Tim Coates, Burlington House, Oct 14 2010
Conference: “Libraries in the Digital Age”
In this speech I am going to announce the formation of a new ‘not-for-profit’, non-governmental body which is being launched specifically with the aim of helping to bring improvement to the public library service. If you will allow me to explain some of my own views about the state of the service then I shall describe what the new body is intended to do.
We are often asked to imagine what public libraries will be like in the future. Sometimes, as today, when the topic is about libraries in the digital age, changes in technical methods are under discussion, sometimes it is just the march of time and the changing nature of our society. Often, at the moment, we are asked whether libraries can survive in a time of public austerity.
I think that the right way to address these questions is to understand the different reasons why people use public libraries and try to look at each of them separately. In doing that we begin to see how extraordinarily important libraries are and how change can be used to improve them and keep them up to date and how priorities can be identified that make it possible to do that.
Changing technology is not the only influence that will make a difference. The economy, education, the increasingly fascinating international origin of our population are all key, but so, too are changing standards of design and people’s expectation and more than anything what is being written and being published and is available to read.
Of course public libraries are not just about providing current fiction or non fiction, of the kind that grabs headlines when editions are printed as ebooks. That is a small part of the role they play. Families with small children not only borrow books, but for them the buildings, their design and their accessibility, their collections of stories and picture books are essential issues. So are the story times and playtime readings. These are not matters of electronics.
For schoolchildren who have nowhere to go when they come out of school, the library is an essential place to do homework and to work with books and with friends. The issue here is not about digital provision but about opening hours, space and basic dignity, cleanliness and privacy, all of which are just as important as any technical advances. They are matters of high standards of interior design.
For older people who read voraciously all those books for which their working life left insufficient time, it is not only the stock, but also the proximity and neighbourliness of a library that means they do not have to make a bus or car trip to the shopping centre. For them, location, opening hours and comfort are essential ingredients, many of which need improving.
The stock of back list fiction and non fiction and of reference and local history mean that a project to digitise and offer ebooks in public libraries has to encompass a vast service of reproducing the writing that is already sitting on library shelves, or, less satisfactorily, in stacks hidden away from the public. If digitisation only covers a small percentage of what is to be read, it will have been a waste of time and money.
So when the headline in the national paper is that ‘ebooks are the future’, I am more likely to find myself worrying about whether libraries are spending enough on the window cleaning budget. I sometimes feel that the technical advance that has made leather sofas ubiquitous in coffee shops is more important than 24 hour internet access to public libraries and that the question about whether libraries should participate in the digital age, is only the same as asking whether libraries should have installed electricity in the 1920’s. Of course they should and of course these things are important. But they are not overwhelming and do not mean either that we should change everything or that the nature of a library is something different because we have learned how to scan and that we can see digital copies of printed pages. That kind of change, the introduction of the internet, the improvement of library web services, are, for me, no more than the adoption of obvious improvement, they are just part of what we do. A lot of the time libraries will be quite fine if they just copy what other people do. There will be no shame in waiting to see how the progress of digitisation all develops in the commercial world.
Libraries are buildings with things to read. Things that people have written. That is the service we should always be constantly trying to improve, for all the different groups of people, the individual people, who use libraries. Making the service better, providing better access, is that for which we should obviously constantly strive. Increasing opening hours and having bright clean light fittings are just as important as having PC’s that are fast and that work and that connect to essential works of reference. Some things are less glamorous or intellectual, but they are just as necessary. So my answer to the question posed is that libraries in the digital age will be better than in a previous age, if and only if that new technology is used to provide access to more material and also if the libraries themselves are actively and visibly improved
Don’t be obsessed with digitisation
I am saying these things because it is the failure to make obvious improvement that has drawn the attention of critics to the library service. With regret one has to observe what the market research constantly says and newspaper commentators frequently observe, which is that people who don’t use libraries say that it is because they are in out of date buildings, they are not open when needed and they don’t have what people want to read.
