An intelligent debate on the future of libraries

“An intelligent debate” was one of the key messages from Ed Vaisey, Minister for Culture, at last week’s NSA/cCLOA conference on the future of libraries.

I had the pleasure of chairing this well attended event that brought together some leadership thinking in testing times. The Minister started his address by rightly pointing out that the balance of much publicised library closures didn’t always correlate with broader picture of extensions of local library services. I tend to agree that buildings are often the local community focus in these high profile debates.

More concerning for me however, is the current loss of expertise and capacity across the sector, at a time when transformation is needed.  cCLOA’s survey of financial settlements for culture and sport cautiously estimated a sector loss of up to 3,000 jobs from local authorities in the last year and libraries will be feeling the brunt of this I’m sure.

The Minister made 3 announcements on the day to add to the recent universal child library membership initiative.  It reinforced my perception that we (cCLOA, LGA,SCL, CILIP) need more collective conversations with DCMS and earlier soundings to make the best of this level of national thinking on shaping libraries for the future.

So the announcements –

  • £6million of ACE lottery funding is a welcome investment, but is it the core agenda for local agendas to focus on arts collaboration in libraries areas? Nice, and probably the purpose of the fund limits the use, but probably a more effective and significant transformation fund, is what’s really needed.
  • Wi-fi access across libraries by 2015 will be welcomed by local authorise and lets hope its sooner- and  affordable!
  • DCMS have asked CIPFA to provide improvement benchmarking data for comparable local authorities, with reports this year open for local communities to examine. Always a concern with this approach that the data needs softer intelligence in interpretation and that unilateral reporting of this nature may destabilise a strategy of change already determined locally. Didn’t we have this conversation when the Audit Commission were around?

You can read the full speech here.

Throughout the day there was also a call for the libraries sector to tell its story or risk the sector being perceived not at the heart of the big agendas of the economy, health and well being and transformation.  There was plenty of evidence of good practice and forward thinking from library sector leaders on the day and LGA’s new publication Local solutions for local library services built on the learning of the FLP programme will help.

With a select committee inquiry on library closures still to report, messages from the platform and delegates also called for greater clarity around aspects of a comprehensive and efficient library service and perhaps time for a rewrite of the Libraries and Museums Act.

All of these national conversations are important stuff of course, although I do believe the word local is critical for the libraries agenda.  Community engagement, when library services have been threatened, has led in many areas to significant changes – meeting local needs and sustaining and improving services. Local authorities engaging in full needs assessment reviews with their communities have managed to position libraries against inequality, health, and economic agendas, and embrace strategic commissioning.

Lots to do then for cCLOA, LGA, ACE and partners in shaping the future of Libraries, but lets keep a focus on the fact that the best way of finding solutions and new ways of working are in our own hands, looking beyond traditional boundaries to make much valued services really work locally.

I’d encourage you to share your views, good practice and connect with us here at cCLOA.

Regards

Richard Hunt – Chair  cCLOA