I am always looking out for contributions by local librarians in the national media and today I have discovered two very contrasting examples which illustrate the complex issues that are facing our profession.
In Information World Review Issue 241 December 2007 there is an article Is virtual a virtue in scholarship? by Daniel Griffin. This looks at information literacy and in particular the work of Sheila Webber of the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield. Sheila talks about using Second Life as a learning environment and how the University now has a Second Life island where she (or her avatar Sheila Yoshikawa) can run conferences and workshops. She also describes the new University of Sheffield Information Commons building as a "great resource".
Meanwhile in the Independent on the 6th December, Gill Johnson, former head of service at Doncaster Libraries, has written a powerful letter highlighting the problems facing public libraries. She write:
The situation Hermione Eyre describes in her piece on public libraries (1 December) is happening all over the country as public library services come under ever more extreme pressure in terms of resources. The role of professional librarians is being downgraded and in some places staff are no longer allowed to have that title, being subsumed instead into generic "managers".
The new libraries are being marketed like bookshops, and that most important role for a public library, of holding a backstock of out-of-print and less popular items to respond to readers' requests, is being sacrificed as space is given over to coffee shop franchises etc. Book funds for new purchases are an easy target when a local authority is looking for savings.
So we have academic librarians expanding into new real and virtual accommodation while public librarians are facing cuts. It is easy to say that academic libraries have always been better funded but the point is that universities fund their libraries/resource centres because they recognise that they are central to what the university is trying to achieve. They support the teaching/learning goal of the university and they are a marketing tool for attracting students in a very competitive environment. Local authorities, and society in general, tend to see public libraries as being 'nice' but not essential.
Perhaps it is a case of academic librarians being successful in making their case while public librarians have failed - but it has to be a two way dialogue and I suspect that the fault lies with the decision making process as it operates in local authorities. Local councilors might recognise the importance of promoting reading to pre-school children (at least when a busty blond celeb is involved) but they find it difficult to champion or even understand the holistic role of libraries and information in their communities. Combined with the absence of any top-level support from DCMS or MLA, as Gill Johnson points out, it is no wonder that this sector is struggling.
My opinion is that the whole structure of public library provision needs to change. Local authorities should provide bright and attractive services points with coffee shops, internet access and a limited range of books. These should be supported by regional libraries that hold a collection of out-of-print books but also act as an access point for electronic resources - together with the information professionals providing an enquiry service. These regional libraries could develop close links with local university libraries and might even be co-located. They could also have a virtual presence (in Second Life or whatever) so that people could access them from the local service points or from home.