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Libraries Taskforce sector forums - wrap up and reflections

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Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve published a series of posts which shared the activity that took place during our series of sector forums, organised to give people the opportunity to look in more detail at Libraries Deliver: Ambition

We published an introductory blog which described the format of the event and the Minister’s opening address, plus posts on the following workshops held during the events:

This blog covers the remaining session included in the events - the panel debate with Libraries Taskforce members - and provides some final reflections on the events as a whole.

Panel debate

This slot on the agenda was the opportunity for participants to ask questions directly to members of the Taskforce. In each venue, we invited a panel to take the stage (varying Taskforce members attended each event), and we’ve given a flavour of the questions asked below:

Taskforce panel in Whitechapel. From left: Kathy Settle, Ian Leete (LGA), Iain Varah (representing cCLOA) and Neil Macinnes (SCL). Photo credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce
Taskforce panel in Whitechapel. From left: Kathy Settle, Ian Leete (LGA), Iain Varah (representing cCLOA) and Neil Macinnes (SCL). Photo credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce

Many people asked about mutuals, particularly questions about the evidence base and priority given to the model in the Libraries Deliver: Ambition document. Panel members explained that this was just one option for service delivery described in Libraries Deliver: Ambition, and wouldn’t be the right approach for everyone. However, it was a particular area of interest to the Libraries Minister, and the team he worked with in the Office for Civil Society have been building their experience over several years. They have commissioned research into the mutuals established to date (in all sectors, not just libraries), which will be shared once it is complete. Several participants commented that the degree of staff ownership that working in one of the alternative governance models gave was a real encouragement to innovation.

A common question was about the role of the Taskforce and its Libraries Deliver: Ambition document - especially as the latter is the latest in a long line of reports into the future for public libraries. Someone also asked what influence the Taskforce really had. The response included the fact that this is the first strategy to be approved by all Taskforce members and endorsed by both central and local government, which points to a degree of support and acceptance of its recommendations at the highest levels.

It was re-iterated that the Taskforce is made up of representatives from across the sector, and each has significant influence in their own area, and has the ability to make things happen. All members though have differing degrees of influence and power. For the Taskforce collectively, it is a question of influence rather than power: we can’t force people to act, but we can use leverage, engaging with a wide range of people and brokering partnerships with different stakeholders. We hear many anecdotal examples of where Taskforce actions, or materials created, have helped start or move conversations along, and perhaps bring about different and improved outcomes than were originally intended.

A question was asked about immediate Taskforce priorities. It was confirmed that the Taskforce was focusing on the items set out in the Action plan published alongside Libraries Deliver: Ambition. This includes a description of each action along with key milestones and expected delivery dates. Progress is reviewed at every Taskforce meeting, and a refreshed version of the Action Plan will be published annually (to remove completed actions, etc).

The panel was asked what the Local Government Association (LGA) was doing to promote Libraries Deliver: Ambition and the Libraries First approach to local councils. It was confirmed that the Taskforce had sent letters direct to all local authority chief executives, council leaders and library portfolio holders when Libraries Deliver: Ambition had been published. The representative also mentioned regular communications via e-bulletins, handbooks for councillors leading on libraries, and courses for cultural portfolio holders looking at how they can link libraries to other council agendas. Others commented that library staff also needed to continue to raise the profile of libraries with their own councils, showing that libraries can be the front face for council services.

Some audiences were interested to hear more about how advocacy work for libraries is going. This was phrased more directly in one location: how can the Taskforce help us shift the media narrative which currently is focused on a ‘spiral of decline’ message and risks becoming a self fulfilling prophecy?

The answers fell into 2 strands: advocacy to decision makers (particularly in central and local government) - a focus to date but where we need to continue to make the case; and communications with the public. It was recognised that we need to do more (at local and national level) on public messaging and working with the media to counter the prevailing tone. There are often requests for large scale TV advertising or a big national media campaign, but impacts of these can be short term and it is very expensive. Focusing on long term, consistently repeated messages (supported with a strong evidence base), with everyone getting involved and speaking with the same voice, will yield better results overall. Different approaches will work with different audiences, but the overarching message must be of opportunity and the benefits libraries bring to all agendas.

Most panel sessions ended with a more personal question to panel members - along the lines of what they each valued about libraries, or what they wanted to be remembered for after their time on the Taskforce. Responses included personal anecdotes, including experience with a friend who had a breakdown and became disconnected with everything, and couldn’t even concentrate to read. Advice and support through his local library helped him. Another shared the story of how his grandfather was in mining, his grandmother died young, and his father relied on libraries during his youth - and is now a senior lecturer. On the question of legacy, the comment that most stuck in my mind was: “if you stop a member of the public on the street and ask them about their local library, they’ll know what it does, ideally they’ll be a regular user, and they will point people towards it if they need advice. That would be a good legacy.”

General reflections

Thanks again to all the host venues - both library staff and conference teams. We had 4 very different experiences, but all were lively and gave participants the same opportunities to both hear from speakers and participate in discussion.

We asked participants to complete evaluation forms, reflecting on their experience of the events. Overall, participants liked the networking opportunities, sharing knowledge, and the chance to talk to a wide range of people from other authorities.

Generally, comments were overwhelmingly positive: “Many thanks for a great and inspiring day”, “a productive and energising day”, “a great kicking off point, my brain is buzzing”, “an overall sense of optimism for the future of libraries”, “thank you, it was a really useful day” and “Good that it wasn’t just presentation, but sessions designed to allow discussion with colleagues from other authorities”.

A comment made by several participants was: “too many interesting workshops - would have liked to have attended them all”. One request was “I would liked to have spent time on practical ways of involving frontline staff in strategy”, while another queried whether we should make more of a determined effort to include BAME workers in these sessions. On the latter, we’d welcome ideas as to how to better reach out to any under-represented groups and make sure they are included in all our work.

What happens next?

Each workshop blog contains its own next steps section - so if you are interested in a particular topic, please refer to those. For the Taskforce as a whole, we continue to look for opportunities to promote the strategy around the country. We have a number of speaking slots at events already in the calendar, but would welcome the opportunity to reach more people - so if you have an event you would like us to attend, or a publication which we could write you a piece for, please contact us.

We have plans for more detailed sessions in a couple of areas. The masterclasses on exploring alternative governance models were oversubscribed, and we've already shared a report from those sessions. We are also considering holding another session, so if you are interested, please email us. We have also announced 2 more masterclasses, this time on income generation for libraries, and there is still time to sign up for these. Links to the EventBrite pages are contained in the blog post.

We will also be looking at more sessions in the future - details of which will be shared via this blog, so subscribe to be kept informed. Also, as the masterclasses programme is still under development, tell us if there are subjects covered in Libraries Deliver: Ambition that you would like to hear more about, and we will consider developing new masterclasses or holding a workshop to explore these further.

To keep up to date with Taskforce activities overall, remember to follow us on twitter.

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