Tag Archives: library provision

On the other side of the counter at Winsford Library

We received the following blog post from Hannah Bailey (UNISON Assistant National Officer) about her recent visit to Winsford Library.

Like many people, some of my earliest memories are of visiting the library with my parents and siblings (Bawtry library in Doncaster, now sadly facing the axe, was our local). From these visits I harboured a childhood ambition to be a librarian – I think it was the satisfying clunk of the stamp that did it. So my work at UNISON on the libraries campaign has been the next best thing, but despite spending large chunks of my work days thinking and writing about libraries, it occurred to me that I had only ever been on the ‘other side’ of the counter. Shouldn’t I really get out there and see what working in the library service is really all about? Ian Anstice kindly stepped in and agreed to let me shadow him and his staff for a day at Winsford library in Cheshire. Emailing to make arrangements beforehand, Ian politely laughed at request to see what a ‘typical day’ in a library was like – no such thing as a typical day he assured me…..

An early train journey and bus ride meant I arrived at the library just after opening time on a sunny Thursday morning, the last week of the school summer holidays. Ian and I are in regular email contact, but have never met in person; however I clocked him straightaway putting out posters to advertise the library’s coffee and cake morning that day. Getting inside the library there were already a steady stream of people coming in, many to take advantage of the cakes on offer (I duly sampled a raspberry crumble muffin) whilst returning items and using the PCs.

The coffee morning is run regularly by friends of the library, who all volunteer their time to take part in fundraising activities and events. The positive relationship between staff and volunteers was clear, and it was also clear that they were providing a supplementary service that staff would be unable to undertake alongside their daily duties. Complementing staff and playing a role, but not replacing them. This has always been UNISON’s view and it was good to see it working in practice. Later that day, Ian discussed with the treasurer of the friends group how the funds were looking and the possibility of buying some new furniture for the children’s library – clearly their effort is having an impact.

First activity of the day was story time for the under fives, with a (mostly!) captive audience of twenty or so youngsters and a selection of parents and grandparents. Not for the last time that day I was reminded of the pleasure of being read to, something which seems to stop as soon as you leave school, but I will always love. Rounding off with a selection of nursery rhymes (including requests from the floor) story time was a reminder not only of how pleasurable reading is, but also the importance of starting young with literacy – it really is never too early and libraries play a huge part in getting families and kids into reading, which stays with them for life.

Meanwhile on the counter, a constant stream of people were coming in and out, putting paid to the rumour that nobody uses libraries anymore. Remember earlier this year when John Redwood MP made some startlingly ill-informed comments about libraries after a brief visit to one? Anyone deeming themselves worthy of comment needs to spend at least a day in a library before drawing any conclusions. After all, a visit to an uncharacteristically quiet supermarket at 10pm wouldn’t lead one to conclude that modern retail as we know it is dead would it?

Mid-morning behind the counter was of the highlights of the day for me – a young man aged no more than about 12 came in on his own to return a stack of books he’d read during his recent holiday. Checking the books back in, Ian reminded him he had a few more out and did he want to renew them while he was here? He agreed, telling Ian that he was halfway through one of them, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’. Settling his small fine, he then left. This is the kind of kid we’re supposed to believe aren’t interested in reading anymore, too busy playing computer games or hanging round the streets making a nuisance of themselves. I was truly heartened by this – and you can bet if it’s happening in Winsford, it’s happening at libraries all over the UK.

Ecological Consequences by J. Star

Ecological Consequences (c) J. Star / Flickr

Books returned over the course of the morning soon started to stack up behind the counter, so any spare time was spent by staff re-shelving items ready to be borrowed again. All the while the eight or so PC’s in the library were constantly occupied by a range of different people, from teenagers checking the latest updates on Facebook to people printing off e-tickets for impending holidays. While the volunteers packed the cakes and coffee away, members of the Mid-Cheshire Camera Club were busy mounting a small exhibition of their work near the entrance. The works are for sale, and as of one the members filled out the council’s insurance form, he explained to me that the library is the last open exhibition space available in the town centre to groups such as theirs.

