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Do libraries have a future?

Panlibus Magazine article by Alan Gibbons (Issue 20)

Rarely have British libraries faced greater challenges. It is fashionable to call the presence of multiple problems a perfect storm. It is an apt, if overused, metaphor for the predicament in which libraries and librarians find themselves. Within living memory the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act appeared to guarantee their future as a free, universal service. It ushered in a period commonly known as the ‘golden age’ of libraries. The sixties saw spending grow by half and staffing by 40%. Though school libraries and school library services did not come under the aegis of the Act, they too tended to flourish in its wake.

The first major challenge to this apparent progress came with the public spending cuts of the eighties. By the late nineties many observers, including a DCMS report, were talking about a ‘service in crisis.’ A period of retrenchment was underway. Under the Tory and Labour governments of the era some branch libraries were closed and the number of professional librarians fell. Opening hours and book stocks were invariably a soft target for council savings. The weeds were beginning to appear in the garden but, with the onset of the great economic crash of 2008, the malignant growths have multiplied and threaten to choke the flowers to death.

The greatest threat came from last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review which set councils a target of cutting their budgets by 28% over four years, an unheard of reduction. New technology added a second challenge. Libraries had begun to meet it with some confidence, but as usual there were philistines getting out their spades to bury the institution because ‘everything is going digital’, even though libraries were demonstrating in practice that it was possible to manage the older and newer reading technologies quite successfully. The third element of the perfect storm was what a recent parliamentary committee called ‘woeful’ leadership.

Those choking weeds are now bearing a poisonous fruit. The new government has pushed libraries to the front of the queue for cuts, which have been ‘frontloaded’ as managerial speak so wretchedly puts it. In areas such as Oxfordshire, Doncaster, Barnet, Suffolk, Somerset, North Yorkshire and Gloucestershire half or more of the branch network could lose funding. The Isle of Wight would be left with just two libraries. Book funds are being slashed, by 75% in the case of Nottinghamshire. Staffing is being cut. The government believes that volunteers and Big Society providers can fill the vacuum left behind, but taking over a library is not just a matter of getting a few friends together as Jim Brooks, Chairman of the Friends of Little Chalfont Community Library, in Buckinghamshire explains in an interesting article here:

In 2009 the then shadow Culture Minister Ed Vaizey berated Andy Burnham for not halting Wirral’s plan to close eleven libraries in these terms:

“Andy Burnham’s refusal to take action in the Wirral effectively renders the 1964 Public Libraries Act meaningless. While it is local authorities’ responsibility to provide libraries, the Act very clearly lays responsibility for ensuring a good service at the culture secretary’s door. If Andy Burnham is not prepared to intervene when library provision is slashed in a local authority such as the Wirral, it is clear that he is ignoring his responsibilities as secretary of state, which in the process renders any sense of libraries being a statutory requirement for local authorities meaningless.”

Andy Burnham eventually changed his mind about Wirral, saving the libraries. Unfortunately, Ed Vaizey also proved capable of changing his mind. There are now many Wirrals. At the time of writing 375 libraries are under threat. It is not just the public library service that is feeling the swish of the grim reaper’s scythe. School libraries have closed and so have School Library Services. All three arms of the British library structure are facing something of a crisis.

I first became aware of the gathering storm in July, 2008 when I was invited to address a protest meeting in Doncaster, organized by the local Save Our Libraries group. The council was cutting 32 jobs, 35% of the book budget and making £600,000 of savings. The director pushing through the measures justified them by saying: “People can buy all the books they need at Tesco.” It was a sign of things to come. Along with Michael Rosen, Philip Pullman, Melvin Burgess, Robert Swindells and many more authors I protested to Mayor Winter about the proposals. Within months the Meadows School in Chesterfield made librarian Clare Broadbelt redundant and closed the library. I organized a second round of author protests and the Campaign for the Book was born.

