Thursday, 28 February 2008

Equity & excellence in the Public Library

Library professionals inevitably spend a great deal of their time focusing on the day-to-day issues of running library services but occasionally we debate the principles that underpin what we do. One such debate is currently taking place in the pages of our professional journals and librarians from our area are taking a leading role in this debate.

This debate was sparked by Bob Usherwood, Emeritus Professor of Librarianship, University of Sheffield and Chair of SINTO. His new book Equity and Excellence in the Public Libraries: why ignorance is not our heritage, was published last year by Ashgate. Prof Usherwood summarised his views in an Opinion piece in Update 6(12) December 2007 p22.

His argument is that too many public librarians steer clear of making value judgments when choosing stock and as a result are "failing to counteract the ignorance and prejudice engendered by a society that cultivates celebrity, cash and trash." It is a cause of concern for Bob that so many librarians "appear unable or unwilling to make a judgement about the quality of books or other material." He further suggests that libraries should focus on services to encourage and support people with learning difficulties and others who do not deliberately embrace ignorance rather than "larger louts, chavs and other imposters masquerading as [the] true working class" (Usherwood quoting Knightley). "Such groups" claims Bob "are not by any means genuine representatives of the disadvantaged, and public librarians have to be very wary of the siren voices of those policy makers and others who mistakenly seek to promote their interests on the name of inclusion and equity."

Helen Buckley Woods of Sheffield Hallam University took issue with this in a letter to the January/February Update. She argued that it was not the either/or situation that Bob seemed to suggest and that most librarians would have "[a] steadfast commitment to provide a broad range of materials and services for all parts of the community, endeavouring to offer an excellent service to every user, no matter who they are...".

John Pateman (Head of Libraries, Lincolnshire) wrote to Update to support Helen's views that we should not separate the 'underclass' from the 'true working class' but argued that "...we should be mindful of the balance between social classes in our communities and ensure that resources are allocated accordingly. He also said that Helen was right to point out that there need not be a tension between equity and excellence in public libraries. However in a later piece in the Library & Information Gazette headlined "Equity not excellence" John says "My view is that we should not put our focus on excellence in terms of bookstock, but on equity with regard to social inclusion." He continues "Surely it is better to compromise on high professional standards so that libraries can truly be open to all?" John concludes by saying "In the modern public library service, excellence has its place - as a secondary consideration. But it has not served public libraries well in the past. Equity must be the watchword for the future."

On the face of it this is a clear conflict between the supporters of Excellence on the one hand and Equity on the other. However, Bob's definition of Excellence is about the quality of the material that we select and the need to provide knowledge and enlightenment. John chooses to interpret this as support for "high and elitist culture" which panders to a "predominantly middle-class, female, white and middle-aged" minority. Bob's comments about the "perils of populism" may justify this interpretation. The OED definition of populism is support for or representation of ordinary people or their views; speech, action, writing, etc., intended to have general appeal and a rejection of this inevitably suggests an elitist approach which may not be what Bob intended. The word quality has many definitions (including the archaic people of high social standing) but in the sense of excellence or superiority it is not an antonym of popular.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Small earthquake in Sheffield

Like many other people I was suddenly woken last night by an earthquake. There does not seem to have been much damage but someone in Barnsley was hurt when a chimney collapsed. Does anyone have any information about damage caused to libraries in our area? Has anyone lost any books from their shelves? Or has anyone put on a quick display of books about earthquakes?

If there are any local history librarians out there you might be interested in the Earthquake thread on the Sheffield Forum. It's a snapshot of how people reacted to the event as it happened.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

MLA Yorkshire to end operations

MLA Yorkshire has announced today that it will be ceasing to operate at the end of 2008. This is because of funding cuts by its main funder, the MLA Board which are a result of Government cuts to funding for the MLA. The Board itself is being restructured and moved to Birmingham while small regional teams will replace the regional agencies.