For decades we have known that these problems exist and for some reason we are unable to solve them. At the same time we know that money is not and, up until now, has not been the problem. The library service has been criticised endlessly for its inefficiencies and its inability to tackle fundamental structural operational problems in which money is needlessly and wastefully spent on out of date methods- which all seem to be problems of a kind that ought to be and are easily put right.
I recognise that there are those who believe that the public library service has no problems and the good work which is done far outweighs any criticisms, but even to those people, with whom I disagree, I would say that we should nevertheless seek constant improvement as effectively as we can. That is an obligation any public service has to the public who pay for it. If technology does anything, it should improve efficiency and managers should make sure that is true. In the past ten years there have been at least thirty government initiatives for improvement most of which have made little impact that the public would notice and that alone is cause for concern.
That is what the library service doesn’t do – it doesn’t do what the public ask of it, as well as they would like.
On the other hand what the public library does do – and proudly – is to endeavour to make a contribution to the social agenda of local government. It addresses questions of health care; it provides accommodation for job centres; it attempts to make its libraries youth and community centres, not by its provision of reading material, but by going out of its way to offer other entertainments that it perceives might be more attractive. It participates actively in immigrant wellbeing programmes. How well it does all these things is for the various audiences and the audience development officers to assess, but that it does them at all allows the service to claim that it plays a role in the priorities of local government and from the impact that these things make it justifies its role and its funding. Whether actual use of the service goes up or down, or whether books are borrowed and read, is said to be irrelevant if one only could measure the impact the service has on the economy and the well being of the local community and the councils local area agenda.
I don’t deny that a local council is entitled to set priorities for what it must do; of course it must; but I do disagree with the idea that all the public services it offers have to contribute actively to those priorities if they are not particularly relevant. Just because you want to care for single parents doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mend the roads. I disagree with those who give resource and priority to social agendas for libraries if what is needed to make those public libraries better requires other priorities and actions. A council may reasonably seek to improve health care in its area – but I think that the role of the library in such a cause is to be a good library to the people, not to be a place that offers health advice, as many libraries currently claim to do. A council may reasonably seek to care for the young unemployed, but that does not mean turning the library into a youth job centre that may easily make the library less attractive and even actually frightening to other library users. Use of the library building for any purpose is not the same as making it into a really good library. Diverting management attention onto outreach schemes of this kind, means that there is insufficient time and money to devote to the core of the service
Co-location of public libraries with other services, which is at present much applauded by government agencies and professional bodies, will not on its own make a library a better library – any more than putting a library into job centre will make it a better job centre. Putting a library in a council one stop shop saves nothing because librarians are no better at answering difficult questions about care of an elderly relative than council workers are able to recommend the reading age of the Gruffalo. What makes a library better are improved stock, better designed buildings, longer hours, or more helpful and knowledgeable staff. Large modern futuristic central libraries are not necessarily more useful than small community libraries. If efficiency is measured in terms of the cost of travelling by individual people (as supermarket chains have now realised it should be) then large and urban may well be less efficient than a library which small and neighbourly.
These views I am expressing are quite controversial in government circles, in fact they are almost treasonable, but to an ordinary member of the public they are obvious. They are so clearly the reasons that people protest when small libraries are threatened with closure one wonders why officials find it hard to understand them. But the reason is that government departments are so big and intertwined that they get themselves fixed on agendas which become remote from what the public actually want—that is a problem of the big government we have. It becomes impossible for middle managers to argue common sense.
A good library makes an enormous contribution to the community in which it stands by virtue of what it does for each individual and what they need, rather than by acting as a social service. What we need are better libraries- measured against the requirements that the public has –rather than by assessing their contribution to council priorities. Those are two very different things.
The danger in our society that I have seen is that those who work in government circles, as I call them, have come to believe that only they can devise the agenda for what people should do or how they should care. They believe that it is their right to determine the role of a public library- and I say they should not. What makes a public library good, is its own essence and what it does for individual people- not whether it adds or claims to contribute to employment, wellbeing or a reduction in crime or its social impact in any sense. It will do those things in its own way by making us all more civilised and educated.
The library service would be miles better and more useful to us all if it was not linked to government priorities, because we understand that it is writing, and reading what has been written, actually, that makes us civilised and not a library service without books.
