Are Suffolk's libraries really "close to breaking point"?

Ipswich County Library
A few weeks ago an article appeared in the Evening Star reporting concern from staff about the new Suffolk Libraries IPS claiming that the service was “close to breaking point”.

An unnamed worker is quoted saying:
“There has been no recruitment for two years. People leave and they are not replaced. I understand that they are going to start recruiting again but at the moment there is simply not enough relief staff to cover the holes.
Now this is most certainly true but as the staff member goes on to report this is actually part of the legacy left by Suffolk County Council:
The worker, who asked not to be named, said the pressure on resources began while libraries were controlled by Suffolk County Council and has so far continued under the Suffolk Libraries’ Industrial Provident Society (IPS) – the agency which took control of Suffolk ’s 44 libraries at the start of August.
Now it is probably completely unreasonable to expect the IPS to have fixed this two year problem within literally a few weeks but the frustration of staff who have faced two years of a recruitment freeze is understandable.

The worker goes on to report concerns about volunteers replacing paid staff which again I think is a completely reasonable concern. Indeed a concern I have personally raised several times with the IPS.

IPS General Manager Alison Wheeler responds to this saying:
The recruitment freeze was something put in place under Suffolk County Council. We are outside that now. We have already brought someone in to look at all of the vacancies and to do analysis to improve staffing levels.”
Ms Wheeler, who said 40 relief staff have already been re-employed, said those working at libraries should be reassured that the agency had “acted immediately.”
She also insisted that volunteers would not replace paid positions. “I know our staff have been concerned, but volunteers should not be seen as a threat, they are there to support staff not replace them"
This seems to be a reasonable response too. It is too early to judge if the IPS will address these issues but they are certainly making the right noises.

Since this article was published a letter has been sent by Suffolk Coalition for Public Services and Ipswich & District Trades Council which is reported on the Rosehill Readers blog.

What concerns me about this letter is it repeats a list of concerns almost verbatim that first appeared on the “left socialist blog” run by Tendance Coatsey on August 26  -  less than four weeks after the IPS had taken control of the libraries.
Library users have to use the stairs as the lift is broken
Here is his list:
The most obvious symptom is the failure of the lift in Northgate Street Library for around 6 weeks (if not more).
Charming as a broken lift is in the Big Bang Theory this is not the case here. It means that many people, disabled and elderly, no longer have access to sections of the library. 
it effectively means that a large section of the Ipswich population no longer has access to a large part of the building (including the reference section, the music and poetry section). Mind you given that they have cancelled a load of publications…
The Internet service is frankly a joke (it took me fifteen minutes just to get onto the blog).
Books are going missing, as the ‘new’ system has not registered their bar-codes.
The Library has been mysteriously closed until noon, or later, for ‘staff shortages’ on a number of Sundays .  
Here is the list in the letter  sent by Suffolk Coalition for Public Services and Ipswich & District Trades Council
Computers are running a very old web browser

The lift in the Central Library (Northgate Street) has been out of order for some months now though we now understand it has been repaired.Users comment that:
This denied access to services on the first and second floors to the disabled and others.
The Internet, one of the most important Library services, is deteriorating daily. The Browser needs updating, and as a result there is constant “buffering”. Many sites cannot be properly accessed, including Facebook, E-Mail and information sites.
Books have been given the wrong bar-codes, or simply not been registered on the new system.
There are concerns that the level of staffing is not adequate to cope with daily public demand.
See what I mean! They are almost identical.

Now I am not disputing what is complained about here. The lift is broken, the Internet browser ancient and badly needs updating and there have been problems with the new library system and staffing levels but let’s be fair and explore who is responsible for all these issues:
  • The library buildings still belong to the County Council who intend to lease them to the IPS however even when this happens maintenance will still be the County Council’s responsibility
  • The Internet Service is still provided by the Suffolk County Council joint venture CSD. The browser has needed updating for months if not years. This issue did not start on 1st August.
  • The new library system Spydus was purchased by Suffolk County Council before the IPS took over and was handed over without full implementation having taken place and with several serious problems outstanding.
  • The County Council had a recruitment freeze in place for two years and there have been occasions that libraries have not opened due to a lack of staff. Again this issue did not start on 1 August
Bizarrely the solution favoured by Coates is to hand the libraries back to the County Council to run. The same County Council that are responsible for every single one of the concerns he raised and Suffolk Coalition for Public Services and Ipswich & District Trades Council repeated! The same County Council that wanted to close many of the libraries.

The coalition’s letter goes on to say:
We would like to say that the transfer of a democratically-run publicly-owned service to a private charitable organisation is not proving a success.
The problem with this argument is that the democratically run service that preceded the IPS was not a success either! Indeed the problems they complain of in the letter were all caused by them. It looks more to me like some people have an ideological objection to the IPS running the service.

Now there is nothing wrong with that at all. it is a perfectly legitimate view that the County Council ought to run the library service but it does not enhance this argument to claim that the new IPS has failed before it has had a chance to do anything or to blame it for problems inherited from the County Council.

Given a bit of a chance and our support rather than criticism the IPS could very well sort these problems out. I know moves are already afoot to get the browser and other IT issues sorted out and in the medium term I actually think the IPS will be able to run these services better freed from the constraints of Suffolk County Council’s IT service.

The IPS needs to sort out the buildings issues as well as staffing structures and fix the new library system it inherited. I would suggest that all of us who want to see Suffolk’s libraries succeed get behind them and help make the IPS a success. It is s still a publicly funded service accountable to the people of Suffolk and the County Council.
suffolk libraries IPS 7291941478157460546

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