Kent refuse to reveal rejected proposals…

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County Hall, Maidstone (image c/o John47kent on Flickr)

During a meeting earlier this year, proposals were put before the 73 Conservative members of Kent County Council regarding the future of libraries across the county.  It is alleged that these proposals included the potential closure of a substantial number of libraries across the county.  The Kent Messenger’s political editor, Paul Francis, wrote at the time:

 

“Precise figures are hard to come by but at least one source has mentioned over 40.”

There are presently over 100 libraries across the county, meaning that the proposals suggested the closure of nearly half of all the libraries in Kent.

Interestingly, not all the councillors were enthusiastic about the proposals:

“Sources say that many county councillors were aghast at the proposals, not least because some of those identified for closure were in Kent’s Conservative heartlands. Others pointed out that they had made various election commitments that local libraries in their areas would be safeguarded.”

Perhaps recognising the strength of many campaigns across the country, one councillor allegedly remarked:

“You can do more or less what you like to any other service and not many will care, but not to libraries.”

Read more at Voices for the Library.

Kent County Council – embarking on an #epicfail?

Is KCC making a big (and costly) mistake?

As I noted in an earlier blog post, Kent County Council are about to install RFID self-service units in libraries across the county.  The first batch of installations are due to take place in April with Dover, Deal and Sandwich first in line for the technology.  The council claims that introducing this technology will save money in the long run.  Of course, the system itself won’t save the council any money at all.  It will, in fact, cost more.  The only savings that Kent will make from installing this system is through the redundancies they will be making in the mistaken belief that they will need less staff to ensure that the roll-out of the equipment is successful.  Although, one suspects that part of their consideration is the future closure of a number of libraries across the county (more on that later).

Kent County Council seem to be banking on the fact that the equipment they are buying in will be cheaper, more efficient and relieve the pressure on staff (this ensuring they can offload a few without having an impact).  However, a recent survey should give them cause for alarm.  Conducted by Mick Fortune, the annual survey (see here for more details about the survey) into the current status of RFID in the UK library market produced some interesting (and disturbing results).  Feedback from the 2011 survey included the following remarks:

“2nd year of debate with our supplier re handhelds. No connectivity to LMS although we were sold product on understanding that LMS and handheld units were compatible.  Also some software doesn’t work on Windows 7 PCs – we have just upgraded our equipment to Win 7 so software unusable.”

“Have been very unimpressed by the equipment and the support offered. The machines look good but are very prone to failure.”

“We had very high demands on a rapid installation which all attempts were made to carry out. However we received little training at the time of various installs, and support since the installation has been extremely poor, in terms of speed of response, adequacy of response, communication, reference numbers, engineer visits (timing, lack of communication or notification), software upgrade/update information, …”

“Too early to give a definite response, and very difficult to measure because so many other variables have also changed, but there are indications that we overestimated the savings to be made on circulation functions.”

“Cause reliability issues with LMS.  High ongoing running costs”

“I wasn’t involved in the selection but there seems to have been unrealistic expectations of staff headcount reductions to offset against the capital expenditure”

“staff time not reduced”

“Only semi-functional system has not bred confidence amongst staff or public, take up low and slow, unable to deliver maximum / intended benefits.”

I think the most pertinent comments from Kent’s perspective are those suggesting that the cost reductions anticipated by the introduction of the system were exaggerated and the fact that staff time has been greatly impacted by their introduction (not a good sign if you are using the equipment as an excuse to get rid of staff).

Now, the council may well argue that I am being opposed to technology and opposed to developing a 21st century library service.  This is, of course, nonsense.  By all means the council should be looking at how to bring the service up to date.  However, this does not mean that the council should make decisions based on short term outcomes.  As I have argued before, now is not the right time for self-service in public libraries.  The technology simply isn’t ready yet (although it is getting there).  Decision making like this will have costly implications for the library service and for tax payers in the county.  Not wise in the current climate.  The best thing the council could have done was wait another year and then introduce the equipment, when the standards are all in place and the equipment is more efficient (and more cost effective).

