Uncategorized

The austerity genie has well and truly left the bottle: volunteer libraries

Editorial

I’ve been following some of the tweets from the Community Managed Libraries Conference and look forward to the blogging/posts that will result from the event. But for now I think it’s useful to say that, look. we all know the issues surrounding volunteer libraries is a painfully difficult one. Heck, when there’s even a disagreement about their very name, you know there’s a problem. But it needs to be remembered that volunteers are persuaded to work for free in public libraries because, largely, they love them. They want to see libraries surviving in their local communities and conferences like this one will assist in making such branches more professional and sustainable. On the other hand, and this is the cruel thing, the more successful volunteer libraries are then the more councils will close down paid-staff libraries.

It’s all so sad when the natural strongest supporters of libraries are inadvertently, and with the best will in the world, used against paid staff. But I don’t think this is part of an evil political master plan. And I have a lot of sympathy for councils faced with difficulty budget decisions and, most of all, with the pro-library volunteers themselves. I also of course, not least because I am one of them and (self-interest aside) I know what staffing and managing a library involve, have sympathy with paid staff. But that’s just how it is.  Bottom line is, I think all of this is the result simply of budgetary pressure and local steps resulting from it. As austerity goes on, and despite hopeful headlines, it shows no signs of stopping, the ranks of volunteer libraries will swell above their already impressive 500+ number. Some will fail. But some will also succeed, at least in terms of staying open. I doubt any will ever become fully paid staffed ever again, as has sometimes been hopefully suggested. There are no perfect answers for any side. Paid staff will be threatened. Volunteer staff largely realise paid staff will be better. National organisations realise that, at the very least, the situation inevitably leads to atomisation. But volunteer libraries are here and it’s best to get used to it.

The genie is out of the bottle but it looks like no-ones (apart from a few ideologues we may never meet) wishes have been granted.

Changes

Why Suffolk chose to build our own self-service kiosk system, by Leon Paternoster, Suffolk Libraries

More >

IFLA and good news from St Helens

Editorial

Northamptonshire is again in the news, with the DCMS announcing they will look at complaints about cuts to its library service. There’s also more news about cuts in Somerset and East Sussex amongst other places. I more positive news, the Arts work that St Helens Libraries undertake has played a role in giving the borough city-wide recognition.

I don’t normally pay much attention to IFLA. It’s the global librarian association and I tend to concentrate on more parochial issues of direct concern to British public librarians. Small-minded possibly but I often find it hard to associate with their publications, initiatives and conferences. But I suspect this is my failing and not theirs. So have a look at the various links below about their recent conference and make up your own mind.

Changes

More >

Out with outsourcing? Northants fatally injured.

Editorial

It looks like Northamptonshire is going to be split up, with the most likely option being commissioners coming in to take over the council services. It’s unclear what will happen to libraries – especially as they’re currently run by a mish-mash of council, university and NHS – but the next full council meeting on Thursday may give some idea. The first fun fact is that the chief executive who oversaw and created a lot of this mess was the first chair of the Libraries Taskforce and that his “outsource everythingapproach to life doubtless must have influenced it in some way, although from everything that I hear about him, I think he genuinely did care about libraries. Anyway, he’s now gone and hopefully the rush towards outsourcing, that has already taken a bashing with the demise of Carillion, has been further slowed by what has happened in his county. The next  Full Council meeting is scheduled for Thursday so we may hear more of what is happening to Northants libraries and their long-suffering staff and users.

Second fun fact is that the new Northants HQ. built with what is now becoming clear was a trademark lack of care to expense, will have some spare space in it. And possibly, due to the imminent end of the council, may all become spare space. Hmm, a big office building outside London suddenly becoming vacant. Perhaps this may be nice cheap accommodation for national organisations thinking of setting up in the capital. Just a thought.

Changes by authority

More >

London

Editorial

One of the many odd things about the UK is the dominance of London. It’s where the big businesses are, where government is and where the money is. House prices there make it very hard for anyone established elsewhere to move to it without accepting long commutes or far smaller accommodation. Set against this, transport links are such that it often makes more sense to have a national meeting there, despite it being in the South East corner, than anywhere else, and this will only be increased when HS2 (specifically designed to save travel times to the capital) is completed. In the public library world, the DCMS (and hence the Taskforce), the British Library and ACE are of course based there, as is CILIP. However, there’s no real big public library there on the scale of the biggest regional libraries (such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham) due to the multiple number of London boroughs.

