It’s an exciting time to be president of CILIP, the Library and Information Association, as the organisation implements changes in response to the challenges ahead. To my mind, challenges are often opportunities in disguise. So in this piece I’m going to focus on some of the key challenges for public libraries - through the lens of opportunity.
We’ve heard a lot of doom and gloom about closures and reductions over recent years and a lot of good news has been lost along the way. We can’t ignore the problems but we also need to highlight opportunities for the sector - and deliver a more positive narrative. As Carnegie UK c.e.o. Martyn Evans pointed out at the end of last year, libraries are the most visited cultural service, most trusted civic space, most used by young people, offering the most innovative public service in the most extraordinary buildings.
Libraries and booksellers have many customers in common and the good news, for both, is that printed books are making a comeback. At the time of writing we await figures for 2017, but the previous couple of years showed a significant consumer shift away from e-books and an upturn in physical book sales - particularly children’s titles. With Amazon opening real, three-dimensional bookstores, the tide has surely turned. As Stephen Fry commented: “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”
Reading is alive and well whatever the format. The Reading Agency’s annual, library-based Summer Reading Challenge, which encourages four to 11-year-olds to read six books during the schools holidays, showed healthy growth last year with 761,758 participants - up by 6,550 on 2016. Meanwhile the success of Celebrating Shakespeare 2016 - a year of library-based events to mark the Bard’s 400th anniversary run by the Society of Chief Librarians and high-level partners (including the Bookseller) - is another positive pointer.
Whilst there is some common ground between us, booksellers and libraries face different challenges. Libraries have always adapted throughout their history. But the current pace of digitally-driven change is unprecedented, and can seem daunting. However, advancing (and seemingly ever cheaper) technology means libraries have an opportunity to widen their remit - and relevance - as never before, whilst improving their image as an up-to-date service that operates 24/7.
Libraries need to redefine their role in the digital age. They can become both cultural and community hubs and centres of digital excellence and opportunity - and support the digitally disadvantaged in an increasingly online world. And, in an era of fake news and alternative facts, libraries have an important role to play as trusted professionals who can help people find reliable sources of information from mountains of online material.
Many non-users don’t realise just how much libraries have changed or what they now offer. So marketing - via multiple channels - will be key to attracting new customers. Social media, for example, offers opportunities to engage with young people and other hard-to-reach groups in new ways.
We need to attract new, tech-savvy users without alienating existing customers. I see no conflict between tradition and technology - which enhances both physical and online services and makes behind-the-scenes processes more cost-effective and efficient. This creates opportunities to release staff for more face-to-face interaction with customers. And providing quiet areas when modernising libraries means more traditional service users can still feel at home.
Libraries must adapt to a changing society. Nationally, we have an ageing population, although some places - like Birmingham - buck the trend. However more people live alone, and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Libraries have a long tradition of inclusivity and must grasp the opportunity to hard-sell (to decision-makers) what they do to support the less-advantaged - and wider national agendas such as social cohesion, health and wellbeing, education and skills, and economic development.
The hard-sell requires a strong evidence base - so accurate and comprehensive data collection is key. That said, we need to consider how we measure success in terms of quality as well as quantity. To paraphrase Einstein, not everything that can be counted counts. If we can evidence the wider benefits of libraries we can prove their real value and attract more funding and support. We have an opportunity to develop a whole sector approach to research and development - towards a better, more convincing evidence base.
Austerity has driven innovation. Continuing strain on public finances is forcing services to work together in a more joined-up way - so there are more opportunities for libraries to work with other agencies, and to introduce their large and diverse audience base to a wider range of art forms through joined-up approaches and new partnerships.
Libraries need to attract new talent and must therefore offer a clear professional progression route. Training, particularly digital, will be key as libraries deliver more and wider services in new and different ways. This, though, presents a wider range of career and volunteering opportunities to attract recruits. The sector has an opportunity to collectively get behind the new workforce strategy led by SCL/CILIP.
It’s not just local authorities delivering library services nowadays. New and innovative models are emerging including trusts, mutuals and co-production with communities. Combined regional authorities could have opportunities for the cultural sector.
Current funding for the Libraries Taskforce only lasts until 2020/21. The gap left when the Taskforce finishes could present additional leadership opportunities for other professional bodies. We need to ensure there isn’t a leadership vacuum, and we don’t lose momentum. For a Government preoccupied by Brexit negotiations, modern public libraries offer a shortcut towards fixing some fundamental problems and achieving ‘digital by default’ ambitions.
Other challenges for libraries include extending Public Lending Rights to e-books and e-book lending needs to be resolved and how all the key organisations - DCMS, CILIP, Taskforce, ACE and the Society of Chief Librarians - interact and work together for the benefit of public libraries and their customers. And there is growing concern about competition in the supply market, now we are down to three of four main stock suppliers.
Finally, my main theme for the year will be ‘international’. In my first three days as CILIP President, I wrote to the presidents of library associations across the globe expressing a wish for open and ongoing communication between us all. I will also be setting up a presidential commission to establish an international strategy for CILIP over the next few months.
Ayub Khan MBE, head of libraries and face to face services for Warwickshire, took over the presidency of CILIP this month.