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Sunday 30 October 2011

Public libraries in the UK #lianza11 #keynote1

Martin Molloy
Public Libraries: the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?
(Abstract is in Sunday's programme)

(Slideshow of photos/paintings of Derbyshire countryside as background, from

400 out of 4600 libraries in the UK are threatened with closure. Street demonstrations, regularly featuring in media and blogosphere. In the UK culture is valued in mechanistic terms - return on investment. Elderly population to grow over the next 20 years, among many other big changes in progress. Molloy thinks libraries are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

How did we get here?
There's no national library service in the UK. No ring-fenced funding from government - have to compete with other services for funding from local government, so have to operate within a political environment.

The best have positioned themselves in this sphere (as well as core functions) to deliver on wider agendas such as health, economic regeneration, community safety. Can't work in isolation - need to contribute to objectives of local authority.

But too great a focus on economic benefits from local government. Some have tried to measure value, but failed to capture intrinsic value - libraries' unique position.

Spending on libraries often at barely sustainable levels.

2009 announcement that 11 libraries to be closed. Due to controversy central government had to intervene and make them consult with relevant GLAM groups. Proposal finally withdrawn.

Free internet access across all UK libraries (People's Network) but local government increasingly introducing charges.

Where are we going?
Some authorities cutting fairly and protecting frontline services. Other places massive cuts and joblosses. Molloy's department needs to save 3.5 million pounds over the next few years. Molloy's priority is to preserve the network of libraries. Have a very small backroom team. Have provided free wifi access. Share transport services. Broadest range of online resources in the region.

Derbyshire has increased business by focusing on core principles. Funds spent on materials, not initiatives. Leader in reader development.

Thinks it's possible to meet challenging savings targets while still running services. Government would probably think they're not radical enough. He lists some government ideas eg sharing backroom services, using volunteers, and others he's even more sceptical about. Cambridgeshire had an idea to hand libraries over to a charitable trust - but finally realised it'd save no money. Now wanting to squeeze libraries into kiosks in business/doctor's spaces so they can sell existing buildings....

Outsourcing to the private sector? Might work in town but not rurally - private sector would want to cherrypick. Handing over to a community group? Doesn't recall local people being asked if they want to be responsible for running as well as using libraries...

Local campaigning has resulted in 3 local authorities being taken to judicial review. (However this can only judge on procedure, not on morality of final decision.) Something wrong when locals have to resort to the law to protect the services they value!

Who is driving?
Public Libraries Network needs shared values, support from government, and inspired leaders. The librarian was once a radical. Service managers need to understand corporate working.

How's the map of public library provision being redrawn?
Arts Council of England will get responsibility - but they're wrestling with gigantic budget cuts too. Starting off with a hand tied behind backs.

Have to work with government, parent organisations. Collaboration - joint procurement. National catalogue, national reading programme. New roadmap to include new ways of delivering services. Ebook loan service getting many new users. Usage of online sources almost doubling from year to year.

Increased personal support to young, elderly. More self-service can keep libraries open longer. Need to become corporate managers, not just service-based. Collaborate with broader groups.

Need to demonstrate that libraries are a life-changing service.

Are we seeing the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?
Many pressures - including demographic, technology. 5 years ago said libraries are as relevant as ever. Enviable usage figures and exception satisfaction levels. But confusion and lack of competence of politicians re purpose and value of libraries. Public library community also confused, lack of confidence, clarity, vision - librarians ill-equipped to defend services. "Toxic mix of short-term fixes and so-called radical solutions."

But if smart enough and flexible enough, libraries will survive. Need new approaches to engage with communities of users. Need to operate effectively within a political environment.

"What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone, but what is woven into the life of others." --Pericles