Libraries are woven into the social fabric of our communities. They are places to read and learn. They are community hubs and free safe spaces. And they create opportunities for people to access new technology.
The question I have been asked to consider since I took over responsibility for libraries in July, is how can we make sure this essential service not only survives, but thrives in the 21st century?
Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021 is not a wish-list. It is a practical and achievable strategy for how we will reinvigorate the sector. And we will do this by working collaboratively with local authorities, library services, partners and library users across the country.
We should be proud to have one of the best library networks in the world. But the sector cannot, and indeed must not, stand still. That is why we want local authorities to think differently about how they can best develop and utilise this important network.
Firstly, I want local authorities to consider how they can use library buildings, staff and services to help communities access employment, health and learning opportunities.
Secondly, we know that the traditional local authority model is not right for every area. Following the success of library services in Suffolk, York and Devon, we will support those services that want to explore becoming mutuals, to give greater ownership to the local community and staff. We’ll help libraries look at ways to diversify their funding through generating additional income streams to help support existing services and to develop new ones.
And thirdly, we are looking at how we, in central government, can help make better use of our libraries. The Taskforce is already looking at new ways for libraries to generate income from government initiatives. From January 2017 it will also explore how libraries can be used as part of the National Citizen Service programme to support the participation of young people.
This is on top of the £4 million Libraries: Opportunities for Everyone Innovation Fund that will provide new opportunities for people in disadvantaged communities such as improving access to libraries for children, better use of technology to help increase literacy or supporting employment schemes to help businesses grow.
The libraries sector is rightly proud of its contribution to community life. I have made it very clear to local authorities that they must show they have explored other options, including looking at other delivery models, before they make cuts to their library services. Where my department receives complaints and where local authorities do not appear to meet their statutory duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service, then I will act.
We should not forget that libraries remain incredibly popular. 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.
This is a fantastic base to build on and I look forward to working closely with the sector as we deliver this new strategy.
Rob Wilson is Minister for Civil Society.