Report on the Modernisation of Public Libraries

On the way to Liverpool via Hong Kong (like you do) so I’ve had a chance to catch up with a bit of reading.

Here’s my take on the DCMS report on the modernisation of public libraries. First of all why does this report have to be such a celebration of the negative? Clearly there are problems but a document like this is not exactly going to attract future library professionals. Secondly, why do we need another ‘consultation document’? Surely enough is already known to allow for the creation of draft policy. And get to the point too. Eighty pages with colour photographs are unnecessary. Fire the designers and put what needs to be said on a single sheet of paper.

Overall, this is an uninspiring report. If what you’re after is a clear view on where things are heading, read the recent report by the Scottish National Library instead.Nevertheless, there are a handful of good ideas buried in the report. Here are 10 that caught my eye and could form the basis of future public library strategy.

1. The mission of public libraries is to inform and empower. The modernisation of libraries should be focussed on the promotion of reading and the celebration of physical books and local history. This is not to say that digital content is not important, but if public libraries focus too much on the digital they will end up fighting a losing battle with the likes of Google, Apple and Starbucks. And don’t make the mistake of getting rid of the librarians either. In a world of infinite content we need trusted information sources and trusted information sifters more, not less.

2. Put new libraries in the places that people go to nowadays — supermarkets, hospitals, job centres, leisure centres, post offices, schools, train stations etc.There should also be much more co-ordination with other community services. Every government department should have a presence in every local library.

3. A universal library card is a very good idea. When you are born you should get a library card and you should have to opt out of the system if you don’t want it.

4. There needs to be a national library database but I am unconvinced by the idea of allowing people to take a book out of one library and return it to another. The idea would be complex and expensive and would undermine the idea of building local libraries and local communities.

5. Stop trying to please all of the people all of the time. Young children and seniors are the key target markets for local public libraries. Secondary audiences might be kids wanting to do their homework, people wanting to interact with government services and people running their own businesses. As for teens forget them. They have already been lost, although they might come back when they get older.

6. There needs to be a new library act and a national library strategy but strategy should be adjusted at the local level to take into account local circumstances. For example, a small rural library is likely to be different to a large metropolitan library.

7. There’s a problem with library staffing but this might turn out to be temporary.Firstly we might see a bookshop diaspora and secondly there is an untapped army of senior citizens just waiting to be asked if they’d like to help out at the local library.

8. Take on board a few ideas from book retailers. Ensure that the book stock is rotated frequently or is freshened up by specific promotions (cookbook month, crime month and so on). As for libraries selling books this is a good idea but it alone won’t save the local library. Adding cafes is also a good idea but this alone won’t solve anything.

9. Do not make libraries loud. A key strength of libraries is their quietness. Allow conversation in some areas but remember that some people are trying to escape the frenetic pace of the modern era. In a similar vein remember that the more the world accelerates and becomes digitalised the more some people will want somewhere to go where they can feel a sense of physical connection to others.

10. The idea that there should be more integration with local schools and the national curriculum is a no brainer. Just do it.

Best quote in the report? Public libraries are :“one of the few remaining community facilities. Where else is there free and safe community access”?

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