Public libraries; what would I do?

Now, many of these are approaches you’ll find advocated elsewhere- some on Tim Coates’ site for example. But I felt I should put my mouth where my…mouth is, so to speak.

General statement

Discussing public libraries in terms of ‘crisis’ and the like, whilst satisfying, is not helpful. Whilst recognising the problems in the service, the debate around it should focus on what can be done, rather than satisfying the need for drama. Eventually people won’t care about public libraries because they will ‘know’ that they are doomed.

What public libraries are for

Books and reading. Or rather books, reading and.

The primary focus of development and spending, right now, should be on refreshing bookstock and the fabric of libraries.

However, the library service needs to retain its provision of IT access; partly to assist in overcoming the digital divide, but also to extend access to reading related sites.

Where possible libraries should work with other agencies, but they should not lose sight of their basic role; to provide access to books and other artefacts of human imagination and research. Asking libraries to do too much will dilute the expertise and limit what can be done towards the core mission. I argued in an MSc paper that being a good library will make a library effective in contributing to its wider community; I stand by that.

Library governance

Nationally a public libraries trust, along the lines advocated by Coates, could usefully replace MLA and similar bodies. It would be made up of representatives of user groups and library staff. It would be entrusted with a general oversight of library development.

Locally trusts could be set up for library authorities, with greater say over priorities. These trusts would be made up of local councillors, users and staff. They would scrutinise decisions made by library staff.

At heart I believe that if councillors, users and staff were bought closer together, respect and trust would grow.


Centralisation of some functions could lead to significant savings. A centralised purchasing and cataloguing service is one example; a national inter library loan service another.

However, such efficiences must not take place at the expense of effectiveness. There should still be local purchasing power, for example, to allow libraries to reflect their users’ needs.

Library staff

I will not discuss librarian training here. Suffice it to say I think it could be reformed.

That notwithstanding, the public library service needs more qualified staff, not less. Whilst recognising the benefits of efficiency drives and redirecting money, ultimately a good service will depend on qualified staff; people who build a career in libraries and recognise the value of CPD by undertaking some form of formal study. This would not require people to have library qualifications to get a job, but would recognise the value of getting them. It is not enough to have good customer service experience or an MBA; vital though the former is.


1. Libraries are about books and reading; but this should not preclude provision of IT access. A great deal of reading support and community can now be found online.

2. Libraries need to be placed in local control as much as possible

3. Libraries should, where possible, make use of efficient centralised services

4. To be responsive, such efficiencies should not preclude local choice

5. Whilst monies from efficiency savings should be channeled to front-line services, this should not necessarily mean cutting professional posts, much less deprofessionalisation

6. Some things just have to be paid for, efficiency notwithstanding; as long as the money is well spent and transparency in finance matters is preserved.


2 Responses to Public libraries; what would I do?

  1. Michael says:

    I like your inclusion of effectiveness, which is as important as efficiency. We can’t conform to the “comprehensive and efficient” part of Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 solely by employing fewer people: providing a library service must go beyond those criteria.

    They are simultaneously helpful and useless: the lack of specifics gives us scope for creative interpretation, but at the same time, the lack of a defined standard leads to variation. The Public Library Service Standards tried to fill that gap, but they provide a pretty poor measure of the quality of a library service. Maybe the forthcoming performance management framework might help. But then again, it might not.

  2. Pete says:

    Sorry for the delay Michael, Akismet marked you- and me!- as spammers. Hmm.
    Anyways, yes. But I think a specific set of targets might be too restrictive.

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