Chair of MLA Yorkshire, Professor John Tarrant, said: "This is not just a sad day for museums, libraries and archives but also a sad day for Yorkshire. The staff of MLA Yorkshire have done an excellent job providing a strong voice for museums, libraries and archives in the region. They have championed the work that supports our communities and helped the cultural sector play a leading role in the revitalising of our region's economy.

"Closing MLA Yorkshire will impact on local authorities that have looked to us for guidance, small organisations we have supported such as voluntary museums and the public who have benefited from our work to improve the sector for users.

"Every museum, library and archive in our region will lose as a result of this decision. They will have less of a voice in Yorkshire and the Humber than they would have in the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."

MLA Chairman Mark Wood said: "The Board has taken the decision that only radical reorganisation will sustain a stronger, more focused MLA working nationally and regionally, and making better use of public money. We believe that the costs of nine independent agencies, concentrating only on museums, libraries and archives, are unsustainable. "

MLA’s Chief Executive Roy Clare said: "This is a tremendously challenging programme of change. We will continue to work closely with the nine independently-constituted agencies and with local government and regional development agencies to plan for a unified MLA. We aim to introduce substantial improvements, while making savings quickly within the looming financial year. We will retain flexibility to ensure that the MLA's emerging shape and capacities are compatible with the results of the ongoing DCMS review of the regions."

This is deeply disapointing news for the sector in Yorkshire. MLA nationally has been seen by many as having lost the plot and failing to speak up effectively for libraries. The regional agencies had their problems but they did retain their contact with the musuums, libraries and archives domains while at the same time being an advocate and support at a regional level. We are a diverse and fragmented profession and a single regional agency was of benefit. It was also the only evidence of central Government support for the infrastructure that is meant to support the Information Society. We are entitled to feel that we have been left in the lurch by a Government Greport highlighted the problems of a lack of understanding of what information was all about in our schools, colleges and workplaces but it seems that should be extended to Downing Street as well.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

With love to librarians

Here is a Valentine's Day greeting from SINTO to all librarians and friends of libraries wherever you are. These images are from

The first one intrigued me. At first I thought it was a case of an aberrant apostrophe. It should be "Everyone loves a librarian" which is true, but is neither short for "love is" nor possesive and so does not need the apostrophe. Perhaps it should be "Everyones love's a librarian"? But then I remembered Lynne Truss who points out that until recently an apostrophe appeared in the plural of abbreviations (e.g. MP's) and that this convention still applies in America. If the heart symbol is an abbreviation of "love" does the third person singular form of the verb take an apostrophe - I heart; you heart; he/she heart's? I simply don't know.
But that isn't the point! Librarians are lovable. In the US they have a National Librarian Day on April 16th. Should we have the same here? Perhaps it could coincide with the Library & Information Show or the CILIP Umbrella conference. Whenever - let's celebrate being librarians!
STOP PRESS The Hollywood Librarian, subtitled a look at librarians through film, is the first full-length documentary film to focus on the work and lives of librarians and to compare their portrayal in films such as Sophie's Choice, Philadelphia, It's a Wonderful Life, Lorenzo's Oil, Desk Set and The Shawshank Redemption with the realities of the modern information profession.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Culture, creativity and research

Dame Lynne Brindley of the British Library came to Sheffield yesterday to deliver the Firth Lecture at the Univerity of Sheffield.

The title of her talk was Culture, Creativity and Research and she looked at how the British Library as a publicly funded cultural institution supports the creative industries.

Lynne began by outlining the importance of creative industries to the British economy. They employ 1.1 million people and contribute £60 billion to the UK economy - and these figures are likely to rise. She explored the concept of Knowledge Transfer as it applies to the creative industries, pointing out that there were differences from the science & technology model. Creative industries require a social architecture or a cultural ecology within which they can operate and draw on for information and inspiration. The BL has three core role; a resource for research; to underpin business and enterprise through the Business and Intelectual Property centre and as a cultural institution. Web 2.0 developments in particular have enabled the BL to provide a different Knowledge Transfer model for the creative industries which is social not linear and combines these three roles. Writers, artists, designers and other creative people have used the BL to support the creative process and to turn this creativity into business success.

