Monday, 14 May 2007

Tough love for public libraries

The MLA has launched the Love Libraries Award which will recognise and reward libraries that show innovation in services for teenagers and young people up to 25. The winner will receive a Trophy and £2000. Nomination forms and details are available from here.

Awards like this deserve to be supported by the profession. Not only do they provide recognition and support for librarians who are putting time and effort into developing innovative services but the publicity that is generated can benefit all library services. The target group of teenagers and young people is one that public libraries have found hard to reach and the award should provide some case studies for everyone to consider.

However, there is always the suspicion that such things are mere flim-flam - jolly PR exercises which might be fun for those involved but have no real lasting benefits and fail to address the serious underlying problems. I suspect that the failure of most public libraries to attract teenage and young users is not a failure to come up with innovative ideas but instead deep rooted problems of funding.

The press release from MLA about the Love Libraries Award arrived in my in-box at about the same time as a press release from the Laser Foundation. LASER - the London and South East Library Region was set up in 1928 as an inter-library loan scheme (pre-dating SINTO by four years). In 2000 it was dissolved as a company and its assets transferred to a charity - the Laser Foundation. Its funds were used for grants to support public library services and in particular it supported some important research work. These assets are now exhausted and the Laser Foundation will shortly cease to exist.

For its swan song it has produced its final report Public Libraries What Next? This looks at two reports in particular Overdue: how to create a modern public library service by Charles Leadbeater (the Sleepwalking report) and Who's in charge?: responsibilities for the public library service by Tim Coates. Both were critical of public library management with the Tim Coates report in particular causing much controversy and debate. Both reports identified failings at all levels and the Leadbeater report identifies fragmentation of the public library service as a problem:

“There are149 library authorities, each with its own agenda. They are funded by a clutch of central government departments and other agencies such as the National Lottery, which are poorly coordinated”. He noted that DCMS was responsible for library policy, but had no money; the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was the major funder, but set no goals; the Department for Education and Skills and the National Lottery financed programmes but had little influence over the national network.

In the light of this it is clear that a trophy and award of £2000 does not go very far in addressing the underlying problem. I don't want to knock the MLA Love Libraries Award - like the CILIP Libraries Change Lives award it is good to celebrate success - but is either body addressing the real question. The Laser Foundation is pessimistic.

"During its lifetime [the Laser Foundation] has been the only independent, and independently minded, grant giving body and its demise leaves a serious gap in the public library world which, at the moment, there is no prospect of filling.

The present situation has existed for decades, an in all of that time it has been as inefficient as it is now. There seems little chance, therefore, that a wish to talk about reform - and even less the will to fight for reform - will come from the centre. In this respect the future looks bleak."

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the eventual winner of the Love Libraries Award will use it as a platform to call for action from the centre.

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