Search results for hollowing out

The public libraries news divide

Editorial

There’s a strong divide in interpreting news about public libraries. On the one side, we have campaigners who tend to emphasise the negatives (hollowing out and closures) while on the other side we have organisations such as the Task Force who stress the positives. One point of view is angry at the reductions to library service and sees this as the important point to get across to mobilise public opinion. The other fears that such an approach misses out on positives and could give cuts to public libraries a feeling of inevitability. There’s fears I have heard many times  that emphasising the negatives means that people think that public libraries are tainted as doomed. Similarly, campaigners see the devastation going on and are outraged if asked to play it down. It’s hard to see how both sides can agree and, often, they don’t. Which is a shame because they’re actually, in many ways, otherwise mainly on the same side. Such slants can lead to disconnects like the one noted by the Private Eye below where it’s noticed the Task Force (and they’re hardly alone) use euphemisms for cuts.

I try to include both sides, the negative and the positive. I didn’t used to: to my shame, I tended only to include bad news (well, there was such a lot of it) for the first couple of years of PLN.  I did everyone, including myself, a disservice for doing so. In some ways I’m still with the campaigners (for instance, I use the term “cuts” and call volunteer libraries, well, volunteer libraries) but in others I will defend the Taskforce and others if they’re doing good work. I’ve even been known to defend the odd library closure. This can lead to situations where I’m criticised privately (and sometimes not so privately) by both sides for bias, on one memorable occasion for the same editorial. Well, at least I now know what the BBC feels like. What I’m trying to say to all of you is, public libraries should be the most neutral of places but news about them is often biased. Make up your mind based on the verifiable facts and who’s reporting it. As all public librarians should do in their work.

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Honours and the year in review

Editorial

It was lovely to see two library people receiving honours. Ciara Eastell, head of Devon non-profit Libraries Unlimited and past president of the Society of Chief Librarians – who coincidentally I went to library school with (Sheffield, class of 93-4) – and Desmond Clarke, ex publishing boss and now national library campaigner. Both have done what they can for public libraries.  I was less happy to see the ex-boss of Warrington Livewire, which is currently devastating its libraries, also receive an honour.

Normally at this time of year I would do a post on the major trends in public libraries in the last year but I see Leon has beaten me to it.  I recommend it to you.  The only things I would add to it are Open+/remote-controlled libraries, which are really taking off this year, for better or for worse and the rise of parish/town councils paying for libraries, often by raising their parish rates.  This last represents a possible ray of hope for libraries as parish/town councils are not limited in the same way in raising council tax than larger councils. I can foresee hundreds of libraries moving from the county/borough councils to smaller, more atomised, local authorities in order to take advantage of this and it represents a get-out clause for the Government which is otherwise tied to austerity and localism.

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Why some libraries should close … but some others definitely should not

Editorial

In an interesting piece, the chief executive of the Tinder Foundation – which is deeply involved with libraries – suggests that some libraries should close if they are not doing a good job at being community hubs. I’m going to doubtless cause shock and heart attacks from some of the readership of this blog (so if you’re of a nervous disposition, look away now) by agreeing to some extent.  Some libraries are in the wrong place or are too little used. Times change, places change and library provision should change too.

However – and you just knew that was coming – there is a world of difference between such cases and those libraries which are only not fulfilling a vital role in their community due to progressive hollowing out over the years. Just have a read of the shameful case of Birmingham’s Sutton Coldfield Library described below by a user who emailed me its story. Or have a look at the repeated deep cuts to the book-fund of Warrington’s libraries that is now being used by the trust running them, LiveWire, to justify closing them rather than seek equal cuts to other services it provides. Many libraries which are fighting closure, or are looking worriedly at their usage figures, are that way due to have successive cuts to their funding, to their staffing, to their maintenance, to book-fund or to their opening hours.  In such cases, the guilty party is most definitely not the library and they should be supported to the hilt.

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  • Bookbenches – to encourage reading and library presence in towns.

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The first letter: New Libraries Minister speaks

Editorial

The new libraries minister has spoken, showing an interest in the field and an awareness of the Taskforce, amongst other things. He points out that his interest in volunteering has a bearing in libraries, which will be seen as a bad omen by many (especially paid staff) but he does single out young volunteers, which suggests he’s thinking more in terms of Reading Hacks.  It’s a good thing he has already had at least one meeting with public libraries people, anyway.

