Monday, 24 October 2011

In praise of the Big Library

: has Philip Pullman got it wrong?

Few librarians could fail to be inspired by Philip Pullman's address to the Library Campaign's conference. His passionate support for libraries and librarians expressed in such his speech "Consider the context" will surely rank as a key text for the library profession and we hope for society at large. It points out that there is a context to all this talk of "Save our libraries". Saving libraries, argues Pullman, is not about saving libraries - it is about saving society.

The speech was especially welcome coming as it did shortly after publication of a comment piece in The Telegraph by John McTernan. This questioned the need for libraries in a modern society; suggesting that rather like horse troughs they had served a useful function in the past, for which we should all be grateful, but were not needed today.

But despite that - or possibly because of that - we should not take everything that Pullman said uncritically. The bit that I want to take issue with is his statement "It would be far more sensible to close the big libraries and open even more small ones" I don't want to suggest he was entirely wrong to say this but to point out that we need to examine that idea in more detail.

First, in deference to the title of the talk, we must examine the context. The full paragraph reads:

This is why Brent and the other local authorities who want to close lots of small libraries in favour of fewer much bigger ones are wrong. It's a bad policy. It would be far more sensible to close the big libraries and open even more small ones. If Kensal Rise Library is still open, if Blackbird Leys in Oxford still has a library within walking distance of the people who live there, if hundreds of other libraries all over the country are kept open and properly staffed, then readers can reach pretty well any book they want to with the help of the inter-library loan system

To some extent the line about closing big libraries is a rhetorical riposte to the plan to close small libraries. It is based on the idea that many people need convenient local access to libraries if they are going to be able to use them. Pullman is also aware (as so many commentators on libraries are not) of the interconnectedness of libraries through the Inter Library Loan system).

The point I want to make is that there should be two elements. First there has to be a good library service and this is a function of size. There has to be a range and a depth of book stock. There has to be a sufficient number of library professionals with a range of specialisms. We need to offer a full range of activities and services to meet the diverse needs of our users. The service is not the same as an individual library building. It is not even the same as a library authority. As Pullman points out individual libraries and library authorities do work together to provide a service.

The second element is how to deliver this service to the people who desire to make use of it. As Pullman makes clear, many people, especially families with young children, will be unable to use the service if local small libraries are closed. On the other hand there are also many people (and John McTernan is probably an example of this group) who are unable to use the library not because of physical access but because the quality of the provision is not what they need. If the library does not offer the full range and depth of materials and services then they are just as excluded as the young child or family who can't afford the bus fares.

Pullman's point is that the network of small libraries is an access point to the larger service and so it should be - but as professional librarians we know this is not always the case. A dozen small libraries are likely to duplicate a fairly limited range of books and even a functioning ILL system does not completely overcome this. The user will not be exposed to the full range of titles on the shelves, there will be a delay in obtaining items and in some cases the user will have to pay a charge for obtaining books from outside the library service - undermining the concept of a free public library.

Large, modern central libraries can provide an in-depth book stock, specialist information services (e.g. business, science & technology, health etc.), a wide range of literature in English and other languages, specialist journals, archives, a range of activities, professional library staff and extended opening hours seven days a week. People who want and need these services will make a special journey to access the library. We are right to be concerned about those people who find physical access is difficult but I do not believe that we are doing ourselves or our customers any favours by not having these centres of excellence. Our communities deserve excellence as well as access and it is our responsibility to deliver both.

I believe in the concept of a big library. I believe that there is a synergy in a single large library that you do not get with a network of smaller libraries. Yes, I know that in theory you can go into the small local library and find what you want on the catalogue or with the help of professional staff, but it is just not the same.

Of course, what we want is both and I genuinely believe that the benefit to a community of such a library system far exceeds the cost. However, we all know that many library managers are being faced with the reality of having to deliver a quality library services with inadequate funding. I believe that as professionals we do need to come up with a realistic way of maintaining a service in the face of unreasonable cuts and that keeping a large number of small libraries open is not of itself better than a smaller number of bigger libraries. First develop the service, then deliver it as appropriate.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Business information

JISC Open Innovation and Access to Resources (OIA2R ) project

I have been monitoring the pilot projects that were funded by the JISC Open Innovation and Access to Resources (OIA2R), funding call which is part of the Business and Community Engagement (BCE) programme.

