Warwickshire Libraries – BBC Midlands Today

Hello! For your viewing pleasure (for the next week), here I am with my best Deer in the Headlights Face, doing a bad job of constructing sentences in a grammatically correct or coherent manner.

(Caption competition…click to link through to video)

Inevitably I didn’t manage to mention any of the stuff I’d swatted up on or talk about how volunteer-run libraries would struggle to be sustainable and meet the needs of communities, eventually closing anyway because the council looks to be set to charge community groups an awful lot of money for the privilege of struggling away with minimal council support for a few months to a year or so, resulting in reduced footfall and issue figures so the council can justify closing the branches with less attention from ever-more-disenfranchised communities and the media. Next time eh.

Say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.

This Mail article filled me with so much rage that I had to channel it into something that might be useful for people, which is better than spending an hour dissecting the piece on my Facebook wall, right? I’ll just dissect it here.

Libraries too middle class and we’re right to be shutting them says Redwood
Former Tory leadership contender John Redwood said it was right to consider shutting many libraries

Libraries pander too much to the middle classes, John Redwood claimed yesterday.

Yes yes, nothing new here. Roy Clare’s already been there. “Strive to thrive; recognise the width and breadth of the social opportunities and fight hard to nourish change and embrace development that can serve the whole community, not simply the privileged, mainly white, middle class” wrote Clare in January. I don’t have a problem with this. I do have a problem with his false assumption that people fighting for libraries are all white, middle class and conservative (small c) but that’s another issue. The point is, that libraries shouldn’t pander too much to the middle classes. But do they? I’ve never found that to be the case. Should they close if they do? No, don’t be stupid. If something’s not very well, make it better. I have images of him at the vets with his a St. Bernard that saved his life on the Swiss Alps, being told it’s got a cold. “Put it down”, says Redwood, callously.

The former Tory leadership contender said it was right to consider shutting many of them because they did not serve their communities properly.

See above. Local authorities cannot legally shut down a library if it fails to serve its communities properly. In fact, they have a legal duty to ensure that it does serve its community properly. If the local authority fails to do that, the Secretary of State has a legal duty to intervene and make sure they do.

He suggested that universities and secondary schools could open up their libraries to the public instead.

There are many reasons this is a Terrible Idea. Here are three:

1) Universities and secondary schools stock very different materials to public libraries. There is some cross-over, like cds, if the university has a music department, and children’s fiction in a secondary school say. However, you can’t just fling open the doors and assume that all information needs of the public will be met by an academic or school library. I’m not sure Bob the mechanic would be able to find that manual he needs to get his start-up business off the ground at his local secondary comp.

2) Running with the brainwave, though – ok, so we make academic and school libraries open to the public. There are so many security issues with this. If a student wants to use another academic library, they’re able to do so through the incredibly useful SCONUL scheme, where basically, the home institution gives a nod to the other university that this borrower is a good one and doesn’t steal items or bring them back really late and so on. There’s a lot of very expensive stock in academic libraries, which is why for the most part, universities don’t allow any Tom, Dick or Harry in off the street. (They have enough issues with stock theft from their own students…) On the school library front, parents I’ve spoken to have been up in arms about the idea of the public being able to wander in off the street and use the school library. I’m not 100% up on my child safety laws, but I’m pretty sure there are some fairly solid grounds for that not being a possibility.

3) A lot of people who use libraries to learn as adults didn’t perform well at school, which is why they have a need to do something about it now, through improving their literacy, numeracy, ICT skills etc. Removing the only neutral, non-judgemental space they have and telling them that if they want to learn, they’ve got to go back to school, isn’t going to work. I wrote a piece for the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education about public libraries and adult learning, in which I said “For many adult learners, schools are associated with negative learning experiences and do not encourage engagement. Libraries, on the other hand, are more often seen as neutral spaces that are not designed for education at only one age, and as a result, can be seen as more conducive to adult learning.” Making people use a university library has similar issues. There are a lot of emerging readers who have a real issue with higher education, because they didn’t get to go to university, for example. A surprising amount of the public library users I served took issue with me because they (rightly) assumed I was a student – and they hate students. If I’d asked them to start using the university library from now on, I’d have been laughed at – “you want me to go where and be with who?”

