Scotland are notably different in their handling of libraries to that of Westminster.  Indeed, one senior librarian in Scotland has told me that Scottish librarians “look with horror” at what is happening south of the border and think something approaching mass madness is happening.

It’s no surprise therefore that someone working in Essex (rather than north of the border) said on the library professionals discussion board that the country was in debt so volunteers are sometimes a good idea (“there are surely cases where, with intelligent management, it’s better to have lively volunteers than a closed building”).  To paraphrase a Douglas Adams character, ten out of ten for bravery but, perhaps, minus several million for choosing your place to do it.  The line “But all I’ve read so far indicates a collection of very nice professionally qualified people, who can be a teensy bit precious!” met with the response “We’re not being precious.  We’re fighting for our livelihoods and for a set of core beliefs that many of us hold very dear”.

What sparked this debate was of course the ACE report on community, um, volunteer, um well unpaid libraries with the WI wading in on the side of those who say that such buildings are probably unsustainable in the long-run.  A couple of people have pointed out that, being the WI are often the same people as those running such branches, this view needs taking seriously.  CILIP have, incidentally, not yet at time of publication publicly reacted to the report but have said via email that they want to properly consider the report and its implications before responding.

Moving back north of the border, some in Scotland think there’s something slightly wonky there too.  The pole dancing event in Midlothian libraries – which resulted in some very impressive publicity for public libraries in the national media – is cited as part of a deeper malaise in the profession where books are not encouraged.  This is echoed in a (very sweary) post by Censored Genius which worries that libraries are chasing the 1% of the most change-friendly and ignoring their core market.  Better not tell, then, either of these about the Edge 2013 Conference which is promising to be one of the best looks at key trends in libraries and technology this year.

The oncoming changes in benefit rules is increasingly making itself felt in English libraries.  The Wirral – which has been merging its library and One Stop Shop staff – is expecting library staff “to identify whether people are “potentially eligible” for the support [a council hardship grant] and will help them  make an online application” from April.   Change happens and sometimes not in the way anyone in the profession would have thought or planned just a few years ago.  Especially in England.

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“To the advantage of all” – Further responses to ACE report and Doncaster moves closer to a decision in court

The Community Libraries report has stirred up a lot of interest, with a historically high number of people accessing Public Libraries News for yesterday’s post. What is perhaps significant, though, is the dog that isn’t barking – so far there is no national media interest or a response from CILIP.  We’ll see if this changes.

A Doncaster resident has won the permission to appeal the decision by the Mayor to cut library services.  This one sticks in the mind as the majority of councillors voted against the cuts but the Mayor over-ruled them and cut them anyway.  The court decision, when it occurs, will thus – as well as hopefully winning funding back for libraries – decide on the power of mayors compared to the full council.

There have been a lot of changes in councils today with Anglesey, Denbighshire, Kent, Leicester, Newport, Southampton and Tower Hamlets all having amendments on the list. While the changes make clear that Wales is not exempt from cuts, the clear difference is that the Welsh Government – in the form of Cymal – has issued what amounts as a warning to Anglesey.  Such a direct action would simply never happen in 2013 England.

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“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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