I have been a bit quiet here of late. In truth I have been trying to decide whether or not I still have the motivation to continuw with the blog and if I do whether or not to change its focus. I’ve not made up my mind. However, whilst I ponder this I decided to write something to tide me over.
My attention this morning was drawn to a blog post by Tim Coates entitled ‘The Library Campaign Police’ – unlike when Tim is referring to articles or opinions, I suggest you read it. Before that however you should read this piece in the Independent and the response it provoked from Johanna Anderson on the comments pages of the Bookseller
Mr Coates has long been seen as a campaigner for libraries in the UK (although some in the profession would question his effectiveness in that respect over the past few years) and I am sure he is genuine in his support for the institution of libraries. In the Independent article he says “Someone needs to show leadership” (again, something his critics – and we will return to this point – have argued he has failed to do as a spokesperson for libraries.) and that “We’ve seen appalling council management. Some have just washed their hands of the libraries…” I would have to say most of those within the profession and those who work in libraries would agree with his statements here.
He goes on to say “The councils say that there’s no reason to keep the libraries open because no one is using them. The reason for that is because they’re no good.” As sweeping generalisations go, this is a pretty good one. I’m sure in some cases this may be true – and I should say here, that unlike some of my library breatheren, I do not believe every library should be saved, but that is a whole other blog post for another time – but it does smack of a cheap throw awayline of the kind often utter by our politicians.
Anyway, the main purpose of the article is to mention Mr Coates’ latest venture – The Bilbary ebook site, which launched in America this week and comes to the UK in April. It also indicates that Mr Coates aims to give of Bilbary’s UK profits to individual campaigns to save libraries under threat, although this seems mostly to help voluntary, and community groups take over the running of under threat libraries. He also highlights what he sees as the reason he can’t offer an ebook lending deal with UK libraries – the fact that the UK library system is not centralised so dealing with more than one council is too much of a chore for this great protector of Libraries ” life’s too short,” he said.
So, over we go to The Bookseller site which reported Coates’ and Johanna’s take on what he had told the Independent. I’ll repeat it in full so we have full context to what comes next:
“A series of campaign groups have sprung up to support them and come up with alternative ways of running individual sites. These include sites in Brent and Lewisham, both in London, Gloucestershire, Somerset and the Isle of Wight.” This is incorrect and I am writing to tell them so. We are not impressed at being misrepresented in Mr Coates’ publicity drive for his new business venture. Meanwhile we will continue to focus on our battle to maintain the national libraries network and ethics and to ask that politicians stop smashing it up in the name of passing political ideology. We do not think that Mr Coates’ approach (based on the minimal detail there is) is the answer, and we question whose interests he is looking after, the public library service or his new business venture. The public library network may have its faults and yes, more joined up thinking and improvements and efficiencies can be made, but it is an incredibly efficient, economic and inclusive national network. We argue that breaking it up by cutting “individual sites” off so they are run outside of this network, by volunteers, is counter-productive, unsustainable, inequitable and a massive leap backwards. Libraries should not have to rely on either private enterprise or philanthropy. They should be properly supported and funded as a public service. Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries It seems Mr Coates too umbrage to this.
His blog post of 25th March begins: “There is, on The Bookseller website, of last Friday, a yapping dog attack on me. If you read it (but I don’t recommend you take the time) …” Now, stop. Take a moment and re-read what was written by Johanna. I’ll wait. Ok? Now, maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner … sorry, maybe it’s because I am a qualified librarian, or maybe it’s just because I can read, but that doesn’t seem like a ‘yapping dog’ attack to me. Certainly, Johanna is disagreeing with Mr Coates’ approach to ’saving’ libraries, but it seems little more than that.
If we read on, however, we find what is at the root of all this. ” Within those who campaign to save libraries there is a group who are actually professional library staff – and they can’t stand anything I say.” I know a few people that fit that bill. Still doesn’t make it a ‘yapping dog’ attack.
“The reason for their objection is that for over twelve years now I have been saying as loudly as I can that the fundamental problem in the public library service in our country … lies in the so – called ‘public library profession’ ” I would certainly argue they have not done themselves any favours in the past and that the organisation that is meant to speak up for them, CILIP, has until very recently been shockingly bad at doing so, but that still doesn’t make it a ‘yapping dog’ attack.
But, we are just getting started. Mr Coates continues: “Not only does this group not provide any of the management or leadership that politicians and the public are entitled to expect from them, but they are incoherent, self serving, inefficient, lacking in vision and lacking in the ability to improve things…The public library profession have some fantasy idea of the future where everything is electronic and they are the guardians of information. It is pathetic to see.” The first point is essentially my CILIP point, so I’ll let that slide. Self serving, and inefficient … Hmm, now who does that remind me of? Still doesn’t make it a ‘yapping dog’ attack.
