Saturday, 6 June 2015

As one door closes...

Lostock Library is having a tea party to mark its closing
I may have visited my local library for the last time today.

In a couple of weeks' time it will have closed as a public library. The news isn't all entirely bleak: the school that hosts the library and the local housing trust have both recognised the importance of libraries to the community and have stepped in to try and rescue at least some part of the service. So the library will reopen as a "community library" staffed by volunteers with support from the school librarian. It's great that they've recognised the need (and a measure of the way these types of organisations have changed and expanded their remit over the years) and I wish everyone involved the best of luck but I worry about its sustainability, especially with a prolonged period of the austerity experiment stretching out ahead of us.

This sort of thing is happening all over the country: unprecedented cuts in local authority budgets are leading to unprecedented cuts in services. Westminster government's cuts in public sector funding have hit local authorities disproportionately and within each authority the burden of cuts has affected some services more badly than others.Some areas — support for schools, child care services, adult care services and public health services — are ring-fenced by central government decree so receive some degree of protection (but only some degree of protection); the remainder, including statutory services like libraries, have to do as best can with their share of the meagre scraps remaining. And it will get worse as there are fewer and fewer options left for responding to each fresh demand for required savings.

It's easy to say that library managers should do this, that or the other. In some cases this may still be the case. In the past, certainly, a generation of library managers revelled, almost to a masochistic degree, in the challenge of demonstrating that it was business as usual no matter how their budgets were chipped away. Those days are long since gone and are already almost a fading memory. It's much tougher now and there is scant wriggle room or scope for creative budgeting for library managers to be able to present business as usual. And in some cases it's downright impossible…

I hadn't realised it was 15 years since Lostock Library was moved out of its own purpose-built little building next to the bus stop and shunted into a small room in the corner of the school next door. I'm a middle-aged male with no children so I have views about shifting libraries into venues that tend to exclude a significant minority of public library users. And my experience of libraries' moving into schools has been that they tend to become a really useful resource for the school and rather less so for the local adult population. Still, we were better off than some: during the post-millennial boom where many councils, including the one I still work for, were investing in their libraries Trafford Council were making cuts. Two libraries were closed and replaced by what were, in effect, deposit libraries in corners of leisure centres. Ironically, these leisure centres are now also both at serious risk of the chop to save money. When last year, after more than a decade of cuts and hollowings-out, the library service was faced with a cut of one third of its budget it would have been impossible for the service's managers to deliver the existing service and, to be fair to them, they didn't pretend to anyone that it was possible. It was no great surprise when the cuts proposals were made public: the writing was already on the wall for Lostock when the opening hours were changed so that as children were coming out of school the library closed its doors. I went to one of the public consultations about the closure and for all that members of the public complained about the unacceptability of what was being proposed they were under no illusions about the impact of a cut of this magnitude on a service that was already down to the bone. When, at half-past the eleventh hour, the school stepped up to the plate to offer to take over it was seen as a lifeline. It can't be a like-for-like replacement and staff will still be losing their jobs and that is awful but the thinking is that it's not a complete loss and it may be a way of keeping the patient alive until times change and some sort of rescue becomes possible. On the flip side, there'll be a building with the word "Library" on it and the doors will be open sometime so some politicians could present that as being business as usual. It's the community-level version of the prisoner's dilemma and it's being played out nationwide.

I may not be able to be a customer of the new library in any case: the school's closed on Saturdays and it's only odd times like my being on leave today when I could visit during the weekday opening times. I could be wrong: there may be other options in the pipeline that allow more convenient opening hours, I don't know. But in any case, fifty years after my first visit it's almost certainly the last time I'll have visited Lostock's public library.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Volunteers are not an easy answer

There are many things which puzzle and perplex me about the current "we can replace paid staff with volunteers" agenda. Chief of them is the blithe sort of assumption around that it's easy enough to swap like for like: volunteers for paid staff. I suppose it's easy enough if you don't care one way or another about public services, and there's plenty enough evidence that much of the political classes and their financial backers don't really, but for the rest of us it's not so easy.

It's a huge mistake to see volunteers as a homogeneous mass. The only thing they have in common is that they're prepared to make their time, skills and effort available on a voluntary basis, for which we should be grateful and for which reason alone they shouldn't be taken for granted. And the reason why working with volunteers isn't as simple as working with paid employees. Let's look at some of the issues:

Motives — why do people volunteer?


  • Because they can. They have the time, energy and will to be able to volunteer. 
  • Because it's useful and/or important to them. People rarely volunteer their effort for things they think would be a waste of time.
  • Because it offers something back to them. It could be the sense of a job well done or a useful contribution to a cause. It could be the acquisition of experience or a skill sets. It has to be something if the effort is to be sustained.

Constraints on your operation — availability

If you have paid staff you have the not-unreasonable expectation that during contracted hours you've got first priority on their time and you'll be able to timetable them accordingly (which is easier said than done, I know). This isn't necessarily the case with volunteers: they may perfectly reasonably have higher priorities such as work or family commitments. Even if they haven't, it's rare that somebody is able to commit enough time to cover or replace a full-time equivalent post so a few people would be required to do the necessary. And volunteers aren't available at a nice steady state over time either: availability tends to clump due to external factors such as public transport, school holidays or even market days. If it isn't critical what time/day the work needs doing this isn't an issue but most key front-line operations are defined by opening hours and for those you'll spend a lot of time working on schedules.