An open building – it sounds obvious but it’s what libraries are all about. Still it was one of the points that struck me on several occasions as the day went by. Whilst downstairs the children’s library was buzzing and noisy, upstairs in the reference area there was an altogether quieter and calmer feel. I was told there is one man comes in every day without fail to read the newspaper for an hour at lunchtime. Then there were the groups of teenagers, in town and looking for something to do, drifting in and out. One man spent most of the day in the library, helping out the volunteers in the morning and staying for the afternoon. The library for him is a safe space, a place where he is welcomed and not judged.

After lunch I was invited along to join the RELISH group – read, listen, share – which is a reading group for people with mental health issues. There are seven regular attendees to this group, which staff told me was a real achievement. People who are ill and may already have chaotic lives drift in and out of groups like this. But here you have seven people who attend week in, week out, to read together and discuss the books. Everyone who feels comfortable takes a turn to read aloud, and after a few pages a member of staff poses questions to get the conversation going. It sounds simple enough, but seeing it in practice and the impact it has is powerful stuff.

Later in the afternoon there was some respite for staff on the counter to undertake other tasks. This was when I was introduced to the mysterious ‘back office’. Many critics argue that too much is spent on the ‘back office’ and that this should be cut in favour of the frontline. This obviously varies from area to area, however what was clear is that a varied selection of books don’t magically appear on the shelves, nor do titles which are seldom borrowed grow legs and walk off, making room for more popular titles. It all happens in the mysterious ‘back office’. And contrary to what some people believe, new books appear on the shelves every week in your average library. So for those who bemoan that the latest titles aren’t available, perhaps you should get down to your local library or hop online and find out. I’m guessing you’ll be surprised.

Winsford library is open until 7.30pm on Thursday evenings, the day I was there. Ian told me how later on in the day is when there is most potential for trouble, with the town centre emptying of shoppers and bored teenagers hanging around. Again the library is open to all – staff work on the presumption that people know how to behave, and only if someone is causing offence or disturbance to someone else will they intervene. But it does happen, and staff are often at the receiving end of anti-social behaviour. Not exactly the picture of a sleepy library in a leafy suburb that some would paint, but the reality nonetheless. It’s bad enough that paid staff have to endure such incidents, but would you volunteer to put yourself in this position?

So if I had to sum up my day in the library in a few points, what would I say? After spending the day working alongside a friendly and committed staff team, it was clear to me that:

  1. Libraries are busy, vibrant community spaces open to people from all walks of life
  2. Reading for pleasure is alive and kicking – you’re never too young or too old
  3. Libraries are about books, and the knowledge, comfort and power words give you

It all sounds fairly obvious, but the impact of savage cuts on local authorities seems to mean that many people want to trivialise the importance of libraries and library staff in order to justify their decisions. Anyone who disagrees with the three points above really should go and spend an hour or two at their local library and see if it changes their mind.

 

The views expressed in guest blog posts are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of  Voices for the Library

The situation in Northern Ireland

We received the following guest post from John Kelly regarding the public libraries situation in Northern Ireland.

I’m sure many people were disappointed but hardly surprised at the news the funding request to renovate and restore the interior of the Central Library was turned down in accord with the Northern Ireland Assembly budget cuts. It recently had seen it’s exterior restored to it’s former glory at a cost of £1m, so the likelihood of a further £20m was slim if not to say unlikely. To be fair the situation in Northern Ireland isn’t as bad as what is happening in the rest of the UK, but it is my opinion that closure  and cutbacks in the Library should be resisted and opposed regardless of the numbers being quoted.

Currently we are waiting to hear about the proposed closure of 10 rural libraries, to many that may not seem like  much,especially considering earlier this year speculation had the figure set at 30.  Also some would argue if people are not using them, then prudent thinking in these austere times would be to close them, save the money and channel it into the remaining libraries. However anybody who is affected by the cuts, know this will not be the case. Libraries will be expected to perform to the same standard and maintain themselves without any extra money. Irene Knox the Chief Executive of Libraries NI said “We’re obviously disappointed, but we still believe that this building and the tremendous resources that are in it are very important not just to Belfast but to Northern Ireland as a whole. So we are continuing to pursue our plans looking at other possibilities, other potential sources of funding.”

There is a perceived general apathy towards the libraries, and this is what the Government in Westminster is using to defend their decisions. However in Northern Ireland we are faced with the unusual position that the official line is an admission that Library usage is on the rise. So obviously the official line from Libraries NI  needed to look at other areas to determine their cuts. So it become more about whether the libraries could deliver a 21st Century service. And it would seem that out of 99 branch libraries throughout Northern Ireland  44 were deemed viable, 21 were deemed viable but would need some refurbishment or newbuilds. Added with the 10 marked out as unviable, this comes to a grand total of 75, leaving a further 24 libraries that were evaluated but don’t seem to be showing up on the Official Report from the 17th February of this year.