In December we faced our first huge test, one that united the book world in its indignation at the new era of philistinism. Wirral council on Merseyside, a Labour/Lib Dem administration was planning to close eleven of its libraries with very little consultation and with no clear strategy for the future of its library service. There were protests from Cilip, the trade unions, authors and library users. A 1,000 strong march wound its way through Birkenhead. I wrote an Open Letter to Culture Minister Andy Burnham on February 11th. On the 21st he said he was ‘not minded’ to review the Wirral cuts.

The broad coalition of opposition to the closures refused to lie down. A local solicitor sought a judicial review. Still the Department of Culture, Media and Sport was unmoved. On March 27th Junior Minister Barbara Follett repeated the mantra that the DCMS was ‘not minded’ to step in. We resorted to the tactic of appealing under the 1964 Act. By April 4th Andy Burnham was the first Minister since 1991 to intervene. He commissioned a report by Sue Charteris and the eleven libraries won a reprieve. Around the same time campaigners were successful in keeping open Old Town library in Swindon. We had won a significant victory that we celebrated at a Campaign for the Book conference in 2009 in Birmingham. Everybody had played a part, the Library Campaign, ourselves, the trade unions, Cilip and the local people in the Wirral where there were huge protests.

There were other elements of progress. Representatives of Cilip, the SLG, YLG, the Campaign for the Book and the School Library Association met to press the case for statutory school libraries. The School Libraries Commission chaired by Baroness Morris highlighted the worth of the school library. Sadly, the fallout from the banking crash overshadowed every forward step we took. Campaigners had demonstrated a new vigour in raising the profile of libraries. We had won a victory in the Wirral. The next time around however we would be fighting many such battles simultaneously.

This is the context. There is another sub-text however. Never has a coordinated and integrated library service been more relevant and necessary. This year’s PISA survey has placed the UK in 25th place in international comparisons of reading standards. Ten years ago we were in seventh place! The report’s authors identified the lack of reading for pleasure among teenagers as a major factor in our relative decline. In other words, at the very moment the case for reading and libraries is becoming more urgent, the political class is driving ever more disproportionate and damaging cuts. Figures such as Desmond Clarke and Tim Coates are pointing at issues such as overheads as important in any discussion of alternatives to closure.

The government continues to pursue its cost-cutting measures at a breakneck pace. The ‘bonfire of the quangoes’ has already done for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, transferring its powers to Arts Council England. It has rejected the case for statutory school libraries. Enthusiasts for libraries are refusing to go quietly into that good night however. At the time of writing activists in several areas are planning legal challenges under the 1964 Act. Others are organizing protests, petitions and Read Ins. Thee is even a call for a national inquiry into the programme of closures. The last Open Letter against library closures had well over 1,000 signatories including the likes of Lee Childs, Carol Ann Duffy, Bonnie Greer, Terry Jones and Michael Holroyd. Never have the pressures been greater, but never have advocates of books and libraries been more resourceful, imaginative, determined and successful in arguing their case in the media and out in the community. How this situation pans out will determine the quality of reading and information services in the UK for many years to come.

Alan Gibbons is an author and organizer of the Campaign for the Book. His blog acts as a forum for library campaigners and book lovers.

Panlibus Magazine Issue 19 now available online

Issue 19 of Panlibus Magazine is now available online. This issue, Panlibus explores what Openness means to Universities today with Open Nottingham. John Dolan, consultant and CILIP Trustee, looks at the challenges and future of public libraries; whilst Paul Williams of the University of Worcester talks us through the building of the Worcester Library and History Centre.

You can subscribe to Panlibus for free and read previous issues too.

Linked Data and Libraries – videos published

The Linked Data and Libraries event held at the British Library last month was a very successful event attended by many interested in the impact and possibilities of these new techniques and technologies for libraries.

Many travelled from the far corners of the UK and Europe, but from the several emails I received it was clear that many others could not make it.  To that end we took along the technology to capture as much of the event as possible.

The videos have now been edited and published on our sister blog, Nodalities, where you will also find links to the associated presentation slides.  I can highly recommend these as an introduction to the topic and an overview of the thinking and activities in this area from such as the British Library and Europeana.

