April 21, 2012
Let's begin to do something positive about the public library service
I think it would only take ten actions and five years to restore the public library service to be a thriving contributor to culture and literature in this country.
We could take positive steps that would help each local council into a path of improvement and the people who staff the service now could lead it into a fine future
It's not even hard to say what those steps should be.
So -- who will do it?
Or we shall we just allow the service to moan its way into oblivion?
The first step is the simplest to say and the hardest to do - and it is this: "If we agree to do something, we must all commit to doing it quickly."
As the recent debate about library management systems and RFID standards has shown - the collective of library managers find such a simple commitment very hard to undertake. That is where the first change has to come..... All library services are not independent of each other-- actually they each depend very heavily on each other.
There is one public library service which has 3,500 different manifesations of how it works locally. We need one system, one website, one communications network, one set of operating standards for every process - and 3,500 buildings . The 150 systems and websites and sets of specifications we have now need to be closed down
Who will do it?
Let me put the challenge even more clearly: If the management of CILIP, CLOA, the DCMS, the SCL and the library section of the Arts Council can't even organise this step, why should anyone listen to anything they say at all
Posted by Perkins at April 21, 2012 8:23 AM
Tim, can I ask you a question? The reason that there is such diversity in the way library services are run is becase they are run by local councils. Do you suggest that we should take libraries away from local councils into a body like the NHS and run them nationally?
And, if so, would the same be true of other council services, not just libraries? Bins, parks, schools, whatever?
Sorry, two questions, but I hope you don't mind answering them.
Posted by: Genuine question at April 21, 2012 10:16 AM
I think they should be run by local councils- but I think the framework of systems and specifications should be non-negotiably standard and identical across England
The value that a council can add lies in allowing individual libraries and their staff to serve their local communities and for councils to give priorities to local matters. But nothing is gained by allowing a council to specify the systems.
Because we allow this variety, not only do we incur needless cost in each council which does not benefit the public in any way, but it also means that the services procured are much more expensive than they need to be, because the suppliers spend so much time in contract negotiations and tenders. We get a very expensive, very poor quality service, which does not exploit the possibilities that technology offers- and I am talking about catalogues, RFID systems, lending systems, procurement systems - and all these things.
Often when a librarian in a council purchases a book they don't realise that most of the cost of that book lies in the fact they they are able to ask for labelling to be done which is specific to their own council. Every time the supplier receives an order - they have to work out which council the order has come from and apply the processing required by that council. There is no need for any of these requirements to be different, but the expense at the supplier to meet this need is truly ridiculous. That's the kind of thing. Current NAG recommendations and guidelines should be non arguable commitments - and suppliers should not be allowed to permit any variation. Then we would begin to make progress
There is a need for local variation - but it lies in indvidual libraries and is to do with the personal service and not the systems that are used
Posted by: perkins at April 21, 2012 10:35 AM
If the only alternative were really to enforce a single system I would be campaigning with you Tim, but with the right tools, and staff capable of making the right choices, it’s still (just) possible to maintain healthy competition AND ensure compatibility.
The trouble is that you and your like-minded media chums who are busy (rightly) hounding the chiefs have, by encouraging the view that ANYONE can run a library, also contributed to the loss of talent and morale in the hated “back offices” that used to form the foundation of well-run services.
The recent debate on Library Management Systems and RFID certainly demonstrated the kind of chaos that can ensue when standards aren’t used. Many of the major suppliers of library management systems (LMS) to the UK public sector – Civica, Capita, Axiell etc. – operate cross-sector and/or internationally and their products are consequently designed to meet a widely ranging set of requirements.
The RFID picture is possibly even more fragmented as up until recently there was no standard available for defining the data that should be used on stock items and only one – very ancient – protocol available to connect the RFID solution to the LMS.
It’s a bit like the challenge the publishing world faced in communicating with the Phoenix system favoured by Waterstones – software so old that it still had an 80 character limit on some fields! EDI helped to solve some of those problems and the same technology helped libraries order their stock more efficiently as well.
But even Waterstones didn’t try and prescribe which computer systems their suppliers should use – so long as they could handle one of the EDI formats that Watertones use.
I’m pretty sure that the centralised – state controlled? – library management system that you propose would only add to the woes of the public library service and to a further deterioration in the service provided to the public. With cost now almost the only procurement criteria many library services are already running less functional systems than they did in the past. With only one supplier where would be the incentive for them to improve or adapt the service?
But economic forces aren’t the only reason for the decline in the public library service. Encouraged by commentators and some campaigners to believe that an LMS is simply some kind of Point of Sale (POS) solution – like those found in bookshops for example – and that libraries work just like the book trade, the skilled staff that used to know how to configure and use computer systems to manage acquisitions, monitor demand, identify local needs and tastes, organise the collection, track the reading habits of housebound readers (to offer them targeted choices) and the hundreds of other tasks that made up the librarian’s job have been disappearing for some years now.
