The Guardian Culture Professionals Network ran an online chat on the subject of public libraries on Friday 11th January.  It went on for two hours and had several prominent people on the panel.  It also, as importantly, had lots of interaction from the public, all of whom cared deeply about the service and made many many useful contributions.  Taken together it gives as good a snapshot as I have seen of how many of those involved but, importantly perhaps, not politicians, see the current state of play in libraries. It was, though, a bit long and rambling in places.  I have therefore tried to summarise it below.  In doing so, I may well have missed some important points and so would appreciate anyone letting me know what else needs including.


Where a bullet point does not have a name at the end of it, the point was made by a non panel member.

School libraries

  • Needs to have paid member of staff (not a volunteer teacher), properly stocked (Phil)
  • Should be statutory every school has a library, as it is in prisons.  See (Jo)
  • In Finland, there are deliberately no libraries in schools but there are strong links with public libraries and schools. (Sara)

Digitisation and public libraries

  • Each new technology must pass two tests – does it assist current members and can it be used to encourage more people to use a library service?  E-books pass both these tests.  Publishers must agree with libraries reasonable terms for lending (Phil).
  • E-books are supplementary to books (Mar).
  • Add-on powers of libraries – reading groups, support etc – mean they will still be relevant.  Agrees e-lending won’t hurt publishers. “libraries should ride the crest of the technological wave, not drown underneath it. Got to re-position to get there.” (Nick)
  • Libraries must keep with the times but e-books etc should not be used as an excuse to close libraries and end mobile services.  Users often do not understand or cannot afford new technology.  See link to what this means in practice here. A national approach is needed (Jo).
  • Cipfa stats show online visits declining, concern over accuracy of this.  Libraries are helping the digital agenda of Government and helping those without online access (Alan).

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that we’re in the middle of one of the biggest changes in reading in human history”

  • We’re in the middle of one of the biggest changes to reading in history and library reader development is not changing fast enough to cover it. Big step changed needed (Sandy).
  • New York Public Libraries doing good things in this area (Sara)
  • E-books would be more up to date than outdated public library books. Allows greater availability and access.
  • Won’t have as big as impact on publishers as they fear.
  • Libraries have been too late in adopting e-books.
  • E-books allow more self-publishing.
  • E-books may evolve into something not like “books” at all.
  • Users of E-books also read printed books – see infographic.
  • Staff may not be able to keep up-to-date with new developments.
  • E-books cause confusion in older people.
  • Library e-lending software is often difficult to use and publishers don’t allow libraries to lend the best stuff.
  • Some libraries are negotiating direct with small publishers.

Social welfare aspect of public libraries

  • Libraries have a large role to play in the local community, they’re not just book shops (Phil).
  • Public – A vital refuge in that they are one of the few “free” places left.

Closures sometimes cost as much as keeping libraries open, why then do it?

  • Ideological reasons (Alan).
  • Closing a library looks like councils are doing something.  Negative impact of closure sometimes does not become obvious until after the next election (Phil).
  • Closing libraries do save money – in Doncaster, cuts meant £1 million less spent in this way.  (Nick).
  • Closing libraries may cost more in the long-term – with increase in anti-social behaviour, social isolation.  (Jo)

What’s wrong with libraries at the moment?

  • Libraries need to listen to their communities.  They’re perceived as poor by those who do not use them.  True purpose is being diluted bu offering DVDs/games etc (Mar)
  • Rubbish to think that the “20th Century” things libraries still do is outdated.  Many consultations are shams.  Public service ethos of libraries needs to be reclaimed.  Fragmentation of service and loss of paid staff inc. 562 in London alone according to Cipfa stats.  Danger that Government / Arts Council England is pushing libraries down an Arts route(Alan)
  • Current financial climate means we’re very limited in what we can do but more outreach needed.  If they’re seen just as “bookswaps” then Government will argue volunteers can do as good a job.  People often confuse libraries with books etc – they provide a lot of services, notably via their staff, which is insufficiently known to the public/decision-makers (Phil)

“Librarians are surely the greatest, most democratising supporters of reading and have an important role to play as the book and reading shifts its shape.”

  • Library websites need to be better and allow for more reader involvement.  Publishers are shocked at lack of social media training in librarians and the fact they’re often banned from using it at work.  Some projects aimed at improving this . Orkney twitter great example of what libraries can do. “Libraries are perceived to be behind the digital curve and often hindered by local government IT systems and policies”.  Central pillar of libraries – reading – needs to be kept (Sandy)

“Libraries are perceived to be behind the digital curve and often hindered by local government IT systems and policies”

  • Councils sometimes do not allow positive news stories because this would make it more difficult to cut them. Breaking up of libraries into volunteer-run branches, Trusts etc means less joined up thinking and even harder to deal with publishers.  Senior library staff often do not listen to users, especially when the service is facing cuts. Mutually respectful approach would be far better.  Lack of library leadership nationally (Jo).
  • Libraries need to be both old-fashioned (print) and new (digital) but funds don’t allow this to be done well.  Danger that library schools will cease training for public libraries (Sara)
  • Government only aiming to have wifi in all libraries by 2015.  This needs to be sorted sooner (Nick).
  • Access to libraries for children (Summer Reading Challenge etc) not possible due to cuts in some authorities e.g. Croydon, Gloucestershire.
  • Libraries need to shout out more about how great they are and avoid bunker mentality.
  • Reduced costs of books mean people don’t use libraries so much.
  • Failure by policy makers.
  • National advertising needed – many new joiners think they need to pay to borrow books. Libraries need to market themselves more to councillors. Image needs to be more open. Terrible lack of publicity.
  • Computers need to be more up to date.
  • Lack of money.  30% cut to council budgets means “something has to go”.
  • Often no wifi.
  • Cannot run a big library on volunteers.
  • 151 services mean 151 different ways of doing things, some of them good, some of them bad.
  • Library services, notably senior library staff, do not listen to the public.
  • Cuts in opening hours.
  • Focus on Arts may detract from Education/Literacy side.

