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What Do Libraries Deliver?

Earlier this year the Government’s Libraries Taskforce published a consultation document entitled 'Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021'. The Taskforce was established ‘to enable the delivery of the recommendations from the Independent Library Report for England and to build upon, and add value to existing good practice, partnerships and other activities that are already supporting public libraries.’

The Independent Library Report, otherwise known as the Sieghart Report, was produced by a panel led by William Sieghart, and was published at the end of 2014.  It made a series of high-level recommendations designed to re-invigorate the UK’s library network, whilst leaving the details to be worked out by the proposed Taskforce.

Earlier this year the Government’s Libraries Taskforce published a consultation document entitled Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021. The Taskforce was established ‘to enable the delivery of the recommendations from the Independent Library Report for England and to build upon, and add value to existing good practice, partnerships and other activities that are already supporting public libraries.’The Independent Library Report, otherwise known as the Sieghart Report, was produced by a panel led by William Sieghart, and was published at the end of 2014.  It made a series of high-level recommendations designed to re-invigorate the UK’s library network, whilst leaving the details to be worked out by the proposed Taskforce.

Libraries Deliver is a helpful document.  The James Reckitt Library Trust acknowledged this in its detailed response to the consultation.  As the Sieghart Report noted, ‘not enough decision makers at national or local level appear sufficiently aware of the remarkable and vital value that a good library service can offer modern communities of every size and character.’  Libraries Deliver offers a very useful summary of what good public libraries are already doing, albeit to the exclusion of some of the more innovative work being undertaken by the best library services.  If that helps decision-makers to make better-informed judgements about the future of public libraries, then that in itself is a step forward.  There is no doubt that the poverty of the popular discourse about public libraries in this country needs to be corrected. 

But is that enough?  Are local authorities faced with massive funding challenges going to take much notice of a worthy but frankly rather dull list of the good works of which libraries are capable?  Libraries, the Sieghart Report proclaimed, are ‘a golden thread throughout our lives.’  Does that golden thread shine through Libraries Deliver? 

Probably not.  It is hard to imagine a less distinctive vision statement than that offered by Libraries Deliver: ‘Our vision is of a vibrant public library network for the 21st century that supports a strong, sustainable and democratic society and delivers a wide range of benefits to people, communities and the nation.’  This is neither visionary nor aspirational.  More particularly, it does not attempt to capture what is distinctive about the contribution that libraries can make to these ends.  At heart the Taskforce does not say what, essentially, libraries are for.  This undermines another stated role of the Taskforce, which is ‘to create a strong and coherent narrative around the contribution public libraries make to society and to local communities.’

We should not be overly critical of the Taskforce for this omission.  It is not necessarily easy to say what libraries are for.  That is perhaps why so much of the progressive defence of public libraries is constructed around the purposes of other sectors of public life - social services, health care, formal education, business support, and so forth.   All too often that particular narrative leads to public libraries being reduced to bit-part players in support of other people’s agenda.

The future success of public libraries will depend in large part on our ability to articulate a compelling, progressive and aspirational statement of the distinctive purposes of a professional, modern public library service in a digital world.  I would suggest that the starting point for this, adapted from the work of David Lankes, is the belief that the fundamental mission of libraries and librarians is to facilitate the creation and curation of knowledge in the interests of society as a whole.  This has always been their essential, distinctive purpose.  For many years printed books were the principal raw material through which this mission was fulfilled.  The fact that this, to a significant extent, is no longer the case does not alter the fundamental purpose of libraries.  The challenge, taking this basic definition of purpose as the starting point, is to elaborate the means by which it can be fulfilled in the 21st century.  Taking knowledge creation, in the broadest sense, as the starting point allows us to focus on activities that are consistent with that, and to avoid chasing every initiative that might be seen to prop up libraries or gain them passing political support.         

We also need passion and inspirational language.  That will not come, nor arguably should it come, from central government agencies.  It is not in their nature.  There is everything to be said for creating a formal national framework of expectations and benchmarks, and it is right for central agencies to help create a more informed climate of opinion.  The Taskforce will add value by creating such a framework, and by helping to counteract popular misconceptions about what libraries do.  However, as the Sieghart Report rightly stressed, a library’s great strength is its localism, its ability to be responsive to local needs. 

Whilst libraries nationally and internationally will always have much in common, based on that understanding of their shared role in the creation and curation of knowledge, the more specific articulation of the ways in which libraries can fulfil their fundamental purpose should have a local dimension that reflects the needs and characteristics of local communities.  For example, how we in Hull, with our own distinctive priorities, express the mission of our library service, will not be the same as in other cities with other priorities.  And it is primarily through this localised expression of purpose that passion and inspirational language can emerge.  It is only at that local level that real connections with the hopes, needs and aspirations of people can be forged.  A government agency cannot realistically hope to achieve that.

The Soul of the City, the manifesto of the James Reckitt Library Trust, is our initial attempt to articulate a mission for libraries consistent with both their fundamental purpose and the needs and aspirations of the city of Kingston upon Hull.  We hope we have placed that endeavour in a modern context, not one that harks back to an imagined golden past.  But we are clear that there is still much to be done to refine that vision and to give it more substance.  Libraries Deliver is by no means unhelpful in that respect, but it is not the whole answer, and it might not be the right place to start.     

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