Sieghart’s Independent Library Report for England

Libraryland and the media are abuzz with the newly (finally) released Independent Library Report for England. The recommendations from the report can be broadly summed up as:

  • build a ‘national digital resource’
  • write a strategic framework for libraries in England (Wales have already done this and Scotland are working on one right now)
  • have national strategic leadership (led by councils)
  • appeal to everyone
  • get wifi in all libraries
  • improve library spaces so they’re up to “retail standard”
  • share best practice through guidelines for volunteers and community-led libraries
  • remember libraries are about learning and literacy
  • support digital literacy
  • use central government funding allocations for related services
  • (perhaps) national library cards
  • get copyright law changed so that public libraries can lend ebooks better than they can now (remote loans)
  • strengthen the workforce especially through new recruits and graduates

Unsurprisingly I’ve got some thoughts about this, some of which I’ll be talking about in various radio interviews in the coming days, but a quick and dirty summary:

The talk about a digital network for libraries is grand, and I’m pleased there’s also an emphasis that this should not be to the detriment of physical stock.

None of this is new. Being more like retail outlets, encouraging community involvement etc. are all recommendations that have come out of previous reports and things that librarians have been talking about for years. Some local authorities responded to the recommendations from the last umpteen reports, but some of them had already experienced such budget cuts that it was impossible to actually do the things they wanted and knew they needed to do. How will it be different now, with the next round of cuts coming up? I don’t see a big pot of money emerging from anywhere for doing things that don’t obviously contribute to the current administration’s neolibprivatisationcitizenconsumerbigsociety agenda, so I expect the majority of libraries – that will probably have to compete with each other to get the necessarily limited funding, which somewhat contradicts the ‘we’re all in this together let’s have a standard level of service nationally’ – will only be able to get wifi, redecorate, put a coffee bar in and get self service machines if they don’t already have them. Money won’t as easily be made available to invest in the qualified staff trained in supporting information and digital literacy, digital fluency, whatever different stakeholders are calling essentially the same thing. As a result, emphasis is going to be made on the how libraries contribute to employability agenda rather than the concept of libraries as an intrinsic public good. And that’ll be disappointing, and probably not help with the goal of articulating the value of public libraries that Sieghart talks about. Spending a bunch of cash on helping libraries deliver services associated with the digital by default agenda of government doesn’t really help libraries, it just helps government deliver services unrelated to libraries, through libraries. It might force a few more people to enter the library building against their will, but it’s not going to get them invested in the notion of the public library.

WiFi. Yes, god, yes. It blows my mind that all public libraries don’t already have WiFi, but it’s for two reasons: 1) there’s no money 2) local authorities make it an absolute nightmare for libraries to install it. I’d like to see a whole bunch of money for it, and I’d like to see the government write a standard document for councils to use as a policy for installing wifi, and one standardised document that can serve as an Acceptable Use Policy for all of the library services to ask users of the computers and library WiFi. Scotland’s already working on this, I recommend England get on board. Similarly, elending as it stands is a complete shambles so I can only support efforts to make DRM less restricting and make ebooks through libraries fit for purpose, which they currently categorically are not.

The development of a library taskforce will in many ways be duplicating various other fragmented groups and communities of practice that already exist, but fine, whatever. My main concern with this is the recommendation that it be led by councils, who, in my experience, are possibly the least informed, least knowledgeable and least engaged stakeholders in the whole shebang. The representatives from councils usually haven’t set foot in a library in the last 30 years, if ever, know little about the ethos of public services let alone the specifics of public library ethics, and aren’t motivated to connect the strategic aims of the council’s wider services and duties to public libraries. When you have to spend half your time explaining to the council members that public libraries are a statutory duty, how they’re about more than just books and how they contribute to literacy, community, and the general public good, you’re on to a loser. If the council members involved in the taskforce are the ones who’ve already been converted or have always been on ‘our team’, then fine, but I’m not sure how the message is going to be communicated to the council members who’ve never given a hoot. If the DCMS doesn’t mandate a national set of standards and actually hold councils to those standards, nothing’s going to change in those authorities that are running poor services. (I get the impression from the report that trying to compel the DCMS to do its job was decided to be a bad move politically – Vaizey’s thrown his toys out of the pram before and libraries are a sore spot.)

