October 31, 2006
As Helen Rumbelow predicted in her article in The Times, she caused much wringing of hands. The paper has printed 3 letters which I have reprinted below.
The first is from Desmond Clarke who makes similar comments to those made on here by Miriam Palfrey
The second is from David Bradbury who is a senior Librarian (which he didn't declare to the letters editor) and who thinks the press should be silenced
The third is from John Dolan, who persists in making up policy for libraries for which he has no authority or mandate and which bears no relationship to the wishes of Government or Parliament and certainly of no section of the community I have encountered except his own office and the Society of Chief Librarians-- sometimes known as the Society for Closing Libraries.
My own view is different again and it is that the library service needs to make itself attractive and useful to Helen Rumbelow and commentators like her. It can just plead that it is worthy and useful to minorities. They cannot blame the press for reporting what they see.
One fact I deduced from David Bradbury's letter but hadn't noticed before is that, in London, each library visit is subsidised to the cost of £4 by taxpayers and each book loan costs £5. That is an expensive service.
Desmond Clarke's letter
Letters to the Editor
The Times October 28, 2006
In the stacks
Sir, Helen Rumbelow (Comment, Oct 26) forgets those who can’t afford to buy every book they wish to read — and those who have no wish to do so. Last year 330 million books were borrowed from our public libraries and many others were used for research and study.
Several government-sponsored and independent reports have highlighted the issues in our public libraries: the 20 per cent decline in book stocks, inadequate opening hours, poor marketing, continuining inefficiencies and 1,000 buildings that are unfit for purpose.
The service is desperately in need of leadership and a taskforce to help the 149 separately managed authorities to provide a comprehensive and efficient service as defined by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.
The better-managed authorities have shown that the demand is as strong as ever for libraries which have good stocks, are open when people can visit them and are welcoming places to visit. And they don’t need their names changed. They just need to do their job well.
The Times October 31, 2006
Sir, The library is far from dead (Comment, Oct 26). In London more than 50 million visits are made to public libraries every year, and more than 40 million books are borrowed.
Public libraries are among the most used and appreciated of British public services. They provide a lifeline to learning, reading, information, entertainment and activities for children, the elderly, the less well-off and the millions without broadband.
If we repeatedly promote the myth that they are dying, public libraries will eventually suffer the fate of municipal swimming pools and rural post offices. Millions of people love their libraries: let’s hear more of their views than those of the prophets of library doom.
Sir, Libraries are changing and do not need to link solely or uniquely with books to serve local people with the services they want. The Idea Store is just one example. All over the country people are discovering that libraries put on programmes of exciting activities — from literature to performance, learning to community history. We know that libraries have always been about learning, reading, information and inspiration — it’s just that in Victorian times this could only be delivered with books. Now we can add to that the new technologies like the internet, e-books and online publications. And in the library, whether local or virtual, growing numbers of people continue to discover themselves, meet other people and connect with a world of possibilities.
Head of Library Policy Museums, Libraries and Archives Council
October 30, 2006
Rally in Devon
Everybody in Devon is going to Bideford on 8 November
See under concerts on this site
Please buy "Heroines" by Jessica Ruston
For all your friends and relations for Christmas. You had better hurry there are not many copies left and the price is bound to go up shortly. You will find it advertised in the right hand tramline.
Wilfrid Blunt was the chairman of the Crabbet society whose members were the most senior politicans and diplomats of the day. He urged them, as members, to do their jobs as badly as possible, because he thought the British invasion of foreign countries and everything to do with the army was humbug. Instead he desired them to write poetry, which many of them did, even though they were cabinet members and viceroys and that kind of thing. One weekend each year they gathered (it was obligatory) at his house in Sussex so he could award the annual Crabbet society poetry prize.
There is a book which features one of his dafter moments in the right hand tramline. It is called "Fox hunting in Cairo: Wilfrid Blunt's Egyptian Garden" and features both Blunt and Rennell Rodd, of whom you have never heard, but whom Mark Twain called "by far the best English poet: much better than Kipling who you all like so much" Rennell Rodd was a also a wonderful writer of prose and official papers. His grand daughter lives in Paris.
Such things one only finds in libraries
The Mayor of Barsetshire, Mr Craven Thornbush, has written to the head of the Conservatory Party, Mr Simon Templar, to ask if he and Mr and Mrs Dumpling can be part of Mr Templar's cricket team.
Readers of this blog will recognise that it is Mr and Mrs Dumpling who are in charge of parks and libraries in Barsetshire who have removed all the books from libraries and put them on the benches in the park. Library shelves are now full of cream cakes and the libraries have been changed into Recovery Centres.
Mrs Dumpling is famous for having called old Ms Jane Austen "The Trollope of Barset"
Mr Simon Templar is decent young man with far more common sense than everybody else and the dash that we have been seeking, between the wickets, etc. He is unlikely to pick these travellers for his team. They are not fit but they are fiddlers.
October 29, 2006
American libraries and English libraries
I had an interesting correspondence with a Master's degree student in librarianship at an English University, yesterday. I won't identify him, but he said this
"in many ways I feel the UK in general (and government in particular) there's just a malaise towards libraries. They are frowned upon as frumpy and outdated. I mean, in the USA libraries are regarded as something for all people to go there (rich and poor) to learn. Here, there too often seen as a preserve of middle aged,middle class persons (or is that staff.....lol). I do think the library needs to look at its image. I mean, I would regard libraries being in the same state as Foyles was, for far too many years."
I asked if, on his course, they discuss the management problems and skills that are needed to get out of a mess like that. I won't say his answer,because it might reveal which course he is doing, but the answer is no. For certain Foyles didn't decide that the way forward was to market themselves "not as providers of books, but of knowledge" and they don't keep telling everyone they are no longer just about books.
Why don't librarianship training courses deal with library management and discuss problems of this kind ? (as the Select committee asked them to do last year)
October 27, 2006
Westminster City Council
We all know that "statistics can be made to say anything". The same is true of people who fly under the flag of "marketing experts"-- they can say anything at all and most of it is nonsense
I spent much of my young working career realising that this doesn't have to be true. Actually marketing can be logical, sensible and it is interesting because sometimes the public are unpredictable and people can be genuinely creative. But I felt at home when I thought of it as being "communication". I learned from Tim Waterstone and another genius called Bryan Austin at WH Smith that marketing is best when straightfoward messages are made interesting. If you want people to believe you will have the book they need, then say you believe in books and that people's need for them is genuine and honourable and get a reputation for having the book they need. We were very good at that simple message. Our brand was one of the best ever brand promotions in the UK in the past 50 years. We knew how to be proud of what we did-- and we did it well. I understood exactly what we were doing. I still know how to market books to people-- be serious about them-- don't say "we do lots of other things" because that implies you don't believe they are important. It's easy. A smart restaurant wouldn't advertise the opportunity to use their photocopy machine or their dishwasher, or claim it was unique because you can book a table on-line- they would just offer really good food and get a reputation for always doing so; why should a library insist on telling everyone that it does everything in the world except try to stock the book they might need for their work?
This speech which was made at the Public Libraries Conference last week by the "Head of communications" at Westminster City Council. He is talking about the marketing of public libraries. It is complete tosh. "Shifting the library brand from buildings to people; from books to knowledge is the fundamental challenge." he says: so am I supposed to read Patrick Leigh Fermor to improve my knowledge? It only shows that he doesn't know what he's talking about, I'm afraid. Bless.
Why don't they just get a decent set of books, clean the buildings and get some new furniture to sit on and open 24 hours-- that would be good marketing. "Communication" is what we get when you cross the threshold: is the place light, bright, fall of the best of publisher's endless invention?, or dull and dreary with the same holes in jumpers behind the counter that have been unravelling for the past 30 years? Do the job, or get someone else to do it!!
There is, as he avoids saying, an extremely serious problem of the perception of the public library service in London. People believe it is awful, has nothing of use to them and is irrelevant to their lives. The number of people saying that "libraries are relevant" has fallen to nearly 10%. (In the countryside it is still over 50%). The reason for this is either A - libraries don't have what people need or B -- they do have what people need but nobody knows.. The answer is A and any half rate marketing manager can tell you ( as could my cat)
At least Mark Field, the MP for Westminster knows what a proper public library service should do, as he made clear in his speech at the same conference. I only hope the people from Westminster City Council were listening to what he said and taking notes. It would be very embarrrassing for them to find themselves excluded from the initiatives being created in Mr Fields' department in Conservative Central Office. Very embarrasing indeed, but at the moment the managers of Westminster library service appear to be hand in glove with Mr Woolly Jumper and Miss Bo Peep-- which, in the circumstances, is the exact wrong place to be. Ah well, baah
Councils no longer have a legal obligation to provide a public library service
There used to be a legal requirement for councils to provide a "comprehensive, efficient and improving" public library service. However, I was in a council yesterday in which the councillor responsible said that there is no longer a "statutory duty" to provide libraries.
I reflected afterwards- because we would all assume that he was wrong - but actually he is right. Two specific actions in the past 12 months have brought about this change, which is noticeable to very few! The first is that by not exercising his duty in certain councils in the past 12 months, the Minister has made it impossible for him to use his powers in the future. The second is the handing over of the operation of Buckinghamshire's library service by the County council to community groups without legal challenge under the act.
As a result of these two precedents councils no longer have an effective Act which requires them to set aside funds for and operate public libraries. Helen Rumbelow was right in more senses than she realises-- the public library service is effectively finished.
Tell me I am wrong.
Librarians are offended by Helen Rumbelow
Miriam Palfrey has written this important comment
"I was highly offended by this article even though it is an argument that several of my affluent, middle-class friends have also made.
Yes. People who don’t read often, who read only popular fiction or who have a plenty of money could (and often do) simply buy everything they want from Amazon. But what about books which are out of print? What about advice on which books to read what about the various non-fiction titles which cost around £30 each and are rapidly superseded? Where would they research the history of their house or the painting that their grandmother left them?
The idea that the Internet is a replacement for reference and non-fiction books is ludicrous! Of course the Internet is a useful reference tool and it is updated on a very frequent basis. It is also a mine of crackpot theories, lies and misinformation. Speaking from experience I would say that in general people do not all have the search skills necessary to thoroughly research all subjects on the internet. Often the information received is useless and in some cases could actually be dangerous.
Finally, there are plenty of people who don’t have the room or the money to buy every book they would like to read. Libraries give them the opportunity to experiment with their reading tastes (something which I would suggest should not necessarily stop after childhood) it allows them access to books which they can’t afford for themselves.
I have various personal opinions on Ideas Stores but I have already gone on at some length so perhaps I will share them another time."
