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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. ISBN 84180 109 7, £3, 35 pages

John Pateman

Britains's public libraries are in serious trouble. Audit Commission figures published in May 2002 show that library visits have fallen by 17% and book loans by almost a quarter since 1992. With 149 library authorities in England and Wales, the service is fragmented and difficult to modernise.

Charles Leadbeater, who acted as an advisor to the government's libraries framework strategy published in February 2003, argues that a National Library Development Agency (NLDA) is required to oversee the development of a service that meets the needs of a knowledge economy.

A national agency would unite the statutory responsibilities for libraries distributed across central government departments, including the Department of Education and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Service renewal starts by providers being held to account against clear standards. Libraries are meant to meet national standards set by DCMS, but failure to uphold these standards results in drift.

Public libraries also face a shortage of management talent as a core of senior management recruited 20 or 30 years ago is on the verge of retiring. There is little training or professional development for staff.

A national libraries agency would not run the service from the centre, but coordinate the network of libraries whose strength comes from their roots in local communities. Library services should develop centrally accessible "hubs", which combine leisure and learning.

Initiatives which could be devised at a national level but implemented locally to help reconnect library services to their local communities might include:

  • making new mothers automatically library members and inviting them to reading groups at libraries, nurseries or Sure Start centres before their babies' first birthday;
  • creating after school homework clubs based in libraries, which could develop into weekend and summer work clubs. These would be run as joint ventures with education departments;
  • developing reading groups for teenagers, single people, retired people and household readers. Every "hub" library should support at least 20 reading groups.
  • Functions of a national libraries development agency would include:
  • setting national standards to judge public library performance;
  • overseeing workforce development, working with local authorities and regional groupings of library services;
  • investing in innovation through a "transformation fund" which would enable local authorities to produce development funds and, in some cases, providing bridging funds to help with implementation;
  • acting as a broker to buy access to online content and databases on behalf of all library services, and operating as a bulk purchaser with publishers.
Charles Leadbetter is a writer and consultant. He has advised government on innovation and the knowledge economy, and has published numerous pamphlets with Demos. This pamphlet is essential reading for all public library stakeholders. It is well produced, attractive and punchy to read. Its final sentence - "Libraries are sleepwalking to disaster: it's time they woke up" - should give us all food for thought.

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