What to say? We can’t even look after our own libraries!

I was pleased to be asked to speak about my MSc dissertation at the New Professionals event being held at University of the West of England tomorrow evening. My MSc dissertation was about libraries and international development. It investigates the role libraries and librarians have to play in furthering international development. I won’t bore you with all the details of my findings here in this post but you can have a read of the dissertation if you are interested as I have published it on my blog.

I am writing this post as I am rather surprised to be totally stumped regarding what I am going to say about my dissertation in the talk. I have been invited to speak about it at several events in the past and have never encountered this problem.

When I undertook the research for the dissertation in 2008, although it was only a few years ago, things were very different. It was just when the economic crash was happening. The fallout and impact of which I never could have imagined.

As I was writing up the findings of my research I started to feel the tremors of what was to come. This was largely instigated by the publishing of the KPMG report in 2010 which, with no references to support it, advocated the idea that just anyone could run a library (aka Community Libraries).  The discussions I had with people on twitter and with people within the profession about the state of librarianship and the way we are represented (or, more to the point are not!) and the impact this would have on library services in the wake of this report, raised alarm bells.

You will be wondering what this has to do with my dissertation? Well, to summarise my findings

Libraries, whilst in an ideal position to help developing countries to meet their educational targets, increase literacy and challenge poverty, are often being set up by well-meaning charities with no experience of running libraries, stock selection and management, reader development, service evaluation…or the many other essential skills librarians are trained in. As a result these libraries are falling short in their ability to contribute to global priorities for human development. In my conclusion I advocate the employment of librarians by international aid agencies and argue that it is a false economy to set up libraries if they do not meet the needs of the people using them.

So, whilst I was writing up my dissertation, KPMG wrote their report advocating the idea that volunteers with no experience should run our public libraries in the UK. As many who know me will be aware, once I finished my dissertation, this prompted me to Co-found advocacy group Voices for the Library and campaign group Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries.

Since this time tens if not hundreds of our libraries have been handed, or are due to be handed to volunteers to run. Therefore, it seems rather naive of me to stand up in front of librarianship students and new professionals tomorrow to advocate the role of librarians in international development when we cannot even prove our worth in our own country. This makes me very sad and really stumped as to what I really should be saying tomorrow.

If you are wondering why I am so down on the idea of a library being run by noone but a few well-meaning but ill-experienced volunteers then perhaps read my research and consider what we are doing to our libraries here.

Owen Jones wrote a piece for the Independent stating that “Mission, belief and passion have been stripped from politics” and it struck a chord with me as I fear that this is the case for our profession too.

Instead of feeling excited about the important role librarians can play internationally, as I was when I first wrote up my dissertation, it has made me feel rather despairing because we can’t even look after our own libraries.


CILIP and “job substitution” : library staff and service users are left standing alone

I was recently alerted to the fact that CILIP had  stated in the April 2012 edition of UPDATE magazine that “there are around 21,500 volunteers in libraries, each working for an average of just 31 hours per year, doing the equivalent work of 341 full time posts.”

I was keen to get the figures as I think it really demonstrates how a volunteer run or staffed library service is not the most efficient way to go, despite providing unwaged labour.  There were no references in the magazine as to where these figures were from, which is surprising considering it was published by the professional body (but that is another matter), so I did a bit of digging and found they originate from this document: https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9r-dNr4kPL0WGJHcUZMeThEQXc

Having spent a lot of my time campaigning against volunteer run libraries, where skilled library staff are being replaced with volunteers (labeled as “job substitution” in CILIPs report), and arguing the value of properly paid and trained library staff, I was rather alarmed by what I read.  Gary Green’s letter to CILIP regarding this matter highlights the concerns so I will not repeat them here. Please read Gary’s letter before reading further.

CILIP’s response to concerns raised by members about this document are reproduced on the Public Libraries News website.  I think the response did nothing to clarify the situation as it just does not square at all with the changes to CILIP’s volunteer policy.