Miriam, I am, sure you are right and when I first read the article I was upset in the same way. However, a journalist writes about what she sees. Sadly the truth is that, in many places, the libraries and the library profession have conveyed the impression that they no longer see it as their role to provide a service for "people who can afford to buy books and have the internet at home" - so the library service, quite reasonably, is seen by those people as having nothing for them and no interest in their ordinary library needs. I suspect my own family and many of my friends would say the same. You say the same about your friends-- and they are telling the truth. It is, I am afraid, a consequence of many years of the library service acting in the way that it has. What Helen Rumbelow described is what most people who read, in London at least, feel. Of course there will be protests because we all wish it wasn't true, but I'm afraid it is and action is needed, not indignation. Action means restoring contact of public libraries with ordinary people and it were better to be done quickly before ordinary people decide they no longer want to pay for something which does not meet their needs.
October 26, 2006
There is an article in Times2 today by Helen Rumbelow saying that public libraries are effectively finished.
She predicts that by saying that she will cause much hand-wringing, and I'm sure there will be.
The awful truth, however, is that she is right. She is describing what she sees. In London, certainly, the public library service is effectively finished. Even six or seven years ago it was just about still breathing, but, as she writes, now, the idea of a book lending library is dead. It has been killed needlessly, but remorselessly, without the sanction of the public, by those who are responsible for its management and now it is going to be very hard to bring back to life. RIP.
Nevertheless the story is not over -- let us see those who have done this jailed for the crime they have committed.
The origin of this blog was a message from Karen Christensen in America who told me that she was preparing a book about the best libraries. Here it is.
I wrote to David Lammy, the minister here, and Mark Wood, the chair of the MLA, to suggest we might all join her project and include our libraries. They didn't answer.
October 25, 2006
Hard times in Bloggington
The Bloggington Bugle reports that Mr Grimsdyke has been forced to take up residence under the pier on Bloggington beach. There is a dry bit under the sea wall, but this is not the time of year to be sleeping out.
It is awful to think of Mr Chocolate Profiterole and Miss Cherry Slice enjoying the warmth and the view from Grimsdyke Tower.
Down hill in Milton Keynes
Does anyone understand the logic of the Councillor in Milton Keynes who appears to be in charge ?
October 24, 2006
Do you agree?
There was a record number of hits on the site yesterday. I am anxious to know if, particularly members of the public, agree with the paragraphs I have written below about what a good public library should be. If you wish to leave an anonymous comment, please do, but if you work in libraries or in the public library sector, please do say.
October 22, 2006
"The public library is an abundant collection of books and other material for reading, for seeking information, for pleasure and entertainment and for study. It is a place which provides space and quiet for reading and work. The library should be attractive, welcoming, clean, modern, bright, safe, comfortable and helpful. It should reflect by its presentation all that is being published and the best of what was published in the past: fiction, non-fiction, new and old, reference and research, local and international, obvious and obscure. By providing a sense of the locality, its people and its history, it should play a role in the community. It should be open as long as it is safe to be so. The staff should be knowledgeable, approachable, friendly and interested.
Readers in the library should be able to find what they seek either by asking staff or by researching catalogues and other databases on line. Personal computers should be available both for research and for people engaged in their own work
The library should go out of its way to cater for children, both in the selection of material but in the help and encouragement in finding books and stories of which younger readers may not know.
All libraries should also, of course, provide active help for anyone with disability. They should seek out those who may in any way feel or be excluded from the service and they should play an active role in their own local community by responding to all the various library needs of local people. Each library is individual and particular to its neighbourhood
Libraries are better if the funds they have are used efficiently. they should have access to national collections, to book suppliers, to experienced property management, to databases and national libraries and systems for information retrieval which are the best that are available. In these and similar matters there is no value in individual libraries inventing or researching their own individual solutions and economies.
The most important staff in the service are those available in a library to keep it open and provide help to readers who need it. "
October 20, 2006
Closing the libraries of Lancashire
A few weeks ago Councillor Kevin Ellard of Lancashire County Council wrote me an email in which he said I had misunderstood the noble intentions of Lancashire County Council in an entry I called "no books in Lancashire"
I replied that I would be delighted to be corrected and he drew attention to a report which he and his colleagues had written reviewing the future of the libraries in the county. This report was written and published after a decision had already been implemented to close many of the libraries in the county.
I searched Councillor Ellard's report for anything which committed the council to raise the quality of the book collections, which had evidently declined considerably, and failed. The report contained little factual information and nothing that, in a meaningful way, would have addressed the views of the local people, to my understanding. I found nothing at all that inclined me to reverse the view I had expressed, nevertheless I wrote to Councillor Ellard and suggested we could discuss these things as, perhaps, I was missing something. The views the report expressed were much in line with the kind of things said by the MLA, so there were reasons why his colleagues might have seen validity in what they wrote. I just didn't think they were right. He didn't reply..
A few weeks later and I was sent the draft performance figures for English counties for last year and observed that in Lancashire book lending had fallen by 7% in the year, which is one of the worst figures in the country (not quite as bad as Hampshire but almost). So I felt some justification for my views and wrote again to Councillor Ellard to ask if he would like to resume the discussion as I know some things that could be helpful to them. He replied that the correspondence was finished and would I kindly put an entry on the blog to say that I was wrong about books in the libraries of Lancashire
Today comes news of more library closures in Lancashire, to the dismay of the local people.
In the turmoil of a dream ideas become confused. I am genuinely interested in the use of official language (see below). For a long time I have researched and enjoyed British Official Government Papers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, partly for the history they teach (don't go to war in Afghanistan) but much more because of the profoundly beautiful language used by civil servants, surveyors, generals and inspectors of those days.
So when Karen Christensen asks for more books to be mentioned on the blog, I can only say that I am reading Kenneth Rose's lovely biography of Lord Curzon of Keddlestone. Curzon filled many roles, which I will not attempt to describe and he was the most aloof of British Aristocrats and intellectuals. He was also a perfectionist who reprimanded his chef when preparing a reception for a member of the Royal Family by observing into the distance "Gentlemen do not eat soup at Luncheon"
Clive Keeble points in the right direction
Clive has posted this comment:
If you honestly place the slightest faith in Mark Field and Tory Central Office being able to have the slightest influence within their 75% majority of Buckinghamshire County Council then you really are drinking from the wrong goblet.
This is not Tony's Cronies running Buckinghamshire but rather the last members of Thatcher's (blue sky thinking**) England.
Mark Field will solve nothing, because he is all waffle and will come out with the party line "when we are in power we will be better able to make councils such as Buckinghamshire understand,blah...blah...waffle"
Vide : Publishing News - Mark Fields comments
>> Field said he had gained support and advice from within the book industry for his proposed venture and added, “We are in talks with IT companies and other organisations to help with some blue sky thinking about modernising the library service without in any way reducing the core function of a library which we see as lending books and providing reference and other materials.” <<"
Even more astonishing in Buckinghamshire
As the story unfolds in Buckinghamshire, it becomes even more bizarre.
This piece is in the Buckinghamshire Free Press today
This really does seem to be in complete conflict with Mark Field's speech last Friday- demonstrating the importance of getting his Task Force running as soon as possible-- in the direction of County Hall in Aylesbury.
Private libraries in Buckinghamshire
This latest twist in the saga of the Buckinghamshire Public Library service is hard to understand.
Readers might like to enter "Buckinghamshire" in the search column on the right to read the history of this.
There has been an important discussion about use of language in official documents on Susan Hill's blog. Susan has now closed that entry but I should like to continue it here: it is a central theme on this blog
I have long observed that the weak use of language by Government officers is one of the greatest causes of poor public admninistration and inefficient use of public funds.
Susan's debate focussed on these two sentences published by the MLA this week:
'Museums, libraries and archives will ensure that the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games are an inclusive event. They will engage with an emerging generation of young people, celebrate diversity and help deliver the best ever Games, sustaining a legacy for people in all regions.' One of Susan's correspondents correctly described this as a 'vision' statement- but that what mattered was what actions are proposed to fulfill that vision.
My comment is that a manager working in those three services could use these sentences as an excuse to do more or less anything and to use or apply for public funds to act in many ways that would accord with what appears to be called for. If their application (advocacy) for money is turned down they can reasonably say - 'our service is not properly funded to meet Government requirements.
Management statements of intent in the public sector need to be specific, exact, clear and comprehensible. The funding of what they imply needs to be understood and explained before they are made. Otherwise they are, in my view, irresponsible
Goods and Services
A journalist yesterday asked me if my work on the public library service is a Campaign.
I have long felt uncomfortable with that word in this context and I suddenly realised why. When you have paid a lot of money for something you don't campaign to receive the goods and services for which the money has changed hands. When you pay the plumber to clear the drains you don't have to campaign to get him, thence, to do the job-- hie is contracted to do it.
We don't have to campaign for libraries-- we have paid for them-- those who supply them are contractually bound to provide them. They have made a contract and my role in this dismal saga is to point out that we do not get the goods and services for which we have handed over our earned income. That's not a campaign, it is matter of enforcement of the oldest of Anglo saxon laws.
Libraries closing in Northumberland
This article describes the campaign to save some threatened libraries in Northumberland.
What happened to the idea that good libraries are fundamental to communities?
October 19, 2006
More libraries to close
In January 2002 the Audit Commission, which is the body which looks after the public interest in the dealings of Local Government, was in the process of preparing a report on the public library service. They had about a dozen advisers who were all professional librarians or civil servants who had previously been professional librarians and they kindly asked me to express a view.
The advice they were receiving said that the public library was in a healthy state-- it just needed more funding and to be placed higher up the political ladder of priorities. I looked at the figures of declining book use and said "there is no need for more funding, but if you continue to allow book purchasing to decline as it is as a proportion of the total fund, book lending will fall to nil in about 15 years and libraries will have no use and be closed. There were two brave researchers at the Audit commission who wrote the report- Ingrid Koehle and Michael Carpenter. They agreed with my analysis and printed it. In four and a half years since, those advisers from the profession have neither changed their view nor taken any of the actions recommended by the Audit Commission ,or any other of the several reports which have advised what needs to be done.
As a result we are now hearing predictions from all over the country of widescale library closures. Here is the article in tomorrow's Bookseller
19 October 2006
Library closures to accelerate in 2007
Senior library officials across the UK have predicted a further round of public library closures next year in the face of deepening budget cuts.
"National government is tightening its belt," said Jo Hand, assistant head of libraries for Gloucestershire. "Most authorities are beginning to face some very serious situations--which are likely to get worse over the next three to four years."
Library consultant Tim Coates predicted that up to 10% of libraries could be identified for closure next year. "A simple process of arithmetic puts 300 to 400 at risk," he said.
The warning follows claims by Minister for Culture David Lammy, at the Public Library Authorities conference in Southampton last week, that only 27 of the 100 libraries earmarked for closure were likely to close by the end of the year.
But Tudfil Adams, county librarian for Powys--which is looking at closing five out of 17 libraries next year--added that closures were "a theme rather than a one-off discussion": "Budgets are getting significantly worse and libraries are unfortunately not at the top of the list for funding," she said.
"The fixed costs absorb a growing proportion of your budget, so you end up salami-slicing your opening hours and your book fund," added another senior library official. "Eventually you have to cut service points."
