The major research project Envisioning the library of the future and the ACE response to it, both released today, make clear that the hard times are here to stay and that libraries will either face dramatic change or go under. The research sees no respite for a decade and does not offer any escape other than a dramatic retooling towards an increased reliance on the community and exploring alternative, distinctively entrepreneurial, methods of funding.  As such, it recognises the grim reality of the situation, accepts it and tries to work out possible solutions.

The survey of library experts (in the Delphi report, part of the research) suggests that cuts in funding are likely not to improve for the next ten years so libraries had better not be counting on external rescue from the Government or, indeed, anyone else but themselves.  In addition, traditional usage is falling not just from these cuts but from technological change that means that the old skills (especially anything to do with printed books) mean increasingly less.  The very best libraries are overcoming these problems and seeing growing usage but “too many other” libraries have “reaction times” which are “slow” and are “struggling to keep up”.The priorities are seen as:

  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

The solutions are many and various but are united in not having funding behind them, presumably because there is no funding.

  • The word “community” is used frequently. Sometimes this appears interchangeable with the word “volunteer”. Indeed, an increasing reliance on volunteers is seen as “a new settlement between local councils and communities”, although how the communities feel about this new settlement is not mentioned. As such, librarians need to work on their community skills, encourage volunteers and make their libraries even more of a centre for their local areas.
  • Working with others services is seen as hopeful.  Co-locations are featured heavily, notably with schools. Philanthropy is also mentioned as is charging for services to other providers. For example, it’s noted that libraries are not being paid by anyone for providing employment help.  However, there’s no explanation of how to do this in practice.
  • The services offered by libraries, and the buildings themselves, should be designed in consultation with the local community. One of the examples given is a website that includes people being able to design their own library service in Lambeth.
  • Library services, and specifically library staff, need to be more entrepreneurial.  There is a very interesting part of the report that lists all these changes in the UK and also the rest of the world.  Interestingly, the very first example is the DOK in the Netherlands that charges for membership: something that is illegal in the UK if a library wants to remain statutory.
  • Technology. Volunteers helping people with new equipment is mentioned as are 3D printer events staffed with people from local clubs.  More permanent “Fab Labs” in libraries are quoted approvingly but, sadly, there are none in the UK.  E-books are mentioned but it is noted that there are often only small numbers of titles on offer in this format.

The problem with all of this is that, ironically, it costs money.  In many areas, library services are being cut to the bone and those local staff who could be involved in outreach are tied to the buildings because they’re now on minimal staffing.  Recruiting, training, managing and retaining volunteers takes a lot of time and the report makes clear that staff should be highly trained.  Paid staff are having their training cut and, being it seems (by my observation of the library news) that it takes around ten volunteers to take the place of one full-time paid member of staff, that’s a lot of expensive training.  There are not many e-books in UK libraries because, at least partially, bookfunds have been reduced.  There are no Fab Labs in English libraries because they cost money.

Indeed, although the report goes out of its way to criticise the national focus on cuts in library funding, the entire report is written with the cuts deeply in mind.  Localism is also the master, with the role of central government is barely mentioned.  It’s all up to individual communities, individual library authorities and non/semi-governmental bodies to do the work.  For instance, an “open enabling ICT infrastructure” should be “agreed by local authorities and local services”. So it’s entirely up to the 151 library services to work out a common plan. Some of the initiatives approvingly mentioned are also remarkably small-scale – a library student as an unpaid intern is one of the examples listed as best practice. This can’t be accidental.  Arts Council England have merely observed then reality (that Government believes in local councils doing the work and not doing as little as possible themselves) and have gone with it.

ACE see their role as providing funding opportunities with, naturally, a strong Arts bias.  This is not the most useful thing in this most anti-Arts of times.  Critically it also sees it role as giving best practice and a lot of this report is tied to that.  It’s notable, though, that there’s not a concrete proposal as to how to share best practice other than noting there’s no-one doing it at the moment.  Incidentally, you’ll forgive me I hope at this point for a quick aside: I’m be willing to do it for them if they’d pay me a wage to do so because, frankly, I’m already doing a lot of it anyway – and it’s interesting to note that the consultation was viewed by six times less than Public Libraries News is seen in the same period.

