Sunday, 24 January 2016

The numberplate game (trivia!)

Once upon a time, British registered cars produced hours of harmless fun on long car journeys. Anyone else remember the numberplate game?

As someone who can't read or write on a car or a bus (and that includes scrolling on a screen) without becoming a biohazard, long car journeys as a passenger, or even short trips on slow-moving buses, are tedious for me. I can't remember how we came across it but at some point in my childhood we discovered the numberplate game, which passed the time. British numberplates used to include the whole range of numbers from 1 to 999 and you had to spot them in numerical order (so you were not actually collecting numbers, as such, merely looking out for the next one and moving on: no writing involved!)

The old system was replaced in September 2001, a few months before my son was born, and my first thought was They Have Spoiled The Game! Surely it would soon become impossible to play, as older cars disappeared from the roads. Not only that, a few years later the government introduced a scrappage scheme intended to boost the sales of new cars by encouraging people to part with their old ones. I therefore didn't attempt to play the game with my own child. The new registration scheme doesn't lend itself to any very obvious equivalent, as although it has been in place for over 14 years there is quite a limited range of numbers (so far, only 02-15 and 51-65). The previous sequence with prefixes A-Y ran from 1983 to 2001, and before that there was a sequence with suffixes, from 1963 (ish) to 1982. Earlier than that there were also plates with up to three numbers.

On a longish walk down a busy road a few weeks ago for some reason the game popped into my head, and I noticed that many of the cars passing me had pre-2001 plates. I started wondering whether it would still be possible to play the game after all (surely not? How many people have cars that are over 14 years old? OK, I do, but surely it isn't typical?) I then had a little bet with myself, that if I should happen to see an old car with a number 1 I would start again and see how far I could get. Within ten minutes I had seen 1, 2, 3 and 4, in that order. Do not make bets with yourself.

I don't know that I am really obsessive enough to carry on with this all the way to 999, but observations over the past few weeks have led to some surprises. There really are lots of old cars still on the road. Why? Is it a Cardiff thing? Is it just that the economic recovery hasn't reached Cardiff? Do we have better car mechanics than other places? Is it that people may be in work, so have the money to run a car, but are not affluent enough to borrow money for new cars or to buy them outright? A stroll around my neighbourhood revealed over 100 pre-2001 registered cars, with a surprising number of those coming from the pre-1983 sequence. There are even a few which predate the A-Y suffixes, so these vehicles are over 50 years old. Some of them are the classic makes which clearly really do last, but others are not so obviously so (although it is not a bad guide to which manufacturers are good!) I am certainly not going to feel so self-conscious about my own old car in future. While there are, as you might expect, older cars in down-at-heel areas, you will also find them in some more comfortably-off districts, perhaps because there are elderly drivers there who are not quite ready to stop driving altogether but think it is not worthwhile to invest in a new car. In some streets you will pass a row of cars in which all or nearly all are over 14 years old. There are some exceptions (personalised numberplates, or people who have chosen to keep a favourite number from car to car, so the car is not as old as its registration makes it appear) but even so, it's obvious that many people do not change their car at anything like the rate which car manufacturers might hope for. How do they keep going at all, if Cardiff is typical?

The game is really just a harmless pastime, but it does have the side-effect of making you quite observant. Woe to anyone who commits a crime if their car happens to have a number close to one someone playing the game is looking for (although you might feel a bit silly confessing - "Yes, I'm sure the number was 121, I remember because I've been looking for 120 for days and it was annoying seeing the next one"). As far as I can remember, the rate of spotting numbers is not dissimilar to what it was back in the 1970s. More cars on the roads compensate for the new ones which don't count.

I haven't given up yet - a month-long wait for one number nearly made me forget the whole thing, but yesterday I saw the next two numbers within seconds of each other, so I might carry on for a bit longer, and marvel at what I've discovered about the car market in the meantime.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Words in vogue: returning, again

Another one to look out for. "We are returning [X] to [X]", which being interpreted seems to mean "We have successfully confiscated [X]; "We have changed the ownership of [X] to something which it never was"; "We have altered things to how we would like them to be".

