Community service

<p>The DCMS Library Modernisation Review was trailed in the media this week when the new culture minister, Margaret Hodge outlined the proposal for &quot;a home delivery service to rival Amazon&quot;. This is not about volunteers working with community librarians to take books to the housebound. No, this is a comprehensive (and hugely expensive) internet ordering and postal delivery and returns service for the free loan of books - all part of a&nbsp; plan to revitalise public libraries. And it seems that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) has been employing consultants to develop the proposal. The announcement was greeted with some incredulity.<br />
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There was also some surprise that the Society of Chief Librarians thought it necessary to announce this week that public libraries are now &quot;open and welcome to any member of the public&quot;. To be fair to the SCL they are also hoping to develop a national library card, though it is unclear what real benefit this would deliver to most library users and potential users. Should this be a priority in the current economic climate?<br />
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All this is very confused thinking which has detracted from the more sensible and practical ideas to adapt retail techniques and marketing to encourage more people to use and borrow from public libraries. Libraries are a service of choice and those responsible for providing the service must understand what people need and want. Libraries, like retailers, should be totally user focused, undertaking proper research to support their strategy to expand usage.<br />
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As well as the DCMS Modernisation Review, we also imminently expect the All Party Parliamentary Library Group Review on leadership and governance and the Report of the Public Inquiry into the planned closure of eleven branch libraries on the Wirral.<br />
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The All Party Review will propose that a Library Development Agency should be set up by the DCMS to provide strategic leadership for the sector. Furthermore,&nbsp; Ed Vaizey, the shadow culture minister, has said previously that&nbsp; he favours such a body. However, for such an agency to be successful, it must be led by those with the commitment, knowledge and vision to inspire both the profession and local government. It would also help if its chair had some expertise in retailing. What is clear is that the public library service urgently needs strong leadership and powerful advocacy as it competes for public funding.<br />
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The report of the Wirral&nbsp; Public Inquiry will attract particular attention because it is will focus on those who need and use community libraries. It is such libraries that are most under threat, as has been highlighted by the Swindon and Wirral sagas. It&nbsp; was the local residents, well supported by their MPs, who fought successful campaigns to retain their much-loved and used community libraries. However, there are warnings that as many as 300 community libraries could be threatened with closure over the next two years.<br />
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All political parties are now talking of cuts in public and local government expenditure, perhaps in the region of 12%. The public library service will not be immune from such cuts.&nbsp; What is important is that everything possible is done to protect the service to those who need and use our libraries. We need to look at every opportunity to share services across authorities, to outsource back-room functions, to remove layers of management and reduce central overhead costs.<br />
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The public library service faces enormous challenges and will require strong leadership and a total focus on serving the needs of library users; the young and old, the infirm, the housebound and those disadvantaged in our society.&nbsp; Whoever is responsible for providing strategic leadership, must get everyone on the same page, be an effective advocate for libraries and encourage every authority to provide a service which meets the diverse needs of its communities. Hodge's most valuable contribution to the future of public libraries, would be to ensure that the best possible people are leading their renewal.</p>