A wave of new appointments, is now going to concentrate power in the capital even more. The SCL, due to its previously tiny staffing, was not particularly London-centric but the decision has been made that it’s new expanded staff will be based there. This follows on from the interesting decision to base the person in charge for the single digital presence – surely a job which by its very nature could be handled largely by computer – in the British Library in London, amongst the most expensive real estate in the world. These appointments show the huge magnetic attraction of the capital and, to some extent, represent a pragmatic realisation a lot of the meetings and business is going to be conducted there. And also it needs to be remembered that the SCL is highly regional in nature, with its new President being from the North East and its current one from Manchester. However, the decision to place the posts there has necessarily barred many from applying and places the onus more than before on the new improved SCL to demonstrate that it is not becoming yet another London body but rather is still a local one to all the multi-distributed librarians throughout the country.

Changes by authority

More >

A time to think is a bit of a luxury in council library services

Editorial

East Sussex have confirmed the closure of several libraries. Well, that’s depressing. Let’s look at their record before the current unpleasantness:

  1. 2018: Confirmed seven libraries and mobile to be closed.(2) Refurbished Hastings Library reopens (3)
  2. 2017: Reopening of Hastings Library after refurbishment delayed until Spring 2018. (6) Eastbourne Library to incorporate parking warden office. (7) 7 (Langney, Pevensey Bay, Willingdon, Polegate, Ore, Mayfield, and Ringmer) may close. (9)  £720k overspend on Hastings Library (12)
  3. 2016:  £2m cut: opening hours cut by 25%. Pevensey Bay Library has been closed since January 2015 while “a full assessment of the building’s condition takes place.”(2)
  4. 2015: Official opening of Newhaven Library (opened in March). (3) Library opening hours to be reduced by around 25%: £500k p.a. cut. (12)

Hmm, Looks like Pevensey Bay has been doomed for a while but good to see Hastings was refurbished. More importantly to the point of this editorial, looking back to 2015/16, we see the previous cut/s – quite as serious one. And that’s the thing, there’s not just one cut. There’s a definite pattern in many, possibly most, library services of cuts every 2 or 3 years. Now, considering consultations take around six months, plus planning before that, and there’s a lot of work to do when closing libraries, that leaves almost no time for the poor East Sussex (or any other) management team to get proactive. Indeed, it must seem like they’re just managing cuts and decline their whole time. That’s no way to get out of the vicious circle. Now, compare that to Suffolk which seems to have broken the cycle, even building a new library. They’re in a far better position. Some of that may be down to chance, to local politics or geography and not just the fact that it’s a library trust. We don’t really know. However, it looks to me that library trusts are doing better than traditional council ones, and have broken out of the cuts repetitions to some extent. Whether that’s random chance or something more strategic going on can be a subject of argument, and is, but to me it’s highly suggestive that it’s a way out of the cycle, at least for the period of time that the council has agreed the budget for with the trust. But at least the term of that agreement gives them some time to think. Unlike poor East Sussex.

Changes

More >

Northants Council faces the wrath of librarians

Editorial

Good to see a new library being built and a refurbishment going on. It’s also good to see David Byrne (of Talking Heads) seriously bigging up libraries. And then we have the continued fiasco of Northamptonshire Council which has managed to get Conservative MPs openly speaking against it and Conservative councillors shouting that the other should resign on Twitter. Set against that, the official complaint put in by CILIP is probably the icing on the cake. You can imagine the realisation on the councillor faces how bad the situation is when they discovered even the librarians were protesting.

Changes

More >

The librarian in winter

Editorial – It’s the library users without gloves I worry about

The Guardian asked me to write a piece on my experience of working in public libraries in winter. Many thanks to those of you who have tweeted and shared it. I include it below for those others of you who may be interested. I wrote it from the heart.

“There are a lot more homeless people using libraries these days. They will come in and stay in for hours and hours. Those who are dressed warmly are doing comparatively OK, but I wonder what those without gloves will do after the library closes. I hope they have a homeless shelter or somewhere else warm. We do what we can to help – sometimes we’ll phone the council hotline to try and find somewhere for them to stay. Many are so grateful when something is arranged.

The great thing about libraries is that everyone can sit down and be part of our community. The homeless people that visit us will see families, the young and old and, hopefully, feel part of normal human life. That’s just as important as the books and computers we offer.

Inside my library, there are also a lot of people you’d probably think of as quite well-off: such as retired types in tweed jackets. We see more of them in cold snaps, because they often live in quite big houses that cost a fortune to keep warm. There’s no social stigma about reading a book or a newspaper in the library. The thing about public libraries is they’re warm and open to all without any barriers. There will be no funny looks from the staff. You don’t have to buy a cappuccino to hang out all day and no one asks you why you’re there. My library does not even ask for ID if you want a library card to go on a computer.