Philip Kerridge, area strategic manager for libraries in Cornwall, said: "The council's overall budget shortfall is at least twice if not thrice last year's when we cut about £250,000 from a £7m libraries budget . . . we are agonising."
Marguerite Gracey, head of libraries in Northumberland-- whose council has been asked to make £26m worth of savings over the next three years--said: "They're not easy numbers to live with. If other councils are in a similar situation, it's highly likely we will see more cuts next year."
Meanwhile, Dorset libraries have been ordered to make £847,000 in savings over the next three years, and Devon County Council--which placed 12 libraries under review last year--will strip a further £55m from its overall budget.
A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media & Sport said: "All the indications are that the funding profile for all public bodies is likely to be very tough in the years to come. That's why we attach such importance to things such as the PKF recommendations [on stock procurement] and other value-for-money initiatives."
October 18, 2006
Here is a report of the current state of play in Devon..
I am always surprised at the tone of these senior councillors: it as if they were superior to the people who have elected them. Nelson Mandela never sounded like that.
Bookworms in Bedfordshire
Libraries will host the Olympics
I confess this latest press release from the MLA has completely defeated me for meaning
However Susan Hill has some emphatic words to say about it!
Perhaps somone should pass Susan's comments to the chair of the MLA, Mark Wood, or Tessa Jowell, or Darrell Hair.
I also set a target for what the public library service, particularly in London, could do by 2012, when the Olympics will take place. I said that the library service, by then, could have one library card, one catalogue, one website to show where the libraries are, and most of them could be open in the evevning with the books one would need to read and study.. I said that early this year when I realised that by 2012 we will spend, as a country, three times more money on public libraries than we will spend on the Olympics.. the difference is that one project is being managed carefully under the eye of the press and the other isn't being managed at all.
The End of Grimsdyke towers
Upon Mr Grimsdyke's return to Bloggington the Mayor invited him to his parlour
"Welcome home Mr Grimsdyke." he said. "Bloggington on Sea has a proud naval and municipal history"
"Yes." said Grimsdyke, anxiously playing with his trousers.
"And in the past a CPA score of 2, but improving". Within his shoes Mr Grimsdyke's toes tensed.
"Since we took the important decision to fund a new Government cake filling and labelling factory our CPA score has risen to 3, of which we are all very proud and grateful to the Minister, Mr Jumper and his colleagues in DLA (Delay- the Department of libraries and Archives).
"A CPA score of 3 will allow the Mayor to purchase a new car" interjected Grimsdyke.
"A new red Ferrari" said the Mayor proudly, as a result our fine achievements.
"Congratulations" muttered Grimsdyke, with as much feeling as was left in his shaking body.
"As you well know, in order to fund the labelling factory we closed all the libraries with the exception of the Carnegie library on the harbour front and we removed many of the books from that. Since taking those considered actions we have noticed that use of the libraries has severely declined. This is in line with predictions made to us at the time of the closure by Mr Chocolate Profiterole and Miss Cherry Slice: they were proved to be right, Grimsdyke."
"Indeed they have"
"Theefore, we shall now close your office at Grimsdyke tower on Grimsdyke hill. It is no longer needed. Mrs Sideloader and young Ron have been sent on a training course."
"In what subject"
"So we no longer have to pay you, Grimsdyke, and you will have to find yourself somewhere else to live"
"I'm sorry that you have had to say these things" said Mr Grimsdyke
"It's part of my job" said the Mayor resolutely, and as he rose to shake hands with Mr Grimsdyke, he handed him the telescope and slide rule, which had been Mr Grimksdyke's aids in his work at the tower. "I'm sure we'll meet again." He said
Mr Grimsdyke went to the door. And as he was about to leave the Mayor said. "I hope you won't choose to express any views on this to the Bloggington Bugle. I would be fearful for that cat of yours"
Mr Grimsdyke looked down into the Gladstone bag in which Perkins was sound asleep and a tear dropped from his eye.
October 16, 2006
No books for Scottish libraries
I was right to be worried about the announcement of more funds for Scottish libraries --- here is a further announcement which explains how you can spend £440,000 on libraries desperately short of reading material -- and none of it on books! Quite easily!
Announcements in Scotland
This announcement in Scotland would have sounded wonderful, except that we have learned to question a Mnister's understanding of what a good library is and what they intend to do with the money. Let's hope there will be a bit more explanation..
Perhaps our old friend Elaine Fulton will be able to elaborate how the Scots' tax is going to be spent?
October 15, 2006
Whitehall flim flam
Richard Charkin's blog this morning refrains the speech by David Lammy last week.
Mr Lammy used the new Government White paper on communities and local goverrnment as his theme and indicated his belief that it would provide some new ideas to save the public library service.
Even I, from the outside, can see that the White paper is essentially just a sad fading piece of Whitehall flim flam which will have about as much effect as any central government initiative on the operation of local government as all the others since 1997- absolutely nil. The reason, I'm afraid, is that the Civil Service management and administration of this country is in a state of absolute shambles and incompetence: in order to solve a problem you first have all have to understand what it is- and that is a step that civil servants do not seem to understand.
The horrible consequence of this low standard of public administration is that the tax burden will continue to rise and rise.. from what I have deduced from my experience of government watching, this country needs a total re-think of it civil management from top to toe. It is fifty years out of date. It is a far greater problem than any political, international or sectarian divide and must be addressed urgently.
October 14, 2006
"Public Libraries are being challenged: can partnerships help?"
I found this on the web page of SYRUP:
Nobody seems to be saying: "Get some more books"
Libraries which are not about books 2
Not being as audacious as Clive Keeble in the next entry, I would like to mention Music collections in public libraries. There are many many wonderful printed music collections. When I was small the two music libraries in Stockton and in Bradford, were a source of fascination and musical education for me. Now in London I know there are many many fine music libraries and librarians who receive far too little attention and publicity. If you don't know of the music library in Victoria just near the coach station above the public library on Buckingham Palace road-- well that's one just to start with. Please tell me where there are others.
Libraries which are not about books 1
Clive Keeble has drawn attention to a library of photographs.
October 13, 2006
I have never been able to predict the winner of the Booker prize nor even to anticipate who might be on the short list.
However I am very pleased to say that I have twice predicted Nobel Prize winners for literature: once a Czech poet called Jaroslav Seifert and now the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
In one of the first entries on this blog, in April this year, I wrote about the pleasure of reading Pamuk
I enjoy this kind of writing much more than that one normally finds on the Booker list.
Mark Field's speech to the annual library conference
This morning Mark Field is to speak to the same conference of librarians to which David Lammy spoke on Wednesday. Mr Lammy is the minister responsible for libraries, Mr Field is his "shadow" in the House of Commons from the opposition.
It is very good to see that concerns about the health of our public library service have raised it up the agenda to the point that two senior politicians have spent the thought and time to make these major addresses.
Mr Field's speech is printed below. Mr Grimsdyke is sad that he was not invited to listen, but times are hard in Bloggington, the bus fare to Southampton would also have been an obstacle.
The speech will be given in the session 10.30-11.10. It will last for 15-20 mins with a similar time left for questions. David Lammy will be the keynote speaker on the first morning of the conference (Wednesday) so there should be some reference to his message during this speech.
Speech for the Public Libraries Conference 13 October Southampton
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to come and speak to you about the important issue of Britain’s library service.
I know that all of you will agree with me when I say that governments occasionally make mistakes though it is funny how this truth always seems more evident to Opposition politicians such as myself. Sometimes the errors are so serious that the electorate does not forgive the government when the next general election occurs and turfs it out. In most cases though the mistakes become part of history and are never corrected.
During the early 1960s a Conservative Government encouraged a man called Dr Beeching to carry out a research and rationalisation programme into Britain’s rail service. The result was a massive programme of station and branch line closures which hit economic development in much of rural Britain. Four decades on very few of those much lamented rural and suburban lines and village stations have ever been re-opened.
The reasons I suggest that such dramatic measures were taken were twofold – one was the intransigence of the railway workforce to accept new practices, reduced staffing and thus the imperative for lower costs; the other was a lack of vision, innovation and flair about the potential for this country’s future and the importance of fostering community spirit.
Today I believe we face a similar problem with Britain’s public book lending library service. Let no one be in any doubt that many libraries are likely to close in this country in the next few years and that many others are on the way to becoming glorified community centres with names such as Ideas Stores or Discovery Centres.
From the government, its civil servants and many others in the library service we hear that books should no longer be the backbone of the nation’s public library service. The public, on the other hand, has shown that it is strongly committed to maintaining and improving our libraries. In an increasingly consumerist world, our fellow Britons want to see a plentiful supply of up-to-date bestsellers. At the same time they recognise the importance of promoting new developments such as Internet research and other materials such as DVDs and CDs.
In my role as Shadow Minister for Culture, what has surprised me above all has been the amount of sheer hard work, innovation and inspiration shown by so many involved in the arts and culture world.
I regard culture as an integral part of a vision for a better quality of life for all our people. In an age of a more consumerist outlook, with a new demand for ever more choice and better quality in our public services, we all need to recognise that the provision of arts and culture needs to move with the times and surely this does also apply to libraries.
As communities become ever more disparate and fragmented, there is an increasing importance to be attached to the power of culture and the arts as a unifying force to bring people together. The library has a historic local role in the community which will be lost if we rationalise our libraries into large population centres.
I know it is somewhat unfashionable in this highly commercialised, target-driven world, but I have always believed in ‘art for art’s sake.’ In an increasingly target-driven environment, the world of arts and heritage will inevitably suffer if public spending in this area is justified only on the grounds of extraneous benefits, such as to lower crime rates or to improve educational standards. I take the same view with libraries. Whilst recognising the tremendous value that libraries can and should play in developing reading at a time when the country’s educational standards are clearly falling, it should not be the only argument to maintain their presence in as many corners of Britain as possible.
Libraries are used and are there to be used by everybody. The service has been a tremendous achievement for 150 years and there is simply no reason why it should be rationalised at this time. Inevitably during times of financial constraint, if the case for spending on the arts and culture is only on the basis of strict utilitarian benefit to society, then I recognise that budgets are most vulnerable to swingeing reduction. However library costs represent a very small part of council budgets and I do not see that the financial case can be so strong.
There is an enormous amount of enthusiasm for libraries from librarians yet they seem to have lost touch with their customers. No one would dispute that attendances have fallen across the country in recent years. There may be many reasons for this but few would argue that many library layouts have become unappealing and the book offerings have also failed to attract new readers whilst turning off the long time library user. That cannot be surprising when there has been such a marked reduction in expenditure on books over recent years. The result, as we know, is that many councils are closing libraries and many others are threatened to be closed.
From a parliamentary perspective the problem has become exacerbated because David Lammy, the Government Minister with responsibility for our Libraries, has gone to great lengths this year to suggest that fundamentally all in the library garden is lovely.
