Columbus Metropolitan Library – treasure and tranquillity. 

One of the joys of attending international conferences, and being CILIP President, is that I’m lucky enough to visit some superb libraries. This year (2016) the location for the World Library and Information Congress is Columbus, Ohio. In June 2016 the Columbus Metropolitan Library reopened after a sixteen month closure for a refurb, and so I stopped by for a look around. Actually refurb is too small a word for the extraordinary work that has gone on at Columbus Metropolitan. The library has benefitted from an investment of 35 million dollars, and on visiting it is immediately apparent where this money has been spent. 

You enter the library through the grand and monumental entrance of the 1907 Carnegie building. The original features of this building have been preserved, and now contain art displays within the Carnegie Gallery space. On the front steps of this building, carved in stone, is the legend “My treasures are within” – what better statement could welcome us to a library? Walking through this classical space, under some dazzling art, you enter the main atrium of the library. 

 

  The new atrium has been opened up with high windows to let natural light flood in making this one of the most dramatically impressive library spaces that I have ever been in. Immediately to your right is the new children’s library, and this is no tucked away apologetic space – this is a large and bright space beautifully fitted out for children. I love the fact that there is space for reading, space for storytelling and space for looking things up…in fact there is a space for whatever a child’s imagination reaches  out for. You can see the planning process here, and it really has children at the heart of it.

The central atrium

Stairs to the upper levels

 The atrium leads through to a coffee shop and then out to the newly purchased and landscaped garden area, which in turn leads in to the wonderful Topiary Garden. If you head up the stairs (or the elevators) the first thing you’ll find is the huge reading room. This is another cathedral of natural light with towering walls of glass that overlook the park. 

The rest of the library fans out around and above this space flanked by rows of neat study rooms. The flow of the lending and reference sections feels very organic and each section leads seamlessly into another. It really is a remarkable space, and staffed by enthusiastic and helpful librarians. (Yes, every person I spoke to was a qualified librarian) 

The reading room

 As I was wandering around I bumped into Pat Losinski, the CEO of the library. I must say that I was most impressed to find the CEO walking around and chatting to library users. He is justifiably proud of what they have achieved here, and what they are working on with the other Columbus libraries. They have already fully refurbished four libraries, and within the next two years the remaining six in the project will be opened. Pat told me how much value the people of Columbus place on their libraries, and how important literacy is to a successful city, and a successful country.  

Art in the Carnegie space

 One thing really struck me about the Columbus Met Library – the overwhelming feeling of calm that the space exudes. The Columbus Met is not an echoing modern edifice, but is in fact a blissfully quiet space. This does not feel forced and stifling, it actually feels genuinely refreshing and spiritually uplifting to enter. The place was very busy as I walked around, but the design seems to deaden the noise and allows people to keep that peaceful sense of calm without feeling restricted. No one is telling people to shush, and it is clear that library users are quiet because that’s how they want to be, and that’s how they want the library to be. 

Child-sized doorway of the children’s library

I know that there is a tendency these days to voice the opinion that silence is an old-fashioned concept for libraries, but I feel that we give up our quiet public spaces at our peril. There are plenty of places in our communities in which to be noisy, but remarkably few places that are quiet havens. The world is a noisy and demanding place, and libraries can offer a peaceful balance to this. Where else can we go for quiet study, reading or just to sit and ease our mental clutter? A free and open space where we can sit and gather our thoughts is hugely beneficial to our mental health and wellbeing, and I do think that it is important that we don’t forget that. 

Columbus Metropolitan Library is a remarkable space, and I think that Pat Losinski said it best of all when I complimented him on his beautiful library. 

“Thank you,” he said, “but it’s not my library, it belongs to everyone.”

Dawn Finch

President, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)

Children’s writer and librarian. 

@dawnafinch 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE LIBRARIES OF COLUMBUS, OHIO – CLICK HERE.

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Lighting the way – Libraries and Wellbeing

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The CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries group this year hosted their first conference and the theme of the two day event was the contribution that libraries make to the wellbeing of their communities. The conference had a superbly well-timed focus as the link between reading and wellbeing has never been better documented. Over the past few years we have seen the publication of many robust reports that prove that reading and libraries are vital to the wellbeing and mental health of their communities.

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Over the two day event we heard from many speakers, all of whom had a direct involvement in the wellbeing agenda and how this relates to libraries. First up we heard from Paul Blantern, of the Sieghart Libraries Taskforce, who talked about the need for a national framework for libraries so that we could have a “consistent library offer” right across the country. During his talk he drew attention to the fact that libraries are often seen as the easy way to make cuts, but this will reflect upon the other services offered. He also talked about why libraries are important, what they offer to their communities, and how the Taskforce hopes to protect them.

