2011 in Perspective

I hadn’t intended to write a post summing up what had happened this year or making resolutions for the future (and still don’t!) but then I saw this story in the Independent and thought it was too good a springboard to not use for a little bit of end of year reflection.

A comment that’s sometimes thrown my way when I talk about fighting library cuts and closures is that perhaps I need to get a sense of perspective. It’s only a few books, what am I getting so het up about? Shouldn’t I take my incandescence and direct it at something  worthier, bigger, more ‘important’? In our crazy, messed up world, what’s the point of someone like me spending so much time and energy on library advocacy and activism?

Unsurprisingly, I don’t struggle to construct a fairly comprehensive response about the utter wrongheadedness of that kind of suggestion, which I won’t bore the already converted with here! But now I have this to add to my arsenal. The Independent have named library closures as one of the 12 biggest news stories of 2011:

Library closures: Colin Dexter, 71, author

Libraries became the unexpected social flashpoint of 2011 when the Government cut funding to local authorities and councils responded by proposing library closures.

Local communities, allied with a host of literary stars including Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse, rapidly mobilised to defend them. Judicial reviews challenging the closures were launched across England and Wales. In Scotland, MSPs were petitioned. Private US library service providers moved in for the kill, and many battles are still being fought up and down the land.

“As an older person who has seen libraries through the years, the events of this year are deeply depressing. What has worried me most about the calls for a ‘big society’ solution to the library problem in the past 12 months is the idea that you can cut library services and employ amateurs instead. Librarians have taken years to train up and can tell you what you should and shouldn’t read. Some of the processes are very complicated indeed.

“I think the Government has been surprised by the scale of the response; their actions were taken on the assumption that people would just sit back and let the consultations pave the way for closure. Instead, you saw the people gather and revolt and take their case to the courts instead.

“I would rather turn off every light on the motorway than close our libraries. What we have seen this year will invariably lead to further cultural deprivation.”

I rarely get the sense that what I do is a waste of time. In the darker moments when I get the feeling that everything sucks and The Man is just too big and how can little me and the people I work alongside possibly win this, I always come to the conclusion that I’ve got to do it anyway and try my best and that’s all there is to be done. But knowing that the work that’s been done to get the media aware of the situation and the social and cultural implications of public library cuts has actually had an impact and is listed alongside stories like the fall of Gaddafi, the death of Bin Laden, the NHS reforms and the riots, proves to me that this is the big deal I think it is and that over the last year and a bit, we’ve really managed to get out of the echo chamber and show the world that too. I’m very happy to be part of it and am incredibly proud of the people I work with for everything they’ve achieved.

Edit: It was also announced today that Voices for the Library has been named an Independent voice of 2011. You can see the full Peer Index rankings here. Another achievement for the team to be proud of!

CC tomroper on Flickr

I’m also happy about the fact that issues about power (and abuses thereof), democracy, access to knowledge and freedom of information are being put together and are starting to have a more prominent position in public discussion. More of this please (not least because it’ll really help with my PhD research…)!

via interoccupy.org

When I think about the things that have happened this year I get a bit dizzy. It’s certainly been a big year and it’s had its fair share of bad as well as good. As for 2012…I can’t even begin to think about that without getting a little bit overwhelmed. I can’t wait to get started on my PhD. I’m looking forward to becoming CILIP VP and doing a lot of work to support the organisation and its members as well as help to make it a stronger and louder advocate for the profession. I’m anxious about what’s going to happen with the local and national public library situation and will be doing everything I can to try and get it to go it in the right direction. It’s National Libraries Day on 4th February, so that’s the first big milestone to work towards next year.

I owe a huge thank you to the people who’ve helped me get through this year without being (too much of) a wreck. Thanks guys, you’re awesome, I’m incredibly fortunate to know you and without the support I’ve had this year I’m pretty sure I’d not be coming back for round two in 2012. As it stands though…

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CILIP Vice President 2012

Some big news much earlier than I was anticipating: I’ve been elected unopposed as Vice President of CILIP for 2012, and will be President in 2013. For many reasons I wish there had been the opportunity for hustings and an election, not least so that I could discuss issues with members and hear about what people think CILIP should be doing, so please, talk to me, let me know your opinions. It’s really, incredibly important for people to be active and vocal, let CILIP know what it can do for you (and what you can do for it). I can’t wait until January to get cracking and am really looking forward to joining President Phil Bradley and the rest of the CILIP team.

