Arts Council England (ACE) held a panel discussion on the future of public libraries at Swiss Cottage Library in Camden on the 27th March 2012.  This was to launch the next step of the “Envisioning the library of the future” consultation.  For an idea on what the Arts Council, and the elite of the public library world, think about libraries today and their role in the future, it is a vitally important resource and it is recorded here. For those who don’t want to spend an hour listening to it, or who fancy links and some analysis (always in square brackets), my summary of it is below.
Dame Liz Forgan, Chair Arts Council
Brian Gambles – Asst Director of Culture, Birmingham City Council;
Ciara Eastell – Head of Libraries, Devon;
Janene Cox – Commissioner for Culture, Leisure & Tourism, Staffordshire;
Nicky Parker – Head of Transformation, Manchester and SCL President;
Antonio Rizzo – Head of Libraries & Information Services, Lewisham and Executive member of the Association London Chief Librarians
Mike Clarke, Head of Camden Libraries and Chair of ALCL.

What are the core services of libraries now and in ten year’s time?

  • To provide unbiased access to info.  
  • To promote community and civic engagement
  • Role in promoting health.  
  • Digital access.
  • Contribute to get people back into work/volunteering/increase skills/learning.  This is “absolutely core”.

“transformational, not transactional”.

  • No longer transactional [that is, not based on stamping out books – although this was not explained in the discussion] but moving to transformational [presumably, this means, improving people’s life chances].
  • Generate prosperity.
  • Force for social change. 
  • Libraries can be a space for busineesea and entrepreneurs,  providing meeting space, patent clinics, inventor clinics.  
  • In the larger cities, libraries can in the future supply 3D printing and fab-labs 
  • Community spaces for all sorts of different things.
  • Libraries will increasingly work with communities, where “anything can happen”.  Libraries will be very different “two miles down the road”. Volunteers can deliver more so “every neighbourhood is different” and evert library will be different.  We need to employ people who positively react to community and allow libraries to be places which  “people can recognise as their own space”.
What about the book?
You will have noticed by this point that the word “book” had not yet been uttered by anyone in the discussion.  However, this changed when it was confirmed that libraries still has a lot to do with the book.  It was confirmed that the book is “the given”.  “We’re not discarding the role of the book and the love of reading”.  Public libraries will need to engage more with e-books and encourage “live” literature such as author visits which are really important. [However, it seemed like all the participants, with the possible exception of Ciara Eastell of Devon, did not really have their heart in this one and saw the delivery of books as, well, tedious and somewhat old-fashioned.  This was summed up by one panel member who said “we’re going to get savvier than offering just books”.]

There are other people offering these things.  Why should a library offer them too?

  • Teachers teach children to read but libraries allow them to practice the skill “and the only way you get better is to practice it”.  Without libraries, if one has a bad experience at school, then one doesn’t become a good reader.  The Summer Reading Challenge and library books allow a second chance to those who failed to pick up literacy skills in school.  This second chance continues with adults.  Libraries allow self-direction for their users, where the public can control the pace of learning.
  • Another great reason for libraries doing these activities is that they, unlike every other cultural/council building, are part of the daily routine.  One can go in for reading, photocopying, coffee, rhymetime … no matter what age or background one is.  Other cultural institutions are more a “special event”.
  • Libraries provide a shop window for others.  This can be seen in their role encouraging people back into learning.  Other venues may feel quite scary and remote.  Libraries are local. 

The four core purposes of libraries are Learning, Literacy, Community Spaces, Information. 

Are there any limit to what libraries can do?
  • Libraries are provided by local authorities so need to have a responsibility to make life better for people.  Howeverm within this,  “the sky’s the limit” as long as framed by core needs.  “The ambition is to create surprises.”
  • There also needs to be an element of free at the point of provision.  This is very important, especially with the current inequality and recession.
All these purposes sound like libraries need big buildings, what about small ones?
  • Don’t concentrate on the building, concentrate on the service.  Be able to respond to the needs of the community.  Some services don’t need buildings at all, for instance, online and ebooks.
  • In Lewisham, small community libraries have become more lively and flexible enough to adapt to needs of local communities e.g. Eco Computers recycle IT. They donate computers to local residents, train residents and add broadband to people’s homes.  The council “could not sustain” these buildings and the local community [in fact, a local non-profit company].  Local communities are “exploding the concept” of what libraries should be and “making the building their building” [See New Cross People’s Library, and Blackheath] . 
  • The civic space of libraries can be “infinitely flexible” but needs to be local.  doorway.
  • In Staffordshire, they use libraries as “touchdown centres” (as in Derbyshire) where wifi means other workers (especially council) can use them.  This means financial savings as other council offices can be closed down. 
  • “loads of new libraries” are being built in all sizes.  There “is an attachment to buildings” but a “new offer” for users inside them, presented in a different way.  However, they still do four core things. 

“We forget at our peril that the judgement people will have will be on their local experience”.

