Panlibus Blog

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries, Literacy and Information Management Report: a review

APPG report more ppl shotLast week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group launched their new report: an inquiry into the governance and leadership of the public library service in England. On the basis of the progression we have seen with the DCMS modernisation review, I had little expectation of this report providing any real insight or vision. As I worked my way through the report, I found myself scribbling and highlighting away, only to find the very thought I had just noted to be clarified in the upcoming paragraph. So I was pleasantly surprised to say the least, as I found the report to consider more perspectives than I anticipated.

It would have been too easy for the scope of the report to be wide and vague, which no doubt would have provided a foggy vision if any. So it was good to see that the focus of this report is specifically on the effectiveness of arrangements for the governance and leadership of public library services. The six lines of enquiry were very appropriate in light of the current situation. They were:

1)      What are the strengths and weaknesses of the present system for the governance and leadership of the public library service in England?

2)      Should local communities have a greater say in decisions about the public library service?

3)      Should central government do more to superintend the public library service?

4)      Are local authorities the best agency to provide library services?

5)      What are the governance and leadership roles of the Advisory Council on Libraries (ACL), the Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)?

6)      What changes (if any) are required to improve and strengthen governance and leadership?

Perhaps a closer look into the role of technology and innovation may have been a potential area for inquiry, though this may be something which stems from point six. As the report began to take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of the public library service, they acknowledged that:

“The submissions presented a bleak national picture with more weaknesses than strengths being identified.”

Amongst some of the more legitimate and agreeable points raised, there were a few points which led me to frown as I read. For example, the group believes the library service is diverse and innovative, listing it as one of its strengths. But is this really the case? Would this report really be necessary if they were? A couple of contradictions arose too, for example, listing staff to be helpful and experts at one point and then ill equipped and unhelpful at another.

In summary, the key recommendations were to develop one lead voice for libraries through the establishment of a single Library Development Agency for England (LDAE). A reassuring recognition, as a vision leading the library service could not be any more crucial than it is today. The current role and purpose of the many national agencies has brought confusion to the service, lacking a prominent player leading the way. The report rightly recognises the library sector has lost its way, and is sadly regarded to be of low value by decision makers.

Whist the LDAE is in the making (I assume answers around who, when and how are yet to come) we can expect a mid-term communications strategy and training and development programmes for public library personnel to improve management and leadership skills, from the MLA. Interesting, as the report recognised the MLA’s poor record with libraries in the past, and some contributors felt regret around the recent changes to its regional structures. The formation of LDAE would result in revision to the role, function and allocated funding of the MLA, making them a surprising/uncertain candidate to lead the way on the mid-term plans.

Overall, I was pleased to see the group recognise dramatic action is required and quickly. Yet it could be argued that recognising the problem is the easy part, finding and implementing the solution is the real challenge.

Image copyright of APPG. Publisher, CILIP.

Full report available to download from CILIP.

PLA 2009 – Day 2

Grand hotel

Today, my day didn’t begin in the most ideal way. As I’m staying in a hotel a few minutes away from the conference, a complementary shuttle bus has kindly been provided to escort delegates back and forth. This morning, a combination of a late dash for breakfast and the shuttle bus being reliably late, led me to be a little more flustered than usual, only just managing to make the start of the conference. However, I didn’t let this dampen my outlook for the day as, of course, today was the day the DCMS publish their long awaited Modernisation Review; at least it was supposed to be. But more on that later.

Andrew Cozens, Strategic Advisor at the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) kicked off the day with his interactive workshop, introducing the approach – outcomes based accountability. He explains that currently there are too many terms defining performance measures, and not enough discipline in using them. By using three key particular definitions, ‘outcomes’, ‘indicators’ and ‘performance measures’, a real outcomes based accountability approach can be achieved. The term outcome would be used only to describe the high level goal, for example, ‘improve the well being of children and adults’. The term indicator would then go a step further, by highlighting the measure which helps to quantify the achievement of an outcome, and finally performance measure would then measure how well the programme is performing. Overall, this was an interesting session which challenged delegates to re-think their current thought processes, as all too often, it’s easy to focus on the measuring performance elements and lose sight of whether the outcome is improving.

