Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Future of public libraries

Those debating the future of public libraries agrees that they are facing challenging times or serious problems. There is little agreement about the causes and therefore the solutions. Tim Coates sees the problem as the failure of library managers to do an efficient job and also the fact that they have abandoned a basic principle of libraries - a commitment to the book. Others put the blame on the fragmentation of the library service and the lack of clear management and funding at a national level.

Froud and Gent (see previous post) mention the political environment in which public libraries operate. They say that "the most successful services have positioned themselves at the centre of their local authorities, and are demonstrating every day the value of a service that can reach into the heart of every local community. By implication, the less successful services are failing to do this. They go on to warn however that "Even successful services are not immune to the pressures affecting the rest of government, and it is naive to ignore the impact of the local government funding regime"

This of course is the reality that public libraries face. We don't have a future unless we can convince our local authority - the elected members and the chief executive - that libraries have a value as well as a cost.

A recent report "Inspiring our ambitions through sports, art, culture and place" published by the Solace Foundation Imprint is significant in this endeavour. The SFI aims to commission and publish reports on public service improvements and excellence. It taps into the perspective of chief executives and senior managers on the issue of the future of local government.

The report itself looks at how cultural activities can bring real and tangible benefits to local communities and why these activities must be supported when faced with competition from the statutory duties of local authorities. The report mentions a wide range of anecdotal evidence about the benefits that accrue from cultural activities and libraries feature in this evidence:

  • A creative writing project run through the Housebound Library service in South Tyneside which helps older people to remain mentally active
  • Intervention with refugee library users in Leicester to encourage social cohesion
  • A craft workshop project in Leicester which enables libraries to remove organisational barriers that lead to under use by hard-to-reach groups.
  • The role of libraries in nurturing cultural capital and creating a sense of place in Winchester
  • Liverpool libraries achieving beacon status as part of the city's bid for European Capital of Culture 2008.

The role of libraries as cultural agencies can be overlooked. Reading or literature is a major cultural activity probably involving more people than theatre, sport, the arts etc, but it is a very individual activity and does not attract the profile of social cultural events. The role of libraries in supporting culture, sports and arts through providing information and lifelong learning opportunities can also be overlooked. Librarians therefore need to promote the concept that culture brings real benefits to the community and promote the role of libraries as cultural agencies. Incidentally, how good are public libraries at providing an information service for their own authority rather than to the public? Have you made sure that your Chief Executive has been notified of this report and provided with a one-side A4 summary of its contents? Your authority might have an internal information service that is separate from the library service but you can not afford to ignore the information needs of our managers and funders.

The Inspiring our ambitions report does contain a warning. Derrick Anderson, chief executive of Lambeth Council recounts how the failure of his authority in relation to the indicators in the library section of the cultural block of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment led to downgrading of the authority from 2 to 1 stars and headlines about the "worst council in London". He is aggrieved that this happened because of "an Audit Commission rule around a handful of indicators" and contrasts this with positive developments in other cultural areas that were not recognised in the indicators. Library performance indicators are important and library provision is a statutory requirement but in the long term we can not afford to alienate those who are promoting the role of culture.

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