December 21, 2012
CIPFA figures show council costs rise again
This year the CIPFA annual library statistics have been accompanied by a performance commentary about each council. This is an innovation to be applauded. There is far too much mystery around the management of the public library service - it isn't necessary and it is unhelpful to the service.
There used to be an annual analysis of public library data by LISU - the library unit of Loughborough University. That was stopped by the MLA, and that was a shame because they looked at national trends.
When I first became involved in public libraries in 1997, it was the LISU analysis showing the fall in the percentage of the budget on books, alongside the fall in the use of books, that was so obvious and convincing a statement of the problem. The main use of the library service , then and now, is for books for reading - for pleasure, for study, for information - for culture. If the supply of books is strangled then the libraries lose their general attraction and their usefulness
Whatever other valuable social purpose they might have, if people choose not to use them, because the book stock is poor, the service will be in trouble. Use is bound to fall- and if use falls, those people who monitor expenditure on public services are bound to see opportunity to cut costs.
In 1997 the percentage of the library service expenditure spent on books was 11.7%.
Since then there have, in my view, been three important changes that affect the quality of public libraries.
1. The introduction of the 'people's network' which eventually gave each library a number of internet terminals, increased use by a small amount - and briefly halted the decline of use. At its peak about 20% of library use was for computers. .. where the use of libraries for books and reading has remained around 70-75% of visits. That 20% has now declined significantly. The claim that libraries make a significant numerical impact on the digital divide is simply not true. Nor do they have a significant numerical impact on literacy. They are good and useful - but their main purpose remains for people who already read books -or newspapers. Of course their use at different stages of ones life is different - and that is the best way to analyse whether they do their job properly. If they 'do' books and newspapers well they will thrive; if they neglect them, libraries are no longer fulfilling their role. The computers were an interesting addition for some people, but not the universal answer they have so often been held up to be
2. In about 2003 there was a significant shift in the supply chain costs, when Bertrams, the library supplier, increased the discounts it offered to libraries. This meant that for a brief while even if the book budget fell, libraries were able to get more books for their money. For a few years this reduced the impact of falling book funds. But that dividend is now finished, we are back in the cycle of falling budgets leading to falling stocks leading to falling use of libraries . The percentage of library budgets spent in 2011/12 on books is now 6.3% in the UK . In London that is 4.2% . It is simply ludicrous to believe that libraries can have any qualities other than being a community shelter, at that level of expenditure on books. And yet we have seen about 30 reports from Government and all parties, and none ever points out the most obvious fact of all - libraries need more books
3. The most devastating impact on public libraries is not the cuts imposed by Central Government, or lack of budget in any sense. It is the ridiculous rise in the costs of council central overheads which are charged to the library service. In 2011/ 12 we were expecting to see the first major year of Government cuts since the main purpose of Government became to cut the the annual operating deficit of all government departments. Councils were asked to find 28% cuts over three years, to be front loaded- so we anticipated that we would see cuts in library budgets of the order of 14% . In fact the staff budget has been cut by 9%, Internet costs have been cut by 11% and the book fund has been cut by the same amount, 11% as well And yet at the same time the council overheads actually rose by a larger amount than they have risen in any year in the past decade. The amount charged to libraries rose from 13.6% percent of the cost of the library service to 14.7% : the council overhead is now £160m (and this does not include overhead within each library service, which will be of the same order, but is not shown by CIPFA)
Everybody said that when making cuts, councils should protect the front line and look for savings in administration. The exact opposite has happened -- and it is wrong and unfair to those people who need them, to close libraries while this fundamental problem remains untackled.
Any of the three najor parties could tackle this matter, whether they are in power in Whitehall or not - it is about proper council administration - and if they wish to fly party flags in council elections they should work with their own councils to solve it
As for the LGA, the DCMS, the Arts Council , the SCL, or CILIP - all one can say is that they are all, in respect of public libraries, currently, utterly useless- and any money public or private, spent on them, could sensibly be saved
Posted by Perkins at December 21, 2012 7:26 PM
Something that you, and the ideologues who have carried out huge sackings of public sector workers..., never mention is that sacking lots of people generally costs rather a lot of money.