The decline in the use of the public library service in the UK has been markedly sharper than almost anywhere else – and I cannot help but think that our decision to remove staff with IT skills from so many public libraries – the people that knew how the systems worked – may have been a contributing factor to this decline. That, and a failure to invest in stock of course.
Soon all that will be left will be the front desk staff so beloved of Perkins – and with no systems or support staff to back them up the shelves will be stocked only with the favourite titles of the volunteers left behind to run them.
So if this is a clarion call for the troops to form an orderly line behind you, as the saviour of the public library service, I’m afraid I must once again decline the invitation.
Besides comrade Stalin would have done this in only five years.
Posted by: Mick Fortune at April 21, 2012 11:05 AM
There you go Mick!
I say let's do something positive -- but you prefer to keep moaning until libraries are right down the plug hole . What are you proposing should be done? Spell it out.
These campaigns should not, I think, be about protecting so called 'professional' jobs in back offices, but about saving the service in the library buildings- with properly experienced and paid staff who can help readers in libraries- (but maybe not those with library degrees)
But we disagree about what we are trying to achieve. So be it, that's fair enough .. mind I don't think bringing Stalin into the debate helps anyone.
Posted by: perkins at April 21, 2012 11:22 AM
I'm not moaning Tim, I'm trying to do something about it. I think suggesting that we should ensure that libraries are able to work together IS spelling it out.
I don't agree that this should be a campaign about buildings, or protecting jobs - or even about creating the kind of cosy library in which a gentleman might relax in the kind of armchair that you have chosen for your blog icon.
I think we need a debate about developing a library 'service' for the 21st century - but more importantly some sign that government, any government, thinks that a public library service is something worth having (in that at least I think we might agree?).
At the moment this debate is only open to invited guests of Ed Vaizey or those with sufficient funds to attend one of Neil Stewart's seminars.
I've never been a librarian so your swipe at the "so called profession" (as you call it) passed me by - again.
We are both wasting our time looking for scapegoats - or saviours. If the public value the service the politicians will listen. Attacking me for suggesting that a monolithic centralised system wouldn't solve anything isn't likely to do that.
As for Comrade Stalin - I'm afraid he was irresistible. He believed in central control and five year plans as well you know. If you'd ever been able to control your anger long enough to meet me you'd understand my sense of humour better.
Posted by: Mick Fortune at April 21, 2012 12:27 PM
Reports suggest that Lancashire has demonstrated how to run a successful service without, apparently, closing libraries or sacking people. Anyone looking at it ?
Posted by: Shirley Burnham at April 21, 2012 1:20 PM
Mick - to be honest, and it will be no surprise to you - I don't agree with you.
I think that all the attempts to make improvements in public libraries through processes of working together have failed.
It is time that someone took a very firm hand and actually made some drastic changes.
I don't think Government will do that- at the current time there is no one within Government who would know how to.
I am not offering anything, but I am saying that the time for debates and seminars is long long past.
And, for what it's worth, I have no problem with sofas in libraries- I wish there were books and sofas all over the place. That would be my ideal
Posted by: perkins at April 21, 2012 2:03 PM
There is no way they could get all the authorities to agree to standardize their processes and systems to save money. Even with an act of parliament it would still take them years and years to do it and by then the technology would have moved on. You only have to look at the governments attempts with IT in the NHS. Each PCT/SHA and Trust all wanted to do their own thing, some still do I think. Just getting them to agree on what columns should be included in the summary care record to standardize it took years. Its not in the suppliers interests to provide the standardize products either, if they do that the they will say their USP's will have been lost and there will be no reason to improve the software. I don't disagree with the point I just don't think they would be capable of doing it. Its a shame really, in the retail sector a company provides all of its stores with the same computer system that are all linked together and all running the same software, the process in each store is identical. I can walk into any of these and they can swipe my card (blockbusters, tesco clubcard etc) and it brings up my details. I'm not aware of any national system or service in the public sector that can do that very simple thing.
Posted by: Trevor Craig at April 22, 2012 5:49 PM
Completely right, Trevor... and the reality is that instead of grasping the nettle, we are closing libraries, or reducing the service, in order to achieve the savings that are readily available by standardising the systems.
As you say, if you go into, for example, John Lewis, the till and stock system, which is incredibly sophisticated and efficient, is identical around the country -- of course it is, only a nutcase would operate otherwise
When people say it is awful to 'privatise' the library service, they always say that there is no reason why the public sector should not be as efficient as any private operator - but you have just explained exactly why they aren't. They aren't capable of being efficient
At the moment LSSI are standardising their LMS systems across all their library services- it's obvious they would. But the UK public library service simply can't do it.