The use of "return", which actually means "give back", is designed to make you feel that justice is somehow being done and  a wrong is being put right. Increasingly it is being used not to indicate this, but to indicate a change in which in fact something is happening for the very first time ever. Please don't be taken in!

Thus, George Osborne (or, at least, his twitter account, probably in the care of a young SPAD):
(Oct 13): "We've finished the process of returning @RoyalMail to private sector". Eh? Since when was the Royal Mail in the private sector in the first place? The clue is in the name: although one might argue that 17th century monarchs experimented with a version of outsourcing before the Commonwealth period, it would be hard to describe the Royal Mail's history in terms of nationalisation at any point (whereas, if he says the same about one of the banks partially nationalised in the wake of the 2008 crash, that would be a legitimate use of the term.)

Or, as enthusiastic "big society" types have said to me, "the libraries are being returned to the community" - which means, exactly, what, other than the removal of public money, resources and responsibility? They are already "in the community" (that's what a local council is, remember?)

Or, to pick a local example, this rather lazy headline from the Western Mail: "It will be very nice to enjoy it as a residential area again" - from which anyone who didn't know the area might imagine that the houses came first and were there for years before the evil council put a tip next door (in fact, the tip used to be three times the size, and it was there before the houses were built: anyone moving there must have already known about the tip). Before the tip, the area was scrubby woodland.

I have the feeling that there will be many more examples of this sneaky rewriting of history. Beware the words "returned" and "again" - at the very least, ask what is the similarity between the modern version of anything and its supposed original state, that's the one it is being "returned" to "again".

Monday, 30 March 2015

This year, next year, some time, never?

This is a cry from the heart from a frustrated librarian. (I don't think there are any easy answers to any of this!)

Dear publishers,

1.  Please don't announce your titles too early. (I'm not really sure how early is too early!)
Some publishers seem to announce titles a very long way ahead of the proposed date of publication. I'm guessing this is in part a way of marking out the territory (look, we have someone working on this subject, so don't you aspiring authors/competing academics start getting ideas about writing about it!) Perhaps sometimes all the intentions are good, but the author just can't quite make the leap from proposal to actual book.

2. If you do announce a title knowing it is far from seeing the light of day, please don't give fictitious dates of publication, and raise false expectations.
Do publishers do this in order to gauge interest? Does the publication of a title perhaps even depend on advance orders?
I do very much hope the latter is not the case, as many libraries these days (both academic and others) are not able to keep orders indefinitely in their systems: the money has to be spent within a given period of time, or it is lost to the library (and, in the case of public libraries, may then cause a reduction in next year's budget - this was the case even in good times! The library would be blamed for not having spent its allowed budget, and this could be used as evidence that it did not need so much). It would be a shame if publishers were using orders to judge the potential interest in a title. In fact, the whole exercise would become pointless: ghost books which do not exist which might be going to exist if enough people buy them, but people trying to buy them can't because they don't (yet) exist, so the people trying to buy them have to find something else to buy instead, and then the books will never exist ...

3. Sometimes, of course, things don't go according to plan. If the author is going to miss a deadline - perhaps more than one - just be realistic! If it's an interesting subject, we still want it - but we really don't want to have to keep checking publication dates, perhaps deleting and reinstating orders, or have to persuade eager readers that the book they have been told was being published in the autumn does not yet exist.

On that subject,
Dear academics,

1. It would be very very nice if you could keep your publication information up to date, and not make it sound as if your latest work is about to appear, when you must know that that is not going to happen very soon.