  • Less and less libraries are built “on their own”. Co-location with other services [such as One Stop Shops, health, tourist information, police]. is the order of the day.  This makes buildings more efficient and gives a chance to  “re-engineer the service”.  With co-location, the library service is very different and usually better.
  • All libraries exist within a network.  A very small library can access the expertise of any other library in the country.  This has improved with the new technology. 
The Arts Council hopes to bring “creative arts” thinking into libraries.  Is this of use? Are culture offers like dance and music challenging to libraries?
  • In Staffordshire, money was reallocated money to a local arts grants scheme (up to £800) to put on local based arts.  This was linked very closely to libraries so if you want an illustrator or dance, then the library can be a venue.  This has generated enormous interest and library staff have been encouraging it. 
  • It will be a learning experience for libraries and “ticks all the boxes”.  We have to stop thinking about what particular services do, allowing locals to do it independently when it suits them.
  • ACE can look at things with wider lens.  Liz Forgan saw a core of libraries with “weird things happening around the edge”. 
  • “There are far more libraries than any other cultural institution.”.  Synergies with other types. 
  • Communities are getting older and libraries reduce social isolation.  They offer something people can trust.  For example, one panel member mentioned Tai Chi at one of their libraries.  A lot of those people who went to that would not dream to go into the sports centre next door.
What training does a librarian need?  There seems to be a huge range of skills expected. You’re all looking at your feet.
  • We’re no longer recruiting librarians, just people working in libraries.  We recruit youth workers, events managers, experts in partnership relations and in commercial opportunities.  These are core skills for running a library now, not “librarian” as such.  We’re looking to “broker relationship”
  • The key is to look at the person in front of you and engage the person, not just the straight answer to the question.  Pro-active and holistic, personalise the service. We’re going to allow people to do what they want.  “How can I help” is the key question. Core customer service skills. 
  • Staff need to broker relationships [sounds good, unclear as to what it means, no explanation was given].
  •  some traditional skills “no longer relevant”.  There are very few people needed in acquisitions, very few needed as cataloguers – new technologies do this.  “Once is fine” for classifying a book.
  • We need to realise the challenges new technologies bring and recruit staff accordingly.
  • Interact with community groups.  “partnership brokering” [Again, no explanation of buzzword give – I think this means talking to groups and trying to link them in the best way to other groups, resources.]
  • For those who aim to work in our sector, we need a new core body of knowledge needed than what was being taught a few years ago.  Having said that, some of those skills taught then have simply changed names – the “reference enquiry” of twenty years ago is simply the same as “excellent customer service” of today.  

“We will see in the next ten years a move towards a positive relationship with volunteers”

Managing volunteers, on a big scale, is very skilled.  Who’s going to teach librarians to do it?
  • You don’t need librarians to do that.  You hire in an expert to pass skills on.
  • The SCL had a debate on volunteers and decided that they “add a rich variety”.  Movement towards devolving services [that is, getting volunteers to replace paid staff] not involve [that is, having volunteers to complement paid staff].  “We still need librarian at the heart of it” [No explanation of what this means, considering librarians will not be trained as librarians any more.  Also, no idea of how many are needed.  Twenty? One? This is the same viewpoint shared by Ed Vaizey].
  • Volunteering and fundraising is not the full answer. 
  • Birmingham Central Library will have 160 paid staff with volunteers acting as guides, IT buddies and in conservation.  None will displace paid staff activities but we need to manage them properly. “If we can do that we add value to ourselves”.  They become our advocates.
  • [There seemed to be the most underlying, though very polite, disagreement between the panel members here, between those who wanted to replace staff with volunteers and those who wanted to use them to add to a paid service.]. 
Is there a war of the worlds between books and new technology?
  • No, it’s an opportunity.  The introduction of public access computers fifteen years ago was seen as a threat but “if we hadn’t have done it, libraries would be dead by now”.  Ebooks are now the same as computers then.  We can’t pretend it’s not going to happen.  We can see what is happening as there is not much reference publishing left e.g. Britannica.  – We provide resources to those who cannot afford it.
  • Mobile technology is another big challenge for libraries.  It is now less about boxes on desks, more about wifi and mobiles.  How can we use it to make libraries better?  “The future is mobile”.  Whole subcontinents are moving directly to mobile.
  • 3D printing will revolutionise our lives esp. Big City libraries.
  • Arts Council can push forward opportunities e.g. set aside half of bookfund to ebooks through ACE negotiating with publishers [This would have no effect.  Pretty much all the big publishers refuse to supply e-books to libraries.  A Public Lending Right for e-books in libraries would be a pre-requisite for it, which Labour has signed up to but the Coalition has not]. Bulk buying may revolutionise services.  E-reader costs £80, if we bought millions, it would be cheaper.  Library spending power is incredible but we need to harness it.  Britannica only stopped when public libraries stopped paper copies [this seems to sit uneasily with previous point about Britannica no longer printing the encyclopaedia due to the inexorable march of progress.].  No individuals were buying them.
  • There are perhaps five years aheard where large parts of the populaiton need to get online savvy.  They will come to the library.  We need to be cautious thinking everyone has an Ipad.  e,g, Race Online.  No point in superfast broadband if communities can’t use it.
Conclusion: the argument in the country tells you what passionate feelings have about their libraries.  Makes it important to discuss.  We need to get thinking for “not tomorrow” but for 5 or 10 years time.