Writing on his blog, Mr Redwood rejected the argument that libraries helped disadvantaged people access learning – pointing out that many filled their shelves with fiction.

1) The assumption that reading fiction doesn’t constitute learning demonstrates an ignorance of the learning process and one of the many roles of literature.

2) The assumption that reading for pleasure is of no social/cultural/individual value demonstrates…ignorance.

3) The assumption that ‘disadvantaged people’ have no right to access shelves full of fiction is disgusting.

And we all know what it makes of us to assume, Mr. Redwood.

Mr Redwood said that in a half-hour visit to one he did not see anyone borrow a book.

This is an example of the problem we have when we measure the use and impact of libraries through book borrowing alone. What of the people reading newspapers? Those people using books for reference, not needing to take them home? Those who can’t take items home because the item they’re using is reference only? Those who are too scared to take library books home because they or the books will be damaged if they do? Those who aren’t allowed to join the library because they have no fixed abode so can’t borrow books but can read them in the library? Those using PCs to apply for jobs or read something or look something up? Those little children exploring the space and resources in the library, developing a love of reading and sharing that experience with their carers or other children or librarians or (safe) strangers? Do they not count?

‘I lingered over the non-fiction shelves,’ he said. ‘The books seemed oriented to middle-class hobbies like antiques and foreign travel.

1) I don’t have a problem with books being oriented to the communities the library serves. I assume the library he went into is in a fairly affluent area, because well, he’d not be seen dead somewhere rough, would he?

2) Do working class people not go abroad, now?

3) Even if these hobbies are solely pursued by the middle class (which they’re not), libraries are aspirational places where people can find out about all kinds of things they might like to get involved in but aren’t yet, in the hope that one day they can. Foreign travel might be too expensive for Mrs. X right now, but perhaps she’s thinking about saving up and wants to find out about where she could go. And so on and so on.

‘I guess the book buying had been well judged to cater for the demand of a fairly affluent local community.’

Sure, fine, if the local community is fairly affluent and there’s no mix of people. I think where we’re getting to here is that he also doesn’t think middle class people should have access to a local library, which is wrong. Public libraries are (supposed to be) equitable public spaces where people from all backgrounds can go to access a comprehensive range of resources. That includes people who are financially better off. There are lots of reasons that people who could otherwise afford to buy books might need to use a library:

1) It’s more environmentally friendly to borrow than buy

2) It’s less individualistic to want to share resources that you’ll only use once and other people can use too

3) Not all resources are available on Amazon (e.g. large print, audiobooks, specialist books)

Oh yeah, and if I’m paying up to £20 a year in tax for it, I expect to be able to access the service I’m paying for and have a legal right to. I also expect it to meet the needs of everyone, just as the NHS does.

‘Some defenders of every public library imply they are for a different clientèle. They conjure images of children from homes living on low incomes developing a passion for reading serious books borrowed from the local library.

We imply it because they are. But not exclusively, and we’d never imply that. In fact, we make a serious effort not to. And yes, we conjure these images because they’re true to life. We conjure them up from places like the Voices for the Library blog and stories pages, where people share real-life, contemporary experiences.

‘The library is seen as a force for self improvement and the pursuit of knowledge. I fear that in many case this is no longer true, if it ever was.’

It was, which is why Carnegie set them up. Well, it was also so the poor people would spend less time in the pub, but that counts as self-improvement. And yes, it still is true, albeit in a slightly less paternalistic way. I’d argue that the fact that libraries are seen as a force for self improvement and the pursuit of knowledge is the very reason people like Mr. Redwood get so antsy about them…

Mr Redwood said that, when university and school libraries are included, there may be too many libraries in many communities – meaning that councils could safely cut costs by closures.

This is specious logic. If we went down this route, the House of Lords library and the House of Commons library could be merged, or better yet, closed and we could make the Lords and the MPs go to the local Westminster public library down the road. Fair’s fair.

Edit: Actually, if we follow Redwood’s logic, members of the public should be allowed to use the Houses’ libraries – even better!

