The Arts Council Envisioning the library of the future began in January 2012 and was in 3 phases, with researchers talking to over 800 people, an online survey with over 1,400 responses and 10,000 viewed the online conversation. The Arts Council England (ACE) has now published their response to their work. Plenty of people have already commented and it's worth reading what they say. I thought I might make a comment or two as well, on the understanding that this is my personal opinion, and not that of any other body. The CILIP response is already available, which I entirely agree with, but I wanted to expand on my own thoughts.
I read through the report and I didn't really find anything to disagree with. And really that's my main disagreement. If you are going to produce a paper looking at what is going to happen to libraries in the future it should be bold, exciting, controversial and - well - visionary. It should also address the hard questions of what life is like now, and how we can move forward, based on what we've got now. This report really doesn't do that. Any of that.
Let's look at the priority areas.
1 place the library as the hub of the community
2 make the most of digital technology and creative media
3 ensure that libraries are resilient and sustainable
4 deliver the right skills for those who work in libraries
One of the things that I find very useful to do (especially around the time of elections) is to look at a statement, consider the exact opposite, and see if it is also sensible, and worthy of discussion. For example; We should send troops into Syria. We should let Syria stand or fall by itself. Both interesting viewpoints indicating possible tension and areas for analysis and argument. Let's try it with these priority areas.
The library shouldn't be at the centre of the community, we shouldn't make the most of what we've got, we don't need to worry about libraries being resilient, and we don't need to offer staff training. All of these opposing viewpoints are so patently absurd that they're not worth looking at. Which to my mind makes the intial priority areas weak to start with. Let's try again.
Libraries need to help protect and develop their community. We've already rehearsed time and time again the fact that libraries need to be more than 'just books' (which is a stupid comment in the first place). However, as long as libraries are associated with the artifact, rather than the activity, it's a stone around our necks. Libraries are not about books, they're about reading, communicating, exploring, assisting.... you know the rest. In order for that to happen however, we really need to change the way that we look at what we do. We need to step away from the collections and refocus. The collection is in most cases a pile of books (and DVDs etc.) That's great if it's a historic or national collection, but that's not most libraries. The pile of books is there for a purpose, and that purpose is what's interesting. It may simply be to act as an entertainment centre. It may be to help people with a hobby, or to provide them with information to get a new job etc. That's what we need to focus on. If we have a collection at all that requires our attention and focus, it's the community. The community is the collection.
Now, if we start looking at things in that light, we're playing an entirely different game. The way in which we value the library changes. Suddenly, the number of books that are borrowed, or the number of people through the door isn't the defining criteria for success. We can start to focus on the activity - how many people were able to fill out their government forms? How much did the library help support school children? How many people have learned a new skill? How many local businesses have been able to develop based in part on information the librarians got for them? How was the local women's refuge assisted by providing an information professional with details on the things the women were entitled to?
I'll be the very first to agree that these things are very far from quantifiable, but so is the ROI on social media, but people still do that. I get that politicians want figures to work with. However, maybe it's time to start looking at all the other stuff. With a community centred approach, how are the local businesses going to feel when they're told the library is closing, and they're going to lose a valuable research tool? We're creating partnerships, but also building up the community. It's fantastic that there are petitions to save the local library, but once you get to the petition stage the battle is half lost, because councils have made it clear time and time again that they're not interested. Tory councils are happy to cut because they're good little Tories, and Labour will cut because it shows how bad the Tories are. We need to get (and I hate to use the phrase) the vested interests howling at the start. The only way that we can do that is if they're already gaining value from the library. That means the person in the street who uses the library, the local business etc, and it also means the people who don't use the library. The ones who currently shrug their shoulders and I say 'I don't use it, therefore it can go.' Or the woman who spoke at a conference I attended this week who said 'I haven't used a library in years, but they really need to get their act together and move into the 21st century'.
