Monday, 27 June 2011

Freedom of Information

The "mission statement" for the website is "To help you find out inside information about what the UK government is doing" It achieves this by helping members of the public submit Freedom of Information requests to national and local government. Full details of the FoI requests and the responses are made available on the site.

The site currently contains details of a request made to Leeds City council under the heading Rationalisation of Library Services: e-mail from officials, which asks: "Please supply all emails by or to council officer Catherine Blanchard that relate to the current proposed Leeds Library Services changes and cuts."

The correspondence is of interest on many levels. It shows the local authority as being slow to respond to the request and defensive. Perhaps this is justified. There is such a thing as "vexatious" requests and from the Whatdotheyknow website you can see that this applicant has made over 600 FoI requests. Does this make him a champion of human rights fighting on behalf of his community or a serial complainer out to cause trouble?

At one stage in the correspondence the local authority objects to the fact that the request has come through rather than from a private e-mail address. This raises an interesting question about the role of the library in helping users with the FoI legislation. The mission statement quoted above could be applied directly to the library service. It is clearly our professional role to "help you find information about what the UK government is doing". Libraries provide access to government publications, newspaper reports, websites, etc. Librarians would be expected to provide information about FoI legislation and material on how to use it. Providing signposting to must be seen as part of this. But would library users be able to access it from the library or might they find it is blocked by the council's filtering? Would members and senior officers be happy with the library directing users to such a site? Would some librarians impose censorship by, for example, not listing this site under sources of government information? Our responsibilities as professionals are clear.

Another issue is that it serves to remind to library managers and leaders of the concept of freedom of information. At one point in the correspondence, the Information Commissioner's office is quoted as saying:

"It is the view of the Information Commissioner's office (ICO) that staff acting in a professional capacity must have a reasonable expectation that comments and opinions that they make in the course of their work may fall under a request made ... While the disclosure of comments... may result in embarrassment to the
staff concerned and to ... the organisation, the data cannot be withheld unless there is a valid exemption"

One would hope that information professionals are information savvy. One would also hope that they are technically savvy and would not accidentally copy e-mails to people they are not intended for, and that they are aware of the requirements of the FoI legislation and the principles of freedom of information in general. It is not a bad idea to think that any e-mail you send might enter the public domain and to ensure that what you are saying is professional at all times.

One effect of FoI legislation will probably be to ensure that when people want to make potentially embarrassing comments they won't do it in a recorded form such a e-mails. If you want to tell a colleague that the local library campaigners are a bunch of nutters who should be ignored then do it face-to-face! But the real lesson should be that the public do have a right to know what government is doing in their name and that libraries exist to help them achieve that.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Future of Libraries Services in the Big Society

6th National Conference, London 21st June 2011
A conference of this sort is clearly aimed at library leaders; i.e. not just heads of services and senior library managers but also at senior officers and members - those who make the long term policy decisions and control the purse strings. It is this latter group that have the greatest need to hear this sort of discussion - given the widely recognised low level of appreciation of the issues by many library leaders - and it was disappointing but not unusual to find that they were underrepresented in the audience. My own quick rough count of the attendees list shows c40 librarians, 11 senior directors and 4 councillors.

But of course you didn't have to be there in person. I and apparently many others were watching the conference on-line courtesy of Policy Review TV. I would love to know how many heads of service set up viewing sessions for their Directors, Chief Executives and portfolio holders. They would have been able to share and event that, while not exactly earth shattering in terms of new ideas, provided much to consider and debate.

The first speaker was Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture with direct responsibility for libraries. The significance of Government Ministers at events like this is quite arcane. They will arrive, deliver a speech, and then leave, so there is seldom an opportunity for debate. Sometimes they will use the opportunity to deliver a major policy speech but, as in this case, it is usually more subtle. The fact that they have accepted the invitation to appear - and have actually turned up - is often the most important aspect. In this case it suggests that the Government (or at least a part of it) does think that library services have a future. It is not much, but it is better than nothing.