We are all aware that the administration of our libraries is handled entirely by local authorities but it should be the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport who give the leadership on this vital part of Britain’s cultural heritage. Make no mistake I believe that the current trend could leave our nation’s library service severely mauled with substantial closures up and down the country. And like the railways these will never come back.
Nearly four years ago Framework for the Future was created by the Government as its map of opportunity for libraries. In 2004 the Parliamentary Select Committee produced a cross-party report with many recommendations. Both of these seem to have been lost and forgotten in the short mists of time. My office has seen a blizzard of paperwork produced by consultants for this government during the recent months, let alone years. It is estimated that £4 million has been spent by the government’s advisory body the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council on consultants in recent years and the results can only suggest a waste of money.
The Government and its advisory bodies do not stop producing brochures, initiatives and campaigns which affect libraries yet the results are entirely negative. The MLA partnership (a group encompassing nine regional agencies along with the MLA itself) produced an initial corporate plan recently. It announces a shared vision and strategic aims which no one could argue with. I’ve read it. In no part of the plan do the words book or reading occur.
Who can be surprised at that when today the expenditure on books has fallen from around 14% of the library budget to eight and a half per cent over the last decade? The book collection in libraries has been reduced in the same time by 20m books. It is currently estimated that 30% of libraries are unfit for use and there are more than 100 libraries already threatened with closure this year, mostly on the grounds of falling admissions. That number of closures I am reliably informed is expected to grow substantially when the next spending government spending rounds are taken into account and I admit that many of these are from local councils run by Conservative authorities.
In discussions that I have had with these authorities there is a sense that our libraries, as they are currently constituted, are no longer wanted by the general public. Is it any wonder when the offering, especially in terms of the library interiors and the books have been so downgraded? The recent costly Love Libraries operation has been wound up as a separate organisation but their work will continue through The Reading Agency and others. The Love Libraries campaign, commenced to loud fanfare last March with the refurbishing of three libraries in Coldharbour, Newquay and Richmond. But this was only three out of 4,000 and clearly the value of the operation did not repay the high investment costs involved.
Having talked to many council heads I cannot understand why the costs of some basic internal improvements in libraries are estimated at such high levels. All that is needed in most libraries is better lighting, improved shelving and up-to date books but many of them can only see the need for massive refurbishment involving architects and the costs are enormous. Here again one only has to look at the £80 million being given through the National Lottery to help with the modernising of some of the nation’s library buildings to realise that many simple improvements could be made to large numbers of libraries rather than virtually rebuilding huge town centre flagship libraries.
The Head of Cultural Service within councils and Librarians have got to take their share of the blame. It is estimated that £90 million is spent annually on purchasing books while the cost of administering that selection process is a hefty £45m. The recent report from Price Waterhouse has been looking at streamlining the process which is very welcome but like much of this government’s efforts I expect it to end up gathering dust on Whitehall’s shelves.
The MLA Partnership Plan is another one of those expensive glossy brochures which is there specifically to show the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that something is being done or at least there is a plan for something to be done. Well if something is being done the public book lending library service is not gaining any benefits. I believe that if the library service does not return to fundamentals and concentrate on winning its customers back then, just like the railways, I foresee a savage rationalisation of public libraries, unprecedented library closures and countless librarians made redundant.
The service needs management change. It needs logistical change. It needs marketing expertise. It needs councils and librarians to recognise that longer opening hours are a critical part of the library offering. And we in the Conservative Party believe that it needs a National Task Force to give guidance and help to councils on making sure our nation’s public library service does not wither on the vine.
This is why we are in the process of trying to set up a Conservative Library Task Force for England with the express intention of helping councils review potential closures and gain some critical help in rebuilding its library attendances.
I have been deeply heartened by the number of people who have given us help and advice as we develop this strategy. And believe me it is not just from the book industry that we have gained such wholehearted support. We are in talks with IT companies and other organisations to help with some blue sky thinking about modernising the library service without in any way reducing the core function of a library which we see as lending books and providing reference and other materials.
For instance why is it that today that we cannot sit at home and find the whereabouts of a book in our local or national library service? I believe libraries and their operation must change. But I also believe the librarians working within them must be prepared to change.
And let me set your minds to rest that I am in anyway a Luddite – although please do not ask the views of my youthful researchers - eschewing any thoughts towards technology and modernity. In five years it will be possible to have books printed on demand. Sometime in the future, a resident may be able to go into the local library and ask for any book from any era. If it is not available then one could be printed in 24 hours. When it is returned it can go on the shelf for other borrowers. I am not saying that such possibilities should dictate our considerations at this time but let us all recognise that reading of books is only possible if there is somewhere to get them? The library must remain that place.
We cannot talk in terms of bookshops such as Waterstone or cheap offers from supermarkets such as Tesco as satisfying the entire nation’s reading needs. The library must remain the place where parents take their children; where young people can do research, where adults can borrow books for their holiday and the retired can enjoy all those books that they never had time to read when they were working.
And I do realise that libraries are not just about books and other materials such as DVDs and CDs but a library without well-stocked reading materials is not a library. What is wrong with a library being full of books and a place of quiet? I read constantly. In the House of Commons our libraries are huge and quite wonderful places to use. No one expects to see Members of Parliament having mobile phone conversations in such places and I see no reason why the public cannot expect such considerations in libraries.
In my discussions with so many people connected to the library service or simply enthused about reading as a valuable part of our social fabric one thing that has struck me is the fact that the silence in libraries is now seen as creating a frightening environment, especially to young people. The Ideas Stores and Discovery Centres may attract a different audience than hitherto have found their way to libraries but it has been at the price of the loss of previous users. I believe those previous readers will not come back to those centres and the levels of book borrowing will never go back to previous levels without a move back to fundamentals.
The government, its civil servants and its associated advisory bodies continue to enthuse about the current situation in the library service. We see this as pretence and a great mistake on their behalf. Action is needed now by all those who care about the long tradition of Britain’s public book lending library service.
The Conservative Party is preparing valuable steps in making that action a possibility in councils up and down the country. If not then I fear that in ten years time we may see a very different library service than we have been used to and one that most people in the country will regret. The Government has not yet given the task to a Dr Beeching so I hope that we still have a chance to protect the service for our children and grandchildren.
Thank you for listening to me.
Libraries close in South Africa
There is, inevitably, a large international federation of librarians (called IFLA)-- what for? to attend large international conferences and talk about the digital age
Yet this is happening:
October 12, 2006
Mr Grimsdyke has arrived back in Bloggington at the darkest hour of the night in the darkest days of the library service. Perkins, the library cat, lies fast asleep in the Gladstone bag, with its beautifully cut windows for him to see outside but there is neither moonlight nor mouse astir.
The library service of Bloggington and indeed the whole country has been taken under the control of a tin of biscuits and a plate of cream cakes. Books have been removed, roofs have had large holes placed in them and the libraries have been turned in to Recovery Centres and fitness booths.
Mrs Sideloader and Ron are sitting desolate on the pier danging their toes in the brine of Bloggington Bay. What will become of them all? Will the sun ever rise?
Reaction to David Lammy's speech
My own view, having read the speech several times and thought about it, is that David Lammy's speech yesterday was very wrong and very bad.
Ministers have to do more than set political agenda and aspiration, they also have to manage large public services and ensure they are successful and provide value for money. In the case of public libraries this duty is clearly explained in the current Act of Parliament, which was originally written in 1964 and has been kept up to date. Mr Lammy does not seem either to acknowledge or perform this duty. The Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Culture should tell him.
Here is Phil Kerridge's view
I don't think this is a speech of a minister with any strong drift of what libraries are trying to do. It appears to be a mixture of three things:
mutual back slapping with his audience of all the "good stuff" that's going on - for example love libraries which of course is excellent but we are not greatly enlightened as to why this may be the case. It's just excellent!
one or two sideswipes at you - only 27 closures and what a good thing they were anyway because we are recasting services plus the rose tinted vision stuff
in terms of what he wants libraries to do. The only new thing here is supporting the concept of local communities running local services. No more than linking libraries to a recent government wheeze pushed by Ruth Kelly. Maybe not such a bad idea if communities want to do this in circumstances other than when it's forced upon them because the closure of their library mysteriously ensures all the others are suddenly more relevant. This is a throwback to a previous agenda (probably Tory though I forget for now) when communities and/or local business and/or parents were going to take over schools and mostly didn't.
There are even if we didn't know better a few signs of hope. "We must ensure equity across the country". I wish but perhaps he doesn't mean money. "I have strong views about library closures resulting from budget cuts" Really! When?
In the South West Dorset has already announced cuts of £850,000 in their library service over three years. Devon County County Council already has 12 libraries already under threat and have just announced the council overall has to save £55 million next year -more than 5 times as much as the 2006 savings. So I would be amazed if their library service escapes a funding crisis infinitely worse than last year. I work for Cornwall and know but can't say the extent of the savings we are working on. If there is a vision of what David Lammy wants libraries to do then I can neither detect it nor find much confidence that he cares about what is going to happen.
Unless of course you believe what he says about equity and having strong views on library closures resulting from budget cuts. On past form I am afraid I dont!
October 11, 2006
Mr Lammy the Minister of State for the Arts
Made this speech to the Public Library Conference today.
David Lammy – PLA Conference Speech, 10 October 2006
It’s been 12 months since I last spoke to you at this conference. In that time, much has happened across the public library sector. We’ve had
• some important and inspiring developments like the Define report on young people, and the one on book procurement – which we welcome,
• We’ve seen the launch of Love Libraries – which was excellent.
• And of course, criticism about community library closures.
Now this is a changing landscape, of course. We don’t yet have a final figure for how many closures there will be this year. But current information suggests that it will be a far cry from the figures that have circulated over the past six months.
107? It’s looking more like 27, a quarter of that figure.
Compare and contrast this with the record of the previous administration. Nearly 450 libraries in England closed. This Government has seen 174 new or relocated libraries, and over 580 refurbishments. These figures speak for themselves.
Now I entirely accept that those closures will be losses to their communities, and of course I have strong views about library closures resulting from budget cuts. So I will continue to monitor a number of authorities whose proposals are out to consultation. But for most of you, closures – and relocations – are part of a plan to recast your services to keep them relevant to the communities you serve, and the changing demands they place on you.
And, of course, we support this.
The Big Lottery Fund has also recognised the importance of addressing community needs, and has formally launched its £80million community libraries and learning programme this week. This is wonderful news, and I congratulate them on this important programme to help libraries position themselves at the centre of community life.
Like the Big Lottery funding programme, this year’s conference theme goes to the heart of the public library sector in England.
Of course, “putting the public back in public libraries” is partly about getting more – and different – people through the door. That’s great, and an important part of what we should be aiming for. And you are already delivering that, with an extra 13 million visits per year in England.
But we know that the true meaning of our theme today is that the most important part of public libraries is the people and local communities they serve. And in this I include the non-users and lapsed users too.
More than any other part of my ministerial brief, responsibility for public libraries requires the most allowance for and sensitivity to local communities. This is even more important for those of you running and working within the services across the country. You have to know your local profile well and to reflect their needs in your service. Fine tuning in one area, a complete overhaul in another. One size – most emphatically - does not fit all.