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Waiting for things to happen

Editorial

I’m doing a talk on the challenges facing UK public libraries to a Unison library seminar on Monday (6th) and the presentation is below if you want an idea of what I think are (some) of the main points. The day is looking at how we should campaign for libraries and my talk is an introductory scene setter, giving the challenges but carefully not giving any ideas on solutions. This is just as well because there’s an awful lot of confusion about what a “solution” to the current crisis in public libraries may be. The Taskforce is emphasising pragmatism and strategic development and are being strongly criticised for taking too long about it and not being ambitious enough by campaigners. Many councils are deciding on budgets that force library chiefs to looks at hollowing out, volunteers or commercial support to meet the cuts and are, again, strongly criticised for doing so by campaigners. On the other foot, many people in senior library positions, I am sure, would criticise campaigners for wanting a minimum of change and special pleading for the libraries sector or solutions that it is unlikely the current Government would ever agree to. Observers take all sorts of positions, from thinking libraries are no longer needed to being passionately in favour of libraries.

I’m not sure where I am in this – after all, I’m an observer, library manager and campaigner all in one – but I do know that the more we do not move forward, the more the real creators of all this mess are smiling or, more accurately, carrying on blissfully unaware. As long as the politicians (sadly, still, of both main parties, although notable far less so under Corbyn)  in London believe in austerity and fail to understand the central importance of libraries to communities, to education, welfare, equality and, ultimately, the success of the nation then little arguments don’t matter. We need clear big strong arguments, memorable statements and images and unified campaigns to get this done. Or perhaps that’s just me going for special pleading. But something needs doing, together, by all of us. And I’m waiting, as an observer, manager and campaigner, for this to happen.

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Ambition, volunteer toolkits and a media blitz

Editorial

I’ve been wanting a national libraries development agency for England for a while but, sometimes, you don’t notice something obvious until it’s slapping you in the face.  From the “Ambition” document just releases, it looks like the Libraries Taskforce is such an agency, although far more dependent on other agencies and shorter on money than I was thinking of. The “Ambition” documents is full of concrete and relevant proposals – such as universal child library membership and every authority doing the summer reading challenge – with timescales and suggestions of how to get them done.  The problem is, of course, as the report itself recognises “To successfully achieve all these purposes, we need to ensure that the public library network in England is secured on a long-term sustainable footing.”. That is going to be the challenge and that is the ambition. All else is just wishes on the wind. But at least there a wish list now.

Released at the same time is a second version of the good practice toolkit for “community libraries”.  The Taskforce would have lost a lot of street cred with campaigners just by calling volunteer libraries that, as “community libraries” pretty much summed up paid branches at one point in what seems now a golden past.  It also got some criticism by seeming to be a simple “So you want to make your staff voluntarily redundant” guide, with all of the benefits listed and not much else. However, look at those “considerations” it lists: those are cons, it’s just that they couldn’t bring themselves to say it, being trained to be positive about everything.  The case studies included – sadly with one propagandistic management-speak exception (you know who you are) – are useful and open, pointing out the difficulties.  The big thing I noticed is that these libraries need ten to twenty times the paid full-time-equivalent staffing to keep them running, and there’s no real answer to long-term funding. Well, that’s two massive nightmares right there. But it’s good to have most of the issues out in the open and at least councils, and users, can get an idea of what is happening now rather than scraping around and coming up with their own risk-laden approaches.

Finally, I’ve been fielding a lot of BBC media enquiries the last few days about public libraries. Trust me, if I’d have said yes to half of them, even I’d have been sick of me – but, thankfully for all of us, I need to work so couldn’t do them. Thankfully, there’s a full on Avengers-style bunch of library advocates out there nowadays who have also been asked: I’m looking forward to hearing what Nick Poole, Alan Gibbons, Laura Swaffield, Lauren Smith and Phil Bradley, amongst others, will say.  This is all about a big, serious, fully-researched BBC report on the real numbers of libraries closed, staff made redundant and budgets cut since 2010. I helped out a little with it and I’m really hopeful it will help put the pressure on the minister to do something.  Perhaps even a fully resourced national libraries development agency.

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Lancashire, Lambeth, CIPFA, Orkney and JK Rowling

Editorial

Big protests in Lancashire and Lambeth against library cuts have taken place, with the London one benefitting from the prevalence of celebrities that live in or near the capital. The situation in Lancashire is worsening, with several branches having temporary reduced hours due to shortages of staff.  Hollowing out what used to be one of the best library services in the country is clearly continuing apace. No less than 40 of its branches (one fifth of all libraries places under threat in the last year) will soon turn volunteer or close.

