Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Library task force: "community libraries" toolkit

I can't say that I'm impressed with the notion of replacing public libraries with "community libraries," especially not when the engagement with the community is at the end of an Austerity shotgun.

That being said, one of the jobs to be done by the Library Task Force is a review of the process and the building of guidance — for and against the idea — for those thinking of embarking on the adventure. And they're inviting contributions to this toolkit.

This is the contribution I've added to the discussion:

I think we need to address the brief you've been given, not least because it gives the opportunity to explore some of the practical issues involved in taking public libraries out of the public sector and why there are real fears about it. 
Firstly, a strategic issue: review after review (and Sieghert was no exception) has noted that part of the problem with the public library service is its fragmented nature. That, together with the fact that nigh on everything in English public library land is optional, means that there's little strategic development; limited opportunity for significant economies of scale outside book-buying consortia; and nationwide initiatives depend for their critical mass on a postcode lottery of acceptance. Other important national failures are an absence of KPIs and no definitive asset register — the debates on the future of public libraries have no benchmarking to work from; no consistent trends data; no nation-wide evidence-based analysis of outcomes; and not only do we not have an empirical national picture of what the public library service is and how it's doing, we don't even know how many public libraries there are in England! (by way of contrast, I chose Moldova at random and found the answer in three clicks). Further fragmenting the service to a hyperlocal extent pretty much puts paid to any hopes that any of this could be corrected. 
Secondly, *whose* community? The idea of a single, close-knit, easily-identifiable community sits well with Camberwick Green but is meaningless in dormitory suburbs and mosaic inner cities. Back in Browne Issue days when demographic data was hard to come by it was horribly easy for some public libraries to become by ladies of a certain age for ladies of a certain age. Decades of work dedicated to building the culture that "public libraries are for everybody, not just people like us" risk being a waste of time and effort. How can equality impact assessments be made? How can they be made consistently? If made, what would be done with them? 
How accountable can the organisations running the community libraries be, and to whom? Whatever the shortcomings of elected members at least they can be voted out and are accountable to standards authorities. The model of imposition of community management doesn't allow for the organic growth of management and accountability structures. Grassroots voluntary activity works well when it grows from the ground up, it seldom prospers by parachute implementation and recruitment at bayonet point. 
Who owns the library data? There are intellectual property rights issues regarding the catalogue data. There are information governance issues, particularly data protection issues, regarding the customer data, loans data, the use of online resources and browsing histories within the library. Who are the Information Asset Owners? What are the information risk plans? Where are the data sharing plans? Who's going to be there to stop that person who thinks it would be a jolly good idea to collect all the names and addresses of library users and sell them to junk mail foundries to earn a few bob? 
The culture industry is one of the UK's big earners. A lot of small-scale, small-budget operations won't each have the critical mass needed to be able to afford both enough popular topics and best-sellers required for the bread-and-butter market and also a representative range of niche topics, new authors, locally-relevant stock and experimental guesses at The Next Big Thing. This will be a huge loss of seed-funding to the industry and a huge diminution of opportunity to the communities involved. One of the key drivers of human development is serendipitous discovery; if all that remains to be discovered is what is already known then there'll be a withering effect in both use and effectiveness of these services. 
That's my starter before bedtime. I hope more people add to the discussion.There's plenty more left for somebody to go at.


  1. Hi Steven,

    Agree with much of this.

    But on the data side of things - it has to be said that library services have done next to nothing in terms of releasing data (the answer to who owns the data is the public).

    Of course you raise the important issues of personal data, information governance, and data protection - but up until now the only way those principles have been followed is by releasing no data at all.

    Of course it didn't have to be like this - there are so many public data portals and opportunities for publishing data that it could be a really good argument for professionalism. "Look, see what we're doing here. We're publishing all loans data, properly aggregated by ONS statistical output areas, with personal data suppression algorithms, and the public are using this data to create really useful insights. We clearly need to keep this service professional." But what really is there to show?

    It's also not the fault of anyone but the library services themselves. There are already tools out there. Data is readily submitted to CIPFA, yet it takes freedom of information requests for the public to get hold of those submissions. Nielsen have plenty of data that's unavailable to the public. The public lending right releases come from library data that is unavailable to the public. It's a series of closed and aggressive secrecy, directly from the library services themselves, not from anyone else.

    To put it bluntly it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that library services across the country are some of the most secret departments of local government. Not quite centres of information.

    That's digital open data, it does not negate all the excellent arguments for professional libraries and the absolute need for these rather than 'community' options. But it is still a great shame.

    1. I agree with you entirely, with one caveat: strictly speaking, the owners of the personal data held by public libraries are the data subjects themselves, which is why it's essential to ask their permission before changing the terms of use of their data, e.g. by sharing with another organisation or making connections between that data and other data for a completely new purpose. Other than that it's scandalous that public libraries aren't routinely sharing their statistical data and properly-anonymised transactional datasets, if only to save themselves and their organisations' FoI teams the cost and hassle of repeat responses to requests for information.

      Ironically enough, nearly twenty years ago (when nobody cared because the web was a new-fangled thing that would never take off) quite a few of us routinely published monthly issue figures, borrower analyses and reservations performance stats because that was the only content that could be relied upon to be kept up to date on a regular basis.