So, in conclusion, if you’re looking for a knight on white charger to help libraries, it’s not going to be ACE.  If you’re looking for better times ahead and your plan is to survive until then, well that’s not going to happen.  Being a spectator is not a survival strategy.  If you’re not close to retirement (and many paid library staff are – but that’s another story) then ACE believes that you should make the change yourself and go Big Society and High Tech with a vengeance, finding the money for yourself because no-one is going to give it to you on a plate.  You may get cheered from the sidelines but don’t expect much more.

Have you got it yet? In the brave new world, each library is a start-up business.  Each library manager an entrepreneur.  Your community is your market. And it’s your fault if you fail.  Forget paper libraries.  Forget jobs for life and public service ethos.  Those days have gone, my friend.  What we’re looking at is community centres with books in, workshops with volunteer help and computer centres. Cope with it or leave. Adapt and survive.

By the way, I don’t entirely disagree with some of this. I cannot stand library staff who are not open to change.  If times change, if communities change then it is the need of the librarian to go with it.  No-one owes us a job.  However, what the report means for any remaining idea of a national public library service is terrifying in its extremes.  Each library is an low-lying island is the underlying philosophy and you’d better build your sea barriers up now because the tide is rising and it’s your fault if you drown.

The reports


  • ACE Libraries report launched: Missing in action? – Library Campaign. “This duplicates research that has been done many times before – not least by the Arts Council itself. What’s missing is action. It is heart-breaking that time and money has been wasted in this way. Libraries are closing at an unprecedented rate. Others are hacked to pieces. Desperate communities are trying to take them on to save them – and are getting no help or advice. We are trying to fill the huge gap left by DCMS and Arts Council inaction. Unpaid, in our spare time. If they can’t see this is a crisis – and won’t do anything to help – please can we have their money?”
  • Call for political leadership on libraries – CILIP. ““The report shows that people are passionate about having a library in their community,” continued John Dolan, “but with the difficult economic realities faced by local authorities and without stronger political leadership supporting a clear national vision it’s going to be a struggle to deliver consistently high-quality and relevant library services in communities across the country. A postcode lottery is not fair or equitable.”

“Councils know people treasure their libraries and they have been working extremely hard to preserve services as best they can in the face of 33 per cent funding cuts. It’s testament to this commitment and innovation, and to councils’ reluctance to make closures, that only a small percentage of our 4,500 libraries have closed over the past couple of years.  This report confirms the issues many councils are currently grappling with and the solutions and approaches it discusses are already a reality in many libraries. It’s also important to remember the best solutions may vary from area to area, and this is something for councils to work out in consultation with their residents.

As the Culture, Media and Sport Committee reported last year, across the country there’s been a fantastic amount of creativity and ambition to modernise libraries in ways which engage young people, don’t alienate existing users and make the most of diminished budgets. In the last couple of years we have seen libraries opening up in village halls, pubs, shops, churches, day care centres and tourist information centres, as well as linking with health, social care, benefits and job search providers. However, were government to inflict yet more funding cuts on councils, which have already borne the brunt of its austerity measures, some would not be able to continue shielding libraries from cuts which may mean more would be forced to close.” Local Government Association, via email.

  • ACE: Libraries should be ‘hub’ of communities – BookSeller. “Arts Council England’s Envisioning the Library of the Future project has concluded that libraries should be at the hub of their communities, but states that libraries can provide greater benefit when they are co-located with other services.”.  Libraries director for ACE says “Asked what he would like to see people take from Envisioning, Ashley said: “I would like everyone who has interest in public libraries to come together around the ideas proposed of what a library is and what it’s for. We spend an awful lot of time debating these things—if we can use the energy to work towards finding solutions I think campaigners would be delighted by that.”.  Comments after the article call it time-wasting, useless “pompous and patronizing waffle”.  The Library Campaign says it’s “hopping mad”. Most point out that there have been many reports over the last decade and none of them have achieved anything.

“The Arts Council England report “The Library of the Future” is a timely articulation of the direction libraries need to take if they are to continue fulfilling their role for their communities. “The recommendations for an open and enabling ICT infrastructure agreed by local authorities and library services together with the need to ensure library staff have the required digital skills are particularly important in light of the Sieghart Review’s report on e-lending. “In light of the successful digital skills development project delivered through collaboration between publishers and librarians, we hope to see The Publishers Association and its members added to the list of those with whom libraries will work in partnership with to take this vision forward”.” Richard Mollet, Chief Executive, The Publishers Association Limited, via email.