Photo 12-10-2015 13 00 54One of the most interesting speakers of the day was Brian Ashley from from Arts Council England who talked about the financial impact of the library contribution to health and wellbeing. Brian’s talk was drawn from the Arts Council commissioned report “The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Public Libraries”. His talk was filled with some astonishing data such as the fact that library users are more likely to report better health, and less likely to take trivial issues to a doctor. This relates to a saving of an estimated £25m a year to the NHS. Extraordinary figures, and it seems pure folly that this is not taken into account by Government.

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Mike Brook talked about the success of a Library Mental Health festival and he stressed the importance of the safe haven that a library provides for anyone with mental health issues. The need for this sort of space in our communities can’t be underestimated. He also talked about how to market and advertise the event so that it reached the right people.

Photo 12-10-2015 13 03 58The event also provided a number of workshops to help librarians support their communities in ways that they might not have previously considered. I chose to go to Jacquie Widdowson’s workshop on marketing and social media – an essential skill for the 21st Century Librarian! She gave invaluable advice on how to reach more people and how to extend the library welcome to people who might not have previously considered the library as their kind of space.
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I was particularly moved by the workshop that I attended run by Julie Walker. Julie is a Bibliotherapist who works with Kirklees Library (and others) and she talked about what bibliotherapy is and how it helps people. She explained how it supports vulnerable people and showed us just how powerful the right text is at the right time. During the workshop she handed out short extracts of carefully chosen poems and asked if people would like to read them aloud. The emotions that bounced around the room made for an amazing demonstration of just how powerful this service is.

Photo 12-10-2015 13 00 34We also heard talks about how Staffordshire is supporting the mental health and wellbeing agenda in their libraries, and Carol Brooks talked about how important personal resilience is. Alan Medway gave a presentation about Staffs libraries and their decision to support issues such as dementia via their library provision. The whole event was filled with inspiring and useful talks and was a great success.

My own talk was about the powerful positive impact that reading for pleasure can have on all of our lives, and how libraries can fit in with that. You can download my presentation below, and please drop me a line if you would like to ask me anything about it, or would like me to come and speak at your event.

Libraries offer a unique service as they are the trusted and safe spaces that exist in our communities. In order to successfully fulfill this agenda we require something very special in our communities – a professional librarian who is trusted, knowledgeable and reliable.

Libraries save lives, let’s make sure that everyone is aware of that, and that people are aware of exactly how much we will suffer as a society if we lose them.

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A selection of documents referred to during the 2015 CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries Conference.

Dawn Finch –PMLG conference presentation – slides

Arts Council England – Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Public Libraries – full report

Sieghart Report (Independent Report of Public Libraries)  – full report

Carnegie Trust – Speaking Volumes, Libraries and wellbeing leaflet and infographic – leaflet

Kirklees Council – Well Into Words (information about bibliotherapy)

Bibliotherapy in action – Well into Words – video

Reading Agency – Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment – full report

Article by Dawn Finch – Vice President of CILIP. Librarian, children’s author and literacy consultant

@dawnafinch

http://www.dawnfinch.com

Libraries – “isn’t it all on the Internet?” NO!

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The reaction to the publication of the Sieghart Report highlighted a number of important issues about public libraries, but one above all others – politicians clearly have absolutely no idea at all what librarians do and what libraries are for.
Sadly there still exists the antiquated and naive view that libraries are only required for people who want to borrow a book. This is utter nonsense and deserves to be challenged. That is as narrow a view as suggesting that trains are only for delivering people to work.
So, for all of those people who still haven’t bothered to find out what libraries and librarians actually do, let’s have a closer look at that.

Let’s look at a day in our imaginary library. Our imagined library is in a rural community of around 7000 people, mainly young families and older people. The community is thirty miles from the nearest big city and has an erratic train link and a limited bus service. There is no community centre and no Citizens Advice Bureau. The council offices are out of town, as is the hospital and minor injuries clinic, and other local provisions have been cut. Even though this is an imagined community it is one that is mirrored all over the country.

One of the things that our imaginary town does have, is a library. Built with philanthropic money at the turn of the 20th Century it is in the market square, right in the middle of the town in a place designed to be accessible for all. The people of our community rely on the library for many things.
A young mother needs helps filling in the forms to apply for school for her children because she has no one at home to help her. She goes to the library and the librarian helps her to find the forms online and fill them in so that her child can go to school.

A couple need help finding out what services or help is available for their elderly parents. They go to the library and the librarian gives them information about books on wheels, local care provision and what benefits they might apply for.

An elderly person living alone faces another winter in isolation. She goes to the library and the librarian helps her to apply for winter fuel allowance online, and then she sorts out a volunteer to pop around with books and shopping once a week.

A young couple have moved into the area and do not know anyone. They join the library and the librarian tells them all about local childcare, local clubs and facilities. They borrow books and leaflets about the area and even join local reading groups.

