The Public Library Service faces another year long review, just at the moment when councils are threatening to close hundreds of community libraries if they are not taken over by local volunteers.
Ironically, this latest review has been commissioned by the same Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, who told The Bookseller (9 July 2010), that the two year Library Modernisation Review, commissioned by his predecessor, Margaret Hodge MP, was "a classic ministerial excuse for not acting, my view is to get down to it and get stuck in."
The bookshelves of the DCMS are heaving with reviews, reports and studies, often undertaken by expensive consultancy firms, with impressive titles such as "Blueprint for Excellence", "Framework for the Future", the "Library Development Initiative" and the most recent "Envisioning the Library of the Future". If there were a prize for avoiding the need to do anything, Mr Vaizey and his officials would go straight to the top of the class.
The latest review will not be completed until the end of 2014, so there is little chance that any of its recommendations will be implemented before the next election and, as happened with the previous review managed by the DCMS, the report may well be binned by a new minister. Meanwhile councils faced now with the need to take tough budget decisions will close or transfer libraries to volunteers and ignore their statutory duty to provide a "comprehensive and efficient" library service for all who need it. The much bemoaned "leadership void" will continue as the service drifts further towards near collapse, at least in many towns and rural areas.
The public library service does not need yet another review or report. What it does need is a well developed strategic framework with a vision for a modern public library service that serves the diverse needs of the millions of people who rely upon and need libraries. It needs a framework that:
- Establishes a library development agency to support authorities and to provide effective leadership
- Encourages the 151 separately managed authorities in England alone to share and merge their services
- Optimises the use of technology to improve efficiency and standardisation
- Removes unnecessary duplication and cost
- Implements a national e lending service which removes the need for 151 authorities to separately get their act together
- Ensures that any volunteer run libraries are properly supported by professional staff and any potential legal, regulatory and operational hurdles are resolved
- Enables the public library service to support and promote literacy (including digital), reading, education and the acquisition of information and knowledge
- Creates a viable public library service that supports the changing needs of today's society
We should follow the example of Ireland, New Zealand and several other countries, and put in place a strategic framework for libraries that can be supported by local government, the profession and the wider book world, and one that is also well understood by the public. The Minister should heed his own advice, "Get down to it and get stuck in."