Lynne then moved on to copyright stressing that there needed to be a balance between the protection given to the creative industries and the need for fair use exceptions to allow people to access and make use of this material.

The talk was a powerful argument for the importance and value of a publicly funded national library and it seems to me that with a few changes it could stand as an argument for public libraries in general. I am sure that the knowledge transfer model that Lynne described operates in our major public libraries as well. I suspect that the other roles of public libraries - e.g. lending books for general reading and as access points to the Internet via the Peoples Network - although valuable in themselves, do tend to mask and dilute this role so that the economic contribution of public libraries is harder to quantify and therefore not recognised by the funders and decision makers. Public libraries have always suffered from the lack of a champion who can speak on their behalf. Where is the public library "chief executive" who can speak on behalf of all libraries with the authority of a Lynne Brindley?

University of Sheffield Library

The University of Sheffield Library News February 2008 is available here. This includes news of the move of the law collection from Crooksmoor to the Western Bank Library, building work at the Western Bank Library and the National Fairground Archive.

I am always happy to pass on news from any other SINTO member libraries if you send it to me.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Sheffield Libraries

Roy Hattersley penned a heartfelt tribute to public libraries in general and Hilsborough Library in Sheffield in particular, in a Daily Mail piece on 7th January 2008 headlined Why closing local libraries is a tragedy for us all. He wrote "They still provide essential information, informal education and, most important of all, hours of pure pleasure.... Yet 40 [libraries] closed last year. What happens in Hillsborough shows what a tragedy that is."

I mentioned the Oxford Online Library Champions Award when they were launched last year and I am very pleased to see that Sheffield Libraries were joint winners (with Plymouth) of the Best Website Promotion of Oxford Online Resources category. The judges were impressed by the number of ways people could find out about the service on the Sheffield Libraries’ website. ‘The overall aim has been to ensure high visibility of the OUP packages for 24/7 use, to maximize awareness of them at as many entry points on the web pages as possible, to ensure easy access to the packages and maximize their use by as diverse a customer base as possible,’ says Karen Wallace of Sheffield Libraries.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Social Networking for librarians

Librarians have on the whole been slow to adopt social networks as a means of professional development but it seems to be taking off. The CILIP Communities website provides a number of forums where members can have lively discussions on a range of issues. Critical Eye Communications have recently launched The Skills Exchange, described as a place for librarians and information workers to meet and exchange ideas. It also has a number of forums on topics such as the role of the modern library, web 2.0 tools & applications, copyright and repositories. CILIP Yorkshire & Humber Branch has been very innovative in setting up a Facebook page and its own wiki. And of course SINTO has a wiki.

The idea behind all these is similar. Sharing ideas and discussing professional issues with librarians from other organisations is an important tool for professional development. Opportunities to do this have traditionally been limited. We read the professional press and attend the occasional meeting or conference but most of the time we are working on our own. Social networking provides the opportunity to keep in touch with a community of interest from your workplace or home. As with many new developments the critical thing is not mastering the technology but changing our behaviour to take advantage of the new opportunities. Many people would take a half -or full-day, or more, off work to attend a meeting or training event but would find it difficult to spend a few hours a week to sit down in front of a computer and take part in on-line professional discussions. I wonder how many heads of service or training officers encourage their staff to do this during work time as part of their CPD activities.

It is perhaps dissapointing that there are now so many different social networking sites on offer - but there has always been a number of different professional journals available, each with its own remit and coverage. These things grow organically and we can not expect them to conform to a central plan. What is important is that individual professionals and LIS organisations seize the opportunity that is being offered and join in with these networks.