Friday, 22 June 2012

ABF 2012, part 2/4: public participation

From 7th to 9th June 2012, the ABF (Association des Bibliothécaires de France - the French library association) held its 58th annual congress in Montreuil, near Paris. And I was there! I had been invited by a friend on the ABF regional branch committee for the wider-Paris area to help out during the three days. This gave me the opportunity to attend several sessions, most of them directly linked to the conference theme: 
The library, a public matter

The last session of the first day and the first workshop of the second day both focused on how to engage with the public in implementing policies and defining services, with numerous examples.

Dominique Tabah opened the second Thursday afternoon session by talking about her experience at Montreuil libraries. She explained that requests from the public must be collected, identified and analysed with attention, be they from library users or non-users. Those requests can be difficult to satisfy but always deserve an answer on what the library service can and can't do.
How do we collect these customer opinions? Dominique Tabah gave several examples of the work Montreuil does with teenagers. Montreuil libraries have a teenage reading committee that meets once a month to select new books for the teenage collection. This is useful to understand what these readers think and expect of the collection. Occasionally, the young people involved also defend their choices in a public debate in front of other customers. Montreuil also asks of middle school pupils doing their work placement in the libraries to survey their classmates on their perception of the service. On top of this, the work placement pupils are also expected to give to their class a tour of the library.

Next, Anita Beldiman-Moore, from Sciences-Po Paris, talked about collecting data on the use of the service and the opinion of customers in a university library.
Sciences-Po have had "test weeks" when staff record the number of enquiries they get by topic as well as depending on the time and the location. This system showed when were the busiest times for each location, and whether the questions asked actually matched the purpose of the designated enquiry desks. For feedback on the quality of the service, Sciences-Po Library uses focus groups and home-made online surveys. It has also started taking part in the international LibQUAL+ survey, which measures the gap between the minimal and maximal level of service customers hope for with the level they are observing.

Xavier Galaup, from the Haut-Rhin regional library service, focused on the importance for libraries to co-create services and contents with their users. Among the examples he mentioned were Helsinki's Library 10 and its music recording studio, more and more libraries putting historical pictures on Flickr for customers to identify or share related stories, a series of "Our customers have got talent" evenings in a town library in Northern France, Brest's local history wiki, a Belgian library streaming website with music from local bands (whom listeners can vote for), ... and many others. You can view his presentation below - in French, but, erm, with pictures!

The Friday morning workshop offered the opportunity for delegates to share thoughts and practice on whether and how to involve customers in some traditionally "librarian-only" tasks. I am going to set out the questions and some of the comments voiced, and then leave you to think about your own answers, and maybe to share and discuss them! Here are the topics:
  • Weeding: what legitimacy has the librarian to act on a public collection? This can be a problem especially in university libraries. Solutions discussed included informing users before the items are discarded, for example by marking items beforehand so that researchers using them can indicate their disagreement, or making lecturers take part in the weeding process.
  • Delegation of acquisitions: who has the right to decide what to buy for the library collection, and to what extent? This conversation actually ranged from the pressure of public policies/the local authority to the system of packages imposed by some providers of digital resources (only a few resources the library is interested in, but no choice to get them other than pay for the lot). I was surprised no one mentioned supplier selection (I almost did) - maybe it doesn't exist in France?
  • Is classification the last bastion of the librarians, where they are the only ones to decide and they can do whatever they want?
  • The customer as a source of knowledge: should there be a public policy on human knowledge to implement? Example: a living library where actual people are added to the library's catalogue.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

ABF 2012, part 1/4: public policies

From 7th to 9th June 2012, the ABF (Association des Bibliothécaires de France - the French library association) held its 58th annual congress in Montreuil, near Paris. And I was there! I had been invited by a friend on the ABF regional branch committee for the wider-Paris area to help out during the three days. This gave me the opportunity to attend several sessions, most of them directly linked to the conference theme: 

In the opening session, the representative from Montreuil town council declared that "the library [as] a public matter" was indeed an issue on every librarian's mind nowadays, both in the sense of "the library focused on its public" and "the library as a partner of public services, i.e. of the public authority".
The councillor for Culture from the département (French equivalent to a county) of Seine-Saint-Denis reminded us that the budget reductions decided by the central government was an attack on the autonomy of the local authorities. He went on to add that unfortunately, investing in culture was not mandatory for local authorities, which results in projects in that sector being postponed. However, elected members support reading development, he insisted.
The president of the ABF pointed out that reading - not only of texts, but also of music, films, art - development was a major issue, especially as the gap in access to culture in our society is widening.

