Future of Public Libraries
Report from the Conference on 'The Public Library Service in 2015'.
This conference was set up by the Laser Foundation to discuss the thought-provoking 'Futures Group Report'. I attended with high hopes of some visionary debate. The audience was made up of many of the people who run the nations public library services.
John McTernan (an adviser to the Prime Minister) started with some challenging thinking on what the Government expects from Public Libraries - it should be no surprise that they're looking for change. His hypotheses for the future were:
- There may be no public libraries in 2015
- The public library service may be nationalised - part of the British Library
- Public libraries services may be delivered at neighbourhood level.
A number of clear steers on short-term challenges to libraries emerged:
- Public service reform will be applied to libraries (read efficiency savings)
- Local government is likely to be reorganised into 'effective economic units delivering a cluster of services'.
Read what you like into this - to me it sounds like a soundbite for fewer local authorities (there is already talk about reorganising local government into regional/sub-regional/cities).
He finished with the challenge that librarians have to want to change. The evidence I heard was of delegates showing willing to change but not knowing what to?
Lord McIntosh from DCMS talked about new regional structures (there's a message here from the two government speakers - this is going to happen). His other message was about cutting back office costs to release resources to the front line (efficiency savings again), and encouraging library authorities to work together on service provision (so regionalise yourselves before we do it to you?).
This was not a vision of a future public library service - more a view of future local government reorganisation - and this from the Minister for Libraries!
Chris Smith, MP and former Minister for Libraries said more of the same - questioning whether libraries should be part of local authorities structure.
So 3 people from Government talked about re-organisation - stemming from the need to cut costs in local government, but nothing about the role for or value they see in public libraries. Is this a reflection of the apparent confusion in the role of public libraries in the face of declining issues - there is no other service that libraries can claim to do well?
More news is due soon from government with the imminent publication of the Select Committee Report on Public Libraries. We also await the results of the MLAC-sponsored report on book procurement in public libraries.
Chris Trinick, Chief Executive from Lancashire County Council provided a positive view of the future - it's encouraging to find the man in charge of one of the countrys largest local authorities as a proponent of libraries. He still challenged whether libraries would be part of local authorities and - providing some alternative suggestions based on charitable status. Significantly, he laid down the challenge to libraries to take decisions on future services based on evidence of benefit (back to my recent post on value).
Charlie Leadbetter, consultant and one of the leading thinkers behind Framework For the Future came closest to setting out a vision for future services. His vision is of a 3-fold service:
- Provide self service for the users who know what they want (get out of the way)
- Offer a personalised service for users who don't know what they want (offer a tailored interview/response service)
- Reach out to those who either don't know they have needs or can't articulate them (offer a very localised approach through pubs & supermarkets, etc).
This picks up and expands on an area that many delegates were sensitive to in the Futures report - that of offering a 2 tier service. He also challenged whether some library activities could be outsourced.
Charlie challenged the audience to form a library network to work together - the value and power of the network far exceeds that of individual nodes. This is beginning to be evidenced in networks such as SeamlessUK. So many libraries argue for 'representation', yet look to other bodies such as MLAC to do something for them - this is a rallying call.
I had hoped that this would be a pivotal day for public libraries, where a vision of the future would emerge and concensus to act on it, but they failed to seize the day - concluding that MLAC (a government quango) would provide the vision and steer they crave so badly (not recognising the conflict of interest!). This represents a failure to take individual or collective responsibility for their future.
There was lots of emotive talk about services and value on the day. Libraries need to acknowledge the impact of changes in society and technology and produce a response to these. They also need to understand the value of their services in economic terms and to use this to focus and justify activities and to make the case for future investment.
Congratulations to the Laser Foundation and the Futures Group for provoking the debate, but we're still no clearer on the future role of the public library.