Tag Archives: Arts Council England

Response to the Rural Libraries Report

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?”

They then held a number of workshops which brought together service staff, volunteers and other stakeholders, with no implicit mention of service users being consulted.


But enough of the methodology.


The report uses 8 authorities as case models, these being;


North Yorkshire


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.”

“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. This can involve the nurturing of a library’s role in supporting social interaction, strengthening community ties, hosting events and activities to appeal to a wider range of people and creating space for clubs and societies to flourish.
In other cases, however, library friends groups might save a branch but bring with them very limited perceptions about what that facility will offer. As such, library service managers are sometimes concerned about the inability of some of their community libraries to live up to what should be expected of a local library from the point of view of standards / consistency of service and inclusivity.”


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.”

Society of Chief Librarians Re-Imagining Libraries Seminar

Today The Society of Chief Librarians held the first day of a two day seminar entitled “Re-imagining the public library offer”. Without any information on the UK SCL site about the event, we imagine it is focused on the recent introduction of the key offers supported by SCL.

The keynote address was given by Ed Vaizey, and thanks to the tweeting of a number of attendees we were able to follow the key points from it. He:
  • Commented on the idea that good news stories, such as new libraries and initiatives don’t make it into the headlines. Yes, it’s true that stories about closures and cuts feature in the news (as they should, because people are rightly annoyed by them), but on the other hand there were also plenty of headlines featuring the flagship libraries such as those in Birmingham and Liverpool and other celebratory headlines.
  • Indicated that there should be annual accountability for libraries in England.
  • Said the Public Libraries Act wouldn’t be replaced, but statutory duty must remain.
  • Mentioned that extending PLR to ebooks loaned off-premises was being considered.
  • Expressed how difficult it was to engage other ministers in the work of libraries.
  • Saw the benefits of leaving public libraries under the umbrella of Arts Council England as a way reinforce the cultural focus of libraries and leverage funds.
  • Dreams of a development agency for libraries.
Questions that were raised throughout the sessions today included:
  • Do CIPFA library statistics measure all that is needed to be measured in public libraries? We would say not – not only because people are now accessing library services in new ways that aren’t accounted for in the statistics, but also because the qualitative value of library use isn’t currently measured.
  • Should we reintroduce library standards, and what role should they play? We would highlight that as other countries in the UK have library standards why shouldn’t English libraries? Without them public library authorities are testing how far they can abuse the “comprehensive and efficient” “for all” aspects of the 1964 Act.
Many of these issues could be addressed with the reintroduction of the Advisory Council on Libraries (or a similar pro-active body) and public library standards. ACL could act as a single development agency for libraries in England with a holistic approach to libraries, rather than the current situation where a number of agencies, with their own limited focus take responsibility for developing different strands of public libraries with limited effectiveness. The reintroduction of appropriate library standards would help ensure that citizens are provided with a library service that does not aim for the lowest common denominator under the banner of “comprehensive and efficient”.
Other sessions highlighted the value of libraries across society, and even though they were all worthwhile and many did sit well with a library perspsective, some of them were attempting to shoehorn libraries into roles that would need more development, consideration and research before being recommended. It makes us wonder if the core aims of libraries are being lost by those in power in an attempt to redefine the purpose of a library at all cost?
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Arts Council England publish Evidence review of the economic contribution of libraries

Yesterday, Arts Council England published a report focused on the economic contribution of libraries. As well as economic contribution the report also commented on the value libraries played in the following key areas:

  • Children and young people’s education and personal development
  • Adult education, skills and employability
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Community support and cohesion
  • Digital inclusion

With regard to economic benefits the report highlights:

…whilst libraries may not ‘turn a profit’ they provide us with many 

things that support local economies, from information for businesses, to

access to essential text books. Libraries have a local presence and may

contribute to a sense of place. Then there are the beneficial effects of services

accessed in a library whether that be a social reading club, support to quit

smoking, or help looking for jobs online. These are the services that ensure

effective and financially efficient public spending and enable us to lead

healthy and fulfilling lives.

