I confess: I am a PLA virgin. My expectations for the next three days had been built up of a combination of colleagues’ experiences, event reviews and a bit of imagination. However, on my journey into Bristol this morning, I decided I would put those expectations aside and approach PLA 2009 with an open mind.
It became clear quite early in the conference that the themes for this year were three fold: community engagement, governance of the library service and public library buildings – all quite timely with the imminent release of the DCMS review, the announcement of the public library buildings awards and the Wirral Libraries u-turn.
After being warmly welcomed by those who were “truly delighted” with this year’s conference programme, the first session was kicked off by Jayne Hathaway, the Director of 2QAB Community Interest Company around engaging with local people. Jayne began her presentation stating she knew very little about libraries, which became evident with the declaration “I no longer use libraries as I am now fortunate enough to purchase books” which needless to say, sparked stunned looks around me. Is Jayne suggesting (in her opening few words) that libraries are only for those who can’t afford books/computers/access to the Internet? Her attempt to get the audience on side went down as noticeably patronising.
But fortunately, Jayne did raise some interesting thoughts: local people have the right to be engaged in local service planning and the delivery of it. But do they always know what is going on to be able to get involved? She went on to explain how excluding the local community in such planning could risk wasting the resources of an already under-funded service, and how local people are barely aware of their own rights and responsibilities. This is something that must change, Jayne explains, people must be more active in the community, aware of their power and be confident enough to use it and ultimately, become economically, socially and politically fulfilled. But how? Jayne believes the answer lies in allowing the community to choose what they want, and empower (a word Jayne was reluctant to use) communities. She then introduced a local person who thoroughly entertained us with his powerful story of how he overcame his alcohol addiction and then sang African chants (although great entertainment, I wasn’t entirely clear how it related to 2QAB’s work, or in fact public libraries at all).
The second session introduced us to the Public Library Building Awards, the winner of which will be announced at tonight’s dinner. Norma McDermott, co-Chair of the awards took us through the trends they were seeing throughout the nominated libraries, as it became clear the ‘feel’ of libraries was changing. In summary, a large majority were incorporating minimal designs, vibrant yet airy colour schemes and more interactive spaces. User experience was a higher priority, as well as working with other local services such as health centres and gyms. Later in the day, the shortlisted libraries were showcased via video. Newcastle City Library certainly is the most impressive, and the most likely to win on wow factor alone. However, my vote went to Ramsgate Library (Kent County Council) largely because of its traditional exterior appearance and contemporary, yet welcoming feel inside. I felt many of the libraries adopted the ‘clean’ and ‘minimal’ look to the extreme where (on video) they appeared to be cold and uncomfortable, but overall some great libraries achieving some impressive transformations.
The presentation from Julie Finch of the Museum of Bristol was extremely rushed, and presented in an incredibly monotone manner, with very little engagement with the audience. Disappointing, as so much could have been explored. For instance, Julie could have explored how the library could mirror the success experienced by museums in their transformation of their public perception or how museums can look to the library community to influence their stock selections and strategies to engage with communities. Overall, it came across as a presentation which had been previously delivered elsewhere and no attempt to cater the content to this audience had been made.
Following conversations with other delegates, the next session from John Hicks of Kentwood Associates got mixed reviews. Whilst many thought this was the best session of the morning, others thought it required more substance and avoided real practical issues that appeared to have been completely over looked. John proposed four types of alternative governance for libraries. Firstly, community governance. Local people running their local services would bring benefits of knowledge and dedication; however it would compromise direction, focus and deciding who exactly runs the library would be tricky as personal agendas may interfere. Secondly, partnerships. Working with wider council services bring obvious cost advantages and bring in wider experiences, however control is compromised and contractual relationships are introduced. In the next year or two, John envisages one or two additional shared services appearing (as a minimum). Thirdly, trusts. Wigan is the longest surviving trust; established in 2003, and Glasgow is the largest, who may well provide the model for others to follow in the future. Trusts bring tax advantages, but can be expensive to set up. Finally, the private sector. We are starting to see private sector organisations such as JLIS, Tribal and LSSI making more of an appearance in private sector governance of libraries. In the future, John believes libraries will need to get used to writing service specifications to measure performance effectively, managing libraries through contractual agreements, strategic commissioning and more partnership working.
For the first afternoon session, I decided to attend the presentation by Elizabeth Elford, the Public Libraries Advocacy Manager at the British Library, which focused on marketing the public library. She explained by maintaining a good relationship with council communications teams, using one message/voice and presenting materials professionally (amongst other things) is key to achieving a positive lasting impression. Social media is a tool which must be embraced more in public libraries as a higher percentage of the target audience is highly responsive to such channels. However, as the session went on, it became clear that it isn’t as easy as “OK, let’s set up a Facebook page” as local authorities often face challenges internally, whether they are with IT departments or the senior management. Manchester City Library, a shining example in adopting such social medias, proposed an interesting ideology “Seek forgiveness, don’t ask permission” which may well be the way forward for libraries battling with departments internally. After all, the library would increase its reach and accessibility, improve its reputation and influence and promote transparency through doing so. This session was very well received by those who attended, with approx 90% of the attendees either asking questions or engaging via commentary, demonstrating the high interest in the topic and the desire for librarians to do more in this area.
My final session for the day was the public library partnership work with the BBC, presented by Elizabeth Waite, Library Partnership Manager at the BBC. After a clumsy and frankly unimpressive start fumbling around with technology, Elizabeth explained how the BBC sees itself to be very similar to libraries, with similar aims. As two publicly funded organisations, both want to promote education and learning so there were firm foundations for a partnership. So far, four successful projects have now been rolled out, including: BBC Raw, BBC Breathing Places, BBC Headroom, BBC Off By Heart. Staffordshire County Council has been a keen advocate of the projects, working with its different segments of library users to promote each. Janine Cox of Staffordshire explained working with the BBC enabled them to identify the contribution they made to education and learning and develop sustainable relationships. As some of the projects draw to an end, the BBC is looking to introduce new projects around digital literacy and history working closely with more libraries across the UK.
Day 1 has been an eventful day, packed with activity and conversation in a way I didn’t quite expect. I look forward to tomorrow as the DCMS take centre stage. Watch this space for PLA Day 2 tommorrow.
Image from @MichaelStead on twitpic.