2. If you want to put the latest title of a fellow academic on a reading list, please make sure it does actually exist in the real world and not only in a future - or possible - one.
There are quite a few "ghost" academic publications out there, some of which are asked for fairly often - but they were only ever a gleam in the author's eye and never saw the light of day. The most difficult to disprove are the ones which somehow seem to have acquired an ISBN somewhere along the way - and not always a valid one! A library of all the books which were announced but never appeared perhaps exists in a parallel universe somewhere, and there are some interesting titles in it, but sadly we have to operate in a real world in which we have to satisfy our customers', and our accountants', expectations.

I'm told that we have recently received details of a proposed publication with a date of 2035, and that this is definitely not a typo. Other than indicating that a project is under way, this is not really very helpful from an administrative point of view!

A little realism from publishers - and academics - and perhaps authors? - would help enormously, and it would in no way affect sales: it would save a lot of wasted effort, and sometimes money, and make for better customer relations all round - unfortunately libraries are sometimes caught in the middle between the reader and the publisher. After all, we all know that deadlines are not cast in stone, especially in publishing!

"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by". - Douglas Adams, The salmon of doubt.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Hubs: or, Thoughts of an "anti-hubber"

"Today’s anti-hubbers may come to look as foolish as those 19th-century segregationists and pamphleteers do to us". 

This quotation comes from a thoughtful article from December's Guardian, by Lucy Mangan. She doesn't mean it as a compliment, but I've decided to embrace the word "anti-hubber" (and yes, I do know that using labels such as this is meant to belittle). I consider myself to be a proud anti-hubber: here's why:

I think it's a fad. It isn't a recent one, of course: under another name, I first came across it as one of the ideas of Dame Shirley Porter, who was, oh younger readers, Leader of Westminster City Council, where I both worked and lived in the 1980s. Do feel free to Google her: I won't say anything more about that, other than to point out that that association might just possibly have coloured my opinion, and, again, it isn't a new idea.

I think it's a fad with a purpose: to save (minute amounts of) money, to de-professionalise the staff, to take over the nicer library buildings and subvert them to another purpose, to get rid of those library buildings which are in need of investment. 

I think it is also an umbrella term for many different things. I've been challenged on my obvious reluctance to embrace the brave new world of hubs by one member of the library profession who says that, if library-led, a hub can be a vibrant new thing which can breathe new life into the library service. That would be great (although I have my doubts): but then I haven't seen anything like this in practice. With the right input perhaps the library model can be adapted: but, how often are these proposals library-led? and, what exactly is meant by a hub?

 I have been asked "what is a hub?" many times recently, by people who are puzzled by the term. In Cardiff we have just been through one of those "consultation" processes which included a page and a half of options for changing libraries into hubs, moving library services into different areas and amalgamating with other services, &c. &c.. One person said to me "I want to keep my library, but if a hub is the only option I would rather have that than nothing, but then I don't know what a hub is!" Another, who was a Welsh-speaker, assumed it was connected to the Welsh word "hybu", which means "encourage", or perhaps "inspire". If you read the Guardian article mentioned above it seems to be implying that it means having a cafe on site (the context is the Sieghart report on England's libraries). In Cardiff it seems to mean a building in which any other council functions might also take place, in particular housing or benefits advice. Cardiff has some "hubs" which do not include library services, so you could not assume that a "hub" would always have library services in it. At the moment Cardiff's libraries are in a council portfolio dealing with social issues ("Community, Development, Co-operatives, and Social Enterprise") - at least, I think that's what that means - so the proposed new "hubs" reflect that. They have also in the past been in the education portfolio (at which point it was suggested at least by one person that they should be located in schools) and, more recently, in leisure services (when it was suggested rather more frequently that libraries should be in leisure centres or swimming pools). At one point they were joined with bereavement services, although locating libraries in cemeteries mercifully doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone. In some other local authorities they are in "enterprise hubs", which are more like business information centres - which used in fact to be not uncommon in public libraries. Other ideas mooted elsewhere have included library services being run from a variety of buildings which are not part of the relevant council, such as pubs and police stations. 