Thank you very much to Liz Chapman, Mick Fortune, Alan Gibbons, Ned Potter and Laura Woods for nominating me. You can read their statements here. My manifesto is below:

The library and information profession has seen considerable changes over recent years. CILIP is seeking to better meet the needs of its members, with support for new professionals, an increased emphasis on advocacy and the provision of a significant voice for the profession, to inform policy and legislation. In Defining our professional future, members said that they “want CILIP to become, above all, a visible campaigning body. This means pro-actively advocating the profession to government, opinion leaders, employers and society as a whole, to ensure the professional function and skills are fully understood, appreciated and resourced.”

I can help CILIP and its members achieve these goals. I want to increase CILIP’s ability to support its members through effective advocacy alongside the provision of advice, guidance and mentoring for members at all stages of their career. I have a strong media profile, built through significant experience of acting as a media spokesperson about a wide range of library and information issues , for which I have received international recognition . I have lobbied local councils and national government, and supported staff and users to advocate for their services. I promote the value of all kinds of library services, the variety of resources available through them and the need for professionally staffed libraries.

The profession needs a strong ethical framework to provide a clear sense of our core principles and articulate the enduring value and relevance of the profession. I want to see CILIP better define and promote the importance of professional ethical responsibilities, for the benefit of its membership, library users and wider society. These are an integral part of the library and information profession – something which we should be proud to call attention to.

CILIP Yorkshire and Humber / Career Development Group AGM

I gave a talk at the CILIP Y&H / CDG AGM in Keighley on Tuesday. Here are the slides – fairly cryptic as usual but there are some nice quotes and pictures from Hay Festival in there.

It was great to meet so many members I’ve not had the opportunity to meet before, both new and otherwise professional. We talked about public libraries, changes to CILIP as an organisation, and the need to promote librarianship as a valid and valuable profession. It all reminded me that there’s a lot of history to the struggles we’re dealing with, which of course are complex and varied. A lot of people have been tackling a lot of issues as best they can for a very long time. The problems are nothing new, but I think the ways in which we do it as individuals and as a profession are and increasingly will be. Just don’t ask me how (yet) 🙂

Edit

Here’s a lovely picture of organiser Daniel presenting Carly Miller, Jenny Owens and me with thank you eggs and honey!

Libraries and the WI

Yesterday I went to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes AGM in Liverpool, to support CILIP CEO Annie Mauger who gave an address in support of the WI’s resolution:

This meeting urges H.M. Government to maintain support for libraries, as an essential local education and information resource.

Like many other librarians and library campaigners around the country, I gave a talk at a local WI meeting – mine was in Pudsey near Leeds. I talked about Voices for the Library, the current situation, how libraries are managed and structured, why libraries need support from the WI and why the decisions being made about library services by the government and local councils are deeply damaging to society in the wider context. It’s so important that people all over the country did the same thing and I’m so proud that we’ve managed to get this through. I’m sure there can’t have been that many WI members who started out in opposition to the resolution, but one of the important things about giving talks was to help people to understand what’s really going on – why volunteering and pub/supermarket libraries aren’t solutions, for example.

At the AGM the support for the resolution was overwhelming; not just because of the brilliant 97.79% of members who expressed their views through voting for the resolution, but also because of the conversations I had with people throughout the day about libraries – starting with the taxi driver who told me about the threatened closure of one of Liverpool’s libraries which will have a huge impact on his neighbourhood, and how he uses the library as an important source of data for his hobby – charting the odds on football games! – going on to chats with ladies sitting around me in the arena who all told me how important libraries are to them and their families – to lunchtime conversations with members of the Real Bread Campaign and Unlock Democracy who, if they didn’t understand the social relevance of libraries and the benefits they bring to the economy, individual wellbeing and wider society, I sure hope they do now!

Everything the speakers in support of the resolution said was so relevant, and surprisingly, so varied. I thought I’d have heard every argument in support of public libraries by now (and every flawed argument about their irrelevancy/failure/inevitable demise), but yesterday’s debate brought more and more evidence for the need for high quality, professionally run, local libraries.

The full text of Annie’s speech is available here. Even though I’d had a sneaky peak at it before the event, and helped in a tiny way to put one or two pieces of it together, I have to admit, I welled up and dripped big soggy librarian-activist tears all over my mobile phone round about here:

“Librarians are not just custodians of books, they are people who help you to understand the incredible new world of information that is out there, to help young people to understand that not everything is true just because you see it on a computer screen and that actually, if you can’t read, how can you go online?

“The people who work in libraries are brokers, supporters, helpers and friends. They need your support.

“The Women’s Institute has a special kind of power. You have influence. You can make change happen. You campaign for the things you believe in. Whether it is the environment, food labelling or women’s rights, the root of your campaigning is always the same, driving out ignorance and changing people’s minds through education, information and better understanding.”

