Sunday, 7 April 2013

We will economise on the beaches

The minister, the SCL, ACE, the LGA , Locality all seem to think the way forward to save libraries in these difficult times is to hand them over to the willing arms of the “big society” Little Chalfont and a few other libraries have made a success of running a library themselves and this has been extrapolated into a massive wholesale push by local authorities to rid themselves of their smaller branch and rural libraries as if Chalfont can do it then it’ll work everywhere. Because we are only a few years into this massive experiment with the library service there is no body of evidence to suggest it does work. Before I go any further, I need to make clear this isn’t an attack on those who, when backed into a corner have, rather than let their library be closed have stepped up to prevent the libraries closure. I have nothing but admiration for those people. Chalfont have been lucky, it’s a very affluent area and they have been very successful raising thousands of pounds from the community and have access to a large pool of well educated, retired volunteers. I haven’t seen their issues stats and I don’t even know if the library is still considered statutory by Bucks CC anymore but their success has meant that the ideologues in government, both local and national, the quango’s, locality and various others are falling over themselves pushing the volunteers as a way of saving money in the library service.

Anyone how has looked at the CIPFA data can see that cutting the low paid library assistants and managers in small branch libraries saves little money. But how much damage does can it cause to a local library?

In Oxfordshire, they have declared after using some rather dodgy data analysis that 21 of the mainly rural libraries are no longer statutory and the libraries will be run by the community with limited staffing, a self-service machine and telephone support from other libraries that haven’t been cut.
I recently went to Walcot library recently to see them with Shirley Burnham, this library was threatened with closure and in 2009 and a group of volunteers stepped up to prevent it closing down by merging it with a charity shop. The hours were reduced, self-service installed, half the library space was turned into a charity shop and they get staffing support and access to another library on the phone who can deal with queries.

The two volunteers I met spoke of how they hoped there actions were a safety net, it was better than no library and they hoped that once the economy recovered the authority would support the library properly again. It’s a very deprived area and has massive issues with literacy, they spoke of children who cannot be read to by their parents as the parents are illiterate. This is in 2013 in one of the richest countries in the world.

I FOI’ed both the CIPFA returns for Swindon and also the issues data for the individual libraries. There hasn’t been much change in the staffing numbers in Swindon library since 08/09, they have obviously shifted the staff around to increase the staffing in some libraries. Since Walcot library was handed over to volunteers however the book issues have fallen off a cliff, going from 13,830 to 3,790 and declined every year since:

Since the library was given over to the volunteers on in April 2009 the issues have dropped by 87% this is a library in a deprived area, I’m amazed they were allowed to do it considering the findings of the Charteris report. It also doesn’t bode well for other libraries that are currently being forced down this route.  How many will be Chalfonts and how many will be Walcots? Ironically, the library still gets about 10 hours staffing help, but this is admin and to sort out the book shelves, there are probably more hours to add to this total with the support from neighbouring libraries, this is again almost the same as what the cut libraries in Oxfordshire will end up with.  Support is one thing but its the volunteers that run the library/charity shop in Swindon. 

I applaud the volunteers for keeping their library alive, I condemn Swindon Borough Council for killing it.

I contacted the former councillor Peter Mallinson who along with other volunteers saved the library for his views, it’s my belief that libraries need library managers and assistants, he is responding to view on this being one of the main causes of the library issues decline:

“Dear Mr Craig,

I disagree totally with your interpretation of the data, not having paid library staff is not the problem.

You have not taken into account the very large reduction in books and space occupied by the library since we took over.  It is considerably less than half in floor area and the display of book is very small.  Have you also checked the hours of opening.  Looking at the table you provide it shows that the largest fall in books (2439) was in the year 2008/2009.  Since the volunteers took over with the reduced library the total fall in books is 1900 and that is for four years, 2009/2012.  When you compare the old and the new library systems, you are not comparing like with like.

How do you equate having two paid members of staff with an increase in use under these conditions.  If local people wanted books they would not be slow in telling us. 

The whole of Sussex Square (the shops) has suffered a lot of closures.  People are not using the square like they use to in fact there are now only four shops left.  Even the pub has gone.

Times are changing and the library staff must try to move with the times.  What we offer is what people want and they don’t want books. 

I do not agree with you that “libraries should be staffed and supported by the council rather than volunteers”, libraries should provide what people want and that is I.T.not books.  We have enough libraries full of books and paid staff in Parks and the Town Centre to satisfy those local people who want to borrow books, we do not need any more.

I think your interpretation of the data could be seen to show that there is no longer a requirement for a library in Walcot apart from the I.T. section.

What I intend to do now is to speak to the Leader of the Council and his Cabinet to see if we could increase I.T. and reduce or remove most of the books.

Sorry if I sound a bit brutal but this needs sorting out.