The community, the neighbourhood, and the individual belong at the centre of the delivery of local services, at the heart of everything we do. They must be informed, engaged and empowered. In the past, Government has not done enough to make sure that public services are truly responsive to the demands of citizens. This has to change.
The Government will shortly publish a White Paper to help citizens play a strong leading role in their own communities. Public libraries have been a local issue since 1850 Act, and to help strengthen this councils must have the right powers and relationships to make sure that all local services work together to meet citizens’ needs. They must have the right levers to use not only their own services, but to work in partnership with others, to plan and address local objectives and targets. In short, councils need the powers – and the freedom – to respond to local concerns, and to get things done, to shape places and build sustainable communities by being the leaders of their communities.
But this should also be a two-way street. Citizens being able not just to voice opinions, but to feel confident that those opinions will be heard and taken into account. Up until now Whitehall has held local government to account, but local people have had little opportunity to do so themselves. This has been too one-sided, and has got to change.
We want to give people more powers to participate in the design, delivery and assessment of their services. And as we do more to devolve these powers – and this control, we also need to create the space for you to do more to respond more effectively to your community’s demands. This will mean substantial changes to our methods of assessment, including CPA, leading to a system with much less national control.
And much less red tape.
Of course, there is a fundamental role for central Government in the running of any public service: we must ensure equity across the country and a national minimum standard, whatever people’s background and wherever they live. And councils must continue to take a strategic view across all their communities. These proposals will not deliver an enhanced postcode lottery.
As Minister for Culture, my job is to set a clear framework for delivery and reporting for the public library service. It is not to interfere and micro-manage at a local level. What one community may want, can harm another, and a national policy or initiative is not always the answer to the problem.
Local people are best placed to set out their needs. They know which problems are top of the priority list. And, more often than not, they have a pretty good idea of what is needed to resolve them. And they usually don’t need a team of Consultants, or a fact-finding mission, to get them there.
The need and demand for involvement will vary across the country, and across different services. In terms of the library service, there will be times when citizens simply want to know that if their local service does not come up to scratch, or if they are concerned about a particular local issue, then they can get something done about it.
We need a much clearer mechanism for calling for action when things are not going right – the ability to push for change when people feel let down. In some areas people will want to go even further, forming a community group or parish council.
Taken to its extreme, I can even imagine community groups being commissioned by the council to take on and run their library themselves. We should not be afraid of that. The challenge is to find the route appropriate for each area and service, which gives the flexibility to respond to local needs and demands, while also giving a core quality of provision.
The proposals set out in the White Paper will have a far-reaching effect on how you approach delivering your services, and the way you are managed and assessed. As I have traveled around the country visiting different libraries and authorities, I have been repeatedly impressed by the variety of work that is going on outside what might be termed the traditional remit of the library. Providing trusted health information in a comfortable setting; offering the chance to learn new skills, including IT and research; giving support to those trying to set up their own business.
And yet all of this work, and more – broadening people’s horizons, or acting as a trusted source of information – is what libraries have always been about. But let’s be honest. I know – because you’ve told me – that it’s hard getting full recognition for the work being done to address a number of government agendas.
And, yes, I know that the Public Library Standards do not really help this cause. They were, I think, right for their time. Right for the climate – in 1997 – where
• library visits were in free fall,
• the public had lost faith in the service, and
• the Government seemed indifferent, obsessed with privatisation over service.
So we introduced the Standards to lay down a marker for what we – as the new Government - expected. And since that time, they have effected substantial change. When the Standards were introduced fewer than 500 libraries in England were open for 45 hours or more. By 2004/05, there were approaching 800. And book acquisitions increased by 8% across the same period. The library sector takes much of the credit for rising to the challenge set by the Standards, and you should be proud of your achievements to date.
But the role of central Government was essential here. We have revived the status of public libraries by:
• publishing the first national strategy for public libraries,
• continuing to deliver a range of capacity building programmes under its banner and, in partnership with the National lottery,
• making the People’s Network possible, introducing computers across the library network and kick starting the 21st century approach to free information provision.
But the time has come to look at the Standards in a different way, with a new, more hopeful perspective. Much in the library service has changed in a short time, and I want to focus more clearly now on the outcomes derived from the service, or what should be expected, rather than what we are putting in.
Of course the principles embodied in the current Standards are important ones, but what I really want to know is whether the service is delivering what people expect from it. Are members of each authority’s communities getting what they need from their library service? Not in limited terms of whether it is stocking books and opening its door, but in driving the delivery of outcomes that matter. Of course, providing a good supply of books for pleasure reading is core to the role of the public library: but are they also doing all they can to increase this country’s educational attainment, social cohesion, creative economy?
Hence the current review of the Standards, and thank you to those of you across a broad spread of authorities who have contributed to this process. It is of course no coincidence that this direction of travel unites this small project with what I have described about the White paper, and the increased focus on high level outcome based targets. It is of great importance to me that I do what I can to ensure that libraries get full credit and recognition at a national and a local level for all the work that they do.
This will not come all at once, and I’m not promising the revised Standards will be the end goal in this process; but they are an important step in the right direction. I look forward to the recommendations which come out of the study, and hope that they will help to place us effectively to take up the challenge of the developments ahead.
I have stressed already the importance of increased community involvement in public services. And I have said that it is a two way street.
In serving their local community each authority and individual library must know the singular make up of their local community – what is its age profile, the proportions of different ethnicities, its relative financial and educational prosperity.
Many libraries are already doing this, and benefiting from the steer it gives them to identifying needs so that services can be designed to meet them. And it is important to realise how local this must be. Districts can vary substantially from one another, and what is suitable for one can be totally unsuitable for its neighbour.
But this work can and should go further. Local communities should be actively involved in developing the library service, working alongside professional librarians.
I visited Newcastle last month, and in their decommissioned central library I had a discussion with the group of young people who have been advising the librarians and architects on what they want to see from the new building, both in terms of the look and feel of the building itself, and the services it will provide. Their energy and enthusiasm was tangible, but I was most impressed by how seriously they took their role representing all young people in the area. It was clear that they have already had a fundamental and positive impact on the direction of this project.
The MLA recently published a helpful guide to community engagement, which contains a number of excellent case studies:
• Leicester are working with a small rural community to devise a community centre providing a library and several other services;
• home library service volunteers in Southend ensure that residents are aware of other services offered by the local authority, such as neighbourhood watch and trading standards; and
• Kent is making extensive use of volunteers in the delivery of its library services, something I have seen myself at Swanley.
And just last month, Birmingham reopened Handsworth community library, following an extensive refurbishment and considerable liaison with a multi-ethnic community. The rapturous reception at the opening event literally stopped traffic.
One example I want to explore for a moment is Families Love Libraries. The sector can and does play a vital part in family learning, and research by the MLA has focussed on the views of this segment of the community: what do they like about libraries? What do they want to see improved? This week is Family Learning Week, when the Campaign for Learning promotes the values and benefits of families learning together.
MLA is publishing the results of their research, and it gives me great pleasure to officially launch the booklet which you will find in your delegate packs. It contains some powerful, telling and helpful results, distilled from over 4,000 responses received from all across the country.
So what did families value about libraries? They appreciated the friendly and welcoming staff; the free activities and events; the free access to fast computers, books, DVDs, story tapes and information; and the opportunities to meet other families in a local, trusted, community space.
The areas for future development are also interesting. Respondees wanted more family activities at suitable times; family IT sessions – perhaps children teaching their parents! – a place to listen to story tapes together; and improved amenities, such as cafes, and toilets.
The focus of all this is of course reading. Libraries develop the love of reading and reading for pleasure with all ages and members of society, free of charge. This is so important. But there is also a strong message here about families greatly appreciating a safe environment where they can do things together.
The complexity of what people get out of libraries, and want out of libraries, is not as simple as some would have us understand.
Those that want to turn the clock back to some highly-selective and rose-tinted vision of libraries from their own childhoods are out of luck. I’m with them as far as putting the written word at the heart of the library service. And I’m with them on the campaign to keep the book stock fresh and relevant. But there’s more to this than nostalgia.
A crucial element to providing any outcome from the library service is obviously the library staff. The role of the librarian has changed dramatically over even the last ten years, and much now depends on their ability to engage with people on the front line, both out in the community and within the libraries themselves, advising and guiding people rather than staying behind a solid counter. Some relish these new challenges, some find it hard. But the change is necessary, and staff training and support is essential for getting us where we need to be.
The great thing about PLA is that it gives me that rare opportunity not just to speak to library professionals, but to elected members and senior managers as well. You too are essential to positioning public libraries for the changes ahead, and I welcome the commitment you show to the sector by being here. I hope that by the end of the conference on Friday you will have learned about the tremendous contribution that libraries in your communities can make.
You are the advocates for the library service within the local authority, and can play an important part in ensuring that this contribution is recognised by promoting them to colleagues and other portfolio holders.
So, I see the proposed changes to the role and function of local government as an incredible opportunity for the public libraries sector. We will improve public services by listening more, and by forming better partnerships. We need to work harder to ensuring we are more responsive to community needs, and to harness the energy and commitment that exists in many neighbourhoods.
This is in the interests of us all.
If we get it right the opportunities for tangible improvement are considerable. Library services have always been at the heart of their communities, and they have the potential to benefit most, and earliest from the changes ahead. You have a considerable amount of experience in ensuring your services are responsive to community demands, and you have confidence in the role you play in enhancing quality of life for people in your area.
My passion for public libraries is stronger than ever, and I am game for the challenge. I hope that you too will address this new opportunity confidently, to help your communities take their new powers, and to show that they can work, solve problems and improve lives.
Essex slashes its mobile libraries
Words fail me
This article is a master stroke in bad public relations.
October 10, 2006
Advertising on this blog
Very pleased to welcome an advert from Long Barn Publishing here in the right hand tramline.. Now Penguin, Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan-- where are you.?
Good rates available: much cheaper than a 3 for 2 in Waterstone's.. Talk to Rachel@berkshirepublishing.com
A really good blog
Among the dafter pieces of self deception is a programme carried out by libraries called "Public Library User Surveys" (PLUS)... any experienced marketing person will tell you that the market research that really matters is that conducted among "Lapsed users". It's easy to understand: if sales of Kit-Kat were going down, you find people who used to buy Kit-Kat and ask them why they no longer do (they say: price, packaging, availability, taste, alternatives etc-- and you quickly learn what you are doing wrong)
PLUS is used to set two of the ten Public Library standards-- and the results mean absolutely nothing.
Here is a blog upon which an intelligent librarian has realised that the same marketing wisdom applies to public libraries and has begun a survey among visitors to his site. Please record your view there and from time I will pinch them and quote them on here.
October 9, 2006
The sun always shines in Bloggington
This blog is to be given an illustrator and turned into a children's story. I'm not kidding. And nothing will give me greater pleasure. "Start work after Christmas," say the instructions, but that sounds like an invitation to begin straight away.