Mr Vaizey's speech went little further than this. He began by saying he was in a positive mood and praised the "fantastic work going on in libraries all over the country". Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick at any rate. He then moved on to specific examples, the coming together of three London boroughs to form a unified library service; the award to Hillingdon of the Bookseller's Library Innovation of the Year award; Lancashire Libraries' partnership with the University of Lancashire and examples of new builds and refurbishments. There was nothing in the way of carrots or sticks to encourage other authorities along the same path except for keeping Mr Vaizey in a positive mood.

The Minister then declared that "… the public library service is a huge asset to be exploited; not a burden to be gradually got rid of". This reference to the Governments consultation on administrative burdens on local authorities suggested a commitment to maintaining the Public Libraries Act, particularly as he moved directly on to the issue of his intervention in library closures under the act. He stated that he would not shy away from doing so if there was a case for it but immediately mentioned two provisos. The first was that the current situation was still fluid. The second was that it was better to have a dialogue with local authorities and that officials from his department had met with officers and campaigners in 5 local authorities to discuss cuts. He added that he would not meet with people personally as this might compromise his position in making a final decision as required. His message to local authorities appeared to be that he was happy to give them plenty of time to discuss options and alternatives but although he was keeping his powder dry he was prepared to use the weapon of intervention if all else failed.

At this point the Twitter feed for the conference was filled with Tweets pointing out examples of library service cuts which appear to show a very strong case for immediate intervention. Inevitably many will see this claim to be holding fire "for the present" as covering up an intention not to shoot at all.

Mr Vaizey then moved on to the options and alternatives that he was inviting authorities to consider. Rationalisation (i.e. mergers) was one option. "Community supported" libraries was another. He did promise that continued council support to community libraries with a core service would be a key factor. He referred to the MLA document Community Managed Libraries and the work of Locality

Finally the Minister referred to the transfer of responsibilities to Arts Council England and the benefits that this would bring. He promised another Future Library project and hinted at a "few more ideas that we need to explore". Opportunities for libraries to access Arts funding were dangled before the audience and the desirability of WiFi enabled libraries was mentioned, without of course any indication of how this might be funded.

Overall it was a disappointing presentation, at least for anyone hoping against hope for a stronger lead on library cuts. His support for the role of volunteers in delivering library services was clear. The Minister did draw a line in the sand and warned councils not to cross it but their room for manoeuvre behind that line is large. His closing remarks that the situation provided "opportunities" for libraries shows that his scriptwriters had run out of any original ideas and were scrapping the bottom of the cliché barrel. However we must take what we can from this speech. Mr Vaizey could have sent his apologies and his phrase that "the public library service is a huge asset to be exploited; not a burden to be gradually got rid of" could well feature on the Voices for the Library website (although the cynics out there may well ask exactly how the "asset" of libraries will be exploited, and by whom!).

Sharing top billing with Ed Vaizey was Annie Mauger, Chief Executive of CILIP. Annie's theme was the role and importance of professional librarians in delivering library services. She began by saying that that CILIP members would of course expect her to defend the role of professional librarians but pointed out that CILIP is also a charity with the clear aim of upholding the "public good" and not just the interests of librarians. The two were synonymous. Public libraries always have been living examples of the Big Society in practice - including the use of volunteers. The core professional skill of librarians in knowledge of their community was central to the process; Annie drew a parallel with the role of GP's in the NHS under the Government's reform proposals.

Leaders of library services are often not librarians themselves. This is not important in itself, what is important is that people get a good library service. Everyone seems to think they know how to run libraries but they don't know what they don't know! There are three key aspects of professional skills:

• Librarians know what you don't know. These information finding skills are central to open access and knowledge sharing which are the basis of the Big Society.

• Librarians know their communities. They understand their needs and plan to meet those needs. They make the process so easy that it is almost invisible.

• They are impartial, neutral and safe. Above all they are trusted.

