Tag Archives: kent

Will Medway libraries really offer ‘Better for Less’?

The following post was written by Andrew Day and originally appeared on The Medway Broadside website.  Andrew has very kindly given permission for us to reproduce it here.

 

Rochester Castle in Medway, Kent. Medway Council is a unitary authority separate to Kent County Council. (Image c/o Alex Ridgway on Flickr.)

Public libraries have been a mainstay of my life. They represent an individual’s right to acquire knowledge; they are the sinews that bind civilized societies the world over. Without libraries, I would be a pauper, intellectually and spiritually.’

James A. Michener

This may be news to some, and old news to others, but it’s worth repeating:  Medway Council plans to move council services, including the payment of bills, into five of its town centre libraries. The proposals will see library staff partnered with customer contact staff, to answer enquiries and deliver council services to members of the public as part of the council’s ‘Better For Less’ cost-cutting program. These proposals are bundled in with the loss of seventy jobs from across the council’s teams, some of which, it has been alleged, will come from among library staff.

It seems then, that Medway’s librarians, as well being thinner on the ground, will also be expected to deliver services carried out by specialist, and now presumably redundant, customer service staff. Although librarianship may seem to be all about books, it is a complex, information science-based subject, that requires study to Bachelors of Masters level to qualify. It can encompass anything from children’s librarianship to archives management, the very skills that underpin Medway Libraries’ vibrant, and award winning children’s services, local studies centres and library-based events.

Rather than putting their specialist skills to use, the skills that allow librarians to recommend a book, run a childrens’ story session, or pull up a census record from the archives, the Council wants them to spend time processing council tax bills, or answering questions about bin collections.

Applying the same optimistic stretch of logic implied in ‘Better For Less’, you might consider asking your hairdresser to sort out your tax return next time you go for a haircut, or ask the check-out boy at Tesco Metro what the second volume in Sartre’s Roads to Freedom Trilogy is. There’s every chance he might know, of course, but it would still be a distraction from his normal job role, and a stretch of his professional skills to start answering questions on existentialist fiction whilst he’s making sure you’ve got your Clubcard points.

Asking a librarian to do a council customer services operative’s job is no different: it’s a distraction from an already complex and demanding job, and an unnecessary misapplication of their skills. Satire apart, what the council are proposing may seem relatively insignificant and inoffensive, but it could be the difference between your library functioning as a library (staff who know their books, Baby Bounce and Rhyme Time, talks by local historians, creative writing classes) and operating as some kind of bastardised Post Office counter, where confused,  lonely  books jockey for attention with council tax Direct Debt slips.

‘…the book is second only to the wheel as the best piece of technology human beings have ever invented. A book symbolises the whole intellectual history of mankind; it’s the greatest weapon ever devised in the war against stupidity. Beware of anyone who tries to make books harder to get at.’

(Philip Pullman)

The core purpose of a library is to lend books, or in a more 21st century setting, to enable access to literature and information in all their forms, from print to e-books.  Medway‘s libraries have acted enthusiastically when called upon to branch out into community services, and run a wide range of activities, events and services, all targeted at the library’s core aim of enlightening and empowering its community through free access to information. It is acknowledged that as a community space, and community service, libraries have a role in branching beyond more traditional functions, but the key here is that those functions should use librarians’ professional skills toinform and empower people.

Acting as an ersatz service point for council queries and bill payments does nothing to inform and empower people. It will prevent library staff from doing those very things as they are torn away from their core roles. The government report on public libraries, published in 2005, was very clear on the dangers of over-stretching and over-burdening library services:

‘We recognise that libraries are viewed as safe public environments and as such have the potential to act as a suitable home for services meeting a wide range of community needs and wishes. However, it is equally clear to us that libraries must not be over-loaded with objectives or expectations that strain their resources or inhibit the fulfilment of their core functions [my emphasis]… Libraries and their staff cannot be expected to constitute a one-stop shop for all a community’s demands for information and advice without the appropriate allocation, and clear demarcation, of resources.’

(Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2005)

The council’s proposals fly in the face of expert, carefully researched advice. With potential redundancies yet to be confirmed, the situation at Medway’s libraries may yet get even worse. It might be easier to accept this, in the current economic climate, if the council didn’t have such a rich track record of going millions of pounds over-budget  on mis-managed captial projects, or devoting their energies to headline-grabbing, but unsuccessful, city status bids. The Save Medway Libraries page alleges that council money was spent on consultants to review library services, without them even visiting a library. Given the paucity of public information available on the proposed changes, it is impossible to substantiate this, although local councillor Vince Maple has been openly critical of the council’s record of  spending public funds on external consultants.

Medway Council should value its libraries – it is in charge of a vibrant, active, professional library service that does mountains of good work to benefit the community. Nowhere is immune to cuts and changes in these straitened times, but a good council should recognise the value of what it has, and should not water down or over-burden existing services to make short-term savings. If we lose our library services, or if they are turned into something less than what they are, we might never get them back. If you are concerned about the proposed changes, write to your  local MP or councillor, join the Save Medway Libraries Facebook page (N.B. this hasn’t been updated recently) and, if you haven’t for a while, visit your local library. There’s a lot of good stuff going on there.

