Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 17 January 2008

Proposed Northern Ireland Library Authority

17 January 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Paul Maskey
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Ms Irene Knox (proposed Northern Ireland Library Authority)
Ms Julie Mapstone (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure)

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome Ms Irene Knox, chief executive designate of the new library authority. We are grateful for her attendance today. Members should refer to the presentation paper on the organisational structures of the library authority. Ms Julie Mapstone is also present to assist us this morning. I will allow 10 minutes for Ms Knox’s presentation. Members should then ask questions as quickly as possible, perhaps for another 10 minutes thereafter.

Ms Irene Knox (proposed Northern Ireland Library Authority):
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Committee about the proposals for the organisational structure of the library authority. Members will recall that when I spoke to the Committee some months ago, I mentioned that this would be one of the key pieces of work in which we would be engaged. I am glad to bring to the Committee a summary of the proposals that we wish to proceed with. I will highlight some of those key proposals, and I am happy to answer any questions that members may have.

I emphasise that our proposals are still in draft form, and represent emerging thinking on the matter. A formal consultation process with staff and trade unions will have to be undertaken before a final structure is presented to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for approval. However, the fundamental principles that are included in the paper in relation to the proposed structure are sound. There may be some changes as a result of the consultation — around the margins, I hope — given that there has been a process of informal consultation with stakeholders as we have developed our thinking.

The process has been an iterative one. We have involved chief librarians, assistant chief librarians, staff representatives and others with an interest in the matter. That engagement was very important from my perspective, because it helped me and my colleagues to arrive at a shared understanding of the nature of our business, and the best way of developing our services for the future.

The key principles of our proposals are stated in the presentation paper. It is important that they are set out at the beginning, because they establish the framework for the structure and the way in which the organisation will function. Although the authority will be regionally led, it must be locally delivered. A regionally-led organisation can ensure that there is equality of opportunity and provision, and that good practice is shared across Northern Ireland. At the same time, however, there must be a means of ensuring that the service is responsive to local needs. Although the structure that we are developing will facilitate the development of partnerships at a strategic level, it is equally important that it provides for proactive and effective engagement with other providers of services in an area to ensure local relevance and a joined-up approach to meeting the needs of a particular community.

We have followed the old edict that form follows function. We have to know what we are going to do before deciding how to do it. A starting-point for the process has been to seek clarity around the key business areas of the library authority. That process reinforced what was said by many members of this Committee over the past few months — that the library service has a key role to play in supporting learning in the broadest sense. That includes every age range, from birth to death.

Libraries are the local gateway to knowledge. They offer a universal service in an environment where public provision is, increasingly, specialised. Our business consists of helping people to do things for themselves rather than our doing things for people. It is through the process of supporting learning that we also deliver other important priorities. I have identified those priorities in section four of our paper, entitled ‘Northern Ireland Library Authority: Proposed organisational structure.’

Libraries assist with cultural and creative development, including access to our heritage. I was interested in the Committee’s earlier debate on that matter because it is a key aspect of the Library Service’s work. Libraries contribute to social inclusion, community development and economic regeneration. All of those aspects must be considered with regard to how we deliver our service in the future.

Section 5 of the paper identifies the key activities that help to deliver those objectives. They are delivered by a range of means including through books and other materials; access to information, which is delivered, increasingly, online; promoting reading and reader development; providing a neutral space; and indeed providing access to local Ulster and Irish history.

Traditionally, the public library service has tried to be all things to all people. By definition, as a public service, it must be available to all. However, in every community there are those who are likely to require more support and encouragement than others to take advantage of library services. In section 6 of our paper, we have identified target groups — such as children, young people, elderly people and those with disadvantages — that will require and receive additional support from the Library Service. Increasingly, libraries are being used by members of ethnic minority communities. Libraries provide a range of services for those communities.

The proposed structure has been formulated to enable us to address the key business areas, activities and target groups. The Committee will see that we have proposed a small senior management team that comprises a chief executive and three directors. One director is responsible for service development. That person’s major focus will be on the key business areas that we have identified, for example, support for learning, cultural and creative development, access to information, social inclusion, and so forth.