The trouble to my mind with all of these suggestions is that I do really believe that a library should be - neutral isn't possible, but as neutral as it can be. There are lots of people who really would not want to go into a building shared with a police station or a religious institution. Plenty of people don't like the idea of going into a pub. Others would hesitate to take their children to a building which is also the main point of assistance for ex-offenders looking for help with housing: victims of circumstance the majority may be, but there will be some who are not, and surely I don't need to point out all the potential problems which might arise? It works the other way round too: if you are going to register a death, do you really want to do it in a public library, which is not only public but might be full of children having a merry time just when you least want to be confronted with that? In Kent, you might have to. Closer to home in Cardiff there are serious questions about confidentiality in those buildings which have combined a library service with social help. Where is the confidentiality, if you have a housing problem which might be caused by your domestic situation, and you are expected to broadcast this to your neighbours in the middle of a public library? 

The advantages of co-locating services are clearly mainly to save money, as the state, even at the local level, retreats. Fewer buildings (and staff) mean lower overheads. Perhaps the "hub" concept actually can mean expanding services in some areas (the social services-type hub, not the posh-cafe hub). Around 18 months ago, for instance, Cardiff closed its much-loved branch library in Ely, a relatively deprived area. Ely Library was a lovely purpose-built library, designed by staff and students from the Welsh School of Architecture. (How I wished, when I was the branch librarian at more affluent but less well-provided-for Rhiwbina, that I could have uprooted this delightful building and moved it to north Cardiff!) Library services were moved across the road to "The Hub", and, according to the Minister, it was a great improvement. I have to accept that his statistics are correct, but I find this astonishing. A 60% increase in users? If true, that is splendid, and I eat my words (but can it be?) 

The closed Ely library had no notice on it telling people that there was still a library service in the area - only a brief note to say that there was nothing worth stealing left in the building, or words to that effect. From the road, there is no clue that there is a library service inside The Hub, but at least The Hub does still provide a library service in an area where it is sorely needed (another branch library in the vicinity closed some years ago). Other "hubs" proposed are to take the place of existing libraries which will close, and are not necessarily in the same areas as those libraries.

These examples are all at one end of the spectrum, but the article in the Guardian seems to be envisaging something quite different: a smart coffee shop with books. The idea of income generation has been put forward in Cardiff too. This raises one other awkward thing: the relationship of the public and private sectors. Local small businesses can be very supportive; a public facility such as a library draws customers to the area and there is a certain amount of mutual interdependence. One wonders whether that would survive the library becoming a competitor. This all might depend on the location of the library, of course.

A hub, then, can mean whatever you want it to mean. One essential seems to be that the word "library" must not appear anywhere in its vicinity. (Why? Has it become toxic?) 

Once libraries lose their separate identity (apart perhaps from those which have successfully transformed themselves and remained under the aegis of something that is recognisably still library-controlled) they are at the mercy of the services with which they have been co-located. We have already seen this in a way in Cardiff, with local libraries which were located in small suburban shopping precincts in the 1960s and 1970s for what would have seemed at the time to be forward-looking reasons: taking the libraries to where people were, taking advantage of the footfall of the shopping centres to encourage people into the libraries, and vice versa: but as those same shopping centres declined, the libraries were left stranded and blighted with them. If the whole concept of the "hub" falls out of favour, what happens to the library services then? What happens if there is a political change in the relevant authority, which leads to different priorities? 

It is so easy to criticise doubters as being Luddites, opposed to change, stuck in the past, and so on. It's a very difficult charge to counter. "Change" has been the mantra of the past 30 years. People my age have not only lived through a lot of change, we are even beginning to see some of the same ideas come round again, dressed as new concepts. It would be nice if someone, occasionally, would listen to the voices of experience who already know what hasn't worked before, and why.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Public libraries: victim of local government reorganisation?

The current plight of public libraries in the UK is by now recognised even outside the profession. The last five years have seen an unprecedented attack on them, sparked off or at least given wings by a consultants' report by KPMG in 2010 which claimed that librarians were "over-skilled" and that one way forward was to take public libraries out of local government control and let them be run by volunteers (if at all).