National Libraries Day – why did some authorities refuse to celebrate?

Residents in Kent resorted to doing their own thing to support National Libraries Day,

Earlier this month library authorities and library users celebrated the very first National Libraries Day.  Events took place across the country and it was great to hear so many people went out and celebrated their local library service (some photos are available here).  The extent of the celebrations showed that there is still a lot of support out there for the public library service, despite claims of its demise and irrelevance.  Amidst a background of library closures, it was great to see so many people and organisations come together in celebration.

However,whilst many authorities across the country threw their support behind National Libraries Day, some were reluctant to join in the celebrations.  One of several councils who refused to support the event was Kent.  What made this particularly concerning was that not only is Kent one of the largest authorities in the country, it is also headed by the Secretary for the Society of Chief Librarians – one of the supporters of the event.

In advance of the event, Voices for the Library lodged a Freedom of Information request to find out why the authority refused to put on any events under the National Libraries Day banner, or to even mention it on their website or Facebook Page.  The following was disclosed as a result of the request:

 

As well as the above information, we also received a copy of the now infamous staff briefing distributed across the county in advance of National Libraries Day:

 

KCC National Libraries Day staff briefing

As an organisation that seeks to highlight the value of libraries and librarians, we are deeply concerned about the actions taken in Kent.  National Libraries Day is an annual national initiative created to celebrate the vital contribution libraries make in our communities, enriching our society and providing the tools to help individuals prosper.  As a result we were very disappointed to learn that Kent and a number of other authorities including Gloucestershire, Croydon and Kensington and Chelsea (amongst others) refused to encourage the celebrations.  We hope next year that those authorities that did fail to participate this year will have a change of heart in 2013.  After all, if we can’t celebrate and promote library services on National Libraries Day, when can we celebrate them?

Is Kent County Council on the road to widespread library closures?

Will the library closures soon reach Kent? (Image c/o eyebee on Flickr)

Last Friday, Kent councillors got together at County Hall to discuss their recently published report on public libraries across the county. Up until now, Kent had been reasonably quiet compared to other parts of the country, seemingly holding back on closures until they see how effective other councils have been in tearing down their public library services. The only hint about what was likely to come was a previous council meeting when the closure of 40 libraries were proposed (there are around 103 libraries in Kent including mobile libraries). At the time of writing, the actual discussions in that meeting are still a mystery and the meeting minutes are currently subject to an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

What Kent decides next will be significant. As one of the largest library authorities in the country, a programme of closures similar in scale to other authorities could have a significant impact on communities across the county. Either closing 40 libraries or forcing local communities to run them will result in a serious assault on the library service and a devastating impact on those that rely on them the most.

The meeting itself suggested that there is justification for the people of Kent to be concerned about the council’s intentions. The Head of Libraries for Kent has suggested that libraries could easily move into surgeries, schools or shops. Of course, such proposals are absurd and are completely unsustainable. In fact, within the last three years one such library in the county that shared a premises with a local school was closed due to lack of use and a need for the school to expand. Even more disturbing is the Head of Libraries claim that the council is ‘prepared’ to be challenged, suggesting that no matter how hard the people of Kent fight for their service, the council will ensure that they enact the changes that they plan to put together.

There have also been claims that parish councils have offered to run public libraries within their communities. This argument was most recently heard in Gloucestershire where, in actual fact, community groups hadn’t so much ‘offered’ to run the local libraries for the council as forced into doing so to ensure that their service is not closed down. No details have been revealed by Kent regarding which parish councils have offered to take on public libraries across the county, but this is no subject to a Freedom of Information request so hopefully this information will be available soon.

But perhaps most disturbing of all are the ‘locality boards’ that are being established in the county to decide on the future strategy for the public library service. So called ‘locality boards’ were used by the council as part of its ‘Vision for Kent 2011-202’ consultation and were established as follows:

Locality Boards will advise county and district councils on the public service priorities and deliver the countywide ambitions for the locality.

The role of Locality Boards is to:

– advise county and district councils on the public service priorities for the locality;
– deliver the countywide ambitions within the locality;
– advise county and district councils on service provision, moving towards combined place based commissioning where appropriate;
– improve the local accountability to residents for public services in their totality;
– oversee public services in each Locality through direct oversight and community leadership.

The ‘core’ membership of each Locality Board will comprise the elected County Councillors with divisions within the Locality and an equivalent number of District Council Cabinet members. Additional membership of each Board will be decided by the Locality Board depending on the business needs of the Locality.

It is not clear at present what form the ‘locality boards’ will take (indeed many have not even been created yet). Hopefully these boards will be transparent and the public can be fully involved and engaged in the process. Previous boards have placed restrictions on public involvement as well as the distribution of the detail of their meetings. It will be interesting to see how transparent and open these ‘locality boards’ actually are.

As things stand there is much to concern residents of Kent about the sustainability of the plans that have so far been discussed. Indeed, there have been suggestions on a number of local forums that proposals have already been presented to some residents. On one forum it was reported that residents had recently been invited to a meeting hosted by the council examining how it could save money. Attendees were asked to vote on 19 money saving proposals that detailed the pros and cons of the cut in question alongside the amount of money that could be saved. The proposal apparently put before residents for libraries read as follows:

Reduce spending on Libraries by £3 million by closing the least well used libraries and focus on the main town centre hubs.