We have also identified a director who will be responsible for the business support services — the back-office services — required by any organisation, including finance, human resources (HR), estates management, facilities management, and so forth. It is critical that someone focuses on those areas so that the people whose jobs are about front line services can focus on the delivery of services rather than their time being taken up by HR issues, finance issues, etc.

At the outset, I said that the Northern Ireland library authority would be regionally led and locally delivered. We intend to ensure that that happens in two ways. The third post, at the second-tier level, is that of a director of service delivery. That person would be, principally, responsible for service delivery in local communities and for the development of local partnerships and processes for local engagement.

Together, those three posts — with that of the chief executive — form the senior management team. I have outlined how I see that local engagement moving forward. With regard to the director of service delivery’s being involved in local partnerships, we have shown that managers at third-tier level will be located in the areas that they serve, and they will be responsible for delivery of the service in that area. A key aspect of that job will be liaison and collaboration with other statutory, voluntary and community organisations in the area as a means of ensuring that the Library Service contributes, effectively, to locally produced plans to address needs. Eventually, when the community planning process is up and running, that person will be the library’s representative in that process. As a precursor to that process, we have suggested the establishment of local consultative groups to help to ensure that people and organisations in a local area participate in the planning of the Library Service.

There are group managers in the lower levels of the organisation’s hierarchy — just as there are, currently — who would be based in the larger libraries and would be responsible for a number of libraries in the hinterland, including mobile services in that area. Every library will still have a branch manager. The structure is concerned with working on our key business areas, ensuring that those services are developed, and looking at the most effective way of engaging with the local community.

In conclusion, there will be implications for senior staff in the existing services, which is why it was important to talk to them as we developed the process. As I said earlier, there will have to be a formal process of consultation with staff and trade unions on the proposals. We hope to issue a consultation document in the next couple of weeks, with responses due at the end of February/beginning of March. After that, structures will be finalised, and I am happy to come back to the Committee at that stage to let you know how things are progressing. Chairperson and Members, I thank you for your attention. If there are any questions, I will try to address them.

Mr Shannon:
Thank you for your presentation. In point 4.2 of your presentation, one of the proposed key business areas for a library authority is:

“Cultural and creative development, including access to information on our heritage.”

You have got a flavour of that from my colleague Nelson and the whole Committee. How do you see that relationship developing? For example, do you see the relationship with local councils as part of cultural and creative development? It is important that there is some tie in with local councils prior to, or after, the review of public administration (RPA) whenever that may be.

Ms Knox:
Yes, I very much see a relationship developing with local councils. There are already very good partnerships in many areas between the Library Service and local councils on the development of culture and arts. This goes further: there are also opportunities to develop our relationships with, for example, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) on heritage issues. I listened with great interest to what Mr Ken Robinson said about genealogical tourism — that is a huge area, in which the Library Service can work with PRONI, the Linen Hall Library, the Cardinal Tomás Ó’Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive, and all sorts of others organisations. That type of partnership can encourage and provide resources to support genealogical tourism. Local engagement based on partnerships developed at a strategic level would be a key issue for us.

Mr Shannon:
I welcome that. In point 5 of your presentation, ‘Key Activities’, there is mention of:

“up-to-date stock tailored to local need”.

How do you see a relationship being built with your customers in regard to what they want? Is there flexibility in what you can order for your customers?

Ms Knox:
There are two aspects to that; the library authority will have to have a stock policy, which will identify in general terms what the Library Service should provide. That will cover a range of, for example, fiction and non-fiction items, and largely popular items because we want to ensure that any new book which has received a lot of publicity is in the Library Service for people to borrow immediately.

However, we also have to look at needs in local areas, which brings us back to the situation regarding local studies. From my experience of working in libraries, I know that many people are very keen on material related to their immediate local area, so we want to make sure that we address that need. In one of the charts in the papers, Members will see that I have identified not only group managers but someone with responsibility for local studies in every area, and that person will have a key responsibility for ensuring that those local needs are addressed.

Library users will always have the opportunity to request, buy, or even borrow material from other sources. The key advantage of having a regional authority is that we have a facility across Northern Ireland to borrow material from other libraries in the area, and a facility to develop even better partnerships with places such as the Linen Hall Library, the Armagh Robinson Library, the Cardinal Tomás Ó’Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive, and all the other facilities that exist.

