The description of public libraries as a golden thread that is present throughout people’s lives is what will stick with me from this report but I am unsure what else will, for this appears to be a report written with the current government and politics in mind.

Sieghart knows that the Coalition is not going to accept a report that requires large amounts of money or goes against the doctrine of localism so he looks at what is needed and tries to pull the appropriate lever.  Need investment in getting new computers? Go for pushing the digital by default agenda and very carefully avoid giving a figure for anything.  Frustrated by the lack of central direction? Get together all of the current leaders in libraries, along with digital people (two birds, one stone) and give them priorities and times scales. As such, one way of viewing the report is to admire the Machiavellianism of people working out what is needed and couching it in terms that are acceptable to the decision makers. You can see the whole thing as being written in a careful code, tiptoeing around the reality of dire budgets and an increasingly atomised and demoralised service in order to try to keep something alive for better times. Indeed, one wonders why the Government, normally completely ignorant of subtlety, appears to have deliberately buried this key report on public libraries on the very last possible day before Christmas.

An opposing view of course is that this committee has been packed with people who think like the Government does.  Such a viewpoint would note that Ed Vaizey will not be choking while sat on his antique furniture over this one.  Indeed, the Report appears argues what he does, that massive cuts to public libraries can somehow be squared with a thriving service, that 151 local authorities will somehow be more efficient than a regional or national service and that best practice and nudging will do the work that in other countries require national strategy and direction. The Report thus misses the chance to make a big statement or a big headline and, one worries, a big impact. There’s no mention of standards or the possibility of them, which is a great shame as that is one thing that could make a change and, although there’s no way Vaizey would have gone for it, there’s another party out there and a general election in the offing.  Let’s face it, if the Conservatives get in next time then libraries as we know them are gone. The worry is that Labour will read this report and do too little to change.  Or it may be the committee believes that both parties are effectively the same (and there’s so little between them in so many things they may not be wrong) and so it’s time to get used to the new order, salvaging what one can.

The message that the media has taken away from this is that libraries should be like cafes.  But the country already has cafes.  What libraries are, can be and should be for the future health of the country is so much more than that.  To their credit, the committee does show their awareness of this many times but the media appear to have gone for the simple lowest common denominator description. So what do I believe? I think that this report is fine and the hard work that went into it is worthy of praise, however faint it may sound. It’s  frankly hard to argue with too much of it and what there is, if it happens as suggested,  will change things for the better.  But I also believe that it misses the chance to make big points.  It is just another, despite its protestation, report.  But then I guess all reports are.  If it stands a chance to be more than a report depends on the energy and motivation of those involved. This government, when it comes to libraries, has neither … so it will be up to the rest of us.  Therefore, whether the Independent Report will have long-term positive effects I cannot tell – the future of this, and thus the public library service, is hanging by a thread.  Golden or otherwise.

Number of times the word “book” is used, without being denigratory (e.g.”libraries are more than books”) = 3

Number of times the word “digital” is used =63

Summary of recommendations and actions

My thoughts are in italics.