The following session, on what is a public policy, felt very much like a university lecture. The speaker defined a public policy as a complex set of social issues pushing various stakeholders from different sectors, including public services, associations and other partners, to pass a number of instruments expected to have an effect on society via a process, a sequence of stages that regulate the actions of the state.

Main conference hall during the opening session
The libraries in public policies session gave the opportunity to elected members from different local levels and to an inspector for libraries from the ministry to share their point of view.
Dominique Voynet, mayor of Montreuil, said that community libraries are places full of life, and sometimes they are the only public facility in a given area. Libraries are first a space dedicated to books, but they are also used for other means: they can be a haven, especially to teenagers, somewhere to work and discover new things.
Jacques Marsaud, director of the conurbation committee of Plaine Commune, explained that the conurbation has authority for reading development. Plaine Commune decided to invest in its libraries and modernise the facilities, which immediately resulted in an increase in the number of members, of items issued and in general use. In his opinion, libraries are places where several public policies come together: those relating to education, culture and integration into society. Indeed, considering the number of nationalities represented by the residents of Plaine Commune, libraries play an important role in social cohesion.
Isabelle This-Saint-Jean is in charge of research and higher education at the regional council of Ile-de-France. For her, libraries, on top of being a living space, are essential to student achievement. Libraries are the research facilities for subjects such as literature, social and human sciences, to be compared to the experimental labs used in scientific research. This is the reason why the Ile-de-France region is supporting university libraries by participating in projects to build new facilities and modernise and equip existing ones. They have also introduced a "student essay award".

To compare with these examples in different local areas, Dominique Arot, from the General Inspection Office for Libraries, gave an overview of libraries in public policies from a national perspective.
In the general opinion, the existence of libraries is threatened by digital resources, budget cuts and, more specifically in France, by the delegation of authority from central to local government and the problem of a large variety of libraries under a variety of authorities.
Public policies for libraries come with several issues:
  • They are either implied or absent: libraries are rarely mentioned even though they exist and fulfil a role. There is a consensus on the usefulness of libraries among the authorities but despite that, libraries are not a priority when it comes to the budget and policies.
  • There is a loss of consistency and resources as too many stakeholders lead their own separate policies which end up competing with each other.
  • The state does not have the monopoly for policies anymore: authority has been delegated to regional councils, European Union policies have to be taken into account and the globalisation of information (for example with the Internet) does not help.
  • Library professionals express themselves strongly [just like CILIP in the last parliamentary election year, the ABF produced in 2012 a manifesto], but we hear less from library customers, even though there is a greater number of them.
What are the objectives of the public policies involving libraries?
  • to contribute to learning and to develop literacy, to help young people falling behind in school;
  • to support research;
  • to promote local heritage;
  • to allow everyone access to culture;
  • to develop civic rights and the sense of being part of the community.
Dominique Arot said that there was a need to prove the efficiency of these policies, as evaluation is currently insufficient. For him, the state bears the responsibility for laws and regulations, interdepartmental cooperation, evaluation, shared tools for all libraries to use, technical control (such as the Inspection Office) and the training of library professionals in order to provide a quality public service.

In my next article, I will tell you about two sessions on engaging the public in implementing policies and defining services. But before that, a little bit of comparison between the situation in the UK and in France.
From what I heard at the conference, I am under the impression that French politicians generally have a good opinion of libraries (though obviously, those invited to speak wouldn't say the opposite in front of a room full of librarians, would they?) which isn't necessarily the case in the UK. But still, libraries in France aren't seen as a priority when defining policies and regulations (copyright exceptions and digital rights, anyone?) nor in planning for the budget - though in that regard it is not as bad as in the UK (yet?) ... What do YOU think?