The end of public libraries?

Freepint reports one person’s poor experience of London PLs. They go on to ask why we can’t just dissolve the PLs and ‘get our taxes back,’ though no use for the freed up money is specified. Perhaps it could be part put with some PFI money to half-build a hospital or school which then turns out to be dreadful and a burden on taxpayers for years to come 😉

Seriously, why have a tax funded PL system? The respondent seems to suggest that private libraries will naturally and necessarily be better. Now I have never used a private library. I am sure they are great. But we should never assume that private = good. Look at the ‘private’ railways- still heavily subsidised with public money. And we have all had poor customer service experiences in private businesses. I once left a bookshop without what I wanted because the assistant misspelled the author’s name- this was pointed out to me after I had left the shop.

PLs should certainly offer good customer service, but we should not assume that the examples of poor service reported are typical- any more than my experience in the book shop is.

What is needed is a basic look at what PLs are for. They are not (pace the Freepint post) there to enable people to run a small business, although they can contribute to it. With respect to the issues of bookstock, change and what libraries are for (as discussed by Tim Coates with respect to Hampshire,) libraries still are about books and access to them. They need to change over time, this is true, to make the investment worth while- not simply to keep librarians in jobs as Mr Coates says, but to make sure that the service is seen as worthwhile. But any change needs to be rooted in what people want from the library service, not in what services councils think libraries should have stuffed into them.

Where are the public librarians in all this? Not the officers, not the councillors, but the staff? Where is their voice?


4 Responses to The end of public libraries?

  1. Miriam says:

    It depends what you mean.

    Obviously those of us who deal with the public every day have some idea of what people are asking for and pass the information/ requests to our superiors when we can’t make the changes ourselves.

    The post you refer to in Freepint is not even necessarally an example of poor customer service. The author seems to think that everyone who uses the library has the same wants and needs as s/he has which may not be the case (I am sure that many people are glad to use a public catalogue terminal, just because it doesn’t suit his/ her needs does not make it useless). Why should someone wanting to run their business from the public library be given preference to a teenager who wants to IM her frineds or a pensioner who wants to pay his bills online?

    Personally, as they were in London anyway, I would have advised him/ her to ue the City Business Library as it is designed to cater for businesses. Then again I also refer some of our users to local internet cafes when their needs can’t be met by out IT facilities. I don’t see this as poor customer service (we cater for as many people as we can but can’t always meet specalised needs) but I understand that some people think that not getting what they want here and now is an infringement of their civial liberty.

  2. Michael says:

    This reminds me of the anger some people express when they come in to consult Which? magazine, only to discover that Which? hasn’t tested the product(s) they’re looking for. I experienced this myself recently, albeit briefly, when I discovered that Which? doesn’t “do” sewing machines.

    The issue is the gap between expectation and reality. Someone – and this ought to be the purpose of MLA – needs to communicate the reality at a consistent, nationwide level.

  3. Miriam says:

    True, management of expectation is important and there are some expectations which can be held on a national level.

    There are probably at least as many people out there who dont realise what their local public library can do for them as those complaining about what it can’t do.

  4. Pete says:

    I think the expectations thing is key. And indeed making clear what you do and don’t do.

    I don’t think that a non-working PC is an indication of anything other than it was out of order at the time. Similarly the fact that Swedish people can run business out of their library using wireless is nice, but no guide as to what libraries here should do.

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