Also concerns are being raised that the Dept of Arts & Leisure stipulation relating to the figure of  85% of the population should live within two miles of either fixed or mobile library provision. These concerns seemed to be focussed on the future of the library in Draperstown and it’s suspected closure and relocation to neighbouring Maghera, however it is claimed this will produce a figure of 100% living outside the 2 mile radius. However the official line is that the rural libraries are not being targeted as soft options.

The situation as it stands and Dr David Elliot Chairperson of Libraries NI is keen to make the point that no formal decision has been made yet, the process is continuing and it’s being actively encouraged to be an open process with as much feedback from the public as possible .Irene Knox claims they have listened and will keep listening, but ultimately she states “At the end of the day, the board will make those decisions”.

For some people the issue of  closure of the libraries is an emotive one, a vitally important part of modern society and particularly with regard to Northern Ireland. To quote the data.gov.uk site  “The services provided by public libraries are capable of giving positive outcomes for a wide variety of enquiries and purposes, including promoting community cohesion, education and well-being”. Something DCAL and Libraries NI need to keep at the forefront of their decision making process.

http://archive.niassembly.gov.uk/record/committees2010/CAL/110217_BriefingfromLibrariesNI.htm

http://data.gov.uk/dataset/ni-009-use-of-public-libraries

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-14763933

 

The views expressed in guest blog posts are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of  Voices for the Library

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.

What a valuable community resource

Sutton Coldfield library user John Pedder has kindly given us permission to reproduce the letter he wrote to his local newspaper about library services in his area. This was written in response to the Editor’s piece about Birmingham City Council’s apparent reluctance to reinstate Sutton Coldfield’s Library, which has been closed for several months since asbestos was discovered in the building.
Dear Sir, 
Ross Crawford’s View point last week should warn us of Birmingham Council’s lack of commitment to Library services in the community; for a town centre the size of Sutton Coldfield not to have a Library would be disgraceful.
Also, the Council’s latest cost-cutting proposal would see staff at the main Library in each constituency cut to 4 full time staff plus Saturday and  lunchtime assistants. This, together with an increase in opening hours to 6 days a week, would reduce the average number of staff on duty from about 6 to less than 2.5. It is ridiculous to expect a busy Library with typically 400-600 visitors per day to operate with so few staff.
The Council may claim that volunteers can make up the numbers, but as each volunteer is unlikely to work for more than one day a week, it would require at least 5 volunteers for every staff member lost – needing at least 25 volunteers for every main Library.
It would be better if the people making these decisions on the Council had actually worked in a Library and knew what a valuable community resource they provide.
John Pedder, Erdington.

Statement on the Future Libraries Report

The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Local Government Association (supported by Ed Vaizey, the Minister with responsibility for libraries) have released their long awaited Phase 1 report on the future of our public library service.  The ‘Future Libraries: Change, options and how to get there’ report unveils proposals that they claim will ‘bring libraries into the 21st Century and meeting the needs of a new generation of library users.’

 

However, Voices for the Library believes that the set of proposals outlined will lead to serious damage to our public library network, and be counterproductive to efforts to modernise libraries and meet the needs of the UK public.It has been clear throughout the process that recommendations would be made for volunteers to run libraries.  As early as January this year, when Ed Vaizey chaired a round-table discussion on volunteers in libraries, it was clear that volunteer run libraries would figure in the proposals.  In fact, the idea was initially floated as early as June last year by consultancy firm KPMG (who are one of a number of consultancy firms that have seconded staff to work with the Conservative administration).

 

As we have stated repeatedly, volunteers cannot and should not replace paid professionals and staff.  Even volunteers involved in running existing community libraries have explicitly stated that volunteers should not be seen as a solution. The suggestion that libraries can co-exist with unrelated or non-council run services is also a cause for concern.  Placing libraries in sports centres, shops and village halls raises more questions than it answers.  Will there be trained staff on hand to provide the level of service that the library users will demand?  Will the staff be able to assist in providing access to the resources the users require?  A room that is merely full of books is not a library, no matter how the councils dress it up.  Most importantly, how will authorities determine whether a ‘library’ in a sports centre has been a success?  Without being able to provide data to prove its usage, how long will it be before the council seeks to withdraw funding altogether?  After all, if they do not know its level of usage they will see it purely as expenditure they can no longer afford. As the mission of the public library is lost, councils will fail, or continue to fail, to understand why they should provide a library service to their citizens.

