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Public Libraries: Building Better Library Services

Penny Garrod on the recently published Audit Commission Report: Building Better Library Services.

I have decided to be highly topical in this edition’s Public Library column. I have chosen as my topic -finger on buzzer - the recently published Audit Commission Report: Building Better Library Services. It has, after all, caused a bit of a stir. Just when you thought it was safe to abandon the rolling stacks and had won the battle to be regarded as ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’ with all those flat screen terminals, scanners, and keen silver surfers, a brickbat is lobbed at your firewall, and, goodness gracious me, its books that are important after all!. Not only should libraries have stacks of ‘em (of the ‘best seller’ variety, as opposed to the esoteric or out of print, as not stocked by Amazon or Waterstones), but it is the counting out of them that matters and the housing of them in swanky steel and glass modern buildings. Public Libraries should also give readers what they want (surprise, surprise) - perhaps a very large helping of the latest Harry Potter, served piping hot from the press, with a similar sized helping of Catherine Cookson’s final words? Look at what the bookshops do well, the Commission advises - book sales have risen by 25% over the past ten years, and libraries could learn a lot from them about marketing. The report mentions Amazon just once on page 37:

Bookshops have a good record in marketing their services and promoting reading to the general public, while the online catalogues provided by companies such as Amazon.co.uk give people access to reader reviews, lists of what people with similar interests bought and a range of other reader development tools that are not available in library service online catalogues

Note the use of the term “reader development” – I thought this was a public library speciality? Ouch! Much reader development work undertaken in public libraries seems to involve face to face stuff with readers, rather than personalised interfaces or value-added features such as book reviews, but there are some notable exceptions – take a look at the Hillingdon’s Libraries, Arts and Information Services for starters: http://www.hillingdon.gov.uk/frames.htm?/education/library/booklink.htm

Also the superb website for children run by Birmingham Library and Information Service: Stories from the Web: http://www.storiesfromtheweb.org/

However, creating interactive websites takes a lot of time and effort (negotiating copyright to reproduce the book jackets in the Hillingdon example), as well as the fact that you need staff with the necessary skills and expertise, and, lets face it - public sector pay doesn’t exactly lead to queues of eager, fully webbed staff forming outside library doors. But, it doesn’t end there – you need stacks of staff with time on their hands (warning – irony here), to drive the back office systems and deliver the service; its no good having whizzy interactive features with good marketing if nothing of substance lies behind them. Imagine having filled out your form with that little blue pen in Argos, and arriving at the counter to discover that there is no-one to identify the goods and fetch them for you.

However, I doubt whether many of you would dispute the report’s findings regarding book stock, although all this does seem to me to be rather dated. Am I missing something here? I thought young people, in particular, preferred the visual (TV, video, computer games, MP3) to the printed word (putting the Harry Potter phenomenon to one side for the moment). And… aren’t public libraries being reinvented as ‘street corner universities’ chock-full of PC’s, software, and free surfing, because, like it or not, information and communication technology (ICT) is the tool which enables us to email grandma in Australia or find that fantastic job in Finland? Having said this we mustn’t forget the overarching government agenda i.e. electronic service delivery for all public sector services (by 2005 – is this possible?), and wiring up local authority departments is part of this grand plan. Chris Batt, Acting Chief Executive of Resource, was quick to point out in Managing Information [1] that books ARE still important, but that the world has changed, and the People’s Network project is a response to this change as people are increasingly using ICT at work and at play.

The report is available online (58 pages, in PDF format, size: 1,859 Kilobytes), although a colleague had to print it on our new colour printer - codename “Carrot”, - but mustn’t give away UKOLN secrets. For some reason the blue text, with which the report is liberally sprinkled, would not print on our black and white printer.

But if you want to skip the report and go for the soundbite version here is an extract from CILIP news, dated 20 May 2002:

CHANCELLOR URGED TO FUND PUBLIC LIBRARY DEVELOPMENT - Media seek CILIP’s views on Audit Commission report:

Gordon Brown should use his Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) to help public libraries deal with some of the challenges raised in the recent Audit Commission report Building Better Libraries, says CILIP’s Chief Executive Bob McKee. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last Saturday, Dr McKee responded to criticisms by the author Beryl Bainbridge by pointing out that public libraries were not in the same business as the booksellers they were compared to in the report. “You can get Beryl’s latest novels in a bookshop,” he said, “but not her earlier out of print work or books about Beryl.” He added that the CSR represented an important opportunity to redress the years of underfunding public libraries had faced - a point also made by CILIP’s Head of External Relations Tim Owen in an interview on LBC radio’s Drive Time.

Whoa there! Airtime on Radio 4, and Beryl Bainbridge! What excitement. Also a piece in the Guardian (How to fix our libraries [2]) Public libraries – you’ve never had it so good or have you? Any publicity is surely better than none though the Guardian article does hit hard:

The Audit Commission is absolutely right to use strong words. Libraries have not made any of the improvements that bookshops have over the past two decades….yet…libraries still play a key part in the government’s goal to support “lifelong learning”. To do this libraries need to be seen as useful places, which most patently they aren’t. the result is that year after year the public’s use of the service declines, quite sharply.

Note, however, that this was penned by a former managing director of Waterstone’s and publisher of the Uncovered Editions series of government papers.

So what should we make of all this? Can the public library be all things to all people? Should the public library emulate the bookshops (UK major bookstores could emulate the US stores with their armchairs and comfy sofas, integrated coffee shop (not up a steep flight of stairs) and cool water machines. Or should public libraries focus on new electronic services which have the potential to reach rural communities, housebound and disabled people? I don’t see how public libraries can compete with services like Amazon. I ordered three novels and Hitchhikers guide on CD at 9am on Friday morning. The order arrived at my home in the extreme southwest at 8am the next day. I don’t have to attempt to read, or listen to them, in two or three weeks or remember to renew them. I can lend them to friends or give them away. I can take them on holiday and if I lose them that’s my loss. All of the items were heavily discounted. Having said this – if I lived and worked in central Norwich I would visit the public library

Public libraries are currently focusing on providing access to information and ICT skills as part of the government agenda to reach those people who are deemed to be ‘socially excluded’. However, they also have to serve the broader local community, most of whom pay council tax and have expectations as to what they should receive for their money. There is also the wider information environment to consider, and the contribution public libraries can and are making to the pool of national resources, through the digitisation of local, regional and special collections which can be made available online. Money – that is lots of it - is of course the key to all this diversification, rebadging and re-positioning: books plus computers (and DVDs;CDs;audio visual; business information; reference services etc). I will therefore leave you to ponder this paragraph from the Audit Commission’s press release on their report. I rest my case:

Councils should take a thorough look at how and why they provide library services, the report says. It calls on councillors and senior managers to provide clear leadership and commitment to libraries, including holding library services to account for the resources they use and the delivery of national standards and local targets. [3]

1. Resource welcomes Audit Commission report on public libraries. Managing Information. 20 May 2002. http://www.managinginformation.com/news/content_show_full.php?id=561 [accessed 27 May 2002]
2. Tim Coates. How to fix our libraries. Guardian unlimited. 18 May 2002
http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,6109,717311,00.html [accessed 27 May 2002]
3. Audit Commission. Libraries encouraged to review services as study shows drop in use. http://www.audit-commission.gov.uk/news/prlibraries.shtml