The Chairperson:
We need to move swiftly Jim because there are at least five other questions.

Mr Shannon:
I have a question on the management levels. Are there too many levels of management, when one considers that there is to be a chief executive, senior management, area mangers, an operations manager and a group manager? In addition, I notice that the mobile libraries are listed at the bottom of the organisational chart. I do not want the mobile libraries to be viewed as an afterthought.

Ms Knox:
As far as I am concerned, mobile libraries are not an afterthought. Particularly in rural communities, they provide a key resource, and I equate them with branch libraries in the service that they provide.

I will deal with your question on the layers of management. Apart from the chief executive and the three second-tier officers, everyone else would be out working on the ground. It must be remembered that there are 111 libraries, and we must ensure that those libraries operate collectively in areas. Area managers could be responsible for over 30 libraries, and they must ensure that the libraries in their area function properly, which they will do through the operations manager, and that local contacts are made, whether that is with local councils, health services or voluntary organisations. I want to ensure that we have people in libraries who can deliver services to the public as they come in. We must have people with sufficient seniority who can make those partnerships, at local level, with other organisations. The structure must be evolutionary; we must keep it under consideration as the service develops and we may have to consider a flatter structure at some stage. All of those management layers, and more, exist in the Library Service. I am trying to streamline it, while retaining the accountability in particular areas. I am happy to consider that as we move forward.

Mr McCausland:
I am happy with the general thrust of the aims of the service on the ground. The paper on the proposed organisational structure of the library authority states that:

“Each group manager will be responsible for the operation of a major library, the branches in the surrounding hinterland and any associated mobile library services.”

However, the organisational chart shows only three group managers. Is that due to a restriction of space?

Ms Knox:
The aim of the chart is simply to try to show a framework. I would need at least an A3-sized page to do that properly. That chart shows the general approach.

Mr McCausland:
Presumably, the cost of running the 111 branch libraries and mobile libraries under the new regime will be the same as under the current regime. However, we have been told that the creation of the library authority will result in savings. Any savings will be at the higher level of management, although the salary scales are yet to be decided. Leaving aside the mobile libraries, which will not change, is there any indication of the current costs, across the five boards, of the managerial and specialist posts of the upper management structure, and what those would be under the new library authority?

The Chairperson:
Before you answer that question, I will allow Pat to ask his question.

Mr P Ramsey:
From listening to your presentation and reading your material, I have great hope for increased services and the centres of excellence for education. That was referred to under the headings ‘Key Business Areas’, ‘Key Activities’ and ‘Target Groups’. Taking that as read, the education boards have written to me and said that this year, their budget will include expenditure for the single library authority. One of those letters states that, as a result of that:

“This will make it impossible to maintain current level of services, opening hours and expenditure on new books across Northern Ireland.”

Next year, the boards will have to run the libraries, across all of the library services, on £500,000. That complements Nelson’s point that the profession appears to be in crisis now. What will it face next year, and what will be the cost of implementing the new organisational structure?

Throughout the Committee’s discussions on the Library Service, we have talked about maintaining and increasing the level of services including literacy and numeracy, access for disabled people and the full range of facilities. How do we address the present crisis, and is it going to be worse next year?

Ms Knox:
Regarding Mr McCausland’s question, the only costings that we have been able to produce with any kind of certainty are those that are in the paper that has been made available to members. Those costings refer to proposals for the first, second and third tiers of management in the new library authority. When compared to the equivalent levels across the five education and library boards, it shows that savings will be made at that level.

At the fourth, fifth and sixth tier levels, the current structures across the five education and library boards are very different, and it is proving difficult to compare existing costs and future costs at that level of management. Work on that is ongoing, and in the next month or so I hope that we will be in a position to have more accurate information on those costs. I will be happy to provide the Committee with that information as soon as we have it.

The boards have been given indicative budgets by the Department. The Department was also successful in a bid for additional money for voluntary redundancies this year. Boards are putting together business cases and are looking at voluntary redundancies. My understanding is that most of the voluntary redundancies will be at the middle management level. Therefore, we want to ascertain what implications that will have for the future costs of the new library authority. Hopefully, that addresses some of the issues that members have raised.

