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Autism-friendly does not mean having a book on the subject on a shelf

Editorial

I remember the days when I thought that a dementia-and-autism-friendly library meant having a book on both subjects available for lending. Thankfully, with the help of dementia friends and autism-friendly libraries, those days have gone. Hopefully, all library staff will soon understand what the conditions mean and how to best serve those with them and that every library will have a social story to help their usage. However, it needs to be that everyone working in those buildings understands the training. The story of the security guard from the private company who expelled a parent reading loudly to his autistic daughter needs to become one of those shocking tales of how things were in the past, like workhouses. This also needs extending to volunteers. Speaking of which, last weekend marked the start of many North Yorkshire libraries becoming fully volunteer. What that means to the community, and to the staff who have had to see it happen, can only be guessed at but this heart-rending article in the Big Issue perhaps gives a clue.

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£150k for health and wellbeing from Carnegie and Wellcome

Editorial

It’s good to see some funding from Carnegie and Wellcome for public library projects being announced.  I’m pleased to see too that it is about health and wellbeing. The Taskforce are also keeping up their impressive article production by publishing a couple more posts, both of which may be useful if they have backing from the Minister. By the way, I’d also like to note that New South Wales has just invested the pro rata equivalent of £17m in their public libraries. That puts the rushed £3 million from the Government that’s just been doled out in perspective and, sadly, also the £150k from Carnegie/Wellcome. However, there’s some more time, at least, with these to do it right.  And, if you don’t have time, library services should start keeping a couple of ideas / bids (proto-bids?) to one side for next time. With any luck, more will come along. Although not as many as in Australlia.

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Big protests in Lambeth and Bath, and Billy “No-Mates” Dataset

Editorial

Some more fall-out from the release of the abbreviated mailing list, er, sorry, dataset of English public libraries today – no-one is impressed and, I mean, no-one – but also there were a couple of big protests this weekend in Lambeth and Bath. I know Bath, I worked as a library trainee there back in the 1990s. It’s not a hotbed of political discontent. To get a big protest there is going some. So, well done to Bath and North East Somerset Council, I guess,  for mishandling the situation so terribly that there was a sit-down protest involving hundreds in the town-centre there. Doing wonders for political activism there.

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The weirdly limited information world of public libraries

Editorial

The news is dominated by two releases from the DCMS / Libraries Taskforce. Both are useful, welcome and flawed.

The first set of releases are all about the process of moving library services away from direct council control and towards being non-profits. The libraries minister is clearly invested in this, as his video to a “masterclass” on the subject showed, and you can expect to see this as part of a concerted push to there being more library trusts in the future. There are case studies from library trusts who have gone through the process with fairly detailed guides on how to check if such a move would be good for the particular part of the country you are in. While honest and open, sadly, these reports would not be approved by a scientific journal as the writers of them are the trusts themselves, who would be foolish to criticise their own actions, not least because the four in question have now formed a service to sell their expertise on the subject to hopefuls. As such, one can only consider them as the “pro” part of any diligent survey on whether you should change to a trust. No-one, of course, is being encouraged or paid, to do the “con” part. Which is a shame because I actually quite like library trusts but I think all options need to be deeply looked at, and biases or gaps in the data (however unconscious) will not help clear decision-making.

Speaking of biases and gaps, the second set of releases is all about the much-heralded and delayed new “dataset” for English public libraries. The new file presents a list of all the library buildings reported by councils in July last year. It simply contains the name of the branch, address and contact email. This is the very minimum that one could expect and represents no improvement (other than an updating) over the last dataset released in 2012. Well, except that one covered all of the UK. There are strong hopes that this one, at least, will be updated and there are fairly ambitious plans to expand it into something more than a direct mailing list. However, it took ages (remember this data is nine months old) to get even this sorted and I imagine there are all sorts of strong local and national pressures to limit the release of anything, well, embarrassing … almost as if the decline of the library service due to budget cuts is somehow a secret. For any sector this is embarrassing, but for one which pretends to deal with information, this is bordering on the humiliating, as the image capture of the “no data” screen below shows. It’s not a pipe dream – the Netherlands has managed it but, as the Dutch discovered, it needs to be done over the protests of senior managers, be they public librarians (at least officially) dedicated to free information or their seniors, who may not like others really seeing how they’re doing.

