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.

Librarian day/week in the life…

11.30am - time to send another FoI (image c/o ToniVC on Flickr)

I know I have kinda already written a blog post for the Library Day in the Life project, but I thought why not write a post summarising the week as a whole.  Of course, the fact that my original post appeared to have become more of a personal reflection on my school days rather than a useful post about what I do and what I am doing has some bearing on this.  To be honest, I just didn’t think I had done it justice.  So, here I am, about to over-compensate to the max.  One of these days I will strike the balance just right.  Today, however, is possibly not going to be one of those days.

As you will have noticed from my original post, the bulk of my job is spend dealing with spreadsheets.  Most of the time I am either preparing statistical data, or ensuring that our online holdings are accurate.  I also deal with student queries in relation to our online resources and some general queries about their library access.  This past week I have also been covering for a colleague in ensuring that all of our OPACs and self-issue machines are working correctly.  This week happened to be the week were we had a bit of an issue with a number of our OPACs.  Luckily it was easily resolved and there was a very limited impact on our students.

Away from work, a number of other things have been going on this past week.  As part of my ongoing attempt to find new ways to spread the word about Voices for the Library, I have been looking into a new opportunity that I think could be quite exciting.  One of the joys (and challenges it has to be said) about the campaign is the fact that it is run with a zero budget.  This means that we have to be quite creative with how we spread the word (which is why it started life on social networks).  I’m not convinced that we have fully broken out into the ‘offline’ world and I think we’d be the first to admit there is still work to be done there.  However, I think we have made good use of the resources at our disposal and I am still dead chuffed at the amount of followers we have both on Facebook and Twitter despite lacking a marketing budget.

Anyway, whilst chuffed with our progress online, I am not one to rest on my laurels.  One of the other pleasures I get from VftL is that I can just go and try stuff out (within reason of course!).  I’ve always been a great believer in trying things out and taking risks and so I am always keen to take full advantage of this.  My current ‘risk’ involves the use of Foursquare as a tool to promote libraries.  Up until recently I was adamant I would never sign up for this particular social network as I saw limited value in it.  However, I decided to explore it as part of a project on mobile technologies and spotted an opportunity for VftL to have a presence on the network.  I won’t say too much about it at the moment as I am not sure it will come off in quite the way I hope, but if it does I will be sure to blog about it!

Regular readers will also be aware that I am currently studying a distance Masters at Aberystwyth University in Information and Library Studies.  I am currently in the process of conducting research for my dissertation, due in April 2012.  I have been getting rather panicky about it of late – worrying I wouldn’t get it finished in time.  My progress was not helped by recently moving house and being without internet for two weeks [insert ‘sad face’ emoticon here].  However, this week I scheduled a phone call with my dissertation tutor and, I have to say, having had a chat with them I feel much better about where I am and where I need to be.  In fact, it is fair to say I was buzzing when I put the phone down.  I finally feel like I can see a way forward and get cracking on the next stage.  Whilst I think I need to keep ‘on my toes’, I feel far more confident about completing before the deadline and (finally) getting that Masters.  Phew!

I prefer the metaphorical kind myself. (image c/o Wessex Archaeology on Flickr)

Finally, I have been involved in a bit of digging the past couple of days.  It recently emerged that Wakefield council intends on closing half the libraries in the district.  Annoyed at the councillor’s claim that:

“…since 1992 more than four out of every 10 library users have stopped going into libraries.”

I decided to write to the councillor to ask if he can explain how this figure was arrived at.  I am still waiting for a response.  Not content with questioning the councillor, I also entered a host of Freedom of Information requests to get a little more information about what has been going on in Wakefield.  I am hopeful that I will receive suitable answers to all thirteen (yes, thirteen) questions within the three week time limit.  If anything interesting turns up, you’ll be sure to find out about it.

I have also sent off a series of questions to Dorset County Council who are also considering closures.  After a recent council meeting, councillors narrowly agreed to withdraw funding on nine libraries across West Dorset.  It is good to note, however, that not all councillors take such a relaxed attitude to library closures (you’d think so sometimes when trawling around for the latest library news).  Cllr Ronald Coatsworth deserves a great deal of respect after expressing his outrage:

“We have heard of lies, damn lies and statistics and it seemed to me that here was another case of distorted figures being used as a justification for a particular course of action which had been pre-determined.
“They are discriminatory, treating different groups in different ways and have no place in the Dorset I represent.”

More councillors like this please.