A man is told by his doctor that his vision is failing. He talks to his librarian and she helps him to register online for services for visual impairment and, twice a week, she helps him to choose audio books by reading the boxes out to him. She even saves audio books for him that she knows he will like and she knows which ones he has already had.

What else are you looking for? List of local doctors and dentists? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Information about local planning applications? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Can’t work out how to use your computer? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Stuck at home with small children and need some time-out? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Lonely, depressed, isolated? Go to the library and talk to the librarian (or just be somewhere safe and warm.) Need some help with your studies and don’t have the support or technology at home? Go to the library and ask the librarian……
Getting the idea?

We need to shake off the idea that all libraries are fit for is to borrow a book. Right from their inception that is not what libraries were for – they were for educating the people and providing information for those who would not have otherwise had access to it. I’m guessing that not all of the political parties are that keen on providing information to the masses and educating adults for free, because I can’t think of any other reason why they would not be supporting libraries and the professionals who run them.

This is not an old fashioned or twee idea of protecting an antiquated institution, but rather a 21st century idea to ensure that each and every community has access to the information it needs. Look at what we’ve done in our imagined community and see the bigger picture. The mother now has a place for her child in school, thus saving money and time for local authorities and for the school board. The couple have found support for their elderly parents and this means that they are able to stay in their home for a while longer thus saving the social services tens of thousands of pounds. The virtually housebound elderly lady now has visitors and is less isolated and has a winter fuel payment and is less likely to succumb to illness associated with age and cold. The young couple feel more engaged in their community and are more likely to contribute to it and to stay within it. The visually impaired man is now able to function in his community again and is less likely to have to rely on expensive care services.

Most of these people have also borrowed books (or audio books, or dvds, or cds, or leaflets….) but that’s not why they went there in the first place. They went there because they needed answers to questions that they did not know how to ask. The snobby response to this would be “they can look it up on the internet can’t they?” Can they? What if you live in a rural community where you don’t have internet access or phone signal? What if you don’t know exactly what question to ask? What if you do ask the internet, and it gives you a million hits and you don’t know which one to trust?

This is what libraries are for, and what professional librarians are for. It is monumentally short-sighted to cut away one of the most important services in a community without ever having a clear picture of what they do in the first place, but that is exactly what is happening all over the country. Librarians are being replaced with inexperienced volunteers who, with the best will in the world, will never be able to provide the service that a trained professional can. Libraries are either being closed or their hours are cut so that they are only able to provide an erratic and unreliable service. Schools have little or no library provision and  more often than not there is no trained professional to support their reading progression. The areas worst hit seem to be the ones that need the library the most; poor areas and ones in rural communities. The Sieghart Report has some valuable ideas in it but none of this will mean anything if the various political parties do not act upon it. Join the campaign for libraries and make sure that you and your family have access to something that will ultimately give you, and your entire community, a better standard of living – a library with a librarian. 

A full list of current (2104/2015) public library legislation is available here

For other ideas about campaigning and advocacy, you should also see Speak Up For Libraries. and follow @speakup4libs Many other counties also have powerfully active library campaigns, search twitter and social media for their details and please feel free to share your details in the comments below (note – all comments are moderated and so will not immediately appear)

 Article written by Dawn Finch 

Vice President CILIP

(@dawnafinch) author and children’s library and literacy consultant.

Footnote – this article is in an updated form, first posted April 2015

Reading – what’s in it for me?

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For those of us addicted to reading we know exactly how enjoyable it is, but in an increasingly busy world it is often hard to make time for it, so why should we bother? There is no doubt that reading improves literacy levels, and higher literacy levels allow people to gain better educational results, and in turn get better jobs, but is that enough of an incentive to make people want to read? Despite the evidence about the benefits of reading we still see reports in the news about falling national literacy levels and the decline in reading. The Reading Agency decided that in order to tackle this it was time to look beyond literacy levels and consider the wider personal benefits of reading for pleasure*.

The Reading Agency received generous funding from the Peter Sowerby Foundation for a collaborative project to develop a reading outcomes framework. The main aim of the project was to collate and summarise the findings of the most robust studies that related to non-literacy outcomes of reading for pleasure or empowerment*. A steering group was formed from the collaborative organisations and the report (conducted by BOP Consulting) was compiled. As Vice President of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) I was invited to be part of the steering group, and I am delighted to now be able to share this report.

The report: The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, contains a powerful and undeniable message – reading is good for you.

The report confirms that people who read for pleasure benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing. People who read for pleasure also have a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, and better communication skills. When we looked at the impact of reading for pleasure on people with increased health needs or issues, we found that people who were reading for pleasure demonstrated better health literacy, and were more able to cope with, and access, information related to their conditions. People who read for pleasure also showed lower levels of general anxiety.