My point is, different libraries have different roles, different users and different resources. They’re also funded by different people, or certainly will be now that the government has changed the school system and higher education funding structure. Can you imagine what’d happen if the students paying £9,000 a year were told that the resources they help to pay for were to be opened up to the public? What’s the point of going to university then? Oh wait…

He wrote: ‘Maybe at a time of tighter spending controls, we need to think again about how many libraries we need in each community, where they are best placed, and how the educational libraries can be used by those who do not go to those institutions.

I’m ok with this, really, except the bit about how ‘educational libraries’ can be used by those who don’t go into them. See my point above about those who don’t go into them being the ones who don’t pay for the right to use them. Yes, we need to look at the number of public libraries we have, but we need to look at it without the pressure of ‘tighter spending controls’. If the only reason you’re getting rid of libraries is because you don’t think there’s the money for them, you’re not looking at the issue objectively and you’re not doing it right. There is a very real need for the vast majority of the libraries currently under threat of closure, and local authorities are doing a shocking job of demonstrating that need. Even if they could, they have no choice but to close them because of the huge (ideological and unnecessary) spending cuts being forced upon them at breakneck speed.

‘A system of book transfer, holiday loans and the like might ease any book shortage and cater for those who wish to read well.

Oh I’m so glad we have a libraries expert coming up with these novel and previously unconsidered issues. Thanks John.

Here is my two-penneth's worth.
Strive to thrive; recognise the width and breadth of the social opportunities and fight hard to nourish change and embrace development that can serve the whole community, not simply the privileged, mainly white, middle class.

Big Society Capital Funds

An emerging way in which local authorities are trying to keep libraries going are through allocations of one-off capital funds. For example, Warwickshire County Council has set aside £100,000 for people to set up community-run libraries. whatsinKenilworth”>The offer includes:

  • Warwickshire County Council  is setting aside a one-off capital fund of £100,000 to support communities in the setting up their community library
  • Where the Council accepts a community library business case, and the library building is owned by the Council, it is prepared in principle to lease the premises to a Community Group at a peppercorn rent for an initial period of one year
  • After that, subject to annual review of the services being provided, the lease may continue at a peppercorn rent, or at less than market value, for a period of up to 5 years in total.
  • At the end of the 5 year period, a full market rent will be payable
  • The tenant will be responsible for all repairs from the outset
  • Buildings offered at a peppercorn rent for the first year and then reviewed every year for the first 5 years after which the building would have to be paid for at the market rate.
  • Current book stock will be available

You can listen to me talking about whether this is a good idea, here. My main points were:

  • We need to be critical about the offer. It’s not necessarily a good compromise
  • It’s important for councils to meet their statutory obligations and they need to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. Giving communities £100,000 doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing that
  • The system and funding needs to be sustainable – communities need to know where the money will come from in future
  • Libraries are complex systems – local and national government don’t seem to appreciate this. It requires more management skills to run libraries than community groups who’ve done it already first anticipated.
  • Libraries are about more than books – they’re about getting right information to right people
  • Not all good information is on the internet, and not all information on the internet is good
  • There is a need to keep expertise in the library, but this comes at a cost – councils have been charging communities for professional support
  • We live in an information society – we need libraries more than ever. Councils should be investing in libraries to help citizens find and negotiate information
  • Statistics about a decline in library use aren’t accurate
  • The majority of children use libraries and this has a demonstrable impact on literacy levels
  • People need libraries more than ever – for education, employment and information. We need professionals who can help us with this
  • The government can’t shirk its legal responsibilities

What I didn’t mention is that £100,000 really isn’t a lot when you divide it up between the 16 libraries under threat (£6,250 each). I don’t know how much it costs to keep each branch library in Warwickshire running at the moment, but I can give a rough and ready example for Doncaster. Bessacarr Library costs £22,000 a year to run as it is currently. This is our very smallest and cheapest library, in a portacabin. Even if you took out the cost of staff and ran the place with volunteers, took out the rates and charged peppercorn rent, took out the costs of transport (which includes stock deliveries and receiving stock from other branches) – it would still cost about £6,140 per year to run (so that’s the generous council gift of £6,250 pretty much blown). More, if the council refuses to provide access to the council ICT network, and that’s realistically going to be the case because of information security issues. If you want to put in a self-issue machine it may cost £2,000 and then £600-800 a year to maintain. Where’s the rest of the money coming from? Communities? Because I tell you now, people can’t afford it, especially under the coming nightmare situation that’s being inflicted on hundreds of thousands of people. Even setting aside all the issues of equitable access to free, impartial, reputable sources of information provided by trained, professional staff – it’s just not a sustainable model.