Announcement of lottery funds
As predicted here last week, here is the announcement of the lottery fund to save the public library service.
I leave it to others to comment, but just make the observation that in my analysis of the priorities - none of the things mentioned here are near the top of the list-- so who are these "librarians" who have asked for money for these projects?
A Welsh Minister ruins the public library service
In Wales book lending in the past 5 years has fallen by 26% -- it is a greater fallen even than England or Scotland
The reason is quite clear - book stocks are poor and getting worse; opening hours are too short and buidlings are delapidated
Alan Pugh, the Minister, shows no sign of understanding any of this (and nor do his advisers in CYMAL) and instead he proposes to change the purpose of libraries as he describes in this initiative.
October 8, 2006
The Cambridgeshire Collection at Cambridge Central Public Library
Cambridge Central Library is to close for at least eighteen months - presumably for renovation.
This raises two questions: the first is why public libraries close when they are being renovated? Retailers who face the same need address the problem by workikng in phaases throughout a building. They are not only quicker and cheaper, but, by and large they will never close while work is carried out. Council building departments are simply not sufficiently demanding.
The second question is the one upon which I wish to dwell. Few people realise that in addition to the lending and reference collections held by public libraries, many library authorities also hold truly wonderful "special" collections of different kinds. These are often of local history but sometimes they are the collections of local authors or institutions which have been taken in by the public library service and cared for over many years.
The Cambridgeshire Collection is one of these and one can imagine the depth and wealth of its content and the value to private enquirers.
When the Central Library is to be closed this collection is to be moved to a small district library and will effectively be lost and probably damaged. Little publicity or atttention is being given to this matter, and it should be a subject of grave public concern
In fact there is insufficient awareness and attention to these collections at all-- few people know of them. That is a matter that could and should be addressed by the forthcoming Culture Select Committee on national collections. I have written to them to ask if it can be included as part of the agenda. Whether they do or they don't, the whole subject needs to be brought out into the open.
When we debate Google, I am so clearly reminded of the Frenchman Diderot. Here is an article I found to explain why.
Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was the brightest light of the French Enlightenment—a man of intelligence, passion and genius. He yearned for knowledge as he sought the answer to the ultimate enigma of all—our Universe. He wanted to know why we are here?… why is there a universe?…why is there anything at all?
He studied history and developed a great fear that knowledge would continue to be destroyed by the Christians, who had a one-thousand year’s history of destroying libraries, burning books, ripping paintings, smashing marbles, and torturing anyone who voiced an unorthodox thought. To prevent it from happening in the future he produced the Encyclopedie, a history of what was known, and then distributed it world wide. He wrote almost a thousand of its articles, over a 20 year period. The rest were submitted by the scholars of the world including our own Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Rush. It took 35 volumes and a lot of commotion to get it all together.
State and Church were immediately threatened. The Crown needed the Church to remind the people of that tidy biblical concept known as the Divine Right of Kings and the Church needed the Crown to keep its prodigious holdings (about half of Europe) tax free. If church authority was weakened, then so was the king’s. They knew that knowledge could bring doubt and vainly tried to ban the first two volumes of the Encyclopedie. It was too popular to be stifled, and in short order it became the most used resource in all libraries and homes that were fortunate enough to possess it. Even today encyclopedias are left open and accessible, not shelved, in our libraries due to their utility.
He never found the answer of the whence and whither of humankind but he helped enlighten his world that was filled with ignorance, slaves and serviles—the children of illiteracy, superstition and piety. In sum, it was a very Christian world, consistent with Jehovah and Jesus, who never said a word in favor of education, investigation, science and art, or against the enslavement of humankind. Apparently they, and the Holy Ghost were ignorant of these subjects or perhaps they were just too busy looking after the sparrows to mention them. The Vatican would howl at Diderot and routinely place his works on its Index of Forbidden Books, but by then, the Pope of Rome was getting as much respect as the Wizard of Oz after his curtain was lifted. Folks were realizing papal threats were just hollow pretensions and they doubted that Jesus was really upset with Diderot just because the pope was.
Diderot went about his business of investigating what really went on in the monasteries and nunneries of France and made it public. He died just before France would become so resentful at the oppressive miscegenation of royalty and clergy that they ran them both out of the country or, in their irrational zeal, chopped off their heads.
A letter from Dumchester
Dear Mrs Sideloader
You must be wondering what has become of me. I feel very guilty for not having written for such a long time. However there is good news, as I am to come home to dear old Bloggington on Sea.
The circumstances are not entirely honourable as my expulsion comes following a letter written by Lord Ginger Nut and Mr Custard Cream of DLA ( the department of libraries and archives) to the Mayor of Dumchurch. It went along these "Dear Mayor of Dumchurch. In normal circumstances we play matters with a dead bat (which is a cricketing expression) however it has been brought to our attention by the Society for Closing Libraries (SCL) that Mr Grimsdyke of Bloggington has been entering into contracts to obtain more books for your public library service. Please send him home to Bloggington, where we are about to close all the libraries as a result of which he will be able to do no more harm" Ginger Nut.
So, no opportunity of protest being afforded me, Perkins and I shall be returning on the 5 o'clock train tomorrow. I am longing for the sea-side and a whelk and a strawberry milkshake and shall endeavour to tell the tales of what I have seen in The North
October 7, 2006
John Dolan's article in the Bookseller
John Dolan of the MLA has an article about public libraries in this week's Bookseller. It is a response to Richard Charkin's article of two weeks ago and the letter of support written by Mark Field, the shadow Minister. The article is below. In essence John suggests that readers of The Bookseller might have been misled by what Richard and Mr Field have said and that MLA has a clear understanding of the problems of the service and where priorities lie.
I leave readers to make up their own mind whether either Richard or Mark Field were misleading, but I do want to resolve one factual question raised by John Dolan as he attempts to justify his assertion.
Richard wrote in his article the total cost to the public of the UK library service is about £1.3bn. Dolan attempts to correct Richard by saying - "No - Net spend on library authorities is £926m."
CIPFA figures for 2004/5 for the UK show quite clearly that Gross Revenue expenditure plus Capital expenditure is £1,294,140,172. That is the total cost to the public of the service in that year. It includes not just the "Net expenditure by councils" of £990m but also income of £108m, depreciation of capital assets of £127m and capital expenditure of £68m.
The "net expenditure" by English councils alone plus the depreciation of assets in English councils (known as the capital charge) is £926m - which is the figure used by John Dolan
In other words John Dolan is referring to the expenditure by English Councils from their revenue budgets, but disregarding the large source of income from rentals, fines etc and also disregarding the expenditure from capital budgets.
On the other hand Richard Charkin is referring- as he says- to the total funding available to the public library service in the UK. (including Wales, Norhern Ireland and Scotland). That is the money spent by UK taxpayers. It is indeed as he says, approximately £1.3bn.
Perhaps it would have been better for John Dolan to find a way to say that both his and Richard's figures originate from the same table in the same data; not to suggest that Richard was being "misleading"- as he did. Richard was not misleading at all. He was telling the exact truth.
John Dolan further tries to correct Richard when he says (in the process of purchasing £85m worth of books) procurement costs are £35m. But what he doesn't say is that the figure of £35m which comes from the recent PwC report and only refers to the salary costs of people doing book selection. (It is an astonishing figure, nevertheless). It doesn't include the whole cost of the inefficient supply, processing, distribution and bibliographic services that operate in over 200 councils and are demanded of suppliers. Richard's estimate of £245m is quite likely to be a very realistic figure for all those activities, nearly all of which are a waste of time and money, and about which no one is taking any action.
"We also love books"
John Dolan- head of library policy, MLA
The Bookseller, 6 October 2006
"Don't be misled" John Dolan warns, "The MLA wants to make public libraries better than ever, with book acquisition a priority"
Let me say it right at the beginning- books and reading will continue to be at the very heart of the MLA's vision for public libraries. Through the DCMS- funded Framework for the Future programme, we will continue to work to raise investment in books and other resources, fund reading development programmes, and promote the value of libraries to local authority leaders and to the public- our strongest allies in achieving change.
The MLA where councils are failing their communities through evidence from the public library standards- and, where neccessary, will provide direct help to achieve improvement. The recent PwC study on stock procurement ("Better Stock, Better Libraries") is an important first step towards making all libraries as efficient and popular as possible. With or without stakeholder support, we will drive these programmes forward. We never suggested it would be easy to get 149 different organisations to join, but there is too much at stake to stop now.
Books are matchless routes to learning, enlightenment and escape, but libraries have always been more than book warehouses. They are trusted sources of information and advice on reading, the community and much more. Recently they have become major players in giving the public access to the internet. These are not conflicting priorities. Libraries must respond to the public need, and today calls for resources beyond books- internet terminals, online reference works and programmes for those in need of reading support.
If progress is to be made there must be clarity where there is currently misunderstanding. Procurement costs £35m, not £245m (Richard Charkin, the Bookseller- 22 September). The MLA is working to reduce the ratio of procurement cost to book budget. "Better Stock, Better Libraries" shows potential savings of £20m but there is more feasibility work to be done before rollout. Net spend on libraries is £926m, not £1.3bn (Charkin again). Book spend is £85m (9% of total) plus other materials when it equals 12.6%. The MLA is in no doubt this must increase. Last year libraries bought 96 million books (84 million in 1999/2000)
The library is increasingly the only community space we can visit freely, where we can read what we like, learn what we want and find out what we need to know. The MLA has to work through existing governance arrangements to effect change, but we will achieve more if we can find a way to work productively with those interested in improving services. We are a partnership organisation, and will be delighted to meet those who want to work with us. What do you think? "
The good news is that in these counties during 2005/6 book lending increased above the rate of the previous year:
Kent 0.6% (although it is still the lowest in the country)
West Sussex 0.1%
Who says decline is inevitable?
I don't want to boast but both Oxfordshire and Warwickshire have, in the past, listened to my advice. On the other hand, Hampshire, Essex, Lancashire and Somerset have emphatically declined it!
Lancashire, Essex, Suffolk and Somerset
Before anyone gets too pleased with themselves; it will probably surprise someone, but not me, to find that, after Hampshire, the four counties in which book lending is also in free fall are Lancashire, Suffolk, Essex and Somerset.
In Lancashire book lending also fell by 9%, in Essex and Suffolk by 8% and in Somerset by 7%
Message to these four: you are doing too many other glitzy things and not concentrating properly on your book collections-- and you haven't understood the problem.
Collapse of Hampshire Public Library Service
It gives me no pleasure at all to report that when, if it ever manages to get round to it, Hampshire County council reports the performance of their library service for 2005/6, it will, yet again declare the worst figures of any English county
Book lending fell again by 9% in just one year.
Yet at the same time Hampshire have spent more money than almost all other counties put together! Does anyone still believe they know what they are doing? Ask Ken Thornber, the leader of the council what has happened in the past 5 years to his libraries- and does he really care?