There’s more information about what CILIP will be doing to support the WI in their commitment to fight to prevent library closures and to advocate the value library services bring to communities. Voices for the Library will be supporting in whatever ways we can too – I’m especially pleased because my Campaign BFF, Original VftLer and WI Member Jo‘s going to be our liaison person.

Huge thanks to Annie and CILIP’s Mark Taylor for making it possible for me to attend.

The Value of Public Libraries (and the measurement and demonstration thereof)

My campaigning colleague Ian has written about the Failure Narrative that seems to be surrounding the politics and media coverage of public libraries at the moment. He makes the excellent point that councils seem to be justifying closures, cuts and alternative models of governance by using the rhetoric that “bad stuff’s happening and it can’t be done effectively by us”. He’s also written about how the government and the media do like to focus on the negative rather than the positive, which is all part of trying to perpetuate the myth that libraries aren’t relevant anymore etc. and we shouldn’t be too bothered about them.

It got me thinking (again) about how we all know that libraries are brilliant. It’s a no-brainer. The more enlightened among us even know that libraries are about more than just books, a shiny building and longer opening hours (Phil Bradley covers that all extremely well in this post). They’re about lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups. They’re about the public good, equitable access for all members of society to public domain information of all kinds and in all formats, an appropriate balance within the law between demands from information users, and the need to respect confidentiality. They’re about a fair and economically prosperous society underpinned by literacy, access to information and the transfer of knowledge.

This isn’t airy-fairy-bunkum or crazy-lefty-ideology (sorry, Mayor Davies) – this is about the fundamentals of society. Libraries are cultural, educational and civic hubs. They always have been, and they always should be. Information and information needs are changing, but information’s not going away, and nor are people! What isn’t clear, though, is how we can prove this to the bean-counters of the world (because sadly, they’re not going away either).

An awful lot of qualitative data has been pouring into the Voices for the Library inbox for several months now. We’ve been presenting it in different ways – stories, guest blog posts, a Mashup challenge, a Wordle about “what libraries mean to you“…

We’ve even had some offers of support from academic departments keen to do something with all the information we’ve been gathering. Hopefully there’ll be time at some point soon to take them up on the offer!

The link between public libraries and academia is very important and shouldn’t be undermined. The issues faced in public librarianship are Big and Serious, no matter how many times people say that you don’t need experts, specialists or professionals to run a library service well, it’s not going to become true. My friend Liz Chapman wrote a fantastic piece about the need for Masters qualifications for VFTL, and David McMenemy wrote an excellent post for us about it, in which he said:

“Too many of several generations of professional librarians have been apathetic about the collective responsibility we all have to advocate the mission of public libraries. Taking our eye off the ball in this has been an unforgiveable dereliction of our duty to society. For many professionals educated since the early 1980s they have no way of thinking outside of a consumerist box which accentuated the basest of motives for public services.”

This may or may not be the case; I’ve not been around long enough to know. What I do know, though, is that we’ve got a big problem and we’ve got to do something about it. I’m very happy to say with confidence that there are an awful lot of brilliant librarians out there, working with CILIP and other organisations to provide fantastic library services.  I know, because I talk to them and read about it every day. The Edge Conference was (again) an excellent insight into how libraries are engaging with communities and technology. CILIP are working their bums off to advocate for public libraries, engage in meaningful discussion about the future of the profession, and tell ignorant Mayors off when they’re being stupid (*cough* BoJo and Pete *cough*). The LISNPN Crew have launched an advocacy competition, which is offering a free place at the Umbrella Conference and the CILIP New Professionals Conference. Librarians are Getting Stuff Done!

On that topic – in a couple of weeks I will be taking part in a workshop entitled Measuring the Value of Public Libraries: The fallacy of footfall and issues as measures of the value of public  libraries. I’m really looking forward to it, and I hope that it will be a step away from the simplistic and inaccurate measurement of footfall (the number of people who walk through the doors, and occasionally the people who click on the council’s ‘library’ website) and issue statistics (book/cd/dvd lending), and towards more effective systems of measurement.

The event has been organised by Professor Edward Halpin, Associate Dean of Research, Partnerships and Consultancy at Leeds Metropolitan University. He said:

“The event is designed as a starting point for debate and an opportunity to construct meaningful measurement tools for valuing our public libraries, which at this time of great change is both pertinent and important to us all.”

As well as newbies like me, participants include: Annie Mauger, Chief Executive of CILIP; Dr. Adam Cooper, Department of Culture Media and Sport, Head of Research, and Programme Manager for CASE; Carolynn Rankin, Researcher and Senior Lecturer, Leeds Metropolitan University; Roy Clare, Chief Executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archive Council. It’s a really diverse mix of people with different expertise. Hopefully the outcomes will be something that we can use to satisfy the aforementioned bean-counters!