Monday, 1 April 2013

'Quick' Chartership update (Part 1)...

So... it has been a few months since my last blog post and with CPD Things long done & dusted, I aim to now seamlessly morph these pages into my Chartership blog. My portfolio is coming along (...slowly!) and I have received some good advice lately on how to go about fulfilling some of those areas where I have been finding it trickier to gather evidence (quick tip: always store any emails and other correspondences which include feedback on your work). I gave a presentation to colleagues who are also either currently chartering or considering Chartership, explaining the relevance of international opportunities to CPD and explaining how I have been able to use the experience and knowledge I gained through my staff exchange to the US last year in my portfolio. 

I also had a look at the latest #Chartership Twitter chat. I was interested to find out there are some significant changes to Chartership procedures which will be announced in full at this year's Umbrella Conference and implemented in Autumn 2013. It is not yet clear what the impact of these changes will be for those of us already registered for Chartership but the New framework of qualifications pages on the CILIP website mention a "transition plan to ensure that candidates currently working on qualifications are not disadvantaged". I'll continue to plug away at it in the meantime but thought I would also take this opportunity to note down a few thoughts on libraries in 2013..

The sad fact is that much of what I have read about libraries this year has been frankly gloom-ridden. News that the UK "lost more than 200 libraries in 2012" at the start of the year did little to warm the cockles during the bitter (and seemingly endless) cold snap we have been experiencing here in the UK. 201 public branches closed last year, to be precise, according to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and what remains of the public library system is still as fragmented as ever. This was compounded by Eric Pickles' approval of the Arts Council's Report on Community Libraries. For some, this report is a cunning piece of political strategising, turning those who chose to staff volunteer libraries (often impassioned campaigners who are simply doing all they can to keep their libraries open) into unwitting foot-soldiers, leading the charge towards what commentators have described as the death of the library as we know it.

What has been a constant source of encouragement has been the dogged determination of some library campaigns. Though dismissed as "luvvies" by Pickles, there remains a fierce backlash from protestors against the Government's policy on libraries which will not be silenced. The image of Friern Barnet Library campaigners, along with members of the Occupy Movement, taking over a 'One Barnet' council meeting springs immediately to mind, along with marches and protest held across the length and breadth of the country (Newcastle and Gloucestershire as examples). Far from the image
Pickles imagines, a more appropriate comparison might be, say, Forrest Gump's Lieutenant Dan, with campaigners hollering against the tempestuous storm to get their voices heard!

Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump (Paramount, 1994)
Are libraries going the way of high street retail? The demise of big names like HMV, Jessops and Blockbusters hit the headlines earlier this year. Let's not get too sentimental about this, tough. As much as those who wax lyrical about how they miss the evocative sights and smells, the feel of the products or the experience of browsing these stores, retailers (as the name suggests) are about one thing and one thing only, namely selling stuff. In simplistic terms, when these shops fail to adapt sufficiently to suit prevailing market conditions, their revenues from these sales fall and eventually their physical shops fall to competition from online alternatives (who do not have the same high rents [nor even taxes, often] to contend with). Libraries, on the other hand, have never depended upon users borrowing books to survive (at least not in a direct sense). Those who hold the purse-strings may well look at basic statistics like book issues when making decisions on library funding, yet this has never really been what the library is all about. The Guardian chat in January on 'What should a library look like in 2013?' attracted some 330+ comments, predominantly from activists with productive and inspiring ideas on what needs to be done to improve the perception of the importance of libraries in this day and age. Phil Bradley points out the critically of the community aspect of physical libraries, stating:
"An attack on a library service is nothing less than an attack on the community that it serves, and a closed library reduces the ability of people empower and improve their lot."
These were just some of the thoughts swirling around in my brain when I took a tour of the City Business Library (CBL) back in January. The CBL offers access to a variety of business databases, including FAME (Financial Analysis Made Easy) and Mint free of charge, predominantly to business practitioners, students and journalists. It is, however (to the surprise of many) a completely public, local authority library. Its location within the Guildhall in the City of London leads many to the assumption that it is a subscription-based facility, yet anyone can use it. The library also hosts between 60-80 events per month, ranging from 'Yoga for desk workers' to a graduate job club. Knowing that business databases, in particular, are an expensive resource, I asked the librarian who was giving the tour of the CBL whether high usage figures are needed to justify subscription to these. Her response was that although these were a consideration, decision-making processes were largely based upon discovering what users actually did with the information they found and what the outcome was of their research. Extensive feedback is collected from users on precisely this. For some, it may have helped them to find employment, whilst another example was given of entrepreneurs coming in to learn about the state of the market for particular products, then being able to set up businesses in appropriate areas.

The City Business Library is located in London's Guildhall

The CBL offers a range of careers advice sessions
many of which are practically free of charge

I also visited Shepherd's Bush Library which features a 'Work Zone' set up in partnership with Job Centre Plus, Ealing Hammersmith & West London College and others to actively help job-seekers. This provides training in key areas such as e-inclusion, literacy and numeracy, as well as apprenticeships and diploma courses (primarily focused around retail as the project is closely linked with the adjoining Westfield Shopping Centre). The service also offers financial services, such as debt support and benefit advice (services which are all the more important now, given the current political agenda of welfare cuts, compounded by the slashing of the Citizens Advice legal aid budget from £22m to £3m).

Shepherd's Bush Library's 'Work Zone'

Bright & shiny shelving at Shepherds Bush Library -
officially opened by Jeremy Paxman in 2009

These visits got me thinking more about libraries which offer users services which enable them to do things which have a real and tangible value and whether this implies a less passive role for the libraries of the future. Yet libraries have always provided services above and beyond the basic function of enabling access to collections, of course. The thing that struck me most about Westminster Libraries' open letter to their local Councillors in January was the sheer range of services offered, with at least 15 separate things which the library service can offer listed (this online booklet also outlines these, with training courses, reading groups and an 'Ask-a-Librarian' service featuring prominently).

A shift from the traditional role of libraries is also not implying that books will cease to be an integral part of what the physical library offers. As stated in the Guardian chat mentioned above, " didn't kill the radio star and the ebook won't kill libraries...." (courtesy of @RubyMalvolio)...or as Stephen Fry puts it, "Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators". In his LILAC conference address, Steven Wheeler noted how "books and ebooks are operating in a different ecosystem" and British Library CEO Roly Keating expands upon this, talking of a "revolution of blended media, with people switching back and forth between print and digital". The proposals outlined in the Seighart Review which looked into E-book lending and libraries could have a positive effect on physical libraries, recommending that fully-formed digital strategies will help to encourage communication with members and draw them into the physical library building. A greater role for libraries and librarians in encouraging open access publication is also expected and this is likely to translate to other library contexts too, for instance with more support for the publication of open access research in an academic environment.

Providing as many activities in a library which give the user opportunities to develop alongside some of the more traditional functions of the library (as a place to access information resources, to encourage independent thought and learning, as well as to support community cohesion) is the real challenge to libraries for me. In my opinion, this can only be achieved through the harmonious conflation of trained (and highly flexible!) staff, effective systems and quality architecture. I considered all of these elements in the dissertation I wrote for my MSc (completed in 2010) and have continued to explore the third of these factors, library design, in particular. 

I have also continually tried to find libraries which are doing something a bit different. My most recent travels took me to Rotterdam where, typically of Holland, libraries are characterised by bold and unique architecture - more of which to follow in part two of my year so far...

Rotterdam: often described as an "architect's playground"

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