A 21st Century Library Service

by Julian & Kate

When the Public Libraries Bill was first introduced to the House of Commons in 1849, it was opposed by the Tory party with remarkable hostility.

Why, they argued, should the rate-paying upper classes pay for a service which would be mainly used by the working classes?

According to one Tory MP at the time –

“People have too much knowledge already: it was much easier to manage them twenty years ago; the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage.”

The Tories, it seems, even then knew the importance of a library service in encouraging social mobility and they fought tooth and nail to prevent its passing. Fortunately, they were destined to lose the battle when the Public Libraries Bill became law in 1850.

But with the libraries being in the forefront of recent cuts created by the present Tory led government, it seems the fight for the very existence of a public library service, a fight which was won way back in 1850, looks likely to be lost again nearly one and a half centuries later.

Progressives of all kinds should not and cannot allow this to happen.

Why are public libraries important?

Libraries are not just about books.

Libraries are about INFORMATION.

INFORMATION which is not available to a majority of the population, particularly the low-income masses who may not have the financial means or the know-how on how to access it.

Libraries are a means to cross the information divide, a divide which prevents social mobility.

Try this. Go down to your local library (if it hasn’t been closed yet) and ask the librarian on duty there where you can get information on the most obscure subject you can think of.

The breeding habits of Peruvian tree frogs for example.

It’s a good bet the librarian finds the information for you in minutes, or is able to point you to where you can find the information yourself.

Librarians are amazing people but obviously they can’t actually know everything (though it sometimes seems like they do). So how do they always know where to find information?

The answer is easy. It’s their job. It’s what they’re trained to do.

But if librarians can find information on the breeding habits of Peruvian tree frogs in a matter of minutes, imagine what they could do to help someone who needed help or advice on their children’s health? Or on affordable housing in their area? Or on how to find work?

It is exactly this aspect of a librarians’ work which has been neglected in recent times, namely the ability of a professional well-run public library service to provide advice, information and help to those people most in need of it.

But why is this remarkable and important service so taken for granted? Could it be because the work of a librarian is traditionally seen as a “female” role within the public sector? This may be evident if we compare the difference in wages between jobs regarded as traditionally “female” in the public sector to those considered traditionally “male”. A local government librarian, for example, who will certainly be a graduate aged 21 or above, and will most likely have achieved a postgraduate qualification in librarianship or information science, generally receives a starting salary of less than L20,000 a year (1). This is below the average for graduates. Compare that to the average starting salary for a police constable of above L23,000, which can be earned from age 18, and does not require any further or higher education (2) . One would expect some weighting for a potentially risky occupation, but is it not equally true that we should be rewarding others for having undergone 3 to 5 years of higher education?

In recent years, the librarian has been de-professionalised, with more work being done by paraprofessionals. As a result, there is often a lack of respect for the work done in libraries and by librarians. Librarians study for a minimum of 3 years at undergraduate level, and most will have post-graduate qualifications in information management to allow them to analyse and provide information to users. Often a librarian acts as an education professional in public, school and university libraries, but does not receive remuneration consistent with other educational roles. As an example of this, a post of school librarian inWorcesterwas recently advertised at L12.5k a year. In order to get the most appropriate people for the job, we need to recognise the high level of professional knowledge involved.

What will a 21st Century public library service look like?

The 21st century UK public library service will be the envy of the world.

Libraries will be the command and control centres in a network of interconnected hubs of community information, knowledge and advice.

Public libraries, or TRAIL (Training, Reading, Advice, Information and Learning) CENTRES as they could become known, will be community meeting places, resource centres and learning and training environments. They will provide local communities with low-cost meeting rooms, exhibition space, space for training, internet access, courses for parents, disabled people, people with learning difficulties, pensioners, the unemployed, students, teenagers, children – in short everyone.

The centre of the libraries themselves will be the reference desk and the librarians on duty at this desk will be the face-to-face Information Guides. The non-fiction sections of the library will be as far as possible digitalized and access to this information, and all other on-line information will be available free to all, with guidance provided by fully-qualified librarians. They will also provide guidance to those who are making use of the free and extensive internet access available to all library users.

It should be remembered that not everyone can have access to broadband, especially in rural areas where libraries are more likely to be shutting at the moment. This can make downloading information more expensive, which means there are economic limitations to accessing that information. Libraries need to offer internet and information access to economically vulnerable groups, to ensure they do not fall further into information poverty.

However, it’s also worth remembering that not everything is available on the internet and not everything digitalized is free. There are books, journals, documents, newspapers, magazines, academic research papers and reports which are digitalized, stored and indexed through limited-access databases.