Another bit of digging, this time a bit closer to home, turned up a blank but was referred to by the political editor for the local media group, Paul Francis, on his blog.  A while back it emerged that shocking proposals were put before a recent Conservative group meeting that (it is suggested) included the closure of forty libraries.  No further details emerged so I decided to enter a Freedom of Information request to see what could be uncovered.  Unfortunately my request was rejected (for reasons outlined on Paul’s blog) but not entirely convincingly.  I fully intend on appealing this rejection and hope I will be as success as I was in overturning the DCMS’s rejection of an earlier FoI request.  We will see.

So that was pretty much my week.  I had hoped (believe it or not) to have more things to share from the week, but maybe those things will happen at a later date.

This week was mainly fuelled by If Not Now, When? and, of course, this.

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.

RFID self-service – is now the right time?

The following was written with help from Mick Fortune, an expert in RFID technology.

What  is RFID?

RFID (Radio-frequency identification) is a type of technology that is often used in self-service equipment to enable library users to borrow and return books themselves.  Although RFID technology is used in self-service, not all self-service equipment uses RFID.

Sounds interesting. Are all RFID systems the same?

Most systems perform much the same tasks but each uses a different RFID “data model” That means that books from one library service cannot be easily be used by another and prevents libraries from using whatever equipment they want. A new UK standard to overcome this limitation was agreed in 2010, but so far no public library service is using it.  Unlike barcodes which, despite using barcode schema can be read by almost any scanner, RFID “tags” contain different data stored it in different ways .

Are there advantages to using barcodes?

Barcodes are a much cheaper and widely recognised means of identifying individual items but have to be borrowed one at a time – with each book usually having to be opened to scan the barcode. Stocktaking also requires staff to remove items from the shelf and scan each barcode separately.

So how does this differ from RFID?

With RFID borrowers can place all of their books on a reading table and borrow them all simultaneously – as many as 15 in some systems. Stocktaking no longer requires items to be handled at all since the tags can be read at a distance and through the covers .

The problem with RFID is that, with there being no data standard different suppliers have chosen different ways to store data on their tags. Data like copy information, owning library, whether the item is part of a set, whether it can be borrowed by anyone or limited to certain age groups etc.

Suppliers dislike this lack of standards as they have to carry out a different process for every library and write different data in different places for each supplier’s hardware to be able to read it.

My authority is introducing self-service to save money.  Will it?

It might. Savings will be made if the machines are used to replace staff (which is what is happening in many cases), but it is not cost effective on its own.  RFID tags cost more than standard barcodes.  (About 10 times as much). They also make the cost of supply higher for the reasons given above.  Factor these two costs into the book purchasing for an entire authority (Kent, for example, added 230,000 items last year) and the costs increase considerably.

Why is the new standard an improvement?

Firstly, it makes it easier for suppliers to process book stock.  Instead of the manpower and time lost through alternating between different types of RFID tag, book suppliers can just apply one type of tag, which would effectively drive down costs to library authorities.

Secondly, as well as driving costs down from the book suppliers end, it also drives down the cost of the tags.  If all suppliers offer the same type of tag, it would drive down costs making the technology cheaper for library authorities

Another advantage is for the future of the library service.  Everyone accepts that a desired outcome for the service is the ability for items to be moved around the country quickly and easily.  By ensuring a standard is applied to tags it makes it much easier for library authorities across the UK (and not just in small consortiums) to share their book stock.

So is RFID a bad thing?

RFID is most certainly a good thing, but investment in an RFID system at the moment that does not use the new standard could be a costly mistake. The new standard will reduce costs, but much of the existing equipment will have to be updated to handle the new standard.

Many thanks to Mick for helping with these questions.  My understanding of RFID is fairly limited so Mick’s input was very gratefully received.

What this means for Kent Libraries*

Mike Hill, councillor responsible for libraries recently stated the following:

“Self issue technology will help us to deliver a more efficient and cost effective library service.

“Over the next 18 months we will cover the £1.5m cost of the project and from that point on save an additional £1m per year.

“As part of these savings will we be taking 83 full time equivalent posts out of our current structure.”

The problem is that the savings of £1 million appear to be as a result of staff cuts, not through supposed efficiencies of self-service.  If KCC did not take 83 full time equivalents out of the structure (equivalent to approx. £1 million off the wage bill), there would be no saving from the introduction of RFID at all, on the contrary, the opposite would be true and it would cost substantially more (even if you took out the cost of the equipment).  As was stated above in the Q&A, the savings councils often announce come from replacing staff, not from the introduction of the actual self-service units.  So, to say that self-issue will be more “cost effective” is slightly misleading.  The “cost-effectiveness” comes from the removal of staff from the structure, not from the equipment.

