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Response to Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021

The Libraries Taskforce recently published their draft vision Libraries Deliver: an Ambition for Libraries in England 2016-2021. The document reflects on the evolving role of libraries in light of changing public expectations. It presents a vision for the future and discusses how it should be achieved.

As the membership organisation for cultural leaders whose strategic responsibility is the development of place-based approaches to cultural development, CLOA is uniquely placed to contribute to the debate on the scope and the content of “Ambition for Public Libraries”.  Members have first-hand experience of managing the impact of political, structural, economic and financial changes affecting the cultural sector and councils, in diverse localities and across all regions. CLOA members in most Local Authorities manage the Chief Librarian or Library Lead Officer.

Despite the willingness of members to lead and embrace the opportunities opened up by changing circumstances, there is genuine concern about the long-term impacts: on cultural capital; the health and wellbeing, resilience, quality of life and life-chances of local communities; and prospects for economic growth in some areas, particularly those facing considerable disadvantage.  There is a concern that there are increasing divisions between places where culture is recognised and embedded as a driver for change, and those where the case is less well developed.  This has a direct effect on the delivery of Libraries across Library Authorities and we would advocate that no universal solution fits all, but that each should focus on local need.

Our response the Ambition for Libraries Consultation is structured to reflect the themes of the consultation.

Context and Vision

The consultation document outlines the background context for public libraries along with the major challenges and sets out key assumptions about the future, including significant financial pressures. It is positive to see a good understanding of the current and potential role of public libraries, as well as recognition of the breadth of services and their potential contribution to local needs and priorities.

There is huge inconsistency in library provision across the Country. This is partly by design; large rural county authorities have different needs to their inner-city counterparts, and should be reflected in any vision for libraries. Library services should be accountable to local people through the local democratic structure, whether directly delivered by the authority or an alternative service delivery model.  Library services must be more responsive to local need and their potential role understood within the local authority environment.

It is vital that “Ambition” is used to raise the profile of library services and in a succinct and effective manner with local authority leaders and chief executives, and clearly articulate the contribution that libraries can make to supporting local improvements and priorities. The published Ambition document must be hard-hitting and clear. The opportunity for engagement with decision makers should not be missed and for this to be seen as yet another review of library provision. It should also provide a solid base upon which local authorities can build their future services.

There is going to be significant interest in the final Ambition document from a diverse range of stakeholders. Any final document must not lose sight that it should be engaging and influencing local authority decision makers to deliver sustainable improvement across public libraries, and not be diverted or diluted in this aim. It should not be seen as yet another review or library report without impact or ability to shape the future of libraries and for this reason we do not agree with a further library review.

In this context, it may be important to have a shared vision that all authorities can ‘buy in’ to, but also allow for the local services to have their own vision reflecting local priorities and consequently the local offer. 

What Libraries Can Achieve

The Ambition document reflects well the breadth of the contribution libraries can make to the local agenda. The narrative is strong and the Ambition statements are realistic and achievable; the Ambitions are closely aligned to the Society of Chief Librarian’s Universal Offers. There needs to be the flexibility for each library service to be able to prioritise and deliver their solutions based on local need, whether on an authority wide basis, or tailored to an individual library.

It is important that libraries are able to make the case for their offer and contribution to local priorities and that this contribution is understood by decision makers. This can often be difficult to demonstrate across the cultural sector; however the sector should not be penalised for this, particularly where there are other factors contributing to positive outcomes, such as improved health, literacy or economic regeneration. This may result in uneven delivery performance across the seven Ambitions and the proposed indicators may need to be reconsidered in this context. Equally the sector must get better at demonstrating outcomes and impact for local people and value for money.

There needs to be better, timely collection of data and this data used as an evidence base for decision makers so that they are able to make informed decisions about the future of libraries and investment strategies. However, any future data collection and any performance regime should not be resource intensive, nor add to the burden of performance monitoring and reporting for the local authority or library operator.

The value and contribution of a broader arts and culture offer is highlighted.  However, there is little recognition of heritage and local history that many library services either deliver or have close working relationships with. Therefore this in an area the Taskforce should explore further.

Governance and Delivery

Design principles can be useful to support local authorities to review their library services. They should not be used to “to inform the superintendence of public libraries as a network”. Any such principles should not be restrictive, nor stifle creative innovative thinking about how library services are delivered in the future. 

We agree that the public library service should remain a statutory service. There have been a number of calls for greater clarity on the definition of a “comprehensive and efficient” library service in the context of the 1964 Public Libraries Act. CLOA opposes any such tightening of the definition to a point where it does restrict positive change and innovation, but there could be greater clarity on how a local authority assesses need in relation to libraries to subsequently shape the delivery of services. There should be clarity around the status of Ambition, given that the consultation notes it is not to be a statement of Government policy.

