Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Samaritans Radar

Disclosure: I am a Samaritan volunteer, the views below are my own, I don't represent the organisation and I've not sought permission to write this. I really, really didn't want to come out publicly as a Samaritan in case people who know me are put off from ringing. I didn't want to come out against the organisation I volunteer for but I've felt I have to speak out.

The reason I become a Samaritan are partly personal, but mainly because they're non-judgemental, listen, don't try and tell people what to do & respect peoples views. I'm a bit of a left libertarian and these views chime with mine very strongly. They're also completely confidential, you can tell Samaritans anything and we duty bound to not disclose it unless we have permission or with a couple of common sense exceptions (court order, bomb warning etc, see here)

I heard about Samaritans Radar like everyone else on social media and was immediately concerned. I wasn't able to understand how a app was conceived by us that doesn't come near to what the Samaritans are trained to do. 

The legal rights or wrongs don't concern me. The ethics of this and refusal to listen do, even to not admit there are people who are concerned about this has been very upsetting, for me personally, but more importantly the people we are supposed to be there for the callers both past, present and future. Those who come to us because we don't judge, we don't pass on their details to others, don't give them our personal views or advice. We listen. Two tiny words but for me its what Samaritans are supposed to be all about and they're two very powerful words, we listen.

Sadly the organisation for reasons I don't understand is refusing to listen and I understand peoples fear, angry and frustration over this. I don't want to be stalked by this app either, I want to choose to use it and have control over who uses it on me, not others I don't know harvesting my darkest tweets.

Please, please don't link this app to what Samaritans volunteers do on the phones, text and email. 

The contact details for the Samaritans are here, please don't let this app stop you from using the service. For a view of a Samaritan who isn't dead against this app see here

Sunday, 6 July 2014

When all three parties agree, something must be wrong

The SCL are now thinking about stepping in to help the volunteer libraries. In SCL stakeholders meeting, I made the point that there's still no evidence to support the sustainability or effectiveness of libraries ran completely or supported by volunteers. They seem to want to help keep them going, as once a library closes its going to be harder to open it. It seems this vital piece of research on if they actually are a good idea isn't needed, all the parties seem to think this is the solution to the funding cuts to local government. You volunteer to run the library and pay for it twice, if you live a area with a volunteer library, you're likely to get a different level of service to another area, despite having paid the same tax. The whole thing is loaded with jargon and new speak to try and make them sound like they're actually a good idea. One thing is clear to me, if a volunteer library somehow manages to keep going for a couple of years and the library service gets a bit of extra budget for staffing, the last place they'll put it is back into the volunteer libraries. They'll waste it on whatever the current fad is.

Having a skim through the meeting notes on the SCL website, it seems the role of libraries advisor is to continue. Someone called Colin Gibson has taken over the role temporarily as libraries advisor. I presume once they've rubber stamped the closure of the Advisory Council on Libraries this will be a permanent role. It would be unthinkable for someone paid by us the taxpayer to have a independent public view outside of the department. The ACL should be brought back and users given a say on what is happening and if the minister is failing to enforce the act or not, the civil servants have failed us.

The SCL website has had a redesign, lots of new areas like position statements (currently empty). I thought they didn't take positions on issues, perhaps they'll give their official view on volunteer run libraries?

With the Sieghart report seemingly showing very little positive, the SCL considering wading in to support the failing idiocy of volunteer libraries and the main parties all in complete agreement on it being a great idea then its very grim times indeed for public libraries in the UK. I feel sorry for the librarians that remain that are tasked with making a success of the volunteer libraries. The huge back office recharges remain off the table as does the clearly obvious approach of having less library authorities to drastically reduce these huge recharges.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Wil Iam Sieghart on PUBlic Libraries

Wil Iam Sieghart has given a snippet of his thinking with regards to the future of the library service in England. Its on the LGA (Local Government Association) site and you can read it here.

Short version so far

  • Not considering changing local authority structures
  • Digital network for libraries
  • Single management system with one card valid in all libraries
  • Library services delivered in pubs and local shops

Anyone in charge or involved in the profession who thinks that books in a pub, phone box or other static building without a library manager or librarian there shouldn't be involved in libraries because they clearly don't know what libraries do. Taking away a proper library and having "Pub is the Hub" and pretending its a some how better thing is cloud cuckoo land.

And I'm not sure about the single LMS systems with one for all authorities, if he really means that then great, but I doubt it, probably another national system on top with councils allowed to opt out if they wanted. Not sure how he could force the introduction of one LMS across all authorities, the suppliers of these systems would probably sue and it may not even be legal under competition law. The old phrase politics is the choice between the disastrous and the unpalatable spring to mind.