Then the session many were waiting for began, as the Rt. Hon Margaret Hodge, Minister for Culture and Tourism took to the stage. She began by acknowledging that public libraries are very precious, but from time-to-time, we must question whether things could be done differently to ensure a comprehensive and efficient service fit for purpose in the 21st century is being delivered. She then went to on to provide some ‘interesting’ statistics which appeared to paint a sad and downward spiralling trend in library usage. However, these statistics were later questioned, to which Margaret was only able to respond “I don’t know where they [the statistics] came from, they are just given to me”.

She believes engaging with young people requires radical innovation, as they require something new and something stimulating. Her acknowledgment of the technological revolution being at the heart of future of libraries hinted at what the (once again delayed) Modernisation Review would focus on, looking to models such as LoveFilm and Amazon. Some ‘innovate’ suggestions for libraries included a loyalty card that rewards every ten book loans with a free DVD hire and a library card for every new born baby, bringing frustration to many delegates sitting at my table, as they squealed “We’ve done that for years”. They felt such suggestions demonstrated Margaret’s lack of understanding of the library profession and felt patronised. However other ideas to provide an internet lending service to have books delivered to your home; selling books as well as lending in conjunction with companies like Amazon, led to more positive reactions.

The Modernisation ReMargview itself is to be published in a much faster paced climate than previously published reports, she explained, and therefore, the DCMS do not intend for it to be the last word in the conversation. Margaret would like the time to input her thoughts on the paper before release, and publish as a consultation document. The cynic may read this as a lack of ideas or direction on the DCMS’ part, yet others may believe wider consultation is a genuine attempt to engage with those experienced in the field. In her closing statements, she encouraged librarians to get in touch, as she would like to produce a comprehensive and controversial report. She promised that the Government remains committed to strong and modern public library services and will continue to value and champion them.

The third session was lead by Liz Forgan, the Chair of the Arts Council, highlighting the importance of reading. From the conference programme, I got the impression that this would be a bad case of preaching to the converted, however, I was proved wrong. She explained, for a library to support reading is instinctive, but today, everything must be evidence based, therefore the difference that reading makes must be highlighted. “Libraries are central to reading, and reading is your jewel” she explained.  Miranda McKearney, Director of the Reading Agency explained how they can work closer with libraries to do this. Firstly, national reading programmes can be worked harder. Secondly, stronger partnerships can be established with publishers, broadcasters and media to publicise reading further. By setting up a digital taskforce to take up reading developments online can help showcase achievements as well as build stronger networks. Thirdly, a 21st century library workforce created via strategic training could also contribute significantly to wider reading. And finally new thinking would be essential to develop clear messages and creative new projects. The session finished on thoughts of cross authority reading strategies, where a show of hands indicated a mere two local authorities were actively adopting them. A second show of hands highlighted how many would like to adopt such strategies in their libraries and this time there were significantly more than just two.

For the afternoon session, we were given the opportunity to visit local libraries providing unique and innovative services. I chose to visit the Hartcliffe Library and the Knowle West Media Centre in the South of Bristol. The Hartcliffe Library was built in 1974 in what was once a vibrant part of the area. Following the closure of a nearby factories and banks, the library began to suffer. It wasn’t until the adjacent Morrisons supermarket was built that the area became revitalised and the close nit community was reformed. In 2003 the refurbishment of the library began, in which the local community remained faithful to the service, bringing flasks of hot drinks through times of power cuts. With strong support from youth in what is described to be a ‘challenging area’ the library acts as a social environment engaging with all, simply by opening up.

The Knowle West Media Centre is a stunning building; the walls of which are made of straw bales and a rubber roof which harvests rain water. As we were shown around the building, we were told about the activities that take place within the centre including photography, music and film maker projects. But what was really interesting was how the local youth had been engaged in the development of the building. And we’re not just talking minor consultation. Real decisions such as choosing designers, architects and creating the design brief were all done in close conjunction with the local youth. This way, not only is the passion ignited within the youth straight away, but they are presented with a building that they are a part of and something which is made to their requirements. The Media Centre staff believe they learn just as much from those who use the centre as they do from them. They believe the jobs of the future require a solid understanding of digital skills and therefore the centre has a massive role to play.

Today I have enjoyed speaking to delegates from all sorts of backgrounds and the coach trip around Bristol. Though my highlight has to be Margaret Hodge’s presentation, simply because of the debate she stimulated. Tomorrow promises more interesting sessions as the conference draws to an end. Watch out for PLA Day 3 tomorrow…

Images published by _satunine and ourcreativetalent on Flickr