I keep coming back to the thought – £18 a year in council tax is more than worth it for the service provided to society through the public library service. 25% of electors in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, even voted for an increase in council tax in order to keep their library running as it is now.

Up All Night

I did an interview for BBC Radio 5 Live’s Up All Night programme last night. It mostly covered old ground, why libraries are important, why local and national government have responsibility for the cuts and closures etc.

An interesting question raised was “why aren’t you trying to find generous benefactors to pay for the libraries?” – my response was something along the lines of “we did, a hundred years ago, and now the government’s forcing councils to sell off what was given to them – doesn’t really encourage people to invest in the social good, does it?”

Anyway, you can listen to it here.

Radio Marathon!

Exciting! I spent two and a half hours in the BBC Leeds station this morning doing back-to-back live and pre-recorded interviews for local BBC radio stations and Radio 4’s You & Yours consumer affairs programme, in my capacity as ‘media contact’ for Voices for the Library and Save Doncaster Libraries.

BBC Breakfast ran a piece about library closures and volunteer models of provision this morning, so volunteering was a hot topic, as were council proposals, the “what do you think we should cut then?” question, deprofessionalisation, the social value of libraries, statutory provision, and if libraries would ever re-open once closed.

My schedule went something like this (you can listen if you really want to. I’ve not got round to finding all of the timings, but I did find the Leeds one!):

09:40 Pre-recorded interview/debate with Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries for BBC Radio 4′s You & Yours programme.

10:08 Luton

10:22 Cambridge

10:30 Wiltshire

11:08 York

11:15 Hereford & Worcester

11:22 Sheffield

11:38 Surrey & Sussex

12:00 BBC Radio Leeds (pre-recorded for the drivetime show: 2 hours 45 minutes in)

I also did pre-recorded interviews for Northampton, West Midlands and Cornwall.

Phew! What a morning.

Don’t Be Quiet Please

I was interviewed by Red Pepper Magazine a couple of months ago, and the article’s now available here.

red peppersI’m really happy about the way they’ve covered a wide range of the different services available through public libraries, because a lot of the reporting around it recently has continued to peddle the old “libraries are just about books” line, which is fine to an extent, but isn’t accurate and is pretty simplistic and reductive.

Anyhow, here’s the bit that’s got me in it 😉

According to Lauren Smith, passionate Doncaster librarian and member of the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign group, ‘Libraries are more relevant and innovative than ever before. Especially in times of recession, libraries can be like sanctuaries where people can come and access information for free.’ Lauren emphasises that despite vast amounts of information being available online, there are materials such as historical documents and reference books that are only available at libraries. Indeed, a recent innovation in libraries is to have expensive software and subscription databases available free to members, including online databases such as family genealogy, NewsUK, and the Oxford/Grove online art and music encyclopedias.

Another innovation in libraries is their intention to reach out to those who can’t get to a library or don’t have the time. ‘Soon it may well be possible for members to download e-books from the library website. It will also be possible to download audiobooks straight to your iPod,’ says Lauren.

The advent of self-checkout points is a development that has freed librarians to spend more time engaging with the public and assisting with in-depth research. But this role is forgotten as councils look to the technology as an excuse to get rid of librarians altogether.

‘It is a worry that professional librarians are being phased out,’ says Lauren. ‘It is essential that libraries are run by qualified staff with the right ethical grounding to provide a wide and balanced variety of information to the public. If libraries are run solely by volunteers, or by private companies, the information provided and the training courses offered may become skewed and biased.’