Further to this the report comments:

…evidence is already sufficient to conclude that public libraries provide positive outcomes for people and communities in many areas – far exceeding the traditional perception of libraries as just places from which to borrow books. What the available evidence shows is that public libraries, first and foremost, contribute to long term processes of human capital formation, the maintenance of mental and physical wellbeing, social inclusivity and the cohesion of communities. This is the real economic contribution that public libraries make to the UK. The fact that these processes are long term, that the financial benefits arise downstream from libraries’ activities, that libraries make only a contribution to what are multi-dimensional, complex processes of human and social development, suggests that attempting to derive a realistic and accurate overall monetary valuation for this is akin to the search for the holy grail. What it does show is that measuring libraries’ short term economic impact provides only a very thin, diminished account of their true value.

The complete 60 page report can be read at Arts Council England’s site.


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Concern over loss of Arts Council England Libraries post

In an article published in the Bookseller it has been announced that the Director of Libraries role at Arts Council England is being deleted. This decision has been made as part of the Arts Council England restructure, undertaken partly in response to a cut in funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The restructure has already seen an unwelcome reduction in the number of library support staff at Arts Council England. The Director of Libraries role is being replaced by a new position that is intended to combine responsibility for libraries with a regional manager post. At a time when library services are facing serious cuts it is inappropriate to remove this dedicated libraries post – this is a time to provide libraries with more support and expand the role of A.C.E. to focus on aspects of libraries beyond their arts remit, not reduce it.

As A.C.E. are also investing a considerable amount of funding in a number of library based projects it is also strange that they are reducing the number of staff able to support these projects. In July last year Alan Davey (Chief Executive of Arts Council England) took part in a live web chat, during which he was asked what experience and expertise A.C.E. had of overseeing libraries? In his reply he stated:

“We’ve taken on a significant number of former MLA staff and recruited new people with the right knowledge to enable us to look after these new sectors.”

This was a welcome statement, but has now been overshadowed by subsequent announcements that numbers of A.C.E. support staff responsible for libraries are being reduced and the post with a dedicated focus on library development is to be removed.

It is a time for Arts Council England to show that they are committed to developing libraries, not only in the funding they are providing for library based projects, but also by ensuring that these projects and library development (encompassing all aspects of libraries functions, not just art) are well supported by sufficient numbers of experienced staff. The latest announcement does not provide much reassurance in this regard.

Arts Council England Live Chat and responsibility for libraries

Last week Alan Davey (Chief Executive of Arts Council England) took part in a live chat, during which he answered a number of questions related to the organisations responsibilities for libraries. The questions and answers are republished below:

Questions (from Gary Green)

  • How do ACE aim to ensure that the non-arts aspects of libraries is developed as much as the cultural and arts aspects? Areas such as (but not only) support for education & literacy, community & social aspects are as important as the cultural and arts focus of libraries.
  • Will the ACE charter and mission statement be amended to reflect your new responsibilities that go beyond the arts, as indicated above?

Response (Alan Davey):

We are already working hard to ensure that we join up arts and cultural activity with the wider libraries agenda, mainly through the Libraries development initiative announced in January. Areas such as education and literacy will be targeted through projects like the one led by the London Borough of Richmond, which tests the delivery of adult learning in libraries. The Books on Prescription project will also help libraries address health and social care issues by prescribing books from a list of high quality self-help manuals for people suffering from common mental health problems. It is also worth noting that most of the artistic activities going on within libraries will be used to support education and literacy, and will involve local communities. In answer to your second question, our mission statement has already changed to reflect our wider cultural remit and is very much embedded in our decision-making framework Culture, knowledge and understanding. Our charter has also been updated.

Question (from Silent Pete)

  • What experience does the arts council have to oversea museums and libraries? This seems a sector where the expertise of the MLA is missed.

Response (Alan Davey)

We’ve taken on a significant number of former MLA staff and recruited new people with the right knowledge to enable us to look after these new sectors. We’ve sought to engage both sectors in a constructive way and have listened very hard to their concerns and needs. We’re getting good feedback from the sectors about the way we’ve done this and so I think you cannot say we lack the right expertise.

Question (from nolarae)

  • The Rumor Mill is pretty active at the moment, saying that the DCMS will be split up after the Olympics. What potential threats does this pose for Arts Council not having DCMS holding ‘holding back the wolves’, i.e. other Govt Depts taking funding away from the Arts?