I do 'get what you're saying'. It is, however, as it always was..., simplistic.
Posted by: Andrew Preston at December 29, 2012 7:44 PM
I was intrigued by your comment that the 'overhead within each library service is not included within the CIPFA data.' The CIPFA support services cost include departmental administration and attributable[library]executive costs as well as apportioned central and admininistative costs. What costs are you referring to?
Posted by: libraryanorak at December 31, 2012 4:14 PM
Library Anorak (I do wish you would put your real name) ... perhaps I meant to say that 'a figure which shows the library service overhead is not included' in the CIPFA data.
Staff costs (in CIPFA) do not distinguish between those costs of staff which contribute to the opening hours of the library opening rotas, and those costs which are incurred by staff still in the library service but who work in offices or distribution centres or bilbliographic services, and the like, whose cost does not contribute to the opening rotas of the library buildings. That is what I would mean by the 'overhead of the library service)
I am sure they are included (as you say) but one cannot see what they are.
Posted by: perkins at December 31, 2012 4:59 PM
It is also worth pointing out that the CIPFA overheads include apportioned central costs. The basis of apportionment is determined by each Council. The basis used will be a judgement and will vary between Councils. Thus in the recently published library profile data it may be tempting to deduce that Council X is inefficient because its ‘Support Service Costs’ are higher than the average of a comparative group. This may be the case but it may just be that the apportionment basis for central costs is different.
Nevertheless your point on overall council overheads is I think a reasonable point to make because of the aggregation involved.
Posted by: llibraryanorak at January 1, 2013 12:37 PM
I've personally been building up to an explosion about the SCL (better restrain myself from renaming them here, it wouldn't be nice) based on their excuses in the Public Libraries News (we're as frustrated as you are, ca. 12th December 2012).
Now, I can see their points but again all it really amounts to is a spineless refusal to say anything publicly:
"Cannot be a campaigning body?," where in God's name are their guts?
"Cannot criticise local authorities," what's going to change if they don't? Nothing!
"Can/do give controversial advice but only privately," yeah, I bet that's really going to set the world on fire. Not. Sounds like a bunch of old farts harrumphing about the state of the nation over brandy and cards at their plush London club. And about as much use. By the way, guys, in case the news has not reached you yet, Mafeking has been relieved!
These quotes and responses are of course selective, but talk of hope, focus and time frames at the end of Janene Cox's response feels uncomfortably like fiddling while Rome burns (so the barbarians are at the gate, Laertes? Well, we'll work out a time frame to deal with them at the next monthly meeting...).
I frankly agree with Frank Daniels' response of 21st December to the SCL article in which he said:
"Do not look to the SCL to be the saviour of public libraries. This is just a loose assortment of chief librarians who band together to hide behind a smokescreen of collective irresponsibility when it comes to facing up to the issue of cuts in public services ... the cuts then happen because no chief librarian will decide to make an ethical stand for the profession by refusing to carry out the given orders. The financial consequences and career chances are too precious to put at risk. So much easier to hide behind the smokescreen and make sympathetic noises from time to time ... When all the professions are reduced to the status of "merely carrying out orders" we are well on the road to something that has already caused a great deal of trouble in the last century. I think that if you are at the top of your profession and benefit from it, then you owe the profession something in return."
Janene Cox, find the character to say something publicly or shut up shop and bow out. As a librarian, I actually, literally, had to deal with a World War II Italian Fascist and if you have seen close-up - as I have - the sheer control freakery and utter malevolence of such a creature (one of Mussolini's elite), then you would know that the excuse "I was only obeying orders" can never, ever be all right. The creature whom I've described had a liking for leaving incunabula in the sun, giving away rare books to friends and ordering me to group all the first editions together... Might as well have put a sign next to them saying PLEASE STEAL. I ignored, refused or subverted the thing's orders, and if I had not done so, one of the country's greater collections would have been irreparably damaged.
So that is the absolute lesson which should have been unquestionably learned. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Stand up that power or... well, guess what? It'll just keep walking all over us.
Posted by: James Christie at January 3, 2013 1:39 PM