As Gary’s letter points out, CILIP changed their policy on volunteers in 2010 (although this seems to be news to many) as it was felt to be too rigid. Despite Mark Taylor claiming that “CILIP objects to job substitution” and that they are opposed to volunteer RUN libraries, their policy no longer specifically says they are opposed to “job substitution”. Opposition to volunteer run libraries and opposition to “job substitution” are not one and the same. The fact is that they no longer have a clear stance. Their policy now really does not mean much to me. In my view, it is a woolly keep-every-one-happy-and-possibly-confused policy. It is entirely open to interpretation which is consequently to the detriment of the profession.

Public Library News suggests that CILIP do not want to “dis-communicate” volunteer run libraries (I think he might mean libraries staffed with volunteers as CILIP have said they are against volunteer run libraries), however their weak and vague stance on “job substitution” will dis-communicate their current members who are being made redundant due to the “job substitutions”.

Personally I am totally against “job substitution”. If you need a volunteer to do a job then the post is not redundant, if it is not redundant, do not sack someone then get someone to do it for nothing….only to then spend money training a volunteer when you have placed a trained member of staff on the dole queue. I disagree with the conclusion made by Public Libraries News.  It is not “understandable” for CILIP to be anything other than opposed to ”job substitution”.  For a professional body to take a weak position regarding the replacement of its members by untrained volunteers is totally unacceptable.

I await the response to Gary’s letter with interest and I sincerely hope CILIP do not reply with fluff and politicking. Now is the time for a confident and clear stance that sends a strong message to both the membership and librarians in general.

It concerns me that I have heard some liken the “job substitution” situation to unpaid interns looking for experience in order to get on to the job ladder. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the gravity of the situation. Communities are being told “run your own library or lose it”. Library users who do not want to lose this resource are reluctantly agreeing to do this. This is not a situation where an enthusiastic person wants to get into a career but one in which entire skilled and dedicated workforces are being replaced with volunteers who would rather have a professionally run service with trained staff.

It is also disappointing that CILIP has taken up the mantra “cuts have to be made…great depression.. blah blah blah…so we have to accept volunteer libraries and our members being replaced”. I strongly believe that this is wrong. They should be demonstrating the worth of libraries and librarians not simply rolling over and repeating this rhetoric. CILIP’s current attitude undermines those of us who HAVE been arguing the value of librarians and skilled staff and pointing out that, in times of recession, libraries are needed most.  If the professional body does not have enough faith and balls to stand up and shout this then I am starting to wonder if I should have bothered. As one library campaigner put it:

“It would be peculiar if library users value librarians more than CILIP”

This is how it looks to all of us library users who have been campaigning to retain trained library staff. It has been utterly soul destroying to see that the only people standing up for public librarians are us campaigners and service users, and we are being ignored.

I am not a member of CILIP. It concerns me greatly that none of the CILIP members I have spoken to knew about this discussion or the change in policy and were only alerted to it by my rantings. We are currently experiencing the biggest upheaval of the library service the profession has ever seen, an upheaval which will change the nature of CILIP and its current/potential membership, yet only a very few people seem aware of this. Librarians and library staff need a strong voice now more than they ever have. Currently it feels like no one at all is on our side apart from service users, even at the highest levels. If it still has not quite sunk in yet then I strongly suggest you read this.

Update :

I have since seen a blog post and a letter from two senior members of CILIP on this issue which repeat the mantra “in times such as these…” and “volunteer libraries are better than nothing”. The letter reads,

“CILIP Council members are honestly facing a dilemma about their professional feelings and those of our members and at the same time, the good of a community who may lose all library provision unless volunteers are part of the equation.”

This is beyond disappointing. This “volunteers are better than nothing” line is dangerous, unwise, shortsighted and simplistic. Where is the evidence that what will be left will indeed be better than nothing? It is an untested experiment. The floodgates are being opened. In times like these you have to stand firm because when the damage has been done  there will be no going back. When an inch is given a mile WILL and IS being taken. The attitude that is emerging from CILIP plays straight into the hands of the politicians who are making draconian cuts.

Libraries are an economical and efficient resource. In Gloucestershire, the library service budget used to be (before the massive cuts and libraries were earmarked for volunteers) just 1.4% of the county councils overall budget and had 3 million visits a year (not including online visits!). The draconian cuts will cripple the library service but will save the county council very little. This is an ideological change and not one that is being made due to financial necessity. It is an ideology which, it seems, CILIP is sadly being sucked into.