Kent currently has 101 permanent libraries. which cost £20million to run -the saving would would retain 20 main libraries across the County.

OR alternatively

Transfer the running of smaller libraries to local communities with the Council providing specialist advice.
Saving made would be £3million.

In favour:

(1) Are Libraries an essential service or are they “nice to have”?

(2) Do Libraries still meet the modern needs of society?

(3) Many have access to books and computers in their own homes and do not need KCC to provide them.

Against:

(1) Some feel that libraries provide a community focal point.

(2) A library is more than a place to borrow books, particularly the free internet access.

(3) Some feel that specific groups rely on the services and expertise of Library staff more then others- eg. the young and elderly.

At present it is unclear as to the significance of this meeting, but it has certainly prompted much concern amongst local residents who appear to believe that the councils has already decided on its course of action.

Certainly their concerns are not eased by the attitude of some councillors across the county. During the meeting at County Hall referred to earlier, one councillor (Jean Law representing Herne Bay) observed:

We've closed libraries before without an outcry says Cllr Jean Law #libraries #kcc
@PaulOnPolitics
Paul Francis

Unless there is full transparency and a willingness to engage with local communities (not just parish councils) then there is very much a chance that libraries will be closed without an outcry. People will simply wake up one morning and find that their library has either been closed or ownership transferred before they have had an opportunity to engage in the process. Let us hope that transparency will be at the heart of this process, for the sake of all the people of Kent.

Why won’t Kent release library meeting minutes?

During a meeting earlier this year, proposals were put before the 73 Conservative members of Kent County Council regarding the future of libraries across the county.  It is alleged that these proposals included the potential closure of a substantial number of libraries across the county.  The Kent Messenger’s political editor, Paul Francis, wrote at the time:

“Precise figures are hard to come by but at least one source has mentioned over 40.”

There are presently over 100 libraries across the county, meaning that the proposals suggested the closure of nearly half of all the libraries in Kent.

Interestingly, not all the councillors were enthusiastic about the proposals:

“Sources say that many county councillors were aghast at the proposals, not least because some of those identified for closure were in Kent’s Conservative heartlands. Others pointed out that they had made various election commitments that local libraries in their areas would be safeguarded.”

Perhaps recognising the strength of many campaigns across the country, one councillor allegedly remarked:

“You can do more or less what you like to any other service and not many will care, but not to libraries.”

The potential for libraries to be taken over by parish councils or volunteers was also raised during the meeting.  It appears, however, that a revolt by councillors has meant that these proposals have been shelved.  Or have they?

Since we were made aware of the proposals put before the council, Voices for the Library submitted a Freedom of Information request regarding the detail of the meeting.  As these proposals were quashed and the public were aware of the fact that this meeting took place, there seemed little reason to suppose the request would be rejected.  But it has.

The council refused to provide the information requested on the grounds that:

“KCC is currently exploring and considering the future of the library service. If the information is disclosed at this time, the effectiveness of that important process could be compromised. The provision of advice and exchange of views by KCC members and officers is likely to be more reticent and circumscribed rather than the necessary full and open discussion to allow us to fully explore relevant options.

“Given that exploring options for the future of the library service is an ongoing piece of work and that no conclusions or clear proposals have yet been reached, and taking into account that we are committed to working closely with local communities to develop our ideas once we have decided upon an overall approach, we strongly feel that releasing the requested information at this time would inhibit the decision making process.”

County Hall , Maidstone , Kent

County Hall , Maidstone , Kent (c) john47kent / Flickr

It is difficult to see how, as Paul Francis also commented, that their disclosure would inhibit the future decision making process if these plans have been shelved.  Furthermore, given that the fact that a meeting took place has been made public, it is hard to understand how further disclosure would cause any further harm to the council’s procedures.  Indeed, given that there is now some confusion and concern amongst library users in Kent, full disclosure and assurances that these proposals have been abandoned would be broadly welcomed.  Needless to say, we appealed against this decision.

Towards the end of last week, we discovered that the council has once more refused our request for information.  Again this raises more questions.  The appeal was rejected under Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act on the following grounds:

“The nature of the information is such that she [the Managing Director] concurs that its release would undeniably prohibit the free and frank exchange of views and discussion of ideas in the future which is essential to the effective conduct of business within the County Council before matters come into the public domain. It would also cause unnecessary public concern over a number of ideas that were discussed that may not come to fruition and have not yet appeared within any blog or in the public domain.”

And yet Section 36 makes no reference to information being prohibited, rather about whether it would inhibit the ability of public bodies to discuss such proposals.  It is also the case that some of the detail from the meeting has already made it into the public domain.

Consequently, we feel that this judgement is flawed.  The release of the minutes will simply allow the concerns of library users to be addressed, with regard to the implications this would have upon libraries across the county.  Furthermore, it is difficult to see how the disclosure of this information could possibly inhibit future discussions if they have been shelved by the council.