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.
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