I really wish more reporters would mention the social value of libraries and the importance of equity of access,  as well as the wide variety of information and leisure resources available, all of which are totally relevant and valid in a public library service. It was lovely to see how much effort had been put into this piece, and I’m really grateful to Donald for listening so intently as I rambled down the phone to him about all the things that libraries do and why it’s vital they do them properly.

Haters Gonna Hate?

One of the most important parts of library advocacy at the moment seems to be setting the record straight; explaining to people where they’ve got the wrong impression of libraries (be that because they’ve had a bad and unrepresentative experience and/or because they haven’t used a library in many years).

It happens an awful lot on news articles talking about library cuts. You can guarantee that a number of naysayers will comment with something from the List of Predictable Anti-Library Comments (catchy, I know):

These points are all wrong and/or inaccurate and have all been challenged very well by librarians, library staff and/or members of the public. It’s not exhaustive, it’s a work in progress. I might make a table of comments and responses to cut and paste from the next time they come up…

It’s been suggested that we should just ignore the naysayers and leave them to their ignorance. This is not an option! It’s really tiring to argue against all the misconceptions and misunderstandings of public libraries, but we have to. And it’s worth it. In a Times article back in August, Frank Skinner wrote about how, in his (admittedly) limited experience, libraries are out of date and awful. This caused uproar in the library community. Many people wrote to challenge his views and explain why he was wrong. One or more of them even wrote to him. And do you know, it worked! Frank changed his mind when he went to a library and saw what a lot of them are actually like these days. It might not work all the time, because some people have made their minds up and that’s it, but it’s our duty to set the record straight whenever we can. Voices for the Library aim to debunk the myths about libraries, but we can’t be everywhere all the time! Please do speak up for your services when you hear someone propagating inaccuracies. Haters ain’t necessarily gonna hate forever, and you never know, once they’re better informed, they might become great advocates of libraries themselves.

Update:  I’ll keep linking to things as I come across them.

 

One of the most important parts of library advocacy at the moment is setting the record straight; explaining to people where they’ve got the wrong impression of libraries (be that because they’ve had a bad and unrepresentative experience and/or because they haven’t used a library in many years).

It happens an awful lot on news articles talking about library cuts. You can guarantee that a number of naysayers will comment with something from the List of Predictable Anti-Library Comments (catchy, I know):

· Libraries are an irrelevant anachronism in the digital age (here and here, too)

· Cuts have to be made somewhere – libraries are not a priority and it’s better than cutting other services – if you don’t have any other suggestions, you can’t oppose library cuts (here, here, here, yawn and here too)

· Library usage is declining

· Everything’s available online now or if it isn’t, it should be

· People should use bookshops instead

· Charity shops are an adequate replacement for libraries

· Google is better than librarians/libraries

· You don’t need librarians

· Everybody has the internet these days (and that’s sufficient)

· Universities and schools have libraries, use those instead (here, too)

· I’m all right, Jack

· I don’t know anyone who uses a library or my library’s quiet when I go in it, therefore nobody uses libraries

· I didn’t like my library the last time I used it (donkeys years ago) so it must be worse now

· Libraries don’t have books in them anymore and are just cyber-cafés with crèches

· Librarians hate books and it’s all their fault

· Putting computers in libraries has killed them

· Librarians are just campaigning to save their jobs

· People stopped using libraries because they didn’t need them anymore

· Poor and/or working class people don’t read, aren’t deserving and aren’t entitled to an education so we should close libraries

These points are all wrong and/or inaccurate and have all been challenged very well by librarians, library staff and/or members of the public. It’s not exhaustive, it’s a work in progress. I might make a table of comments and responses to cut and paste from the next time they come up…

It’s been suggested that we should just ignore the naysayers and leave them to their ignorance. This is not an option! It’s really tiring to argue against all the misconceptions and misunderstandings of public libraries, but we have to. And it’s worth it. In a Times article back in August, Frank Skinner wrote about how, in his (admittedly) limited experience, libraries are out of date and awful. This caused uproar in the library community. Many people wrote to challenge his views and explain why he was wrong. One or more of them even wrote to him. And do you know, it worked! Frank changed his mind when he went to a library and saw what a lot of them are actually like these days.