Councils with budget difficulties
I think there are now 3 councils who, in various ways, it will be possible to help with their budget problems for next year and at the same time address some of the fundamental questions of the structure of the library service.
In each case, I believe, the outcome will be a much improved library service at slighly less cost to the public than they have been paying up to now.
If any others want to join in- please do say. It works best when the contact comes from the head of cultural service in the knowledge of the portfolio holding councillor. If either of these are new in the post, that is often an opportunity for a review which will not be so concerned about the past and able, more feely, to think about the future.
October 6, 2006
A letter from James Christie
I received this considered letter last night and can only reproduce it, with deep respect, in full. I sincerely hope it has none of the consequences James foresees.
The Gordian Knot
It’s not often I start to write an article intending to crucify myself, commit professional suicide and probably get myself beaten up by a rampaging mob of respectable librarians into the bargain, but I can’t even preface the following heresies with the caveat “I’m retiring this year, so it is all academic for me”. I’ll only be forty-two years old come September but I’m now so disillusioned with the profession that I would rather fall on my sword than stagger through interviews mumbling tripe I don’t believe about metadata, revalidation, ICT, twelve-digit Dewey numbers and all the other pseudo-professional jargon we have invented.
I was attending an interview in Kirkintilloch for the post of library assistant when I reached the end of the line. I wasn’t doing well, but I wasn’t doing badly either, until the inevitable question arose:
“What do you think of computers in libraries”?
I opened my mouth and finally said what I thought:
“I’ve been a librarian for nearly fifteen years and I feel like I’ve spent the whole time apologising for liking books”!
Perhaps I could instead have referred to my article in Scottish Libraries issue 59, September/October 1996, where I stated my suspicion that “rather than being used and treated merely as the latest means of cataloguing/circulation control/reference work, the computer is being considered as an end in itself. I believe this is wrong, but that no one will speak up and say so”.
Then there was an article called The Tale of the Five Formats which I wrote for the Scottish Law Librarians Group newsletter in 2004. I argued that “it seems to me that every generation makes the same mistakes over and over again – a new format appears and its acolytes consecrate it as The Answer to Everything, believing that it will naturally sweep away all former methods and take over, creating a brave new world”.
But all I really felt like saying was, “frankly, my dear, I couldn’t give a f***”.
I couldn’t argue reasonably at interviews any more, because as well as computers, I had witnessed the rising tide of rubbish CILIP was spewing out, coupled with “an almost phobic attention to detail … stifling ability for swift response”. That last quote came from Chris Wells, who is presently trying to give libraries a Positive Media Image.
Good luck, Chris, you’re going to need it!
The seeds of my disillusion were planted early. Between 1993-1996, I held a unique post, manually cataloguing a superb collection of rare books for a private library in a stately home. I taught myself AACR2 to do so, and can truly say that it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, successfully accomplished despite lack of experience, lack of any other staff and total lack of budget. Not exactly an ideal situation for a guy in his first library post, but I rose to the occasion. At the time I was being mentored for Chartership by Stephen Richard of Glasgow University Library, whose help I very much appreciated. I did not, however, appreciate being told by every jerk I met that what I really needed was a computer. More seriously, I really did not appreciate then being borderlined for Chartership. At a very difficult time I would have been grateful for validation, acceptance and inclusion based on a report which had already been assessed and passed by Stephen. Instead, I felt I had only grudgingly been allowed into a Library Association whose phobic attention to detail seemed to obscure the fact that I was single-handedly reconstructing a rare book collection arguably greater than Abbotsford and definitely part of Scotland’s cultural and literary heritage.
And you lot wonder why you’re having difficulty getting creative, positive stories out there? You just never seem to know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, do you?
After the private library, with mixed feelings about attaining Chartership, I did at least feel I had earned a regular job. Two years of unemployment later, I felt a little differently. Nor were my feelings of alienation helped by the reply I received to a letter I wrote asking why I had not even been interviewed for a cataloguing post for which I had applied. The response stated that although my “application stood out from an otherwise very weak field … my colleagues were also concerned that you would require a considerable period of training to acquire the MARC cataloguing skills needed”.
I think the stupidity of those words (considerable period of training?) put the seal on my growing belief that the whole culture of lifelong learning was simply out of control, and that the LA was so obsessed with demanding endless qualifications in pursuit of professionalism it had lost touch with reality. Provocative? Well, the year I then spent at a further education college in Glasgow left me in no doubt that the lifelong learning culture was corrupt. So-called “students” from deprived areas were being put on courses and passed, just to make money for the college. Frontline Scotland prised the lid off the scandal at the time. They couldn’t prove anything, but it was no surprise to me that a picture of my college’s principal was the one picked to adorn the accompanying news articles…
For me, the demand for considerable periods of training simply alienated me further. It was like placing a bar just out of reach. Leap high enough, little doggy, and perhaps we’ll throw you a bone! It also feels very similar to something in the letter in the April 2006 issue of Information Scotland which (among other things) inspired this article. Written by the relative of a young girl who has now left the profession (gee, I wonder why…), it says “upon applying for another post … she was turned down on the grounds that she was unfamiliar with the automated issue system. It took her a few days in a subsequent position to learn these skills”.
Neither of us needed a “considerable period of training”. The more you chase after paper qualifications to prove your “professionalism”, the more you lose sight of the fact that the point of education is the development of character or mental powers. Past a certain point, the chase is worthless. At a certain level of development, the person is perfectly capable of teaching him or herself, which is exactly what I did at the private library and exactly what this poor girl did in a subsequent position.
So take your bone and shove it! We don’t want it any more.
Leaving the college (I later likened my departure to Steve McQueen sailing over the barbed wire on his motorbike in The Great Escape), I spent four pretty good years working two part-time jobs as, respectively, a law librarian and a tax librarian. Only slowly did I realise that, particularly at the law firm, a librarian was defined only as support staff.
The crunch came when I was ordered to circulate all the journals. I checked with six other law librarians, five of whom confirmed that this was a very bad idea which would not work. Would the lawyers listen? No. I was told that the decision had been made and I would be given my instructions. I went to the Chief Executive and simply said:
“Look, I’m 37 years old. I’ve got a degree, a postgraduate qualification and Chartership. Not only that, I’ve checked my facts. If you’re not going to listen, why did I bother”?
The realisation that those letters after my name counted for absolutely nothing was a turning point. For the purpose of this article I will merely confirm that, to people in other professions, librarians are still lumped in with secretaries.
Before you take issue with that, may I tell you that, despite being steamrollered on circulation, I persevered with the law firm, cataloguing the entire collection and organising the publishers’ accounts. As a reward, I was made redundant two weeks before Christmas and told “the secretaries can take care of it now”. On the way out, I was even asked if I could write down how to run the library on a piece of paper. I’m glad I refused.
Sick of commercial librarianship and motivated to learn MARC cataloguing because of that “considerable period of training” jibe years before, I took a job with a cataloguing agency. Unfortunately, this was subject cataloguing and not the author, title, publisher routine of AACR2 which I had loved. Nevertheless, I ground through ever-more complex Dewey and LCSH constructions like a good little doggy, phobically attending to detail and staring endlessly at a desktop, all in the hope of finally being thrown a bone in the form of a full-time job.
After the considerable (nine months!) period of training, at the end of which I was doing the most complex constructions, I was told I would not be given a contract. The irony was horrific. I freely admit I had not reached the required standard but to have come so close only to have the bar raised and the bone placed forever beyond my reach because Dewey and LCSH had become so insanely convoluted was the last straw. The straw which led to Kirkintilloch and the realisation that there was no place left in librarianship for a guy who just liked books.
So, as a poet once said, where do we go from here? Well, here are a few suggestions, preceded by a few things I’ve always wanted to say:
• I like books, and I’m never going to apologise for saying that again.
• I will never call readers “users” again. As far as I’m concerned, users are people with drug problems.
• I think the term metadata is nonsense. Graeme Hawley also had the guts to say so in the August 2003 issue of Information Scotland. As he put it, “…my heresy is this. I don’t understand the point of the word ‘metadata’. It is usually defined as ‘data about data’. In terms of how the word is used, ‘datadata’ would be just as good, For, if we are honest with ourselves, then surely we have to concede that it is nonsense, and ‘profession-indulgent’, ‘user-hostile’ nonsense at that. If we describe a MARC record as metadata, then we are saying that the MARC record is data about data, when in actual fact the MARC record is data about… a book. Now, only if we really want to alienate our users do we need to refer to books, magazines, websites, etc., as data. In a session subtitled ‘Empowering the end-user’ perhaps a good start would be if we tried to speak the same language”.
I couldn’t agree more.
The only thing this kind of rubbish will do is alienate users (sorry, readers) and discourage smart young graduates from joining the profession. It is not a mark of professionalism to make everything so complicated one else can understand it!
• Take the concept of revalidation and shove it! Except, perhaps, in very rare cases, no one is going to die if we build a Dewey number incorrectly or get an inter-library loan wrong. We are not doctors, lawyers or airline pilots. For many library posts I would now suggest apprenticeships for candidates who have orderly minds and common sense. On a personal (and bitter) level, I’m not going to jump through hoops for your acceptance twice.
Where, indeed, do we go from here? By now, you probably think that I’m just writing this article to self-destructively vent the frustrations accumulated over the thick end of two decades, and you’d be partly right, but the funny thing is that I gained a great respect for librarianship and libraries over the years. I researched library history back to Gilgamesh, learnt that the librarius was known as a prophet, magician, and keeper of books.
Cataloguing, cleaning, handling and researching rare and mystical books with my own hands was a wondrous experience. To arrange them in plumb lines on shelves in a library which had fallen into decay before Victoria took the throne was to see the past restored vibrantly to life, once again able to talk to the present and future.
Computers do not hold the same fascination for me. In the end, they are only tools and, compared to what I saw in that private library, they mean nothing. Over a decade, my relationship with them went from fear to boredom and disinterest via annoyance. I will praise the systems that worked to the high heavens (long live my old Canon word-processor!) but I've never really liked Microsoft (IBM’s OS/2 operating system was apparently much superior) and my patience ran out when, due to a flawed data migration procedure, Lexis-Nexis destroyed one-third of an account I was managing for a company. It took me a month to clear up the mess, and when I finished I was not exactly singing the praises of computer networks.
I left that particular company (a very fine firm of accountants) after recommending an online service, negotiating the price, selecting the multi-user licenses, working with the IT department and producing a neatly tailored system hyperlinked to the library catalogue and networked between Glasgow and Edinburgh. I found the whole procedure an utter bore, a set of dull administrative transactions which gave me no job satisfaction whatsoever. It couldn’t even begin to match the sense of exploration and achievement I had felt every day at the private library, and I remembered a quote I’d once read:
“In 20 years’ time we’ll have a country full of computer-literate people who will have lost touch with what’s important in society”.