I don't know which library users he has spoken to but, obviously only speaking for myself I don't want a pub with some books on a shelf replacing my local library. One LMS replacing all the others makes sense but I doubt that's possible or what is intended. The direction of travel seems to be more of this nonsense localism where services are cut and local authorities are encouraged to make it up as they go along. But you know what? Sometimes one size does actually fit all, its called library standards and that is what is needed as well as less library authorities to get rid of the elephant in the room that is the elephant sized service support costs, localism is just smoke and mirrors for the cuts.  I'm saddened that a supposedly independent report seems to echo the views of the minister almost as if he'd dictated it himself.

To speak to Mr Sieghart you can pay £640 to attend a event put on by the taxpayer funded quango the LGA in Bournemouth here. We pay for them via council subscriptions and its basically us paying for one part of government to lobby another and it means lots of senior staff and councillors can have lots of jollies (to the seaside in this case) and training away days at our expense but producing nothing of worth. Where is the taxpayer funded national conference for library users?

With the opposition almost non existent, the library minister without a brain getting seemingly everything he could wish for from this independent report and the upper echelons of the profession refusing to speak out about this nonsense then it is even darker days for PUBlic libraries.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Post Library Campaign AGM thoughts

It all felt a bit fractious and there was some differing views about volunteer libraries. I think the triumph of the day was me working out how to switch on the air conditioning. One of the contentious views was should we help library users who in the face of closure are trying to save their library by volunteering.

Alan Templeton was of the view that we have to support them and help advise them on how to run a volunteer library otherwise we're responsible for the library failing/closing. Given the example of Brent campaigners trying to get their foot back in the door of their closed library to see if they can reverse the decision of Brent council by showing there is a need for a library, then on the surface it the point is valid and straightforward. If we're about saving libraries we should support volunteer run libraries. I've paraphrased but I think this was the gist of his point. I disagree, for a few reasons.

There are so many different configurations of volunteer library out there, nobody really knows what works and what doesn't. It seems from the example in Bucks, if you have a library in a affluent area with lots of wealth retired professionals then the volunteer library has a chance, but if you're in a deprived borough then its less likely it will succeed. How can I or the library campaign or anyone else claim to know what it best to advise the poor souls trying to save their library? Locality is getting large amounts of taxpayer money and has set up some resources to help, as is Little Chalfont in Bucks. If either of these aren't providing enough support, they users should be complaining to their local authority, DCLG and DCMS, its their ideological solution not mine. I know Jim from Little Chalfont thinks volunteer libraries isn't a great idea but he chooses to help others put in this difficult decision and while I disagree with his choice I won't criticize him for it. Its a horrible choice to have to make and we're all entitled to do what we thinks best.

The other point is, I shouldn't be made to feel guilty or feel responsible if I choose rather than to help I devote my limited free time to campaign against the actual concept of volunteer libraries which nearly all library users/campaigners (but not all in the profession!) are against. The blame lies with your local councillor, cabinet holder for libraries, the council officers and the national government for failing us and particularly Vaizey. Despite still being one of the richest countries in the world they tell us that library managers, the lowest paid, in the smaller branch and rural libraries are a luxury that cannot be afforded, but we can still afford millions (2 million in Oxfordshire in fact) on self service machines, giant vanity PFI libraries in the big cities with websites alone that cost millions.

My final point and I said something along these lines in the meeting and its a harsh reality. If volunteer libraries are seen as succeeding (even if they aren't) then this will be the de facto choice for councils looking to make more easy cuts. We've seen what a meal they've made of the Bucks example, they're quiet about the failures, Walcot in Swindon I would put forward as a example of this, I'm sure there are many others.

The apparent short term success puts at risk more libraries as they spread like a cancer across the library network. More library managers and librarians will lose their jobs and eventually we'll have a library network that is a complete postcode lottery of provision, some failing, a small number managing to stay open, some libraries losing their neutrality and being taken over by groups with agendas to promote. In the middle you will likely have a old central library desperately in need of a refurbishment or replacement or a central PFI library the council can barely afford the monthly payments on.

I wish it wasn't so, those blackmailed into saving their library by feckless councils short sighted cuts I'm not attacking. Given the option of volunteering or my local library closing I'm sure I would probably do the same thing. I hate the position they've been put in and I wish them luck but its not my responsibility, we all know who is responsible and its the councils, Vaizey and the politicians and officers and some in the profession promoting this agenda.

My biggest concern is Labour aren't going to be any different in power if they win or form the coalition next year. Despite their warm words in opposition I suspect they'll not intervene to enforce the act or get the councils to work together to save costs rather than cull the library managers. Most councils out there are Labour and once they've got power again they'll be no different to the tories. We'll have co-operatives as the savour of libraries rather than the big society.