I want today therefore to suggest a radical way forward . I want to suggest that the whole landscape within which the public library service operates is changed and not only that I want to propose a new structure and to tell of what I and others have done to put one in place. I am calling for a new order for public libraries and have taken the steps to set it up
Everything I say and propose is within not only the words but also the intentions and meaning of the 1964 Public Libraries Act. I believe that what has been done in the last 20 years has moved us away from what the writers of that document wanted to achieve. I want to return to the meaning of the Act. It is neither out of date nor irrelevant.
In fact I have always been surprised at the extent to which those who run the library service have attempted to avoid the responsibilities of the 1964 Act and, for example, the recommendations of the Kaufman Select Committee of 2005. There was an outcry last year from local government when the Inquiry into the Wirral library service reminded councillors and council officers of what their duties are. That was astonishing, but it is obvious those people feel able and entitled to disregard the law and parliament if they disagree with it. And that is simply wrong – whoever they are and whatever positions they occupy.
Councillors are the key. For the past few years, in each council there is a senior councillor who carries the responsibility for the library service. When they are put in that post they generally come with their own instincts and experience and are surrounded by the advice of officers in the council to whom they must listen and upon whom they depend. This could be a good arrangement but at present it doesn’t work properly. You wouldn’t appoint an executive Chair of a large company (and these are quite large operations) with so little experience and with so little understanding of his shareholders and the market in which he is operating. Nor should or would you allow a structure in which there is no independent accounting for how his management team perform – and only their own say so for how good they are. If councillors are to be in charge they need serious training for the job which is important, rewarding and fascinating... but running public services is an onerous responsibility for which one needs preparation. We need library councillors who are ambitious for improvement, not for closing things or getting away with the minimum they can
For example, in a council where the annual library budget is £5.6 m and there is currently a proposal to close half the libraries for financial reasons the council have said the saving will be just £300,000 per annum. Given that that statement simply cannot make sense, a resident wrote and asked how the current budget of £5.6m for the 12 existing libraries was spent. After some weeks the answer came back on one sheet which had five headings that did indeed add up to £5.6m. The heading were for staff costs, without distinguishing how much went on each library, property , stock and other miscellaneous items. However the final item in the column said ‘Uncontrollable expenditure £1.3m’ Management and management information like that being given to the taxpayers and to the councillors, so far into a plan to close half the service down, demonstrates the woeful state of financial management in the library service and makes one fearful. In my experience that kind of misinformation is totally normal and common. What was meant was that the overhead cost in the council recharged for other services, is £1.3m. No properly managed body can report that nearly a quarter of its expenditure cannot be controlled. None of it can be controlled by the public, all of it must be controlled by the council- by someone- but whoever compiled that sheet to send to electors did not know what that money was spent on and did not see the responsibility to find out.
As Sir Philip Green has said this week- no one should or could run a business like operation with confusion like that, and no one should tolerate it. Councils wonder why well informed citizens get cross with them and as the digital age means citizens are better informed than ever before, councils need to address these inefficiencies or accept that their citizens will get crosser still.
Not only are the simplest management budgeting procedures unclear, but the link from public to councillor is also lacking and ill informed. Councillors, if they are to be responsible need to know much more about the public need and the mechanisms of good practice for public libraries than they have.
Running good libraries is actually not very difficult, but we have made it too complicated. Somebody should have seen through that – that is the great missing leadership of which people write at length
One is surprised at the waves of ill advised initiatives which sweep across the service. At the moment every council seems to think that outsourcing services to contracted suppliers operating trusts is the universal answer. The truth is that there is no evidence and they are wrong and mad to be fooled by such fashions. In the same way the idea that the library service can be staffed by untrained, unmanaged volunteers is poor thinking that needs to be challenged.
The second important change to make is that if we are going to make local councillors responsible, as the law says that they are, then we should stop all the national attempts to run the service and determine its policies. Instead we should only be trying to help those councillors manage better for the benefit of the only stakeholder that matters - the public.
Before I come finally to the proposals I want to make I need to talk more about funding of the public library service.
