Future of Libraries Services in the Big Society

6th National Conference, London 21st June 2011
A conference of this sort is clearly aimed at library leaders; i.e. not just heads of services and senior library managers but also at senior officers and members - those who make the long term policy decisions and control the purse strings. It is this latter group that have the greatest need to hear this sort of discussion - given the widely recognised low level of appreciation of the issues by many library leaders - and it was disappointing but not unusual to find that they were underrepresented in the audience. My own quick rough count of the attendees list shows c40 librarians, 11 senior directors and 4 councillors.

But of course you didn't have to be there in person. I and apparently many others were watching the conference on-line courtesy of Policy Review TV. I would love to know how many heads of service set up viewing sessions for their Directors, Chief Executives and portfolio holders. They would have been able to share and event that, while not exactly earth shattering in terms of new ideas, provided much to consider and debate.

The first speaker was Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture with direct responsibility for libraries. The significance of Government Ministers at events like this is quite arcane. They will arrive, deliver a speech, and then leave, so there is seldom an opportunity for debate. Sometimes they will use the opportunity to deliver a major policy speech but, as in this case, it is usually more subtle. The fact that they have accepted the invitation to appear - and have actually turned up - is often the most important aspect. In this case it suggests that the Government (or at least a part of it) does think that library services have a future. It is not much, but it is better than nothing.

Mr Vaizey's speech went little further than this. He began by saying he was in a positive mood and praised the "fantastic work going on in libraries all over the country". Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick at any rate. He then moved on to specific examples, the coming together of three London boroughs to form a unified library service; the award to Hillingdon of the Bookseller's Library Innovation of the Year award; Lancashire Libraries' partnership with the University of Lancashire and examples of new builds and refurbishments. There was nothing in the way of carrots or sticks to encourage other authorities along the same path except for keeping Mr Vaizey in a positive mood.

The Minister then declared that "… the public library service is a huge asset to be exploited; not a burden to be gradually got rid of". This reference to the Governments consultation on administrative burdens on local authorities suggested a commitment to maintaining the Public Libraries Act, particularly as he moved directly on to the issue of his intervention in library closures under the act. He stated that he would not shy away from doing so if there was a case for it but immediately mentioned two provisos. The first was that the current situation was still fluid. The second was that it was better to have a dialogue with local authorities and that officials from his department had met with officers and campaigners in 5 local authorities to discuss cuts. He added that he would not meet with people personally as this might compromise his position in making a final decision as required. His message to local authorities appeared to be that he was happy to give them plenty of time to discuss options and alternatives but although he was keeping his powder dry he was prepared to use the weapon of intervention if all else failed.

At this point the Twitter feed for the conference was filled with Tweets pointing out examples of library service cuts which appear to show a very strong case for immediate intervention. Inevitably many will see this claim to be holding fire "for the present" as covering up an intention not to shoot at all.

Mr Vaizey then moved on to the options and alternatives that he was inviting authorities to consider. Rationalisation (i.e. mergers) was one option. "Community supported" libraries was another. He did promise that continued council support to community libraries with a core service would be a key factor. He referred to the MLA document Community Managed Libraries and the work of Locality

Finally the Minister referred to the transfer of responsibilities to Arts Council England and the benefits that this would bring. He promised another Future Library project and hinted at a "few more ideas that we need to explore". Opportunities for libraries to access Arts funding were dangled before the audience and the desirability of WiFi enabled libraries was mentioned, without of course any indication of how this might be funded.

Overall it was a disappointing presentation, at least for anyone hoping against hope for a stronger lead on library cuts. His support for the role of volunteers in delivering library services was clear. The Minister did draw a line in the sand and warned councils not to cross it but their room for manoeuvre behind that line is large. His closing remarks that the situation provided "opportunities" for libraries shows that his scriptwriters had run out of any original ideas and were scrapping the bottom of the cliché barrel. However we must take what we can from this speech. Mr Vaizey could have sent his apologies and his phrase that "the public library service is a huge asset to be exploited; not a burden to be gradually got rid of" could well feature on the Voices for the Library website (although the cynics out there may well ask exactly how the "asset" of libraries will be exploited, and by whom!).

Sharing top billing with Ed Vaizey was Annie Mauger, Chief Executive of CILIP. Annie's theme was the role and importance of professional librarians in delivering library services. She began by saying that that CILIP members would of course expect her to defend the role of professional librarians but pointed out that CILIP is also a charity with the clear aim of upholding the "public good" and not just the interests of librarians. The two were synonymous. Public libraries always have been living examples of the Big Society in practice - including the use of volunteers. The core professional skill of librarians in knowledge of their community was central to the process; Annie drew a parallel with the role of GP's in the NHS under the Government's reform proposals.

Leaders of library services are often not librarians themselves. This is not important in itself, what is important is that people get a good library service. Everyone seems to think they know how to run libraries but they don't know what they don't know! There are three key aspects of professional skills:

• Librarians know what you don't know. These information finding skills are central to open access and knowledge sharing which are the basis of the Big Society.

• Librarians know their communities. They understand their needs and plan to meet those needs. They make the process so easy that it is almost invisible.

• They are impartial, neutral and safe. Above all they are trusted.

Turning to volunteering Annie pointed out that this had existed within library services for many years but what was new was devolving services to communities. There was talk of a statutory core network and a community network. How do you ensure the standards of the community network? Volunteers need training and support at least. There was a need for a capacity of skills and knowledge. Some communities might be able to provide this capacity but other more deprived communities lack this, and the greatest need is with the latter. Annie stressed that we were talking about "brains not bricks", not about library buildings but services.

"If we lose an understanding of what a professional library services is" claimed Annie "then we lend books but we don't inform, support, educate, help to grow, help local authorities intervene early in the lives of young people; and put some heart into communities."

In conclusion, there is a distinct set of core skills. The library profession has a responsibility to skill-up the library workforce and young professionals need to aspire to a leadership role in librarianship. A key new role for librarians is as a collaborator with communities.

This was an inspiring speech but lacking, it has to be said, an inspiring presentation. Compared with the always inspiring Miranda McKearney who spoke later, Annie was rather subdued. Her message about library leaders not knowing what professional librarians bring to the party is not new but is very relevant. What she could only hint at is that often this is the fault of those professional librarians for not keeping their skills up-to-date and not putting themselves forward. As I said at the start of this blog, how many heads of service have used this conference as an opportunity to get this important message over to their local "Power people"?

Video recordings of the presentations at this conference are available at http://www.policyreview.tv/live/571/216