Finally, thank you for all your kind comments about my previous post on the end of the tri-borough experiment and what it means to merging of library services.  LibrariesWest have quite rightly been in touch to point out they’re doing a very nice combined service in the South West, thank you, although not to the depth of the erstwhile London scheme.  For a list of all such partnerships I know about – see this nicely open and freely available list . Do you see how useful that is, library chiefs? Just think if all data was available that way. Think of the wonders that could be achieved. Stop thinking of worst case scenarios. Because you’re in one. Start thinking of ways out.

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Goodbye Tri-borough, but there’s a way different parties are still combining library services

Editorial

I’ve seen many people argue for the combining of library services across council boundaries in order to save money.  And, indeed, 151 library services just for England does seem a tad excessive. The Tri-borough (*deep breath*: Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster) has been held up as a great example of how this can work, with the three councils combining many different services, including libraries. Here’s an article from 2012 describing how well it was working. However, sadly, the BBC reports today that the partnership is ending in a divorce where the warring councils are each accusing the other of insincerity. So, why? Well, Hammersmith claims it was losing from the deal. Which may be true, but I suspect the real reason is that in 2014, Hammersmith became Labour controlled and the other two remained Conservative and it’s taken this long for it all to unravel. Imagine how much fun the councillor meetings between them must have been until they’ve finally now decided to go their separate ways.

Reality has a rich sense of irony sometimes as, on the same day, Bournemouth has confirmed it will combine its library services with Poole. Both councils are Conservative controlled so they may have a chance, for now. But I suggest buying the popcorn and settling down in a comfortable chair to watch if one of the two councils changes party control. However, I understand all of Dorset is looking to go unitary so that could solve that one.

So does that cast a shadow on combining library services? Well, there may be a way for councils of all stripes to happily share control. That magic partnering option is outsourcing.  The non-profit leisure trust GLL currently run Greenwich (Labour), Wandsworth (Conservative) and Lincolnshire (No overall control, Conservative leader) libraries, are doing things with combined gyms and libraries in Lambeth (Labour), will soon be taking over Dudley (No overall control, Labour leader) and are trying for Bromley (Conservative). That’s what I know of but I’m sure there’s more. I suspect GLL gain all sorts of economies of scale from this, and so in this age that weirdly combines localism and austerity, they may be the closest we have to combining library services. Albeit at one remove and almost by stealth.

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Philanthropy, Neil Gaiman and the rest of the library news

Editorial

I was interested to see the news from Birmingham today that the trust intended to seek philanthropic donations is being closed down. Turns out it’s costing more money that it was taking in, mainly because people are wary of simply paying for something cut by the council. It caught my eye especially as there was a recent CILIP piece on philanthropy that was largely in favour of it.  I’m wary of it myself. While, philanthropy is nothing new in the UK, as the many Carnegie libraries show, but it’s a lot less common here than it is in the US. Also, as Birmingham shows, it seems to be a case of success breeding success … so philanthropy may only accentuate the increasingly obvious divide between library services who are doing well and those who are cutting like no-one’s business. Moreover, the Government naturally loves it as philanthropy reduces their need to support the library service.  I suspect they call it “imaginative” and “innovative” quite often. While I welcome any money for libraries, I suspect (like volunteers) it’s no way to run an important national service and the key must be proper funding in the first place.

I tweeted this - Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) retweeted it. My Twitter feed has been going crazy ever since.

I tweeted this – Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) retweeted it. My Twitter feed has been going crazy ever since.

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Media mentions heatmap

This shows longer term trends in authorities than this post alone.  Only authorities with 6 or more are included. :

  • Lancashire (14, +2), North Yorkshire (9, +3), Plymouth (7, -1), Essex (6: largely positive), Lincolnshire (6, largely positive),

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And the prizewinners are: ACE innovation funding announced

Editorial

The library innovation funding has been awarded and announced.  It gives an idea of what libraries themselves consider innnovative and also what ACE is interested in funding. While there is a pleasing variety of grants given, none are entirely new ideas to me (with ideas mainly being copied from the USA), although some are probable firsts in the UK. The clear winning idea, probably to no-one’s surprise, is the currently fashionable makerspaces. One thing for sure is that we will know with a certainty after two years or so whether makerspaces in libraries will be a success or not.  I have a concern that, like code clubs, they will be popular and look good but do not tie in entirely comfortably with the core role of public libraries. It may be that by moving libraries into a more active teaching role with things like FabLabs rather than traditionally more passive/assisting provision library services will be energised and revolutionised. Or it may be that they become time sinks and a distraction from the more important work public libraries provide. At least now, well. we’ll find out, as it is the purpose of this innovation funding in the first place.