But, hold on, Mr Coates actually DOES like most of the people working in libraries and indeed librarians it seems. Phew. As I sit here in my role as a Senior Information Officer in a large law firm that has caused me to breathe a sigh of relief. Mr Coates emphasises he is “only talking about public libraries – not other libraries- and I am only talking about those people who don’t actually work, day to day, in the libraries. I am talking about the senior office staff. ” That’s ok then, that probably means he talking about people like my girlfriend’s sister. Frankly, always thought she was a troublemaker. So what, pray tell, have these harpies been up too? “taken over most of the library campaign” – Christ no, say it isn’t so Mr Coates’. Library workers have taken over the library campaign. Whatever next. Oh … the reason. ” In large measure they have taken over most of the library campaign – the original idea of which was to save and improve libraries- so that it has become an endless political attack on the employers and about saving their jobs.” Terrible. I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson would have them all taken out and shot in front of their families [ Sadly here in the current climate I have to stress this is intended as humour, as was Mr Clarkson’s original comment] Still doesn’t make it a ‘yapping dog’ attack.
You’ll be pleased to know that Mr Coates does believe some of this trying to save jobs stuff is justified, but librarians – or the evil senior office staff – ruin it because they resist change and improvements to their services.
Now, at last we to the crux of what ailes Mr Coates.
“These people have become the library campaign police.. if you don’t say what they want you to say, they sneer like rattlesnakes.” Ok, we have now abandoned the ‘yapping dog’ [They’re for life not just Christmas you know] and moved onto rattlesnakes. Snakes are Cool. Slash and Alice Cooper have them. Does that mean Librarians are like rock stars? Double cool.
Now, I skipped a bit of Mr Coates’ post, to keep for this bit. Because I think it fits best here after reading what he has said above. It is for me, the thing that strikes at the heart of his ‘yapping dog’ attack stance.
He says of professional librarians:
“But what is true and important and relevant – is that they hate being criticised. They can’t stand the idea that there is someone who doesn’t say what a wonderful job they do. They can’ t bear the idea that someone can demonstrate in numbers and pounds – how very poor they are . They go to endless conferences simply to feel sorry for themselves and natter. They live in an echo chamber with no windows or doors.”
Yes folks, those pesky professional librarians hate being criticised. Just as well that Mr Coates can rise above any criticism levelled at him . Oh, no, wait. He’s just spent the best part of a blog post demonstrating that he hates criticism of his own library world view every much as those he claims, in the words of Corporal Jones, ‘don’t like it up em’. “They go to endless conferences simply to feel sorry for themselves and natter. ” Really? Who are these people, I don’t know any of them. ” They can’t stand the idea that there is someone who doesn’t say what a wonderful job they do.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I always love it when people say I’m doing a crap job. Makes me feel warm inside. Added to which this comment is from a man who has a quote saying how wonderful he is on top of his own blog ” One figure has flourished as the modernising four-star general in this fight. Tim Coates, former Waterstone’s chief and now consultant on public-library policy, remains the key strategist to watch.” – Boyd Tonkin, The Independent” That is some ego you have there Mr Coates. I take me hat off to you.
But I digress. ALL of the above, still does not make Johanna’s comments a ‘yapping dog’ attack. She merely argued that trying to protect a service run by trained staff was the way forward and that we should fight to preserve a publically funded service and not just say, we’ll it’s ok, volunteers and private enterprise can just do it all. Mr Coates should apologise. The Yapping Dog line was a cheap shot.
Now for the really shocking bit. I am going to agree with some of what Mr Coates says at the end of his blog post, once he has finished spouting bile.
He says “My observation is that most of the staff who actually work in public libraries aren’t ‘professionals’ at all. They are just experienced, wonderful, underpaid, knowledgeable and helpful people. It is these people we need and should value – and should not replace with volunteers who cannot do the same job . By and large (and this is a generalisation – but generally a realistic one) the ‘professional’ library staff, actually work in Town Halls and County council offices, and certainly remote from the library floor and counter. If we need to save money (and we do) it is from among the ranks of these people that the savings should be made. If we lost 20% or 50% of the ‘professional’ staff from public libraries, it would be no loss at all – because they do not work in libraries. ”
I worked in Public Libraries for 10 years – most of which time was spent working in Swansea and Neath. I was a Library Assistant for this period. It was one of the best times of my life. Working with the public is both the most rewarding and both annoying thing you can ever do. During that time I would have to agree that there was always a feeling of Us and Them in relation to those at the coal face and those ‘professionals’ in county hall. We never felt we got the suppport we deserved from them when it was needed – especially if there was a complaint. My views have changed little on this since I became a ‘professional librarian’, indeed it has been one of the things that has put me off returning to the public library sector, because my love of my job has always been with the interactions with my ‘clients’ – whether they be the general public or a group of lawyers. That is why I got into this line of work in the first place. It wasn’t to be cut off from that. So, in that sense I do have sympathy with Mr Coates’ suggestion that if cuts are to be made, there is where we should look first. But, by the same time, pretending that most of these people just sit on their arse all day doing bugger all is also I think a simplistic mistake.
Mr Coates finishes up by saying that councillors, ministers and officials should be tackling the problem and getting the flak if they don’t – so a bit like the endless political attacks he didn’t like much earlier on then.
NOTICE: NO YAPPING DOGS OR RATTLESNAKES WERE HARMED BRINGING YOU THIS BLOG POST.