For an introduction to the BCE programme see the video  and the BCE blog

The aim of the Access to Resources stream of OIA2R was to develop integrated business information services involving universities and other agencies. Five pilot programmes were funded to explore different approaches in different areas.

The project funding has now come to an end and the projects have reported their results. In some cases workable outcomes have been produced while in others concepts have been explored but the results have been limited. It is possible that further work will be done on these projects. I have summarised three of the most relevant projects below.

In summary, the projects have demonstrated that local projects based on co-operation between HE and FE institutions and focused on the needs of local business can produce actual and potential benefits. Local businesses do have a need to access the information and expertise held by universities. Most universities already offer business support services but there is a need for wider and deeper engagement with the business community. Information Technology and the use of Web 2.0 tools can aid this engagement but the technical issues of integrating individual institutional websites must not be underestimated. The process of how individual organisations can work together and focus on the needs of local businesses needs to be considered as much as the technology.

These projects demonstrate that that it would be worthwhile exploring initiatives in our area based on co-operation with local universities, colleges and other organisations. It would be unwise to adopt one of the existing projects as a model - instead we should explore the needs of local businesses. The Universities would be expected to lead on such a project but the initiative should come from the local authority on behalf of local businesses and support agencies.


OPEN Biz involved the pilot of an online programme to support Scottish Universities’ engagement with the wider community – namely businesses, social enterprises, charities and business advisors.

Led by the University of Edinburgh and Interface – The knowledge connection for business, the pilot project focused on the West of Scotland, working with key University partners such as the University of Strathclyde, University of the West of Scotland, Glasgow Caledonian University and University of Glasgow.

Outcomes and achievements of OPEN Biz have been:

Video case studies of 2-3 minutes hosted on YouTube-
Live blended webinars events which engaged the virtual audience through the use of moderated online chat forum- (Problem with sound at start).

• Testing easier access to research publications via a digital publishing tool.

• A free to download iPhone app with business relevant content.-

For further information go to or contact A flyer is available.

BRACKEN (Business Resource and Community Knowledge Exchange Network) project aimed to develop and optimise the knowledge, information and business support services provided by the South West Wales Vocational Support Initiative (SWWVSI) network of HE and FE institutions and regional business support agencies. The objective was to provide a one-stop-shop for business support information that would be continuously synchronised with the emerging services offer from the partner institution websites and would include general information about business support services in the region, including the support from sector-specific business support agencies, and also current opportunities for support funding.

The project also explored the Enterprise Architecture (EA) modelling methods to improve the operational effectiveness of the regional network.

A beta website has been set up but the project identified significant shortcomings in some of the partner institution business-facing websites and the information they provided about business support services. This had an effect on the ability of the information hub to trawl for information on those websites and was identified as a key area for the Bracken project to address. As a result of this analysis, each institution created a development plan for the improvement of services to be delivered through the SWWVSI network and disseminated through the institutional websites.


The ENGAGE project, led by Queens University Belfast (QUB) with partner Belfast Metropolitan College (BMC), recognises the importance of bringing together co-located private companies and higher education organisations. In the knowledge that some high profile links have been established already to individuals or private sector organisations beyond the local community (i.e. usually international and attaching kudos), the project is very focussed on encouraging and nurturing relationships between small or large local companies and complementary groups within Queens University Belfast or Belfast Metropolitan College. A useful review of the aims of the project can be found here.

Friday, 14 October 2011


I spent yesterday evening reading the judgement of Mr Justice Ouseley in the Brent hearing. Here are my comments, although I must stress that I am not offering any legal advice or guidance on this!

Brent Council's proposals for the library service were contained in a document called the Libraries Transformation Project (LTP). References below are to paragraph numbers in the judgement.

