Thursday, 28 July 2011

SINTO Members' Day

We had a very successful AGM and Members' Day yesterday. Papers from the AGM will be circulated soon. I will also circulate a report on the presentations at the Members' Day including Ronan O'Beirne's paper on From Lending to Learning, the presentation by the two SINTO Bob Usherwood prizewinners on reminiscence work and outreach to homeless people and my reports on the Measuing the Impact of Public Libraries workshop and the Arts Council round table.

The Power Point presentations are available on Slideshare.

Here is short version of Ronan's paper.
From Lending to Learning: the development and extension of public libraries.
Libraries offer a range of services that have evolved in a haphazard way. This is not to say that there is poor quality of service, simply a lack of consistent strategy. The question is "Who looks after public library services in this country?" Is it central government, regional bodies, local government or quangos, and is it all held together by the short term thinking of hands-off politicians and civil servants?

There is a conflict between the professional role of librarians and their role as managers within the local authority structure. Many senior library managers are limited to a planning and overseeing role. Leadership qualities are not required and may not exist. Examples of leadership skills would include motivating staff in difficult times and convincing elected members of the relevance of library services to the community. There is a schism between national government policy for public libraries and local authority provision with library leaders caught in the middle. Library leadership is often reduced to an exercise of dismantling a service piece by piece in a way that delivers savings yet maintains the appearance of an acceptable library service. It is rare to find a library service that is led by a professional librarian and not by the local authority bureaucracy.

Informal learning
This is a very powerful concept. People use libraries to improve themselves and achieve self fulfilment through self-directed learning. The library provides a body of knowledge arranged so as to be accessible. Our focus should be on the content of the book - the information and learning they contain - and not on the physical books. We have not capitalised on this enough. We should consider the architecture of learning space in the community unifying academic and public libraries. In Bradford Public Libraries Ronan developed engagement with learning both within and outside the library. Many people trust the neutrality of libraries where they don't trust educational organisations. The current Big Society agenda means there is a need for a revival of the Community Librarianship approach of the 1970s and 80s.

Information literacy.

This is an important concept that has not been fully recognised in public libraries. The implementation of the People's Network was very successful but the training was based on the European Computer Driving Licence and this was too shallow. On the whole users were not interested in word processing and spreadsheets but in using the Internet for information and communication. front line staff weren't trained in this. In Bradford Ronan developed the Pop-i project using online virtual learning to train public library staff in information literacy. It increased job satisfaction by enabling them to help library users. An attempt was made to involve MLA in distributing the package to all public libraries but they were not interested.

In the UK the information literacy agenda is biased towards the needs of academic libraries with an emphasis on plagiarism. In the USA recently there was an Information Literacy Month supported by Barak Obama to help people understand the implication of the information that they are exposed to. Technology has failed to remove the barriers of social exclusion in libraries and the promise of free access for all has not been met.

Ronan finished with three key messages
1. Library leaders need to be political with a small p. This is against our own sense of being professional but we need to get inside the chambers of local authorities and say "This is what we do". The next generation of professional staff need to take this on board.

2. Learning is happening in public libraries. It is informal and hard to measure, but it happens.

3. Digital literacy is the territory of librarians and we need to move into this.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Arts Council and libraries.

This week I went to Dewsbury to take part in a regional roundtable event, hosted by the Arts Council England (ACE), for key museums and libraries stakeholders within the region. The event was part of the 'journey' to transfer responsibility for libraries from the MLA to ACE as covered in my previous blog. It looked at Estelle Morris's review and focused on thinking around how we can make the most, in Yorkshire, of our broader cultural footprint.

 It was in many ways a symbolic meeting. There were no major developments to report and it was not a forum for hard bargaining about what the libraries and museums sector want from ACE. Instead it was an opportunity to get to know each other. We are still in the 'forming' stage of team development and will have to move on to 'storming' and 'norming' before we start 'performing'. It does mean that libraries in out region can now put Dewsbury on their cognitive map.

 Many items of interest did emerge from the discussion. Some in the arts world are concerned that the inclusion of the museums and libraries sectors will dilute the support of ACE for their sector, and this is exactly the point that I made about the concern of librarians. However everyone recognised that there were areas of common interest and possible synergies to be had. The Arts Council has a good track record in influencing its sector through advice and in the distribution of funding from government and lottery sources. It recognises that the position of public libraries with regards to funding is different but is keen to engage with the sector.

 The roundtable gave a general welcome to the Morris review and is looking forward to the appearance of a revised ACE strategy document. It was suggested that there should be a stronger and more aspirational overarching statement on the value of 'arts and culture' and I contributed the Darien statement that "the purpose of the library is to preserve the integrity of civilisation" with a warning that such statements can be too aspirational!