The letter I refer to above finishes with

“The enemy is ignorance of the value and the importance of library services to a literate, healthy and prosperous society, and that is the enemy that we are trying to combat.”

What I see coming out of CILIP is far from “combating” this ignorance. On the contrary, it is bowing down to, and perpetuating it. Given that our libraries are being downgraded because politicians clearly do not value the library services enough to retain skilled, paid library staff and are replacing them with anyone who wants to have a go….all I can say is “Oh CILIP, with friends like these…..” 😦

I had hoped CILIP would come out and show that I had mis-interpreted the situation.  Senior members of CILIP were once cheering my campaigning on, allbeit behind the scenes. My campaigning which argued volunteer libraries is not the way to go! I don’t think it is too dramatic to say I feel more than a little, um, betrayed, as I am sure will a lot of the library workforce. One of the reasons I left was because I don’t really identify with the organisation anymore. This confirms I made the right decision.

UPDATE 19/06/12

It would appear that CILIP have realised that the letter and blog post referred to above were far from enough to appease concerns and have agreed to review their policy. I await the outcome with interest. It is a shame it came to this and I am left wondering why they ever changed it in the first place…. now if only they would change their “cuts have to be made and volunteer staffed libraries are inevitable” outlook and would concentrate on advocating libraries and the profession instead.

Thank you to everyone who voiced their concerns on this issue. Having seen the reaction on Twitter and the many comments on this and other blog posts I know that a lot of you did. If we don’t speak up in defense of our profession and the service we provide then we can’t complain when others talk us down and see fit to replace us with unpaid and untrained labour.

Update 02/07/2012

In response to the outcry at the watering down their volunteer policy, CILIP have revised their policy.

“We do not believe that volunteers should undertake core service delivery or be asked to replace the specialised roles of staff who work in libraries.”

“CILIP is opposed to job substitution where paid professional and support roles are directly replaced with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts to save money. This applies to all library and information services in every sector”

This stronger stance is a very welcome move.

See here for more information about the updated policy.

Hey Academic Librarians! What training, if any, do you offer to academic staff?

A staff development programme, focused around Quality and Academic Standards, is being designed at my University. It is mainly for academic staff but all staff are welcome to attend. Having recently completed a Post-grad teaching qualification, I am particularly keen to attend courses such as “A Showcase of Flexible Ways to Teach and Support Learning”, “The Role of Students in Quality Assurance”, “Curriculum Design in Higher Education” and Assessment Workshops, among others. I think they will give me the opportunity to apply new skills and knowledge to my professional practice and will help me to understand the work and pressures on my academic colleges better.

Having seen the draft programme of events, it occurred to me that our Libraries and Information Services department did not feature in the design or delivery of the training, nor were we listed among the staff teams who would find the training “particularly appropriate”.

I felt we were missing an opportunity here. The resources we provide and the information skills we work hard to foster are central to providing quality and to improving academic standards. We teach skills that enable students to study effectively and skills which prepare them for their working lives. Employability, whether we like it or not, is now a central strand in higher education agenda. We have a lot to offer and contribute to this strand.

I voiced my observations to my boss, suggesting that our involvement in the programme would also be an ideal opportunity to raise the profile of Library and Information Services to academic staff and other departments….he agreed, as did the programme organizers. Now I have been tasked with coming up with some suitable courses and I have been invited to deliver some of them (when will I learn to keep my mouth shut!)

So far we have suggestions for (These are our very early ideas)

The development of reading lists (with some focus on how to avoid breaches of copyright legislation)

How to promote and use online resources

Library Use and Academic Achievement 

Information Skills and Employability  – My aim with this is to try to encourage academics to embed information skills into their curriculum more and to encourage them to use our skills to help them. I hope to do this by firmly placing these skills into the context of the university’s teaching and learning strategy and overall aims.

