So do we really need superheros to sort out Public Libraries?

These are the personal views of Yinnon Ezra, Specialist Advisor for Libraries, and not those of DCMS.

I mentioned in my first blog that the response of one of my close friends to taking up the job of part-time DCMS Public Libraries Advisor was to get myself a bright costume and some “superpowers”, as in his view that was what it was going to take to make any impression on “the state of public libraries” in England. I have now been in the post for a few months; this will bring you up-to-date with “what I am up to”. I will come back to the “superhero” stuff later.

My first task was to find out what “was going on”. There is a great deal of material around; the internet is full of informed web sites and statistics. Add to that the many comment pieces, conferences, seminars, launches of “new initiatives” and regular stories in newspapers about the “awful” state of our public libraries and one quickly becomes overwhelmed. Making sense of all this is a struggle, but it did not take long to absorb the landscape. Also, talking directly to Local Authorities about their plans, although time consuming, has given me quite a good sense of the reality. So my impression…….

Variable -is probably the best word to describe the current picture.

There is much impressive and innovative work going on in public libraries. Some of these initiatives taken by hard pressed Local Authorities designed to enhance, develop and expand the reach of their Library services are excellent. In contrast there are Councils where “time has stood still”, the budget pressures only highlighting other issues which need addressing  – but many have a positive story to tell, sometimes being really enthusiastic about the success of new partnerships or finally finding the money for new books, a lick of paint and some new furniture.

“CUTS”

The response to the reduction in the cash available to Local Authorities (LAs) has also been impressive with many responding calmly and with care. Most have dealt sensitively with Public Libraries – it is my view that in general this service has fared better than most as higher percentage reductions have been required by others – this may not be possible in the future. Some have faced the challenge openly finding the dialogue with local communities enlightening with many new ideas being tried. As one Senior Manager put it “it is the relentless pressure with no end in sight that is particularly difficult” – this was expressed more as a statement of fact than a grumble. The general mood is that “we need to get on with it” but that the “same old solutions will not deliver in the long term”.

“TAKING THE STRATEGIC APPROACH”

Early on it was clear that to make any sense of the “advisor” role it would need to split into two – the first was being available to talk quietly to specific LAs – the second was to focus on a few strategic issues to which I could add value. None of this would be possible without the active support and involvement of the Local Government Association (LGA) particularly the Leading Members of the Culture and Tourism Board .Getting to know the many new Members will take time, but with the help of Senior LGA Officers, attending the Annual Conference in Chester and meeting the Board we have agreed to work closely together on the following themes.

Leadership –Political & Professional – The LGA and Arts Council England have worked together organising seminars for Leaders of Councils and Cabinet Members which have been very successful in terms of sharing best practice and how to “engage others” within the Council about Public Libraries. This is important but needs to be done constantly given the number of LAs involved and local election cycles. The next of these is in the summer which I will be involved in. I have also reached out to the Society of Local Government Chief Executives who have agreed to assist in the general  “ profile raising” of Public Libraries this will include the many Corporate Directors who have these services to manage within ever increasing management portfolios. The key issue here is to constantly inform them about what Public Libraries do, but more importantly how they can assist with taking forward corporate policy.  Public Libraries have a key role in for example, advice and information to citizens, assisting with the “localism” agenda through regular contact with communities, some are forming “commissioning” relationships with the Health Service– the list is much longer than this.

Shared Services – ICT etc. – Libraries do not figure in the major LGA initiatives in this area of work as the savings in for example Social Care or Highways are considerably higher given the size of budget – also the Future Libraries Programme had supported a number of schemes, the learning from which is still available. I was heartened to see a list of Library Authorities that do share services, but in the main this is around the purchase of stock and some sharing of professional skills. The opportunities around ,sharing IT, perhaps with the one library card where geography permits, communication costs, property management, co-location of services in two tier areas, corporate support costs, to name just a few areas of work, is being taken by a very few Authorities. So many individual Managers tell me that “there are real savings to be made including perhaps improving services” also Councils are at different moments in tendering cycles. Clearly this is complex, but on a recent visit to Canterbury I was inspired by the real co-operation in service delivery between Kent CC and Canterbury City Council at The Beaney – House of Art and Knowledge – well worth a visit! I have also been talking to the LGA about IT and the possibility in the future of some sort of framework being constructed for the purchase and running of IT systems.

Libraries contributing to other relevant agendas – the progress around “public libraries doing other people’s business” is also positive but variable – that word again! It is important to encourage discussion within Whitehall about what Public libraries can do; but also within local environments where duplication and lack of knowledge inhibit creative working together. The Society of Chief Librarians Universal Offer is particularly welcome as it very explicitly takes this forward.

Finally, if you have something you want to share which touches on any of the issues I have mentioned in this blog, please let me know. I am particularly keen on learning about any successful examples (or lessons learnt) around the shared services agenda.

So, it’s not about bright costumed, “superheroes” or flash gestures, but making sure that inspirational practice is shared and then turned into action – more next time.

Please do feel free to leave comments below; although I will not be able to respond to them all individually, I will pick up on them in my next blog.

Yinnon Ezra MBE MA FRSA, DCMS Advisor for Libraries & cCLOA Member

4 thoughts on “So do we really need superheros to sort out Public Libraries?

  1. I think this is the best piece on the public library service that I have read for ages .

    The service isn’t in crisis – it isn’t a national scandal – in fact the truth is that is a rather mixed ragbag – slightly below par.

    But what is most important is the recognition, that Yinnon Ezra has, that the only people who can actually grasp and solve the problems are the leaders (political and managerial) of local councils

    I think Yinnon needs all the support that council leaders can give him

    My one suggestion to him – and I think this is also important – is that he needs to show that he can hear and has heard the voice of the public who are keen to save the service. One of the greatest failings of local government is that they do not have – in the same way that Whitehall has – a need to show responsiveness to the urgent cry of public demand. It is not difficult for him to do this – and it will help him enormously in his endeavours

    Good luck to him

  2. I’m still not clear on your role, the libraries act requires a advisory body to give advice to the minister on libraries and if the act is being adhered to. The ACL last met on the 4th of Feb 2010 and since then the minister has had nobody to advice him, a clear breach of the act. Is this part of your function? If so were you involved in the recent decisions to not intervene and will you but giving a decision on Gloucestershire any time soon? We’ll all be dead before the department decides what they have done was wrong, went to court, judge said they were guilty of bad government and not a peep from the minister or department. Up and down the land library groups are crying out for some leadership from the DCMS which it has dodged thus far, all we want is some evidence based policy from councils, we are subjected to endless cycles of drivel pretending to be evidence from the Westminster bubble on libraries, is this something you can look into as part of your role? From someone outside looking in, there are far too many library authorities, many very close together all duplicating their functions and while this duplication is allowed to continue councils are closing libraries (in deprived areas, contrary to the lessons of the charteris report) or handing them over to volunteers without any evidence to support the notion that they save money or provide a sustainable library. Ed may not care but I hope you do, libraries desperately need strategic leadership, currently there is a void.

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