Mr McCausland:
It would be good to have the breakdown of the numbers at all levels and the associated costs.

Ms Knox:
I am more than happy to share that information with the Committee as soon as I have it.

To pick up on Mr Ramsey’s point, my understanding — and Ms Mapstone may be able to clarify this — is that the Department has secured additional money this year for the implementation costs of the new library authority. Therefore, the money that the boards have received is money that they would have received anyway, regardless of whether the library authority was going to be set up or not.

There is no doubt that all of the boards are having difficulties with their indicative budgets for 2008-09; money is tight. Early indications were that that would be the case. I have been talking to chief librarians and assistant chief librarians. When the additional money that is being made available for voluntary redundancies is taken into account, my understanding is that all boards — with one exception — will be able to manage their services.

Our ability to develop services will be determined by how much money comes into libraries now and in the future. Through the structures that we put in place, I am trying to achieve efficiencies on the management side, and my paper sets out the cost reductions that I will be seeking to achieve at senior management level in the new authority. That point has to be considered.

We must put as much money as possible into front-line services, stock, and those employees who interact with the public. However, a fine balance is required between ensuring there is accountability and good governance and ensuring that the services are provided.

I cannot say that we have enough money. I will never say that we have enough money; I will always argue for additional funds for the Library Service to enable us to develop the service for the future. I believe that we are moving forward in the best way to ensure that we have a quality library service in Northern Ireland.

Mr P Ramsey:
It is important to have details of the full expenditure that will be required to deliver the new organisational structure compared with that which is need to fund the present system. Given the letter that I have in front of me, which I will make available, I am not happy with the responses that have been given. I will certainly be revisiting this issue.

Lord Browne:
It is stated in the submission that:

“It would be inappropriate, ineffective and inefficient to … import a structure wholesale from another Authority.”

What other authorities have been benchmarked with? Which of them best mirrors our situation?

It was said that the development of strategic partnerships with other providers will be critical to the delivery of an efficient service. How will it be ensured that front-line staff will engage with the target groups that have been identified? It was also said that area managers would be responsible for up to 30 libraries. Belfast City Council originally employed local managers in the city’s leisure centres, but under compulsory competitive tendering it replaced them with area managers, which proved totally ineffective because they could not be contacted. The council reverted back to employing local managers because they were able to identify the needs of the local community and had full responsibility for the centres in which they were employed. Are area managers the most effective way to deliver the Library Service?

Mr D Bradley:
Under the new library authority, will there be a new engagement with schools and education in general? Will it be able to bring a fresh approach, or will we simply get more of the same?

Ms Knox:
As regards authorities that mirror ours; the approach we are taking is unique in the UK, and it is being looked on with envy by many people across the UK. I have spoken to several chief librarians and local authority chief executives in England, as well as the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, to see what is happening regarding the development of structures, and what we can learn from. I do not believe in reinventing the wheel: if someone has a structure that works, we will use it.

I am not aware of any other authority that has exactly the same structure. However, other authorities are talking about employing a similar approach to ours, focusing on a small senior management team and trying to get as many people as possible out working in local areas. That is the approach that we have adopted. We have also worked with Kentwood Associates, who are a specialist library consultancy firm. They have over 40 years experience between them in this type of work, not only in the UK, but in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and they have told me that our approach is one that can be looked at in the future.

In considering strategic partnerships and how front-line staff will engage with target groups, it will be important to have area managers and group managers. Every library has its own branch manager, and will continue to do so, because they know their communities very well. I have spent time over the past couple of months visiting libraries. Branch managers, and the equivalent of group managers — they are given different titles by different boards, such as community librarians or group managers — are doing a huge amount of work at local level to identify target groups, service users and ensure services provided are relevant to local needs.

One particular library that I visited serves an area that has a large immigrant population. The staff of that library have engaged with local further education colleges to work with the immigrant population in English language classes. One of the first organisations they engaged with was from the police, because it was recognised that the immigrant population needed to learn English in order to understand the highway code and read road signs. The staff talked to the immigrant people and to community representatives to determine their needs. That work must continue and must be developed. That is why we have talked about local consultative groups that can engage with people in the local area around a library, determine the needs of the area and find out how to address them.

