Question: How many librarians does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: Er,.. Change?
You can’t beat the old jokes can you, and this variation on an old theme provided some light relief to delegates on day two of this year’s annual Public Library Authorities event . Who said librarians can’t take a joke? Most people managed a snigger, but then it was après lunch. This year’s event had the emotive title: Hearts and Lives. Public Libraries nurturing local communities, and, in case you nodded off at some point during the proceedings (the lunch does tend to have that effect), and woke up wondering where you were, the conference title was emblazoned across the conference room ceiling twice.
So - forget hearts and minds - its ‘Hearts and Lives’ for public libraries. Capturing the hearts of library users is what public libraries aim to do in the 21st century, but it doesn’t stop there. Developing new services and reaching out to local communities is not enough - libraries must be able to demonstrate this. Libraries have to prove that they can change lives, that they are relevant to 21st century society, and that they do listen and respond to the people they serve.
It is the hearts and minds of local authority chiefs and national politicians that need to be ‘nurtured’ when it comes to securing vital funds. With computers and Web sites to maintain and electronic services to deliver, libraries need budgets to cover replacement costs, upgrades, software licenses, subscription fees, etc. Lottery funding may provide the necessary kick-start, but sustaining new equipment and systems requires forward planning and flexible budgets.
Funding was a recurrent theme throughout the second day of the conference - which was the day I attended as a day delegate. The main topic of the day, however, was the Framework for the Future report from DCMS , plus Resource’s  newly released ‘action plan’ detailing how the Framework is to be implemented. Funding and advocacy were like Tweedledum and Tweedledee and, as the day progressed, a dialectic emerged which went something like this:
public libraries and elected members must act to raise the profile of public libraries; they must convince council leaders and politicians that libraries play a key role in delivering national agendas; if libraries raise their profile they will attract bigger slices of local authority and national budgets; funding for libraries is low and does not reflect their contribution to national agendas; funding is low because libraries have a low profile, and politicians and council chief executives do not acknowledge the contribution libraries make; libraries are not recognised for what they do because librarians do not shout loudly enough and politicians are unaware of the contribution libraries make - ergo libraries must demonstrate the key role they play in delivering national agendas etc., etc.
Round and round went the funding merry-go-round and, as the same argument has been aired on other occasions and in the professional press, it was very much a case of déjà vu.
However, before the conference got down to the serious Framework stuff we heard from two national digitisation projects: Collect Britain from the British Library , and Moving Here from the National Archives  - both of which were funded through the New Opportunities Fund . Moving Here is a pictorial record of 200 years of migration to England, comprising over 150,000 items. Visitors to the site can contribute their own stories and send an e-postcard featuring one of the pictures from the collection. In this case pictures certainly seem to speak louder than words, with photographs, cartoons and drawings providing a sociological and historical record of the daily lives of Irish, Caribbean, Jewish and South Asian settlers to these shores over the years.
The British Library states that Collect Britain is the largest digitisation project to date. The site went live in May 2003 and by summer 2004 it will contain 100,000 images and sounds from ‘world-renowned collections’. There are ‘themed tours’ including one around the old East End of London, plus ‘virtual exhibitions’ for example: ‘Literary landscapes’. The background information pages make fascinating reading; for example, seven full-time photographers are working on the project and they are using high resolution cameras with a pixel equivalent of 7200 x 5000.
However, this was just the first course, the main course was the Framework report. Martin Malloy, Director of Libraries and Heritage, Derbyshire, had the first slot to evaluate whether the level of funding provided to implement the Framework would be enough to do the job. Three million pounds has been allocated to Resource in total for three years, so a million pounds will be available each year for the next three years. The light bulb joke might have been reworded at this point along the lines of: How many pounds (sterling) does it take to change government vision into reality? Answer: it depends what you mean by reality, but probably more than three million. Martin debated whether the amount was sufficient to deliver what Resource envisaged in its action plan, for example, developing models for innovative services, and making best use of existing resources. He reminded the audience that the view expressed in the Framework was that of the former Minister of State for the Arts, Baroness Blackstone, who believed that resources already exist in local authority structures but that they were not being used well. In his final summing up Martin concluded that DCMS needs to win the argument regarding the role of libraries and their ability to change people’s lives. He also raised three questions:
- Will resources be redistributed to enable local delivery of the Framework?