We're living in an increasingly high-pressure, time-poor world so people having both the time and energy to volunteer are at a premium. This pool is disproportionately made up of people getting experience before embarking on their careers; job-seekers and people returning to the jobs market; and retired people. These are also the people most likely to have a sudden change of circumstances, for good or ill, which would change their availability to you. So you could spend a lot of your time managing the churn of recruitment and induction, not to mention the potential impacts on your scheduling.

To complicate things further: are the right skill sets available at the right time? Is what's on offer what you need? (Do you actually know what you need?) Are your expectations reasonable? Is there capacity for development?

Constraints on your operation — motivation

We'll assume that initially enough people care about what you're trying to do for them to offer their services as volunteers. Will the reality of your operation confirm that judgement? Will what they get back keep them with you? Work involves at least some element of drudgery — if it was 100% guaranteed fun they wouldn't need to pay people to do it. In the absence of a salary the non-monetary rewards of work take primacy. Continuous positive feedback, a sense of worth, personal development, a sense of belonging, a job well done; these things are achingly important in the paid workplace, in the voluntary workplace they're the only things you have to offer. And offer them you must: it doesn't matter how busy you are or how much fire-fighting you're doing. Moreover, it has to be woven throughout the working experience, not offered as a periodic let's-get-it-over-with effort. In these circumstances being told casually and often that you're doing a good job and it's much appreciated is infinitely better than any formal appraisal. It takes time and effort to do, and all too often isn't. In a paid environment you can get away with neglecting the non-monetary reward of your staff in the short term because like as not the job'll still be done by your employees; it takes a while before loss of performance and increase in recruitment costs become obvious. In the voluntary environment the period where you can get away with neglect is very small; if the volunteer starts to feel that they, or the work they're doing, is unimportant then they'll vote with their feet and go and do something more rewarding instead. So you'll be spending more time recruiting and inducting new volunteers. And the pool will get smaller because word will get round that you take your volunteers for granted.

Conclusion

It is a wonderful thing that people are willing to do voluntary work and this mustn't be belittled or taken for granted. Volunteers are brilliant at helping bring added value to public services. Replacing paid staff with volunteers as a cost-cutting measure is more problematic. Aside from the very real moral issues involved (and the potential breaches of the voluntary codes), the saving may not be as easily realisable as assumed. Managing volunteers properly is a lot of work: just because there's no pay check at the end of the week doesn't mean there isn't a serious amount of personnel management involved, in many ways more so that with paid staff due to the number of volunteers required and the likely turnover involved. The savings you realise by getting rid of not very well-paid staff could be compromised by the cost of the management time required to keep the show on the road.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Customers

For some reason the word "Customer" has become a bête noir in some parts of The Profession, the torch-bearer of Neoliberalism. And every time the hue and cry against the word sets off I rise to the bate and get Very Cross Indeed because I don't equate customer service and all that goes with it with Neoliberalism. Quite the opposite: as I see it "the customer" in a Neoliberal context is an asset to be sold or a sheep to be fleeced but rarely, if ever an actual customer.

I've been struggling to work out why I get in such a bate about this. To my rescue comes a useful and very well-measured post by Peter Williams in his Put The Book Back On The Shelf blog in which he makes a defence of the word "Customer" in libraries. It's worth reading the post and the comments, both to get both sides of the argument reasonably put.

I'll be coming back to this, after a bit of a mull to marshal my thoughts, as there's another reason why "customer" is important to a key factor in the crisis facing English public libraries.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Measuring weight with a ruler: MOOCs

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) may have been ridiculously over-hyped and may or may not be game-changers in academia. To be honest I'm not that much fussed by the commentary one way or another, I like them and find them useful.

I have a confession, though: I've never yet finished one.

I'm one of the statistics that people pick up on to demonstrate "the failure" of MOOCs — the apparent high drop-out rate and relatively low number of students getting the appropriate bits of paper at the end of the course.

So why am I a drop out? Not because the courses aren't useful and interesting. The ones I've signed up for over the years have been instructive, informative, challenging and all that. I've read the materials and seen the videos. I've learned new stuff, found ideas I can apply elsewhere, heard interesting discussions and arguments. I've got wanted I wanted from each course, and nearly always a bit more besides. I just haven't felt the need to get the bit of paper at the end. If I want to take an examination, if I want to get a certificate, I'll do so. But I didn't want to and, thank Heaven, I didn't have to. Which suited me fine and thank you very much.

The educational industry's turning institutions into qualification mills concerned with league tables and rankings based on the confusion between quantitative metrication and qualitative outcomes is relatively new in the scheme of things. In part I see MOOCs as redressing the balance slightly: allowing the sharing of academic learning for its own sake rather than as part of a Fordian production line of qualifications.