Clifford Stoll said that 11 years ago. He was one of the early prophets of the internet, but he didn’t worship computers blindly or uncritically. Contrasting the boredom I felt about the online service with the passion I had for the private library’s rare books makes me wonder if his prediction is quietly coming true.
Think I’m a relic? Perhaps you’re right, but perhaps in your headlong charge towards user-inclusive, metadata-related ICT literacy, you yourselves have forgotten who you really are, and you will never get that Positive Media Image until you remember.
So here is my prescription:
• Libraries are synonymous with books and reading. They always have been and they always will be. It seems ridiculous to have to make this point, but public library bookstock continues to decline as ICT continues to be pushed. At the risk of being reasonable, I’m not saying get rid of internet access, DVDs et al. Just never, ever forget that books are the central business of libraries. Increase your bookstock, stick in a coffee shop and look like Borders by all means, but put books back in pole position and defend them to the death. Otherwise, you might as well close all the libraries, give everyone Google and forget it!
• Drastically simplify Dewey and LCSH. Nine gruesome months at that cataloguing agency left even a cataloguing-lover like me ready to chew my own leg off and in no doubt that there is virtually no one left either willing or able to build a twelve-digit Dewey number like, say, 781.640904803 and absolutely no one who needs it. If you don’t believe me, please read Jenifer Jeffery’s and Ray Ward’s letters in the July/August 2006 issue of Update. Furthermore, unlike other professions, this bumf is self-imposed. Lawyers in particular are struggling with incredible amounts of legislation imposed by government and I bet you not one of them would say, “make it even more complicated, please “! If you want to attract the kind of sharp, intelligent people I met in commerce to low-paid librarianship, making the profession so arcane and incomprehensible no one else can understand it (or want to bother trying to) just is not going to work!
However, do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Cataloguing should be reformed but retained. In 2004, cataloguing expert Keith Trickey warned that “now employers face the prospect of fresh faces who can connect up networks, talk knowledgeably about leadership and strategic management but only recognise Dewey’s name, not his classification … , and will look blank at the mention of MARC or AACR2. Meanwhile libraryland … is undergoing a series of quantum changes in terms of access and data formats, which will either herald a brave new age of information or, if we get our professional role wrong, condemn the honourable trade of ‘librarian’ to the museum of defunct professions like ‘sagger-maker’s bottom knocker’ or ‘linkman’”.
Without cataloguing and classification skills (albeit simplified ones), I fear we will end up as glorified ICT administrators carrying out boring transactions and procedures.
• Cut out the jargon (see Glyn Sutcliffe’s letter, also in the July/August 2006 issue of Update) and start talking plain English. For example, libraries have always been learning resource centres. We don’t need to labour the point.
Now for the twist. Over the past few minutes, you’ve probably gained a picture of me as a chippy, argumentative individual unhappy about his failures in life. Again, partly true, but I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (mild autism) in 2002. Although my full scale IQ is high and verbal ability very superior, my ability to learn new information is crippled. In terms of the speed at which I process information, I am outperformed by 97% of the population, only 2 ½% better than a low-grade moron.
It hasn’t been much fun struggling for bones the last fifteen years, and it has been doubly frustrating to see librarianship and society in general complicate itself so much that I think we are in real danger of going up our own rear ends. Although I’m showing the symptoms of information overload before you will, that does not mean the problem is not out there. If an actual Asperger, complete with Asperger focus and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, is telling you that you are paying too much attention to detail and missing the big picture, you really had better start listening!
As I’ve tried to show, librarianship is being strangled from within by obsession with detail and ignored from without by those who define our work as something “the secretaries can take care of”. We won’t gain respect by way of jargon, metadata or twelve-digit Dewey numbers. Someone has to cut the Gordian Knot and say this, and it might as well be me.
I’m sick of trying to reach a bar which is always just out of reach and sick of trying to be accepted by a profession which keeps making me feel I’m not good enough. Yet I still love libraries. So go out there and pick a fight with the next guy who tries to shut down a library! I’m not writing this article to start an academic dispute. Don’t waste your time poring over this article looking for inconsistencies. Do something! Anything! Go on strike! Lynch the culture minister instead of me! Streak across Lords saying “this shows how much we love libraries”! Do not go gently into that long dark night of boring administrative transactions and end up in a museum next to the sagger-maker’s bottom knocker while the population happily plugs themselves into Google via neural interfaces!
I don’t know what more I can say. If you still want to pick a fight with me, try to find me in Dorset, where one-third of all the libraries are facing closure. I’ll be in one of them, browsing through a book.
James A. F. Christie
Powys still threatening to close 3 libraries
I thought the three libraries in Powys were saved, but this article makes clear that the council still plan to close them. As the person quoted in the article says 'they have been waiting until we ran out of energy' .
Remember that the first attempt at closure was inn the first week of August when everyone was away on holiday.
Who are these devious councillors?
October 5, 2006
Louise Collinge battles on in Hertfordshire
If there are any readers in Hertfordshire please be aware of the desperate struggle that Louise Collinge is having to conduct against the overwhelming dull bureaucracy of Hertfordshire County Council. Here is another article in the local paper.. She needs everybody to help.
Louise was until recently Marketing Manager of Borders world-wide. She knows what she is talking about and that is a great deal more than can be said for the councillors and officers of Hertfordshire, who have ignored every offer of help and should be dunked in the duck pond.
Still no figures
There are still no published figures for performance or cost of the Public Library Service after March 2005.
They are complied by CIPFA, a private company. One wonders what they do all day? Imagine not knowing the football scores until 18 months after each match.
I would find an alternative to CIPFA. So should the Minister- part of his statutory duty is to "obtain such information as is needed to superintend the service and improvement". But there is not much sign that he takes statutory duties very seriously. So what do his civil servants do all day? I would find an alternative to them, too.
That is why his ministry is called the Department of Common Sense (DCMS) and the Department of Libraries and Archives - is called Delay.
October 4, 2006
Book supply to individual local libraries
If you are, or if you know anyone, involved in a situation in which abandoned by the local council, preparations are being made to run an independent local library and you need book supply, help is available.
One of the largest book suppliers is offering to provide a completely comprehensive book supply and lending system to individual local libraries, however large or small, and they will give as large discount off the price of books as they give any large consortium.
Please pass this information on-- and contact me if you want to know more.
How many initiatives?
Can anyone count the number of new initiatives for the library service invented or endorsed by MLA (and Re-source) and other departments since it was started? We've had
Annual library plans
Best Value reviews
Building Better Libraries
Due for renewal
CPA (revised each year)
Framework for the Future
The Action plan for framework for the future
Charles Leadbetter's reports
The Culture Select Committee
Love libraries (Zing)
Library Service Standards
Loads of lottery money and hundreds of "partnerships"
Any more? And has any one of these made libraries more comprehensive or efficient? Has any one of them satisfied the Minister's duty to superintend improvement in the library service? Is there a lesson in this?
Yes, there is. Reports don't solve problems but change can. Things have to change.
Close the libraries
The Society for Closing Libraries (SCL) and the Association for Closing Libraries (ACL) are great supporters of a firm called Kentwood Associates.
I have just been sent the a copy of the report Kentwood wrote about Devon, which said libraries with short opening hours don't get used. The council should consider closing them altogether, which they then did.
Kentwood also recently wrote a report about Bucks who then closed a load of their libraries. We need to know where else the mighty crew from Kentwood have been writing reports-- it may give a clue to the next round of closures.
The person who writes reports for Kentwood Associates (Clark Kentwood alias Superman) is also Chair of the MLA in the South East (SEMLAC) and on the main board of the MLA.. No doubt he is a great advocate for closing libraries and will soon find himself appointed to the SCL and the ACL and be duly awarded an MBE etc
What he should have said is that libraries with longer opening hours, better stock and roofs that don't leak are widely used as the people of Devon and Buckinghamshire know perfectly well and would have told Kentwood, if they had been asked.
It's a lottery
I am told that Mr Woolly Jumper, Miss Bo Peep, Delay (the Department of Libraries and archives), The Knitting Agency etc are all about to announce again that they have persuaded the "Big Lottery" foolishly to give them all £80m to turn our public libraries into community centres. They have already announced it several times before, but it is conference time and there is pitiful else to talk about.
This won't be used for books, extending opening hours or even fixing the library roof on the 1000 libraries now open to the elements, but rather for "making better use of library space" . I suppose there will be lots of projects like installing rowing machines in Liverpol Central Library, or holding rock concerts in other libraries of Lancashire, which I saw the other day.
£80m is money so desperately needed -- but who would trust "Delay" and its 87 regional offices to know what to do with it. Anyhow by the time they have all had 3,000 committee meetings to design the application forms, there won't be any money left at all- even to set up the odd juice bar.
We don't trust you to understand what a library is, Mr Jumper, nor do we believe that any of the little baa-lambs in the pen with you have a clue either.
October 3, 2006
Some readers and advertisers are in Frankfurt this week-- so here is a party to which they can go. It has made me wonder if we should do horoscopes on this blog. I shall cast the tea leaves for members of DLA (Delay- the department of libraries and archives) and members of the library staff of Bloggington on sea.
Berkshire Publishing Group joins with the Guangdong People¡¯s Publishing House, part of the Guangdong Provincial Publishing Group, at a contract signing ceremony and reception on the day of China¡¯s Autumn Festival: Friday, 6 October, at 2pm, reception 2-5pm, Frankfurt Book Fair 6.1 E957.
Newington Reference Library
There is a frantic campaign in progress to save the Newington Reference Library.
What is so difficult to understand is why Southwark council are so desperately keen to close it. Some of the arguments are about whether the "Disability Discrimination Act" requires it to be closed-- but that Act specifically says that its intention is not to close down things. You would have thought a council lawyer could spend an hour going through the act and finding perfectly sensible defence against any possible action. Any experienced retailer to whom the exact same act applies, would be perfectly able to keep it open.
Yet Southwark council seem absolutely hell bent on finding reasons to close it. It makes you wonder what motivates them.
As always hundreds of ordinary people are having to spend their time and brainpower organising petitions and campaigns, just so that their elected councillors can call them trouble makers. Where do these councillors come from?
When the hearings of the Select committee were in progress nearly two years ago, the MP's found a bewildering and ever changing catalogue of "standards" and "performance indicators" and initiatives that had been launched and then ditched within only a few years.
"Never mind" they were told with confident assertion by those in charge, "there is to be a new set of measures that will solve all that. They will be called "impact measures" and they will clearly indicate the "impact" public libraries have on people. The MP's uttered the immortal observation " we cannot understand what this means but we do hope it works better than what has gone before.
The famous "impact measures" have never been heard of since!
Love Libraries campaign closes down
My espionage reveals that the "Love LIbraries" campaign about which we have heard so little in the past few months, has actually closed down
I wonder how much that all cost and who got the money. This was the Minister's and The Reading Agency's great initiative which we were all asked to anticipate with "Zing"
Not much power of endurance in this scheme.
October 2, 2006
53,000 hits in September
Thanks to everyone.