 

Finally, proposals to place libraries in shops or to work in partnership with the private sector also provides cause for concern.  We have seen already the impact that the private sector has had on libraries in the United States.  LSSI (one of a number of companies looking to take over libraries in this country) have made cutting overheads and replacing unionised employees central to their plans.  The implications for those who work in libraries is clear.  In terms of libraries in shops, again there are implications that are cause for concern.  Libraries and librarians are bound by a commitment not to restrict access to books on any grounds except that of the law.  Retailers are not bound by such commitment and are subject to the demands of their customers.  As has been seen before, retailers will not hesitate from removing a book if it is seen to cause offence.  How will a library based in a shop manage this?  How will they reconcile the needs of two different sets of customers?  Will they be pressured by the potential impact on their revenues if they continue to provide access to a controversial text?  And what then for those that wish to access such resources?

 

Unfortunately, at a time when real leadership and vision is required to outline a truly 21st century library service, the government is found lacking in imagination, short-sighted in its approach and blinkered by ideology.  These proposals do not outline a positive future for libraries and will only further their decline.  We strongly urge the government to tear up these proposals and truly listen to the needs and demands of local communities across the country.  Furthermore, we recommend that library users express their concerns regarding these proposals by emailing the Arts Council, the department that now has responsibility for libraries, at museums.libraries@artscouncil.org.uk.

Mobile Libraries: Past Successes; Future Directions?

Thanks to Richard, a former mobile librarian in the Scottish highlands, who sent us this post highlighting the importance of mobile library services.

 

Coincidences can be serendipitous. The other day, a chance encounter in town found me chatting to Marie; one time head of a primary school on my old mobile itinerary, and now like me retired. We caught up on the intervening years, and recalled the many happy and productive days of our previous association. Later the same day, while visiting my centenarian mother in her care home, I was delighted to see a new resident, Annie; a partially disabled lady for whom I had undertaken regular home visits with books. Now ninety three, her mind remained sharp and clear; a reminder that a fondness for light romance need not dull the brain!

These two meetings brought home to me, not just the personal joys of my life as a mobile librarian in the Scottish highlands, but also a very real sense of the good my colleagues and I were able to achieve in our work. Today, when the speed and uncertainty of change threatens the very existence of mobiles, past achievements may hold pointers to a continuing future. Once, our remit was to supply the widest possible range of library services to rural communities; a situation we recognize to be no longer sustainable as a whole. But, exemplified here in the stories of Annie and Marie, there exist areas within which I believe a mobile library service offers a positive, cost-effective way forward.

Marie was the best kind of primary teacher; an enthusiastic polymath who drew no false distinctions between art and science, inspiring her pupils to learn through the shared joys of the spoken word: in debate, song, drama and reading aloud. She always encouraged me to play a proactive part in school life, and thus I became in addition to my normal library duties a storyteller, a shennachie in the local scots; a role I was able to develop to include all the dozen or so schools on my regular round. Issues soared. Beginning with simple stories for nursery classes and pre-school groups, I expanded my scope to include all ages up to twelve; giving readings of classics old and new, poetry, even some of the more dramatic exerts from Shakespeare. I have a particular abiding memory of holding one class spellbound by a recitation of Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

Writers like Kipling may be anathema to modernists, but the themes of courage and resourcefulness displayed in tales such as Rikki bear comparison with those seen in, say, The Gruffalo; and can be equally enjoyable, both to read and to hear. The key to that enjoyment is the human voice and its use to convey all the excitement, colour and meaning which a given text may contain. Once you establish the links between the written word and the endlessly vivid world of a child’s imagination then the act of their learning to read becomes a pleasure, and, once achieved, a lifelong joy. Those manning mobile libraries with school clients are uniquely placed to provide such inspiration, having all the necessary resources to hand. Where a suitable bond of trust has been created, teaching staff are only too delighted to accept our assistance.