I am not going to rehearse all the arguments and the various attempts across the UK to reduce the public library service here, but one factor which hasn't had much attention strikes me quite forcibly: that this has come about largely as a result of the reforms in local government which took place in the 1990s, in particular the introduction of the cabinet model.

At one time, local councils split their various functions into small, discrete, manageable chunks. Education, clearly, was always a large and important department, as was social services. Other smaller services though also had their own committees, with their own dedicated council member who chaired the committee and a number of other councillors who took an active part. With the introduction of cabinet-style government, the functions were rationalised, no doubt getting rid of some unnecessary bureaucracy in the process. In the case of libraries, though, the old system worked fairly well and in their favour. The library committee was a rather nice committee for a councillor to be on; there was usually a Chief/County/City/Town Librarian with senior status who could develop a relationship with this committee, in particular with its chair. Once that was swept away, the close relationship was lost: there was no obvious portfolio holder who could give libraries so much attention (as they now became part of a much bigger set of services); with that went the loss of status and influence for the senior librarian, and, I would guess, this often led eventually to having fewer senior posts and the downgrading of remaining ones. Ultimately this led to a situation in which there were few influential voices to be heard in support of libraries at a senior level in the council, whether from elected members or from officers.

Cardiff's current difficulties arise partly from this by now historic shift, I believe. I am not singling Cardiff out in particular to suggest that it is any worse than others, only because I know a little of its recent history. The question which was never satisfactorily resolved at Cardiff was, where, in the now limited number of "cabinet portfolios", should libraries be? Other councils have had their own answers to this, and they are not without their problems either. One fairly common solution is to place them with leisure services. In the current climate, this might mean that the whole library service is to be outsourced along with the rest of leisure services (as proposed in Hull, and discussed by Alan Wylie here). Elsewhere, they might be in an education department, which some may think fits the libraries' purpose better, but can be difficult financially (and in terms of getting the relevant councillor's attention, and competing for resources with schools). If the council has a museum or an archive service it might belong with those in a "cultural" portfolio (not an option for Cardiff, whose museum became the National Museum of Wales long ago, and whose archives are part of the historic county's inheritance). Cardiff has in fact been in what seems like a never-ending state of reorganisation ever since coming into existence in 1996, and libraries have been passed round like a hot potato from one place to another. There was a brief pause of a year or so after 1996, and then the "pass-the-parcel" game began, with layers being peeled off each time the music stopped. In the last fifteen years libraries have been in at least five different parts of the structure, starting with education, then leisure, and then various combinations of other things, some of which overlapped while most did not. At the moment the cabinet member responsible for them holds the portfolio for "Community, Development, Co-operatives and Social Enterprise", with an assistant cabinet member for "Young People & Learning (including Libraries)". This all sounds quite woolly and difficult to get a handle on from outside the structure. There has not been a "Chief Librarian", as such, for over ten years: whatever else reorganisation does, it doesn't bring clarity in terms of job titles which can be easily understood by the general public.

Whichever department libraries were moved to, the senior non-library staff seemed to have in common:

1. No previous knowledge of or interest in libraries

2. No idea - often literally not a clue until told - that libraries are a statutory service protected by an Act of Parliament, which states among other things that the basic service has to be provided free of charge (an unwelcome shock to some!)

3. A desire to make libraries be more like whatever else was in the portfolio

4. A desire to make libraries serve the other part of their portfolio to the exclusion of other things (again, something which is incompatible with the Act, which states the local authorities must provide a "comprehensive" service)

5. Co-locating libraries with whatever else was in their portfolio

The combined effect of all of this has been to leave libraries vulnerable to every organisational change, to have no long-term planning (because who knows whose portfolio they might be in next time?), no overall vision for libraries, certainly no succession planning. Overall decisions are made from outside the profession, according to the agenda of other services (but not necessarily the same ones from one year to another). The loss of status of the professional library staff, leaving a very few trying to implement policies which are not library-led, also weakens a service overall. Again, I am not particularly singling Cardiff out: I think the problems are common to many other places.