Turning to volunteering Annie pointed out that this had existed within library services for many years but what was new was devolving services to communities. There was talk of a statutory core network and a community network. How do you ensure the standards of the community network? Volunteers need training and support at least. There was a need for a capacity of skills and knowledge. Some communities might be able to provide this capacity but other more deprived communities lack this, and the greatest need is with the latter. Annie stressed that we were talking about "brains not bricks", not about library buildings but services.

"If we lose an understanding of what a professional library services is" claimed Annie "then we lend books but we don't inform, support, educate, help to grow, help local authorities intervene early in the lives of young people; and put some heart into communities."

In conclusion, there is a distinct set of core skills. The library profession has a responsibility to skill-up the library workforce and young professionals need to aspire to a leadership role in librarianship. A key new role for librarians is as a collaborator with communities.

This was an inspiring speech but lacking, it has to be said, an inspiring presentation. Compared with the always inspiring Miranda McKearney who spoke later, Annie was rather subdued. Her message about library leaders not knowing what professional librarians bring to the party is not new but is very relevant. What she could only hint at is that often this is the fault of those professional librarians for not keeping their skills up-to-date and not putting themselves forward. As I said at the start of this blog, how many heads of service have used this conference as an opportunity to get this important message over to their local "Power people"?

Video recordings of the presentations at this conference are available at

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

From Lending to Learning

What is the role of libraries and librarians? In particular, what is our role in respect of books?

For some the library is dead. Everything is available on the Web and it can be delivered to your mobile digital device so why do we need the library as an intermediary? Many people (and not just librarians) strongly disagree with this and argue that the library is still an important concept for many reasons. It provides access for the digitally excluded; it selects and organises information in digital and print formats; and of course everything is not available on the web.

Some observers have a more fundamental objection to relying on digital information. Professor Susan Greenfield fears that "our very understanding, our sense of reasoning, might now also be diminished and brutalized by the simplistic sensory sensations of the screen experience" (ID: the quest for meaning in the 21st century). She suggests:
"For us, the icon on the screen can be a symbol for many things but without a pre-existing conceptual framework there can be no metaphor. An intellectual skill that comes from reading books is the process of generalization of an abstract concept from a multitude of different examples. Might succeeding generations be less inclined to savour ideas without icons? Will they understand concepts such as democracy, honour or soul?  Once you have framed your question about an abstract concept you can turn to Google or Wikipedia. But my concern is that such open ended questions won't occur to those brought up in a world of screen experiences. A world of immediate response rather than of reflective initiative."
So books and libraries are still relevant, but what exactly is the role of  libraries and librarians. Some critics have accused us of loosing the plot:
 "The once famous and treasured book collections had been allowed to dwindle to the point of uselessness, if not extinction. Book lending - the libraries' main function - had halved. Visitor numbers had fallen." (Tim Coates. The Good Library Manual).
 Coates is not anti IT. Far from it, but his message is that librarians should focus on the essentials. Provide a good stock, an attractive building and extended opening hours and everything else will fall into place. Anything that distracts attention away from this core function is a bad thing. If I understand Tim Coates correctly he is saying that if we run "good" libraries then the users will come and when they come they will benefit from all the wonderful things that libraries and books can provide. But librarians should not be overly concerned with those final ends. Those goals - lifelong learning, social inclusion, community empowerment - may well emerge, but our concern should be with running an efficient library and nothing more.

However, many professionals are not prepared to accept this view of their role. Ronan O'Beirne is the latest to call for a new direction in his recent book From Lending to Learning;
 "… the role [of libraries] has less to do with books and more to do with literacies, people, the human condition and social justice - and … much to do with learning"
O'Beirne is not arguing against books nor against the role of libraries in providing books. Instead his argument is that the focus needs to shift from the stock to the users;
"The library needs to focus on learners; it needs to embed an understanding of the needs of learners in both traditional and computer-supported learning into every activity. This shift of emphasis needs to be championed by library leaders and set before the users of the service in a clear way."
Ronan O'Beirne will be the keynote speaker at the SINTO Members' Day on the 27th July this year. This is an opportunity to hear his views and debate the issues raised for the profession.