  • Government to fund Wifi for all libraries, upgrade computers and train workforce. This is so needed. Even the local bakers has wifi yet a third of public libraries do not.  The public computers are sometimes ten years old and are noticeably unreliable and prehistoric.  In addition, there still remains a reasonable proportion of library staff who are not adequately trained. The library worker hesitant to help people on the computers, and with no email or social media account of their own, still exists in December 2014.
  • Library taskforce “Leadership for Libraries” to provide leadership, implement proposals and “reinvigorate” public libraries.  The group will exist for three to four years.  In effect, this tries to bring together all of the existing players in the crowded library market that already includes the DCMS, ACE and SCL, CILIP, LGA, Reading Agency  and will now add the BBC, the Government Digital Service (including the GDS in here may be a stroke of genius as it could embed libraries into national government initiatives) and the British Library into the mix. Membership will change depending on the task in hand (volunteers and even, gosh, library workers may even be members at different points – so expect a lot of sub-committees).  All of these players will be part of a “task and finish” group,  chaired by a local council.  It’s first meeting will be in February.  Who will chair a committee normally gives a very clear idea of how things are going to go so it is worth noting that it will be chaired by Paul Blantern, head of Northamptonshire County Council. For an idea of what Northamptonshire believes, check out this article entitled Almost like a PLC. The chosen strategy is to shrink the council as much as possible, outsourcing (or “rightsourcing” – did they just make that up?) as much as possible.  This is going to mean a lot of non-profit trusts and semi-commercial thinking going on there. Northamptonshire libraries are notable for this and also (in case this is coming across as negative) for surviving well, even taking over the activities of children’s centres.  The emphasis will also be on digital (read online) provision of services.  This ties in very much with the current Government thinking about doing things leaner with less money and suggests that the future of public libraries is going to be as commercial as possible, with as few paid staff as possible and as digital as possible
  • Government to have greater cross-department involvement and recognition of librariesWell, yes.  If it can be achieved then libraries can really gain from this, Jacks of All Trades (and thus fulfillers of many Government objectives) as they are. There is a clear hint in this report that library services will have to work closer together in order to gain grants for intitiatives, perhaps leading to some sort of nat
  • PLR for e-books and promote e-lending – Fair enough. We’re way behind the leading e-lending countries.
  • Create a national digital library frameworkThis appears to mean universal wifi, up to date computers (with a move towards more being laptops and tablets) and trained staff.  There is some talk of library services using this to co-operate more together (especially in terms of stock) but it is unclear how this would happen: it has signally failed to do that with the existing People’s Network.
  • Motivate and train staff, especially new recruits. Aim for “community impresarios” with digital and commercial expertise. At this moment I simply don’t believe that anyone new would see public libraries as a long-term career. Ten out of ten for optimism on this one. However, they’re bang on with the need for library managers to be extrovert opportunity-seekers. Those that simply believe their job is to keep the library open during the requisite hours are missing the point.
  • Best practice guidelines for volunteers and volunteer-run libraries. Some of the most innovative libraries visited had a strong volunteer involvement. Noted worries about long-term viability and tendency for them to be more successful in more prosperous areas. There should be more consultation with communities. A very balanced view here, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of volunteers.  The Report sees the need for more involvement of volunteers in the management of libraries, though, which suggests a pro (or downright realistic given cuts in paid staff?) viewpoint.
  • Greater collaboration between local councilsThere are 151 separate authorities in the UK.  There are very obvious economies of scale that could be taken but due to  local politics this has not happened as yet. The Report suggests all this collaboration will be voluntary and neglects to mention that any real movement in local council provision will have to be top-down because turkeys very very rarely vote for Christmas.
  • Consider all delivery modelsThis will add further impetus to the move away from council controlled services to those run by a plethora of other providers. The inclusion of Suffolk and York as case studies appears to suggest that the committee are keen on mutuals and the other case studies show support for volunteers and commercialism. Indeed, I think the underlying assumption is that the traditional council model is not up to it so we’d better try something else, and quickly.

Media and other mentions of the Report

“The ‘Future of Libraries’ in the UK appears to be the ability to serve latte and reset the wifi, while getting your meals from a foodbank.” FlappyLibrarian

“Strategic leadership could, as the report suggests, help to spread best practice – although it timidly stops short of recommending mergers between authorities. Yet polite evasion weakens even this familiar hi-tech manifesto. It beggars belief that the social cost of recent shutdowns and transfers should almost entirely escape the notice of a panel rightly convinced that “the library does more than simply loan books. It underpins every community.” This delicate oversight ignores not so much the elephant in the room as the padlocks on the door and the boards across the window.” Independent editorial

“It’s a sound report, but it’s Mr Softee all round. All the more shameful, then, that the immediate government response is pretty well zero.” Library Campaign.