Response (Alan Davey)

Well, I’m not sure that wolves get much from DCMS budgets – it being the smallest department in Whitehall by far. Whatever happens, they’d need to protect budgets for arts and museums and there would need to be a place in Whitehall to represent their interests. In the past this has been the Cabinet Office, the Education department or even the Treasury direct. Some other countries such as Australia put arts and culture as part of the Prime Minister’s office, reflecting their importance. So if there is a proposal to abolish the DCMS there will need to be a convincing alternative so that the interests of arts and culture remain at the heart of government. And that is the case we – the sector and the Arts Council – have to argue as strongly as we can. It seems to me to be a false economy to abolish a body if you then have to reinvent it elsewhere.

From these responses it is welcoming to read Alan Davey’s commitment to libraries, and it’s also reassuring to hear that A.C.E. will still continue to employ staff to focus on libraries and museums. However, it’s not clear how many members of staff there are in comparison to previous M.L.A. staff numbers and how many of them have a specific focus on libraries.

With regard to Alan Davey’s mention of the updated A.C.E. mission statement, the focus is still clearly on the arts (below) and a welcome addition would be the acknowledgment that libraries have a wider focus than this.

“Our mission is ‘great art for everyone’ and we work to achieve this by championing, developing and investing in arts and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives.”

“We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. 

Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. 

Between 2011 and 2015, we will invest £1.4 billion of public money from government and an estimated £0.85 billion from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.”

#tds11 Arts Council England Talent Symposium by Amplified2010

#tds11 Arts Council England Talent Symposium (c) Amplified2010 / Flickr

It’s also reassuring that A.C.E. are continuing to fund development initiatives for libraries and we look forward to A.C.E. building upon these initiatives, both in terms of the number of local authorities receiving funding for development work and the projects being funded. It’s hoped that successful pilots will be expanded throughout other library authorities and supported long-term. In the past some excellent projects have been left to find support elsewhere after the original funding ceased.

It’s also important to note that the structure of A.C.E is currently under review . The review runs until mid October 2012, with a decision on the final structure being made by November. The new organisational structure will be in place by July 2013. This review was primarily brought about by the need to cut administrative costs by 50 per cent by 2014/2015. Current proposals for the future structure of A.C.E. admit that there will be fewer staff, implying that there will be even less staff charged with focusing on libraries, especially as the number of regional councils will be reduced.

The review and proposed model takes the Arts Council England reports “Achieving great art for everyone” and “Culture, knowledge and understanding: great museums and libraries for everyone.” as its key focus. Voices For The Library team commented on “Culture, knowledge and understanding” in September 2011 – we were encouraged by A.C.E. acknowledgement of the role libraries play beyond the arts and A.C.E. commitment to support and assist in the development of libraries. We also raised the point that even though funding was being made available to libraries, certain aspects of the Future Libraries Programme “aren’t necessarily seen as successful by local communities or the library profession, especially when they involve reductions in service.”

At this stage the key features of the proposed A.C.E. structure are:

  • A national organisation with major offices will be in London, Birmingham, Manchester and the South West. National functions will be co-located in Manchester, Birmingham and London.
  • Five porous localities covering London, the South East, the South West, the Midlands and the North that replace our current regions and areas.
  • Smaller local facilities will keep us close to and connected with the organisations we fund whilst significantly reducing our property costs.
  • An Executive Board of five members, reducing from nine, accountable for strategy and national priorities.
  • Leadership of art form and cultural policy expertise distributed across the Arts Council. Everyone will have a local and national focus.
  • Core funding streams of National portfolio, Grants for the arts, Major partner museums and strategic programmes, supported by an Investment Centre that will help us streamline our investment processes.
Unfortunately, there are no specific mentions of libraries in this proposal, and sometimes it does feel as if libraries are the poor relation in this arts focused family. We understand that A.C.E. will be talking to representatives from the library sector during the review and we hope that these discussions will help the organisation gain further understanding of the purpose and benefits of successful library services. A.C.E. will have a key role to play in the future of libraries and we look forward to it developing its role as their champion.