Access to these materials often requires registration and access is restricted to expensive subscription accounts. These important materials are inaccessible to many people due to the high costs of registration. Libraries therefore, are often the only way for a lot of people to affordably access many resources.

Librarians should also be providing guidance to where advice and information can be found on things such as health, housing, benefits, childcare, law etc. Libraries should have access to specialist organizations and experts, through top-quality video and audio links and there should also be regular surgeries giving free face-to-face advice in rooms provided by the library – advice also available live online.

It’s important to ensure that we’re not just looking at solid buildings, but an open public use online space too, to assist those who cannot physically make it into the library or for those who prefer to access the information at their own convenience. This can be done by making all stock available online (through ebooks, etc), and by providing online enquiry desks through social media and live chat rooms and by providing additional support embedded media, elearning packages, etc. Public libraries are rarely at the forefront of electronic information, but they really need to be if they’ve going to offer the general public something they’re happy to use.

As we get increasingly swamped by information, the ability to navigate it needs to be taken out of academic environments and brought into public library spaces. This linking of public and academic libraries is something which needs to be explored more. As an example of this kind of process, it’s worth taking a look at ‘the Hive’ in Worcester, where they are in the process of building a joint county council and university library – http://www.wlhc.org.uk/

In spite of all these innovations, we should not allow books themselves to be forgotten. In fact, the digitalisation of the non-fiction sections will allow expanded and extended fiction sections – shelves of books, bulging with the best and the most popular fiction.

Why publicly run libraries, not private?

Information is the key to social mobility. By privatizing public libraries, we are putting this key in the hands of companies whose raison d’être is to seek to monetize the right to information.

Growth is imperative to a private company – the only way this can be achieved in the case of a public service like libraries would be to maximize revenue and minimize the service provided. Information is too important a resource to allow it to be reduced to a simple matter of profit.

Lack of freely available information and advice would deal a serious blow to our democracy. Free access to information allows people to make informed choices. A well-functioning democracy needs well-informed citizens.

So information must remain free and highly accessible. Information should not be allowed to become a mere commodity to be traded. Access to knowledge should be a right for every citizen regardless of their ability to pay.

How much will it cost?

The preferred way to get funding quickly into front-line services under the previous Labour government was through the Private Funding Initiative (PFI), and library services were no exception to this.

But PFI is a form of borrowing, not of funding. The public sector funds the full cost of the private sector providing the infrastructure and services in annual payments. It is in fact more expensive in the long term, just as any form of loan is.

According to Unison (3), the public service Union, PFI projects have also been involved in spectacular cost over-runs (Allen, 2001: 27)

Several projects ‘have had to be bailed out, some have been scrapped and others have been the subject of widespread criticism’ (Edwards et al, 2004:7; Audit Commission, 2003).

In 2007, the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (2007) stated that since 2004 the proportion of PFI deals attracting only two bidders more than doubled. Furthermore, instead of driving down prices, in practice, prices have increased by up to 14 per cent during the contract period. Where services have come up for renewal, the price has gone up rather than down in more than half of the cases (ibid).

The Total Library Spend for the UK is approximately just over 1 billion pounds a year.

If this amount were to be increased by 30%, it would provide the investment to enable the kind of effective public library service described above which would be the envy of the world.

For comparison, the Royal United Services Institute has estimated the cost to the UK taxpayer of the action in Libya will be about 2 to 3 million pounds a day (4).

The costs of this particular action, after just 3 months, could cover the costs of such a budget rise.

Recently, the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, told the House of Commons that the costs of the action in Libya would be not be met from the current defence budget but would be met from what he called ‘contingency reserves’.

Perhaps ‘contingency reserves’ could be utilised for more important things, like front-line local authority services such as libraries instead?


(1) CILIP http://www.cilip.org.uk/jobs-careers/careers-gateway/salaries/pages/plsg.aspx

(2) POLICE INFORMATION http://www.police-information.co.uk/policepay.htm#constables

(3) UNISON – Taking stock: the future of our public library service http://www.unison.org.uk/acrobat/17301.pdf

(4) ROYAL UNITED SERVICES INSTITUTE http://www.rusi.org/publications/

4 thoughts on “A 21st Century Library Service

  1. Pingback: Beyond Books: The Future of Libraries | Think Left

  2. Pingback: Contribution on the future of libraries | Alan Gibbons’ Blog

  3. Pingback: Quote of the nineteenth century | Alan Gibbons’ Blog

  4. Pingback: LIBRARIES – At The Heart Of Power | Think Left

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