Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Public Libraries Corner: Soul and Song

Lorcan Dempsey writes about the recent report: New Library: the People's Network.

New Library: the People’s Network has had an overwhelmingly positive reception. Caveat and qualification may exist but they have been submerged in enthusiasm, gratitude even, for the vision the report presents of a renovated public library service and the specific recommendations by which it might be achieved. Its content succeeds in making its readers feel positive about the future of a strong social institution, committed to the communication and preservation of knowledge, imagination and learning in all their manifestations. The report is itself a handsome book, and includes a specially commissioned poem by Ted Hughes. It is a volume that people will want to read, and to hold and to keep, and this is apt for a work which will be seen as a defining moment in the life of a changing service. A service which Joe Hendry, president of the Library Association, likened to Yeats’ aged man, "a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick", when talking about the report at this year’s LA Members’ Day.

New Library is a report prepared by the Library and Information Commission at the request of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The working group was chaired by Mathew Evans, and included people with a range of experiences and perspectives (of whom the current author is one). The project leader was John Dolan of Birmingham Central Library. An electronic version is available on the web.

From the start, the group agreed that content and services were central, and the opening Chapter reflects this. It identifies potential public library services under the following headings: education and life-long learning; citizen’s information and involvement in society; business and the economy, training and employment; community history and community identity; the national digital library. The next Chapter reports the conclusions of a small-scale qualitative research programme into public perceptions of the service. Among other findings, it endorses other work that shows that there is a fund of goodwill towards the service, highlights the role of the library in a broad educational or life-long learning context, and notes that most people had a narrow view of the total range of services offered by public libraries. Chapter three discusses the need for training and awareness programmes to ensure that library workers have appropriate skills to meet emerging challenges. Chapter four reviews the network infrastructure needs and recommends the commissioning of a dedicated network to interconnect local public library networks; it further proposes negotiation with library authorities to upgrade local library networks to a common UK standard on a shared funding basis. Chapter five discusses investment and income opportunities, exploring a range of funding models including private public partnership. Chapter six looks at copyright and licensing issues and Chapter 7 at performance evaluation. Chapter 8 examines the mechanisms for moving the plan forward, and I return to these below. There is a final summary chapter and several appendices, including a review of international information society initiatives, the results which supported Chapter 2, and a glossary.

It is not possible to summarise fully the wide-ranging recommendations here, but it may be useful to briefly review the implementation proposals. The report recognises challenges to four main groups of stakeholders: government, industry, libraries and library authorities, and educators. For the government there is a challenge to take a lead in developing and delivering an integrated information policy with a strong central role for libraries. For industry there is the opportunity to provide and manage infrastructure, services and content for libraries. Libraries need to ‘embrace the concept of the new library and to provide a new and dynamic interface between people, technology and information’. And for educators there is a challenge to ensure that benefits can be delivered to those within formal education and to life-long learners. A central coordinating mechanism, a Public Library Networking Agency, is recommended and it is recognised that a mix of funding will be needed to deliver the vision contained in the report. Towards this end, it is recommended that government develop partnerships between public and private sectors and that they provide some funding which will encourage others to contribute. The agency is to establish a programme for developing content and services, network infrastructure, and staff training. It will commission other bodies to carry out the elements of the strategy. A suggested outline of commissioned activity is included under each of the three main strands (content and services, network infrastructure, and training). For example, such work under content and services includes: consortium purchasing, servie development, digitisation, Internet services, enhanced library cooperation, and others.

New Library should be seen in the wider context of government thinking and planning. The White Paper on the People’s Lottery proposes significant training programmes for training teachers and librarians. The National Grid for Learning proposals outline a wider framework for a learning society, and proposals on life-long learning are expected. There are also potential points of contact with the Dearing and Kennedy reports on higher and further education respectively. We have grown accustomed to speaking of an Information Society, even where we are not quite sure what this means. It might be sensible to begin speaking of an Information and Learning society, in which formal education, libraries and other memory and information organisations, governement and industry work to fashion new digital environments.

The government is expected to respond to the report in early 1998; initial public statements have been encouraging, as has the majority of the coverage in the media. It has marked out a role for the public library service. This role depends on the active service of the library which acquires, organises and manages network resources; which joins its collective resource to emerging knowledge networks; which equalises access between the connected and the unconnected; which supports new ways of communicating and learning. It looks forward to a richly interconnected information and learning landscape, which affirms local identity at the same time as allowing participation in emerging global communication systems. The public library system that delivers these services will have to be designed, built and paid for. If it is to be achieved, this will be a major development exercise, involving unprecedented collaboration, investment and planning. Joe Hendry did not carry on to quote the next lines of Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium. They are "unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in his mortal dress". For the public library system it is indeed an occasion for soul and for song, and for clear concerted action.


New Library:The People’s Network
Electronic copy is available at http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/lic/newlibrary/

The printed edition of the report is available from the Library and Information Commission for the price of £25. Please send a cheque made payable to the Library and Information Commission with your order to:

Mary Johnson,
Library and Information Commission,
2 Sheraton Street,
London WW1V 4BU.

Author details

Lorcan Dempsey is Director of UKOLN, which is supported by the British Library Research and Innovation Centre and the Joint Information Systems Committee. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Lorcan Dempsey,
UKOLN, University of Bath.
E-mail: l.dempsey@ukoln.ac.uk
Phone: 01225 826254
Fax: 01225 826838