My views on the Arts Council England “The library of the future” report

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Dudley Library, West Midlands

I was very heartened when I started reading the ‘Library of the Future’ report that the consultation has shown that the Arts Council England (ACE) understand the importance of libraries in that:

They are much loved and expected to continue offering the same services as they have for many years, but they are also expected to respond to big changes in how people live their lives.

Alan Davey, Chief Executive, Arts Council England.

The four priorities to sustain and develop a 21st century library service are not ones that anyone with a passion for libraries would argue with:

  1. Place the library as the hub of a community
  2. Make the most of digital technology and creative media
  3. Ensure that libraries are resilient and sustainable
  4. Deliver the right skills for those who work for libraries.

My concern is that, at the start of the 21st Century, the excellent library services  in the country are already doing most of this (including Dudley which I managed until march 2013)- so what do they have to aspire to? They can continue to improve and develop as they have in the past, but they will be developing their own challenges.

The challenges listed in the report under each of these headline priorities take things a little further – although again a lot of this is already happening.

The challenge with the biggest change from the current situation is in the development of some of the digital and virtual offers in libraries. These are the areas which could be part of a national virtual library service as there are major economies of scale. Although this is referred to in passing there is little information about how this will be achieved. With the current budget situation and the fact that a harder future is anticipated there will not be many library services who will have the resources to develop the resources if they do not work together effectively. Maybe that is a role for the Society of Chief Librarians to take up – developing digital and virtual national offers for individual library services to buy into?

I am concerned about the promotion of a document previously published by ACE on Community Libraries being referred to in the section on making libraries resilient and sustainable. This earlier document describes libraries at very early stages of developing community led models and so it is not  proved that they are sustainable yet. In addition, ACE need to be aware that good quality professional libraries need professional librarians to manage them working with communities, not just strong communities. The way this is section is laid out does not make this as clear as I would have expected it to be as I know this was raised as part of the consultation which has informed this report.

I know that this report is a mark in the sand for ACE as part of their managing their role in relation to libraries. In some ways the report is not the major issue as it does clearly state why libraries are important. What is more important is what happens now as budgets tighten and decisions are made which will influence the effectiveness  of library services for the rest of this century. Many library services need clear leadership and support to develop effective plans for the future, not just an active debate.

There are a lot of good statements about libraries and their importance – so I will watch with interest to see what is done with them in the future.

I hope that I, through my consultancy and mentoring, will be able to support and work with colleagues in keeping the good quality and professional library services in the coming years by developing innovative, sustainable solutions.

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There’s no such thing as a new idea or common sense is not very common

Just old ideas continually recycled!

I am currently doing a postgraduate qualification in Shared Service Architecture with Canterbury Christchurch University. My second piece of work is a literature review and I have chosen to look at successful governance in shared services. It has to be an academic piece of work so the literature reviewed must come from academically sound journals.

The first thing I found was that Shared Services by that name have not been round long enough to have academic studies done on them. The second thing I found out was that there are a lot of academic reviews into a whole range of joint working – which Shared Services is just the latest sexy title/ method of doing. Hence the title of this post.

Each of the new iterations of the joint (or collaborative) working phenomenon is presented as a whole new way of working. This,sadly, seems to mean that the wheel keeps being reinvented. I cannot see very much evidence of practice being based on the considerable learning and information that has been collected about previous iterations. This is despite the fact that a number of key issues keep coming up regularly:

  1. The need for Trust which is very difficult to develop when organisations and people are put into ‘forced marriages’ by government policy and financial incentives. They are much more likely to work together successfully if they develop the collaboration gradually and together.
  2. Which leads me the need for Time to develop the partnership – how often are organisations forced to do things quickly because of the political and financial pressures
  3. The final one is that there needs to be a jointly agreed reason or series of reasons for working together – the main one being that the sum of the whole is greater than each organisation working separately.

These key factors come up again and again, and yet the same mistakes and issues keep being repeated!

