Wednesday, 21 March 2018

But me no buts, Bernard. Shakespeare.

I finally got round to putting in a FOI request to Oxfordshire County Council to get the CIPFA returns and the book issues for the period since 21 of the libraries were designated non-statutory. I've not contacted any of the friends groups but I know from people who are actually friends and from some media reports that in some cases, rather than lose the staffing hours the council were cutting, some parish councils stepped in with cash, like in Bampton where they film a TV show about posh people in the old days that I believe is very popular. But I don't have any detail on what each of the friends groups are doing to try and mitigate the loss of funding. On the whole, just looking at the static libraries (excluding the central library which has been shut for a while and only recently reopened), the picture is pretty grim. Book issues down 25% in the period between 2011/12 and 2016/17 for the statutory libraries. But for the non-statutory it's even worse, they have decreased by 34%. When the publishing industry is having record years for sales of physical books and the sales of e-books flattening out, you'd think libraries would be having a second wind, but in Oxfordshire, clearly not. Is it poor marketing, poor book choice, poor buildings? I honestly don't know, but something isn't right. I do also have the CIPFA returns for the period and will look into that data further and see if there are any conclusions we can draw from them.

The FOI data is here and here

Monday, 15 January 2018


I don't know, I was expecting more/better for some reason. The data is lacking any unique identifiers and the quality of the data doesn't seems patchy. I presume some library authorities didn't return all the fields. I hope they do continue though, the only way to get the true picture of what's happening is to track over time the numbers on the volunteer libraries, staffed hours etc and in a ideal world, book issues for the libraries. But since the taskforce can't compel them to collect or collate this data and the political masters won't want us to see the decline anyway, I expect it won't happen.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Proper Gander

The libraries task force has been almost on a daily basis producing reports and "toolkits" on their blog. There's so many toolkits it's in danger of turning into a giant swiss army knife. I've no idea how useful any of these toolkits are, there's lots of research but it all seems to be to be lacking in any academic rigour. There seems to be no real hard data or proper trials of approaches. The various library authorities all seem to be making it up as they go along and the taskforce is trying to pull all of these approaches together. But where is the hard data on what's working and what isn't?  I know the obsession at the minute is with all things shiny shiny, but I expect if you asked most users what they want from a library, it would still be the humble old paper book as the main thing. Which brings me to my main frustration with what the task force isn't doing. The latest report on "Exploring the service effectiveness and sustainability of community managed libraries in England" I was hoping would have some stuff in it showing what happens to book issues when libraries become "Community libraries" (whatever that means). There is plenty of good stuff in there (its here), don't get me wrong. But frustratingly, book issues wasn't really part of the study. I stuck a email into the author of the report Lee Richard, who seems a very nice chap and he very kindly gave me permission to put up his reply to my question:

"Many thanks for getting in touch, and I’m glad you found the report interesting.  In response to your query, the reason why we did not look into the metric of book loans in more detail was due to the limitations of the information that community libraries were able to provide to us and the variability in the systems that are being used across different community library/statutory library services from across the nine regions of England. For example, some community libraries were using the LMS system, whilst others were not.  Therefore, there was insufficient data to provide any meaningful comparison of this metric between different community managed library models.  In addition the focus of the research was engaging with the community libraries themselves, so researching this metric in detail with the local authority library service (where applicable and where more data may have been held) fell outside of the scope of the research we were commissioned to provide.

However, we did complete some research with library users (from the 9 case studies within the report), as per the 87% figure you quoted, to provide some context as to the reasons why people visit community libraries and to illustrate the breadth of the services people are now accessing outside of what may be considered ‘traditional’ library services, i.e. to illustrate how community managed libraries are developing their services.  Clearly, from the user survey, book loans are still a key part of the service community libraries provide but we wanted to explore how community managed libraries are diversifying into different community based services to ensure their sustainability for the future, and given the general decline in the availability of public funding.  Therefore there was more focus in the research to look at how effective they are in achieving this and what support they may need to continue to develop.

I hope this answers your query."

Which I can understand the reasoning why comparing the book issues didn't happen. I know not all community libraries have access to the LMS or self service. What I find the most frustrating though, is that there is lots of library authorities that do or the community libraries have a self service machine for issuing the books. This data exists within the library sector, there are senior librarians that know what happens to book issues when libraries are handed over but unless it's good news, it's not the sort of thing that ends up in a press release and into the excellent public library news.  Considering the subject matter of what libraries are, the ethics and ethos of what librarianship is (I'm not a expert here by the way) why isn't there some honestly from the sector on what is happening? This data belongs to all of us to see what is happening. I can think of no more important metric of the success of a library that book issues. Visits is wooly, collected using different methods, at different times, there's all sorts of variables that could mean you're never comparing like with like. But book issues should be a consistent and easy thing to measure and compare. A few years ago I went to meet the volunteers running Walcot library in Swindon. I Foi'ed their data and the issues after it was handed over to volunteers fell off a cliff. You can read the full thing here.