Professional discourse regarding teaching and training tends to focus on the service we provide for students  so I am really interested to find out what teaching sessions my peers are delivering at other institutions, to academic staff, which enhance the quality of teaching and learning and academic standards.  I would love to hear your thoughts/ideas/experiences.

Library Camp Pub Chat Dilemma : volunteering, would you?

After a long and exciting day at Library Camp a few of us went to the pub.  A conversation took place that I have been mulling over ever since.  We were discussing the threat of “volunteer run libraries” and what it means for the library and information profession. Someone asked, “if you were currently unemployed and there was a community run library being launched near you, would you volunteer to help keep it open whilst job hunting?”

The dilemma :

Volunteers will take the jobs of paid and trained staff – how could you be part of that? Also, WE ARE WORTH IT we deserve pay for the skills and knowledge that we work hard to attain and develop.


The library will close if it is not taken over by volunteers. If you think it important that people have access to a good quality library service then surely this should come first? How can you stand by and let a community lose their library – you obviously do not think them that important? It also might be good to have on your CV.

I am interested to hear

What would you do and why?

What advice should our professional bodies be giving to members?

Library Camp – Convincing Politicians that Libraries Improve Literacy

On Saturday 8th October I went to Birmingham for Library Camp – the “unconference” about libraries. It was ace. I met lots of people I know from Twitter for the first time in the flesh and I made lots of new friends.

One of the sessions I attended during the day was a session about how we can convince politicians that libraries improve literacy. Jennifer Yellin wrote a good report of the session here .

Having spent over a year campaigning to save libraries in Gloucestershire for Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries and working with advocacy group Voices for the Library, which was primarily set up to change the dialogue about public libraries as the positive stories and the views of librarians and library users rarely seemed to be given any consideration, I am exhausted. I have tried everything I can to advocate and campaign for libraries but I have felt rather isolated and ignored by the decision makers. I was hoping that this session would provide me with some more ideas, the magic statistics, the message that those in power could not possibly ignore.  This did not happen. What did happen was that it seemed to generally be agreed that there are the statistics, the evidence out there, but what there is not is someone with clout to deliver that message. It was down to us, the voters. I left dismayed because this has not been working for me.

I know colleagues who work in public libraries who are not allowed to promote the positive things that public libraries do as this may lead to increased usage, increased demand on resources, and would ultimately make the cutting of libraries a more uncomfortable option for the politicians. More people would notice when services stopped being provided.

The cuts in Gloucestershire have been hugely unpopular. We residents have done all we can to make politicians aware of this and the damaging impact their cuts will have. Just look at the Friends of Gloucestershire website and you can see that there was little else we could have done, yet we have been ignored. Voices for the Library have been working hard to change the national dialogue and have had some success, but as a geographically spread out group of volunteers, mostly with full time jobs and other commitments, there is only so much we can do. We do not have the clout needed.

I came away feeling like I and my fellow campaigners really are alone in this. A realisation that has been dawning on me for the last year but which really hit home in that session.

I had told myself I would not go to any sessions about public libraries as I have been consumed with campaigning and felt the need to go to cross sector sessions to broaden my horizons but I went to this one as I got the impression I would get the answers. I guess this was too much to expect though because if we had the answers we would not be in this situation in the first place.

Activism, Advocacy and Professional Identity

Oxford English Dictionary [online]

Activism : the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.

Advocacy : public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy: his outspoken advocacy of the agreement has won no friends

Collins English Dictionary [online]

Activist  n a person who works energetically to achieve political or social goals,    ◇ n activism

Advocacy n active support of a cause or course of action,

I am an academic librarian and a public library activist

I have been thinking a lot about the definitions of activism and advocacy, two words I have noticed being used interchangeably in my network of library and information professionals recently and it is bothering me. They do overlap but they are also distinctly different.

