Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Archaeology: Library staff training ideas

I was digging round on an old laptop looking for a couple of photos when I bumped into this. Back in 2007 I was the library service's union rep, amongst my very many other sins. At that time Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK) was looking at the options for public library staff training. One of the stakeholders being consulted was our union, Unison, and the consultation documents were passed along to local reps. After a few conversations with members in Rochdale's libraries this is the response they agreed that I should send back. We live in a different world now but even in these austere times I think there would be scope for adopting some of this. I shan't be holding my breath, mind.

LLUK consultation on public library training

We feel that this is potentially a useful opportunity for addressing the training and development needs of public library staff while they try to provide relevant and appropriate services to their customers in a fast-changing world. There are, however, three issues which we feel could compromise, or even completely de-rail, the outcomes of this exercise if they are not addressed:

(1) Currently the only reward system for excellent public librarians is for them to move into generic management. This is perverse as:

·         An excellent librarian is not necessarily a good generic manager;
·         If the United Kingdom is serious about wanting to be a player in the Knowledge Economy then it cannot afford to waste the community-level knowledge management, information literacy and reading development skill sets of the public librarian. Why go to the trouble of sending somebody to library school if they’re going to spend all day doing sickness returns and reporting building repairs?

CILIP's current position on this is unfortunate: it is very keen to promote librarians as professionals but this is the only profession where personal advancement is predicated on the abandoning of professional practice

(2) The limited opportunities for career development of public librarians effectively imposes a glass ceiling on the career development of non-librarians in the public library sector. This has an increasingly difficult effect on the recruitment and retention of staff. There is another undesirable effect: there are excellent managers in all sectors of the economy who are not librarians; if the staff resources of the public library sector includes non-librarians with the potential to be excellent managers we should want to want to develop and keep their skills and abilities rather than stifle or lose them. There needs to be a career development path for non-librarians that rewards the excellent work that many of them do in the public library sector and provides the sector with the opportunity to use their talents.

(3) Public libraries are very front-line-focused, often to the detriment of support and training activities. There is no point in there being an excellent training and development package in place if staff do not have the chance to take up the opportunity. As we saw with the NOF-funded training, the need to cover the needs of the service can turn a major opportunity into a worry for managers and a source of resentment for front-line staff. This is especially true in authorities like Rochdale where scant staff are thinly spread over many service points. If staff can't take up the development opportunities then the exercise becomes at best an irrelevance and at worst a bad joke and an impediment to good staff relations.

It is also worth flagging up a potential abuse of the outcomes of this exercise: there is the danger that any qualification will become another recruitment hurdle rather than a career development opportunity. We already see nationwide that an essential requirement for ECDL is being used as the lazy recruiter's shorthand for "must be able to demonstrate computer literacy and we don't want the bother of working out how to define our needs in any measurable way, nor do we want to provide ECDL training for our staff." ECDL has become the modern equivalent of "must have six O-levels." Anyone with a degree in computing but no ECDL need not apply. One of our members attended a national event on the future of public libraries and was shocked that a workshop on staff training needs became a bunch of chief librarians moaning that not enough people with ECDL apply for jobs in libraries. It is important that qualifications should be recognised as proof of some degree of attainment but it is also important to recognise that there is more than one way to demonstrate most skill sets.

Given LLUK's brief it is unreasonable to expect that it should be able to tackle the root and branch structural issues involved in (1) and (2), especially given CILIP's current support of the status quo. However, we do feel that LLUK can usefully call for the need to retain and reward the public librarian's skill set at a community level. LLUK can also usefully acknowledge the importance of, and seek to exploit, the skill sets, experience and dedication of all public library staff in the informal learning economy. We also feel that any training and development outcomes should reflect the needs of the public library service, not the particular management structures.

Starting from where we are the challenge is to provide career development opportunities for all library staff without making librarians feel that their qualifications are worthless. Luckily, in one key area the obvious training path does precisely that. 

We propose that LLUK put together a qualification for Public Library Management, covering three core elements:

·         The public library service: the philosophy and aims of the service; good practice models for the delivery of Information Literacy, Reader Development and Cultural Identity at strategic and community levels; the statutory basis for the services we provide (not just the Public Library Act!); the government-level matrix management of the public library service, including the challenges and opportunities in the statutory bases of every governmental department; national and international public library NGOs; public library performance measurement; and good practice models for cross-sectorial working with academic organisations and with the voluntary and private sectors.
·         Public administration: local government organisation, philosophy and finance; working with elected members; statutory controls; good practice models for interdepartmental working; local government performance management and development; and effective (and appropriate) lobbying.
·         Management skills: project management; personnel management and development; financial planning and control; performance measurement; resource procurement; writing business plans, funding bids and reports; and good practice models for strategic and tactical planning, operational management and delivery.

This qualification would provide a good grounding for people wishing to move into the management of public library services. The advantage to the librarian would be that they will already have covered parts of this curriculum in their library training and so will start the course with their feet a couple of rungs up the ladder. The advantage to the non-librarian would be that there would be a ladder in the first place. The advantage to the service and, importantly, its customers would be that the people running the service will have had the opportunity for a more robust foundation to their skill set than is often currently the case.

We also suggest that LLUK look at the provision of courses and qualifications addressing front-line skills such as:

·         Customer care, including dealing with enquiries effectively; applying appropriate limits to delivery (not getting out of your depth and how to tell a customer that there are some things the library can't, or won't, do and they can't have everything they want when and how they want it in this life); assertiveness skills; and presentational skills.
·         Activity and event management, including small-scale project planning and management; marketing and promotion; health and safety; addressing the audience; keeping it practical; delivering the event; and reporting back to interested parties.
·         Community development, including how to work with community groups; promoting and providing the library as a venue; and promoting and providing library services outside the library.
·         Computer skills, including training in the use of computers in a public library context (contra the standard ECDL training, where people who are working day in, day out with sophisticated databases in their library management systems are told that they don’t know about databases if they don’t know how to build a flat table in MS Access); how to support public use of computers; e-learning and e-government taxonomies and metadata standards; Web 2.0 tools; etc.

It should be noted that a lot of existing courses already cover these areas. Unfortunately they are provided by very many different organisations and at irregular intervals and it can be a full-time job just tracking down what's available. It is also unfortunate that so many of the courses that are available are provided only at London venues. The cost of overnight stays or exhorbitant rail fares is a barrier to the take up of those courses. It would be useful if some sort of co-ordinated pattern of training held at regional venues could be established.

Making staff available for training is a major issue. One solution would be for DCMS or MLA to fund additional staff cover for this purpose. Experience would suggest that this would be both inadequate and unsustained. An alternative would be for one of the CPA-related public library performance indicators to be a measure of the training time per capita of staff, with due safeguards for what constituted "training time." This would give local authorities a financial incentive to provide training cover for library staff. By happy accident it would also give library managers an argument against freezing or cutting front-line vacancies for budgetary purposes. Or else we could carry on as we are, in which case LLUK is wasting its time.

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