Saturday, 2 November 2013

My Comments to Dan Jarvis on the Labour policy review on libraries

 
I submitted these comments to Dan in July 2013, and had already fed into his policy review process through speaking to one of his advisers nearly 2 years ago. My comments where never published as promised on http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/agenda-2015/policy-review/libraries-innovation-co-location-and-partnership and now Dan is in Justice and Helen Goodman has got the 'culture' portfolio.


Dan,



Here are my comments re your policy review into public libraries;



The first thing to say is that your vision for libraries is not dissimilar to the one being pushed by the government, it also wants to co-locate and share services although Miller, Vaizey and Ezra don't really offer leadership or share any good practise on how to achieve this, although personally I'm not convinced that co-location and sharing services are the best way forward as I believe this approach can lead to dilution of the core offer, the loss of specialist staff and the creation of bigger services that are less responsive to the needs of local communities.


There are several points however that we agree on and they are;

"The contribution of librarians is often greatly under-valued." - I would agree with this but would widen it to say that the contribution of all library staff is greatly under-valued, in fact in many cases library services are run on a day to day basis by library assistants, with some services such as Waltham Forest, Newham and Barnet having no or very few professional librarians, however this process of de-professionalisation can have an effect on the quality of the service, plays into the hands of those who claim that anyone can do the job, and can undermine the profession and the service and make it easier to replace paid staff with volunteers. There needs to be a clearer career path for library staff as many get stuck on lower grades which ultimately can have an effect on morale and motivation.

For an idea of what library staff do see
http://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/what-do-public-librarians-and-library-staff-do/

You also refer to "the loss of hundreds of librarians" but the figures for the total staff lost are anywhere between 2000-3000+. (
http://www.cilip.org.uk/get-involved/policy/Documents/CILIP_Public_library_survey_2011-2012_Eye_of_the_storm.pdf)


"there is a good case for a dedicated body" - I totally agree, the current state of affairs with its 'distributive leadership' model doesn't provide the sector with the strong and effective leadership and advocacy it desperately needs, with Vaizey, Miller and the DCMS shirking their supervisory responsibility and refusing to intervene in the wholesale divestment and destruction of the service in such places as Doncaster, the Isle of Wight, Sunderland, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire and many, many more.

As for ACE, it appears to be out of its depth and is severely under resourced and underfunded and there where grave doubts from the start as to whether it should have been given the development responsibility for a major public service. It has also spent the last 12-14 months on the 'Envisioning' research project which recently culminated in a 12 page report that states 4 obvious priorities and is seen by many to have been a complete waste of time and effort.

The SCL appear to be frustrated by their own lack of power and influence, but have at least recently launched the 'universal offer', although this is seen by many to be too little too late and unrealistic in the current climate of 'hollowing out' and have started a dialogue with campaigners in an apparent bid to be seen to be more transparent.


So yes we desperately need a 'body' to have an overview and to plot a positive way forward, but who this should be is another question, I personally don't think it should be ACE as they haven't, in my opinion, got the gravitas, experience, resources and knowledge required, although they have just appointed Brian Ashley as their Libraries Director, albeit part time! The Reading Agency has been mentioned before but I also have doubts about them taking over the responsibility for a major public service although the link with literacy is an obvious one. I would have suggested the DfE or DCLG but the thought of letting Gove and Pickles loose on libraries doesn't bare thinking off! An advisory board made up of representatives from the profession (including those on the front line), users, unions, policy makers and portfolio holders would be my idea of a more democratic and accountable body that could look at the situation from different angles/viewpoints.



"Developing ways in which libraries can engage with local communities to ensure they are responsive to their needs"

This is what local libraries have been doing for years and this is what library staff do every day but yes there is room for improvement. Community outreach is key to any truly responsive library service, the problem is that many outreach programmes are being abandoned due to the cuts and the loss of library staff means that the day to day interaction with users is also being eroded, many users can now only interact with a self-serve kiosk! Library staff should be more embedded in the community but with less and less staff it's going to become harder and harder to achieve.

Community consultation is also very important but many community members now have a very poor opinion of this process due to the amount of sham consultations that have taken place that basically offer the public the choice of cuts or cuts. Harrow for example held a library consultation in 2011 in which 74% of those consulted said that they didn't want their service privatised but they still went ahead and did it.

Library services are doing some very good work utilising social media in order to engage with users and the wider community but unfortunately we have a 'digital divide' and this method will only reach a certain tech-savvy part of any community.

What "engaging with local communities" shouldn't mean is holding a gun to their heads and saying "run your local library or we'll close it", I can understand the passion and commitment that communities have for their libraries but this is ultimately going to lead to a fragmented, unsustainable, de-professionalised, postcode lottery of a service! Community members have a role to play in assisting library staff but not substituting them.