This is what happened to the book issues:

The other Swindon libraries didn't have this level of decrease in issues. Are all the other libraries in the England handed over to volunteers having a similar decrease in issues? Somebody knows, but they're not saying. The civil servants and the DCMS need to temper their EVERYTHING IS AWESOME approach to libraries and try and utilize the data they and the library authorities have on the sector so we can see what is really going on with community libraries, then when other councils consider their approach to cuts, they will have a better idea beforehand what sort of impart going down certain routes will have on book issues. I suspect they already know, but the political direction of travel is clearly to keep going down this route, the taskforce should try and be less political and pull this data together and actually publish it so we can how successful these community libraries really are. I'll probably end up doing a FOI to find out myself, but really though. 

The final quick point I wanted to touch on with the task force is how it's still not got any representation on it from library users. There's plenty of people on there from various organisations, but the humble user who pays for all this stuff doesn't get a seat at the table or even to watch proceedings. I have asked a few times but we're not allowed. They should have someone on there from a libraries group where things aren't great or the library campaign to inject a little bit of real talk into their deliberations because everything isn't awesome, and to pretend otherwise does all of us a disservice. 

Monday, 23 January 2017

Two kinds of chairs to go with two kinds of minister

I can't get my head round some of the stuff the new minister is saying. While any change from Lazy Vaizey was welcome, some of the stuff the new guy Rob Wilson is coming out with I find disturbing. His twitter account is a constant stream of tweets and retweets for charities and volunteer groups, which considering his role (minister for civil society) is to be expected. It's clear the new world for libraries is mutuals, volunteers, trusts etc. Anything but councils running libraries. The problem with this is when you want to run something efficiently, you know, that bit of comprehensive and efficient. Then you have to have strong process, do things in a standard way so you can report and measure things correctly and a staff culture fully signed on to get the things right. The minister, DCMS and senior leadership of the sector seem to obsessed with innovating and reinventing the wheel and fixated with whatever this weeks technical fad is or new exciting, but unproven method of delivery is. There's so much jargon (STOP SAYING COMMUNITY HUBS).  There's a line in The Thick of It that always springs to mind: "Unthink the unthinkable. You can't even cope with thinking the thinkable." I can't find a GIF with this quote but here's Malcolm anyway:
I supposed this may be partly my frustration over the library service getting ripped apart and the focus is on the wrong things.  There's too many library authorities duplicating back office functions in councils at great expense but the focus is on everything but that. Cutting funding and letting everyone making it up as they go along isn't innovation and it isn't localism, its just stupid. Which leads me back to the minister. In some areas he talks a good game but its not backed up by fact. For example, to the latest of what seems endless conferences he gave a speech via video link with this section:

  "If so, then changes - such as co-location with other services or sometimes closures may be actually justified, and indeed required, in favour of providing library services in other ways; maybe through outreach into communities or online. But, and I want to make this absolutely clear, councils should make decisions like this based on robust evidence - rather than reducing provision in ad-hoc or very reactive ways."

 Which sounds great, but when you compare this with something from government written on behalf of his department about library provision and mutuals:

 "Hard, up-to-date empirical data comparing success rates is pretty scant" 

 So councils have to come up with robust evidence for making changes to their services, but the government despite there being no data to support the model, can push mutuals as their favoured delivery model? Grrr
I'm also finding the relentless positivity annoying from the libraries task force. How can fix the problems without being honest about how things are. All the posts (apart from Leon's) are super positive and everything is awesome. How about we try and learn from failure as well as success? Also where's the new dataset that was due last year? Maybe Rob Wilson will actually intervene and finally start holding councils to account who cut library services unnecessarily, I doubt he will, but I'd be more than happy to be proved wrong.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

UK library data in PowerBI

Having had to put up with those god awful cipfa returns in FOI requests, sometimes as PDF's scanned in from horrible, blurry black and white print outs. I'm looking forward to whatever this data is that the libraries task force is going to put into the public domain. I'm a big believer that all data paid for by the public purse, should be available to the public as a matter of course, rather than having to put in FOI requests. And ideally the data should be as current as possible. Hopefully the data will have issues, visits, costs etc and also the number of libraries and if the library is statutory or not and some sort of time element on the datasets to trends can be shown. Having not being involved in this I've no idea what this data will contain.

Where I work, we've recently gone over to Office 365, and as part of this we got a new bit of BI (business intelligence) software from Microsoft called PowerBI. I don't work for Microsoft or have any friends or links to the company. I much prefer doing most of the BI work at the database level as the thing I'm most experience in is writing T-SQL statements for stored procedures and functions etc. If you know how to write t-sql well, you can throw data about much easier and in much more complex ways than you can in excel/access etc. The front end to all this of course has to be some sort of BI software to expose this data to the users. Down the years I've used: Excel, Access, Crystal Reports, Cognos, Business Objects and SQL Server Reporting Services. PowerBI as a tool, both for ease of use and the things you can do is so much stronger in my view than all the other stuff. You can configure more with some of the others, there's not a lot of tweaking you can do but the software is only a year old and they're adding new features every month.