I’m also concerned about the idea that working “in partnership with others interested in the sector” – if these interested parties have the same amount of power and influence as those in the taskforce who actually spent time learning about libraries, and use experience, research and evidence to inform their opinions and approaches, rather than principles from retail or some kind of profit motivation – then that’s going to be a problem. Support from other areas will be of benefit, no doubt, but it’s the voice of the profession that needs to have the ultimate say, not individuals and groups with ulterior motives and less knowledge. I don’t have (much of) an issue with the organisations listed (apart from the LGA who still don’t acknowledge that libraries are a statutory service and don’t understand the first thing about libraries), it’s the “amongst others” that concerns me.

If you want greater cross government recognition you need to fund research to produce evidence about the educational role of libraries, for example. You also need researchers who can do this. We’re losing our library schools in universities, and the researchers who work in them. The two aren’t especially compatible.

If you want your 21st century librarian to have digital and commercial expertise you already have those, but there aren’t any jobs for them. You also, by the way, need to teach them about how commercial principles can only be applied so far in public services where there isn’t a profit motive, and that kind of critical engagement isn’t done enough on librarianship courses (although some places do and that’s great)*. If you want these wonderful impresarios to work for a service, you need to pay them properly. Public librarians get paid very low wages. You need to pay them for their expertise.

What exactly is it that makes people in positions of power think communities could or should be responsible for the management of public services? Fine, get opinions and make sure consultations are actually meaningful, don’t ask for opinions if you’re not prepared to actually act on the feedback if it’s strongly for or against something. Fine, get communities involved in making decisions about colour schemes for decorating or new book stock, but the ultimate decisions need to be made by people who’ve actually learnt about what colour schemes aren’t going to work with the principles of universal design, and what book stock should or shouldn’t be included in a collection because not stocking it for political or religious reasons would be censorship, or stocking it would be harmful to individuals and groups within a community. This is stuff communities mostly won’t know or think about, and do you know, I don’t necessarily think they should have to. I think that’s what taxes are for – paying for public services that are run by people who know stuff about how to do it properly, in the public interest.

Encouraging community involvement in library management “through a variety of models” surely just adds to the inconsistencies across England (and the UK more widely) in terms of library management. They already sit in several different directorates across different local authorities, there’s already a mishmash of different service structures that are the result of differing approaches to salami-slicing cuts for the last twenty-odd years. Asking for different models of management at the same time as asking for increased consistency is a contradiction.

There is hardly any attention given to the role of libraries in supporting literacy and learning, be that for school-aged children or older learners. Schools are mentioned three times – once to do with how TeachFirst has been good, once to mention that school libraries exist, and once to mention in passing that partnerships with schools and public libraries would be good. The fact that there’s so weak a relationship between the education system and libraries is something that continues to baffle me, but I think it’s probably linked to the lack of research and evidence for something that ought to be a given.

So yes, that’s my initial take on it, but I may well change my mind on things the more it’s discussed!

* Pedronicus has written a post on the precarious position of librarianship education in the UK which is well worth a read.

Featured image CC by interactivesomerville



picture of a mug of tea. the mug says 'where there's tea there's hope'.

This post may well be incredibly vague, but I’d like to write it anyway for a few reasons – hopefully something I write might be of use to other people doing research in the same kind of area as me, people might have helpful suggestions, and I feel a bit of pressure (probably all from myself) to write something to keep this blog remotely up to date and have something in it about what I’m doing. So. This is a sort of ‘things I’ve learnt from fieldwork’ post, but I have to keep things vague for obvious reasons. I’ve applied the general idea that if someone involved in my research reads this post, it won’t give anything away, or cause upset, or influence the data I’m collecting.

