Libraries' Ambition report offers £4m fund but 'ignores the real issues'

Libraries' Ambition report offers £4m fund but 'ignores the real issues'

The long-awaited Ambition report for Public Libraries has been published, urging local authorities to use libraries to deliver other public services such as health, with the help of a £4m dedicated fund.

Eight months after the draft Ambition document was released, the official document advising on a strategy to create a sustainable sector has been published by the department of culture, media and sport (DCMS), calling on local authorities to use libraries to provide public services such as employment, health and learning opportunities.

Such a use for libraries will help to keep the sector sustainable, the report says, following the closure of hundreds of services across the country since austerity measures came in in 2010 as pressurised local councils seek to make savings.

The document also called on local authorities to make the best use of library buildings, staff and services, urging them to “think innovatively” to help increase reading, literacy and digital access in communities.

The DCMS has provided a new £4 million‘Opportunities for Everyone Innovation Fund’ to be managed by Arts Council England, which will finance initiatives for disadvantaged communities such as literacy schemes, improving access to technology or increasing the number of children visiting libraries.

The Libraries Taskforce is also piloting new ways for libraries to generate income from government initiatives, such as delivering the National Citizen Service programme from libraries for young people from next year.

However, it offers no robust statistics on library closures and redundancies of librarians in the UK, which campaigners had called for. Libraries campaigners have also criticised it for "lacking ambition" and "avoiding" tackling more difficult structural issues the sector is facing.

Rob Wilson, minister for civil society and responsible for libraries, who was appointed in the summer to Theresa May’s new cabinet, though, said the document was intended to provide a “blueprint” for how libraries can be better used and to make them more “resilient” in the future.

“If we are going to build a country that works for everyone then we need to recognise that libraries are among our most valuable community assets and they remain hugely popular,” he said. “More people went to a library in England last year than visited the cinema, Premier League football games and the top 10 UK tourist attractions combined.

“But standing still is not an option if libraries are to thrive and work best for communities in the 21st century. Libraries can flourish and prosper but this will take change and new thinking about our service.”

Nick Poole, c.e.o of CILIP which represents librarians, said that the report goes “part way” to securing a “positive future” for the sector, but warned that as long as severe cuts continued then libraries would continue to close. He urged the government to come up with a “properly funded national strategy” for developing libraries and to take a more “robust approach” to the local authorities which close them.

“We face a stark choice,” he said. “We can either continue with severe cuts and closures or secure a positive future for people, communities and businesses that benefit from England’s network of public libraries.

“Ambition goes part way to securing a positive future. We now need a properly funded national strategy for developing and improving libraries and a more robust approach from government when local authorities fail to provide ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library services.”

Prominent library campaigner Desmond Clarke criticised the report for "lacking in ambition", "ignoring" the numbers on usage and council budgets and "avoiding" resolving the more difficult and technologcial structural issues the sector is facing in fabour of focusing on "less contentious issues".  However, he welcomed the £4m innovation fund.

"Sadly, this is not the robust plan we were led to expect," he said. "It lacks ambition, ignores the numbers, both about how budgets are being spent and about what is happening in terms of usage, and avoids resolving the more difficult technological and structural issues. It does however tackle less contentious issues such as the need to develop skills and share best practice, highlights the benefits of public libraries and provides a vision for a modern library service. I welcome the £4 million innovation fund for disadvantaged communities.

"Does the report provide an imaginative and effective plan to revitalise the public library service in England?  Alas, the reality is that all we can expect is that it will at least slow down the decline of the service in England."

Fellow library campaigner Tim Coates, meanwhile, took an even dimmer view of the report, calling it “vacuous”. Instead of spending money on "pious" sentiments to improve libraries, it should be spent on improving book stock and increasing opening hours, he argued.

"The way to improve the library service so it is used as it would be is to improve the book stock, increase opening hours and smarten up the buildings and their facilities,” he told The Bookseller. “Every other intitative and pious sentiment of the kind expressed in this report is a waste of breath, words and money.

“We have seen far too many vacuous reports over twenty years - hole use has been decimated - councils need to be told to spend the large amounts of money they allocate to public libraries on the resources that matter to people, not their own political and private indulgences.”

Shadow culture minister Kevin Brennan has also vowed to hold ministers to account on the widespread axing of services and called for exact figures on closures to be published. 

When asked if the government planned to conduct any proper investigation or research into the number of libraries which have closed in the UK since 2010 and the number of people who have lost jobs because of it, a DCMS spokesperson said: “We are collecting and collating evidence about many aspects of service provision, and plan to work with the sector to make sure it is made available in a form that meets their needs.”

Earlier this week, library campaigners spoke of their frustration about the delay in publishing the Ambition report, which Libraries Taskforce c.e.o Kathy Settle and previously said would be released in the summer.

Earlier today (1st December) The Times’ deputy political editor Sam Coates tweeted that government departments has been instructed by the prime minister’s office to “use today to put out any bad news” because press attention would be diverted towards net migration figures, also released today.