Libraries: no plans and no leadership

Desmond Clarke
Opinion - Libraries Wednesday, 17th August 2016

In an exclusive column for BookBrunch, written in the light of the DCMS report showing sharply falling levels of public engagement with libraries, prominent campaigner Desmond Clarke looks at what has gone wrong with the library service and what can be done to rescue it

We should all be concerned but perhaps not surprised that library usage by adults has declined by almost a third over the past decade. The alarm bells have been ringing for some time but those responsible for superintending and managing the service have long been in denial. The previous Minister, Ed Vaizey kept saying that the library service in England was not in crisis!

The independent Sieghart Inquiry stated two years ago that public libraries were at a crossroad and proposed a taskforce to re-invigorate the library network. A rather bureaucratic body was set up, reporting to both the DCMS and the Local Government Association. Eighteen months later, little of real substance has been achieved though we are promised an "Ambition for libraries" when this is given the green light by the new Minister.

What is missing is any sign of an effective plan to re-invigorate the library network and reverse the dramatic decline in usage. There is no shared vision for a modern library service that meets the needs of the millions of library users and potential users.

Meanwhile, more libraries are threatened with closure unless taken over by volunteers, opening hours are slashed, book stocks are decimated and the number of librarians is reduced by a quarter.

The Library service has been the subject of several inquiries, consultations, consultancy studies and reports over the past eight years and the key structural, technological and resource management issues are well known. However, what has long been missing is any sign of effective leadership, and a determination to build a successful service.

New delivery models, a national e-lending service, the rationalisation of the 151 separately managed library authorities, the proper application of new technologies and investment in stock and online services must be part of any plan, as must be the overriding focus on meeting the diverse needs of users and potential users.

Authors, publishers, booksellers and anyone recognising the need for a literate, educated and knowledgeable society must be concerned to build a successful public library service that supports every community. We need to support CILIP, the librarians professional body in their advocacy, and demand that the Library Taskforce creates an exciting plan that we can all support and help deliver.

And if there is any hint that the current Library Taskforce is not up to the job, then we need to insist that its people are quickly replaced by others who can deliver.

Pictured: Birmingham's new central libary