Sunday, 3 April 2016

Libraries deliver and can deliver better than this

I've had my go at responding to the libraries deliver survey. Here are a few of my thoughts. I've tried to be positive, honest.

The lack of vision as to what is to be provided, by whom and with what resources runs throughout.

The context section of the document's a lot thin. This is the "as is" description of a fragmented public library service but you wouldn't know that by the reading of it, Entirely lacking from this context is the pick 'n' mix selection of service delivery models and services provided; poor (or at best extremely patchy) workforce development; lack of regional or national leadership; and lamentable approach to evidence-based decision and delivery with no KPIs that weren't developed before the 1964 Act,

What libraries can achieve has some notable omissions, Information literacy is a very important omission, especially in the digital age. The traditional strength of the library's providing the gateway to a sense of self and a sense of place is part of its USP. As, indeed, is the fact that the library is one of the increasingly-few places that are still a free and public place to be. 

The ambitions aren't especially ambitious.
  • Reading & literacy: should include the systematic impact of everyday reading for pleasure and informal learning (i.e. impact analysis of non-programmed lending library activity); staff development programme for the creation of reading and literacy champions.
  • Digital literacy: this is phenomenally weak and describes should have been being delivered in 2011, let alone 2021. Information literacy is an essential and is entirely disregarded here. There also needs to be something here about the use of assistive technologies; UX development; online resource curation and promotion; creating a skilled digital workforce within the public library service and having public library leadership that doesn't see "digital" as a cheap adjunct or alternative to the expensive business of having a load of buildings with the word "library" stuck on them that can all be somebody else's worry entirely. 
  • Health & well-being: is co-location really a valid indicator of qualitative improvement in this area? Just because the services share a building doesn't mean they're working collaboratively in the community's interest (and there are too many examples where co-location breeds resource competition between services rather than collaborative cross-sectorial working).
  • Economic growth: over the past twenty years I've seen numerous examples of models for evaluating the economic value of the public library service by itself. This is important: libraries by themselves have an impact. These models need to be evaluated and the best national model should be implemented.
  • Culture and creativity: there needs to be a recognition of the amount, value and impact of cultural and creative activities in libraries, from reminiscence sessions to knit 'n' natter to full-blown cultural festivals. A revival of outreach activities outside library buildings. And building and supporting local cultures that aren't driven by the Westminster bubble or big corporations, including the acceptance and promotion of local authors in both the library and their catalogues and a locally-delivered national programme for adding local self-published authors' works to the national bibliographic record. Building a vibrant local metadata has been sacrificed on the altar of saving a few quid by buying in all the MARC records and getting shot of anyone who knows how they're built.
  • Communities: it's sad that this doesn't include making sure that there are skilled jobs and career paths in libraries available to people living within deprived communities (volunteering doesn't pay the rent); and why nothing on demographies and active support of minority groups?
  • Learning: one of the eternal values of the public library is its importance as a resource for informal learning, it's important that the autodidact tradition be included within the ambitions; and again, on the staff side: monkey see, monkey do: there's no point in saying that the library service will do oh so many wonderful things for learning and skills development within the community if it isn't committed to delivering this for the workforce that is supporting those communities.
  • Who will be available to deliver all this? With what resources? With what leadership? With what support? Where are the continuous service improvement review and feedback loops?
Even in the world of English public libraries the proposed indicators are more than a tad disappointing.
  • Reading and literacy: FFS! If you must use issues as an indicator at all. at least do it per capita per annum. And if we're limiting ourselves to the easily-reportable, what about the no. hours of programmed reading/literacy/storytelling/writing activities per annum and the no. attendees of these activities. Advice from literacy experts on evidence-based qualitative assessment within the community would be instructive to this particular narrative.
  • Digital literacy: Why only makerspaces? (and why necessarily makerspaces?) The indicators need to include at the very least: analytics of use of online resources — do they reach intended audiences? can those audiences use these resources?; digital collection development metrics — scope, reach, audience, purpose, use, satisfaction; delivery of programmed digital literacy activities — no. sessions, no. people; delivery of programmed information literacy initiatives — no. sessions, no. people; community-based qualitative assessments as per reading/literacy.
  • Co-location is a really crap KPI for the well-being agenda. While we're on the subject of col-location…
    • We've flogged co-location to death over the past couple of decades. Co-location with schools and colleges results in well-resourced school and college libraries that exclude much of the local community (not everybody had happy schooldays and schools actively discourage the presence of adults who are not on the payroll).Similarly, there are too many instances where co-location with health centres, councils or business units has just been a few shelving units with books on and a member of staff on the ground (if the library is lucky) to try and fight the library's corner when somebody fancies that bit of space for something or other. 
    • There has to be a business case for any location that isn't just about the money, it has to be about delivering the preferred outcomes of the community involved.And if the co-location compromises the delivery of the library service it should be deprecated.
  • Economic indicators should include the economic value of the core public library services.
  • Culture and well-being: needs to include metrics on creative activities in libraries; creative outreach activities delivered by library services; additions of local context and content to the national bibliography.
  • Communities: should include a qualitative analysis of the value of each library to its local community; also a demonstration that the demography of use of each library fairly reflects the demography of its community.
  • Learning: should include a measure of the investment in learning and skills programmes for library staff so that they can help develop and support learning and skills programmes for their communities.
Governance and the national structures are the same old same old. My reactions seem strangely familiar:
  • The existing fragmented, pick 'n' mix, "everything that's called 'national' is really optional" service delivery model has to be tackled for any of this document's ambitions to be credible.
  • The Department that holds the purse strings (DCLG) doesn't have the responsibility; the Department that has the responsibility (DCMS) doesn't control the resources. And *something* has to be compulsorily uniform nationally, because at the moment nothing is, not even the submissions to CIPFA relied on in this report.
  • SCL provides little functional national leadership. Until extremely recently CILIP has been more concerned with filling discussion lists every Summer with childish spats than the support and delivery of services in public libraries (to be fair, CILIP's belated conversion to the cause should be welcomed). Neither organisation pays much heed to the support and involvement of the bulk of the public library staff who are not trained librarians but do have a wealth of knowledge and experience that is all too often ignored, disregarded or just plain dismissed.
The section on evidence mapping misses one ever-so essential prerequisite: you can't begin to do this without a comprehensive review of the lack of nationally-applied KPIs of any kind and the lack of any qualitative metrics being applied to these services. Otherwise your mapping exercise is just a distance-between-two-dots exercise, literally drawing lines between libraries on a map and imaging you've addressed the evidence.

There are some astonishing omissions from the skills strategy: 
  • Reader development! 
  • Information literacy! 
  • Library technical skills (somebody's got to be able to create acceptable-quality local content) 
  • Project management  
  • Operational management 
  • Product design and development 
  • Service development and delivery 
  • Continuous service improvement 
  • And validation and certification.
And all this cannot be limited to just those parts of the workforce that went to library school.

I have qualms about "voluntary accreditation" because at the moment everything in the English public library service is optional. It should be a statutory requirement lying within the DCMS and included in the DCMS annual report on its own performance.

Is commissioning proven to be the best model for service delivery to our communities? I'm not convinced that it's the given presented in this document.

Finally, to my mind the Action Plan needs:
  1. A time scale for the delivery of a nationally-adopted scheme of KPIs to provide the evidence base for the rest of the action.
  2. A time scale for delivery of a national public library staff skills audit and staff development programme addressing the need to deliver on the ambitions of this document
  3. A project plan for the funded delivery of actions 1 and 2
I expect you have some views one way or another. Please respond to the survey. I know it's just another survey, but please…

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