Monday, 2 February 2009

Public Libraries: equity & excellence

On Thursday SINTO hosted a debate between Bob Usherwood and John Pateman on the theme of equity and excellence in public libraries. In 2007 Bob published his book Equity and Excellence in Public Libraries: why ignorance is not our heritage in which he argued that librarians had an obligation to ensure excellence in stock by applying value judgements in selection. John responded to this in the pages of the professional press by insisting that equity with regards to social inclusion should be our primary concern.
The SINTO debate was the first opportunity for Bob and John to share a platform and argue their case. The debate was chaired by Councillor Sylvia Dunkley, the Sheffield City Council cabinet member for Culture and Leisure.

In this blog I will summarise John's arguments and I will follow this up with Bob's.

John began by saying that Bob had always been a guru and hero for him as a champion of public library values. he felt that the differences between them were a matter of journey rather than destination. He outlined a number of themes:

Boom & bust. There have been waves of progressive librarianship with a strong community focus in the past but these have not been sustained. Adherence to high professional standards did not prevent this failure and may have contributed to it. "Excellence" in the form of outdated professional practice and attitudes has contributed to the decline in use of public libraries. Being excellent for a dwindling number of users will not safeguard our future. We need to develop new audiences and become more relevant to the lives of local communities.

The right "man" for the job. A research report The right 'man' for the job: the role of empathy in community librarianship showed that library staff are a homogeneous group that can be summed up as older, female, white and middle class, while the communities they seek to serve are diverse. Librarians need a skill set that differs from that provided by library qualifications. This includes communication, listening, influencing relationships, reflective practice, negotiation, dealing with conflict, confidence and assertiveness. Librarians tend to lack empathy with their communities.

Developing a needs based library service. John's book of this title, published in 2003 by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, showed how a library service could identify, prioritize and meet community needs. Libraries needs less hierarchical and less professional staffing structures so that they could engage with all stakeholders. John suggested that systems and procedures which should be abolished as barriers to use includes: proof of address & ID; charges; overdue notices; fixed issue periods; limits on number of items that can be borrowed and library desks and counters.

Co-production. John argued that local communities should have a greater role in running their libraries including the planning, design, running and assessment of the service. He said there was a need to shift power from libraries to the communities and referred to the work of the New Economics Foundation.

John ended with a suggested dictionary definition of excellence as "cleverness" and "superiority". Equity in contrast meant "acting fairly" and "justice" and he called for an era of equity.

A copy of John Pateman's paper can be found on the SINTO website here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was a good evening's debate. As a mere user of libraries now I'd like to thing that Yorkshire library staff could be ncouraged to join in. Could the summaries be posted directly to them somehow? Taking a leaf from John Pateman's views we need to involve staff more, never mind the public.
John Allred, Nafferton, East Riding of Yorkshire