Activism does involve advocacy, i.e. speaking out on behalf of an idea, organisation or person so that they are viewed positively, which in turn can influence policy and social outcomes, but it also goes further than this. Activism can be messy. It opens you up to controversy and sometimes vitriolic reactions (which is the thing that surprised me the most when campaigning for libraries…everyone loves libraries right? WRONG!). Activism is about politics and ethics, social outcomes and shaping the future – the aim is not just to promote services and influence change but to be the change. It needs a lot of time and effort and you are often in it for the long-haul. I believe that my need to get involved as an activist stems from a lack of advocacy of public libraries in the past. If we had been promoting them and raising their profile all along we would not be in the mess we are in now. To me advocacy is what you should be doing all the time, activism is what you  do after you say “enough is enough, I am not going to stand by and watch this happen any more”

I consider my involvement in campaign groups Voices for the Library and Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries to be activism (of which advocacy is a feature).  In my day job I am involved in advocacy.  As a librarian you have to be involved in advocacy and if you are not then you are in the wrong job. I promote our services and skills to stakeholders and advocate the service wherever possible.  Not only is this important so that staff and students know who we are and what we do but also so that we are viewed as important by the decision makers at the  University.  However, I certainly am not an “activist” at work and I certainly would not engage in the kind of activities I have for my activism role. Advocacy is gentle coaxing and stroking (please do not take that literally, I do not want anyone to get arrested!) whereas activism is “vigorous”, sometimes loud, and sometimes controversial. If you are talking about activism now is not the time for coaxing and stroking. It is time for rolling your sleeves up, getting stuck in and taking action. I cannot understand why there is anyone in the profession who is not doing so in such times.

I have gained such a lot from being an activist. It is often stressful and can be soul destroying but it has also led to the formation of many new friendships and networks, exchanges of ideas across sectors (which can only strengthen the profession as a whole), lots of experience of working with the local and the national press, learning about the workings of local and national government, public speaking, chairing meetings, people management, event planning and  management, problem solving, team working, quick thinking, communicating with celebrities and public figures and collaborating with national organisations, to name a few. The most important thing though I think is that it has allowed me get out there and speak with hundreds of library users and non-users to find out what they think a library service should look like, why libraries are (or aren’t) important to them and to advocate what libraries are and could be. I have watched aghast as a library authority disenfranchised, dis-empowered and alienated it’s service users and have seen how NOT to do things. In response I have helped give local people a voice and a platform. I also watched aghast as central government ignored the concerns and views of library users and in response I have helped to provide a much needed national platform for library staff and users and for public library advocacy, with the aim of influencing policy and social outcomes.

I have always been careful to keep my working life and my activist roles separate. However, I hope that my experiences as an activist has had a positive affect on my professional working life. I have certainly learnt how important advocacy is and try to engage in it at every opportunity. I now feel confident  in my abilities to tactfully and effectively manage (sometimes difficult) people. The campaigning press releases  and blog posts I have written have improved my written communication and promotional skills. I can manage large meetings, enthuse people and encourage them. I now have plenty of evidence for my CV that I am dedicated to the profession and I see it as a vocation and not just a means of paying the bills. What employer would not see that as a positive thing? Probably one I would not be looking to work for. I have spent many hours of my own time campaigning for libraries and attending library related events (all whilst also managing to complete a postgraduate certificate for teaching in higher education in order to progress my career in academic librarianship). I do not do this begrudgingly but because  I love libraries and what they stand for. Many of the skills and knowledge I have gained from my activism I would not have had the opportunity to gain in my day job but many of them are skills and experiences that will stand me in good stead for more senior roles in academic librarianship.

I am not telling people what to do and I do not wish to preach but I do hope that all of the recent emphasis on and discussions about “activism” I have seen moves beyond mere discussion. Perhaps this blog post will help you decide whether or not activism is something you want to be involved in (advocacy is compulsory by the way!). I do hope it does. I am a firm believer that it is better to say “I did my best” than it is to say “I stood by and did nothing” If you are in any doubt as to whether or not you can make a difference below is an extract from an email we received from a public library user the other day about Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries:

“I hope you realise how much what you are doing means to so many people in Gloucestershire and beyond. Not just in terms of defending our libraries but, in these times of cuts, cynicism, self-interest and soulless pursuit of wealth, by providing a much-needed reminder to all of us that within our communities there are courageous, public spirited and selfless people ready to stand up for what they believe”

I would very much like to hear what you think advocacy and activism mean and how being an activist has impacted on your professional development.

CPD23 Course Blog.

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