““At last we have a blueprint for a national public library service.” … He welcomed the creation of the library task force, saying it would “fill the leadership void and allow libraries to rediscover their purpose”. He added: “This report must not be kicked into the long grass; it is almost the last chance to rebuild a public library service with real value.”” Desmond Clarke

  • Experts demand urgent overhaul of England’s public library service – Guardian. Includes response from Ed Vaizey welcoming the report.
  • Flexible and digitised, our libraries have a bright future – Telegraph / Joanne Trollope. “The need has never been greater for a modern, safe, non-judgmental, flexible place where people can mine the knowledge of the world for free. Nor has the need for the help and wisdom of professionals to guide them through the complexities of information gathering ever been more pressing. ” … “none of the recommendations for the libraries of the future is going to cost a fortune. And the benefits that they will deliver are huge. ” Joanne Trollope was one of the writers of the Report.

“Joanna Trollope may think all will be well but she isn’t seeing the real problem is that, without structural reform, secondary services such as libraries will not survive.” Geoffrey Dron

“Will any council, anywhere have any reason to to take any notice of this Sieghart report and change anything they would otherwise have done ? No.” Shirley Burnham

“My personal view remains that with a universally acknowledged lack of technical expertise in our public library service the need for a national agency to fill that skills gap, to communicate the strategic vision of libraries to the market, and develop solutions that are open, affordable and deliverable to all remains paramount.” Mick Fortune

  • Northants County Council boss to take charge of Government’s national library taskforce – Northants Telegraph. “Paul Blantern was today (Thursday, December 18) unveiled as the head of the new body, which has been set up in response to the findings of the Sieghart Review of library services across Britain. The taskforce will work with councils across the country and will report to Government ministers to help develop library services to make sure they are fit for the 21st century.”
  • Public libraries should emulate coffee shops, says report – BBC. “Public libraries in England are “at a crossroads” and must adapt if they are to survive, an independent report into the future of the service has said. It suggests they need to emulate coffee shops, by offering free wifi, sofas, toilets and hot drinks.” … “Mr Sieghart told the BBC it was not just a question of pumping new resources in to the public library network, but using existing resources “in a more sensible way”.

“It’s not quite last chance saloon for libraries if we just remain viewing them as book lending places only but this is our chance to really go beyond that and take libraries firmly in to this century.” Mark Taylor, CILIP (“He sounds fed up with books” is one comment I’ve heard on this – Ed.)