For children and young people the evidence obviously demonstrated that children who read for pleasure had higher levels of educational attainment, but what is most interesting is how it improves the overall quality of their lives. Children and young people who read demonstrate significantly enhanced emotional vocabulary. In short, the young people who read like themselves better and cope with life better. They are more likely to use positive mental self -imagery and generally used more positive vocabulary in both their work and their lives.

This shows us that reading for pleasure is an important way of helping us to tackle issues such as social isolation, teenage depression, negative self-image, and social and educational disengagement. Reading for pleasure can make an isolated and depressed young person feel better about who they are and can make them more confident about the importance of their unique role in the world.

What can we do?
A key finding of the report is that extensive studies show that enjoyment of reading is a prerequisite for all these positive outcomes: people who choose to read, and enjoy doing so in their spare time, are more likely to reap all of these wider benefits. Negative attitudes towards reading for pleasure therefore have a much wider negative impact, and it’s essential that we create a far more positive attitude towards reading. We can throw out the “haven’t got time” and “reading is a waste of time” comments because we can clearly see that if you are reading for pleasure you are doing something that will improve the long-term quality of your life and your health.

It is worth noting that this process has to be about reading that is a free and voluntary choice. This is distinctly separate from learning how to read, and it is not the same as reading that is undertaken for study or educational purposes. In order to benefit from the wider outcomes of reading for pleasure we need to focus only on one word – pleasure. At school a focus should remain on uncritical free voluntary choice reading. Children and young people should be able to read freely from a wide range of material. They should be able to choose whatever format and style of reading material they want without feeling that it is yet another lesson or form of study. To facilitate this it is simply not enough to only have reading schemes and reading lessons, pupils of all ages require access to a well stocked school library and this will give them a better chance of becoming lifelong readers. To nurture a reading for pleasure environment all children should have access to someone who can help them to navigate the maze of books and reading in a positive way – logic dictates that this should be a school librarian.

Reading is good for you, and is something that we should all do at every stage in our lives in order to benefit personally. This should start at the cradle with reading aloud and sharing stories, and should move through our lives as pastime that is perceived as enjoyable. Reading is habit forming, and the children of readers read and are more likely to accept books and reading into their lives. We cannot expect our future adults to become readers if the only books they know are those on the reading scheme.

It doesn’t have to be expensive (remember, librarians are there to help you for free), and it doesn’t have to be great works of worthy literature. The evidence shows that all that matters is that people are reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction in any form, and that they are reading it simply because they want to. No discrimination was made about the type of reading material, or the format – all reading is good reading as long as you are doing it because you have chosen to. We need to throw out the false idea that reading is an elitist or snobby pastime that is only for the idle, and that only “good” books matter – this is simply not true.

We are bombarded with health messages that we should be acting upon, but this report shows that reading for pleasure is the simplest and most enjoyable way to gain a significant number of long-term health benefits.

So stop feeling guilty! When you’re reading you’re not wasting time, you’re working on your long-term health.
The message is simple – pick up a book, and feel better!

Dawn Finch
Vice President CILIP
CWIG Committee
Children’s author and school library consultant.
www.dawnfinch.com
@dawnafinch

Links and the technical stuff…..
The full Literature Review document can be downloaded from the Reading Agency’s website and it contains a full bibliography of all of the research used. Please share and quote the report and use #readingforpleasure to keep the conversation going.

The Reading Agency worked in collaboration with the following organisations: Arts Council England, Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians, Book Trust, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Education Endowment Foundation, National Literacy Trust, Publishers Association, Scottish Library and Information Council, Society of Authors and the Society of Chief Librarians.
The report was compiled by BOP Consulting with funding from the Peter Sowerby Foundation 

* For the purposes of the report the phrases “reading for pleasure” and “recreational reading” are used interchangeably within the body of the document. We defined this as “non-goal orientated transactions with texts as a way to spend time, and for entertainment.”
The term “reading for empowerment” is (for the purposes of this report) defined as “transactions with texts as a means of self-cultivation and self-development beyond literacy”. For example reading non-fiction material such as craft or self-help books.
Both terms were used to define reading for pleasure and empowerment in all formats and media.

Full link URL – http://readingagency.org.uk/news/media/reading-for-pleasure-builds-empathy-and-improves-wellbeing-research-from-the-reading-agency-finds.html

The image used is licensed CCO public domain but courtesy credit due to bonnybbx, creator on Pixabay. Please always credit creators.

Librarians – let’s get out there!

This is a transcript of the closing speech for the joint CILIP Ireland / LAI conference in Belfast in April 2015.

Libraries – advocate and motivate!

Many of us work in isolation and conferences like this are our only chance to meet the other people who work within our service. We are unlike any other industry in that we largely work alone or in very small groups. To be able to attend extraordinary events like this not only keeps us up to date with what is new and current in our industry, but it allows us to discover that we are not alone in our trials and our adversities.