I’m three weeks into a twelve week stint of fieldwork for my PhD. I’m in a secondary school with 1,000 students or so, from age 11 to 18 (years 7 to 13 in England). I’m focusing most of my research on people aged 14-16. For those who don’t already know, my research is about critical information literacy and political agency or, less elegantly, how young people form opinions and make decisions about political issues based on the information they encounter in all its forms, and whether they’d be in a better position to participate in political processes if libraries and educators taught them about how culture promotes certain views and approaches above other ones, and how they can use an awareness of this to address various forms of social injustice. I’m doing this because I want to address how librarianship needs to be more critical in its approach to information literacy, because we can help with a lot of the issues and need to stop perpetuating some of them.

I’m three weeks in and still finding my feet. I’ve written down some very general and quite specific things I’m learning, most of which is probably blatantly obvious, but I hope it might be at least a little bit useful to someone if they come across it when they’re in a blind panic about their research.

Some Things I Am Learning:

1) It’s nigh on impossible to describe your research

I’ve done elevator pitches at numerous training events, I’ve presented my work at conferences, I’ve written abstracts with incredibly limited word counts, I’ve bored the ears off my boyfriend’s friends at work parties, I’ve even, I’m fairly sure, managed to squeeze the gist of my research topic into a couple of tweets. I’ve done a fair amount of media interviews that have required me to discuss complex issues about libraries, local politics, and public services in a way that’s comprehensible and at least a little bit interesting and engaging. Put me in front of a year group, however, and I lose the ability to describe what I’m doing and what I want to find out about completely. I’ve written information sheets to go out with the consent forms and these seem to make sense on paper, but don’t translate well in speech for some reason. I’m fairly sure at one point last week I found myself describing it as “if people are thinking about stuff when they think about stuff”, or something along those lines. This is for a few reasons, one of which is that I really have been immersed in the academic language for a long time and what makes sense to me doesn’t make sense to people who haven’t been reading about critical theory. This is actually a problem that’s raised by Rex Gibson in Critical Theory and Education (1986) – critical theorists are buggers for using long words that are difficult to think about in an everyday context. Library theory’s similar – information literacy isn’t a concept that all teachers have necessarily heard of even though it’s (arguably) a central concept for librarians. On top of that, I’m using an ‘out there’ method as part of my research – repertory grids. It’s a faff to explain and is very much one of those ‘you’ll get it when you sit down and do it’ things that works fine when you actually do it but involves several stages that are hard to describe in words. And of course, when I’m describing it, one of my usual approaches is to give “for examples”, which I don’t want to do because it might alter the responses I’d get from participants.

2) Good luck getting consent forms back

When it’s difficult to explain your research and methods, it’s difficult to explain why participation would be great and valuable and not that time-consuming and so on. As I said, my research is based in a school, where paper forms are circulated regularly and get left and lost as a matter of course. I’ve tried several approaches to urging people to bring consent forms back because I literally cannot do anything other than observe if I don’t have permission from a legal guardian because they’re under 18. There are very good ethical reasons for this, especially because although my research carries few risks and is in no way dangerous and of course participants will be anonymised, it’s about political views and where people get information from, which is potentially something that guardians don’t want their children to be involved in, and that’s entirely fair enough. I’m taking the active consent approach rather than the passive consent approach because I think it’s really important for guardians to know about what I’m doing beforehand – and if the consent forms aren’t being brought back, I can assume that the information sheets aren’t making their way into the hands of guardians.