Comment on Arts Council England “Culture, knowledge and understanding” report

The Arts Council England (A.C.E.) recently published “Culture, knowledge and understanding: great museums and libraries for everyone“, which is its first major publication covering libraries since it was announced that A.C.E. would take over the responsibility for them from the Museums Libraries and Archives Council.
It explains what the Arts Council considers as important and what they are planning to do. It starts with a summary of the situation, including this paragraph which rebuts the arguments of people who say libraries are naturally declining, stagnating or middle class:

“Although public libraries have seen a decrease in the numbers of people borrowing books, evidence shows that where there has been strategic investment – such as in promoting children’s reading – visits rise. And patterns of use are changing, with a significant increase in users accessing services digitally. Libraries have innovated in response, offering enhanced digital provision and actively promoting libraries as local social spaces which can draw in and support new users. Unlike museums or the arts, differences in people’s socio-economic status do not affect their likelihood of using a library; neither does illness or having a disability.” (p.9/10)

The Council makes very clear that they do not have large amounts of money.  In fact, they have far less than the old MLA and so are keen on things which save money while still continuing the service:

 “The Arts Council is keen to see museums and libraries continuing to innovate in their approaches to engaging with communities and making more effective use of volunteers; we are keen to see them working together to achieve this” (p.11)

This above quote shows, and it is a recurring theme in the document, the importance of Museums, Arts and Libraries in working together and learning from each other in order to spread good ideas and make the most of less money.  Similarly, the Arts Council is not against outsourcing, be it private or through trusts.  They especially like the idea of philanthropy:

“Museums and libraries similarly need to strengthen their business models, diversify their income streams and look at new ways of encouraging private giving and supporting enterprise. Likewise, they need to continue to explore new ways of collaborating and improving efficiency in order to thrive
not just survive.” (p.12)

The document lists five aims.  These are listed in colourful management-speak and would be relatively meaningless to show here in their original form.  However, a rough translation of the aims is:
  1. Funding new initiatives that show original thinking, especially if they will save money
  2. To get more people to use libraries
  3. To find ways of surviving with less council money
  4. A lessening in the dominance of white middle class staff
  5. Encourage more children in

The Council is keen on advocacy work for libraries and working with the Local Government Group, Society of Chief Librarians and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals “to develop clear messages about the public value libraries can provide and a shared vision for the library service in 10 years’ time.”.  It is perhaps at least good to see that the Council thinks libraries will still be here in 2021.

Other key points raised in the report were:
  • Libraries are at the heart of the community and are not just “nice to have”.
  • They are innovative.
  • The quality of services they provide is important.
  • They need to be invested in.
  • Communities want to be involved in the development of library services they receive.
  • Libraries help create empowered citizens and this ability to empower should be expanded right across the broader arts sector.
  • Digital access to information is important, but A.C.E. also recognises that not everything is accessible digitally/online and not everyone wants to, or can access services in this way.
  • Rural services may be able to benefit from collaboration across the arts sector.
  • Libraries have a broader impact on our wider life experiences.
  • A.C.E. recognises the educational, knowledge and informative roles libraries have, as much as their arts/cultural role.
  • Advocacy is essential at all levels of the profession.
  • Relationships and partnerships between libraries and all sectors need to be developed.

It’s encouraging to see that the report is so positive about the role/services libraries can and do provide and how they are developing to meet users needs. The acknowledgement that libraries provide opportunities for citizens that other arts sector areas don’t, but can take advantage of in the future, is important, as it demonstrates that libraries do have a uniqueness and this is partly why they have a key role to play in the future. However, how does the steady increase of removing professional staff from libraries and replacing them with volunteers tie in with A.C.E.’s acknowledgement of the importance of providing quality services?

It’s important that the report also goes some way to allaying fears that the Arts Council may have placed its focus on the cultural/arts aspects of libraries at the expense of education and knowledge, etc.

As indicated earlier in this post, the Arts Council does have a 10 year plan, but for this year, the main activity, appears to be simply to continue with the Future Libraries Programme with guidance from the Local Government Group, which may cause some worries amongst those who do not highly regard it. There are certain aspects of this programme that aren’t necessarily seen as successful by local communities or the library profession, especially when they involve reductions in service.

It is worth noting that you can email your views as to what you think is important for the Arts Council to consider to museums.libraries@artscouncil.org.uk.  Get emailing.