I take the point about leisure services in Belfast, but we are still talking about having branch managers. Every library will have its own branch manager, and he or she will be the initial point of contact. As regards engagement with schools and education, the Library Service has worked positively with schools in the past. I still believe that support for learning in the 0- to 19-year-old target group is critical.

The schools library service and the children’s library service have worked extremely well and collaborated closely when they were both parts of the same service. At the moment, the issue is where the schools library service will sit in the future. The current proposal is that it should sit within the education and skills authority. I have discussed the matter with Gavin Boyd from the ESA, and we are seeking to find ways of preserving a successful partnership in the delivery of services to schools. We are currently working on proposals as to how that might be done.

The key issue for staff is that collaboration should continue at the highest levels and that the public library service should remain involved with the education and skills authority in its literacy programmes. In that way, we will know what is delivered in schools, and we can complement that work in the public library service.

Mr D Bradley:
Will that link be formalised in any way?

Ms Knox:
We will have a service level agreement.

The Chairperson:
Can we move swiftly on? I must ask Francie and Ken to be brief. They normally are.

Mr Brolly:
I will give a wee quotation, first, knowing that you are a student of the classics. There is the famous translation of the Roman historian’s description of the old territory of Gaul, where he says that it was “quartered into three halves”. That was prompted by the question that I was going to ask.

The Chairperson:
You have introduced a non sequitur there.

Mr Brolly:
I think that “festina lente” is the phrase that you are after.

You were talking about quartering, dividing the North into four regions. What will the four regions be?

Ms Knox:
The detail of that has yet to be worked out. We have to do that with the individuals when we get to that stage. We need to ensure, as we move forward, that there is some sort of coterminosity with other services in the area. Geographically, —

Mr Brolly:
It will be divided into four regions?

Ms Knox:
We are trying to achieve efficiencies. If we wanted coterminosity with health services we could increase the number of regions to five; if we wanted coterminosity with the new council areas, we would have to wait and see. We have said at this stage that there will be four regions because we can do that effectively and efficiently. Each of those regions might not necessarily be a council area or a group of six or seven councils. We will have to look at how that works out.

Mr Brolly:
Will you be basing it on the number of libraries in each area, or on an actual geographic area?

Ms Knox:
We will try to achieve some coterminosity, so that libraries situated in communities that naturally sit together will be contained within the one area. We will not merely draw a line on a map; we will look at how we can put communities together.

Mr K Robinson:
Thank you very much, Irene, for giving answers to questions. That is a unique experience for me. I sit on another Committee, at which, although we ask questions, we never get answers.

I have looked at the structure that you have proposed. There is a clarity to it; I will not say that I agree with it totally. You have answered my question vis-à-vis minorities and how we would deal with their needs. I suggest to you, in passing, that many of the locals need to learn how to read road signs as well.

There is a problem here. With any structural change, there is a tendency for folk to clear out the cupboards and get rid of what they term as “rubbish”. Down the years, it has been my experience that, quite often, extremely valuable archive material goes to the shredder. I ask you to make a point of ensuring, at an early stage, that a very fine process is engaged in to prevent any unique material that is held at the different branch libraries or central libraries from ending up in the bin or on a skip.

A children’s librarian was mentioned as part of the structure of the new authority. I recall Liz Weir, who was employed by the Belfast Education and Library Board. She went round schools to tell stories to the children, and the schools visited their local libraries. She had a tremendous rapport with the children, particularly with the younger ones, and they discovered the joy of reading. I want to see that reinforced and retained. Perhaps it could be built into the service level agreement with the wonderful new body, the ESA —which we will deal with in another place — so that there is a proper structure and an enjoyment in learning and the library system is part of that.

My council holds some extremely valuable archive material, and I do not think that it is valued. If the RPA is rolling along in the background as well, perhaps it is time to talk to the councils about material that they hold so that it could be archived and centralised somewhere to prevent its loss.

Ms Knox:
I welcome your suggestion. Thank you very much.

The Chairperson:
That concludes the session on the structure of the library authority. I thank Irene and Julie for coming along to help the Committee with that.

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