Mobile library comes to Beckford (Jonathan Billinger)

Mobile library comes to Beckford (Jonathan Billinger)

Trust, and the human voice, is just as important at the other end of life’s spectrum. Annie, recently widowed and with her family far away, lived in relative isolation in an anonymous housing scheme. As the years passed and her health deteriorated visits to the mobile became more and more difficult; a situation mirrored in the experiences of many of our older customers. Whereas a dedicated housebound mobile served the needs of the city of Inverness no such facility existed for the country areas. I began to adjust our timetables accordingly, in order to accommodate home visits. These were well received, and, as word spread, we began to receive requests to visit from folk who had never previously been able to access library services. Once again our issues climbed. More than that, we found these visits to be doubly rewarding; not only were our clients able to enjoy their books, but they also gained from regularly seeing a friendly face and a few minutes of craic – not to mention the odd cuppa. And, for our part, many lasting friendships were forged; together with the occasional sadness as time took its inevitable toll.

Dear gentle Annie passed away only a short time after her admission to the home; despite crippling disabilities she had managed on her own for nearly twenty years beforehand. Did our home visits play any part in helping her stay independent, happy and content; and perhaps less of a burden to the exchequer? Accountants, necessary though they are, cannot quantify such factors, any more than they can supply a monetary value for improved reading performance in schools; but my answer would be a resounding yes, just one factor amongst several, no doubt, but a vital one nevertheless. Marie has no doubts either, yes she saw the mobile primarily as another tool in her workshop; but that is surely a good thing, a good place to be. What seems too often overlooked is just what a powerful tool that can be.

There has always been a tendency, in Britain at least, to view mobile libraries as slightly eccentric, a bit of an anachronism, certainly expendable once the financial chips are down. But, give them the opportunity to show what they can do, how much they can achieve, and a very different picture emerges. I do not doubt that I was fortunate; I had the advantage of an enlightened management, willing to indulge my hunches, allowing me space and time to experiment; nor was I alone, with other colleagues from within our fleet of twelve also happy to respond to changing circumstances. But the bottom line rests with the individual; you have got to want to do it, to be prepared to move the boundaries and to make the time.

That time has passed for me, but I am happy to report that, despite some inevitable cut-backs, mobile usage here remains healthy. Suzi, my successor, continues to make improvements and adaptations of her own. New faces at Marie’s old school make her as welcome as ever, and utilize her skills to the full. The numbers of older and disadvantaged folk following in Annie’s footsteps will carry on growing. Mobiles are not only uniquely valued; more to the point they are needed. But, if you are going to make that point, and make it stick, you are going to have to demonstrate its inherent value.

And there is only one way to do that; get out on the road and prove it. Get the results in loans; printed, pictorial, digital; get the backing of public and professionals alike; use the media, local papers love positive stories; don’t wait to be asked, volunteer where you see a need you can fill; above all, be prepared to give of yourself. Mobiles can have a real future; and ensuring that future is a task that can be immensely rewarding – to all concerned.

Concerns Over Brent Campaigners Volunteer Run Libraries

As many library campaigners in the UK probably know, the judicial review raised by Brent library campaigners began earlier this week. It looked very promising that campaigners had forced their Council into this position to save their local libraries.

However, it appears that one of the main reasons for taking this to court is that local campaigners put proposals to Brent Council to run these libraries as volunteer managed/community led libraries and these proposals were rejected by the council. (See here for more details.)

This came as a bit of a surprise to other local campaigners, including Voices For The Library team members, who have not only been defending the value of libraries, but also the importance of the roles trained library staff and librarians have in providing these services. The outcome of this judicial review could have serious implications for other campaigners who are not campaigning for volunteer run libraries, including those whose judicial reviews (such as Gloucestershire and Somerset) are due to be heard.

It also raises the question about whether high profile supporters of Brent’s library campaign, such as Philip Pullman, Alan Bennett, Zadie Smith and Michael Rosen were aware of the campaigners intentions?

The Guardian, (Monday 22 November 2010) stated:

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, said he was “greatly concerned” by developments. “The librarian is not simply a checkout clerk whose simple task could be done by anyone and need not be paid for,” he said. “Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished.”

Surely this statement of support for librarians is at odds with support for the Brent libraries campaign.