"Libraries in an increasingly digital world"



"Libraries provide (in most cases) free access, skilled support and can often provide a certain degree of 'training' for those who simply do not have the skills or confidence to navigate the internet.  They are, therefore, crucial in encouraging people online and moving the country towards universal digitisation."
http://infoism.co.uk/2012/11/universal-digitisation-the-infrastructure-is-there-its-just-being-dismantled/



The e-gov agenda and the change to online 'universal credits' makes fully funded and resourced libraries and trained, paid, knowledgeable library staff more important than ever, unfortunately libraries are being closed, divested or handed over to volunteers, library staff are being made redundant and the service itself is becoming more and more fragmented and de-professionalised. see
https://www.unison.org.uk/upload/sharepoint/On%20line%20Catalogue/21589.pdf

The SCL through the PLIO is seeking to address some of the problems highlighted above and seeks to try and position libraries in a more prominent position in relation to the public's information needs but although this initiative is seen by many to be a positive one it's also considered by many to be too little too late. Between 2000-3000+ library staff have lost their jobs and 300-600+ libraries have closed or been taken out of public control so if you happen to live an area where your library has been closed or handed over to volunteers then your chances of getting online or receiving assistance are drastically reduced. See
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/13/internet-age-still-need-libraries


There are several points that we disagree on and they are;
 

"co-location and the sharing of back office functions"

I have grave concerns that by co-locating library services with other council functions you actually run the risk of diluting the core library offer, you sometimes also end up with less library space. The 'hub' principle is one that has become very popular in local government circles and I can see why it saves money and disused building can be flogged off but at what qualitative cost to the service?

Also your faith in co-location and the 'hub' model is not universally shared by the communities that see their local libraries being pushed down this route, Save Wolverhampton Libraries Campaign for example fought a long and spirited battle against their councils proposals to co-locate youth, library and community services under one roof.



"A good example of the Council 'not closing libraries' is

Tettenhall Wood Library-once a loved a popular

facility serving its local community.

Where is it now?

It hasn't 'closed'; instead, it has been turned into

5 bookcases up a corner of a room in a community

centre. Under the Community Hubs proposals libraries

WILL close and their replacements will not

deliver the same service either regards floor space

, book stock or librarians."
http://savewolverhamptonlibraries.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/community-hubs-mythbuster.pdf



and more recently the Save Leigh Library Campaign have been protesting against their council's 'hub' proposals.


My concerns also extend to the concept of 'sharing back office functions', this almost always leads to job cuts and the loss of specialists such as cataloguers, acquisitions staff and all the others who work in the background to provide support for the service, support that contributes to the integrity and quality of the service provision. I can understand why many policy makers and some campaigners push for this in order to protect the front line but surely we should be concerned about the quality of service and not just about keeping the doors open? We've already in Public Libraries lost a lot of the control we once had over stock buying and selection and many in the profession feel that this has led to the 'dumbing down' of our collections especially if there are no, or fewer, cataloguers or specialist staff overseeing the process. see my post on this
http://dontprivatiselibraries.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/is-smartsm-really-smart-without.html


and for concerns about 'shared services' see;

http://www.unison-scotland.org.uk/revitalise/sharedservicesleaflet.pdf
http://www.unison.org.uk/at-work/education-services/key-issues/shared-services/the-facts/
http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=18690



You also mention businesses running services within libraries, in my view this a very problematic route to go down. Libraries are, or should be, safe, trusted, non-commercialised and relatively neutral public spaces, they are public services and as such shouldn't be opened up to the market or compromised by commercial interests. They also shouldn't be outsourced or privatised as has unfortunately happened in many councils, the majority Labour controlled!

My view is that we should go back to basics and focus resources on books (+ebooks), paid and trained staff, local accessible libraries and IT. I would also suggest that we could save money by, as far as possible. not hiring consultants and using the knowledge and experience within the service itself, we could also look at doing the same for staff training. The sharing of good practise between services could also mean that we would could have access to a network and pool of expertise that would cost nothing to utilise. We could also save money by not building multi-million pound, town centre libraries using PFI, these cost a lot of money over a long period of years and are nothing more than vanity projects for cllrs!

We should also re-focus and re-align the service back to its core foundation of education, learning and information and by doing so reclaim its ethos, something that has sadly been eroded over the years. The whole process of recruiting, inducting and training staff should change, with the emphasis put on ethos and a belief in the social purpose of public libraries. Staff would have to do outreach and the local community would as far as practically possible be involved in the development of their service.



I hope that this is useful and I'm willing to discuss it more detail if needed





Alan Wylie

www.dontprivatiselibraries.blogspot.com

I'm also a member of Voices for the Library, the Speak Up for Libraries Organising Committee and the Library Campaign Executive Committee.

 

No comments:

Post a comment