A message from Nicky Morgan, Director, Libraries, Arts Council England

A big thank you to everyone who has contributed to this online conversation for our research programme Envisioning the library of the future. We have now closed comments on the site, but the conversation can continue on Twitter using #ACElibraries. You will still have access to all the guest posts and comments on the blog. I’ve also included a video (below) from our Canada Water Library workshop to give you a flavour of the topics that came up at the events.

All your comments have been collected and will feed into our long term vision for public libraries. Your contributions will also help to shape a report on the subject to be published in the Autumn.

We have now moved into the third phase of the research which will test the public view of the purpose and value of public libraries. It will take place from now until October 2012 and will explore the public’s appreciation of public libraries as citizens who fund these services. More information can be found on our website. If you have any questions please contact us at museums.libraries@artscouncil.org.uk.

Best wishes,


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The Library Returns

For those who missed it or want to listen again, the BBC has republished its Radio 4 documentary The Library Returns, which explores many of the themes that have come through in our research for Envisioning the library of the future.

Presenter Jonathan Glancey looks at changes to the function and design of libraries in Seattle, Delft, Stuttgart, Canada Water and Birmingham.

The programme looks at how libraries across the world are reviewing their services and evolving to adapt to meet the needs of their 21st century users.

Producer: Susan Marling
A Just Radio Production for BBC Radio 4

Listen now to BBC Radio 4 The Library Returns

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Guest post #16 – The future of libraries: a time for new heroes… by Dave Coplin

Today, many of us walk around with more computing power in our pockets than used to sit on our desks just a few short years ago. We are more connected, more engaged and more in control of our lives than ever before and yet, incredible though it is to believe, we are still right at the very beginning of our society’s journey with technology.

We have learned to love (or in some cases, tolerate) the power of social media and the increasingly real-time nature of our world. The power of the internet and mobile technology has enabled us to live with and access an incredible range of data, information and services. These offer us the capability of augmenting all of our real-world experiences (joining the digital and analogue worlds together) in order to help us to become greater than the sum of our own parts.

In many ways, this evolution is no different to the impact that books have had for hundreds of years: joining the consciousness of the reader with the knowledge of the author and extending Proust’s “heart of reading” well beyond the wisdom of a single author to the combined wisdom of the world.

Over the next twenty years, the increasingly connected nature of every action and every “thing”, combined with technological developments like the incredible prevalence of screens, e-ink and display surfaces and natural interfaces will take us to a new level of reliance and integration of technology. However, there are still some crucial obstacles that remain in our way, blocking our ability to take advantage of the technology on offer.

Some of these challenges exist at a cultural level, with privacy being perhaps the most fundamental of all such sociological debates. However, often hidden beyond such issues are significant barriers pertaining to the spread of knowledge and literacy that, if left unheeded, weaken the very foundations of our society (and economy).

None of these challenges are new, in fact a great deal can be learnt from our past. As such, the four key challenges we face should be familiar:

•         Preserving our knowledge heritage

•         Curating the wisdom of others

•         Helping others exploit the potential of access to unlimited knowledge

•         Providing equality of access

If only we knew of a profession/community/movement (dare I say religion?) that had dedicated the last couple of millennia to focusing on these issues to ensure the furtherance of knowledge and literacy across society?

However, it seems that despite the desperate need for help from those that are best placed and most experienced, we often seem locked in very different conversations.  Whether it is the mis-perceived lack of “value” of such resources in a recession, or the futility of the debate around (paper) fibres vs photons (e-books) as we contest the very definition of “a book”, we seem to be obsessed by the medium rather than the potential of the knowledge it transports.  Where we need help now is not in the squabbling on the digital/analogue boundary, or a very real “life and death” fight for existence of our community libraries, but is instead around the core principles of extending knowledge and literacy in a modern society. Ensuring that, like our ancestors before us, our greatest knowledge assets (both digital and analogue) do not succumb to the ravages of time; that people can find relevant information in a vast ocean of content – ultimately finding a needle in a billion haystacks; ensuring that our children (and every other member of our society) are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings us. It should not just be a case of feeding them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool and ensuring that every single member of our society, regardless of location, background, skills and wealth, can benefit from all that is on offer.