“Public libraries matter – they play an important role for communities and help celebrate and promote Britain’s greatest contribution to world civilisation – our language and literature. But libraries need constantly to adapt to keep up with changes in communities. This report offers a thoughtful and timely analysis of issues facing the sector today, and I am happy to endorse the recommendation for a collaborative approach to addressing some of the issues raised. I commend it to everyone who, like me, believes libraries can and should have a positive future ahead.” Ed Vaizey, Culture Minister, via press release.

“I do not believe that I am being unfair to ACE in suggesting that this report tells us nothing that was not known from previous consultancy reports and research studies, including the two year Library Modernisation Review. More significantly, it does not address the critical need for effective leadership and advocacy, highlighted in the past by the All Party Parliamentary Library Group, CMS Select Committees and by ministers and shadow ministers. Frankly, the report is in part rather patronising and wholly platitudinious to those who need and rely upon public libraries. I suggest, it will be a considerable disappointment to many.” Desmond Clarke, via email

““This report is a welcome insight into the value placed on libraries by the public, and the staff who work in them. I am pleased that it shares many of the conclusions found in Labour’s report Libraries: Innovation, Co-location and Partnership. It should be yet another wake up call to David Cameron that more needs to be done to ensure our libraries are sustainable.  Libraries are trusted spaces which are open to all. Their potential is unlimited and across the country local authorities have been looking at innovative ways to save and improve our libraries. Despite this hard work, the latest figures demonstrate that in 2011/12 201 library service points were lost and a further 293 are now under threat. The responsibility for oversight lies firmly at the door of David Cameron and Ed Vaizey and they need to act now.”  In December, Labour launched Libraries: Innovation, Co-location and Partnership. This report also looked at the future sustainability of libraries, and what a future Government should do to support the service.” Dan Jarvis, via press release

“Sigh…  What a load of marketing guff, stating the blindingly obvious – well except (as expected) no mention of whether they would provide any additional funding or reference to the swathes of libraries decimated during the Socialist Utopian Government years / Socialist ruled Councils.  (I’m not saying any Party is perfect on libraries, but I wouldn’t have put my name to this 2nd hand car-sales brochure if it was in dashing blue either!).  The world of libraries is changing / evolving – come up with concrete suggestions (hey maybe funding?) not flannel.  Could of, should of, would of, dear me…  To those actually doing the graft on the coal-face, more power to you.   Me, I’d have a library Tsar with a commercial background (Tim Coates etc!), focus on numbers and customer experience.  Share this best practice, rejoice in being the thriving hub of communities – this would make local Government appreciate (and pay for) the services we want.  Be spikey, float radical ideas, hey even get it wrong – but get it done.” Justin Tomlinson MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on libraries, via email. on Dan’s statement

  • Not really a basis for long term decisions – Question Everything. “Is this really the level of research that we get from government? You would imagine that having librarians involved, people who are supposed to understand data it would be proper robust bit of research like you’d get from a scientific paper. The outsourced part of the study alone cost somewhere between 65k and 85K you can see the tender document here. And yet they spoke to less people that regularly use my local library which is tiny.” … “I would imagine with all the staffing time spent on it by the various staff members, the true cost of this drivel was probably nearer a quarter of a million pounds, yet it has no hard data, offers no solutions to the problems and draws no conclusions on a proper way forward.” … “The giant elephant in the room of community libraries not saving money they seem to be ignoring”
  • SCL Welcomes Arts Council’s Envisioning Report – Society of Chief Librarians. Welcomes that ACE recognises the contributions libraries give to society and points out the work the SCL has done itself.  “We welcome the opportunity to form part of a collaboration with the Arts Council and others to lead and deliver on the aspirations of Envisioning.”
  • Campaign for the Book newsletter: “Envisioning” the decline of the public library service – Alan Gibbons.  Questions the assumption that the library service will survive, given the current cuts, long enough for the report’s views to become practical: “If we are to develop the libraries of tomorrow we need the libraries of today to provide the bridge. The danger is that, under the woeful, neglectful and cavalier leadership of the DCMS the bridge will collapse and the destination will not be reached.”

“I know I am in Switzerland. But has ACE gone mad? This report in a better version has been written time and again,for heavens sake this ACE has gone into a big hole. What did this pointless report cost? And was it worth the effort? It is worse than sad. It is totally disheartening. WHO now will champion public libraries at the top level?” Frances Kirton, LIS-PUB-LIBS.