Effectively then, the self-service units are a convenient excuse to cut staffing.  The sad thing is, if they waited a little longer before introducing the technology, they could have made savings without having to lose 83 full time members of staff.  It seems like the council have made a hurried decision to make some headline savings rather than waiting for the improvements in RFID as outlined above.  Shame is, if they had waited a little longer before introducing the technology, they would not have needed to remove quite so many posts from the existing structure in order to make the equivalent savings.  Patience would have led to savings both in terms of money as well as jobs.

* This section was added after the original post was published.

Is the Big Society causing library closures?

"The Big Society" - killing a library near you?

Whether you believe in David Cameron’s “Big Society” or not, the promotion of this initiative has had some puzzling side effects.  Take Gloucestershire for example.  An attempt to launch a review of the council’s plans to cut the service has been rejected by the council’s overview and scrutiny management committee (which, like the council, is Conservative run).  The council’s plans are based on funding reductions of around 25 per cent by 2014.  The cuts by the council could lead to Gloucestershire’s library service being cut in half. But here’s the weird thing, Gloucestershire are also promising £50,000 per district for ‘Big Society’ projects.  With around 16 districts in the county, that makes a grand total of £800,000 in cash set aside.  £800,000 that could, of course, be better invested in the library service.  But it’s not just Gloucestershire that is pulling money out of libraries to invest in the ‘Big Society’.

Oxfordshire and Kent have both also recently announced that they will be putting money aside for ‘Big Society’ projects.  Oxfordshire are keeping £600,000 back and are intending to close around 20 out of 43 libraries.  But most mind-blowing of all are Kent.  Although no closures have been announced (yet), they are keeping back an astonishing £5 million for the ‘Big Society’.  One hopes they don’t announce any closures after the impending consultation.  If so, one wonders why they were unable to reduce the fund to £3-4 million without affecting the library service in the county.

So is it really the case that the ‘Big Society’ project is the cause of these closures?  It is hard not to come to that conclusion when you see the money that is being held back.  Scrap the ‘Big Society’ initiative and suddenly library services can be kept fully operational (most councils are already protecting what they see as ‘essential services’ so these budgets are not under threat to the same extent as libraries).  It seems that the answer is obvious, instead of focusing on possible savings that the service could make (which is debatable anyway), campaigners should be asking their council why they are withholding money that could be used to ensure that their library service is not subject to disproportionate cuts.  The cause of the cuts to library services is not the cut in government funding, it is an eagerness to experiment with the ‘Big Society’.  It is a sad irony that, given the role that libraries play in communities, it is the ‘Big Society’ which is killing libraries.

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.

Voices for the Library and National Save Our Libraries Day

Save our Libraries (c/o CILIP).

Yesterday was quite a crazy day to say the least! Who would have thought back in December when Alan Gibbons first proposed a day of coordinated protest that there would be quite so much coverage of the day in the national media. It was really quite moving and I was really blown away by the huge numbers of people who came out in support of their local library. It reinforced for me, once more, just how important libraries are to their local communities. After reading so many anti-library comments on various online articles, one begins to imagine that library support had ebbed away to virtually nil. In fact, it appears the very opposite was true. There’s so much to say about the day and the events leading up to it, but you’ll have to excuse me if I focus on my own story leading up to yesterday’s events.

Voices for the Library - Speaking up for librarians, library staff and library users.

First, a little bit about Voices for the Library. I got involved in this organisation because I wanted to see a group out there presenting libraries and librarians in a new light. Not the sterile old-fashioned image of libraries that so many people fall for and perpetuate. No, I wanted to help show what librarians and libraries contribute to their local communities and the range of services they offer beyond the world of book issues. Books are, and always will be, central to libraries. Despite the growth of the Internet they are the primary information source for the majority of people in this country. But that word ‘information’ is key. Libraries were initially only about books because they were the only form of information delivery. There was a need to ensure that the working classes had the same access to information as the richest in society. Things haven’t changed. 9 million households do not have Internet connections, many due to the expense of the equipment. Libraries now ensure information via books and the Internet to ensure that everyone has equal access to information. This is the reason libraries exist and why they must continue to prosper. The irony is that it is the ‘traditionalists’ who seem to lack the understanding of the true library tradition.