Libraries have never been at greater risk. Never. I have worked in libraries for over 27 years – through several restructures and reevaluations and reshuffles and several other things that regardless of the label hung on it meant job losses and a deterioration of the service available. This apparently was not enough and the erosion of the service has continued and has led us to this place where we are now. Thanks to the Seighart report we are now matched with railways and we are experiencing our Beeching moment. Actually, I think that this is an understatement. After Beeching it was still possible to catch a train, and the system is still recovering, but it is recovering. The same will not be said of libraries. When we lose our libraries they will be lost forever. This will be a single track line and there will be no recovering. No philanthropists will step in and rebuild. Losing our libraries will be an irreversible process.
So what can we do?

Of course our biggest problem is with governments and their inability to take the time to understand what libraries and librarians do and to find out exactly how important they are. This is largely because the people in power have a limited experience of libraries that is essentially an oak panelled silent room in their old prep-school or a silent brandy-fuelled room at the club reeking of aged and over-stuffed old-boys and cracked leather armchairs. They feel that it is fine to protect that sort of library, but do the poor and huddled masses really deserve access to that?

One of the most crucial outward problems facing libraries today partially rests in the perception of libraries. There still exists a perception that libraries are a middle-class remnant of a stuffy past that has no place in the 21st century. If we step outside into the streets and ask people to describe what a library is there is a very good chance that people will still describe this….

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Is this not what a library looks like?

Why do we bristle at this statement – because we know it to be false. We know that when people think of libraries they really should be thinking of spaces like this.

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This is the plan for the new National Library of Kazakhstan and it is a far better illustration of what we know a modern library looks like. We have dozens of examples of such modern community hubs and we know that our libraries are essential and lively 21st century spaces that serve our communities (be they schools, universities or academic establishments) We know that our communities would be significantly less successful without our presence. We know this because we are in these libraries every day and we are able to track their impact.
How do others know? What are we doing to ensure that the wider community is aware of the importance and impact of libraries?

So often all that the non-library using public see of libraries is when another campaign starts. Campaigns do work, especially noisy ones, but the most effective campaigns are ones that bring to bear the power of hearts and minds. We can’t expect people who have never used a library to understand what a librarian does or what a library can do for them – we have to show them. We have to make our voices heard in a way that is positive and affirming.

So how can we do this?
Use your users. One of the problems that we have with library campaigns is that it is often perceived as people just trying to protect their jobs – jobs that people do not understand or value. We need to better demonstrate what we mean to the people who use our libraries. Use your users to write about about what the library means to them, not what it means to you. A perfect example of this is the recent blog post at CILIP about prison libraries.

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Ex-prisoner Jonathan Robinson – a man who really understands how vital libraries and librarians are to the process of rehabilitation.

How much more effective is it to hear the voices of people whose lives have been changed for the better by the support of the library and the librarian? We actually have no shortage of support, but it is directing that support to the right people that can make a difference. Find out who has the most potential impact in your field or your county and get them on your side. Use the famous, use writers, broadcasters, sports personalities, local youth workers, schools, anyone who can be useful to get the message to a wider and more responsive audience.

Make sure that you are concentrating on the impact of the professional. Many library campaigns concentrate on the impact of the service, and not those delivering it. Talking about the professional is our job and we should be doing it as effectively as the campaigners are doing with the service. When you talk about digital literacy, make sure that you talk about the librarian that will deliver this service. It is not enough to save a library to have it staffed with volunteers, no matter how well meaning they are – this is not a sustainable system. Talk about the librarians and show why they are important.

Stay positive. As library campaigners it is vital that we stay positive about the benefits and usefulness of a well-run library. As a life-long campaigner for change I know that the angrier the campaign, the less people listen. These are stressful financial times for everyone, and so people need to feel something on an emotional level to stand by you and make a difference. Yank those heartstrings with positive tales and case histories and show the benefit and wider value of your library to its users.

Be seen! Be seen as an individual, not just as a faceless organisation. This is not just about a building with books in. A building with books in is not a library – no matter what the government would have people believe. You cannot run a library with volunteers – that is just a book lending service and that’s a completely different thing to a real library service. Make sure that people can see you and, in turn, that they understand what you do.
Blog, tweet, facebook, speak, get out there! Join with others and support each other. Conferences are the perfect opportunity to network and to show support for others. Take every opportunity to forge new links and new bonds with anyone who does what you do.
Show people what we do – show them that we are not just sitting there reading and waiting for a book to stamp out. Show people what you do in your service point and how you do it.

So what do we do? Who are we? Why do people deserve a real librarian and not a volunteer? This slide explains exactly what we do and why we are so essential to supporting our communities.

