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Saturday, 31 May 2014

A fresh chapter for libraries, but have we gained?

Many view the Council magazine, Your Croydon, as a waste of time but it comes in handy to remind us what messages and promises were promoted.  Here's the text from August/September issue, 2013.

"A fresh chapter is about to begin in the history book of the borough’s library
service – and residents stand to gain.
Increased flexibility and innovation are two of the improvements that library users will notice following changes to be introduced later this year. 
In October, John Laing Integrated Services (JLIS) takes over the management of the libraries from the council, and, although the changes might not be immediately obvious, behind the scenes lots will be happening. 
Most importantly, the new contract guarantees value for money that, in addition to substantial cost savings, will see none of the borough’s libraries facing closure. 
In the short term, people will see improvements to the public computers, and the introduction of wi-fi networks and new self service systems, enabling staff to do more productive work. 
Over time, the changes will allow Croydon’s libraries to become more flexible and innovative – opening times could change to improve access for customers, and some branches might provide a wider range of services to appeal to a larger audience. 
This approach was adopted following cuts in government funding that could have left the council unable to run the current number of branches. Residents, however, made it plain that they valued their libraries too much to let any go. 
The solution to the problem was to use a model that has worked for other formerly council-run services. 
From bin collections to leisure centres, experience has shown that residents can enjoy continued levels of service while, at the same time, the council saves substantial sums of taxpayers’ money. And, although JLIS will be handling the day-to-day management of the service, the council will remain in control, ensuring that planned changes are real improvements that will benefit residents.

And, where are we in May of 2014?


"increased flexibility and innovation"

" improvements to the public computers, and the introduction of wi-fi networks and new self service systems, enabling staff to do more productive work."

"the council will remain in control, ensuring that planned changes are real improvements that will benefit residents."

"value for money"

And the reality

  • far fewer staff, including a further reduction in staffing after Laing & then Carillion took over
  • less access to information about the service
  • more temporary staff to plug the gaps, often ill-equipped to carry out the job as unaware of information requested
  • a major reshuffle of staff, moving staff to areas they are unfamiliar with, and breaking up working teams.
  • no increase in self-serve, and none in Central Library where self-serve might help alleviate the long queues due to far fewer staff now man a tiny section of the extensive counter area which was fully manned in previous years.
  • loss of phone access to branch libraries, only just reinstated but poorly advertised so most are unaware
  •  time-intensive and prescriptive study pass system in Central Library, where students must register each day for a pass, seek a pass for breaks (half-hour max), and queue for access to colour-coded tables. 'Yellow tables' are out of bounds for studying, 'blue tables' are for studying and 'red tables' are the most prized of all - giving access to a plug socket!
  • faltering IT. The new PCs installed are often out of service. The library loans system even broke down for a week at one stage, leaving branch libraries piled high with books awaiting scanning back in and leaving staff to manual record loans. The system often freezes. Paid late fees do not clear, and so on. Wi-fi access installed but little advertised, leaving some unaware.

It is hard to see any improvements other than access to Wi-fi so far but easy to see the further deterioration in the library service.

From this:

To this

And from this

To scenes like these

A lot was promised and assurances were given that the contract would be monitored stringently.

When Croydon Labour gain access to the books next Wednesday it will be interesting to see what they find and what steps they will put in place to correct the situation.

Watch this space!

Friday, 30 May 2014

Carillion's Curse...part 1

Having visited Croydon Central Library three weeks ago with a fellow Croydon library campaigner and leaving truly shocked by what we saw, I visited again the following week with an experienced library worker, Alan Wylie, of Stop the privatisation of Public Libraries to take another look, and made a repeat visit last week.

On the first visit things were truly dire.

On the revisits some hasty changes have taken place, but not sufficient to cover up the mess. Some things were the same or worse.

The most striking difference last week was the number of staff present, far outnumbering anything I'd seen before. It is assumed that after the letter in the Croydon Guardian, and the expanded version of letter posted on the Croydon Guardian website, as well as the tweets and comments about the situation prompted Carillion into damage-limitation overdrive.

But on returning last week, numbers of staff had dwindled again.

It's hard to describe the mess we found on all three occasions, and I bet some would just not believe what we saw. Take a look and judge for yourself.

You are NOT welcome to Croydon Central Library

Shutter down, and has been for at least three months, according to library users.

A week on..... 'Please use the other entrance' sign now displayed.  Still there last week and no move to get it opened.

That "other entrance" referred to is what locals know as "the exit"! I now know that I've turned away from the library on several occasions in the past few month's thinking it had already closed. How many others have been affected?

Lighting, surroundings and outlook

The lighting is dim on all floors. I was struck by the cruel irony of library users, huddled by windows on shabby and sparse seating, seeking natural light in order to read, and in so doing, looking straight out on the shiny new council HQ opposite, which we are told was built at nil cost - thanks to Laing, and which was furnished at a cost of a mere £3.1 mill.

There is money in Croydon.

 It seems it's just a case of priorities.

And, perhaps, what your builder mates want to fund....?

Some of the seating was in a poor state and, at times, oddly placed.

Ripped seat cushion by a partly dismantled shelving unit, complete with metal shelving protruding beyond wooden side of unit.

This was an improvement on the previous week though, when this metal jutting out at child eye level was not even masked up. See below.

Another chair placed below low level book displays, making it impossible to use as a seat.  There were notices everywhere saying that seats should not be moved.

There were signs everywhere, advising of the systems in place, not to move chairs and tables, where to go when stations on different floors were unstaffed and that staff were no longer able to help on matters such as booking PCs.  There was odd signage too, referring to not plugging in lap tops at points where no sockets existed.