Alan Benett also talks about concern for the privatisation and selling off of local libraries:

“It’s hard not to think that like other Tory policies privatising the libraries has been lying dormant for 15 years, just waiting for a convenient crisis to smuggle it through. Libraries are, after all, as another think tank clown opined a few weeks ago, ‘a valuable retail outlet’.”

One of the Brent campaigners concerns was the rejection of the proposal for Library Systems and Services UK Ltd, a private company to take over the running of some libraries. Even the move towards volunteer libraries could be seen as a step towards selling off the library service and “discharges [Brent] of their obligations.”

We also wonder if other supporters of the campaign, such as Michael Rosen and Zadie Smith, are happy to support this situation, bearing in mind that the value of libraries they used when they were younger – the libraries that played such an important part in their lives – were built up on the work that librarians had undertaken to develop the service?

It’s also interesting to note that the Brent campaigners cite CILIP in their reasoning behind their plans, indicating how library services should be provided. CILIP is the professional body for librarians and library staff, and as such, it’s doubtful that they would also advocate the removal of trained library staff and librarians as the main providers of public library services, and replace them with volunteers.

We are very concerned about this situation!

UPDATE: Since publishing this post a number of Brent campaigners have commented on it and we welcome the discussion this has led to. Please see here for more details.

What is a library?

VftL are delighted to present a guest post by C. Horne.

What is a library?  Do you see a municipal red brick building, slightly tatty, maybe a bit unloved, possibly could do with a bit of attention?  When you walk in is the inside rimmed round with shelves all of which are crammed full of battered plastic covered books?  A few computers on some slightly dingy desks in the reference area, looking slightly out of place.  Behind the counter, a member of staff is dealing with a query about an overdue book.

All this is superficial – you aren’t seeing the real library.  Look deeper.

Over in the children’s library are some pushchairs crammed against the wall, their occupants balancing on their parents’ laps – slightly precariously in some cases – ready for the library’s ‘Bounce and Rhyme’ session.  The library assistant is perched in front of them, leading a group sing along to ‘Wind the Bobbin up’.  She has probably done this every week for months, but loves watching the look on the babies faces.  Recently they have been incorporating baby sign language with the bounce and rhyme which has proved to be very successful.

In the reference section a middle aged gentleman is seated at a computer.  He has headphones on and the fingers on his left hand trace over an embossed piece of paper.  The keyboard that his right hand is typing on has brightly coloured plastic keys and he hunts and pecks for the right letters.  It takes a little while, and he often pauses in between periods of typing.  Getting closer a faint voice is audible from the headphones.  It isn’t an audiobook that he is listening to with such concentration, but a screenreader which is enabling him to use the computer.  Under the desk his guide dog shifts position slightly.

A poster on the wall of the library advertises the Young Adult Reading Group which meets on the first Monday of the month.  This month’s book is a title about the different influences on a group of fourteen year old’s lives and how they deal with them – school, family, gangs, friends, drugs, bullies, church..  The author of the book has been invited to come to the library and discuss her book and the poster now bears a large red banner headline – FULL!  The library is planning to start a second YA group.  When the group meets, there will be an assortment of teenagers of all shapes and sizes eager to discuss their interpretation of the hero – or maybe the antihero – of the book, and his influence on the other characters, with the author, to see what she had in mind when she created him.

Another poster with a large image of a book, advertises a reading group with a different theme.  This reading group reads texts with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender theme and meets every fourth Friday of the month.  It is a very popular group and they have a list of titles on their reading list that they plan to read over the next year.  The library is introducing two more books groups from next month due to popular demand – a biography group (which has already had special requests not to read any that are ghost written or by people under thirty – which may limit the market) and a science fiction group.

Of course the library also has the standard book group – which is – as they oddly tend to be – female dominated, reading books that vary from Barbara Kingsolver to Lionel Shriver, Herman Melville to Haruki Murakami.  They sit in a circle, discussing their latest read, what they thought of it, who their favourite characters were, whether the ending was good, bad or indifferent, too abrupt or too drawn out.  Everyone has their own opinion and they aren’t afraid to voice them.  Every year the members of this library’s book group will read a title from the Orange Prize List.  They will discuss their title with other library book groups who have done the same and vote on who should win the Orange Prize.  Sadly their votes have no power over the Orange Prize judges but occasionally – very occasionally – they are right.

