Libraryland and the media are abuzz with the newly (finally) released Independent Library Report for England. The recommendations from the report can be broadly summed up as:
- build a ‘national digital resource’
- write a strategic framework for libraries in England (Wales have already done this and Scotland are working on one right now)
- have national strategic leadership (led by councils)
- appeal to everyone
- get wifi in all libraries
- improve library spaces so they’re up to “retail standard”
- share best practice through guidelines for volunteers and community-led libraries
- remember libraries are about learning and literacy
- support digital literacy
- use central government funding allocations for related services
- (perhaps) national library cards
- get copyright law changed so that public libraries can lend ebooks better than they can now (remote loans)
- strengthen the workforce especially through new recruits and graduates
Unsurprisingly I’ve got some thoughts about this, some of which I’ll be talking about in various radio interviews in the coming days, but a quick and dirty summary:
The talk about a digital network for libraries is grand, and I’m pleased there’s also an emphasis that this should not be to the detriment of physical stock.
None of this is new. Being more like retail outlets, encouraging community involvement etc. are all recommendations that have come out of previous reports and things that librarians have been talking about for years. Some local authorities responded to the recommendations from the last umpteen reports, but some of them had already experienced such budget cuts that it was impossible to actually do the things they wanted and knew they needed to do. How will it be different now, with the next round of cuts coming up? I don’t see a big pot of money emerging from anywhere for doing things that don’t obviously contribute to the current administration’s neolibprivatisationcitizenconsumerbigsociety agenda, so I expect the majority of libraries – that will probably have to compete with each other to get the necessarily limited funding, which somewhat contradicts the ‘we’re all in this together let’s have a standard level of service nationally’ – will only be able to get wifi, redecorate, put a coffee bar in and get self service machines if they don’t already have them. Money won’t as easily be made available to invest in the qualified staff trained in supporting information and digital literacy, digital fluency, whatever different stakeholders are calling essentially the same thing. As a result, emphasis is going to be made on the how libraries contribute to employability agenda rather than the concept of libraries as an intrinsic public good. And that’ll be disappointing, and probably not help with the goal of articulating the value of public libraries that Sieghart talks about. Spending a bunch of cash on helping libraries deliver services associated with the digital by default agenda of government doesn’t really help libraries, it just helps government deliver services unrelated to libraries, through libraries. It might force a few more people to enter the library building against their will, but it’s not going to get them invested in the notion of the public library.
WiFi. Yes, god, yes. It blows my mind that all public libraries don’t already have WiFi, but it’s for two reasons: 1) there’s no money 2) local authorities make it an absolute nightmare for libraries to install it. I’d like to see a whole bunch of money for it, and I’d like to see the government write a standard document for councils to use as a policy for installing wifi, and one standardised document that can serve as an Acceptable Use Policy for all of the library services to ask users of the computers and library WiFi. Scotland’s already working on this, I recommend England get on board. Similarly, elending as it stands is a complete shambles so I can only support efforts to make DRM less restricting and make ebooks through libraries fit for purpose, which they currently categorically are not.
The development of a library taskforce will in many ways be duplicating various other fragmented groups and communities of practice that already exist, but fine, whatever. My main concern with this is the recommendation that it be led by councils, who, in my experience, are possibly the least informed, least knowledgeable and least engaged stakeholders in the whole shebang. The representatives from councils usually haven’t set foot in a library in the last 30 years, if ever, know little about the ethos of public services let alone the specifics of public library ethics, and aren’t motivated to connect the strategic aims of the council’s wider services and duties to public libraries. When you have to spend half your time explaining to the council members that public libraries are a statutory duty, how they’re about more than just books and how they contribute to literacy, community, and the general public good, you’re on to a loser. If the council members involved in the taskforce are the ones who’ve already been converted or have always been on ‘our team’, then fine, but I’m not sure how the message is going to be communicated to the council members who’ve never given a hoot. If the DCMS doesn’t mandate a national set of standards and actually hold councils to those standards, nothing’s going to change in those authorities that are running poor services. (I get the impression from the report that trying to compel the DCMS to do its job was decided to be a bad move politically – Vaizey’s thrown his toys out of the pram before and libraries are a sore spot.)
I’m also concerned about the idea that working “in partnership with others interested in the sector” – if these interested parties have the same amount of power and influence as those in the taskforce who actually spent time learning about libraries, and use experience, research and evidence to inform their opinions and approaches, rather than principles from retail or some kind of profit motivation – then that’s going to be a problem. Support from other areas will be of benefit, no doubt, but it’s the voice of the profession that needs to have the ultimate say, not individuals and groups with ulterior motives and less knowledge. I don’t have (much of) an issue with the organisations listed (apart from the LGA who still don’t acknowledge that libraries are a statutory service and don’t understand the first thing about libraries), it’s the “amongst others” that concerns me.
If you want greater cross government recognition you need to fund research to produce evidence about the educational role of libraries, for example. You also need researchers who can do this. We’re losing our library schools in universities, and the researchers who work in them. The two aren’t especially compatible.
If you want your 21st century librarian to have digital and commercial expertise you already have those, but there aren’t any jobs for them. You also, by the way, need to teach them about how commercial principles can only be applied so far in public services where there isn’t a profit motive, and that kind of critical engagement isn’t done enough on librarianship courses (although some places do and that’s great)*. If you want these wonderful impresarios to work for a service, you need to pay them properly. Public librarians get paid very low wages. You need to pay them for their expertise.
What exactly is it that makes people in positions of power think communities could or should be responsible for the management of public services? Fine, get opinions and make sure consultations are actually meaningful, don’t ask for opinions if you’re not prepared to actually act on the feedback if it’s strongly for or against something. Fine, get communities involved in making decisions about colour schemes for decorating or new book stock, but the ultimate decisions need to be made by people who’ve actually learnt about what colour schemes aren’t going to work with the principles of universal design, and what book stock should or shouldn’t be included in a collection because not stocking it for political or religious reasons would be censorship, or stocking it would be harmful to individuals and groups within a community. This is stuff communities mostly won’t know or think about, and do you know, I don’t necessarily think they should have to. I think that’s what taxes are for – paying for public services that are run by people who know stuff about how to do it properly, in the public interest.
Encouraging community involvement in library management “through a variety of models” surely just adds to the inconsistencies across England (and the UK more widely) in terms of library management. They already sit in several different directorates across different local authorities, there’s already a mishmash of different service structures that are the result of differing approaches to salami-slicing cuts for the last twenty-odd years. Asking for different models of management at the same time as asking for increased consistency is a contradiction.
There is hardly any attention given to the role of libraries in supporting literacy and learning, be that for school-aged children or older learners. Schools are mentioned three times – once to do with how TeachFirst has been good, once to mention that school libraries exist, and once to mention in passing that partnerships with schools and public libraries would be good. The fact that there’s so weak a relationship between the education system and libraries is something that continues to baffle me, but I think it’s probably linked to the lack of research and evidence for something that ought to be a given.
So yes, that’s my initial take on it, but I may well change my mind on things the more it’s discussed!
* Pedronicus has written a post on the precarious position of librarianship education in the UK which is well worth a read.
Featured image CC by interactivesomerville