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LibraryLab, Open+ and Melvyn Bragg

Editorial

It’s good to see the Carnegie Library Lab programme open for bids again. The scheme led to some notable excitement and creative thinking in a whole pile of public libraries last year and I hope the same happens again. Even if you don’t win the funding and support, the scheme gives library services a chance to think about initiatives and that’s worth a lot. If you win, then it’s a whole new ballgame and I envy you.

An initiative that needs no Carnegie funding I’ve been noticing a lot recently is libraries experimenting with the remote-controlled library technology that is Open+. So many in fact that there’s now a new PLN page keeping track of them all with 15 libraries listed over 8 authorities.

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It’s code green for everyone

Editorial

More news as promised today about the launch of Code Green and the Learning Offer from the Society of Chief Librarians.  Code Green does indeed look like a very useful resource and I am sure that it will be welcomed across the country. Ed Vaizey chose the occasion of the launch to welcome the efforts of library campaigners in fighting cuts to local libraries and also in volunteering in them. Some have questioned whether the minister in charge of libraries should be welcoming the efforts of others to protect libraries when that is in fact his job but far be it from to belabour that obvious point. His speech rewards careful reading, with a notable withdrawal from his previous stance that libraries were “thriving” and a move, noticed before, to see volunteers as an unalloyed good.

In other news, the normal pattern of cuts shows itself, but it’s interesting to point out another library authority using new technology to allow for unstaffed libraries (that is, not just no paid staff but no staff at all) and one more going for lone staffing. At this rate, volunteers will start worrying about their jobs.

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Libraries Unlimited

Editorial

More details on the transfer of Devon Library Sevices to a non-profit trust, a company limited by guarantee with charitable status.  It’s about to be voted through and will mean it joins Suffolk and York as England’s library non-profits.  What interests me most, though, is the name chosen – Libraries Unlimited South West. The first two words show laudable ambition, suggesting expansion of libraries into exciting new fields (like the Maker Space already in Exeter Library). Those last two words, though, suggest geographic ambitions outside of Devon and, as such, shows the company to be part of a new entrepreneurial breed of library service which looks for opportunities where it may.  This is in a similar manner to the start of GLL which, faced with limited incomes at home, look at economies of scale and opportunities both inside and outside its territorial bounds. It’s like the start of an old library consortia but on steroids and we’ll see if it is a flash in a pan or the shape of things to some soon. In a weird way it took the extreme financial situations libraries are now in to take the chains off libraries and allow them to do stuff like this. Whether that is a move to be welcomed or feared depends on one’s viewpoint and how things pan out. It is certainly a more encouraging move than simply sitting there and taking the cuts.  Well, at least if you’re one of the first to make the move, that is.

In other news, a very good digital making kit has been put online by the SCL: it’s part of an official national launch.  More details on that shortly.

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Middlesbrough play the community hub card

Editorial

So I’ve just read that Middlesbrough Council are going to call all their libraries but one “community hubs”. Now, ask anyone what a library is and they’ll tell you. People love libraries or at least have a strong mental image of what one is or should be. Ask the same people what a “community hub” is and you may get a lot of scratched heads.  It sounds, and is, like a management term and not one which has organically developed. “Community” sounds like a great positive word and “hub” is very 21st Century.   It’s a term that is used by people who think libraries are on the way out, don’t understand libraries anyway or who have lost touch with the public.  Sounds great in meetings though but why not just call it a community centre? It means exactly the same thing, word for word, as community hub.  The reason is people know what a community centre is while “hub” sounds just so much more now.  When those in charge of such a literate thing as a library start changing the words, you know there’s trouble. And the trouble too often is there is no money and, because of that, intrinsically non-money making things like libraries are now services non grata amongst bureaucrats who don’t care, or who don’t care enough.

The tragedy is that “library” is the strongest brand we have.  Libraries and librarians are trusted.  By changing the name of a thing you change the thing and, that is the hub, sorry, nub. With cuts being so deep, the stand-alone library is an increasingly rare beast because it’s never going to turn a profit.  Cafes don’t bring in the money, people don’t want just another shop and room hire alone is not going to pay the bills, certainly not if one has to pay for all these annoying books and public access computers anyway.  What stands a chance is co-locating all sorts of services from all the other agencies strapped for cash into one building and the library will lose space to them. Done right, there can actually be a lot of synergy in this, the library can be resurgent once more bringing together the whole into something greater than the parts.  Done wrong and you don’t have a library any more; you have just another untrusted council office that people only go to when they have to, plus a whole bunch of people looking (presumably) at their “community hub” cards and wondering what they can take out with them.