“Libraries can, and should, make culture alive and accessible. If libraries are quiet, no-one will notice them and they will die. People can get peace and quiet when they read their book at home; the library itself should be a vibrant social, cultural and educational space.” Doombrarian

How can we best fight for libraries under immediate threat?

  • Link with local Unison branch (Alan)
  • Use all the tools to broadcast message, pressure council, contact Voices for the Library.

What are libraries doing right?

  • Providing services for community directly or indirectly by giving space to other providers.  Signposting. Outreach to schools (Mar).
  • Cost-effective loan of millions of books on a tiny fraction of the council budget (Jo).
  • Children’s services, reading groups, literacy projects, embedding reference librarians in communities (Alan).
  • Children’s fiction – Lending has been rising for eight years in a row.  Libraries play an important part in helping people with online services  (Sandy).
  • Libraries Live And On Tour in Canada takes out services to all kinds of places (Phil).
  • Pop up libraries – Itinerant Poetry Library, Street Books, A47 mobile “truck” library.
  • Digital Skills for Women in Manchester provided free online classes for women.
  • Customer service continues to be excellent.
  • Providing access for all, the needy and lonely.
  • Local studies.
  • Providing space as an arts event venue but need to be better at producing evidence to defend service if cuts are mooted.
  • Some e-lending (but not all) is excellent.
  • Joined 2000 people by doing outreach in town centres etc.
  • Free online access to a pile of reference material.
  • It’s all patchy, some are doing great work but not some not.
  • Automatically registering children as library users.

Could more libraries benefit from collaborating with their local business and communities more?

  • Medway Libraries do superb work collaborating with local artists, writers, historians and community group leaders on events, projects and exhibitions.
  • Working with communities and business to show the great work libraries can do could be very productive (Phil).
  • Friends groups very useful in meshing with communities (Mar)
  • Local business and community greatly benefit libraries by fighting for them and sponsoring events.  However, fear of large-scale business seeing libraries as a way of making easy money.
  • Could benefit greatly e.g. Cheltenham libraries have very little to do with literature festival.
  • Libraries should be developing links with other parts of their councils.

How quickly will things change, and will they change at all? Also, what should a library look like in 2013?

“What should a library look like in 2013? Open.” Phil Bradley.

  • “I’d like to see a new coalition of partners come together to develop a thrilling national digital vision for libraries with a coherent strategy encompassing everything from digital materials, services and content to enabling rich user engagement and compelling experiences. It’s no longer enough to think everything can be sorted locally; there needs to be the right combination of national and local development to ensure library users are not left out.” (Sandy)
  • Avoid “hollowing out” of service (Mar)
  • Thing are changing quickly in an untried rollercoaster fashion. Parity of access nationally should be aimed for. Politicians should stop dismissing library users who care for their services and fight for them as “luvvies” (Jo)
  • “Public libraries need, I think, to be better integrated with other council run services, eg adult education, IT tuition, jobs/employment/startup advice, social care, surestart and similar and to stop running on a 1950’s model of book lending with a bit of sub-par ICT provision (time limited wifi, WTF?!) tacked on almost as an afterthought.”
  • “inspiring, resource rich, collaborative, engaging, creative hearts of their community.”
  • Qualified and experienced staff need to be maintained (one poster questioned this, everyone else thought it was both vital and a safeguard against opening the floodgates to volunteers).

“Libraries should continue to be welcoming places for everyone, run by professional and dedicated staff. They should offer a variety of resources based on community needs, but should also keep one eye open for what could be done to help groups that currently don’t use the library, or see a value for it. We need to continue to actively promote library use along side more reading. It’s clear from the marvelous work of campaign groups that people value the services that are provided, and National Libraries Day gives us an opportunity to shout that really loudly … The government is going to increasingly rely on libraries to provide access to material that is only available online, to increase literacy rates and help communities generally. Except of course libraries are closing….” (Phil)

What are the panel’s closing points before we call time on what’s been an interesting live chat… answer in bullet points if it makes it easier!

  • Professionalism “alongside all the innovative ways of sustaining and providing services, should be part of the advocacy and development required for 2013 and beyond – just in a very different landscape.” Nick
  • Campaigners should stop being aggressive and concentrate on the positives that libraries provide.  Mar.
  • “Libraries will surely be vital for:
    • Upholding the concept of equality and access
    • Reducing digital exclusion
    • Vital too as a trusted guide, helping us all discriminate and understand authenticity – what’s quality and what’s not
    • Offering massive “discoverability” – helping us find the unknown, and the uncommercial
    • Having a sense of the past, can preserve and curate our digital history
    • And being a vital drive for helping people enjoy reading, with all the implications that has for their life chances; taking reader development movement online and blending it with the social, communal experience of a library” Sandy
  • UK Public libraries need to have some serious representation in government/Westminster. Handing off responsibility to the Arts Council (who in turn I note have in fact stated they do *not* have “oversight” of the service) while also handing out a serious budget cut to the Arts Council overall is clearly a recipe for disaster by the government, and cynically one might say an easy way to help the service decline.” Sara
  • “We have made it politically uncomfortable to cut library services and I think that we need to keep telling politicians why cutting libraries is a false economy and that they are needed more in times of economic crisis not less” Jo