I’ve got a handful of returned forms and I’m still trying. That makes me worry about the time I’ve got left – I’d wondered about getting someone to circulate them before I got here, but they wouldn’t have been able to answer questions that people might have and I don’t think it would have helped. However, establishing and negotiating consent is an ongoing process, and as I have to alter my methods, I’ll keep talking to participants about what I’m doing and why. Kay et al. (Eds.) (2009) Researching with Children and Young People: Research Design, Methods and Analysis has been a really great source of recommendations for issues to take into consideration, like making sure potential participants don’t feel coerced into doing the research. It’s also encouraged me to do things like just ask the participants how they’d like to do something – would they prefer to have a chat as a group, or would they rather do it alone? Is this sort of thing hard to talk about, or is it fine? Would they rather stay after school or meet at lunchtime? These are decisions I’d had to make during the methodology design that don’t necessarily meet what the participants would prefer, and it’s no great shakes for me to change my plans. After all, what I want is lots of rich data, and that comes from the participants feeling comfortable and happy to take part, especially when part of what I want to know is what are the political issues that they feel most passionately about and see how they construct their world of political information.

picture of a consent form and a textbook about repertory grids

3) It’s about quality over quantity

At least, that’s my argument and I’m sticking with it. For the type of research I’m doing, a small sample isn’t the end of the world. Given my issues with consent forms, I won’t have a huge sample. I think this will be okay – I’m not trying to identify trends or to make generalisations across a large group. I’m trying to get a sense of individuals’ perceptions and how that connects to information literacy, and the majority of the data collection is qualitative. As long as I record my field notes and observations in great detail and write about my methodology transparently, hurdles and all, I’m hoping it’ll be acceptable. If I don’t have enough data from the fieldwork, I’ve written a couple of backup plans into my methodology and can bring one of those out if it’s needed.

4) Organisation is key

Key to a) keeping on track and b) keeping you on the rails. I’ve got a spreadsheet with a page for a Gantt chart, a page with daily timetables, all kinds of things. This helps me make sure I’m getting stuff done, reorganise my schedule when I need to so that I still have time to record what I need to, and also make me feel like I’m vaguely on top of things. I also have a page where I’ve got a chart in which I record all my activities on a lesson by lesson basis. It’s easy for a day to slip by without feeling like you’ve achieved anything even though actually you have got stuff done and you don’t need to be so hard on yourself, and it’s also easy to miss opportunities for getting hold of pupils when you’ve often only got a 20 minute window per day during registration period. Google Calendar continues to be a godsend, because it reminds me about things I need to do that aren’t fieldwork. Keeping track is helpful.

I’m finding NVivo really useful not only for typing up observations (and soon I’ll be transcribing interviews), it’s also really useful for daily memos and reflections on what I’m doing and how things are changing based on circumstances and the decisions I’m making. I can imagine this will be helpful when I’ve forgotten what I was thinking when I decided to alter a way of going about something and I need to write about it.

5) No, no, flexibility. Flexibility is key.

I’ve had to make so many amendments to my planned research methods for practical reasons that I’m quite glad I don’t have anything too set in stone. Being organised (in theory) helps me work out how I can reorganise, but being flexible makes it possible. Even in terms of a research approach, I’ve found that the way I think about things is changing as I learn more about the research environment and the participants. Sometimes, no amount of theory can prepare you for reality. (I promised you I’d be vague…)

6) School life is really tiring!

This is a bit whinge whinge moan but also practical. It’s important to look after yourself and pace yourself! I’m not a late riser so I thought I’d be fine, but good grief 6:30am starts are kicking my ass. There’s something especially draining about strip lighting and the way air circulates around school buildings that I’d forgotten about. It’s also really hard to regulate your temperature (increasingly so as the weather gets warmer) and really easy to forget about lunch (or as happens more often for me, eat your lunch at 10am because 7am is no time to put food in yourself). I get home shattered and I’m good for nothing, which is not great because I could really do with putting another couple of hours in in the evening. Early nights are my friends. As is tea.