Qualified professionals infographicOne of the key elements of the campaign to erase the library service relies in part on all of us in the profession having divisions. It relies on academic libraries not supporting school libraries, public libraries not supporting health libraries, legal libraries not supporting prison libraries. We need to unite to ensure that we are providing an intermeshed and overlapping service – one access point effortlessly linking to the next.

Show your societal value. We do the most important job. We live in a time where the quantity of information available increases every second. With each passing moment the world faces another tide of information and only one sector of society can help to ride that wave and not drown.

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There has been a great deal of talk about the current government’s pledge to commit 7.4m towards wifi in public libraries and the campaign for digital literacy. We all know why this is so important. Those who are digitally literate have greater personal freedom and earn more.
People with good ICT skills earn between 3% – 10% more than those without.
72% of employers would not even interview entry level candidates with no ICT skills.

Who is at the cutting edge of this digital literacy revolution?
We are.
Our sector.
We are the only ones in the right place to provide management of that knowledge in all its forms and to help people to access and organise it. We are all that stands between the population and fifty million hits on videos of cats riding vacuum cleaners. We are the information conduits, we are the managers of information and we need to make sure that people understand how important this is.

These are dangerous times for libraries, librarians and for anyone who works in knowledge management. This is the time to represent a unified front. This is the time to unite and speak as one to stop the rot that threatens to destroy our libraries. If this destruction is allowed to happen, there will be no going back. If public libraries fall then there is a genuine risk that other information service points will fall in their wake. If we lose access to the unique skills that only a librarian can offer we will become weaker as a nation because of it.

Stick together, build networks, cross services and make sure that people realise that this is not just about buildings and property assets, this is not just about wages or cutting costs for local government, this is about the professionals who provide a service that ultimately improves the quality of life for every single member of our 21st Century communities.
This is what truly makes a library – a librarian.
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The harsh truth about volunteers.

Please note – blog posts automatically close after 50 days.

As always I am pleased to read of any county that announces that they have “saved” their libraries, but I am increasingly seeing that this act of supposed salvation comes at a cost. That cost is losing trained and professional staff, i.e librarians.
Many County Councils are now announcing that their libraries will be “saved”
and that thanks to their glorious new restructuring it will instead be run by “skilled volunteers”
Hmmm, let’s have a look at the truth and workability of that statement shall we?

I’ve worked in the service a long time and (because I’ve worked my way up) I’ve seen pretty much every aspect of it. I’ve worked as a volunteer, and I’ve worked with them, and I’ve organised them. The truth about volunteers is a harsh one, and I apologise to any volunteers if they know that this is not them, but in my experience the points below show the truth of what happens when you rely on volunteers in the long term.
Fine (and incredibly helpful) to use them for occasional top-ups (for example during the hugely busy Summer Reading Scheme season) or for supporting outreach services, such as book deliveries for the housebound or for care homes, but not for core or essential services.
Apart from the obvious denigration of the skills of trained professionals, why can’t we use volunteers for everything?
Here are a few reasons why….

You can’t timetable them.
Volunteers want to work at a time that suits them, not you and not the service. You can’t insist that they work late evenings and weekends like paid staff. They will only work at a time that is convenient for them. Of course they do, they are volunteers and have no contract of employment with you so why should they work when you want them to work?

They cancel at a moment’s notice
That’s because they can. They are not being paid and so if the boiler man wants to come round, they cancel. Waiting on a delivery? Cancel. Daughter popped round for lunch? Cancel. Bit of a hangover? Cancel. Lovely sunny day so decided to have a day out instead? Cancel.
Of course they can do this, they aren’t being paid! You have no right to expect them to come in and no contract of employment to force them to so they have every right to ditch.

You have little or no recourse when they are bad at what they do.
I’ve worked with many volunteers and I remember a good number of ladies who were long term volunteers for the housebound. They were rude. No two ways about it, they were rude, controlling, aggressive and arrogant. We could do nothing at all about this because they were volunteers and without them several housebound people would have no contact with another living soul from one week to the next. We couldn’t sack these ladies or demand they modify their behaviour because we had no contract of employment with them (see the pattern beginning to emerge?)

You can’t insist that they undergo extensive training.
It takes a vast amount of training to deliver a successful library service at the frontline. You can’t insist that your well-meaning volunteer attend several dozen courses to be able to deliver that service because they are just volunteers and you have no legally binding contract of service with them.

You can’t insist on an apolitical standpoint.
Some volunteers may well have strong political leanings that will influence their responses and the way they deal with the public. You can not enforce an apolitical standpoint upon them because they are volunteers and you have no contract with them to ensure that they only express neutrality.