Using completion figures to demonstrate the apparent failure of MOOCs is a failure of statistics: applying an inappropriate measurement to a situation and deriving an answer to a different question. In this case I'd argue that the value to the student lies in the exchange of knowledge more than in the attainment of qualification, which is a different species of outcome entirely that needs a different type of measurement for meaningful analysis and conclusion.

Similarly, in the library world, we need to be careful with our metrics. I've said it before and I dare say I'll drone on about it on my deathbed: just because a particular set of statistics has been used for years it doesn't mean they're necessarily all that important in assessing value. It could just be that that was the easiest (or even the only) thing that could be measured. The really important thing, always, has to be the value to the person at the receiving end. And that is never measurable by the passive aggregation of throughput stats.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

In the end there is no "In the end"

Projects and events are finite but, unless you're a journeyman project manager or an events manager, they have to live in the context of the organisation or service that they serve. As such they are episodes in a longer serial narrative rather than stand-alone short stories.

There are a number of ways in which these episodes are embedded in the narrative. The past is part of the backdrop and rationale for the activity. The activity itself is — for good or ill — a landmark in the narrative but this is static. The resources employed and delivered are identified in the business case and in the lessons learned process but these only provide the potential for the future narrative, they don't impel it.

So what does get the narrative moving?

"What happens next?"

  • What happens next? = continuous service improvement
  • What happens next? = business case for future projects
  • What happens next? = sustainable service delivery

If your organisational reaction to a project or event is to push it into the drawer marked "History" you're losing the benefit of experience and you have to wonder why on earth you bothered in the first place. Similarly, if it doesn't evoke a "what happens next?" response perhaps you shouldn't have done it in the first place.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Some more stray thoughts about online catalogues

There was an article in today's Guardian about the Dyslexie font which is designed to be bottom-heavy to help people with Dyslexia: the idea is that the asymmetry of the characters makes it harder for them to dance about for the reader. Coincidentally, a conversation I'd had with somebody last weekend had set me thinking about how a library could present appropriate parts of its stock to dyslexic readers.A gallery display of book covers is an obvious format but wouldn't it be nice to have the accompanying text for that section of the catalogue in a Dyslexia-friendly font? I expect it's do-able; it would be interesting to see someone give it a go.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

QR and literacy campaigns

Project-Q in the Netherlands is a nice, simple example of the use of QR codes to support a literacy campaign. I know QR codes are old hat and ho-hum to some but as a cheap and easy way to add a few more strings to a bow they're pretty useful and I don't understand why we keep on not using them.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"Not another bloody review!"

Some interesting stuff coming out about the Sieghart Review of English publish library services, including this one in The Bookseller. The general tone of the analysis sounds pretty good and some of the suggestions mentioned would be very encouraging if ever acted upon. We'll wait and see if and when the review gets published.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Words and pictures

November is Picture Book Month, one of very many international initiatives for encouraging reading and literacy. Some of these are set up formally by organisations like CILIP, The Reading Agency and the ALA while others, like this, emerge from informal association and get a momentum of their own.

Picture books are great and even in these austere times we have lots of them in our libraries. The combination of words and pictures helps young readers to associate words with ideas. The pictures encourage "Can you see..." and "I wonder what..."and the "What do you think happens next?" questions that make sharing a story such fun. And the artwork is often brilliant. So I like picture books.

I always puzzled — still do, in fact — about librarians' antipathy to comics. We were brought up reading comics; my dad reckons comics taught him how to read and I was one of those horribly precocious little kids who read "The Bash Street Kids" before I ever saw the cover of a "Janet and John" reader. And yet the only comic you ever saw in the library when I was a kid was "Look and Learn." All those stories with pictures and their captioned narrative links and speech bubbles to tell you who's talking were somehow "not quite the thing." Later on when I started working with and in libraries I saw the same thing. The two biggest selling children's books every year were The Guinness Book of Records and The Beano Book and while we bought the first by the bucket load if anybody ever donated a copy of The Beano Book or any other comic annual it went straight into book sale. One of my friends tried to slip some into one of the collections he was managing and was told very firmly that: "We don't buy annuals." Given that the accession shelves were groaning with expensive yearbooks destined for the reference library he wasn't best chuffed at this.

We do have comics in the library these days but they're either dressed up as "graphic novels" or put somewhere in the 741s amongst the non-fiction. Personally, I think there's a distinct difference between a collection of comic and a graphic novel. It's not necessarily the format or the genre, it's the structure of the storytelling. One's not better than the other, they're just different, albeit very close relations. It's lovely to see graphic novels in libraries and I'm all for the study of graphic arts; I just wish we could also celebrate comics without having to sneak them in by disguise.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Stray thoughts on the library catalogue

This is a frustrating time for me, I admit: we're in the process of recommissioning our OPAC and I can see all sorts of possibilities with the new version but I have to take a few steps back because it's somebody else's baby. A couple of years ago my rôle changed from library systems development to more general corporate systems management and support so it's my job to make sure the system underlying the OPAC works but the development work is somebody else's to do and I have to be careful to get in the way.

I'll jot stuff down on here once in a while just to get ideas out of my system.