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The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

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December 2008 Volume 6(6)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

President's Perspective

Don't let the ideas slip

Alan Hasson suggests that our diversity can make libraries’ mission hard to grasp by some.

The role of President of CILIPS is fascinating. It’s a mixture of pressing the flesh, sharing ideas, helping formulate policy, listening to people who are at the sharp end of delivering services and relaying what’s heard back to Council and officers. During this year besides attending the national conferences held by our sister associations in Ireland and Wales, and of course our own in Peebles, I’ve been to events in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dumbarton, East Lothian, Orkney and Larbert: I think it was Larbert, there lies a story. Through all of these there were common threads and so, as ’tis the season to reflect I shall do so.

First and most prominently, what a store of energy, ideas and potential we possess. All of the visits I made to CILIPS branches had the same format. Presi talks and throws out a few questions: Are we relevant? How can we be better at what we do? What are the challenges? Where are you personally and your services going? How can CILIPS help? Usually at that point I could sit back and listen for the rest of our meeting. The identification of the blocks to delivery were always similar: resources of course; bureaucracy in some places; the imposition of yesterday’s solutions to try to meet today’s challenges; the cycle of cut, retreat, reform and cut. But more prominently there was a positiveness about what libraries of all types could and do deliver: exploiting Web2, workplace literacies, Bookstart and beyond, the library as public open space, multi-use, co-location, CPD, cleaning beaches (I kid you not), networking over sectors, networking with colleagues (!), alliances and on and on.

Now, the interesting thing in all this was not the litany of possibles but the way these were related to the individual’s workplace and community and ambitions, both personal and for their services. With few exceptions what was thrown around was relevant and do-able. I take it as a given that the people who are willing to come out to a professional meeting during what were invariably cold and wet evenings are a self-selecting bunch: they are amongst the keen ones. And here’s my second common thread. What happens to all these deliverable ideas and the commitment of such people? Of course the sector is under-funded, and under threat, but it must be more than that. Is it a lack of ambition for services and an understanding of their potential by the parent organisations, bureaucratic structures which go for the safe option or a gap between the articulation of the possible and the professional knowledge on how to deliver?       

And then in the course of a few weeks, I went to Aberdeen for the Grampian Information Conference and to Orkney to look at their new facilities for ICT use. Both of these in completely different ways were practical examples of how delivery can be achieved. The parts of the Grampian Conference which I attended were full not only of sessions on ideas (not all of which I agreed with, but then that’s a good thing) but also of the much derided, “we-done-it-good”, type of presentation. I went away, as I would think most of the delegates did, re-energised and thinking, that’s worthwhile and deliverable. It was the best type of CPD there is.

Orkney is not the best funded of our library services, but something very worthwhile is going on there. My visit was too short but the impression of a staff at all levels who were professional, committed to their users and had a clear purpose was palpable. Their usage statistics particularly for ICT are impressive, particularly given the challenges the geography offers. Kirkwall Library and especially its ICT facilities were busy, and it was yet another of the wet and windy days which seem to follow me. They have their challenges: Stromness Library is simply not adequate for its community. But here again there was a practical, “can do” attitude, not simply to make the best use of the existing facilities, but ambitious plans to move, modernise and serve. Given the plans for the new complex I was shown, there’s a recognition of what libraries should be and can offer.

In the midst of these visits I went to a number of meetings which were not library gatherings. At one of these I got talking to a senior person in Scottish local government. He was knowledgeable about libraries, particularly in the local government setting and we had a highly enjoyable set to about matters library-ish. One comment he made stays in my memory. After we’d been round the houses on potential and delivery, funding, SOAs, PLQIM, what actually constitutes adult education and local priorities, he said: “The point about libraries is that they are a service in search of a mission.” That brings me to my third point.

I’d recently been to Dumbarton, for the last night of the West Dumbarton Festival. Here was the library service at the heart of the cultural life of their area. They had sponsorship and partners of course but the hours put in to the organisation of events throughout the area, diverse, well attended, re-enforcing their varied communities’ sense of identity and heritage, but also linking to national and international themes was a major commitment. I’d previously been to West Lothian to see their integrated library and one-stop-shop, to Glasgow, sampling the delights of the Mitchell and its excellent coffee bar – not simply patronised by users of the library, to Queen Margaret University looking at their new library with its ICT to the horizon, and to Ferguslie, awash with activities for children and young people.

The emphasis in all of these services seemed to be on provision which was tailored to their host community and gave local solutions to local priorities of the most varied type. Libraries, it was clear, are an answer to a host of different challenges, which face our country in education, social cohesion, identity and recreation. We are, in potentia, solutions. That very diversity seems to give some of the bodies addressing our wee country’s future a difficulty. Our potential to provide solutions is so multi-faceted that it can be overlooked, especially when that ability faces both entrenched interest groups and conventional thinking. Libraries are not a service in search of a mission; they are a solution to a host of missions.  

My fourth common theme leads on from the above. That theme is of diversity, of continuing change and re-invention, and of the need to be engaged. The Single Outcome Agreements promoted by our present government provide an opportunity for library services to prove that they deliver. That delivery and the local emphasis on the purpose of library services grows out both of the core business of libraries and the varied outcomes they can contribute to. Again my visits have shown the malleability of libraries in their contribution. Certainly there are common themes but the wording and emphasis is local. The challenge, faced and surmounted by many, but still being strived for by some, is to focus and validate the diverse solutions we offer and to translate them into language which is recognised and understood by those who hold the purse strings.
One of the constants in feedback during my visits has been the positive response from public librarians to PLQIM. That process is a step change from the previous equivalent, the CoSLA Standards. It fits our times and context better. It represents not a rejection of the old Standards but a recognition that there is, in this time and place, a better way of ensuring the best possible health of services. There is a need for the same sort of scrutiny of fitness for purpose linked to a willingness to change, to be deployed in relation to the bodies which support our professional lives. Change happens, the trick is to be a driver of the process, not a passive recipient.

My fifth and last theme, as I write my last column, is of gratitude. Thank you for choosing me as your President. Thank you for your hospitality. Above all thank you for reinforcing my belief in the importance of libraries and librarianship.  IS

Alan Hasson


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Information Scotland Vol. 6(6) December 2008

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Last updated: 31-Jul-2009