Another week and another libraries report lands on the VFTL virtual desk.
‘Rural library services in England: exploring recent changes and possible futures’
looks at the ‘experience’ of rural libraries, especially those that are volunteer supported or led, and was commissioned by DEFRA & ACE and researched and written by Locality and OPM:
“Following the 2013 reports Envisioning the Library of the Future and Community libraries: Learning from Experience, this research explores what the experience has been – and could be in future – for rural libraries specifically.”
Basically the report paints a picture of a free for all based on your ability to access funding streams and your success at raising income and attracting and retaining volunteers. If you have the skills, time and knowledge then you win and if not you don’t – in other words the rigours of the market place. It’s no longer a ‘comprehensive’ county or country wide service, it’s a post-code lottery service.
The researchers conducted a ‘Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA)’ of “recent and relevant documents” which they sought to “capture key messages” in order “to summarise recent evidence as it has been presented to date”. Interestingly or worryingly they “did not set out to consider the full range of arguments, ideas and possibilities relating to library services in rural areas”. Why not? With widespread cuts, closures and divestment wouldn’t it have been better to rigorously assess “the full range”, or does conducting a REA cost less?
“Given the gap between the speed at which policy development moves, and the time it takes to conduct research (including reviews), being able to pull research together quickly, in time for policy deadlines, is clearly desirable. The idea of Rapid Evidence Assessments (REA) is therefore seductive: the rigour of a systematic review, but one that is cheaper and quicker to complete. While a few short-cuts are taken, the quality of the review is not compromised. In this situation, the only difference between an REA and a systematic review is speed.
Does the reality of REAs meet their promise though?”
But enough of the methodology.
The report uses 8 authorities as case models, these being;
An interesting bunch we’re sure you will agree but they’ve shied away from assessing Lincolnshire and Herefordshire. Did the REA not pick these two up or are they too challenging?
The report goes on to makes some bold claims about volunteer involvement in supporting or managing rural libraries;
“Where communities have become more directly involved in supporting or managing their rural libraries, they can evolve into more effective, positive and well-used venues than their predecessors.”
We have absolutely no problem with the statement that libraries can ‘evolve’ with the support of their communities, this is what we all strive for, but where is the evidence to back the claim that they can become more “effective” when volunteer-led? More effective at what and as what? Maybe the following excerpt from the report will help to shed light on this;
“The level and nature of support provided to rural libraries in future will depend on the outcomes those services and venues are able to contribute to. These may be far-removed from the traditional function of a library, yet hugely valuable to a community (and to public agencies seeking to reduce demand on their services).”
So rural libraries are expected to become volunteer supported or led one-stop-shops, a ‘Big Society’ shared services ‘hub’ if they are to tap into the full range of funding opportunities. The authors choose to call this ‘economies of scope’.
And what about poorer communities that may not have the time, resources, skills and knowledge to do this? Add to this the fact that over 4,000 library staff have lost their jobs in the last few years and you have a very fragmented, under-resourced, under-staffed, de-skilled post-code lottery of a service.
“The thinktank Civil Exchange said a “big society gap” has opened up with levels of charitable giving, volunteering and social action strongest in wealthy areas and among privileged professional middle-class groups.”
And how will the ever growing number of volunteer-led ‘libraries’ (according to this report 300 in England alone and 5% of those completely cast adrift or ‘independent’) deal with a myriad of public service type enquiries and transactions? Will they receive Universal Information Offer training or/and a kiosk or two loaded with ‘My Community’ software?
The report however does raise some concerns in relation to the sustainability, viability and integrity of ‘community libraries’;
“The marked increase in community involvement in the running of rural libraries is clearly a headline change witnessed in the last three to four years. Around 300 community libraries are known to exist in England at present. Some of these are truly independent of their local authorities, with book stock and support systems entirely self-sourced, although these only account for around 5% of the total. The vast majority can be categorised as either community-managed or community-supported, with access to varying degrees of continuing council support – usually including advice and expertise, and retaining connectivity to the library management system and book stock. That commitment to support community libraries has frequently been resource-intensive for councils.”
Along with the need for better indicators on the social benefits of libraries and the importance of showing this if they are to attract resources and generate income from a wide range of funding sources;
“Workshop participants reflected that the most successful, sustainable rural libraries will contribute to a wide range of local outcomes and, in so doing, should be well-positioned to attract resources and generate income from an equally wide range of sources (e.g. from public health, adult education and employment support).
This will demand better capturing of data on the usage and benefits of libraries beyond traditional measures such as book issues – which workshop participants agreed underestimated the value of role their libraries played.” We agree with the need for better qualitative indicators but not in the context given in the report. Public libraries in our opinion should be about empowering communities and promoting social equity not propping up the localism agenda or creating more opportunities for private investment or entrepreneurs.
As you would imagine in a report partly written by Locality and partly commissioned by the Arts Council there is lots of talk of income generation, sharing services and collocation with shops, pubs and post offices. This fits neatly with the ‘Enterprising Libraries’ programme;
“a partnership between Arts Council England, the British Library and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), is looking to fund a number of projects in which libraries will use their role as community hubs to spark local economic growth and improve social mobility in communities across the country.”
The report also fits neatly into the ‘innovate don’t save’ agenda which is often used as a stick to beat campaigners and supporters with;
“we can move away from the idea that libraries are failing, or that they have to be ‘defended/saved’, to one where they become invigorated and attract investment and support because they are part of what makes rural communities tick”
Voices strongly believe that public libraries as a statutory service shouldn’t be opened up to the market and shouldn’t have to attract ‘investment’, if they were properly tax-funded, resourced, supported and staffed then they would flourish. As for volunteer-led libraries our view was clearly laid out in our submission to the Sieghart review;
“We believe that volunteers play an important part in assisting library staff in delivering specific library programmes when properly supported and trained, but that they are increasingly used as a substitute for paid and trained library staff. We believe that this is unacceptable for both library users and existing library staff. Under the pretext of funding cuts from central government, local communities are being forced into running their local library, with the threat of closure by the local authority if they fail to do so. We still hope that true localism will prevail and the wishes of local communities, often blackmailed into providing library services, will be respected by both local authorities and national government. But our hope is diminished by the clear intentions laid out by the government and we greatly fear what this means for the future of our public library service.
Job substitution and service fragmentation is creating a two-tier library service and a post-code lottery for the public, with poorer communities, who often do not have the time and resources to volunteer, receiving an inferior service to those in more affluent areas. The result of this is often no library service at all, or one that is little more than a book exchange. In our view this is neither ‘comprehensive or efficient’.
The “role of community libraries” in the context outlined above is, in our opinion, to further the government’s aims to shrink the state through its ‘Localism’ agenda. The role of “community libraries” in delivering library services is, therefore, to undermine the statutory requirements of the 1964 Act and the principles of a comprehensive and efficient library service. Their purpose appears to be more ideological than practical in the long term, with the consequence being a two-tier, post-code lottery, library service casting adrift those in the poorest communities who rely on the many varied information services provided by appropriately funded public libraries, from claiming social security to improving literacy standards. The social and economic consequences of this division should not be underestimated.”