CLOA recognises and supports the need to develop the skills of the library workforce and agrees with the balance of skills outlined. In order to deliver libraries, there needs to be professional training appropriate to roles throughout the service. There should be clarity of the ‘professional’ role within the context of public libraries as this is often confused and relates to librarian qualifications. The skills of professionally qualified librarians are appropriate to certain roles, however the library sector is often lacking the additional leadership, business acumen and commercial skills required to deliver modern public libraries, balanced with the understanding of community need and aspiration. There should be opportunities for career progression, the development of transferable skills, movement between sectors the sharing of best practice. The library sector has traditionally been too inward facing in this respect. Libraries also need to look broader than library qualifications, with recognition that there are skills, knowledge and expertise from other sectors which are relevant and transferable. CILIP has a role in library workforce development, but also needs to reflect the broader skills required by the current and future workforce.

CLOA agrees that training and development needs to also consider volunteers and appropriately address learning and development needs for the various different volunteer models across public libraries, as well as senior officers and members within the authority.

New Ways of Working

Local Authorities are able to demonstrate a strong track record and innovation around alternative service delivery models; there are already a number of different models for operating library services across the country and these reflect local circumstances. There are  examples of co-location, shared services and service integration, through to delivery by mutuals, charitable trusts and social enterprises; some operating solely library services, others with a much broader portfolio of library and other cultural related services. There should be stronger support across local authorities to examine these alternative models and understand the benefits they may bring. This may require additional skills, expertise and funding, and could further build on the LGA’s work in this area. There isn’t a one size fits all approach and Ambition needs to acknowledge and support this.

CLOA agrees that the development of an “expectation set” should help library services to benchmark and demonstrate excellence. However, there is wide variation between library authorities and any model must be able to take local circumstances into account; it should not be overly prescriptive, nor promote a race to the bottom, suppress innovation and creativity in the sector.

Voluntary accreditation may be a useful model to set a standard for a library or library services, but once again this must be looked at in relation to local priorities. Other schemes such as Green Flag Awards for parks and green spaces, or QUEST Quality Accreditation for leisure facilities, exist within the wider leisure and culture sector, with accreditation for libraries conspicuously absent.  

CLOA recognises and agrees that the development of the library digital and technological offer is key. The approach to digital services is currently disparate across library services and a more cost effective and joined-up approach welcomed. Funding, knowledge and expertise in this area are all key issues which may lead to some library services unable to deliver and any model must be sustainable. This is a notable example of where the proposed procurement and commissioning model could be particularly beneficial. We welcome further information on the Single Library Digital Presence.

CLOA agrees that there are many excellent examples of co-location and integrated services, but this should not at the detriment of the library service’s ability to deliver effectively. The library can benefit from such change to increase footfall, broaden audience reach and challenge perceptions of libraries, as well as investment in services and physical improvements.

Marketing and Communications

There are still many misconceptions about public libraries, the services they offer, innovation and modernisation that is evident in so many library authorities. At times, there are also many traditional views which may stifle changes to services. Libraries need to market themselves effectively in order to compete with other leisure providers (leisure time).

There has been too much negative press around library consultation and changes rather than focussing on the positives. There needs to be more positive narrative about libraries generally.

Whilst national campaigns have their place, there should be no compulsion to participate in these and for local priorities to be considered once again, nor for non-participation to be seen as a negative. For example, the Universal Offers calendar could become unwieldy when overlaid with local evens and celebratory programmes. There is a danger that a library service could feel forced to participate in a programme which may not be so relevant to their community.

Any marketing and communication strategy must also raise awareness of libraries and secure buy-in to Ambition by both national and local decision makers.

Action Plan

CLOA supports the development of a proportionate action plan in order to take forward the Ambition programme. It is important that there is clarity around how the Taskforce will work with local authorities and their delivery partners to implement the Ambition agenda, along with a clearly defined process and outcomes expected, including a number of key indicators to monitor progress.

It is important that there is now action taken to support improvement and the delivery of Ambition across public libraries. There have been a number of reviews undertaken in recent years which have failed to deliver, or have failed to gather momentum; it is time for action. There is a build-up of support and anticipation for Ambition and it is vital that the Taskforce now exploits this to publish a final Ambition document and engage library authorities and partners to deliver.

Iain Varah, Chief Executive at Vision RCL and CLOA Past Chair & Gareth Morley, Head of Culture and Libraries at Vision RCL