The DCMS reply to queries over the number of libraries being under threat was very interesting. Basically, because CIPFA only asks for the number of service points each library authority has open, the argument is that one cannot tell how many have closed.  So, if there are 4000 branches one year and 3900 the next, one can’t say definitively that 100 have closed.  It’s possible that one (or five or ten) new library has come online meaning the figure could be 101 (or 106 or 111) have closed, therefore one cannot – the argument seems to go – use the CIPFA figures. It’s an interesting argument and one that shows the weakness in the CIPFA figures and has, of course, nothing to do with a political desire to underplay what is happening.  A better way needs to be made to keep count.

Finally, a beautiful story from Orkney Libraries, whose award-winning Twitter account was responsible for JK Rowling travelling there to attend a reading group. Major credit to the Orkney Twitterer and also, of course, to the wonderful JK Rowling.  Watch out, incidentally, for the new book “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” – it’s slated as coming in as adult non-fiction, which is unlikely to be where users will look for it on the shelves.

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Closures, cuts, a new library, more e-books, LibraryLabs … and a SCL tender

Editorial

Scotland faces its deepest cuts to public libraries since at least 2010 (when I started PLN) with the confirmed closure of 16 libraries to “save” £500,000 per year. Recent research from Canada, also below, suggests that the cut will reduce the local economy there by £2.5 million per year. In other Scottish cuts, Falkirk are cutting a similar amount to Fife by hollowing out libraries.  South of the border, East Sussex are suggesting a deep 25% cut in opening hours for that same, seemingly magic, £500k per year figure. More details from Croydon suggest up to 9 libraries are under threat, although this time the annual budget reduction is a “mere” £217k. On the positive side of the ledger, Wolfson Foundation have given £250k (not annually alas) to beef up some children’s library in cash-strapped Birmingham and Derbyshire have opened a new library, boasting a health and wellbeing zone, no less, in Heanor.

In the broader picture, Penguin Random House have announced all of their 23,500 ebooks are available for libraries to lend, as long as they’re willing to pay.  What will be charged is something I’ve not had time to check out yet.

The Society of Chief Librarians have put out a £8,500 tender today for someone to work out how to share best practice in public libraries. Hang on, I thought that was me, but if you do have any other ideas (and I’ll just mention SharePointFacebook groups and/or Moderated Forums here) then do let the SCL know before 20th December.

Finally, I’m very pleased to have Aude Charillon writing about her experience of being a Carnegie UK LibraryLab innovator over the last year. I know that many authorities are already thinking hard about their entries so innovation is still thriving, despite the best that councils like Fife, Falkirk and East Sussex throw against it.

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A LibraryLab winner writes

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Google Digital Garage, getting rid of fines + big cuts on the horizon in Bradford, Croydon and Swindon

Editorial

There’s a lot in this post.  There’s two short articles for a start: I have a quick look at the Google Digital Garage at Manchester Central Library and also give a guest spot to a library technology company to speak about the implications of the 3M/Bibliotheca merger.

I’d also like to point out the fascinating experiment in Fife where late fees have been abolished on the same day as a non-profit trust takes over.  Library fines have always been an integral part of public library culture but I’ve noticed a fair few US library services getting rid of them and now it is happening in the UK.  The argument is that you gain more in increased usage, better public relations and (counter-intuitively)  late books now returned as people had previously been too afraid of the charges.  It’s a risky and gutsy move, and it may blow up in their faces or just be opening PR,  but how great it would be if it not charging made libraries more money. It would certainly make he service more open and inclusive. For more on library fines, fines recovery and the underpinning ideas behind charging and not charging, see this page.

Then there’s the, what feels like, standard bits of bad news for English libraries. Bradford, Croydon and Swindon are all announcing pretty big (even for these days) cuts to service, with the ones in Croydon and Swindon being potentially utterly devastating. There’s also a smaller, but still significant, cut in Worcestershire. Then there’s the next instalment in the ongoing Lincolnshire saga, with the council – after fighting it tooth an and nail for years – finally accepting non-profit trust GLL taking over its remaining council-run libraries and hoping for further cuts (£500k is mentioned) in return. I suspect I’ll be covering that county for years more in PLN.

