Sunday 17 February 2013

The Myth of the 21st Century Library - Part 2

I've been asked by someone who has read, yes someone has read it, my original post to talk about changes that i would make to the Public Library service.
The answer to this lies in the practical problems I outlined in my original piece, lack of leadership/bad management, underinvestment, poor training/staff development/opportunities and two bigger more complex factors that to me underpin the whole discussion 'ethos' and 'community involvement' by which i don't mean volunteer run libraries!

The underinvestment issue to me is the hardest one to address and apart from a change in government to one who truly believes in taxing the rich to fund Public services I don't see an easy way around this. The way out of this quandary certainly isn't in my mind commercialism and private finance, this to me only detracts from the ethos and community involvement argument! So maybe we need to go back to basics on this one and look at what we are currently spending money on and if it could be spent better on things that the public actually need and want, such as books (ebooks included, although I'm still not totally convinced by this in relation to extent), local, welcoming and accessible branch libraries, properly trained paid staff and freely available quality IT provision, invest in these four key areas and to me you can't go far wrong! Overdiversification and the building of new PFI city centre libraries has not only taken our collective eye of the ball but also has diverted valuable resources into irrelevant and unnecessary sidelines and press friendly 'good news' stories for local and national politicians! Yes some will argue that the public want DVDs, coffee shops and a myriad of other diversions but we are not just another leisure option and shouldn't be competing in this market and shouldn't be building new libraries on a finance scheme akin to a credit card!

Leading on from this is my bigger concern that we as a service/profession have lost our sense of ethos, why and who are we here for? Most of us, apart from a few Directors and Heads of Service, are not in it for the money, so why do we do it? Is it just another 9-5 (or 9-8 in some cases or longer) job where we just go through the motions and then go home, if it is then you really should question your involvement! Is it just another career option, something to put on your CV, something that allows you to network and climb up the ladder? What it should be, in my opinion, is a public duty, a job that has at it's core a belief in social equity and fairness!

So in practical terms how do we reclaim this 'ethos' well to me it not only requires a total shift away from the market/retail led agenda prevalent in library management and service delivery but a re-examination of how we do things.

Let's start with recruitment, how many library job ads do you see that start with
"Do you believe in a local communities right to empowerment and self sufficiency? Do you want to work with them to achieve this goal?"
this might be a start and then have questions in the interview itself about books, reading, learning, information and community involvement. I would also as a part of the induction process take new staff on a tour of the local community and would have a session/discussion focussing on local socio-economic data and how to utilise it when planning service delivery.

With staff training the first thing i would do is bring everything back in-house, i would tap into the knowledge and experience already in the service rather than spending valuable cash on consultants and lean management gurus! In this way good practise and problem solving could more easily be shared and it might also help to break down the hierarchies that exist and to make staff feel that they have 'ownership' of the service and foster a sense of pride?

And last but most importantly i would actively encourage the forging of links with the local community by encouraging the setting up of Friends Groups, by 'embedding' library staff in community groups and organisations, by increasing visits to schools, nurseries, care homes etc., by holding regular meaningful consultations/surveys (not the sham ones we have become so used to!) and by publicising outcomes and actions for public scrutiny. These links with the community would hopefully help to foster a feeling of mutual respect and pride in the service which would not only help to develop it but would make it harder for politicians to cut it!

Anyway there you are simples!

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