American Culture

Fixing what isn't broken

We have this great little library around the corner, which is very convenient. In London, there are lots of libraries, but it’s such big city geographically that it’s not always the case that there’s a library just around the corner. It’s a nice library—it’s right next to The Keats House, where John Keats lived next door to Fanny Brawne before heading off to Italy and an untimely death. The trees at the edge of the Keats House grounds hang over the path that leads to the library doors, and in Spring there are lovely blossoms dropping petals on the path. The building itself is that curious medley that one often encounters in England, a combination of a bit of old grandeur with some 1960s crap thrown in to make the interior more “functional.” But it’s comfortable, it has a good collection of books and newspapers, an attractive children’s room, and a bunch of PCs that people use for internet access, and it used to have a neighbor’s cat, Moggy, who would wander in and sleep all day before she died last Spring, much to the dismay of the regulars.

Recently there’s been a change in tone. There have been some new people showing up behind the desk, and they’re all chirpy. They ask questions, like “Did you find everything you need?”, stuff like that. They chat up the fact that, oh look, you have this book out, and that one too. Personally, I find this a bit irritating. I like my librarians on the reserved side, and not to be salesmen. Fortunately, this has not been a regular occurrence, but it makes me nervous. And it turns out that it may be part of a general plot to change the character of libraries in the area entirely. Well, maybe not a plot–it may not be nearly as well thought out as a plot would be.

The Heath Library, as it’s called, is part of the Borough of Camden library system. And the Borough of Camden has been trying to figure out how to cut its budget. Just like everyplace else in Britain, and the US, and any number of other places around the world these days. So Camden has decided to make some adjustments to how library services are provided in the borough. As the Camden New Journal reports this week:

CONTROVERSIAL plans to make a £2million cut to the library budget by reducing staff and introducing self-service machines were finally signed off at the Town Hall last night (Wednesday).

I can’t wait to see what self-service machines are all about. Self-service for what? Ah, checking out books. What could possibly go wrong here?

Liberal Democrat culture chief Councillor Flick Rea resisted pressure for a rethink and agreed to proposals mapped out in the council’s library reform programme, known as Growing Your Library and developed by council officials and consultants over several months.

Rea said the only way libraries would survive for future generations in its current £8.2million budget. “Otherwise the service will not survive in the tooth and claw climate of modern local government finance,” she said.

The cuts will be made over four years.

The plan here seems to be Growing Your Library by Cutting Its Funds.

Before making her decision, Councillor Rea heard deputations from library users who criticised the programme, including one from John Richardson of the Camden History Society who accused her of allowing it to be “pushed through without democratic process”.

She said the time saved by putting in self-issuing machines – and thus “freeing up” librarians to help readers – would be cancelled out by the staffing cuts.

“There is no evidence that the library service will improve as a result of the changes,” she added.

In addition to the 15 posts that have already been axed, more cuts, including some compulsory redundancies, are expected.

I hope someone eventually will explain to me why there never actually seems to be any money for saving the things that are worth saving. And why we can’t just hire more librarians “to help readers,” whatever that means. Finding books? Learning how to use the catalog? Finding stuff on the internet? People need help with these things?

How did the Borough of Camden come up with these plans? Well, for all its concern about saving money, the Borough doesn’t appear to mind spending a bit of money itself. As the Camden New Journal reports in a separate article:

CONSULTANTS hired to help redesign Camden’s library service were paid more than £2,000 a day over the summer.

American firm IDEO was paid £47,000 for 23 days work on the Growing Your Library (GYL) project, according to information released following a request by the New Journal under the Freedom of Information Act.

The work was part of a major overhaul of the library service in Camden, which will see some staff jobs cut and machines introduced.

Look, those machines again.

Reports suggested consultants visited a series of businesses, including the glamorous Apple Store in Regent Street, to see what ideas could be transferred to council-run libraries.

Well, I can certainly see how hitting the Apple Store would be useful in trying to redesign library services.

On its website IDEO describes itself as an “innovation and design” company. It lists some of its better known clients, a roll call of American multi-billion-pound organisations, including the Bank of America, food giant Nestlé and the charity set up by billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft owner Bill Gates, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Actually, the Ideo website is a hoot. Where do these people come from? Oh, Palo Alto, as it turns out. It’s like a William Gibson novel, one of the recent ones—everything is symbolic, and of the moment, or something. Someone named Ted Brown seems to be the design guru of the company, and you can hear him drone on in a video the site helpfully provides. And there are lots of references to design—Climate Change and design, how design got small and then big again, that sort of thing. Now, I don’t doubt that design is important, Climate Change being a pretty good example of how better design can help us out quite a lot, but it’s still not obvious to me how this is the group to talk to in order to determine how your library services can be “improved.”

So what did they actually do for Camden for two grand a day? It’s not actually clear, because Camden won’t release the report that they spent £47,000 on.

Freedom of Information officers at the Town Hall refused to reveal what the council got out of the deal and a request to see a draft of the ideas supplied to the leisure department was refused on the grounds that they have not been introduced yet.