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The perils of a discretionary service and localism

Editorial

Tim Coates has just sent me some figures from the most recent CIPFA library statistics.  They show a lot of trends that one working in libraries can well believe: the first being the drastic drop in usage.  Since 1997, we have seen a halving in book borrowing and a reduction of a third in the number of library visits. In the same time we have also seen the loss of two-fifths of professionally qualified staff (only two-fifths?) and a lost of a fifth of total staff. E-books are starting to make an appearance but are still at pathetically small levels, with total number of borrows being the same as New Zealand, which has one-twelfth of our population.

So which came first the reductions in usage or the reductions in budgets? Tim disagrees with me and argues that budgets haven’t been much shrunk (he entirely disregards inflation) but everything I know, experience and has been told ties in with my view that the money has been cut by around a third over the last parliament. That alone could count for much of the reduction, as experience from the USA, Australia and New Zealand suggests usage is, unsurprisingly, far more buoyant in areas where spending has been protected.  The problem with libraries, you see, is we cannot force people to use them – they’re a discretionary service and if people see the buildings looking tatty, with harried staff and not many books, well, they’re going to walk away.  So a vicious circle is created.

But there is more to it than that. The cuts in budget are masking and distracting library services and politicians from the massive change in people’s reading habits. Moreover, the fact that UK libraries are still experiencing such cuts in usage even in a time of recession when people should be wanting to use the free public library service more is as clear a pointer as anything that something is going on over and above cuts in investment.  Technology is changing how people view libraries and, there, again, the UK library service is suffering more than elsewhere  … because it takes pro-active planning and investment to transform a library service to what is more in keeping with today and such things are in short supply where all councils are doing is working out what to cut next.

We can hope that the Sieghart Report (come on Mr Vaizey, you’ve paid for it, you publish it) can give a new impetus to providing that transformation because, left to themselves, 151 English library authorities are just not going to be up to the task.  Like it or not, the current mantra of localism is inadequate for this task.  We need national direction and we need it now.

CIPFA facts at a glance

With thanks to Tim Coates who has crunched the numbers. My thoughts are in italics.

  • Since 1997 the number of books available for lending has gone down by 20m from 92m. Overall book lending in public libraries has gone down by 49% since 1997
  • The number of people using libraries to borrow books has halved since 1997
  • The number of library visits has gone down by 33% since 1997
  • The numbers of copies of e-books held in libraries in 2014 are England 526k; Wales 204k ; Scotland 60k; N Ireland 21k This is the same as New Zealand, which has one-twelfth the population.
  • The number of ebooks loaned in 2013/14 as a portion of total book lending is England 0.86%; Wales 1.54%; Scotland 1.70%; N Ireland 0.71%
  • The number of libraries open 10 hours or more has fallen since 1997 by 9.8%. There are 4,282 library public services of all kinds in the UK of which 101 are reported as being not managed by their local council (2.4%)These are surprisingly low figures and suggest that not all volunteer libraries are reported as such by councils (my figures count far more, and are linked).
  • 48% of libraries in the UK offer wifi. This is a shockingly low figure at a time where even bakers offer it.
  • Capital Expenditure on public libraries in 2013/14 was the highest ever at £163m. If one takes inflation into account, it is not the highest – that was £161m in 2009/10.  I also imagine a lot of this expenditure was to convert libraries to self-service or to install other services such as One Stop Shops.
  • Council annual expenditure on library operations fell in 2013/14 by 2.8% to £940m (it was £967m in 2012/13). Inflation was 3% so the real fall was 5.8% if one takes that into account.  Again, if inflation is taken at full face value, combined expenditure on libraries has fallen by a full third (33%) since its peak in 2005/6. See the figures using the Bank of England calculator.
  • Expenditure on books (including ebooks and digital content) fell 14% to £77.6m, which is its lowest level for 20 years. It is 7.6% of library spend.
  • There has been a sharp rise in property costs from 11.9% of expenditure to 13.5% in two years.  It’s hard to see this as anything other than a budget grab by central council departments.
  • In 2014 There are 19,307 paid staff of whom 3,106 are qualified professional. There are 35,813 (full time equivalent) volunteers. In 2007 there were 25,769 paid staff of whom 5,298 were qualified professional and there were 13,417 (full time equivalent) volunteers.  This means that there has been a cut by a fifth of all paid staff in seven years, rising to two-fifths of professionally qualified staff.  Volunteers have almost tripled in the same period.

“The real concern must be the marked decline over several years, especially in England, in library usage and borrowing.  That is the urgent issue that the DCMS, Arts Council England and the professional bodies need to properly understand and take urgent action.” Desmond Clarke

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