It is worth making clear that Mr Justice Ouseley was not asked for, and did not give, an opinion on the issue of whether the decision by Brent Council to close six libraries was in breach of Section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (s7), i.e. the "comprehensive and efficient library service" clause. He states:

"It is the Claimants' contention that the LTP involves a breach of s7 on its merits, regardless of the information gathered by the Council. This contest is not before me, and it will be for the Secretary of State to decide what to do under ss1 and 10 about the complaints made by the Claimants and others in that respect. Before me, their allegation is a more limited one concerning the way in which the Council obtained information and then analysed it when carrying out its assessment of needs. This, they contend, was irrational or failed to meet the necessary standards." (p92).

"… I would put it on the basis that if the Claimants can show that something has gone seriously or obviously wrong in law in the information gathering or analysing procedure, they should have their remedy in this court. Otherwise it should be left to the Secretary of State." (p 94).

Given that the Secretary of State has not responded to the complaints of the campaigners in Brent or elsewhere the focus of the argument was on the way in which the Council had gone about its assessment of the LTP. The Claimants hoped that if they could establish that this process was unlawful then the High Court would stop the Council from going ahead with the closures. They failed and the closures have happened, but in principle the Secretary of State can still consider whether the LTP is in breach of the 1964 Act.

The court considered the Complainants' case under 4 headings

1) The Council unlawfully ignored the role which community libraries and groups could play in fulfilling the s7 duties.

The FTP report proposed that by reducing the number of library buildings in the borough and concentrating resources in the remaining buildings; and by developing online and digital services, the Council would improve the quality of library provision while contributing to reduction in funding. This improved library service would, it was claimed, fully meet the requirements of s7. The Council said that it would consider bids by community groups to run private or community libraries providing that they met certain conditions, but that these would be in addition to the Council's provision and not part of the Council's statutory provision. The campaigners argued that the Council failed to consider the possibility of keeping libraries open through the use of volunteers. A key factor was that the Council's conditions for community libraries included there being no cost to the Council while the proposals that were submitted included continuing Council support. The ruling was that failure to proceed with community run libraries was not unlawful.

Some campaigners who are opposed to the use of volunteer libraries may welcome this ruling. Other local groups feel that they are being denied an opportunity to keep local libraries open. It would be a very different situation if a Council was intending to maintain community run libraries as part of its statutory requirements under s7.

2) The Council unlawfully failed to consult.

The Claimants recognised that there had been consultation but argued that way in which this was done was unfair and unlawful because it had not told the public what it needed to know about the running costs of libraries so that groups could make informed responses in support of voluntary arrangements. It was further suggested that the Council had only consulted on its own proposals rather than on a wider range of possible options. The judgement rejected both of these arguments saying that: "The Council was not obliged to consult on alternative means of achieving the same ends; there is no such general principle and such a requirement would make consultation inordinately time-consuming and complex". However it also said: "There was no evidence that the Council was unwilling to reconsider its proposals in the light of the consultation process if a strong enough case had been made". This could imply that a council that was unwilling to consider alternative scenarios could be in breach of its duty.

3) The Council unlawfully failed to assess the needs of library users.

Reference was made to the DCMS Wirral enquiry report which said that in deciding how to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ the council must assess and take into account local needs. This does not have the force of law but is a significant document. The Claimants case was that the Council had failed to inform itself properly of the needs of the residents, and then to analyse those needs. It was at this point that the judge made the point that these issue are best considered by the Secretary of State in respect of s7 rather than in the process of a judicial review. Justice Ouseley concluded that the evidence showed that the Council had assessed users needs and that their analysis of these needs was reasonable. In this section he made the following observations:

"There is no requirement that all residents of an urban area should have access to a library within 1 mile of their homes; that is not a measure of a “comprehensive” service. Such a measure could readily have been enshrined in statute. And whatever may have been the guidance of government years ago for example in the Bourdillon report of 1962, it does not now represent the measure of a comprehensive service." (p106)

"The availability of resources is relevant to what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient service; the library service and s 7 duty are not exempt from resource issues and were not entitled in law to escape the budget reductions faced by the Council." (p107)

"The Council’s reliance on mitigation measures which included the use of the internet was criticised as falling outside the scope of s7 which focussed on “facilities for borrowing books and other material”. … In reality, a service which includes the provision of books and other materials by technology and goes beyond the loan of books or other physical items, or the provision of reading facilities on the printed page, falls within the scope of s7, which is not confined to the loan or use of physical items." (p116)

