Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Public Libraries: United We Stand

Penny Garrod on current developments in the Public Library world.

As I write schools have closed for summer, the volume of early morning traffic has temporarily subsided, and the tourists are out and about in vast numbers in Bath city centre. The 'out of office' auto-replies drop into the email box daily as proof that some people have managed to unplug themselves from their computers to go on holiday. It is also, alas, the 'silly season' - time for the British media to devote column inches to vital matters - such as the Prime Minister's sartorial taste, and how a certain blue shirt 'brings out the colour of his eyes'. Yes, the obscure, the bizarre, and the just plain barmy, fill the vacuum so abhorred by nature and journalists alike.

However, in the world of public libraries there has been little sign of the pace slowing, and the current round of activity has widespread implications for the future of all UK library and information services, irrespective of sector. First of all there is the regional agenda as outlined in the White Paper published in May this year by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) [1]. In a nutshell, this states that the Blair administration wants England to follow the examples of Scotland and Wales which, since 1999, have had elected assemblies (the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly). Apparently England is alone in not having some form of democratic regional governance in accordance with the rest of the European Union. The benefits of regional government are reputed to include: the chance to build on and celebrate regional diversity; greater local autonomy with more devolved decision-making on non-national issues; making regional government more accountable to the population they serve etc.

As for libraries - well single regional agencies for museums, archives and libraries are to be set up in the nine English regions (this includes London, although London already has some devolved powers). Three agencies are now in place: the North East Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (NEMLAC); the South East Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (SEMLAC) and the East Midlands Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (EMMLAC). The remaining agencies will be in place by 2004. In addition, Resource has appointed two Regional Strategic Advisors to work across museums, archives and libraries, and are co-funding the Regional Development Officer (RDO) post in partnership with the British Library and CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals)). The RDO, Geoff Warren, has a libraries only remit - if you want to know more he issues a very informative newsletter called 'lis-regions Update' which can be found on the British Library Concord website [2].

You'd be right to question what all this actually translates to in terms of library services, and we shall have to wait and see, but libraries should be in a stronger position if they establish effective links with new regional bodies such as the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). The RDAs - when you can track down which government department is now responsible for which bit of them (you get redirected several times) - are now part of the Department for Trade and Industry's remit and they state:

RDAs agenda include regional regeneration, taking forward regional competitiveness, taking the lead on regional inward investment and, working with regional partners, ensuring the development of a regional skills action plan to ensure that skills training matches the needs of the labour market. [3]

Skills and labour markets - public libraries can relate to this - what with the People's Network programme providing ICT and Internet access and support to the general public; UKOnline Centres, providing access to news, information and online services e.g. buying a TV licence or applying for a passport, and Learndirect centres providing online courses for all.

However, it is the learning agenda rather than skills which is of most interest to libraries. The Government may be keen to ensure that UK citizens have ICT skills to meet the needs of the labour market, and thereby safeguard our economy and future prosperity, but libraries aim to encourage and support learning throughout life. This learning can be formal or informal; life enhancing in the form of leisure pursuits, or for personal development; or it might mean acquiring a set of skills which enable you to secure that job.

Therefore, the recent announcement by Resource that it is to review its role vis à vis libraries, and will, in future, be focusing on the wider library sector, rather than just on public libraries, should complement the work of the regional agencies. This shift of focus has been given the acronym WILIP - Wider Information and Libraries Issues Project (chosen to rhyme with CILIP perhaps?). With the People's Network programme nearing completion (over 70% of public libraries have ICT installed with 8780 public Internet terminals in total), Resource is now turning its attention to greater cross-sectoral collaboration in libraries and ensuring that libraries are seen as a single entity, like museums and archives, rather than the patchwork quilt of health, higher education, prison, schools, public libraries etc. In the past, each sector has proclaimed its difference e.g. each serves a different community with different needs and systems; each has separate funding mechanisms; each has a different culture and legacy systems and so on. These represent a succession of hurdles - all of which must be jumped if access to the wealth of resources 'out there' is to improve.

