Sunday, 1 August 2010

Big picture worries

Many of us need to address some organisational and systemic issues which aren’t very exciting in themselves and that we’ve been sort-of-getting-away-with for a few decades, but which may determine how well (or if) the public library service survives the next few years and which should make us better able to do the exciting things that people want to have happen.

In particular, we need to lessen the public librarian's traditional emphasis on buildings and furniture and focus our (and, more importantly, the public’s) attention onto services and people.

  • There’s no point in committing all our resources on the set dressing if we don’t have a good play to put on or the leading man’s talking to himself in the love scene.
  • In changing the service in response to cuts and new opportunities we need to be clear which is baby and which is bathwater.

We know there are a lot of challenging questions facing us. Some library services have got some of the answers. Some library services have got some of the questions. Here are a few...

Resource management — we have to be smarter about using the resources we’ve got more effectively and efficiently. We need to know what resources we have in the first place:

  • Do you have a reasonable idea of your stock?
  • Too many of us effectively ignore the literally millions of free resources on the web and don’t use the resources we pay for particularly effectively. We need to be treating these materials as part of our stock, to be selected, described and promoted the same way as we should be doing with physical resources. At the very least we should be making these available via the Library Catalogue. More than that, we should be using these as part of service development and delivery. It’s axiomatic that we should be using these as reference and information service resources. It should be equally obvious that they’re useful for literacy and reader development and as reading matter in their own right.
  • Are we actively using our Reserve Stock? No, but we could and should be. The National Back Catalogue of Books is an important resource that we shouldn't be wasting.
  • Do we really know our customers, their use of the library and their needs? We have two decades’ worth of customer usage data. What are the trends in usage and membership and what do they tell us about what is and isn’t working in our libraries?
    • Are there differences in trends for different customer groups? The answer is yes. We have some startling variances once we start looking over a ten-year period. Why?
    • Are there differences in the rate of change over time? Yes again. Sometimes it’s obviously because of refurbishment or repair of the library, but are there other lessons to be learned? And what are the medium- long-term effects of refurbishments?
    • Are trends different in different libraries? Are the patterns of use different? Yes. Why?
    • How do usage patterns reflect, or not, the history of events and activities at each library?
    • Do any customer usage patterns reflect any stock usage patterns? Is the use of a particular library by a particular customer group inextricably linked to the fortunes of a particular collection?
    • Do usage patterns reflect changes of use rather than abandonment? Is the Internet doing the job that was traditionally done by some of our non-fiction stock? (It’s certainly doing the job of a lot of the reference stock.) People can access all our lending stock online, reserve a copy and have it sent over to their most convenient library, instead of having to go into the main library for the most choice — are main libraries becoming repositories rather than main access points?

What are staff capable of and what do they need to fulfil their potential?

  • Do we know, or recognise, the skills and experience our staff are bringing to the workplace? Too many public libraries have had a culture of keeping people (especially, but not exclusively, the "para-professionals") in their place. We cannot afford to waste resources we are already paying for.
  • Skills audits and a training needs analyses need to be kept up-to-date to reflect a changing world. And the skills audit needs to be shared within the Library Service so that anybody who needs a particular skill can easily find out who’s got it.

A modern library service needs a structured approach to partnership working with the focus of the relationship being the value added to the services and goals of the organisation.

  • This should include a practical and practicable partnership strategy, including clear guidelines on determining the ROI of a potential partnership and a model exit strategy.
  • For a practical and practicable partnership strategy to be practicable it would need to be available well beforehand to those staff who may be in a position to enter into partnership arrangements!

The modern library service needs to actively engage with ICT instead of treating it as something somehow “other” to the services we provide. It is an inescapable part of our service provision.

  • In Rochdale we should be replacing both the PN management system and the LMS in the next year (actually, the intended timescales are scarily short). The hard question facing us is: "What is the Library Service actually planning on doing with them?" We need to be very clear about the reasons for making this investment and the intended return on this investment. And we need to make it clear that these aren't just magic wand solutions. After all, just because you’ve bought a hammer and some wood doesn’t mean the garden shed’s going to build itself.
  • It's easy to make the mistake of limiting discussions about the People's Network to traditional reference, learning and business information issues. We also need to have a clear idea of what we want to do with it regarding literacy, reader development and cultural identity.
  • The modern library service needs to be looking to deliver real-time online services other than just automated circulation transactions. How will this be done with existing resources?
  • “Online” is no longer “on computer,” we need to be delivering services via mobile technology as well. How will this be done with existing resources?

More resource management: when the library service commits itself to doing anything it also needs to commit the appropriate (and, where applicable, named) resources. Obvious? Of course. Uinversally-acknowledged and applied? Nah... So:

  • Do we have the resources to deliver on these commitments?
    Are some resources being over-committed? (This ties in with the skills audit.)
  • Are we committing resources we don’t actually have in the first place? (This ties in with the training needs matrix.)

As I've said before, we need to be more aggressive and proactive about our marketing. We do stuff, why do we keep it a secret? If it's worth doing it's worth letting people know that you can do it, do do it and could do it again.

  • Internal marketing is also important: if staff know what’s going on then they can tell our customers about it. This doesn’t just mean the front-line staff at the particular library — Library A can and should tells its customers what’s going on in other libraries nearby; backstage staff take a lot of ‘phone calls from customers; and all staff talk to friends, relatives and strangers at bus stops.
  • Events, activities and projects need to be formally recorded and reviewed afterwards (which doesn’t mean writing a dissertation — Key Notes should do). What worked, what didn’t and why? What resources were used? What key resources didn’t turn out to be available after all? (see above) What can somebody else learn from this experience so that they don’t have to re-invent the wheel? What can we tell the world about it?
  • Too much of our publicity depends on people already having come into the library in the first place. We need to have “libraries do neat stuff” notices in church halls, doctors’ waiting room, supermarkets’ community notice boards, etc. If there were still telephone boxes around I’d also suggest little calling cards.
  • We also need to use social networking services to deliver timely updates and news about our events and services in a shareable format.

There's a ton and a half of other stuff to worry about, too, but that's enough of a start for one Sunday afternoon.

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