- Is enough attention being paid to transformational leadership?
- Is libraries’ contribution to shared priorities (of local and national government) recognised through the Comprehensive Spending Review?
This talk prepared the way for a debate on the motion: “This house believes that the Framework for the Future provides the vision and leadership needed to sustain and develop public libraries” . Two arguments for and two against were put forward, and then there was a vote with a display of hands. Both sides gave plausible accounts for why they supported or opposed the motion, but I felt the opposition’s case was stronger and more forcefully made. However, the motion was carried, and if the outcome was a bit of a foregone conclusion, then the process of getting there provided some opportunities for home truths and navel gazing. The opposition argued that the Framework pointed a finger at library chiefs who were responsible for the current state of the public library service. They also argued that the Framework failed to provide solutions to the funding issue and provided examples of good practice which were not achievable by most library authorities, (for example where Public Finance Initiative (PFI) funds have been obtained). It left one wondering what the outcome might have been if the vote had swung the other way. However, in retrospect this seems unlikely; the Framework was the result of extensive consultation with key players in the library community and a vote against would have been like shooting oneself in the foot.
Afternoon sessions included a presentation by David Curtis of the Audit Commission, who suggested that current methods of measuring library performance might account for the low profile. A new model, which had been devised for the inspection of district councils, was proposed for libraries and cultural services and might help raise their profile. This model involves self-assessment and peer review. Full details are available from the Audit Commission Web site .
The final panel session however, was the one many of us had been waiting for - the unveiling of Resource’s action plan: the turning of vision into reality with 3 million pounds sterling. Peter Beauchamp, of DCMS was on the panel, but the key speaker was Andrew Stevens, Senior Policy Advisor at Resource, who is the chief architect of the action plan. These are just some of the points raised during the session:
- Activities outlined for year one of the action plan are already well under way, but years two and three are open to discussion and need to be more focused
- Players outside the library profession need to be engaged
- The British Library’s marketing strategy is an example of good practice which Resource plans to emulate. Public libraries needed to position themselves in a similar way and develop key objectives
- Hard data or evidence will be collected to demonstrate the contribution libraries make to local and national priorities; advocacy and leadership development materials are being developed; performance measurement is to be reviewed, as suggested by the Audit Commission
For those interested in a concise summary of the 36-page action plan, Andrew Stevens has written a feature length article which appears in the October edition of Library and Information Update .
I did not stay for the conference dinner, so I missed the speech by the Right Hon Lord McIntosh of Haringey, Minister for Media and Heritage (I also missed the disco). It was, however, a grand day out although many of the messages cast a cloud over the event. The weather was glorious, and the South Hams area of Devon is a beautiful place to be on a summer’s day. Hearts and lives - not easy to achieve; let’s hope the action plan, which looks very ambitious, is able to effect change and assure the future of our public library service.
- Hearts and Lives - public libraries nurturing local communities.
Public Library Authorities Conference 2003. 16-19 September. Palace Hotel, Torquay
- Department for Culture, Media and Sport. (February 2003)
Framework for the future: Libraries, Learning and Information in the next decade.
- Resource (September 2003). Framework for the Future: Action Plan 2003-2006.
- British Library. Collect Britain
- The National Archives: Moving Here
- New Opportunities Fund
- Hearts and Lives - public libraries nurturing local communities.
Public Library Authorities Conference 2003. 16-19 September. Palace Hotel, Torquay.
Conference Handbook, page 9
- Audit Commission http://www.audit-commission.gov.uk
see libraries and leisure - The Way Forward. CPA 30 June 2003
- Andrew Stevens. Implementing Framework for the Future.
Library and Information Update. 2 (10) October 2003, pp. 34-36.
Public Library Networking Focus
Article Title: “A Grand Day Out”
Author: Penny Garrod
Publication Date: 30-October-2003
Publication: Ariadne Issue 37
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue37/public-libraries/