My views on the Arts Council England “The library of the future” report

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Dudley Library, West Midlands

I was very heartened when I started reading the ‘Library of the Future’ report that the consultation has shown that the Arts Council England (ACE) understand the importance of libraries in that:

They are much loved and expected to continue offering the same services as they have for many years, but they are also expected to respond to big changes in how people live their lives.

Alan Davey, Chief Executive, Arts Council England.

The four priorities to sustain and develop a 21st century library service are not ones that anyone with a passion for libraries would argue with:

  1. Place the library as the hub of a 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 for libraries.

My concern is that, at the start of the 21st Century, the excellent library services  in the country are already doing most of this (including Dudley which I managed until march 2013)- so what do they have to aspire to? They can continue to improve and develop as they have in the past, but they will be developing their own challenges.

The challenges listed in the report under each of these headline priorities take things a little further – although again a lot of this is already happening.

The challenge with the biggest change from the current situation is in the development of some of the digital and virtual offers in libraries. These are the areas which could be part of a national virtual library service as there are major economies of scale. Although this is referred to in passing there is little information about how this will be achieved. With the current budget situation and the fact that a harder future is anticipated there will not be many library services who will have the resources to develop the resources if they do not work together effectively. Maybe that is a role for the Society of Chief Librarians to take up – developing digital and virtual national offers for individual library services to buy into?

I am concerned about the promotion of a document previously published by ACE on Community Libraries being referred to in the section on making libraries resilient and sustainable. This earlier document describes libraries at very early stages of developing community led models and so it is not  proved that they are sustainable yet. In addition, ACE need to be aware that good quality professional libraries need professional librarians to manage them working with communities, not just strong communities. The way this is section is laid out does not make this as clear as I would have expected it to be as I know this was raised as part of the consultation which has informed this report.

I know that this report is a mark in the sand for ACE as part of their managing their role in relation to libraries. In some ways the report is not the major issue as it does clearly state why libraries are important. What is more important is what happens now as budgets tighten and decisions are made which will influence the effectiveness  of library services for the rest of this century. Many library services need clear leadership and support to develop effective plans for the future, not just an active debate.

There are a lot of good statements about libraries and their importance – so I will watch with interest to see what is done with them in the future.

I hope that I, through my consultancy and mentoring, will be able to support and work with colleagues in keeping the good quality and professional library services in the coming years by developing innovative, sustainable solutions.