Linking the data dots …

Something-else I joined the world of libraries some twenty years ago and was immediately impressed with the implicit mission to share, the knowledge and information that libraries look after, with all for the benefit of mankind.  Being part of an organisation that was built out of a desire for libraries to share the data that backs up that knowledge, I was surprised how insular and protectionist with that data this world can be.  Some of the reasons behind this were technological.  Anyone who played with Z39.50 and other similar, so called, standards before the century turned will relate you war stories about the joys of sharing data.  Then along came the web [I know it started in the mid 1990s, but it really came along post the .com boom] and things started to get much easier, from a technology point of view anyway.

So why do libraries make it so difficult to share the data that they hold.  This isn’t the stuff that they hold – that is a whole other can of worms.  This is the data about the stuff they hold. The data that helps mankind find what mankind can benefit from.  I know we have a lot of history to get over, but the commercial world recognised ages ago that if you share information about what you have and what you do, people find what they are looking for and you get more business.

However, negatively ranting on about the insular outlook of some in library land, was not my purpose in writing this post.  You may know that I, and Talis, are involved in the emerging world of Linked Data.  Over recent months I have found myself immersed in other parallel universes such as National and Local Government, newspapers,  broadcast media, and finance systems.  It therefore was a great pleasure, to find my self organising a Linked Data and Libraries event at the British Library last week.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of a Web of Data, complementing the current web of documents, utilising a collection of standards and techniques known as Linked Data, is all about sharing and linking data across organisations and sectors for the benefit of mankind – sound familiar?.

It was very refreshing to see the amount of interest this day attracted.  As you will see from the presentations from the day, made available via our sister Nodalities blog, there are many libraries and library organisations actively engaged with this.   Several, such as The German National Library, have released traditional (sourced from Marc records) bibliographic data in a Linked Data form using RDF.  Others, such as VIAF hosted by OCLC and the Library of Congress Authorities are providing RDF as one of the formats openly available from their service.  The Bibliothèque nationale de France is in the process of inviting tenders for an entire new system to open up their data and holdings as Linked Data.

It is fair to say that most of these initiatives are coming from National, International,large and cooperative libraries, but the interest is already trickling down to smaller libraries especially in the academic sector.  It is also fair to say that most who are engaged in thinking about Linked Data and libraries, take on board Sir Tim’s point about many of the benefits coming from the linking of data between sectors – libraries and science and government and the media and commerce and education and leisure and…

So despite my frustrations about the library world, still very evident in some circles, I am becoming more positive about libraries being able to fulfil their mankind benefiting mission as the web of data emerges.  The changing of influential attitudes, and the move to different underlying data formats, may help us leave behind some emotional and legal baggage.

Anyone who has followed us for a while will know that we have been banging on about, and implementing, semantic web and linked data techniques and technologies for many years.  It is great when others start to ‘get it’ and you stop having to be one of a few voices in the wilderness.  These changes will not happen to all libraries over night, but it is nice to swap frustration at the lack of vision and ambition for frustration at a lack of progress – something I think I was born with.

Will Linked Data mean an early end for Marc & RDA

For the uninitiated, NGC4LIB is a library focused mailing list which has a reputation for often engaging in massive discussions and disagreements around the minutiae of future cataloguing and library focused metadata practices.  They have recently been involved in one of these great debates stimulated by the comments of Sir Tim Berners-Lee in a recent interview.    As is often is the case on this list, the debate wandered well off topic in to the realms of FRBR and it’s alternatives before being brought back on topic by Jim Weinheimer, who started the conversation in the first place.

A statement in Jim’s contribution caught my eye:

Implementing linked data, although it would be great, is years and years away from any kind of practical implementation Implementing linked data is already well underway with many groups across the Globe.  For instance there are couple that we at Talis are closely involved with.  Following on from Sir Tim’s interview comments, the British Government are currently running a, soon to be opened, closed beta of  Through this site they are not only opening up data in many forms such as CSV, like their American cousins at, but they are also starting to encode in RDF and publishing it via the Talis Platform which provides a SPARQL (the query language of the Linked Data web) end point.  This approach not only lets anyone download the raw data, but also enables them to query it for whatever they have in mind. If you want a sneak preview of how such data is queried, take a look at some of theses examples.   In a similar vein, metadata from BBC programmes and music is being harvested in to Talis Platform stores.  Again these are open to anyone to innovate with – check out these screencasts  to see some of the early possibilities.