The faint murmur coming from the other end of the library shows that it is storytime.  The bounce and rhyme session has ended but the children have settled in to hear the story.  More children join them as it is the school holidays and there is nothing better to do.  It is dry in the library and raining outside, despite the fact that it is meant to be summer.

On the walls of the children’s library are clowns, trapeze artists, elephants, lions –  all types of characters advertising the Circus Stars summer reading challenge.  Children only need to read six or more books and get rewards and incentives if they do so.  Drawings by children and comments about the challenge cover the walls.

In the corner of the children’s library is an area designated ‘Homework’.  This is where the Homework Group meets one evening a week.  As it is the summer holidays, the area is deserted, the PC is unused and the books are neatly displayed on the shelves.  It won’t look like this nearer the end of the holiday when the children start panicking and want assistance to get that essay done for tomorrow…

A lone PC has a banner headline stating that it is only for the use of people looking for community information or the library catalogue.  An elderly woman wanders over to it and sits down, looking rather unsure.  The library assistant nearby walks over and asks if she needs help.  Five minutes later the woman leaves with a page of evening classes for internet use for beginners – helping silver surfers to get online.  A student sits down almost immediately and starts looking for a reference book for their coursework.

Back by the door of the library are more posters advertising community events, dances, homework groups, author visits, book groups…

This is your library

All human life is here.

Review of library statutory duties

In March 2011 we published a blog post concerning the “Review of Statutory Duties”, in which the Government invited the public to comment on local authority duties and “to challenge government on those which you feel are burdensome or no longer needed”.
A key aim of the review was to “build a comprehensive list, and remove unnecessary, old and outdated duties.”
 
Three of these duties related to the provision of library services by local government authorities, as follows:
  
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Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 Section 1(2)

Duty: To provide information and facilities for the inspection of library premises, stocks, records, as the Secretary of State requires.

Function: Necessary for Secretary of State to fulfil (requirement) to superintend library service (see s1 of PLAMA 1964)

DCMS_027

Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 Section 7

Duty: To provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. In fulfilling this duty, must have particular regard to the matters in s7(2)

Function: Secure provision of local library services

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Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 Section 11

Duty: Supplemental provisions as to transfers of officers, assets and liabilities

Function: Provisions provide, for example, continuity of employment for transferring employees. This secures consistency across library transfers etc and in line with other local authority employment legislation.

The review is now closed and a summary of findings for all 1,200+ duties (not just the 3 library duties) has been published by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It received 6,000+ responses “from local authorities, individuals, groups and the private sector”. 
 
It was extremely encouraging (as can be seen in the quotes below) that libraries were specifically mentioned within the report, considering that only 3 out of over 1,200 duties covered this area.
  
“The greatest numbers of responses, due to the campaign generated interest, were on: planning (including duties regarding allotments), children and young people, and libraries.”
 
“There was also considerable interest in retaining those requirements around services for disabled children, libraries and the provision of allotments.”
  
The respondents made “over 21,000 comments on whether duties could be removed. Ninety per cent were supportive of keeping specific duties…” and “Over 7,000 comments were received on whether a specific duty was considered to create a burden – of these responses 85 per cent felt that a burden was not created.”
Alongside that fact that library statutory duties received a significant amount of responses in this review, these figures infer that respondents were, on the whole, in favour of keeping the library duties.
With regard to libraries (and other named duties) the report states “The Government has made specific announcements on these areas of concern and confirmed that it is not the intention of the Government to remove the duties which protect such services.”This suggests that the duties for library services are safe – echoed by the publication of the definitive list of all statutory duties, in which all three library duties remain intact, with wording unchanged. 
 
However, a key issue raised in the summary report was the desire to remove “the burden of bureaucracy to allow local areas to determine how best to address local issues and concerns.” and the “need to remove many of the process-based duties placed upon local authorities which prevent the sensible and effective operation of many services.” It’s stated that these issues will be considered further by government departments and, as we have seen some local authorities interpret the existing 3 statutory duties in a way that seems to excuse them from different aspects of their duty, we need to be cautious that the above statements aren’t interpreted in a way that has a detrimental effect upon the provision of public library services.
 
Also, despite the comment that “it is not the intention of the Government to remove the duties which protect such services”, it isn’t clear what will happen next and if we no longer have to worry about the removal of the statutory duties covering libraries. The following quotes from the report suggest that further policy discussions beyond the scope of this review may well impact on the provision of services too:

“Any future consideration of whether to remove specific duties or associated guidance will be a separate exercise, and we will consult further as appropriate.”