picture of a mug of tea and a laptop

7) Doing something creative and/or destressy is really important

I’m worried about not collecting enough data. I’m worried about not collecting the right data. I’m worried about running out of time. I’m worried about doing something wrong. I’m worried about not being able to talk to the participants well. I’m worried about technical issues. I’m worried that I still haven’t got a proper neat and tidy literature review let alone a well-written methodology. I’m worried that I haven’t even started writing a conference paper that’s due in less than a fortnight (even if I do have a detailed plan carved out of the last productive anxiety streak). I’m worried about my cats in Glasgow even though I know they’re being very well looked after by my incredible friend. I’m worried that all of my friends have forgotten me and never liked me anyway. Inwardly, I’m a knot of anxiety. I really don’t know what I’d be like if I didn’t have knitting and spinning to come home to.

picture of a hand wearing a knitted glove

picture of a knitted shawl close up

I’ve made about 70 projects since last February, from facecloths to cardigans and elaborate shawls. I’ve tried as wide a variety of techniques as I’ve felt brave enough for (not onto steeking just yet…). I’ve also taken up spinning, which I swore I Would Not Do until I was a Grownup and had the time and money to devote to another craft. I was also a bit reluctant to go Full Yarny I think. However.

picture of a spinning wheel

This is my Joy. It’s from a second hand shop and is the victim of a terrible stain-job. It needed a bit of doing up, which helped me get to know how it works and what it needs. It’s very helpful when I’m feeling too shattered to do anything complicated. I can’t tell you how theraputic spinning is. It can be the complete opposite of course when you’re learning, but although I’m not very good yet, I have got to the stage where I can spend a couple of hours spinning merrily away making consistent yarn and drafting (badly) without it breaking and having to stop to set things back up again. I’ve started taking my drop spindle on train journeys for when my brain’s too fried for reading or knitting. It’s relaxing and the source of some interesting chats with passengers. Spreading the fibre love! (Yeah…I’m one of those now.)

As well as really enjoying the process, I also really enjoy the feeling of having made something. When I feel like everything’s going wrong, to be able to wrap myself up in a shawl that was a pile of fluff not very long ago, and feel like I’ve created something beautiful makes all the difference.

I guess all I’ve really said in quite a lot of words is that I’m finding it helpful to work hard but keep a sense of perspective. I’d love to know how other people are finding or found their first few weeks of fieldwork, because it can be quite an isolated and detached experience.

Measuring National Well-Being

I’m on the panel at this event tonight:

Measuring National Wellbeing

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is holding a Wellbeing event tonight at 6pm in the School of Law. All are welcome, so come along and get involved.

The ONS is developing new measures of national wellbeing as part of a nationwide consultation that it is conducting at the request of the Prime Minister. These measures will examine and address the quality of life of people in the UK, along with environmental and sustainability issues and economic performance.

The ONS has been consulting with people, organisations and businesses across the country, as well as central and local government, to ask what matters most in people’s lives and what is important for measuring the nation’s wellbeing. Now it’s your chance to have a say, as the debate is coming to Leeds.

The University’s School of Law/Centre for Criminal Justice Studies will host the event, today (4 April) from 1800-1900 at the School of Law, in Room LG06, The Liberty Building, Moorland Road.

The panel will include:

  • Professor Kate Pickett: University of York, Health Sciences/Equality Trust
  • Aileen Simkins: Office for National Statistics
  • Nina Quinlan: University of Leeds, Wellbeing Directorate

The event is free and open to staff, students and the general public, but spaces are limited. To attend please go to visit the event website and download and print a free ticket. You might also like to submit a question for the panel by selecting ‘contact the host’ on the ticket page.

More information can be found at the ONS website or contact Peter Traynor, Research Officer on 0113 34335016 or email

So, I’m spending my lunch hour doing my homework! Some key resources seem to be:

National Accounts of Well-being Indicators

Needless to say, I’m a tad sceptical about the government’s agenda, so I’ll be applying a hefty dose of critical thinking to the event. I mostly plan to discuss the impact library cuts will have on the well-being of individuals and society and the ways in which there appears to be a distinct lack of, shall we say, strategic thought, applied to the scheme so far. The issues for libraries can be applied to other public services, so I hope my contribution will be of some kind of interest and/or use.

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.