Libraries have not been served well by the fragmentation of responsibility which has happened due to constant reorganisation, lost in having to compete for attention and resources with bigger and more vocal services (and, in the case of Cardiff, frequent changes of alignment). Small sometimes really is best!

Friday, 12 December 2014

Words in vogue: subsidy

Suddenly the word "subsidy" seems to be very much in fashion, especially in local government. I've heard it three times in the last week used in connection with local government services, but I don't recall hearing it in this context before.

Recently it was in the news - and continues to be to some extent - due to the changes in housing benefit which introduced rules about the number of bedrooms that anyone claiming housing benefit would be entitled to, with a commensurate reduction in their benefit if they were deemed to have too many rooms. Opponents of this change called it the "bedroom tax", which was a clever soundbite and infuriated the government, who (correctly) pointed out that it was not a tax, but who still found it difficult to counter. (It had the unlooked-for and unwanted effect of leading elderly and comfortably-off supporters of the government to think that they were actually going to be taxed on their own extra rooms - rather like King William III's window tax and the subsequent Georgian attempts to increase revenue from the tax by decreasing the number of windows you could have before incurring it). Then somebody came up with the idea of calling it the "spare room subsidy". The implication here is clear: money paid to people with rooms which are now deemed to be surplus to their needs is a hand-out, has always been so, and is to be withdrawn (but it never was called the "spare room subsidy" before: this is an attempt to put a certain spin on the policy).

It's a word with an interesting history. According to the OED (use your public library's subscription to check it online!) it was often originally used to indicate a tax: a tax on imports and exports, which was given to the sovereign; a levy paid by parliament to the sovereign for a particular purpose (such as a war); or (an obsolete meaning) help, assistance (of the kind which you could request from a saint, for instance).

More generally, it also means: a donation (usually to provide assistance); a sum which one country might send to another for a specific purpose (such as war, or to repay aid); and, the meaning which is closest to what we are starting to see now, money granted by the state or a public body to keep down the price of a commodity or service or to support something held to be in the public interest (so, the government's intervention to assist the banks after the crash could reasonably be called a subsidy, as would be money supporting a rural bus service which might otherwise be too expensive to be viable, but which is considered to be in the public interest because it enables people living in otherwise isolated communities to have jobs, visit the shops, &c.)

The word "subsidy" does not traditionally have negative connotations (such as the idea of a generous hand-out to an undeserving recipient, or the idea of its being something which could be withdrawn at any time and for which the recipient should be suitably grateful). It is not a word to use with scorn about something which one does not wish to pay for any more. This seems to be the meaning which is beginning to be attached to it, however. It has come a long way from its meaning of a tax which was raised in order to fund the monarch!

It is not a word which is appropriate when discussing the provision of statutory services. They are not "subsidised" but provided in accordance with legal requirements. We do not need to feel inferior for being on the receiving end of them. Did the monarch ever feel this when receiving his subsidy? or, to be more up to date, do the banks show any sign of unworthiness at having received such a substantial subsidy? Local government spin doctors and eager adopters of buzz words everywhere, please desist! We know what you are trying to do: use language to distort the argument. You have been rumbled!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Words in vogue: reform

"Reform" used to mean a change which was an improvement. The SOED [Shorter Oxford English Dictionary] lists several variations on this, many of them with quite a strong sense that a wrong is being put right, an abuse is being corrected, malpractice is being rectified, &c.

Perhaps "reform" still does have this meaning, and its current apparent frequent misuse is due to the fact that one person's reform is sometimes another's retrograde step. Whatever the reason, it seems to be being used widely in contexts in which opinion is not supposed to be being expressed. The use of the word "reform" implies that whatever change is being discussed is a change for the better (and, therefore, that the speaker supports the change). Something to remember next time you hear a BBC reporter discussing "necessary reforms".