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.