Ah but that is not bibliographic data, I hear someone cry – It’ll never catch on in libraries.  I get the impression from some comments on the NGC4LIB list, that it will not be possible for ‘our’ data to participate in this Link Data web until ‘we’ have predicted all possible uses for it, analysed them, and developed a metadata standard to cope with every eventuality.   There are already a few examples of the library world engaging with RDF and Linked data, one obvious one being the Library of  Congress with LCSH another the National Library of Sweden.  Neither of these examples are encoding the kind of detail you would expect in a Marc record, they are using ontology to describe associated concepts such as subjects.

There has been some ontology development towards this larger goal with Bibo (Bibliographic Ontology Specification).  Although not there yet, Bibo is good enough to be used in live applications whishing to encode bibliographic data.  Such an example is Talis Aspire.  Underpinned by the same Platform as the UK Government and BBC Linked Data services, it uses the Bibo ontology to describe resources an an academic context

Alongside there is a Google Group conversation taking place. The refreshing part of this conversation is that it is between the producers of the data sets, those developing the way it should be encoded in to RDF, and those who want to consume it.  Several times you will see a difference of opinion between those that want to describe the data to it’s fullest, and those that wish to extract the most value from it. “I agree that is a cleaner way of encoding, but can you imagine how complex the query will be to extract what I want!”.  This approach is not unusual in the Linked Data world, where producers and consumers get together, pragmatically evolving a way forward. is an open place where such pragmatic development and evolution is taking place.  Check out examples of a subset of Open Library data. (note this is an example of data, not a user interface).

Semantic Library _ Mark Twain Another, bibliographic focused, experiment can be found at From some of the example links on the home page, you can see that building in this way enables very different ways of exploring metadata.  People, subjects, publishers, works, editions, series, all being equally valid starting points to explore from.

Doth the bell toll for Marc and RDA?
Not for a long old time – Ontology like Bibo, and the results of work at and, may well lead to more open useful, and most importantly linked, access to data previously limited to library search interfaces.  That data has to come from somewhere though, and the massive global network of libraries encoding their data using Marc ,and maybe soon RDA, are ideally placed to continue producing rich bibliographic metadata.  Metadata to be fed in to Linked Data web in the most appropriate form for that purpose.  There will continue to be a place for current cataloguing practices and processes for a significant period -supporting and enabling the bibliographic part of the Linked Data web, not being replaced by it.

No doubt the NGC4LIB conversation on this topic will continue. Regardless of how it progresses, there is a current need and desire for bibliographic data in the linked data web.  The people behind that desire, and the innovation to satisfy it, may well have come up with a satisfactory solution, for them, whilst we are still talking.

What makes a good library service? New guidelines issued by CILIP

CILIP logoAt the PLA 2009 conference last week, Bob McKee, Chief Executive of CILIP, proudly presented a new set of guidelines as to what makes a good library service. In comparison to the traditional bulky, text heavy and complex use of language presented in traditional library guidelines, this A5 pamphlet could easily be overlooked as an advert or flyer rather than library guidelines. However, this is not to be perceived as a bad thing. The concise manner in which it is presented leaves no room for hot air and leaves it do exactly what it says on the tin: guide.

The guidelines urge the library service to be:

“Continually refreshed and improved to respond to the adapting needs of local communities”


“Library buildings, equipment and ICT facilities should be well-designed and kept up-to-date.”

The ten questions to ‘test’ whether your library service is up to standard, highlight many benchmarks which could only ensure a good service is being achieved. The one which caught my eye in particular, was point four.

“Does your library service provide what local people expect in terms of location, accessibility, materials, resources, staffing and activities?”

There is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to turning around the current perception of the library service; each should not be a clone of another. Whilst sharing best practise has a valuable role to play, we must engage with those around us ensure the local library service is engaging, and as odd as it may seem, local.

Download the guidelines here.

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 – 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 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.