'Do not move these chairs' sign, by a pillar with no chairs.

This sign, on an upper level,  is a significant addition. Previously a new system had been instigated. It was up to the library staff to provide the code for the public toilets to anyone who wanted to access them.  This includes library users as well as anyone else using the Clocktower building.

At least people using the library on this floor did not need to join the queue to request the code, as was the case previously.

Both the men's and the women's toilets were in a complete state on the second week we visited. Stocked with toilet tissue but sanitary bins in the women's facilities were overflowing, toilet paper strewn on the floor, the stench in both was overpowering. There is also a sign in both to advise that perfume and deodorant is not to be sprayed to avoid affecting people's allergies. Never mind the stench and unsanitary state they were in!

Study pass system still in place, but now with an explanatory note added underneath.  

This sign further restricts access to the library.


By the second and third week someone had been let loose with the black and yellow striped masking tape. It was everywhere, on both floor, fixings and on walls. 

 Here are just two examples.

The escalator had been repaired on the second visit but the lift was still out of order last week. 

New, long overdue IT, out of order

With a complete refresh of PCs promised as part of the deal struck with Laing, now Carillion, it seems hard to justify so many machines out of order....

Promoting what's on offer

Displays were poor.  Shelves were untidy.  On the first visit, books on all floors were piled high, less so on subsequent visits, but nothing like how the library had been run prior to it being de-staffed and hand over to the builder's, Laing and now Carillion.

Take a look.

New books display

Very odd end of unit displays were created. Can you spot the theme? Harmonica DVD with the Bumper Book of Pub Favourites. The book 'Keeping Canaries' teamed with Paul Potts DVD, replaced with 'Idiot's Guide to Online Geneology' in subsequent weeks.

So what exactly are Croydon getting for their money?

And the big question now is will Croydon Council, now in Labour control, be able to reverse some of this damage?


Friday, 16 May 2014

Blaming hard pushed staff is not the answer

Further to the letter that appeared in last week's Croydon Guardian, an online version has appeared. This expands on the text in the printed version, adding,
"All the students I met that were being told off for sitting at empty tables were exceedingly polite to the aggressive staff.  A student sat on the floor, which they were told off for, joked and I quote: "I'm on the library's most wanted list!". 
I urge other students to stand up against the staff, and to write in to your local papers and complain to the library so that we stand together against this unjust dictatorship. We may be young and studious but we deserve to study, and to be heard, as soon we will be the generation in charge."
This puts an extremely different slant on the letter.

Yes, the study pass system does not work. It wastes a great deal of time for both staff and for library users. Those applying need to do so daily and are required to log out each day.

Yes, the colour-coding of tables is a nonsense, creating an unwelcoming environment for users and a headache for staff who it appears must enforce Carillion dictat.
Colour coding - No expense spared on this exercise.

Do NOT, under any circumstances, use this table to
acquire knowledge or to better yourself. Knowledge is over-rated.
Love Carillion x

But the library user who wrote this letter needs to speak with other users of Croydon Central Library, as we have.

Library users hate the system.  They do not understand what purpose it serves BUT they do not blame the staff for this. 

When we visited last week there was not one member of staff on duty in the Children's Library, nor on another floor. That's two out of three floors/library areas we visited, unstaffed.

Any user needing assistance in these areas was directed to the Reception desk on the ground floor, manned by just two members of staff, dealing with a queue of users who were borrowing, returning, making enquiries and reservations and applying for or returning their study passes.

And who carries out these extra Reception desk duties? Not more but far fewer staff than before; just two members of staff on the day we visited.  And service with a smile was what we received.

The library users we spoke with were aware of the deterioration in the service but often unaware of the reason behind it.  They were acutely aware of the lack of staff and the bizarre systems put in place BUT not one that we spoke with placed the blame on the staff.

You can't blame the staff. If they could speak out I bet they'd say that they are as unhappy about the situation as the library users are.

Staff in Croydon libraries have done an admirable job, delivering the level of service they do, under intolerable conditions.

Croydon library users know it and stand firm in their support for the staff - the few staff who remain, that is.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Ridiculous system restricts studying in Croydon Central Library

The following letter appears in this week's Croydon Guardian. 
It's headed,
and goes on to details the experiences of a woman who was attempting to use the facilities of Croydon Central Library to study for her degree. The full letter is reproduced below:

At what is a crucial time of year for so many in Croydon, needing to use library facilities to study for end of year exams, GCSEs and A levels, it beggars belief that restrictions are being placed on those wishing to study in Croydon Central Library.

Is this just another sad consequence of handing our libraries over to a builder, Carillion?

What exactly is Croydon getting from this contact with Laing, now Carillion?

  • New IT has been installed, although well overdue, but library users report ongoing problems
  • Phone access to our libraries has been lost, now handled via a Call Centre, and restricted to 9am to 5pm weekdays, rather than direct access to each library any time it was open.

  • An appalling lack of promotion of activities. Check out the latest news tab on Croydon Libraries - Just one item, posted September 2013, promotion Black History month activities in October 2013 - hardly latest news. National Libraries Day in February went by with hardly a murmur, World Book Day on March 6 was ignored, as exposed by the Croydon AdvertiserWorld Book Nightan annual celebration of reading and books which takes place on 23 April, was not heard of in Croydon. And has anyone in Croydon heard of Reading Activists and the various groups for youth running in Croydon under this scheme,  funded from The Reading Agency? 

Croydon Council, like all local authorities, have a duty under the 1964 Act to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all who wish to make use of it. 

None of this sits comfortably with this legal duty.