Monday, 7 December 2009

Wirral - a costly victory

Elspeth Hyams in her Library & Information Update blog predicted that Wirral (i.e. the Council) would "wriggle with embarrassment" when they read Sue Charteris' report on the proposed library closures. Elspeth cannot be very familiar with the sort of people who run northern metropolitan councils if she thinks that wriggling or embarrassment are things that come easily to them.
The response from Steve Foulkes, leader of Wirral MDC to the decision of the enquiry was blunt:

"I want to do some very straight talking here. I know a lot of people won’t want to hear what I have to say, but I believe it needs to be said… I am disappointed not because it is critical of the decision, but because it is fundamentally flawed in its logic, and in many places it is just plain wrong."

Cllr Foulkes' first point is that if Wirral were to be in breach of its statutory duty then so would any number of other local authorities. It is undoubtedly true that other authorities have made or are planning cuts in library services at a similar level but have simply not triggered the review process that resulted in the Wirral report. We can argue that that is a condemnation of those other authorities rather than a justification for Wirral's actions but it does suggest that the lesson that will be drawn is not "don't cut libraries" but rather "don't get caught cutting too many libraries at one go".

Cllr Foulkes then argues that the report confused theory with reality:
"In theory, we could keep all our libraries open, improve our services and repair our buildings for no additional cost, just by introducing some minor changes like self service systems. In reality, the decision not to close some libraries and invest in Neighbourhood Centres will cost £2.3m next year, which is the equivalent of a 2% increase in Council Tax. Over the next three years we will also need to find another £2.4 million from revenue budgets for major repairs which will mean either increased council tax levels or cuts in services elsewhere."

He continues:
"There are winners and losers in this situation. Those who lobbied to keep their local library open have what they wanted. But the silent majority who do not use their library, who do not want to see their council tax increase, and who might have used one of the new neighbourhood centres because they were more attractive, more conveniently located and open longer hours are definitely the losers".

Given that the main criticism in the report was that Wirral failed to make an assessment of local needs in respect of its Library Services, Cllr Foulkes' claim that he has a special insight into the opinions of the majority should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, we would be naïve to imaging that he is completely wrong. Council leaders don't get to where they are without a fairly good idea of what it is that people (or at least voters) want. The strong expressions of support for libraries that we heard when these cuts were proposed were very gratifying but the fact is that at least as many people don't care that much about libraries or care more for other services and/or cuts in council tax.

Cllr Foulkes then becomes apocalyptic:
"The people of Wirral need to understand very clearly what is coming. Between 2011 and 2014, this Council is going to need to save over £67 million, and that is a minimum estimate. We will have to change or go under.
"If we continue to hang on to what we know, and reject that change, and if the silent majority continues to remain silent, Wirral will become an impoverished backwater with failing services, crumbling buildings and a mass exit of any investors who could help us weather the storm and allow us to become the attractive and prosperous region we deserve to be".

Not much sign of wriggling with embarrassment here! This is strong stuff and to suggest that keeping a few libraries open will cause this much damage is over-the-top. However Cllr Foulkes makes the point that "We can’t just look at one service in isolation from every other service we provide. There is a limited amount of money that has to be shared out to meet a whole host of demands, some of which are literally matters of life or death".

As Council leader it is Foulkes' role to see the big picture. Our role as librarians is to deliver a service within that big picture.

The report by Sue Charteris can be seen as a victory for public libraries as it resulted in Wirral withdrawing its proposals. But if it is a victory, it is one we can ill afford. How can we possibly celebrate the fact that we have won one over on Wirral council and other councils in a similar position? What sort of victory is it that results in a Council leader believing (albeit it with a touch of political hyperbole) that the decision could lead to the impoverishment of his local community?

And this is not just the view of one individual. The Act underpinning this report has been condemned by the Local Government Association as "fit for nothing but the archives" (Nice of them to fit in an insult to archives as well as libraries). The LGA wants councils to be "freed up to make decisions on how best to provide information services to local people without being judged according to laws drawn up half a century ago, before the arrival of the internet and digital media". What is frightening about this is that it makes the LGA sound forward looking while public libraries are relying on the technicalities of ministerial intervention contained in an outmoded act of parliament.