Projects like WILIP will benefit learners where ever they work, study or live. It should facilitate the building of a shared information environment by identifying and mapping the wealth of resources which are available in each of the regions, and from this the pieces of the jigsaw can be assembled giving us an overall view of what's available nationally. WILIP will also foster partnerships between libraries to improve access to regionally held resources, for example between higher and further education and public libraries. The existence of learning communities as groups of people who are not necessarily learning within a defined formal education system was described in the report: Empowering the Learning Community, which was published in March 2000:

Although much of our emphasis is on actions to be taken by local authorities or agencies, we define a 'learning community' very widely. Natural communities vary and, for different purposes, a learning community may be local, regional, national, virtual or a community of interest. [4]

Reg Carr, Chairman of the Joint Information Systems Committee for the Information Environment, which is engaged in the building of an information environment designed originally to meet the needs of the higher education, states:

Building the JISC Information Environment will necessarily require a collaborative effort between the many institutions and information experts within post-16 education and the academic research community. But real and long-lasting benefit will only be gained through a close collaboration with the other strategic partners who are also committed to lifelong learning. Together, we must aim to realise the full potential of the Internet, and the rich opportunities it brings for linking digital resources. [5]

The WILIP initiative to join-up libraries (with apologies for use of this over-used term), will not only improve access to learning and cultural resources, it will also help to raise the profile of libraries - or what is now called 'advocacy'. Politicians, of the local and national variety, need to be convinced, through action, that libraries are a force to be reckoned with, and above all are in the same business and speak with one voice. Libraries need to demonstrate that they offer value for money and provide value-added services. However, lets make no bones about it - none of this is easy. Users do expect the public sector to provide services which are on a par with those provided by top commercial players - this was made quite clear in the Audit Commission report which I looked at in the previous edition of Ariadne (issue 32). (it stated that public libraries could learn a lot from bookshops).

The question remains -can or should public libraries try to compete with companies like Amazon or the high street bookshops? How far do they need to go down this road when resources are finite and council tax payers, and other stakeholders, are not able or prepared to foot the bill? Well there are some excellent examples of public libraries which are managing to deliver innovative services and/or create great physical spaces which should be the envy of many bookshops. For those of you interested in the challenges facing UK public libraries - take a look at the 'Have your say' list of questions which John Dolan of Birmingham's Library and Information Services raises. [6] Two of the questions jump out at me: how will digital access enable access, interpretation and enjoyment of unique collections, and how will we reconcile the virtual and the physical library with the virtual and the physical visitor? Hmmm..

If libraries are in a different business to the book trade, for example in promoting and supporting lifelong learning, then John's questions require a lot of deep thinking to be done. How do we promote the uniqueness of the library experience. Do users want mediated access to reliable, evaluated, information and learning resources through a variety of media? Will citizens actually use online local and national government services - for example, to pay for services or find information?

Libraries offer both physical access to ICT facilities and tangible media (books, audio visual materials etc.), and virtual access to library catalogues, community information, digital or digitised materials, and a host of portals and gateways aimed at making the process of locating and retrieving quality information resources as easy as possible for citizens and learners alike. However, students in Institutions of Higher Education still prefer to use Google, rather than the subject based information gateways designed to make searching easier for them. [7] You can only lead them to what's available you can't make them use it. The bringing together of libraries must be a good thing - after all time and technology wait for no man, and if we are serious about the role of libraries in delivering the cultural and learning agendas, and in sustaining that role, then it is in all our interests to work together. However, one of the crucial issues, in my opinion, is skills; skills for staff and for members of the public. ICT skills are just part of the picture and many people have cleared this particular hurdle, it is information handling skills which are vital. Information skills tend to be invisible - people don't even know they exist, let along that they should need them. Staff have to be capable and confident in supporting Internet users and online learners. Users need to be aware of what exists and whether it is relevant to their particular needs; if it isn't then they won't be interested in using it. So marketing becomes the next issue to contemplate and so on...


[1] Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR). Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions. Summary. 14 May 2002
[2] Regional Development Officer (for libraries in England): lis-regions update. (PDF format): <http://www.bl.uk/concord/otherpubrdo.html>
[3] General information on the Regional Development Agencies: <http://www.consumers.gov.uk/rda/info/>
[4] Library and Information Commission (March 2000) Empowering the learning community. <http://www.lic.gov.uk/publications/policyreports/empower/recommendations.html>
[5] Information Environment: Development Strategy (draft) 2001-2005. Preface. <http://www.jisc.ac.uk/dner/development/IEstrategy.html>
[6] John Dolan and Ayub Khan. The Library of Birmingham. Update. August 2002 Vol.1 (5), pp.34-36 <http://www.cilip.org.uk/update/issues/aug02/article3aug.html>
[7] An example of a subject based information gateway: SOSIG - Social Science Information Gateway:
< http://www.sosig.ac.uk/>

Author details

Penny Garrod
University of Bath