It is time for a new breed of superheroes. Librarians of the world – your time has finally come…

Dave Coplin is Director of Search for Bing/Microsoft UK and a lover of literacy and knowledge sharing in a modern, digital society. Dave can be found on Twitter @dcoplin and at www.theenvisioners.com
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Guest post #15 – Connecting Spaces and Places: the public library in the 21st century, by John Blewitt

Not surprisingly public libraries are closely associated with books, reading and literacy.  Of course, this is and will remain important role in the coming years but libraries have gradually evolved into spaces and places that do and offer far more. In part this has been in response to changes in the wider society and changes to the way we live our lives. New media is now  ubiquitous and although some people may argue that all you need is laptop and the public library is quickly becoming a thing of the past, this is to miss the point. Public libraries are spaces and places too. They exist physically in actual locations and they also exist virtually. People gather and communicate, learn and socialise, discuss and play in both physical and virtual spaces.

Everybody has to be somewhere and the networked public library service, according to the Arts Council’s Review of Research and Literature on Museums and Libraries, comprises of around 3 500 libraries in England alone and these libraries connect real places with virtual spaces. They are frequently found in central locations in towns and cities and are becoming increasingly important as public spaces and services open to all, whatever one’s class, age, gender, race or religion. They have the potential to develop into  places that not only access to books but access to spaces for community engagement, inter-cultural and inter-generational learning, enterprise, knowledge of environmental sustainability and much more.

In offering opportunities for individual learning and collective empowerment they are already perceived by many people as neutral spaces where you can find yourself, try new things, develop new ideas and so develop the necessary autonomy and resilience required to navigate the troubled times we currently inhabit and to create something meaningful for ourselves wherever we are and whoever we are. Although many libraries already do this , many of the campaigns to save public libraries from cuts and closures have dwelt on the cultural resonance of the book and have largely ignored the possibility of public libraries to realise ‘the right to the city’. For the respected urban Geographer David Harvey ‘the right to the city’ means:

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is (…) one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

And, this right to the city can already be seen as informing the thinking and values of a number of new public library developments such as the Library of Birmingham and The Hive in Worcester. These developments are designed collaborative spaces accommodating different roles, organisations, functions, possibilities and uses. The Hive is, for example, the first joint public and university academic library in the United Kingdom. Apart from collaboration, libraries offer the possibilities for co-operative and collective consumption supporting community solidarity while recognising the distinctiveness of place and the importance of people who live and work there.

Finally these new libraries do not have to be iconic projects garnering front page coverage in journals and magazines. They just need to be attuned to their neighbourhoods and localities. The Shard in Birmingham and Canada Water Library in Southwark (like Peckham Library before it) are local libraries whose success will depend on their ability draw energy from and in turn to energise their local communities. While all these libraries are new, with striking architecture that succeeds in making people talk, take interest and get involved, a library doesn’t have to be pink or blue or goldor an inverted pyramid, to be a centre of attraction. The excitement and the future of public libraries will emerge from within these real places and virtual spaces that both connect and are connecting.

John Blewitt works for Aston University in Birmingham and is a Library of Birmingham ‘face’.
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Guest post #14 – Listening to users, by Abby Barker

When the Voices for the Library were gathering data for our submission to the DCMS Select Committee inquiry into public library closures, we heard a lot about the aspects of library services people value in their local library, what services they use and rely on, and what they expect from their library service. As local library users are the people fighting for the future of their library services, we thought that they were best placed to influence our opinion of what the library of 2022 will look like.

Core services, based around the recurring theme of meeting local needs and being run by paid and professional library staff, should still be the lynchpin of the public library service in the future, and as such will shape the library service of 2022.

Using these ideas as a building block, the library of 2022 will continue to offer an excellent range of services and continue to use emerging technology to enhance and promote these services. Who could have imagined that libraries would use social media to such good effect even five years ago?