Back to this week and a course of events that will live long in the memory. Whilst Kent is not currently facing library closures (at least not publicly), there will be a consultation launched later this year (possibly late February, early March). Consequently, there were no protests or ‘Read-ins’ planned for the county. Despite this, and because of the national picture, my details were passed onto BBC Radio Kent who wanted to interview someone about the situation in Kent and across the UK. As I am the Kent based representative for Voices, I was happy to oblige so agreed to talk to them and explain the concerns that I have about the situation in the county.

The discussion with Radio Kent took two forms. The first was a chat on the telephone with someone at the station asking me a series of questions. At a certain point she informed me that they would be recording my contribution and playing it throughout the day on the news bulletins! I had no idea this would happen until the phone conversation and, as I had no time to prepare, it was a little tricky to get the right message out there. I do writing and stuff not media and talking…I leave that to the awesome Lauren Smith (who, by the way, is an absolute media legend now!). Anyway, come the day , they played numerous extracts from my conversation, including this one:

BBC Radio Kent soundbite

Let’s not dwell on that for too long eh!?

Canterbury Library - currently undergoing refurbishment. Library is currently housed in Pound Lane.

Part II involved a live interview on Pat Marsh’s show at 7am (!) on Saturday. I have to admit to being nervous beforehand but, thanks to a conversation with the aforementioned Ms Smith, I was fairly confident I could get the message out there in my first ever broadcast interview. It was, however, kinda weird to be sitting at the dining table at 7am with a cup of tea and a stack of notes ready to deal with any question is thrown at me. I was amazed at how long the interview seemed to go on for. I thought it was going to be a very short piece but it last around 5 minutes. Sure, that doesn’t sound long, but it is a long time when you are being interviewed for live radio!

I tried very hard not to say ‘um’ and ‘er’ too much and I think I did reasonably ok. There were a few hesitations during the interview, but remember it was 7am! I won’t be challenging my colleagues at VftL for media attention, but it was good to get it under my belt and know that I can (just about) manage again if it’s thrown at me! You can hear the full interview here (recorded for posterity!):

Full Interview on BBC Radio Kent

Once I had done my bit on radio it was simply left for me to go out and visit my local library and take out a whole bunch of books (twelve in actual fact!). I had seen The Guardian’s protest map earlier in the day and seen that Canterbury library scored 5/5 for the strength of the protest and my understanding was that it was absolutely packed. Great news for everyone, and I am sure the councillor responsible for libraries was thrilled that the library service is so popular in Kent as well (even without an ‘official’ event taking place).

However, my job wasn’t quite done there. Earlier in the day I had come across Dr David Kuo who argued, quite seriously, on BBC Breakfast that if Internet provision is such a crucial aspect of the library service then everyone should be given an Internet connection and then we can close the libraries (presumably this idea would be paid for by the government). Thinking I needed to act quickly to put a message out there about how this is pie in the sky, I decided to do some research and produced a statement on behalf of Voices for the Library on this barmy scheme. You can read the full statement here and, if you ever come across Dr David Kuo, maybe throw this in his general direction. Although not literally of course…that might hurt.

A big old stack of library books!

So that pretty much summed up my day. I’m not ashamed to admit that I came close to tears when I saw the strength of support for libraries across the UK (hey, I’m a ‘new man’ type person ok?!). It really was very moving and will live long in my memory. All that is left for me to say is how much I admire and respect not only those who did go out and do something, I am also very proud to be working alongside a great bunch of people at Voices for the Library. Their dedication, hard-work, cheeriness in the face of adversity, integrity and all-round awesomeness make every day working with them an absolute pleasure. I feel so lucky to be associated with such people, each and every one of them are absolutely phenomenal – Bethan, Simon, Tom, Mick, Lauren, Gary, Alice and Ian (Version 2.0). I’m so glad I got involved in Voices for the Library when I did and I look forward to seeing it continue to prosper and grow over the coming years, getting the message out there about why libraries and librarians are so important.

Actually, what am I saying, that isn’t all I have left to say! I would also like to add that if you live in Kent and are concerned about what the future holds for libraries in the county, please get in touch (see the contact tab at the top of this page). If you want to set up a campaign, do get in touch and I will help you set up a blog, Facebook Page and Twitter account to get things started. I will also act as a link between a local campaign and Voices for the Library to help promote the campaign and link up with others around the country. If that interests you, do make sure you drop me a line. Thanks.