Again, my viewpoint isn't attacking volunteers, I'm dead against volunteer libraries and will use my time to fight that failed idea rather than support it.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Power to the people

The consultation that came out yesterday from the shadow minister for libraries Helen Goodman MP isn't a public consultation. I emailed to clarify this today as the questions don't look like they're intended for the public, rather those in the councils. I got the surprise response that Helen wanted to have a chat with me on the phone, which she did. She is very nice and pleasant but the consultation isn't for library users, I told her how we're sick of sham consultations and our views being ignored and how I was disappointed. Her reasoning is what they are consulting on at this stage is too detailed for users. I don't know if this means Labour are going to consult users before they come up with their manifesto for the next election or not but I suspect not and once again the people who use and pay for libraries are ignored. How are you supposed to represent people when you haven't asked them for their views? If this wasn't meant for public consumption they just had to put that on the document, it was shared with the world but not specifying who should respond. I'm very cross obviously and will write my own submission and put it on my blog so they can safely ignore it at their leisure.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Avoiding precedents

Helen Goodman MP has been up to see the Save Lincs Libraries group and gave a speech to the fantastic campaigners up there. She said a lot of good stuff about what libraries are for and actually she has done what her predecessor Dan Jarvis refused to do and called for the minister to exercise his powers and intervene:

"Today I have written to the new secretary of state Sajid Javid asking him to use his powers, he's got a duty to look at whether your local library service fulfils the requirements of the law"

Goodman also said some good stuff about not wanting a postcode lottery and about having a full professional service.

I suspect the DCMS and minister will dodge and wait for the outcome of the judicial review and the results of the Sieghart Report but its good that finally Labour have come off the fence and there is no a policy difference between the two. How the Labour party in government plan to ensure volunteers are not use to replace staff and the library service is maintained is another question we'll have to extract from them before next years election

Speaking of the Sieghart Report, I put in a FOI request for the terms of reference and where the three questions came from. The answer was they obviously came from the DCMS and not Sieghart himself. The third question about community libraries clearing showing the unwritten and moronic policy direction of the government.

The link to the FOI is here

And here is Helen Goodman talking to the Save Lincs campaigners:

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Pin heads

It sort of has been rumbling on twitter and on PLN over the last few days. But its wound me up enough to write something now. A couple of jobs ago I used to support self service kiosks in leisure centres as part of my job on a support desk. Despite the process being simple, the users hated them, the staff hated them and I hated them. But the need to drive down staff costs meant a lot of leisure centres were investing in them. Self service has also come to supermarkets in the last few years, again "illegal item in bagging area" as a phrase has entered the lexicon as to how annoying these things are.

Councils, with their giant pot of money that has to be spent every year on IT have also embraced self service. The system in Oxfordshire has a lot simplier interface to the supermarket and leisure centre systems I've seen and they have very simple transactions:

  • Borrow books
  • Extend books
  • Pay fines on account using cash

The only information you see on screen is the books you have out and any outstanding fines on your account. You don't have to put in your pin number you just have to scan you card. If the self service kiosk allowed access to personal information like address, I could see a argument for having to use a pin number but even then, people junk mail in the bin with their address on it, my address is on the electoral register available online if you want to find it.

Somerset County Council have recently installed some self service machines (the story here) but for some bizzare reason they've decided to force users to input their pin number to get onto the machines and use them rather than just use their cards like I do. I thought to myself they must have a system that lets you see users address etc but having done a google I found their equalities impact assessment when implementing these things and according to their document this isn't the case. Its exactly as the system in Oxfordshire: "Personal data which can be viewed on a self service unit is currently limited to user name, membership number, items on loan, items which have been requested and money owed" 

The full document is available here

So why have they done it? From a data protection point of view, someone stealing a card to look at what books someone has out or to pay their fines off for them is a nonsense. They could take books out with someone else card but really, its easier to rip the tags out of the books and stick them in your bag than to pickpocket someone for their library card.

The only reason I can think of them forcing the use of a pin code is being the council is a bit thick. I've stood and watched the elderly struggle to use those stupid parking meters that insist on the car license plate and I'm sure it puts people off going to those car parks. I once put my old cars plate in and had to pay twice once, but I am a bit thick myself.

There is no evidence that this will put users off, but really its putting a extra step in the process for no reason and the people with crap memories will probably write their pin on their card or have it on a piece of paper next to the card, or even worse, change it to their bank card pin number so making their bank card less secure.

Somerset are really silly for doing this, self service is stupid enough as a concept in libraries without putting even more barriers in the way of users.