What Cllr Foulkes' rhetoric - and our own response to that - should not mask is that what Sue Charteris' report actually says is 'If you are going to make drastic changes to people's services (1) FIND OUT ABOUT THEM and (2) CONSIDER THE PEOPLE AFFECTED (3) ASK THEM WHAT THEY THINK'. (To quote Elspeth Hyams). This might not be totally comfortable for librarians as the people affected are those who have to pay for the service, and those who might benefit if the money was spent on something else, as well as those who use the service - but this is evidence based librarianship. Of course, as librarians, we should be giving people the information they need to make decisions. Cllr Foulkes' decision was based on the belief that librarians are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Why does he believe that? The strategic goals of Wirral Council are:

  • To create more jobs, achieve a prosperous economy and regenerate Wirral.
  • To create a clean, pleasant, safe and sustainable environment.
  • To improve health and well being for all, ensuring people who require support are full participants in mainstream society.
  • To raise the aspirations of young people.
  • To create an excellent Council.
Did the Head of Libraries for Wirral ever sit down with Cllr Foulkes and go through these points explaining how the libraries can and do help to achieve these goals? Has anyone pointed out to him that libraries could help prevent Wirall from becoming an impoverished backwater? Did anyone provide him with a vision for public libraries in Wirral - a vision that did not rely on the status quo, a vision that took account of the bigger picture, a vision that recognized that the enthusiasm of library users for their own local library building was not the be-all and end-all of the argument?

Perhaps he is not the sort of Council leader that you can sit down with and talk to. Unfortunately there are many in local government who will not listen - and that is why libraries regard the powers of intervention under the 1964 Act as still being of value in the last resort. We must fight for the principle of a free public library service accessible to all, but I pray that we are spared any more victories like this one.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Empower, Inform, Enrich 2

Not surprisingly, many of the contributions to EIE said that library buildings should be improved. They should have longer and more flexible open hours which meet the needs of their local communities (combined with 24/7 access to on-line services). They should be welcoming and attractive community spaces - a third place, neither home or work, but one where people feel comfortable. They should provide "good coffee" (according to the managing Director of Starbucks (natch); a good range of books; access to the Internet, digital resources and a virtual learning environment; be "havens for debate and the simple, basic pleasures of social networking"; provide access to a range of information services from various agencies and enable "facetime" - interaction with trained library staff.

Some essayists suggested that improving the users' experience of libraries might require fewer but better libraries - but that goes against the strong desire of communities for local, easily accessible service points. The extreme of this position is the case of the library in a phone box.

The combination of financial cuts and the need to dramatically improve the users' experience may lead some library authorities to consider closing some branches. In that case they need to be aware of another recent report - the report of the Wirral enquiry. Bob McKee says of this report "Sue Charteris has produced the best in-depth case study I have ever read of the issues faced by Public Library Authorities in the present climate, trying to meet the needs of local communities and comply with legislation in hugely challenging circumstances"

The report was commissioned by the Secretary of State to investigate if the decision of Wirral MBC to close several branch libraries was consistent with their statutory responsibility under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Wirral reversed their decision on closure before the report was published and as a result the Secretary of State decided that no formal ruling was necessary. However the report does find that Wirral was in breach of its statutory duties. In brief the report says that Wirral was at fault not because they wanted to close branches per se, but because the Council failed to make an assessment of local needs (or alternatively to evidence knowledge of verifiable local needs) in respect of its Library Services.

