Friday, 28 August 2015

LMS development

I've been invited onto the group Ken Chad's pulling together to have a look at what comes after the UK Core Specification for library management systems, which is a flattering and interesting opportunity to try and put something positive into the library pot. At Rochdale we've no plans to change our LMS any time very soon so you may wondering why I'm bothering to get involved and potentially get some additional homework. The answer is: enlightened self-interest. The suppliers I'm working with have finite development and support resources and I would prefer to have them working on something that would add value for us looking forward rather than addressing scores of variations on the theme of "requirements that libraries have identified as missing from UKCS." 

I'm not going to tell any tales out of school but the first telephone conference meeting this morning felt really positive. The more so given the size, scope and — let's be honest — vagueness of the job in hand. So that bodes well.

If all that comes out of the work of this group is that libraries and suppliers aren't diluting scarce resources with redundant requirement iterations then that would be no bad thing. More than that, it's been interesting to see how quickly the idea of replacing or revising the UK Core Specification for library systems has evolved over the past few months from a change of specification into a change of methodology and this seems to be a group that could pick up on that, with the potential for some very useful medium-term benefits.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Deck of cards

One of the things I'm wiggling round inconsequentially like a loose tooth in the back of my head at the moment is a set of notes and checklists on the general theme of "doing stuff" aimed at somebody without the scars of experience who's got that rabbit-trapped-in-headlights feeling about a piece of work. It would be a hotch-potch of things I've learned over the years at work, things I wish I'd known before I'd done some pieces of work and things I've watched and marvelled as other people worked their magic. Essentially, a basic, interdisciplinary toolkit for somebody struggling to know where to begin.

Thinking about that "trapped" feeling where you can't see where to go next, or the only way is somewhere you don't want to go — particularly creative block and group-think — it occurred to me that there ought to be some tool that could help. Something a bit more proactive than "go and do something else for half an hour" that could combine displacement, suggestion and challenge. And it turns out that there is: the original out-of-the-box thinking. The usefulness of tools like Oblique Strategies and Distant Early Warning isn't in the apparent power of divination so much as the introduction of a random variable that disrupts the state of thought. I'll certainly have a play with that idea.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Figure skating

One of the things that has become horribly apparent over the past couple of years is the abject lack of any evidence-based government data that would lend themselves to a statistical analysis of the decline of the national public library service.

There are no official figures in the public domain for anything that's happening out there: not for visits, or use of libraries or even — God help us! — for the number of publicly-funded public libraries run by local authorities in this country.

This leads to nonsense like the recent claim that there's been an increase in the number of libraries despite all the cuts over the past few years. Anyone wanting to know the number of libraries is better off going to Ian Anstice's Public Libraries News blog than any official government site or press release. All kudos and good karma to Ian for doing the work but this isn't a good state of affairs for a democracy or open government.

One reason often cited for this lack is that the figures are available but only from CIPFA, which charges a hefty fee for their use. And that fee pays for just the figures for one library authority for that year's figures, so pulling together a national picture becomes an expensive business.

Which it would.

If that was the way you were doing it.

But it shouldn't be:

  • The presentation and analysis of those statistics are CIPFA's property to do as they will with. Which is fair enough as they've done that work.
  • The data that informs CIPFA's statistics are available within each and every library authority in the land and is collected each year — at no small expense to you the taxpayer — by local council staff then copied into a spreadsheet that's parcelled up and sent to CIPFA. 
  • There is absolutely no good reason why that data — not CIPFA's subsequent work with that data — can't be put into the public domain to be worked on by decision-makers, lobbyists, "Armchair Auditors" or just people who like playing with numbers. 
The easiest way to do this would be for each local authority to submit a copy of each year's data — perhaps as a CSV file — to a dataset in Data.Gov.uk or similar. This would then be in the public domain and available for proper analysis of services and trends. It wouldn't cost anything very much to actually do: the data's available, it just needs somewhere to go. And it would be a damned site cheaper than having each local authority have to go through the administrative processes required to deal with a Freedom of Information Request asking the same questions as those on the CIPFA spreadsheet. Or even multiple requests for that data. Once it's in the public domain FoI doesn't apply.

So it would be possible to have an official, verifiable benchmark figure for the number of public libraries in this country at the beginning of the financial year and the net loss/gain at the beginning of the following year.

Which could be why it isn't happening.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

UKOLN Informatics

Sad to hear of the closure of UKOLN Informatics. This unit set in train and/or encouraged a wide range of digital and e-library (for those of us of a certain age) initiatives over the years, particularly in the late nineties and turn of the millennium. It's a relief to see that some of its progeny have found good homes but a shame that the doors are set to close. Many thanks and good wishes to all concerned.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Core specification or core specifications?

Thinking about the prospect of a revision of the UK Core Specification, I got to wondering whether or not it should be a single, monolithic beast.While it's useful to have something to act as a basis for a formal Statement Of User Requirements at the start of a procurement process perhaps its singularity could cause a problem as much as a solution.