We have groups of old men who wait for the library to open, even in the snow, and are there almost all day. They’ve formed a sort of social club by themselves and I am glad they’ve found each other.

In my experience, people who work in libraries love talking to people. I certainly do. I enjoy helping people, hearing their life stories on the way, and seeing what they really need, rather than simply what they have asked for. A good librarian is an extrovert and we use that to talk and to help. I’ve had people come in for a book and leave with computer course details, or signed up for an event. They’ll often know the names of my children, and me theirs.

Come the evenings, we see the teenagers. Sadly, many have been turfed out of their homes by parents who don’t appear to care what their child is doing, even in the cold. You can tell it’s freezing when they don’t cause a fuss, just simply sit down and talk among themselves. We also get kids using the library for quiet study. That’s a rare thing in some homes. I like to think we’ve helped quite a few get to college or university. Libraries are a place of warmth in the community throughout the year, but that becomes quite literal during the winter. The idea of libraries no longer being here? That gives me the shivers.”

Changes

More >

Northants imploding plus the first ever SCL Chief Exec

Editorial

There are some similarities between the collapse of Carillion and what we’re seeing in Northamptonshire. Both darlings of the Right and pro-outsourcing, it turns out that they were both houses of cards, with shiny exteriors but rotten inside. The big payoffs of their bosses as they collapsed are exactly opposite to the shabby way they treated front-line employees. Northants hasn’t quite collapsed yet but unless they get a big handout to avoid government embarrassment it looks like it will soon. Lashing out in any way it can to cut spending, Northants has given just six months for 21 libraries to find a way for paying for themselves or close. They’ve also reduced opening hours of some libraries to just one day per week. It’s good to see CILIP kicking a stink up about this one and it’s the first real challenge for the new libraries minister, whose constituency is in the same county. However, Northants is a Conservative authority so don’t expect him to be too critical.

The first chief executive of the Society of Chief Librarians has just been announced – and, no, she’s not a librarian. She’s an archivist who has worked for the National Gallery then the MLA then ACE and then the National Archives. The SCL description ermphasises she worked to “address resilience, digital capacity and impact in the sector. Within the first year she secured nearly £1m external funding for the plan”. Well, resilience and funding are certainly things libraries need. So, welcome Isobel. Looking forward to seeing you get to work.

Changes

More >

Conservative Woman questions CILIP diversity … and why this may be a good thing

Editorial

I was interested to see Conservative Woman attack the CILIP Carnegie Awards for bearing in mind diversity. OK, be shocked if you like but I see that as a good thing for a couple of reasons. One is that the decision needs to be defended and explained and one imagines CILIP will do so and, hopefully, change a few minds in the process. Also, it at least raises the issues. And, hey, libraries are being noticed by Conservatives. But the main reason I like it is that the fairly reasoned tone of the article was a pleasure to read compared to see some of the stuff I read from the USA. We may not be proud of the UK overly but, my gosh, we’re a lot more tolerant than some across the pond. I see this regularly with US articles frequently attacking such things as, horror, libraries having books in Islam, Harry Potter and LGBT books or even transvestite storytimes. Seriously, some try to ban books over there for not being intolerant. And they don’t go in for reasoned debate either. They just go straight for “it’s evil” or “satanic” or “witchcraft”. You can’t argue with someone who’s screaming. And don’t get me started on their gun laws, which means openly carrying a handgun in a children’s library is apparently an inalienable right and questioning it would perhaps lead to tweeted death threats if I was in the US.

There’s no reasoned way to argue with any of that, which is why their political system, and their nation, appears to be so broken. At least, over here, for now, at least on such a thing as a children’s book, there can be differences of opinion. And libraries should always encourage that and allow for information and different views so people can make up their own minds. And, perhaps, change them on occasion.

Changes

More >

Aberdeenshire waste £370k while trying to save money.

Editorial

Some more good news today as new library opens in Meopham. In other news, we have Aberdeenshire spending £370k before deciding moving libraries/leisure centres into a separate trust would not save money and abandoning the idea. That’s an impressive amount of money to waste on saving money. At the other end of the country, Cornwall continue their plans of shifting library expenditure on to more local councils in Redruth. Effectively, the town council agrees to pay for the service but it remains in many ways still part of the county scheme. This model has to be very tempting for library providing councils – but perhaps not as desirable for the town councils who presumably have to raise their taxes to pay for it. Still, it’s a clever way of getting around tax caps on higher tier authorities. Finally, and I know I’m banging on about this but I like it, another library service (this time a big US city) considers getting rid of fines. Oh go on. Go on. Go on. Go on.

Changes

More >