Libraries in England cost us £1,000m each year. We have 150 management structures each of which places a burden of cost upon and removes the opportunity for high aspiration for quality in the actual libraries themselves. There is too much management and too much expenditure on activity not directly related to the simple library service that the public want to receive. If you go back to my original wish list for libraries of books, for different age groups, for learning and reading, in buildings which are smart clean and open - then the expenditure on other activities that are not these, is vast. I have never seen a council in which a third of the cost could not be removed and no one would notice. The arrangement is one that allows little and aspiration for energy and excellence.
So in these times of public spending cuts, what I say is that, in terms of the library service, they should have happened a long time ago. There is no reason why the service should not take a swingeing cut in its budget and still provide a wonderful library service – with proper management and good buying it really is possible to get more for less.
To be able to take the necessary decisions councillors need to be better informed about their customers and how libraries can be run- and the information needs to come to them not through their own officers, but through a neutral reliable independent source acting on behalf of the public, if one can be found. At the moment there is a gap in the provision of the proper information.
As a start in filling this gap earlier this year a number of library users came together and drafted a Charter which expresses simply the need for more books, longer hours and better buildings and called for a reduction in management structures to save money and liberate individual library managers from the burden of bureaucracy and authority that libraries carry. But we need more than that.
There is, I believe a need for a ‘Consumers Association’ for public libraries which researches, publishes, disseminates information about the use of libraries and actively shares and explains it to councillors and the public. Of course there is a role in that for the professional managers of the service to participate—but the professional role is in helping councillors and the public provide what the public need. I am known for my belief that the so-called library profession, for public libraries, is not sufficiently responsive to the public and too committed to the state. Their role needs to change and it should be to carry out policy not to create it.
This new body which has been formed in the past few months, which I am announcing today is indeed a Consumers’ Association for libraries. This ‘Library Alliance’, as I anticipate it will be called, is an independent not-for-profit body funded by charitable donation and it will be launched publicly shortly. It will be led by experienced national figures and I hope to play a supporting role. It will take the Charter published earlier this year as its basic belief and then It will conduct research and offer its information service freely to the public and to councils and councillors and its overall and sole aim will be to inform, support and improve the public library service throughout the country from the public point of view. It will do that by improving understanding and the efficiency and effectiveness of library management. It will offer councils the opportunity to participate in major transformation programmes which will reduce cost and improve service and it will help to set these up.
For example I foresee that one of the first projects this body undertakes will be a research into the library needs and provision in a region such as SE London. The researchers will be asked to identify by market research, the different kinds of needs for public libraries for people living and studying in that area and then to research how effectively the 100 or so libraries that are there now actually meet the requirement. It will be able to identify the strengths and the weaknesses of current provision and share that information in full detail both with the public and with the councillors in the London boroughs who are responsible. It will be entirely neutral in the sense that it will have no other interest to proclaim what libraries are achieving apart from what the public wants them to do. It will hold the mirror up to the service plainly and obviously. There will be none of this ‘well the public doesn‘t understand what libraries do these days’ of the kind we hear constantly at present. It will be a force for improvement.
This is, I believe, exactly what is meant by The Big Society, as the Government calls it. It will be an open, transparently funded, endeavour of people who use a public service to identify the ways that it can be improved and encourage them to take place. It will not in any sense be part of Government- but a responsible, properly informed body, borne out of the public need, acting in the general interest in an absolutely essential national service. It will open up the closed channels of communication between those who need libraries and those who operate them. Its success will be measured in the strength of the service in the long term future, whether that be digital or of any other kind.
Senior people in Government and officials in local Government often say that ‘Libraries are Changing’ and they cite electronic and digital developments as means by which those changes have and will come about. But my friends who are library campaigners sharply point to that expression as the dividing line. They say that it has allowed those to abdicate their much more important responsibility to make libraries improve. We want to see a regime in which libraries are not changing but improving.
Today is the first time that I have been able to talk openly about this project which is making good progress and I am grateful to Martyn and to you all for giving me the opportunity to make the news public. Thank you