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?

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