The local library in ten years time will offer tailored services listening to their users needs and making the most of their resources. A local library with a large toddler population will offer storytime. A library close to a secondary school will offer a homework club. Not every library will offer every service; they will be efficiently and professionally managed in order to make the best use of their resources.

As well as being offered where people need them, these services will be offered when people need them, with opening hours to reflect the needs of the community. Extended and weekend opening will continue to grow and so library use, in turn, will grow to an all time high.

Being in the heart of the community is what people love about the public library, although geography won’t place restraints on the services offered. The rise of e-resources will mean that more services are available online. Hopefully the library of 2022 won’t be subject to the current stringent restrictions for e-book lending, and a whole new way of settling down with a good novel will be available to the readers of 2022.

Of course to ensure that the library of the future can offer all of these user-centred services, it will have to have sufficient levels of professional and experienced  staff. The knowledge that these librarians can bring will allow libraries to move forward confidently into the future.

Reading this, you might say that much of what I imagine the library of 2022 will look like is already happening.  You’re right. We have a wonderful library service in this country, why change it beyond all recognition, just so that we can say we are progressing? Providing local councils listen to library users, fund the service properly and respect the librarian profession the library of 2022 will be a brilliant place. I can’t wait to visit!

Abby Barker is an academic librarian and libraries campaigner and one of the team behind Voices for the Library which aims to give people the facts about Public Library Services in the UK, and about the work librarians do, and campaigns to save Public Libraries.
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Guest post #13 – Policymakers on employment, education and children “Take note!”, by Miranda McKearney

It’s an anxious time for young people. UK youth unemployment stands at 21.9%, and reports  show  it’s getting harder to bust out of a disadvantaged start.  http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/nick-clegg-speech-social-mobility

People under 25 make up 43% of the world’s population – their choices will determine the future. Yet in England we are in danger of having a lost generation of young people – getting into debt, deterred by the cost of higher education, disenchanted with the democratic process, and isolated through rising transport costs (IMF figures predict a doubling of oil prices by 2022).

What does this mean for those shaping the future of libraries?

The danger of an age of austerity is that everything grinds to a halt. But we are seeing libraries’ growing recognition that involving young people in designing services stimulates innovation, while teaching them communication, literacy  and civic participation skills.

There is intriguing evidence that young people are rediscovering libraries. New Carnegie Trust research shows that 55% of England’s 15-24 year olds use libraries – the highest figure for any audience group. Councils should see libraries as key partners in reaching young people

Young people’s heavy use of libraries is being driven by a modernised offer and a growing social need. This modernised approach involves  work to involve young people in shaping the service. The 18 authorities piloting our MyVoice UK programme are finding that young people are eager to join steering groups and roll their sleeves up to help shape and deliver the future library service.  Services from Gateshead to Merton are reporting that the MyVoice  approach is helping them deliver strongly on the council’s priorities and is transforming the service. Gateshead are planning a MyVoice hub in every library.

Increasingly young people are volunteering through libraries too – 62% of UK local authorities now involve teenage volunteers in inspiring children to complete the Summer Reading Challenge- http://readingagency.org.uk/children/App%203%20-%20SRC%20Volunteering%202011.pdf

Not as replacement for professional staff, but as motivational mentors, who in turn gain skills and accreditation, increasing their chance of a place at college or a first job. They say volunteering reignites their interest in reading. “ When you are studying English it’s really easy to get stressed by not understanding a text, but when you talk to the kids and they tell you why they love a story, it makes you love reading again. I never expected children to teach me that” Katie O’Dowdall, 18, Essex

This isn’t just a soft, nice outcome – 2011 Oxford University research showed that for 16 year olds, reading for pleasure is the only out of school activity demonstrably linked to securing a better job.

We’ve been listening to young people’s voice in the debate. 15 year old Callum, working with Warrington Libraries  says http://audioboo.fm/boos/670975-callum-15-wants-his-voice-heard

On the anniversary of the riots we’ll be launching a youth innovation network, to help libraries put democracy into action by working with local young people to create the services they want.

