I went to Friday's Library Taskforce workshop in Machester Central Library on Friday.The aim of the workshop was to get feedback on the Ambitions document and suggest practical detail that should go into the action plan for it. I was interested so I signed up and was accepted in my rôle of "interested member of the public." It was an interesting few hours, here's a few thoughts on it.
Something that concerned a few of us was the rôle of the Taskforce itself. You don't have to go very far into discussions about English public libraries before you'll hear somebody say: "The Taskforce should do…" And that's a problem. The Taskforce is no magic wand, it has a finite life and actually it's just that scant handful of people who were going round sticking bits of paper on the wall in the library on Friday. It has the same rôle as a business analyst: it can facilitate and stimulate discussion, it can identify work to be done but it's down to other agencies to get on and get things done.
A recurring theme in the workshop was the need for a skilled workforce to deliver library services. A decade ago this would have been couched in terms of CPD for "professionals," here the conversation concerned all library staff. And not just the "we need people with digital skills" thing: there was a recognition that there's a swathe of skills that need developing and supporting, including having properly-trained library managers who can manage operations, services, programmes and projects. This is a welcome contrast to the ongoing narrative of staff losses, closures and farming out the work to volunteers. It's good that the Taskforce is talking up the need for a skilled staff. Translating that into action will be a stern challenge!
Another recurring theme was the tension between local authority control and opportunities for cost-sharing and delivering services to communities that aren't defined by geopolitical boundaries. Even when we look at delivering "bigger" we still seem to be bound by lines on ancient maps: local metropolitan authorities don't often think of working across the Pennine border.
Evidently there'd already been some feedback about the thinness of the digital strand of the document: there were a few more ideas pinned to the wall for us to respond to than I'd been expecting. This suggests that somebody's listening. Actually, I've been consistently getting the impression that the Taskforce members are listening to people. And they're trying to have conversations with people aside from chiefs and politicians. I think the workshops could have been better publicised away from the usual channels to try and get more library customers into the mix because I think it would have proved very useful.
A few of us thought that "income generation" is a tricky topic. It's important that libraries try to maximise their income (good services don't pay their bills in daydreams) but the phrase "income generation" is unfortunately a bit loaded. It's important that libraries stay that safe, trusted place where nobody's asking you what's in your wallet and that shouldn't be compromised. And whenever libraries are told to be more commercially-minded it's conveniently forgotten that local authorities don't work in a commercial environment. The twelve- month budget lifetime isn't anything any commercial operation would be able to live with: the mad March spend it or lose it would be ludicrous in that context. There was a lot said about that! The other problem, of course is that as soon as you say that you're going to generate some income some clever body will impose an income target. Income targets work this way: you make a business case for spending £100 to set up a business selling apples from a barrow; you're told: great, go ahead and by the way we're going to assume that you're going to make a £50 profit so we'll take that off you now; and you're left with enough money to buy either the barrow or the apples but not both and your business plan fails. There's no real money to be had selling off odd scraps of thing or hiring out rooms or buildings. There is potentially funding out there for programmes, projects and activities that are entirely compatible with the traditional aims and purposes of public libraries and I think this is what is meant by "income generation" in this context. I think it would be more useful for the Taskforce to be talking about "maximising the take-up of funding opportunities" instead.
We've until 3rd June to contribute to the discussion. If you haven't already, please do so.
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