Everybody loves libraries. Or the idea of libraries. Or at least the idea that there ought to be libraries. But this love doesn’t always translate to keeping libraries open – especially during the hours that anyone might want to visit.
Last night I attended the parliamentary launch of Independent Library Report for England, published by DCMS just before Christmas last year. The esteemed panel – including author Joanna Trollope and panel chair philanthropist William Sieghart who made his money in publishing – alluded to the many previous challenging and now dusty reports on library reform and improvement.
Many years ago and in a completely different era of public finance, I co-authored one of those now dusty reports on public libraries at the Audit Commission. In that report we talked about books and space and access. How there still need to be good books in libraries as well as diversified stock. How the space needs to be pleasant and conducive to quiet reflection and study but also a social space (they don’t need to be in the same room!) and how people need to be able to access libraries conveniently at times that they expect libraries to be open and how people need to know about what libraries have to offer – as that wasn’t always apparent even if you were standing inside one. I didn’t think these were particularly startling recommendations, but it wasn’t well received by library world. We also had some pretty unpleasant reporting on performance based on Best Value reviews and then then ubiquitous performance indicators. I was accused of bring the library world into disrepute and at one conference a male librarian accosted me – I thought he was going to punch me or spit on me, but I guess that’s not the librarian way.
It seems like many libraries are still struggling with the issues we looked at then. I heard complaints about stock, about the way stock is displayed, about awareness and about the social environment and about opening hours. If I’m being really uncharitable, I guess the only that’s really changed is that there’s no more Audit Commission.
But there are now a few more examples of truly innovative practice in delivery and in organisation. The head of Suffolk libraries is an independent charity. The City of York has been spun out and is one third owned by staff and two thirds by community members. I really hope this makes a difference to libraries. One thing I thought was missing in the report we did was the importance of community engagement and giving community groups a say and a space in running libraries. Back then, I thought it would be good for libraries and the right thing to do to make libraries a truly engaging community asset, these days it’s an absolute necessity. But if it’s not done with an open mind and an open heart, it won’t succeed. They also made some excellent points about the value of these community spaces and how they should be more adaptable and accessible.
And of course, technology has moved on a lot since then and librarians acknowledge that wifi is an important service provided by libraries (and can be incredibly important in rural areas), but still not all libraries have good wifi.
The report makes a few recommendations we wouldn’t have dreamed of doing back then, but which may make sense in today’s context. It calls for a national library service of sorts. There certainly does need to be much more joining up of library services. In London alone there are 33 different library services (well, ok 31 with Triborough’s joining up) and that does seem mad. But should it be one library service or five or six? I don’t know what would make the most sense. I also remain unconvinced about a national service with physical assets, but a national service of digital assets could be incredibly powerful and really give the UK (or parts thereof) a distinct international advantage.
The report also calls for a task force – which has already been convened and is being led by Paul Blantern, the Chief Executive of Northamptonshire County Council. So this report differs from my own long-forgotten contribution in that maybe people will follow up on the recommendations it makes.
I hope so. I genuinely believe that libraries are so important for how we see our communities and are an absolutely vital service for the people who rely on them – and they could be so much more.
LGiU members should look out for a detailed briefing on this report and library policy coming soon.