4) The Council was in breach of its public sector equality duty

The Claimants put forward a number of points relating to the Equality Act 2010. It was argued that the closure of the 6 branch libraries would result in indirect discrimination as there was differential impact on some groups, such as young people or particular ethnic groups. Justice Ouseley concluded

"... it did not put persons who shared the relevant characteristic at a disadvantage compared with those who do not. All users of the libraries to be closed have to travel further, irrespective of their protected characteristic or none. No issue of justification for indirect discrimination on race or religion therefore arose". (p139)

"Disproportion in impact may evidence indirect discrimination, and require its examination but it is not of itself proof of it." (p141)

"I do not think that a council can be said to discriminate indirectly against a group with protected characteristics when it closes a facility among the users of which that group is disproportionately represented, unless all those who share the same protected characteristic are adversely affected in their use of the facilities which are left." (p142)


The outcome of this decision was that six libraries in Brent were closed down. The case probably sets a standard against which the decision of other councils to close libraries can be judged. It is possible that other councils will not meet this standard and will have their decision overturned but generally as long as they can show a reasonable level of consultation, needs assessment and equality impact assessment they will not be judged to have acted unlawfully. Attention will now shift to the Secretary of State and whether he will respond to complaints that s7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 has been breached. It can be argued that in the long term it is better that the future of libraries is decided by a debate about the value of libraries and not by narrow legal arguments over whether a council has breached this or that piece of legislation. The library profession now faces the task of advocacy and of deciding what model of library provision best meets our current needs.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Speaking up for libraries

I have been listening to the Radio Sheffield interview with Mayor Peter Davies (Items at 0:59:24, 1:05:20 and 1:25:46.) I don't intend to comment on his plans for volunteers to run several branch libraries. What was clear was that Mayor Davies has little appreciation of the value of libraries - he regards them as a cost rather than as a benefit. He also has a very low opinion of the value of professional librarians. He says he can't understand why you need professional staff to stamp out books. His view is that running a library is a simple task that can be performed by volunteers with no training and that "things are made mysterious" by librarians.

Now I think we should all stand still and take a few deep breaths....  is that better?

So, why would the leader of a local authority take this view (and let's face it, he is not unique in his views although the style in which he expresses them is quite special). Most librarians would say that he does not understand - that he has not got the message. So why is this?

If you have studied communication theory you will know that for communication to happen you need a sender who develops and encodes the message, a channel of communication and a receiver who decodes the message. A failure of communication can result from a fault by the sender, a fault by the receiver or problems with the channel (noise). In this case one suspects that the receiver is unable or unwilling to decode and understand the message. Several reasons can be suggested for this - many of which will involve criticism of the receivers intelligence, personality or politics. Listening to the interview it is clear that Mayor Davies feels that he must find savings, has identified the library budget as a source of saving (albeit a very small percentage of the whole) and is not interested in discussing the details.

However, just because we can blame the failure of communication on the receiver does not mean that the sender has no responsibilities. The case for the library service and the role of professional staff has not been made successfully and as professionals we have to ask ourselves why this has happened. Do we have any responsibility ourselves, as the senders of the message, for this failure? Could we have done any better?

This is where advocacy skills come into the picture. Librarians are, I think, generally good at doing what they do but are not good at blowing their own trumpet - at convincing people of the value and impact of what they do. As Mayor Davies pointed out - we tend to 'make things mysterious' instead. All library services need people with advocacy skills to sell the service to their 'power people'.

In a commercial organisation, if you are good at doing what you do then you please your customers and they pay for your service. In a public service like libraries you still have to please your customers but they do not pay directly. The people who do pay are not receiving your service directly. That is why we need advocacy.

SINTO is running two workshops on advocacy. Gaining support and influence: an introduction to advocacy shows how a planned approach to advocacy can put your library in a strong position. This course is for librarians with responsibility for speaking out about the value of their service.
Measuring and communication impact: advanced advocacy takes advocacy a step further. It looks at ways of raising the profile of your organisation by making sure you demonstrate how it already plays a part in the delivery of key policy agendas.

Having advocacy skills does not guarantee success but not having these skills will probably contribute to failure.