“This review did not seek to pre-empt the outcomes of other policy-specific reviews being carried out by other government departments.”

So, from the report, we can see that support for public library services remains strong, which is extremely encouraging and positive, but at the same time there may also be a risk that these services can still be eroded via other routes.
  
Therefore, we do still need to remain vigilant to keep our libraries safe.

Will Lewisham bidders focus on library services?

Lewisham Council recently ran an event (12th April 2011) to showcase organisations who were proposing to take over the running of four of their library buildings at Crofton Park, Grove Park, New Cross and Sydenham. The event was advertised with the following statement on Lewisham Council’s website.

Lewisham Council is currently inviting bids from enterprising organisations that are interested in taking on the management of one or more of four library buildings earmarked for closure.

…before a decision on which organisation should be recommended to take on a lease for each building, the Council will assess the proposed use of the building and associated community benefits including plans for community library services.

(See “Lewisham Libraries – Community Interest Event” for full details)

The emphasis of the wording in both of these extracts is worrying, as it implies the building itself (the bricks and mortar) and community use of the building is the most important aspect, rather than the library services provided within it. Library services appear to have been tagged on as an afterthought.

In an earlier statement, released some time before 11th March 2011, Lewisham indicated that they intended to run library services within the premises.

Lewisham Council is looking to grant leases for four library premises in order to secure their continued community use. Anyone submitting a proposal for a lease will need to grant appropriate rights to the Council so that part of the premises can by used to provide community library services.

Anyone interested in submitting a proposal would need to address whether they intend to offer any community use in addition to the community library provision to be facilitated by the Council.

(See “Council seeks bids on library leases” for full details)

The two articles covering this issue seem to contradict each other. In the initial statement, the Council is suggesting that they will run the library service at these libraries and in the subsequent statement they imply it will be the organisations making proposals for the building who will be running the library service. Is the Council intending to run the library service or not? Is it a case of, “Let’s wait and see”?

Moving on from this point, the event happened and an article, “Lewisham’s library bidders meet the public” was published in “News Shopper” providing details of the organisations bidding to run the local libraries, along with their proposals. We have summarised key points from the article below.

We Think : a Community Sports not-for-profit group, whose ideas include

  • Having at least three full-time staff along with volunteers. 
  • Libraries will be called “literary learning centres”
  • Book stock will be halved initially.
  • Representative quote: “It’s about redefining what a library’s role in society is going to be.”

Eco Computer Systems: Computer recycling firm, whose ideas include

  • Staffing will include a library manager plus volunteers.
  • Book stock could be cut by 5,000
  • Funding from computer recycling, book recycling, sponsorship from housing associations. 
  • Representative quote: “This is just about giving people somewhere to sit, relax and read a book.”

Omega: Part of the New Testament Church of God, whose ideas include

  • No plan in place for staffing.
  • Omega promises no overt religious aspect to the library
  • Book stock stays same
  • Increased opening hours

 Family Services UK: Charity, whose ideas include

  • Staffing will include a council-paid qualified librarian plus volunteers.
  • Looking at funds from Lottery and Capital Community Foundation alongside other funding.
  • Library would become a new base for the charity, which offers therapy to poorer communities
  • Book stock would remain the same
  • Representative quote: “The library is like a missing piece of the puzzle for us. Staff will work in partnership with our services.”

It’s admirable that so many organisations are willing to play a part in providing library services, as Lewisham no longer wish to take responsibility for them. However, it is worrying that none of these proposals are coming from organisations that have an emphasis or background in providing library services. Have they involved experts in their discussions? There is a sports group, a computer recycling company, a religious organisation and a charity proposing to run libraries. Their main focus is not about providing a library service. The library service is an add on to their core business. Just by reading some of their quotes above it seems there is no common consensus about what a library service should be. Are these organisations basing their ideas on their own personal experiences about what they and their peers believe a library service should be, but with it coloured by their core business focus?

Surely organisations whose core focus is not libraries are not the best people to run the service. Organisations need to be impartial if they are to provide services that address the needs of the entire community: how can they provide a comprehensive and efficient, legally compliant service if they don’t have an expert understanding of methods that have been tried and failed? How can they be innovative if they don’t know what services a library should provide its users with?