August 13, 2006
What Price Waterhouse should have said
Throughout my effort to revive the public library service whenever I have been critical of what is done by professionals, councils, quangoes or civil servants, I have, at the same time, said what I believe should have been done
The Price Waterhouse Report should have tackled two problems (exactly as were set out in the brief to PKF the consultants who worked on the first stage of the project)
1. What are the areas of inefficient operation - given what the public wants from its library service and the resources available? In other words you start from what an individual local community library needs in order to improve what it offers members of the public and identify all resources which are spent on other activities which do not directly bring improvement.
2. Anticipating that a lot- but only part of- the inefficiency lies in the way that books are selected, bought, distributed, catalgued, labelled, handled etc, identify what all those processes are, evaluate whether they are truly needed, and if they are identify they simplest and most cost effective way of carrying them out
3. Be specific about how much money can be saved, where and by whom. Spell out exactly what they have to do which is different. Identify who is in a position to authorise such a change and what benefit they will see by doing it. Elaborate exactly what the change process will be and how the right people will know when it has been carried out. Most important of all anticipate what benefit the public will see and when and find a way of checking that they get the improvements they want and are aware of them. Describe the problems that can be anticipated and what management mechanism will be used to overcome them and any others that are not foreseen
4. Write clearly in English that the public can understand (and politicians) and show figures which are relevant simple and comprehensible
Following this method, this report would show that by working in a slightly different way, more closely with suppliers, councils could save on average £1-1.5m each in the operation of their library service. Across the country this amounts to £2-300m per annum
Much of this saving lies in the overhead of the service within each individual council, which cannot be reduced instantly but rather simplfied over a period of 2-3 years. This saving can be used to increase opening hours, rebuild book collections and operate a new building and redecoration and a programme for replacement of equipment in individual libraries, however such a reallocation of funds needs to be supported by performance measurement which is transparent to councillors and the public
The first step is to undertake this work in one or two councils in fine detail so that every step is taken carefully and recorded to help others go through the same.
This programme creates new relationships and new roles. The idea of a "professional" librarian changes- so that everyone who serves the public works in a professional way and is trained to do so. Few people in a library service do not work with the public all the time. It also changes the nature of the working relationship between council library services and book suppliers, who undertake much of the backroom work currently carried out inefficently by individual councils.
Those who work in libraries, the local community and all members of the public and the politicians who represent them should be able to see every day at all times, whether their library is being used and operated to meet their needs in the most efficient way. Through the person who manages each individual library there is a constant conversation with all members of the public.
This is what the Price Waterhouse Review should have said; search as I might I cannot find a need for the 10 labelling factories of which it talks.
Posted by Perkins at August 13, 2006 3:50 PM
The problem I have with this report (other than the fact that it is so horrible to read) is that it seems to address the concept of libraries in a very abstract way. I am not opposed in principal to the idea of regional ordering and distribution centres but this model doesn’t seem to have been thought through on a logical scale.
Yes it would be great if libraries could get a huge discount on books, if our management systems could communicate and if processing and cataloguing were uniform but changing these things all at once would take up a huge amount of time and resources which would impact upon basic services.
A discrepancy between old and new stock can’t just be handled by shelving them differently (most of us don’t have unlimited space). If we change the way that stock is catalogued it is necessary to recatalogue all of the existing stock. This is possible but it would take a lot of time and effort. Just because new technologies are currently available does not mean that we should automatically subscribe to them, if 10% of authorities currently use Radio Frequency Identification technology then the stock of 90% of library authorities do not contain RFID tags, are all of these books supposed to be written off?
Maybe I am just very stupid but I can’t seem to grasp the concept of the eMarketplace as described here. I understand that local consortiums negotiate a deal with an individual supplier so that they are effectively buying in bulk and therefore receive a discount. As I understand it the eMarketplace procures books from various suppliers and purchases titles from them on an individual basis. I freely admit that I know next to nothing about procurement software but this all seems very complicated. Is it currently feasible?
Supplier selection is a relatively simple process compared to what is described here. The stock analysis software described would have to perform some quite intricate analysis in order to assess all of the factors mentioned on a regional scale. Existing automated supplier selection processes do not offer the level of sophistication that is hinted at here and I know from personal experience that the statistical evidence generated by library management systems can sometimes be very misleading unless looked at in context. LMS (nice use of use of annoying TLAs and obfuscation throughout the report by the way) sometimes barely communicate between different branches let alone between different authorities.
I can’t imagine any sensible stock manager allocating the suggested percentage of stock funds to an outside agency. If all stock funds (except for the 5% on local interest books) are allocated to a regional hub then what is left for maintenance and display purposes? Not all books purchased are newly published; we also replace lost or damaged stock and fill stock gaps. Fiction books are often published in series; would this proposed software not only order new books from a series held in a particular library (something that our supplier selection system can’t do at the moment) but also decide that some of our existing stock should be replaced? If I withdraw a popular book because it has been returned with half the pages missing will it be flagged in the regional hub or do we just have to wait until someone requests it? What do we do when 10 copies of the latest best-seller which have been on order for months don’t show up if we have nothing set aside to pop down to our local bookstore?
As you say a much better idea would have been to examine the problems from the bottom up, as it seems as though the writers of this report have little idea of how a public library actually works on a day-to-day level. There seem to be an awful lot of things here that could go horribly wrong and a great risk of making things worse rather than better.
Posted by: Miriam Palfrey at August 14, 2006 1:11 PM
Thank you so much. I do understand some of the jargon to which you refer and which is not explained properly in the report but it actually isn't important in comparison to the priorities you set: local individual libraries providing local communities with the best service they can with the resources available.
Technical improvements should have improved efficiency and allowed better service for the same money- not complicated procedures to the point that service is put at risk.
What you say is completely right. I am absolutely at one with you. Thank you!
Posted by: Tim Coates at August 14, 2006 6:28 PM