The next focal point: "make the most of digital technology and creative media". No. Absolutely not. 'Make the most of' is an extremely weak phrase which accepts the status quo, says that libraries should make do with what they've got and be thankful for it. Libraries need to be the technological innovators, right at the centre of the community, to help their members explore new possibilities. How often do people go into their library waving a Kindle and saying 'how do I get library books on this thing?' A little warning beforehand, some discussion and display of technology would go a long way to ameliorating that sad scenario. Let's see the local Apple store come into the library to display their wares. Or the local mobile phone shop. Or the WH Smiths rep with some sample eReaders. The library can still be independent of them all, and provide a safe space for people to explore. A library isn't a hub because it's got some red bin bags available, it's a hub because it's got a gadget bar. And before I get the complaints that 'that's not the librarian's job' well it damn well needs to be. Because it's about nuturing and developing the community (aka collection). Because it's about teaching, and training, and letting people understand things, and no, they didn't use a book to understand it, information professionals helped them understand it. Because that's what we do. I've seen lots of people complaining about 3D printers and they're saying that's not what a library is for. If your view of the library is artifact based, I can see why there is confusion over that. However, if the idea of the library is activity based, to assist the community there may be times when people in the community could benefit from such a device. The librarians working together with library members can decide if it's worth spending money on a 3D printer instead of something else.
Next on the chopping board "ensure that libraries are resilient and sustainable". Well yes. Quite. Obviously. Let's move on - how about 'librarians need to be empowered and encouraged to explore, experiment and work outside of the confines of their pre-existing roles to explore new options to develop the library'. What I would have liked to have seen from this report is something to make the information professionals cheer and make the Powers That Be rather more worried. I'd like to move to a situation where it's the librarians who tell technical support what they should be doing, not the other way around. I'd like them to be able to tell the Council Press department that news can be sent out much quicker and more effectively than press releases, using things like Twitter and Facebook, and can we show you how? I want the information professionals to be able to say in all innocence 'Well, the Arts Council Report says that if we're not trying new things we're in a rut and stagnating'. Now, this will scare a lot of people, and it should. It'll scare the tech support teams, the PR people, it'll scare some librarians who still wonder what the fuss about social media is, and it'll scare some people who think that a library is just a glorified entertainment centre for handing out books. You know what - good. Because people SHOULD be scared. Let them deal with it themselves, I'm not really interested, because I'm looking at the librarians and the community. The best people to work out what a community needs or wants are the librarians and library members - and also the non-members of the library, because they're part of the community as well. If they all agree that the library needs to be the book centre, then that's fine, and more power to them. However, they're not going to know that until they can see what else is on offer. That requires something of a leap of faith. It requires information professionals to be doing their job properly by looking at what's out there. That means seeing what new books are available, which online resources they can subscribe to, but it also means exploring new options, considering different ways of working with different groups. Trying to see if social media tools can push the message of the library further outside the doors of the building. If we stay as we are - if our main concern is to ensure the survival of the library we're not going to be able to do that by retreating back to what the library was. What 'the library was' is why people say 'it's just books, get rid of it, we've got Amazon'. Existing models of library usage appeal to the people who use it, not the ones who don't. We need to walk the tightrope of continuing to do what the library members want, while at the same time exploring how we can appeal to the people who are not members. That requires a level of confidence and leadership. It means understanding that mistakes will occur and that's ok, because if we don't make mistakes we're not learning, and if we're not learning we're not doing anything. That confidence and leadership can't come from individual information professionals, it must come from much higher up. And that's another place where I think this report has failed. As John Dolan (CILIP Leader of Council) said in the CILIP response "... with the difficult economic realities faced by local authorities and without stronger political leadership supporting a clear national vision it’s going to be a struggle to deliver consistently high-quality and relevant library services" Who exactly is responsible for this political leadership? Culture minister Ed Vaizey is quoted as saying in part, said: ‘Public libraries matter – they play an important role for communities and help celebrate and promote Britain’s greatest contribution to world civilisation – our language and literature. But libraries need constantly to adapt to keep up with changes in communities." Libraries DO need to adapt, change and improve, but they cannot do that in a vacuum. They cannot do it without support. They cannot do it by limping along making the best of what they've got. They cannot do it while continually fighting a rearguard battle against closure. They cannot do it when they rely on library members to stand up for them, when it should be the politicians who should be doing that. There needs to be continual pressure exerted by bodies such as the Arts Council to remind politicians of their duties.