 ACE has the role of advocacy for its sector but like the MLA before it we should not expect them to be a 'Save our Libraries' campaigning body as such. The MLA did come in for criticism of its role in this respect and this is one issue that ACE will need to sort out. ACE does have a good track record in protecting the arts and influencing decision makes. It was pointed out that this comes down to winning hearts and minds and in this sector the contribution of creative and performing artists in arguing for the value of the arts has been critical. The impact of authors supporting Save our Libraries campaigns has been significant (e.g. 'Bennett to read riot act in court over library closures' The Independent 20th July 2011), and links with the wider arts community can only help.

 This led on to my asking a question about measuring the value of arts and cultural activities. I had noticed that in the ACE strategic framework for the arts - Achieving Great Art for Everyone - there is a section on evaluation which says "Robust evidence will be important, both to inform effective policy making and to demonstrate the impact and value of the arts" and this echoes what is happening in our sector. (Come to the SINTO Members' Day if you want more information). One aspect that was raised in the meeting was wellbeing, and this is an area where arts and culture can be shown to have an impact. English National Ballet has been working with people with Parkinson's disease and a recent report identified seven steps to protect against Alzheimer's which include mental stimulation in old age. Given the rising costs of care of elderly people to society, the benefit of cultural activities including library use is compelling. Of course ultimately we don't want to save libraries, or ballet, because they have a cost benefit. They have an intrinsic value which transcends this. Achieving Great Art for Everyone contains a number of statements on the theme 'What can art do' which are applicable to culture in general and to libraries by implication. I will finish with a small selection:
  • Art reminds us of what more is left to do in the world
  • Art can help us find expression for the ecstatic joy of being alive…
  • Art in the form of books and the written word can … make us better human beings and create the circumstances for a creative and humane society.
  • Art gives meaning. Life is meaningless and art is an attempt to make sense of it.
  • [Art] allows us the illusion of escaping our daily lives while simultaneously taking us deeper inside ourselves.





Thursday, 14 July 2011

Review of the Arts Council's strategic framework

The news of the transfer of museums and libraries (but not archives) from the MLA to the Arts Council was I suspect greeted by the majority of the profession with neither whoops of joy nor cries of disappointment. For many people the overall strategic framework in which we operate has little practical impact on what we do. For public librarians fighting against or struggling to manage cuts in public libraries the change may appear to be about rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

While having some sympathy for this view I do feel that this strategic framework is important and has the potential to make an impact on what we do for good or for ill. It is therefore a discussion which library staff at all levels should be part of.

The aim of this review by Baroness Morris of Yardley is to consider how the five strategic goals in the Arts Council strategic document Achieving great art for everyone, could be developed so as to embrace the expanded responsibility of the Council for museums and libraries. Critics of the review have said that “They [the Arts Council] are trying to shoehorn the needs of the library sector to fit in with the functions of the Arts Council". To some extent this is a valid point. The existing Arts Council goals are being developed. No one is suggesting that they should be torn up and a completely new set of goals written. That is the political reality and I am not sure that there is any point in trying to change that. We need to accept the good intention of the Council in commissioning this "icebreaker" and embarking on "a wider conversation with the libraries and museums sector about our future role."

One concern of the libraries sector is with dilution. If we accept that there is a need for a strategic oversight of the libraries sector then we want a body that can focus on libraries and understands the sector. There used to be a Library and Information Commission. This merged with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and now this is merging with the Arts Council. We fear that no one really understands what it is we do; will this just get worse when we are a small fish in an even larger pool?

A second concern is that the Arts Council is not a good partner for the libraries sector. Yes, there are areas of common ground but do we really have much in common with the 'luvvies' of the Arts world. Won't we be left nursing a drink in the corner of the ball while the person who brought us dances with the glitterati?

The solution to these concerns surely lies in our own hands and that is why we should be careful of responding negatively to this initial approach. As Baroness Morris points out "One of the challenges for any sector is not to let itself be defined by its organisational structure… The success of any sector depends in part of its ability to cross boundaries and link with and learn from others. The activity itself can outlive its organisational structure."

We must not allow ourselves to be defined as wallflowers. The roll of libraries is unique and special but Baroness Morris has identified enough areas of common ground and synergy to make further debate worthwhile. She has suggested the following overarching goal:

"Museums and libraries, art and performance are of value in their own right but they only make real sense when they connect with people and become part of the life of the nation and its citizens. The overarching goal of the arts and culture sector must be to realise its potential as an essential part of a civil and civilised society."

No, perhaps this statement on its own would not convince council leaders bent on wielding the axe that public libraries are really needed. But it echoes what many librarians and library campaigners have been saying, and by joining together with artists and performers - and those who appreciate such things - it must give us greater strength.

Baroness Morris concludes:

"Whether it is a performer or an artist, a local library or a major collection, it is only through being confident in themselves that they will ever recognise their place in the wider sector and the part they can play in society."

We cannot expect others to share this belief in our role if we don't recognise it ourselves and express it with confidence. We cannot allow ourselves to be the wallflower at the party. As Diana Krall said:

There may be trouble ahead

But while there's music and moonlight and love and romance

Let's face the music and dance