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There’s one mobile technology not doing so well

Editorial

Mobile libraries make the Independent today, who mourn the loss of all seven of them in Hertfordshire.  This is mirrored by the announcement from Hampshire that it too may lose its mobile library service.  My records tell me that Hampshire lost no less than 13 in 2011, lost more stops in 2012, and had 2 of the remaining 5 threatened last year so that’s a massive reduction from 18 to none.  Indeed, it looks very much like a long term strategy there to annihilate its mobiles, although more likely (as the famous phrase goes) it was just one thing following another.

The reasons put forward tend to focus on the cost per issue: driving a library to the user  has been known to cost far more per visit than a similar one to a library building In addition, the raison d’etre of mobile was to get to people who had no transport or access to information and councils argue that many now have cars and the internet.  Some librarians report anecdotally BMWs being driven to the mobile library stop or regular static library users commenting that they get their top ups from the mobile. Where none of this applies, councils are often at pains to increase their housebound service where staff (or more often volunteers) drop off books directly to the house.

However, that’s only one side of the story: councils have also been greatly reducing public transport (those buses cost) and so isolation is not something that is disappearing.  There’s some heart rending stories of regular users of mobile libraries now being left with no access to books at all and missing on their regular friendly chats (sometimes one of the few human interactions they have) with the mobile library staff. In addition, the library trend to reduce mobiles (the Independent reports numbers have dropped from 548 in the UK in 2009 to 362 in 2014) is hardly universal. Indeed, other authorities, as in Leicestershire, are looking to introduce more mobile library stops to replace closed branches. In such cases, it seems, the mobile or the smaller static library are in some sort of weird Darwinian competition as to which one survives.

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Investment in Hillingdon, Milton Keynes and Scotland

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All the library news that we know about

Editorial

Good news today about money for wifi from Arts Council England and there’s also an interesting piece or two on volunteer libraries as well as the normal mix of local, national and international news.  However, I am aware that this is not the whole story. Indeed, I sometimes get people asking me how come Public Libraries News doesn’t cover cuts in their authority, that affected a load of staff and has caused great problems. The answer is that, unless it makes the newspapers, I often don’t know about it. There is a ton of hollowing out going on in the UK that is below the surface and what an anonymous source from Leeds tells us today could be happening in a load of other authorities as well.

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When library branding fails

Editorial

We’re always told that library brands and marketing are important keys to the public library library service but we also need to make sure that they’re done right.  When Seattle announced a rebranding, full of management speak, the public there were unimpressed and have given it a resolute thumbs down, with the reputation of the library heavily damaged and the possibility of future budget increases reduced.  It is too easy for library staff, in our bubbles, to speak in terms that make sense to us in our world without remembering the people that really matter: the public … and forgetting that can be dangerous, as the US example shows. Marketing and promotion, like all library activities, should always start first with considering the user.

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Lincolnshire goes for campaigner’s wallets … and Dudley goes Mutual

Editorial

The decision by Lincolnshire Council to see if it can seek compensation from library campaigners for the failed legal action against them is one of the two key news items to me today.  The large amounts of money involved mean that, if the council does so decide, it would seriously dent the finances of those who sought legal action.  The results of this will inevitably mean that only clear-cut cases of council wrongdoing will only ever make it to court.  Few would be willing to risk their assets for an iffy legal argument to save their local library. That will make councils more gung ho in reducing library services and also, perhaps, more lax in adhering to their legal responsibilities.  Now the judicial review is out of the way, one can expect the DCMS to deliver its own verdict on if the council has met it’s statutory duty.  It will doubtless decide that it has done so,  What the thing is to look out for is if Mr Vaizey considers the reduced (core) council-run library service sufficient on its own to meet the definition of “comprehensive and efficient”. He has done so in every case so far so the legal status of volunteer libraries has never been brought into question.

The other thing that I noticed was the decision by Dudley to pass its libraries to an employee-led mutual, similar in style to Suffolk and York. Those two examples are seen as shining lights in recent library innovation, although the 30% “saving” that the council claims it will achieve because of it in Dudley looks, shall we say, slightly over-optimistic.

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Oxfordshire, Cornwall and, my goodness, it’s the Library of Birmingham again

Editorial

Oxfordshire has announced cuts of £1m per year to its libraries, with customer service staff being placed in libraries.  Meanwhile, in Cornwall, the council is aiming to pass as many of its libraries to the control of parish/town councils as possible, with other options in reserve if that doesn’t work. The saga in Birmingham continues with more money being spent on the new highly expensive Library of Birmingham in order to replace public space with class rooms for a language school.  This is intended to raise enough funds and staffing to allow the building, which greatly reduced opening hours barely a year after opening, to be open a bit more commensurate with its size and cost.

Also included today is more details on one of the winners of the CILIP PMLG Library Champions Awards: John sounds like a bit of a gem and Essex Libraries are rightly proud of him.

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