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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 17. Building Better Library Services

John Pateman Building Better Library Services , Audit Commission, London, 52 pages, ISBN 1862403511, £18.00

"Provide more of the books and information services that people want."

"Improve access by opening at times that suit people."

"Ensure that services are easy and pleasant to use."

These are three of the recommendations made by the Audit Commission in its report Building Better Library Services (1). None of these recommendations appear to be either controversial or earth shattering. Why then did this report cause such a furore when it was published? I think the answer lies in two places; the image of the public library in the mass media; and the mindset of Chief Librarians.

The fact that public libraries are in decline is indisputable. Since 1992/93 visits have fallen by 17% and loans by almost one quarter. 23% fewer people are using libraries for borrowing than just three years ago. The knee jerk reaction to these figures from Chief Librarians is "what do you expect? Our funds have been cut and so we cannot continue to provide the same level of service." It is true that spending on books is down by one third since 1992/93 and 9% fewer libraries are open for 30 or more hours per week than in 1992/93. But within this story of declining resources there is another story - how are existing resources being used to meet community needs?

Only 30% of the population use libraries for borrowing books or other items. This is in comparison with the 73% of the Cuban population that uses their library system. Of the 30% of UK library users 2 out of 3 are middle class and predominantly white. Little or no effort has been made by public libraries to reach out to that 70% of their communities who do not use their services. This includes socially excluded groups and individuals such as Travellers, the Homeless, Refugees and Asylum Seekers and the Black Community.

Library managers do not understand the needs of these socially excluded communities because of their white middle class backgrounds. In London, for example, 25% of the population is Black but of the 33 Chief librarians, all of them are white. This problem has been identified by a number of earlier reports, for example Public Libraries Ethnic Diversity & Citizenship (2), Libraries for All (3) and Open to All? (4). All of these reports suggest that public libraries need to undergo a radical transformation if they are to meet the needs of their diverse communities.

Building Better Library Services echoes the recommendations of these earlier reports when it suggests, for example: "Building awareness among non users of the services that libraries offer", and "Building the understanding of what users and non users want and need."

The report presents some interesting user and non-user views of libraries. Users and non-users share many concerns although non-users want to see more radical changes in the way that libraries operate. Lapsed users also have some interesting points of view;

"They never have new books or up to date ones in the library, and the ones that are there, they are a bit kind of twee, and you think they have been chosen by the librarians."

"If I take my two year old in there she is not quiet and I think "get her out quick or I will have everybody moaning". So I would not take her in there because it is hard to keep her quiet."

"I do think that too many libraries and particularly ones that I have been in, the librarians have made it quite clear that they know everything and we know bugger all."

It needs to be recognised that there is a significant minority of non-users who feel they will never use libraries in the future. In a study in a County Council, for example, over one quarter of non-users said nothing would persuade them to use libraries.

However, there still remains a large number of non-users who could be attracted to using libraries - though this is likely to require some radical changes. People say they want libraries to be modern and welcoming. Raising awareness of what is available, having up to date stock, additional facilities, providing more information and extending opening hours may have some effect on increasing usage, and should increase satisfaction amongst users.

In addition staff attitudes and behaviour need to challenged as well as working practices to increase efficiency and improve services. Libraries must become less building based and more focused on meeting the needs of their communities through outreach work and targeted service delivery.

Libraries hold an important place in people's hearts but they are losing their place in people's lives. If current trends in usage continue, libraries will increasingly become a minority service - driven less by the desire to access books and information than by the needs of those who cannot afford to go elsewhere.

To address these problems, Councils need to challenge how and why the service is delivered, working with staff, members and the public to build an explicit vision for the future of the service. Our target must be 100% use by all sections of the community.

(1) Building Better Library Services, Audit Commission, 2002
(2) Public Libraries, Ethnic Diversity and Citizenship, Patrick Roach & Marlene Morrison, University of Warwick, 1998
(3) Libraries For All, DCMS, 1999
(4) Open to All?, Resource, 2000


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