It was 1883 when the first library in the UK was opened as a result of a grant from Andrew Carnegie. Then in 1950, having invested heavily in public library services, and not just buildings, the Carnegie UK Trust moved on to other things. Now, as the Trust prepares to celebrate its centenary in 2013, it has re-engaged in the issue with which its name is so intimately associated. Our discussion paper ‘A New Chapter’ published last week, poses five key questions we believe must be answered as we consider the future role of public libraries.
We also identify two features of the current debate which cause particular difficulty; firstly, the gap between what people say and what they do, the ‘value-action’ gap, and, secondly, the legitimate divergence between policy and practice in different localities.
Our first question is how we can develop an agreed way of measuring the value to individual and community wellbeing which the public library service brings. Our research shows clearly that people value public libraries as a service to their communities more than they value them personally. This value is about more than providing access to books, although this remains the main reason for people using libraries. But libraries are not good at measuring the value they add to individual and community wellbeing, in relation to promoting health, strengthening communities, access to employment or addressing digital exclusion, for example. This makes it hard to make convincing arguments for the importance of public libraries to those who fund them.
The second question we ask in the discussion paper is whether the aims and role of the public library service need to be redefined for the 21st century. Technological developments and changes in lifestyles pose huge challenges for public libraries but also create opportunities. The way people read books is changing very rapidly, and many services both in the public and private sector are increasingly available on-line. Technology provides huge opportunities and is likely to alter the mix of local, regional, national or even internationally provided services. The other challenge is that of public sector reform, allied with cuts in public spending. This makes it particularly important to address the role of libraries in relation to other public services, and in relation to the wider goals of local and national policy objectives.
Our third main question is about how the service is delivered. Policy and practice in the five different areas of the UK and Ireland, and in different local communities within them, has evolved in different ways. There is an increasing wealth of experience – whether that is of community-run services, the use of arm’s length trusts, or the benefits of strong national policy. The Trust, with its role of promoting wellbeing in all parts of the UK and Ireland, is well placed to bring people together and may have some role in supporting the sharing of learning between different places.
Question four is about library buildings and their role as community assets. We argue library services and library buildings need to be considered separately. The current debate about public libraries has become entangled with debate about the heritage of public library buildings, and sometimes a nostalgic view of library services in the past. It is more important that communities get the right services in the right places in ways which work best for them, than preserving historic buildings which are no longer fit for purpose.
Our final question is about the benefits of strong leadership, direction and vision. While there is a tension between local service and national direction, we think there may be benefits from a greater degree of national leadership. These include developing the kind of measures of value mentioned earlier; promoting the role of libraries, for instance in relation to digital inclusion; promoting the development of shared services; promoting the most effective use of IT; and developing services which can be provided on a regional or national basis.
Liz Macdonald is Senior Policy Officer at the Carnegie UK Trust. Related research and papers on public libraries from the Carnegie UK Trust can be found on their website