  • Response – Arts Council England. Suggest the ACE report Envisioning is used as the basis and that everyone pushes libraries as hubs of the community. Notes that ACE will support and lead on any investment into public libraries if asked.
  • Romantic fiction: A review of libraries that fails to address the real problem – Independent/Editorial. “Over a decade, the number of UK public libraries has fallen from 4,622 to 4,145. Volunteers run a steeply rising number of those that remain. Yet the new Independent Library Report for England, chaired by William Sieghart on behalf of the Government, averts its gaze from such vulgarities. Although it praises libraries as a “golden thread” through our lives, it has nothing apart from euphemisms about a “fragile financial environment” to offer those bereft users who have seen that golden thread brutally severed.”
  • SCL Responds to Independent Library Report for England – Society of Chief Librarians. Agrees with report but ” “Would have welcomed a commitment to investment in public libraries to support the report”. Points out work SCL is already doing. “Believes that the key conclusion for Government, both Central and Local, is that public libraries support the delivery of a wide range of key policy agendas and, with appropriate investment from relevant parts of Government, could do even more in the future as vibrant community hubs. Public library services have a successful track record in delivering high impact work for modest investment.”
    Sieghart: Action needed now – Library Campaign. ” so far – the most important bit is missing. The bit where the government says: “OK, this is what we are going to do…” … “Sieghart has a good list of what needs doing. Some of it will cost a little money. But we are talking about peanuts. Now we want action.” … “This is a tactful report, clearly aimed at being nice to the government so that it does something, instead of getting in a huff. The references to the current financial meltdown are not absent, but are pretty pallid.” … “As for the hundreds of volunteers left holding the baby, Sieghart just says ” …there are questions over their long-term viability”. That’s putting it far too mildly.”
  • Sieghart’s Independent Library Report for England – Lauren Smith. The best in-depth critical review of the report so far. “Being more like retail outlets, encouraging community involvement etc. are all recommendations that have come out of previous reports and things that librarians have been talking about for years. Some local authorities responded to the recommendations from the last umpteen reports, but some of them had already experienced such budget cuts that it was impossible to actually do the things they wanted and knew they needed to do” … “Spending a bunch of cash on helping libraries deliver services associated with the digital by default agenda of government doesn’t really help libraries, it just helps government deliver services unrelated to libraries, through libraries. It might force a few more people to enter the library building against their will, but it’s not going to get them invested in the notion of the public library.” … Wifi: “I’d like to see a whole bunch of money for it, and I’d like to see the government write a standard document for councils to use as a policy for installing wifi, and one standardised document that can serve as an Acceptable Use Policy for all of the library services to ask users of the computers and library WiFi. Scotland’s already working on this, I recommend England get on board. “. Taskforce: “My main concern with this is the recommendation that it be led by councils, who, in my experience, are possibly the least informed, least knowledgeable and least engaged stakeholders in the whole shebang.” … “If you want your 21st century librarian to have digital and commercial expertise you already have those, but there aren’t any jobs for them.” … “Asking for different models of management at the same time as asking for increased consistency is a contradiction.”
  • Sieghart: on the money – BookSeller. “The Independent is wrong to damn the new Sieghart Report as a “romantic fiction” with nothing but euphemisms to offer a decimated public library service, in its editorial today (18th December). What the report is doing, by pushing the role libraries can play in the digital sphere, is to align the service with the priorities of central and local government, and so try to rescue it from the neglect that has seen such destructive library closures instigated by local authorities without intervention from a clearly uninterested culture ministry.” … “In the longer term, libraries embracing a digital role could prove to be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas – if remote e-lending becomes the norm, as Sieghart seems to hope, why visit your library? Meanwhile asking librarians to become digitalists certainly has its downside, with some at the Speak Up for Libraries conference arguing that the profession had become “overdiversified”, with the range of functions it is asked to fulfil taking it away from its core purpose of reading and education. But then if libraries don’t get more backing in the very near future, thinking longterm could be a luxury anyway.
  • Sieghart Report captures vital importance of public library service – Publisher’s Association. ““The Sieghart Report captures the vital importance of the public library service and the urgent need for action to sustain it.  The PA fully supports the Report’s call for greater government funding, and its focus on the development of a national digital library network to help libraries provide new services and develop new audience. “However, with the publication of the report coinciding with today’s announcement on local government budgets, it amplifies the need for policy and budget for public libraries to be brought together in one single Department.””

  • Sieghart report on public libraries a “convincing roadmap” – CILIP. CILIP welcomes all points in the report, noting the dire state of UK public libraries. Notes the report does not mention in detail the financial difficulties libraries are going through, with a 60% financial cut expected between 2010 and 2020. Also notes no mention of statutory enforcement or Standards. “We welcome the report’s discouragement of forming volunteer-only libraries and share concerns about sustainability. In our evidence to the Sieghart report we called for an honest debate about the role of volunteers in the library service and we hope the Taskforce will lead this”
  • Suffolk Libraries’ comment on the Independent Library Report for England – Suffolk Libraries. ““We welcome this report which strongly endorses the direction Suffolk Libraries has adopted in the past three years. The report focuses on community involvement and digital services – both areas in which Suffolk has made great strides in recent years. We are proud of what has been achieved here in Suffolk by our organisation, our staff and the amazing support from the community. “Working to strengthen links with the community is so important for a library service – particularly in a place like Suffolk with a number of small towns and villages where people rely on their library.”

“Many have already been expressing an interest in our model and we’re planning an event in March to share what we’ve learned with other councils” Suffolk Libraries

  • Thirsty? Go to a library, not a coffee shop – Telegraph. “Libraries should be re-branded as vibrant community hubs offering free wifi, comfy sofas and coffee, according to government-commissioned report” … “One of the key findings was that libraries have an image problem. They are failing to attract a younger, digitally-savvy crowd who would rather surf the internet from a coffee shop than a library on the same street. “
  • Time to start fresh chapter, says report – Financial Times. Need to register in order to see story.