William Sieghart has said that the library service operates "dysfunctionally", and that he is "frightened and worried" for the future of the library network.
Speaking at a Westminster Media Forum event on publishing and libraries yesterday (4th November), ahead of the release of his review into the state of libraries in the UK, Sieghart said: "The way the service is set up, it is run totally dysfunctionally. The DCMS has responsibility, but no budget, the Arts Council has been given a role reluctantly, and the DCLG looks at the local authorities who actually make decisions." Sieghart added: "I'm frightened and worried for the library network. In the arctic blast of austerity, some authorities will struggle to know what to do with their library service. They will just hand over the keys and say goodbye, and that will be a disaster."
Sieghart was tasked with creating a report in February this year, following his review into e-book lending in public libraries. He said that he hopes the report will published "in the next few weeks", and said that two things had stood out while he was compiling it.
"The first thing I learned was that no one wants another bloody review – that came up over and over again," Sieghart said. "What people want is action. There is a sense that we are at a bit of a crossroads."
He continued: "The second major thing is that socio-economic groups A and B don't visit libraries. But because they run the country and the media and much else, that means they think that libraries are a thing of the past. They think that now we have Kindles we don't need them, but they're wrong. The most hard to reach people in Britain visit libraries… In the UK, 20% of people don't have a computer or internet access. As the government looks to deliver more services digitally, it's more crucial than ever that libraries can provide access."
He added: "All libraries need Wi-fi yesterday. Less than 50% of libraries have Wi-fi – that's terrible. Councils are shutting their libraries while people sit across the road in Costa Coffee using their Wi-fi instead."
Despite criticising elements of the service for being old fashioned, he said he was heartened by good examples of libraries around the country, and the quality of library staff who regularly went "above and beyond the call of duty". He outlined a recommendation to create a "Library First" scheme in the style of Teach First, which puts aspiring teachers straight into schools. He said that librarians need to be "social entrepreneurs", who "do less saying 'shush', and more saying 'come inside'."
Asked about e-book lending, he said that chairing the review had been "an exercise in conflict resolution" between publishers and libraries, but added: "One of my recommendations is to create a body that can implement these kind of recommendations, and one of those will be to end this hiatus on e-book lending, and come up a working model or models."
Another panel at the forum discussed the future of the service, with contributions from CILIP president Barbara Band, Library of Birmingham director Brian Gambles, consultant Ken Chad, Arts Council England libraries director Brian Ashley and Tom Godfray, chief executive of the Booksellers Association.
Godfray emphasised the long and positive relationship between libraries and bookshops, and warned that e-lending should not be allowed to disrupt that. He said his vision for the future of libraries would see a single government department, or a new body, looking after the service, and also said that it should be a statutory requirement that all schools have a library.
The final remarks of the day went to Lord Tope, the chair of the Libraries All Party-Parliamentary Group, who urged people to see the forthcoming report as "an opportunity".
"I have to say, from a political point of view, the answer lies with all of us. Don't let Government forget it. We have a general election coming up, and members of parliament are remarkably willing to listen when they come around. Use that opportunity."