Mr Mallinson and I have differing views on the need professional staff nor do we share views that people no longer want to borrow books and an Internet cafĂ©/charity shop will suffice, other libraries in Swindon have increased their issues over the period.  There is a formula that works in some of Swindon’s libraries they have proved that, they just have to identify what works, fund it and replicate it in the other libraries, not give the libraries to volunteers who do a amazing job but it inevitable leads to a loss of issues. If we are to get out of this economic mess, without being a nation rich in natural resource, the minds of our citizens are key and to quote the OECD yet again:

“reading for pleasure was a more important indicator of future success than any socio-economic factors.”

Walcot is an area with multi-generational unemployment and poverty, just like where I grew up. Libraries helped me break out of that cycle, how is the cycle to be broken there without educated, well read citizens?

 Here are the links to the data:

The issues data:

The CIPFA returns:

12:25 Further to the above, more of the email exchange, starting with my reply to the above and then his response:

"Dear Mr Mallinson,

I will certainly add the points you raise to the post I'm writing, the issues about the book stock and space the library actually has and the decline of Sussex square as other reasons for the issues decreasing. It is still my belief that have paid library managers and assistants can help maintain and drive up the issues in libraries, John Lewis is bucking the trend in retail and one of the main reasons for that is staff knowledgeable on the products and good customer service, some of the libraries in Swindon have had their hours increased but without staff present just the self service machine and this hasn't increased the issues. You may disagree with my point but its my opinion. I think the fact that some of the libraries in Swindon are increasing their issues does show that people still want to read paper books. You said yourself there are problems with literacy in Walcot and I fail to see how having a internet cafe and charity shop rather than a library would address this.

As I think I said when I met you, I grew up in a area of Sunderland that is very similar to Walcot. My education was patchy and without access to the local library I would not have been able to drag myself out of the unemployment and deprivation that still exist in Sunderland. Its to be applauded that you have managed to keep a library going in difficult circumstances, I thought you had said it was a safety net and hoped that the council would support it again once the economy picked up?

I think you should consider very carefully before you make arbitrary decision to remove books from the library, have you consulted the community it serves, the council who I would imagine still provide some funding the building and in staffing support and your fellow volunteers? You are clearly well connected to the party running the council but does that give you the authority to make sure big decisions alone?

I will add your email in full to the post I'm writing, I want to make sure your views are fully reflected and not distorted by selectively quoting you, don't feel obliged to enter into lengthy correspondence over this, I don't wish to impose upon your time too much and I appreciate the time you have taken to respond. I wish Walcot every success and I hope the council comes to it senses and staffs and promotes a library in a area where one is clearly needed, again as I think I mentioned when we met:

OECD research has proved that “reading for pleasure was a more important indicator of future success than any socio-economic factors.”

Which I think shows it is vital for a community to have access to a good library that promotes reading to the area it serves, the key to our economic recovery as a nation is through the minds of our citizens after all.

With best wishes,

Trevor Craig"

And Mr Mallisons response:

"Dear Trevor,

Thanks for your reply.

It is and always will be my intention to maintain the status quo until the planned redevelopment of the square takes place, however you have put forward a compelling argument of under use of book lending in Walcot.  You have done so without balancing the probabilities of why this is happening.  It may be partly because of no paid staff being present at all times, it may be because of reduction in space, it may be because local people do not want it or it could be any other factors.

You talk about John Lewis and good customer service, I think you can rest assured that all our volunteers give excellent service in all parts of the shop and library.  It is a fallacy to say that paid staff would make a difference or do better.

To give some idea of what people want I will run a mini survey in the shop and library to ask people what they would like.  The alternatives to put to them could be;
More/Less books
More/Less I.T.
Less shop facilities
No tea or coffee facilities
Paid staff instead of volunteers
Longer opening hours for library
We can put the forms out for people to take and fill in anonymously, it could run for a couple of weeks to see what the uptake is like.

I resent your remarks about  “You are clearly well connected to the party running the council but does that give you the authority to make sure big decisions alone?”,  I do not make any decisions, all decisions are made by the trustees of the charity.  You can contact the council as easily as I can, they will listen to you in the same way that they listen to me.

My final point is this, we have many libraries in Swindon, some larger than others.  They all perform a useful function in the communities they serve. To use raw data as a comparison of how well these libraries are functioning is not the correct use of that data.  There are many factors that come into play and this data you are using does not address all of them.

We are now in our fourth year of running something that is a success, has won two pride of Swindon Awards and will be very much missed by the local people if it was taken away.  All this is regardless of the number of books borrowed.


1 comment:

  1. Oxfordshire CC saying that the 21 of its smaller libraries are no longer part of the statutory public library service is surely a worry. How long before the Council ceases all support for the smaller libraries arguing that OCC already provides a statutory library service and further spending on libraries can't be justified in difficult times. I'm surprised residents / councillors allow the Cabinet/Chief Librarian to get away such a policy.