They are not protected in the event of injury or incident.
I have known a good number of librarians who have been injured during their work. This ranges from people who have put their backs out to people who were punched and one who was stabbed. These staff members were supported by their employers and were able to get well and were supported through various crises. You can’t do that with volunteers (no contract remember!) and so their only recourse will be to sue the county. Good luck with that!

They only do what they want to do.
Yes, shelving a couple of hundred books can be boring, so is heaving a load of deliveries around or doing an extensive weed or stock check – but it’s all part of the job. It’s much more enjoyable mooching around in the reference section, or looking through new books, or chatting with your friends who just happen to have dropped by. Library assistants on a contract can be instructed to do the dull stuff because they are paid to. People who have no pay and no contract don’t want to do the dull stuff – why would they? They start off agreeing to, but all too soon you are drowning in returns and the shelves are a mess with things put back incorrectly. In my experience it takes about three weeks for someone to get to the NAD method of shelving (Near As Dammit)

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Some volunteers will inevitably abuse their power. These will be the most reliable volunteers in terms of available time and they will make your libraries less pleasurable places to visit. They will be controlling and suffocating and will turn people off visiting the library. You can’t do anything about this because you have no contract of employment with them and can’t insist that they modify their behaviour.

They drift off.
In the beginning you will have lots of volunteers. Plenty of people will come forward and say that they will help out and for a while you will be overwhelmed by the lovely support your library has.
This will not last. In a year or two you will be left with a tiny core of people who are still devoted, but who are essentially running the library on their own. You will be completely reliant on the two or three people who remain loyal, and they will be working full-time equivalent hours in a desperate attempt to keep the place open. If there is one paid librarian left in the building to oversee this (and I stress the “if” there) they will be on a zero hours contract that occasionally affords them a day off, but otherwise requires them to work every late, and every anti-social day (such as Saturday and Sunday) due to the lack of available volunteers.
It will become virtually impossible to get more volunteers because in a more rural community you may have simply exhausted all available people, and in most areas people will tire of working that hard for free. Students will graduate and get jobs, and other people will find that it no longer fits with other aspects of their lives. Most will simply find it tiresome and demanding and they will gradually drift away. You can do nothing about this because they are volunteers and you have no contract with them over things like working hours, or the need to notify you a good time in advance that they no longer wish to do it.

They don’t really know what they are doing.
No offence intended to volunteers here, but the scale of work expected of them is a bit terrifying! Being a librarian is a hugely complex task that involves an incredibly broad skillset. I’ve been doing this for over a quarter of a century and I pedal hard to keep up with all the relevant changes that impact the library service and how we deliver that to our customers. I don’t have all the answers to enquiries from members of the public, but I sure as hell know where to find them. This is because I’m a professional – not a volunteer. You can’t expect volunteers to be able to do this. Customers will soon be frustrated by not being able to ask a question and receive the correct answer, and so they will simply stop asking, and will stop using the library. Catch 22.

This is just a very small snapshot of the potential barriers to delivering a quality service only using volunteers. I have had many wonderful and supportive volunteers in my time (and I thank them and they know who they are and I was able to do a better job thanks to them) but they operated with me, and ultimately the buck stopped with me – the paid and experienced professional. I am a strong willed person who was perfectly prepared to tell a volunteer that I no longer required their services, and so I was able to work with people who stuck at it and were superb – but that meant that I went from dozens down to three who were actually reliable and trustworthy – and that was in a school where I was lucky enough to have access to well-educated and involved parents.
When I was in public libraries it was a genuine nightmare keeping reliable and effective volunteers, and it was far worse for my colleagues who were in poorer or more rural locations.

We, as members of the public, deserve better. We deserve (and are legally entitled to) a library service that delivers not only books but is a free public access point to information. We deserve someone qualified in knowledge and information management who is best able to provide that service – and that’s a real librarian.
This is not just about saving jobs, it’s about communities receiving that which they are legally entitled to. If all of your health visitors or community pharmacies were run by volunteers you would not accept it – don’t accept it from your one and only community information point either. Don’t let the Powers That Be convince you that you can find out all the information you require on your own, that’s a fallacy. You can find out all the legal information that you need on the Internet – but at some point you will need a trained professional to help you. Imagine if it was accepted that solicitors could be unqualified volunteers too? Or nurses?
Yes, you can wrangle around on the Internet when you have a question about issues that affect you locally (or nationally) and then you can wade through 50,000+ pages of disorganised information hoping you’ll strike upon the right one. Or, you can visit the information and knowledge management specialist in your community (aka the librarian) and ask them and they’ll give you the right answer.
You can’t rely on a volunteer to do that. If you are tempted to volunteer, don’t. You will not be protecting your public library by volunteering, you will only be supporting a fatally flawed scheme that will eventually bring about its demise.

Running libraries on volunteers is not a cheap and effective way of saving your local library service, it is a carcinogenic scheme that will ultimately kill it.