By 2020 we hope libraries will be playing an active role in further and higher education, offering exciting digital support, and facilities to learn in  self organised groups. How fantastic if every library could have a MyVoice hub where the local youth council meets,  with a team of young people helping co-create the service, and design apprenticeships. These could help libraries become cultural hubs in areas with few cultural opportunities.

Policy makers take note: stop leaving libraries out of your thinking! If we want our young people to thrive, you must factor libraries into your planning.  And how about libraries being the focus for a massive Arts Council bid to the next Comprehensive Spending Review?

Miranda McKearney is Chief Executive of The Reading Agency an independent charity with a mission to inspire more people to read more.
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Guest post #12 – 2022: A tale of two libraries? by Hannah Bailey

Decisions being taken now will have a huge impact on the library service of 2022. Our tale of two libraries exposes the huge dangers that we want councils to be aware of when they make their challenging decisions on library funding in the coming months.

One council, let’s call it council A, took the time to understand its library service, and the huge role that is played in the local community. A cabinet member who used the service realised that over the years it had been neglected. The council surveyed local people, spent time understanding who used the libraries most, why certain groups wouldn’t, and what would get people coming through the doors. They boosted online access as demand for it increased through the recession. To plough money back into books and better services the council invested in green energy, installing solar panels on the roofs of several library buildings in the borough. The council also took the difficult decision to close one branch library. In an old building that was not fit for purpose, the aim was to rationalise provision and ensure the remaining libraries were sustainable into the future. Initially it wasn’t a popular decision, but the council were careful to ensure that staff, the UNISON branch and users were all involved in planning the closure. An equality impact assessment was completed which looked at the impact closure would have on the local community. Steps were taken to minimise this, through the transfer of services to the nearest library and advertisement of the changes to users and the community.

Not far away, council B struggled when libraries became a hot topic in the local elections. The leader of the council made promises he could not keep and pledged not to close any down.  After the elections, the council put the library service out to tender, certain that this would keep costs low and quality high. An intense bidding war ensued, with private companies each vying to show how they could deliver a cheaper service. The council went with the lowest bidder, a large private company. After signing the contract, the company ran a short online consultation, targeted at non-users of the service. As a result, cafes were installed in all libraries, reducing the amount of shelf-space but turning a profit for the company. Thinking the future must be digital, the company cut back on book stock. Looking at the budget, all this expenditure had to be balanced elsewhere. The solution was to cut back on staff and bring in volunteers.

Cast forward to 2022, what did each service look like? In the first authority, library usage went up due to the effects of the recession and the councils efforts to engage with the local community which brought about service improvements. As children’s centres closed, rhymetime sessions grew in popularity. Book groups for older people benefited from a programme of outreach with isolated individuals in the community, especially as many traditional lunch clubs had also been closed down. And partnership working with a number of high schools meant that young people’s library use went up, as the library became known as a safe space where school children could meet to do homework and social networking.

Council B’s fifteen year contract with a private company proved hugely problematic. Although no libraries had closed, councillors received numerous complaints from life-long users that the service no longer met their needs. Once charging was introduced, visitor numbers started a sharp decline. Remaining staff became disillusioned with the service, with many leaving, replaced by lower paid and untrained staff. Many were not replaced at all. The goodwill of volunteers was stretched to breaking point with many responsible for opening and closing the building, as well as being expected to cover staff-shortages in the café. Councillors felt powerless to intervene to ask for improvements, finding the contract had been hastily drawn up and was poorly monitored. The company continued to make a profit from the café however, with many visitors unaware that they were visiting the library at all.

Come 2022, think of your local community and what you want to see in it? The first scenario is far from impossible, it just takes time, commitment and the political will to listen to the many people from all walks of life that use libraries, and the dedicated staff who keep them running. Our public library service has opened so many doors in the last 100 years. UNISON is committed to keeping the service public for the next 100 and beyond.

Hannah Bailey is Assistant National Officer for the Local Government, Police and Justice Section at UNISON, the public service trade union
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