Posted by: perkins at April 22, 2012 7:49 PM
I am Chairman of a charity that runs an award winning Community Library in Little Chalfont Bucks. We must have done something right because our stock issues and footfall have both increased significantly since we took over from Bucks County Council 5 years ago. We could not have done this without access to the LMS.
Our success has led to many communities contacting us because their local library is being threatened with closure. We have successfully helped many to establish their own Community Library but others are hitting a brick wall because some County Councils are refusing access to their version of the LMS. Data Protection is often put forward as the reason to deny access.
Bucks County Council have managed to give us and other Community Libraries in the County access to the LMS (Spydus) without Data Protection issues. I can only assume that the Councils denying access have other versions of the LMS or have an IT setup that was not designed to be accessed by non-Council persons. This means that many communities prepared to find the funding, the volunteers and do the work to run a library will have to see their library closed or run a parochial book lending club. The solution is of course for all Councils to adopt a common LMS platform that is accessible to both Public Libraries and Community Libraries. The sooner the better.
Posted by: Jim Brooks at April 23, 2012 11:44 AM
Yes, I think Trevor nailed it. I see no reason why library services shouldn't have been standardised, but they'll never do it now, and looking at it as an ex-librarian I have said and will say again that at least part of the blame lies at the door of the librarians themselves, who have talked poncy nonsense for years and utterly failed to take any hard decisions. At least I can live with myself for saying how I felt instead of hiding behind big words and ever-more precise reasons/excuses for why "nothing can be done."
Posted by: James Christie at April 23, 2012 11:53 AM
Reading Jim's comment, that is exactly the reason we are not allowed to access the LMS system in Oxfordshire as volunteers. The old system which is dos based (its 2012!) doesn't allow selective access they told us. This also gives them a extra excuse to put in self-service at great expense. I would guess this further ties them into one supplier for software as I cannot imagine it is straight forward to get the hardware to work with other companies software. The data they get out of their system is also rubbish, it isn't even a decent as a reporting tool.
Posted by: Trevor Craig at April 23, 2012 12:49 PM
Very pleased to hear such sensible adult commentary, although I'm not going to stop suggesting that verious library managers should be shot out of the USS Enterprise's shuttlebay doors. I'd say it also shows how much time and money has been wasted because of IT managers' inane failure to standardise their equipment. I first heard about this in Lew Gerstner's book about IBM - that computers and stuff were a non-standardised industry. IBM reinvented itself as an integrator, basically making systems talk to each other - which should have been the b***** case in the first place! Nor (again) does it say much for librarians (who are supposed to be information managers) if they've just stood idly by while a DOS-based system staggered on and done nothing despite seeing that data produced by LMS is rubbish.
Honestly, it's enough to make you weep. Anyone in Little Chalfont want a volunteer and ex-librarian with a habit of nutting his former colleagues?
Posted by: James Christie at April 23, 2012 4:39 PM
James, how could anyone resist such an offer - knowing that they would also be co-opting a seriously good author into the deal (see the post below entitled "Dear Miss Landau"
You and I will have noticed that the two 'adult commentators' are actually from the breed scorned widely as 'library volunteers' - and it just shows how wrong and unjustified that scorn can be. Maybe we really need experienced volunteers to take control of the whole service
And I know something about the LMS system in Oxfordshire. About 7 years ago Oxfordshire CC asked me to review their library service and I did. I identified three simple priorities for improvement: more books, longer opening hours and smarten up the buildings. I also told them how they could afford all that by closing down all the backroom office and warehouse operations which were and are a waste of money.
They said they were very grateful and published my name on the council reports about all this - and then did none of the above. Instead they spent loads of money on a Library Management System, because they didn't have one at the time and were still using library cards. That is the system which is now being talked about - it is only about 5 or 6 years old.
Posted by: perkins at April 23, 2012 7:42 PM
I'm not necessarily advocating the use of volunteers in libraries, but they can bring a fresh perspective and are sometimes the only people who can see that the Emperor is, in fact, wearing no clothes. Certainly, when I volunteered in a council-run museums service, it was an eye-opener that a huge, single-subject collection that they had acquired was immediately split into three, to reflect the existing internal organisation of the museum and library service, and that three different and incompatible databases were then used to catalogue it. They seemed to think this was perfectly 'normal' business practice and that, by expressing a different view, I was simply demonstrating my naivety of how these things 'worked'. If it's like that in one single organisation, I can only imagine how much bigger the problem is with multiple library services across the country.
Posted by: Amanda Field at April 24, 2012 10:35 AM