Dawn Finch Library and Literacy Consultant
Children’s Author

Footnote – ALL OPINIONS ARE MY OWN.
IF YOU ARE UNDER A GAGGING ORDER AND WISH TO CONTACT ME IN CONFIDENCE, PLEASE USE THE CONTACT FORM ON www.dawnfinch.com

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Library Campaigns – Bring the noise!

2015 rolls us towards one of the most potentially interesting General Elections that the UK has ever seen. At the present time the country is governed by a jumbled pairing of parties that no one actually voted in, all carrying the baggage of policies that didn’t come to pass, and stacking up a whole mess of broken promises.

All of this confusion has left most of us unsure of who to vote for. The lines between the parties have become increasingly blurred, and it is genuinely difficult to put a white paper between them. People deserve to understand the policies that are relevant to their lives and to their communities. We need access to information more than ever, and yet never has it been more convoluted and confusing. We need a way to access information and, once upon a time, this was simple thanks to the public library. I firmly believe that every community is best served by access to a well run and appropriately funded library service, however this service has never been more at risk.

Despite cross-party claims of support, and claims to be supporting a push for raising levels of national literacy and digital inclusion, there have never been more libraries at risk of closure.

As a follow-up to my post about what public libraries actually do, I attempted to gather together links to petitions and campaigns that are trying to save this essential aspect of our lives.  It is incredibly sad just how many libraries are under threat. I was curious as to just how many libraries and regions were affected, and my research made tragic reading. As my list became longer and longer, it became apparent just how potentially catastrophic this all could be.

The removal of library services not only means the loss of something irreplaceable for all of our communities, but also represents a significant breakdown in the democratic process of local government.  The campaigns in some of the regions might appear small, but that’s because the worst hit communities are often small, rural and poor. It is a shameful government that makes the most vulnerable and voiceless a target, but this has happened time and time again under this one.

The campaigns to protect libraries are not about protecting something antiquated and stuffy, or about saving  a twee manifestation of upper middle-class ideals, this is about protecting a service that not only makes a positive difference to all members of the community but one that actively improves the quality of the lives of its users.

We have all read many articles about the importance of raising the levels of national literacy, of the need to ensure digital literacy for all, of the positive impact of reading on educational levels, of how we have more students than ever, and of the need for more open communication of information to the people of the UK. So why would anyone want to cut the most successful way of dealing with all of those issues? Why would the parties not want to support the only service in the community that can tackle all of these issues at the front-line? The Sieghart Report on public libraries highlighted the fact that 35% of people use their libraries; so why would a government cut something that is used by over a third of the population?

The answer is – because it’s easy. It is easier to cut something that people in power don’t understand than it is to cut other more high-profile (and potentially political-career damaging) areas. It is easy to cut something that is used by over a third of the population as long as most of those users are too young to vote, or too vulnerable to fight back. It’s easy to attack those who do not have a loud enough voice to be heard when they protest. It is easy to cut services that some people have a false image of, and it’s easier to cut services where people have less fight.

So let’s bring them that fight! It’s time to bring the noise! Stand up for what you deserve, for what everyone deserves; library run by qualified professionals.

It is worth noting that I have been informed that many staff working within the public library system have been told by their authorities that they are not allowed to become “politically involved” in the campaigns to protect their libraries. This is why it is so important for library users to make a stand. It is vital that people all over the country make a stand before these services are lost forever.

Sign the petitions, write letters, join campaigns in your regions, make a noise on social media,  turn out for libraries and, when the election comes, vote for the parties who make a solid commitment to making a difference.

You can find full lists of campaigns through the websites of Public Library News  and The Library Campaign – and make a noise as part of Voices for the Library

Follow CILIP ElectionWatch to stay informed about which parties are prepared to make a solid commitment to our communities, and you can see a list of key advocacy issues and campaigns here on their website. On social media please follow and use #CILIPElect and #vote4libraries

Speak Up For Libraries annual conference is held towards the end of the year and full write-ups and further information can be found by using the link above or follow @speakup4libs

You can start off by joining in the celebrations for National Libraries Day – and really bring the noise!

Don’t let this be another one of those issues where you’re left singing – Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

NB – if you work for a public library and have been advised to not get involved in campaigns, please feel free to post your stories anonymously in the comments here.

Written by Dawn Finch

Library and Literacy Consultant

Children’s author and librarian.

 

Those links again………

www.publiclibrariesnews.com/

www.librarycampaign.com/

www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/campaigns/

CILIP advocacy pages

http://www.cilip.org.uk/cilip/advocacy-campaigns-awards/advocacy-campaigns/public-libraries/public-libraries-cilip-activity

CILIP ElectionWatch

http://www.cilip.org.uk/cilip/advocacy-campaigns-awards/advocacy-campaigns/electionwatch-cilip-campaign