Umbrellas, Windows and Voices

I was given the opportunity to go to a day of the Umbrella conference thanks to sponsorship from Credo Reference for Voices for the Library. I had a fantastic time and thoroughly enjoyed the sessions, catching up with people, making new acquaintances and finally meeting people I really should have met in person before now! I found some sessions particularly valuable, most notably Christine Rooney-Browne’s talk on measuring the value of libraries (there are some really useful links that she shared on the Voices site). Some of the themes that emerged from discussions in John Pateman and John Vincent’s session about the Big Society, social justice and public libraries were thought-provoking, such as the concept of ’empowerment’ from above, accountability, accessibility and engaging core, passive and non-users. My focus was inevitably on public libraries, with my Voices hat on, but I also found the talk by David Hunter, the Strategy and Performance Manager at the National Library of Scotland very interesting too. He discussed the bibliometric evaluation method that the NLS has been experimenting with, to try and discern the ways in which library users benefit from the library’s resources. There’s much work to be done, but I’m excited about its potential.

So much of what Gerald Leitner, EBLIDA President and Secretary General of the Austrian Library Association, the keynote speaker on Tuesday morning, had to say about the need for library and information professionals to take control of emerging digital copyright issues and negotiate with publishers made a lot of sense. I agree with his assertion that now is the time for LIS professionals to work together, cross-sector and internationally, to develop a unified library policy. Libraries provide access to culture, resources for lifelong learning and methods to counteract the most demoralising aspects of current economic and social crises. Gerald pointed out that the problem of legislators not understanding the value of library and information services and their lack of understanding about the difference between print and electronic copyright issues is not just a UK issue, it’s Europe-(if not world)wide. This needs to be addressed and it’s important for librarians to set it high on policymakers’ agendas. An issue he raised that was particularly relevant to my research interests was that a high proportion of children and young people in Europe are illiterate, which means that they can no longer be reached with written information. They are therefore more likely to become (or continue to be) marginalised and unengaged and vulnerable to radicalisation. This is something that libraries are in a key position to tackle.

The focus of the conference this year was on six themes, (skills and professionalism, promotion and advocacy, technologies and access, libraries in the Big Society, digital inclusion and social change, tools and techniques) the majority of which are relevant to the advocacy, campaigning and media work that I do. Tomorrow at the Windows on the World event at the West Yorkshire Playhouse I’ll be talking about the risk to UK public libraries, current legal challenges, what councils are doing in order to implement the cuts imposed on them and the implications these changes have in relation to access, universality, digital inclusion, education and social change.

It was lovely to meet so many people at the conference who knew about Voices for the Library, what we’re doing and why it’s not just important for the public library sector, but for the whole profession. I’m so grateful for the support that we have from so many people within the profession as well as members of the public, authors and other campaign groups. As Ian’s mentioned, we’d really like to get some more contributions from people, whether they’re working in libraries or just using them, to spread the message about the great work that public libraries do. It’s always been one of our key aims, but with all the campaigning against things that needs doing it’s hard to keep up the advocacy message for things. Please write to us at with anything you’d like to share.

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.

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.

Back from the Field

Fret no longer, dear readers (hah!). I have returned safely from the wilds of Powys.

It’s a busy week so I don’t have the time I’d like to write about all the people I met and the things we talked about, but highlights include:

  • Hearing people’s library stories and talking to people about why libraries are so important to them. It’s easy to include things in talks and tell journalists about why I think libraries are important and use the content already on the Voices site that’s largely been submitted by email as evidence, but the stories we collected at Hay serve as a timely reminder for me that these are real issues that affect real people in a diverse range of situations in a million different ways.

  • Ellis, a wise four-year-old, when asked by his mum what they should do to stop their library closing: “Shall we kill them, mummy?” Well, Ellis, as a last resort…

  • Sleb spotting, notably: Sue Perkins, Sandy Toksvig and John Waters (of “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” fame).
  • Gushing at Meg Rosoff having spent two evenings of tent-reading immersed in her fantastic book How I Live Now. Her talk was great and she is totally badass. I gave her a ‘keep libraries open’ badge. She put it on straight away. Love.
  • Listening to Prof. David Crystal talk about idioms in the English language that were perpetuated or introduced through the King James translation of the Bible (257 of them, for those interested).

  • Being a Proper Camper and All Round Woman of Action and putting up a tent (ahum, with some help with the tricky bits from Simon, thank you Simon), living in it for over a week in relative comfort  and actually really enjoying it.

  • Learning how to read again. I haven’t read a full novel in longer than I’d like to admit because I’ve been spending so much time encouraging other people to read and use libraries and being a massive hypocrite. I was horribly out of practice in terms of actually sitting down and concentrating on something other than a computer screen. So, I read:- Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now
    – Mike Gayle, Dinner for Two
    – Carl Hiaasen, Skin Tight
    – Jan Mark, Something in the Air

    They’re not exactly the highest browed, but they were all picked up out of the Travelling Suitcase Library except for HILN which was borrowed from my good friend and festival-buddy Nat. Who is mischief (see below…)

  • A lovely week topped off with a cheeky trip to Oxford to spend some time with the most excellent Patrick.

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.

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!

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.