But then there is the suspicion that this is all immaterial as the council will undoubtedly be closing libraries across the county sometime in 2012.  There are already rumours at County Hall of a list of libraries that are earmarked for closure.  It would certainly appear that the most likely candidates for closure will be those libraries that will not be receiving self-service equipment, and those that are only staffed by one assistant.

I have raised my concerns with Councillor Mike Hill about the introduction of these units at this time and the decision to make staff redundant to enable their introduction, but as yet I have had no response.  I sincerely hope that Kent have carefully considered all the implications of introducing RFID and have not simply seen it as a cheaper alternative than employing staff (which it appears that they have done).  If they have not, it will very likely result in poor customer satisfaction and, as with all services whether private or public, poor customer satisfaction is likely to lead to a decline in usage of the service.  And we know what a decline in usage will lead to.  Watch this space for 2012.  Library closures are coming to Kent.

Kent Libraries – what’s going on??

Whilst campaigns have been going on up and down the country, it has been a little quiet in Kent over the past few weeks.  However, this does not mean that there is nothing going on.  On the contrary, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in regard to public libraries across the county.  A consultation will be launched this year on the future for libraries across the county, perhaps as soon as March.  Of course, this is going to take place after there has been a customer satisfaction survey made available in all static libraries (this is going to take place next week by the way so make sure you get to your local library, fill one in and state why the council should protect the library service not dismantle it).  So, what is going on behind the scenes?

Mike Hill, councillor for libraries, recently wrote:

Our vision is for a core of first-class modern libraries supplemented by smaller branch libraries where there is a proven need, and by a comprehensive mobile service to make sure there is widespread access to library services.

We will also explore and encourage the establishment of volunteer run libraries in line with the Big Society concept. Our detailed plans are still being developed and we will be consulting widely with the public this year before any firm decisions are taken.

Hmmm.  So, the ‘Big Society’ is at the heart of the council’s and libraries will be assessed according to ‘proven need’, whatever that might mean.  So, what of Kent’s ‘Big Society’ concept, what does it mean for taxpayers in the county?

The council is even raising some areas of spending, like IT, and a £5 million Big Society Fund is being created for town and village groups to tap into.

£5 million pounds for Big Society projects across the county.  Snip off £1 million of that and you get to have your project plus ensure that the libraries that are being considered for closure (and mark my words, they already know which ones they are going to close) remain open serving their communities as part of their real ‘Big Society’ (as opposed to the fake one imposed on them).  It is also worth pointing out that Kent County Council is taking part in the government’s Future Libraries programme.  According to the DCMS website, Kent is linked with Oxfordshire as part of this programme.  Oxfordshire plan to close 20 of the county’s 43 libraries.

Of course, the consultation is bound to be a sham.  As was revealed in Cambridgeshire, the consultation will merely act as a way for the council to get the changes it wants.  No doubt there will be a choice between a library closure or a volunteer run library, which is effectively no choice at all.  For most people, a volunteer run library is better than no library at all, but it is only marginally so.  Residents should be given the full range of options if it is to be a full and effective consultation.

So what now?  Well, first of all, make sure you get to your local library next week and complete a survey making clear what your views are on potential closures are reductions in service quality.  Make sure you make positive noises about the service as it is now, whilst also expressing your alarm and concern about the council’s intentions.  Secondly, if you want to set up a campaign group to pressure the council, please contact Voices for the Library at contact[at]voicesforthelibrary.org.uk.  We can help promote your campaign, send people in your direction and link you up with other campaigns to share experiences and ensure as effective a campaign as possible.  Furthermore, if you want advice or support in launching a campaign, you can also contact me (my details are via the contact tab at the top of the page).  Whilst I am unable to run a local campaign, I am more than willing to act as a liaison between a Kent campaign and Voices for the Library, as well as help establish a presence online.