Below is something I've thrown together from some very old libraries data that contains nothing in the way of measures other than the number of libraries per authority:

Nearly all of the visualisation in PowerBI can act as filters (or not) on the other visualizations within the report. This means on one page, you can click on a category on a bar chart and the data everywhere else on the page can be filtered. There's also slicers (the library authority names at the top of page four) which act as filter buttons, you can select one or many (ctrl + left click) and these will filter the data down as well. The example above isn't that great, because the data isn't great. There's a lot more you can do with this software, there's a library of user created custom visuals: and other examples online showing the sort of stuff you can do. It can take data from flat files, excel and most types of other database/datasource. There is a free version and a paid for version, if you use office 365 at work, you probably have access to the free version already. I've offered already to the task force to do some stuff with their data already, I'll probably want to do something with it myself even if they decide to use something else. Its important that we use this data to hold those to account who are failing to provide us with a proper library service.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

A load of old cobblers, Minister.

"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." - Ed Vaizey 2009

Vaizey was the best shadow minister for libraries, but the worst minister for libraries. The massive hypocrisy of his words after what he said in opposition, sat on his backside doing nothing in office while the library service was dismembered will be his legacy. His record of non-intervention during a time of massive cuts to the sector speak for themselves. He bottled the debate with Alan Gibbons and wouldn't speak to users or campaigners. Preferring to only interact with those who had nothing but praise for his ineptitude. 

It took a while and a name changing fiasco, but the leadership of CILIP saw the light and started to actually challenging his record while in office, but sadly the SCL ("advocates for continuous improvement of the public library service on behalf of local people") still seem to see it as their job to ignore Ed's hypocrisy and bizarre policy of non-intervention and claim Ed was a "champion" of libraries.

I mean honestly. The SCL seem as deluded or duplicitous as the former minister himself. I know they've done a lot of good work on the universal offers, but how can they be advocates of users when they allow politicians to get away with not doing their jobs. I know they claim they have to be impartial and can't criticise government or ministers (doesn't stop the LGA or CILIP or any other body) and if that was the real reason, they should also stop blowing smoke up the backside of the minister who has so obviously failed the people they claim to represent.

The new minister Matthew Hancock I know little about, I'm not a fan of the PPE/SPAD type of MP, but he does seem to have a bit of experience outside of politics. Hopefully with his economics background, he'll understand that money spent on public library provision gives a great return on a small investment for the nation. I'm sure he can't be worse than his predecessor and I'm certain that whatever he does or doesn't do, the SCL will think he's a champion.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Difficult, like asking which lunatic should run the asylum.

I emailed Oxfordshire county council how they believe they can still be providing a service that meets the requirements of the act by having no mobile libraries and also asked if they're investigating joint working with other authorities to try and save money on the huge back office costs. The portfolio holder Cllr Lorraine Lindsay-Gale responded: 
The decision to cease the Mobile Library Service whilst it is something the Council regrets does not impact upon our responsibilities under the 1964 Act.  Comprehensive has been taken to mean delivering a service accessible to all residents using reasonable means and an efficient service must make the best use of the assets available in order to meet core objectives whilst recognising that there are constraints on council resources.  Whilst regretting the closure of the service,  the council feels that it can offer those service users affected by the withdrawal of the service alternative library provision using other reasonable means.  This includes access to a Home Library Service, our branch network of 43 libraries and digital technology. 
Any further  proposals that might emerge in the future would of course be consulted upon and we will ensure that we continue to meet our statutory duty. Clearly the future structure of Local Government and opportunities for partnership are very much part of current thinking and planning.

They've clearly taken the guidance published by the DCMS here  The phrase highlighted is almost word for word taken from the government guidance. There is nothing in the original act that defines what is "reasonable" or that talks about constraints on funding being as a factor on what is comprehensive and efficient for all. The rural city divide on service provision is only going to increase further with the end to mobile libraries, compounded by the cuts to bus subsidies.  Since the county council is run by the tory group with a handful of complicit independents, you would have thought the tories would be doing more to shore up support in their rural divisions.

Slightly off topic, with the tories nationally forcing all schools to become academies, abolishing local authority control and David Cameron wanting to see Oxfordshire County Council abolished and replaced with smaller unitary authorities, then perhaps time is up for OCC and slashing libraries doesn't matter as most of the councillors will be losing their "allowances" soon. Certainly Dave has no qualms in wading in to decide policy on local matters where he has no electoral business doing so, and I suspect when the local government minister Greg Clark makes his decision on Oxfordshire, it won't be contradicting what Dave has already stated as his preferred option.

Despite hating all the political parties equally, its hard to ignore what a massive mess the tories are intent on making of things in local government, schools and the NHS. They are mostly a continuation of failed policies from Labours last stint in government, but with added ideological zeal. I'm sure there'll be plenty work for the consultants and blue sky bullshitters while the services are slashed.