Panlibus Blog

PLA – Day 3 and final thoughts

2311077890_4fa91cb329Day 3 and it’s the final day of the Public Library Association conference 2009. I had low expectations for the day, as I misread the conference programme to believe the day would be dwindling to an end. Yet as the first session began, I was quickly proven wrong.

I assumed the ‘Libraries opening doors to health’ session would be bland and irrelevant, so was attending a little half heartedly. But as Bob Gann, Head of Strategy and Engagement for NHS Choices programme began the session, he had me engaged straight away. The NHS Choices web site allows patients to review their own health services, and has been (informally) described as the “NHS Trip Advisor”. Aside from the direct work the programme does with libraries such as bibliotherapy and community information centres, it was clear the programme and the strategies used to execute it could be mirrored in libraries. For example, he crucially recognised the importance of syndication. Though the site gets lots of hits (attracting over 7 million visits a month), he acknowledged early on that people are less likely to visit a government website out of all the websites they could choose from, so by syndicating NHS information to over 100 different channels, such as YouTube to showcase videos and Boots to support their existing health information etc. they were able to reach a wider range audiences. An enjoyable presentation which I dare to describe as insightful, and hopefully something which librarians recognised as something they could emulate to achieve such similar successes.

The second presentation was from Senior Library Managers at the Nelson Mandela Bay Library Service and Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan University and it began with a 15 minute thank you to the conference organisers. This is all very well, but I would’ve much rather preferred that that time was spent talking us through the projects. Just as I began losing my patience, some interesting aims began appearing on the screen. The NMBM aims to meet the information needs of those less privileged social groups, recognising that university and public libraries are building blocks of local information and knowledge infrastructure. Key projects were showcased during the session, including a reading project working with the youth of South Africa and New Zealand. The project encouraged participants to become avid readers – a unique fact in itself, as resources are not easily accessible in South Africa. Another project to develop partnerships to improve service delivery, increase the flow of information was adopted as it was believed to be the way forward. By the end of the session I was left thinking, if a library in South Africa can achieve so much with so little and really make a difference to their community, why can’t we?

Following a well deserved break, John Fisher, CEO of Citizens online began his session. He believes the focus should not be about getting everyone a computer, but ensuring everyone benefits from the use of a one. Conscious of his semi-graveyard slot, John began some quick interactive surveys to demonstrate the scale of the population who don’t use technology. Apparently, 15-16 million people (one quarter of the of the UK’s population) doesn’t use technology. And a further third of those are totally disconnected, and see no benefit in using it at all. He went on to explain the Everybody Online project, where a digital champion has been recruited, Martha Lane Fox, the Co-founder of Lastminute.com to launch a strategy to improve these statistics. The project aims to optimise social media tools to engage with communities by allowing them to choose their own information, and encouraging them to share and build online communities. It was a nice change to see a speaker actually speak and not read from a card or slides; in fact John’s entire presentation had no slides, resulting in a highly engaged audience.

Followipla2009ng the last few sessions, I began concluding my thoughts of the three days and of my first PLA conference. Though officially the themes were centred on community engagement, in hindsight, I felt it was something quite different. Reading between the lines, I felt the main focus of the delegates wasn’t around engaging with their communities at all, but more about justifying their existence. Cases like Wirral and more recently, the proposals of library closures in Aberdeenshire, has left librarians constantly thinking about how they can build their portfolio of ammunition, should their service come under the firing line some time soon. And if recent goings on are anything to go by, it’s almost certain that they will have to in the coming years. Each speaker seemed aware of this too. Though not literally, each was providing ideas and models to do so, with the term ‘outcome based accountability’ sneaking in quite frequently.

Throughout the conference I was keen to speak to as many people as possible and gauge their opinion on the sessions as they happened. It was interesting to see the two distinct interpretations of the presentations that emerged. Throughout the conference, many librarians felt many of the speakers weren’t as insightful as they’d hoped, lacking an understanding of the real issues. Whereas particular Councillors and Senior Executives were nodding enthusiastically when informally discussing over lunch that the declining library usage would rightly justify library closures. There appears to be a distinct difference in vision for the future of libraries between librarians and those elsewhere, begging the question, do we need to engage internally before externally? Should my assumption be correct, librarians have no option but to fail if half of the team has already given up…

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

PLA 2009 – Day 1

The view from the back of the room: Roy Clare, Kate Davenport... on TwitpicI 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.