Public libraries and the people who run them, are sometimes accused of lacking a clear vision for the future. The accusation is that the public library service is facing a crisis - declining issues, competition from the Internet and bookshops, budget cuts and a genera loss of direction. The only way to counter this is to have a clear vision of the future and a strategy for achieving a new model for libraries yet we appear to have difficulty in articulating what these should be.
Library managers may feel that are already under enormous pressure to simply deliver a service - a service which is diverse and produced a high level of customer satisfaction within a very modest budget - and that this limits their ability to deliver new exciting and achievable visions at the drop of a hat. In spite of this they are mainly up to the challenge, however they may feel that they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.
Libraries are faced with conflicting demands. They need to attract a new generation of younger readers by being exciting places to go but they must not alienate the existing clientele who prefer a more traditional approach. They must provide access to electronic material, the Internet and social networking but must not abandon the book. They must be popular and socially inclusive but must promote quality reading. They must save on staff overheads so that money can be spent on stock but must maintain the personal contact with users. You can't please all of the people all of the time.
A recent attempt by the London Borough of Camden to produce a vision for the future illustrates this. The report Growing Your Library was produced at a cost of £47,000 by council staff and consultants. The plan is intended to transform the service and make it more cost efficient and customer focused.
The plan has attracted criticism (here and here) for the jargon it uses, for the proposal to make a £2m cut to the library budget through staff cuts and introducing self service machines, and because of the techniques used by the consultants in developing the report. These included visits to a series of businesses, including the glamorous Apple Store in Regent Street, to see what ideas could be transferred to council-run libraries.
Trying to produce a vision of the future while at the same time making substantial cuts was bound to create hostility from both staff and existing users. If there is anything positive in the Growing Your Library report it has been lost in the controversy. Incidentally, Camden libraries' own webpage makes absolutely no mention of the report - a lost opportunity to have a meaningful debate.
While I was researching into Growing Your Library I stumbled across another strategic plan for Camden libraries - Vibrant Places - People Spaces. However this was from Camden New South Wales, Australia and was produced in 2005. Another time, another place; and yet there is much in this report that is worth reading. The language is clear and direct. The report is aspirational and forward looking and yet rooted in the tradition of libraries. Here are some quotes:
Camden libraries are a focal point, a centre of activity and natural meeting place. They provide a focal point for the community, in the same way that the village square provided a focal point in the 18th century.
To achieve these outcomes our libraries will be wonderful interesting places that continually capture people's interest through architecture, art works created by professionals and community, programs, collections and activities that continually evolve.
Our libraries are modern libraries, connecting tradition with technology, reflecting the best of both worlds. Our libraries will become libraries without walls, extending our services through web based technology to meet the needs of our community.
Our libraries will retain the traditional core library services however, will have a place based focus that reflects the location of the library and the people within that community. Each library service will have its own personality and identity, rather than a franchise approach where one size fits all, there is an approach of tailoring the environment, services and programs provided to reflect the community in which it is located.
Libraries are more than books - they enrich people’s lives. Libraries are places where you can come to read, learn, connect and belong. Our libraries provide a common ground – a place in our community where individuals can be connected. They foster a passion for reading, spark intellectual curiosity and support lifelong learning.
Perhaps much of this vision is impossible to achieve here and now. Public libraries will have to follow academic libraries along the path of self-service issue and 24/7 on-line information provision. But libraries as a "common ground" is still a powerful concept and should form part of our vision and our goal.