Although officers accepted it was in the public interest to reveal what the money was spent on for “accountability and transparency” reasons, they ruled that to “prematurely” disclose the findings would result in “partial or inaccurate information being released” and would not allow Camden time to discuss with staff how the plans might affect them.

Officials insisted it was in the “public interest” not to release any more information.

We certainly wouldn’t want to release anything prematurely, to give the wrong impression. Just as well, because I imagine the discussion of the following probably needs some sharpening up:

Discussions held during a five-day workshop involving IDEO and library staff – described as a “deep-dive” brainstorming event – have been posted on the internal Camden intranet.

Details of some of the suggestions put forward by IDEO consultants have been criticised by staff, who contacted the New Journal to say the public would be “horrified” and “amused” at the “absurdity” of the week-long session and “the way their council tax money has been spent”.

The firm visited six businesses in London, including City Farm in Islington, the Apple Store in Regent Street and Jamie Oliver’s cook shop Recipease in Clapham.

City Farm? Where the cows and chickens are? That should help.

Consultants spent time at three Camden libraries – Regent’s Park, Kentish Town and Swiss Cottage – where they held meetings with library users and observed staff “to find out how they actually provided and used services”, but staff have queried their decision not to visit any celebrated libraries outside the borough.

Or any of the uncelebrated ones within the borough other than those three, for that matter.

The firm’s main specification was to come up with innovative ideas about what libraries and librarians could offer in the future, when Camden launches the second phase of its library reform programme next year.

This must be where the “self-service machines” thing comes from. Funnily enough, try as I might, I can’t find a single reference to anything about libraries on the Ideo website other than a link to an article in American Libraries magazine about “Design Thinking” in Libraries, by Stephen Bell, who may or may not be connected to Ideo. The article and comments are great—about “human-centered” somethingorother, and–here’s the kicker–providing a “memorable library experience.” There’s the Apple connection, all right. So it’s obvious why Camden chose Ideo to come up with some visionary thinking on how libraries can be improved at the same time their budgets are being hacked to death.

A council spokeswoman said: “The council approached a number of specialists to bid for work on the Growing Your Library project. IDEO, an international company whose UK headquarters are in Camden, was chosen in competition with a number of other agencies, as they offered the best combination of experience, capacity and proven track record in the field.”

Well, if this was the best of the lot, what did the other bidders look like? I’m reminded of that D.J. Taylor novel with a running subtext of the increasing rip-off of UK governments by management consultants running around a couple of decades ago in the country’s haste to privatize everything that moved. This sort of thing is the logical result—let’s have a firm of design consultants decide what libraries are for and how they should be used. After all, librarians wouldn’t necessarily have any idea of how to improve services, obviously, or anything above and beyond what you could extract in a day-long brainstorming session

Actually, given the apparently marginal state of libraries, we may as well have a design firm given an assessment of how to improve library usage. Libraries in the UK (and apparently in the US as well) are under pressure—over the past ten years over 100 libraries have been closed in England, visits per capita have been declining (marginally, but still), and expenditures per capita have been rising sharply. I can think of lots to fault the Labour government for, but increasing funds to libraries (until very recently) is not one of them. But, ultimately, libraries in the UK really depend on local council funding—and councils are currently hurting, so it’s not surprising that libraries make an easy target. It’s not as if anyone actually makes money from them. This is a familiar story, with a number of explanations—increasing access to the internet and other electronically-delivered information elsewhere, the increasing uneducatability of a number of children, and, perhaps, the possibility that people just read less—although I would need more convincing on this last point, in this country where not only is the major book award televised, but the bookmakers give odds on the potential winners.

So there are good reasons to get a broad range of inputs here. But it’s not clear to me that having librarians and library staff become the functional equivalents of the sales force at the Apple store is the right approach. Or brainstorming sessions, for that matter. What is needed, first of all, is a commitment to culture, and its preservation, and broad public access to it. In many respects, there is an admirable commitment to this notion here, or at least there was when times were good. But for a country with the literary heritage that this one has, even the closure of one library is a measure of our failure to meet this commitment

4 replies »

  1. My brother lives in a small New England town that has a Carnegie library. It’s one of 2,500 libraries philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded, most in the U.S. it’s a grand edifice in a town of fewer than 2,000 people. Years ago, while working in the county as a journalist, I’d always find a reason to spend some time in the libary whenever doing stories in the town.

    I hope it survives the crisis of funding that affects small-town governments throughout America. Next time I go back home, I think I ought to visit it again.

    Thanks, Wuf.

  2. You should! There are hundreds here in the UK as well, and every once in a while we’ll be in some little village, and there will be a Carnegie Library. It was an astonishing project from such an avaricious man. Pretty much anyone who asked for one got one. Can you imagine something on that scale these days? I can’t either. Still, every once in a while I think about the Gates Foundation (which does a lot of good, I freely admit), or one of these other billionaires, and think, hey, instead of giving yet even more money to Harvard or wherever, how about some for some library somewhere that can’t afford to buy books any more?

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