Although I say there is no such thing as a new idea, each version of working together is subtly different and called different things which is why I have not used the same words to describe the joint working throughout  this post. 

The issues, however, are rarely different so my plea to anyone coming up with a ‘new’ way of working is please take the time to look at the similar predecessors to your idea and use them to stop repeating the same mistakes.

This is the principle I will be using when I qualify as a Shared Service Architect as one of the key principles for this professional role is to use the learning from previous shared working to improve the development and planning of future shared services.

Think like an entrepreneur – even when working in public services

Thinking like an entrepreneur is a skill that is not obvious in those managers working in public services. In fact it is sometimes seen as the wrong thing to aspire to. I, however, disagree. I think there is a lot of the entrepreneur in those public service managers who manage to develop their services effectively especially in these time of tight or nearly non existent budgets.

I have been inspired to write this post having seen the list in this blog by Reference notes – just the list on the summary is enough to challenge me.

So ……

how many of you as managers have the confidence to let people have a go and fail?

when a member of your staff, or a customer comes to you with a suggestion is your first reaction ‘it won’t work?

can you really say that you are interested in trying something new or are you too tied up in coping with the now?

I have given myself the challenge to respond to future suggestions I have presented or sent to me with ‘that sounds like something I would like to develop/or would like you to develop. What do you need from me to help you’. I challenge you to do the same and see what happens.

My prediction is that you will end up with some interesting projects happening, staff and/or customers who feel listened to and appreciated. You will also feel more inspired. And maybe, just maybe, one of those seemingly off the wall ideas will become the thing that finally makes someone you have been trying to convince about the importance of what you are doing finally understand.

The importance of marketing skills

Coming from a public authority background I have been made aware at how poor we often are at marketing the skills that we have. This is shown by the reaction of my colleagues when others start trying to tell us how to manage what we are doing better. The usual reaction is ‘what do they know’  or ‘they wouldn’t like it if we told them what to do’. 

In my view the real problem is that we are too quiet about what we do and how we do it. In public service, because it is public service, we assume that people know what we are doing  – and you know the saying – ‘ to assume makes an ass out of u and me’. It is not at all obvious to people who are experienced in working in one area the issues and difficulties of working in another.

For example in my back ground – libraries – I know that there are a range of skills needed to run libraries effectively including (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • knowledge of the people and areas you are serving
  • knowledge of the ranges and types of books available
  • the skills needed to put the two areas of knowledge above together in the most effective way
  • the ability to facilitate access to books, information and other resources
  • the ability to skilfully manage a range relationships with partners, local communities, staff and politicians
  • the ability to see what will be needed in the future and ensure that we have the right products and staff ready for this and manage the change process to get there
  • the ability to manage people and buildings as well as services
  • the ability to do the above within very tight budgets and so be creative in achieving outcomes
  • the ability to provide a service for a wide range of people and communities which often have conflicting requirements (e.g children wanting noise and excitement and students wanting peace to study as one of many examples).

But just because I know this why should someone who works in the book industry and does not have to get politicians to agree with proposed changes when and election is held 3 years out of 4? They have to work with shareholders and other stakeholders, yes, but not people who are wanting to be re-elected.

If we do not shout about our skills then who is going to do that for us?

In many ways librarians, and other public servants, have left it a little late to say:

 “look how good we are at what we do, we are proud of what we have achieved’. 

Lets start doing it now. Don’t be defensive, or blame the person who is criticising the service for not understanding, tell everyone what it is we do to help them understand. It is not arrogance to be proud of what we have done when we can show what a difference it has made to the communities we work with. In fact we are letting those communities down if we don’t champion the work we have, and can, do with them.

Why this blog?

I have always been interested in management, and found the management elements of all of the jobs that I have done very interesting. I have started this blog because of my frustration in the lack of acknowledgement of the excellent management skills that are evident in many public  and library services. The comments that I make will be entirely my own and not those of my current employer.

I will be interested in hearing what you think of the comments/ opinions that I express through the postings on this blog.