The Council's plan was to set up 13 Neighbourhood Centres, each with a library at its heart, effectively replacing a service comprising 24 libraries. The Centres would house multiple Council functions and, wherever possible, be co-located with one or more of the Council’s key partners, including the Police, Fire Authority and Health Service. This would have allowed for improved opening hours and more than 99% of people would be within a two mile radius of a library. They argued that the plethora of small, outdated libraries would deter potential users. In many ways this is pattern suggested by the EIE report. However, Sue Charteris pointed out that:

"The Council took the decision to close 11 of its libraries in the absence of a strategic plan for or review of the Library Service. As such, I believe that the Council’s approach to re-visioning the service was fundamentally flawed, because their approach focused specifically on the issue of asset management and cost savings".

So "fewer but better" may be a way forward but only if this is part of a strategic plan based on an assesment of local needs which must include consultation with the community.

Empower, Inform, Enrich 1

In this blog I will continue looking at the common themes that emerge from the essays in the EIE report.

A National offer
Lynne Brindley (British Library) mentions the National Library of China with local cultural centres, regional centres and a national centre. No one suggests that this model should be adopted here but several aspects of a national service are discussed . These include
· A national library card
· A national catalogue of all library books (combined with postal delivery of requested books).
· A national Libraries Development Agency
· National marketing of library services
· A national digital network delivery electronic resources and a virtual learning environment.

Governance and leadership
· The need to change or replace the legislative framework for public libraries
· New government department with responsibility for libraries
· A reduction in the number of separate library services with library authorities joining together to deliver a regional service.
· Different models for library services such as trusts, corporations, partnerships with private sector etc

Service points
· Better (possibly fewer) service points
· Improved opening hours
· Co-location and integration of different services in a single venue
· Services offered through non-traditional outlets

Digital services
· Development of e-books and digital resources
· Improving digital literacy
· Deeper understanding of needs and behaviours of digital information customers

· Improved leadership and management
· New skills with a focus on customer services and digital literacy
· Partnership working

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Public Library consultation

The Government’s consultation report on Public Libraries - Empower, Inform, Enrich - has been published by the DCMS. This was to have been a review of the public library service but Margaret Hodge decided to turn it into a consultation exercise. Sir Humphrey would, no doubt, explain that this is the best way for a government to get rid of something they are not very interested in.

Its an odd document in many ways. It begins with 29 individual essays by authors, from Dame Lynne Brindley of the British Library to Darcy Willson-Rymer of Starbucks UK. Each author gives their own view of the future for public libraries so it is a diverse picture - but one that gives plenty of opportunity for debate. This is followed by a set of 23 consultation questions. The deadline for responses is the 26th January.

Some common themes do emerge. One, highlighted by Margaret Hodge, is the need to look at the governance of libraries. It could be argued that what is wrong with public libraries is not how they are run but what they do (or don't do) but the two are entwined. One idea is that some library authorities should combine to deliver library services in certain areas. The model of the five Library and Education Boards in Northern Ireland combining to form a single NI Library service is mentioned. John Hicks says that Councils should be encouraged to form joint services, to create joint trusts and to invite joint bids from the private sector. He suggests that the metropolitan areas have too many small services. "For example, London could be reduced to five services (inner and four outer London services) jointly provided by boroughs working together". Bob McKee says "A system delivered by 151 separate Public Library Authorities in England is inherently inefficient".

Equal attention is given to the need for public libraries to respond to the new digital environment. Professor David Nicholas is quite pessimistic:
"For a much-loved information institution, public libraries, to face possible melt-down in an information age, when information has never ever been so important, is unpardonable and something we should all be ashamed of. Yet it will happen because nobody seems to understand the need to look at the big picture and that the tail (the digital) now wags the dog".

Public librarians, especially the leaders of the profession, come in for criticism. Nicky Parker asks "What about the library leaders? Have we taken our eye off the ball? Have we slipped back into Lazy Town? Is our management style more David Brent than Alan Sugar?" and adds "Are we Tomorrow’s World or Antique’s Roadshow? "

Anyone can respond to this report. I hope that people don't get distracted by responding directly to the views expressed in the essays (even that libraries would be better if they served Starbucks coffee). That is not the point. This could be, should be, an opportunity to shape the public library service for the future. The Government might fail to take this forward but we must not fail to articulate our vision and listen to the needs of our users.