Still with me? Bravo - almost done! :)
Lastly, we've got 'deliver the right skills for those who work in libraries'. Again, this is obvious. You can't have an efficient workforce that doesn't know what it should be doing, or how it should be doing it. Having fired off broadsides against just about everyone, let me now turn to us. You and me. I see lots of librarians and other information professionals who are keen to learn, explore and try out new things - they come on the courses that I run for one thing, or go to the meetings and conferences. I like to think that our general mindset should be one of curiosity, of openness, with a willingness to explore.
Equally however I see and hear people who have said, and these are direct quotes 'I'm too old to learn new things about search engines' (said by a 30 year old librarian), 'Children shouldn't be allowed to use computers until they're 11' (said by a school librarian), 'I don't see the point of social media, it's all Twitter and Facebook and rubbish isn't it' (another fairly young librarian), 'I'll never have a Facebook or Twitter account' (said rather proudly by another). Thankfully, if you're reading this, you don't fall into this category, since you found this by reading blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc. We need to get across the idea that in order to do our job properly we need to explore and try out things. No, we don't know what's going to work and what isn't - that's the fun of it! But, and this is a big BUT we have to be able to do it. That means that we have to have some understanding and knowledge of what's out there, and then have the confidence to ask - or dare I say assume - that it's our job to try it out. Again, if we're looking at the library collection as our reason for being we have to service it. However, if our community is our 'collection' then the best way that we can service that - to help our members - is to explore, try things, and make mistakes then learn from them. I'm currently working with a library authority that is planning how to utilise social media for local history, and they want to try a lot of things, knowing that not all of them will work, but they're prepared to see what does do the job - and they're willing to invest the time to see it through. But we can't do that by ourselves.
Yes, there needs to be a mindshift by some colleagues, but we need to have the leadership and the political will to say to those Powers That Be 'Professional staff need professional training and they need to have the opportunity to put what they learn into practice, even if - and especially if - it changes their working patterns'. Training should give people the chance to work differently - if you come back off a training course and carry on doing what you were before you went on it, the course has failed in its primary duty. (In an attempt at transparency I am a trainer and I train information professionals. I can come and work with you and your colleages. Contact me.) Training shouldn't be used simply as a reward, time filler or to use up spare budgets (if there are still any out there, obviously!), but to supplement and promote the other activities of the library as undertaken by the professionals. I'd like to see a statement more along the lines of 'Librarians need to be encouraged to learn new skills, explore and experiment and they should have opportunities to do this'. Now, I'm not living so far in la-la land as to assume we'll get the 20% free time situation that Google has, but wouldn't it be nice if we could be expected to learn one new thing, or play with a new tool at least once a week?
In order to get to the future we have to start from where we are - that's fairly obvious. But that doesn't need to include instant, monumental change. It starts from having a different mindset. Social media (for example) isn't about the tools of Facebook, Twitter and the rest, it's about having a different view of information, communication, collaboration and community. What I see in this report is an understanding that things need to change, a recognition of the importance of libraries and library professionals, and that's fine but obvious. I want to see an understanding that to get to the future we have to have a strong political input which encourages change, encourages individual information professionals to work differently and and understanding that libraries are not about artifacts, they're about activities. Hopefully, with the organisations that are going to be collaborating with ACE, we will see that, and if we do, then the report and the ACE response to it will have been a positive step forward on the journey, rather than simply marking time in an ever deepening rut.