When I did the lessons learned with my manager after Rochdale procured Spydus we both thought that we'd got the best of the available options but it would have been good to have been able to have some of the nice bits of functionality of some of the other systems on top of that. Of course, we were procuring a single library management and the idea of a best-of-breed pick'n'mix of bits of systems wasn't — and probably still isn't — a practical option for us. But it's an appealing idea and it would be a shame if a revised UKCS closed the door on it unnecessarily.

Needless to say, there are pitfalls as well as advantages…

In favour of a modular UKCS:

  • Possibility of building "best-of-breed" hybrid systems
  • Potential for increased diversity in the market place
    • Contracts could be awarded to more than one supplier
    • Newcomers to the market could concentrate on doing one thing well rather than having to make a big commitment investing in developing a universal solution
Problems with a modular UKCS:
  • Which modules? One of the problems with the existing UKCS is that it presupposes the shape of the solution — there'll be a an acquisitions module, a serials module, etc. etc.
    • One of the things we tried to so when we were putting together our requirements was to get people to think about functional outcomes and outputs rather than bolt-ons or "modernisations" of the machinery they knew. I'd like to imagine something similar for a revised UKCS but that's easier said than done.
  • How would/could you specify the interaction between modular components?
  • Procurement processes hate shades of grey. A complex procurement — a bit of this, a bit of that — would be bloody hard work (a simple procurement like ours was a hard slog).
  • It would be more work for the suppliers — instead of a simple first-past-the-post competition for each organisation's procurement they'd be entering into a series of Nash equilibria.
  • It would be hard work technically:
    • How would the interfaces between system components be set up and managed? And who by? We have fun enough with SIP2 and EDI, enriched content and interfaces with third-party services and systems!
    • If the main part of the system is provided as Software as a Service, how would the rest of the functionality work with it?
    • What would be the maintenance and support arrangements? Could Service Level Agreements be constructed in such a way as to encourage collaborative working between competing suppliers?

The problems may not be insurmountable. The benefits may not be realisable. Either way, I think it's important that the possibilities should be explored.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Ideas and innovations in public libraries

The very excellent Ian Anstice has added a useful new page to Public Libraries News: a digest of reported "new ideas" in public libraries. Some are brand new and innovative; others are things that some libraries have been doing, unheralded, for yonks. Love them or loathe them, new ideas and innovation have been part of the business of public libraries for over a century and a half. Seeing so many of them stacked up in one place like this is breathtaking: you get some idea of the breadth of services delivered by the national public library service and some of the depth of thought put into developing, improving and supporting those services.

Have a look at the Ideas and innovations in public libraries page here.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

System permissions - stray thoughts

I'm doing some work at the moment on system permissions on a transport management system I'm responsible for, called Tranman. Partly because I looked at the way the security settings and permissions were set up and thought: "I don't understand any of this!" Partly because I'm concerned that so many people seem to have high-level permissions on this system. That last isn't a criticism of anybody: you make your suite of best guesses when you do your implementation and do a review later in the light of experience.

When a new system's being implemented many organisations work on the basis that a manager needs more permissions than the people they manage so managers' user accounts tend to accumulate more permissions the higher they are in the pecking order. In fiercely-hierarchical organisations like libraries this can be taken to the nth degree: when I came into the first library management I ever managed all the librarians had superuser access to the system!

In truth they don't need this: nearly all complex systems like an operational management system don't have a single hierarchy of permissions; they have a permissions matrix. The manager may need to have oversight of more parts of the system but they don't necessarily need to be able to get in and do the work. For example, the manager would need to be able to authorise orders and payments but they wouldn't necessarily be able to create orders and invoices; and for audit purposes there are good reasons why these should be either/or functions if at all operationally possible. (Where it's not operationally possible you should include the necessary warnings and safeguards in the standard operating procedures).

The general rule of thumb is that the user should only be able to access what they need to do their job and, ideally, should only be able to see what they can access: all those library superusers disappeared the first chance I got. This caused some consternation: "You can't give yourself more control of the system than your senior managers!" to which the answer was: "I just have." These days I work in IT and my line manager doesn't have access to any of the systems I manage: "What would I do with it if I had it?" And to be fair, the managers I work with these days tend to work on the basis that "working life's complicated enough so if you can declutter my space by removing those things I don't need to do myself, great." It improves system security, it streamlines the operation, they get a less stressful user interface and there's less opportunity for error, so why wouldn't you want to do it?

One of the things I've decided that I want to do with this particular system is to set up a permissions group for auditors that would allow quite a wide area of access but all of it view-only. The more I think about this the more I think this needs to be considered in the review of library specifications that Ken Chad's encouraging (more details about this in the LibTechRFP wiki).

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 bĂȘte 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.


[No, honestly: "bate" was intentional.]