Of the other ideas, the one that strikes me as the most innovative is providing free meals to children over the summer holidays in Plymouth: this has been successfully practiced in the US for years and it will be interesting to see how it goes here. There’s also the promise of this as being part of having public libraries as the third space for children away from school and the home: a natural area for the sector that could do with developing. Sadly, though, I am seeing nothing on something I was really hoping for. This was promoting library services, which has long been one of the key weaknesses of the sector. £200k less for the seven different varieties of maker space and £200k for a publicity campaign could have made a massive difference, but it may be no bid was made for that.

Finally, it’s worth noting the tough line that GLL are taking in Lincolnshire with those with fines over £20. They’re not alone in doing so and it shows that many library services are increasingly having to get very tough on charges/costs in order to keep library services running.  It’s a shame though that we’re reduced to this in the UK while the tide in the USA appears to be turning towards not charging fines at all.

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A wondrous thing to behold: the simple reason for public libraries everywhere

Editorial

I was asked a few questions recently about the role of public libraries: I thought I’d share with you some of my response:

The purpose of the public library has not changed since their inception. It is to provide equality of access to information. In the past, this has been almost entirely in physical forms and so building based. We are currently in the process of providing equality of access in digital forms for use anywhere.

Libraries can aid social mobility by continuing to provide equality of access to information, which is now more a key to social mobility than ever before. The ideal is for the public library to provide anyone, regardless of location, background and ability to pay, with an equal playing field with those who can afford to pay. This not only includes books and e-books but also access to e-resources and to a quiet place to study (not always available in homes) and computer/wifi access. There is also a role for libraries to give basic training to those who need it on how to access these resources.

Libraries should embrace change by remembering what their core purpose is and by publicising that to others. There is a danger that libraries can be distracted by fashion (and you’ll know it when you see it) and spend time on those better suited to concentrating on providing and being ambassadors for the core service.

Because, we can get caught up in all long and convoluted ways of expressing what libraries are for and, in doing so, get confused about what we should be doing. But, in the end, it’s simple. It’s “Providing Equality Of Access To Information”. What’s complicated,is how best to do it. But, when it’s done right, it’s a wondrous thing to behold.

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Will US Libraries be Trumped?

Editorial

I was sorry, but unsurprised, to see President Trump – a philistine politician if ever there was one – taking an axe to the US federal budget for libraries last week. US public libraries have, at least to my UK shell-shocked eyes, been experiencing something of a golden age, with usage up and exciting new initiatives being started, often copied a couple of years later by ourselves. There are hopeful signs that this can continue, as American libraries are more independent than their British counterparts (they can complain and lobby for extra funds for instance) and they also have a, gosh, lobbying group. Librarians there also appear to be more militant and vocal. We can hope that this will save them.

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Media mentions heatmap

This shows longer term trends in authorities than this post alone.  Only authorities with 6 or more are included. :

  • Lancashire (12, +6), Plymouth (8, -2), Bath and North East Somerset (7, -2), Liverpool (7). Manchester (7, – 1: this is all positive news), Bradford (6). North Yorkshire (6). ).

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A prize for promoting reading in libraries: now there’s an idea

Editorial

I’m loving the £5k prize – just for Gloucestershire libraries, sorry everyone else – for the library which best promotes reading.  That’s got to be concentrating minds in that county, although the fact that Weakest Link judge Anne Robinson is judging entries may scare one or two off. Reader development was also exercising the minds of the Society of Chief Librarians, who have produced a useful report on what is currently happening (although there’s some fairly obvious problems with its evidence base and methodology – see if you can spot them – librarians just aren’t scientists and, to be fair, the research has been done on a shoestring) and have produced some recommendations.  Sadly, none of them include in annual prize of £5k for each library service in the country but I want it to be known that if anyone does stump up that cash, I’m willing to be a judge.  Gosh, what a great way to push motivation and share best practice.

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