Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Public Library consultation

The Government’s consultation report on Public Libraries - Empower, Inform, Enrich - has been published by the DCMS. This was to have been a review of the public library service but Margaret Hodge decided to turn it into a consultation exercise. Sir Humphrey would, no doubt, explain that this is the best way for a government to get rid of something they are not very interested in.

Its an odd document in many ways. It begins with 29 individual essays by authors, from Dame Lynne Brindley of the British Library to Darcy Willson-Rymer of Starbucks UK. Each author gives their own view of the future for public libraries so it is a diverse picture - but one that gives plenty of opportunity for debate. This is followed by a set of 23 consultation questions. The deadline for responses is the 26th January.

Some common themes do emerge. One, highlighted by Margaret Hodge, is the need to look at the governance of libraries. It could be argued that what is wrong with public libraries is not how they are run but what they do (or don't do) but the two are entwined. One idea is that some library authorities should combine to deliver library services in certain areas. The model of the five Library and Education Boards in Northern Ireland combining to form a single NI Library service is mentioned. John Hicks says that Councils should be encouraged to form joint services, to create joint trusts and to invite joint bids from the private sector. He suggests that the metropolitan areas have too many small services. "For example, London could be reduced to five services (inner and four outer London services) jointly provided by boroughs working together". Bob McKee says "A system delivered by 151 separate Public Library Authorities in England is inherently inefficient".

Equal attention is given to the need for public libraries to respond to the new digital environment. Professor David Nicholas is quite pessimistic:
"For a much-loved information institution, public libraries, to face possible melt-down in an information age, when information has never ever been so important, is unpardonable and something we should all be ashamed of. Yet it will happen because nobody seems to understand the need to look at the big picture and that the tail (the digital) now wags the dog".

Public librarians, especially the leaders of the profession, come in for criticism. Nicky Parker asks "What about the library leaders? Have we taken our eye off the ball? Have we slipped back into Lazy Town? Is our management style more David Brent than Alan Sugar?" and adds "Are we Tomorrow’s World or Antique’s Roadshow? "

Anyone can respond to this report. I hope that people don't get distracted by responding directly to the views expressed in the essays (even that libraries would be better if they served Starbucks coffee). That is not the point. This could be, should be, an opportunity to shape the public library service for the future. The Government might fail to take this forward but we must not fail to articulate our vision and listen to the needs of our users.

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