May 24, 2013

What’s the future for the UK’s local libraries?


In the report local libraries go back to the future

Yesterday, Arts Council England (ACE) published its report into the future of local libraries. ‘Envisioning the library of the future’ is ‘a major research project undertaken over the past year’ during which time 800 people were interviewed, 1,400 reposes were received in an online survey and 10,000 people viewed an online conversation. ACE has clearly taken the time to do its research and is priding itself on gathering this research and making conclusions that will ‘help library staff, funders and users to better understand what libraries could and should look like in the future.’

Great stuff. Except it’s not. Because the report has identified four ‘priority areas for development’ which state the four things we definitely already knew about libraries. These are:

1. Place the library as the hub of the community

2. Make the most of digital technology and creative media

3. Ensure that libraries are resilient and sustainable

4. Deliver the right skills for those who work in libraries

In response to this, I offer:

1. Libraries are already the ‘hub’ (what a word) of the community; that’s why both ordinary people and celebrities are campaigning so vehemently to save them

2. Sure, if this help people learn vital IT skills. Not so good if it’s a way of closing down the physical spaces. The old and unemployed are in there learning how to send an email or accessing the internet which they can’t afford at home. They need those things first. Also—what the heck is ‘creative media’?

3. As the report very correctly states at its outset, ‘There is a clear, compelling and continuing need for a publicly funded library service.’ So time to add ‘reliable funding’ to ‘resilient and sustainable’.

4. This will be much harder to do if volunteers replace a trained, skilled and paid workforce.

In the report’s introduction Alan Davey, the Chief Executive of  ACE, writes that due to a focus on immediate concerns, such as cuts to local council funding which is resulting in the closing of libraries around the country (in Manchester, for example), an ‘understanding of how libraries will contribute to the future success and well-being of this country hasn’t developed.’ But isn’t that because many fear that they won’t have a future? And at this time of deep insecurity, are the four priority areas really the best ideas for the future that ACE, and all those they interviewed, can come up with?

I’d love to see a list with gusto; one that didn’t seem to contain a strong feeling of defeat within its objectives. Each point seems defensive, as though answering a number of criticisms: libraries don’t do enough for their communities, libraries haven’t embraced technology, libraries aren’t working hard enough, library staff aren’t right for the job. And yet, as the report clearly states, public support for libraries has never wavered, ‘It didn’t matter whether they use libraries or not, people are vocal and passionate about their value.’

Library campaigners have picked up on these lacklustre objectives, commenting:

“There is very little in the Envisioning report that has not been seen before in numerous other reports. It is still keeping its head in the sand about the extent of cuts, and is not proposing solid suggestions for steps that people should be taking. It also completely fails to mention any sort of new leadership for libraries, which is what the service needs.”

I’m no expert, and I haven’t interviewed 800 people, but here are four, more specific objectives, that I like the sound of:

1. Each library is different. But they can learn from each other. Find the libraries that are working well and use those— and their managers—to lead others.

2. Give communities and their leaders the business support and tools they need to direct how they run the libraries themselves in their area.

3. If libraries are losing their funding, find ways to direct funding into them. Can we use them to train young people, develop community gardens, run not-for-profit cafes? Or how about renting the space out in the evenings?

4. Libraries educate. To secure their future, schools, academies, higher learning colleges and small businesses should be working in closer conjunction with their local libraries. If they become embedded within other institutions, they cannot be so easily separated and closed down.

Local libraries need funding. But they also need clear direction which has positivity at its heart. We need to know how to save our libraries now, and most importantly, we need to ensure they are part of our future.



Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.