Libraries need change from the top

Libraries need change from the top

Autumn brings cheerful news of good footfall in bookshops, but we do not hear the same bells ringing for public libraries.

Last week Libraries Connected, the government-funded body for chief librarians, reported that libraries are operating at 85% below their level of the last year, even though the summer school holiday is normally their busiest time. Where books have been available (mostly) for home delivery and shop collection through most of the pandemic, library services have been minimal, until they were able to re-open in July. The British Library's long-planned ‘Single Digital Presence’ website has disappointingly never arrived, in any form. Public libraries have a sparse offering of e-books, and no credible plans to improve. Use of library computers had already fallen to 5% of library visits even before the lockdown and of course it is more or less nil, now.

Nevertheless, throughout the long spring and summer of lockdown, libraries continued to receive about £15m per week of precious public money - but it is hard to see what benefit came from that.

The sector's managing figures continue to issue press releases about how wonderful and flexible their practitioners are, but that’s not what the figures imply. They claim to be an essential part of the restoration of community well-being – but there is not much real evidence that would persuade a councillor to divert precious local funds towards the libraries. Councils have other ways of addressing community need that are more tangible and obvious.

Public libraries have been losing the plot for years. They have completely failed to understand that is the collection of reading material that makes them useful to local people. Their purchasing of books now amounts to less than 1% of publishers’ income and that is only about 2% of the huge taxpayer funds they are granted.

It is normal for the sector to plead for funds and to blame politicians when those are not generously available. But the truth is that these sector managers have never shown a believable plan for how any money will be spent to meet a genuine public need. They live in a world of library information and local government social theory that suits their own pockets, but in reality, was rolled over by Google and Amazon twenty years ago.

None of this means that the public don’t want public libraries – on the contrary we have watched how, for example, the people of Essex have weathered storm and heat to protest the need for their local branch libraries in a way that they absolutely should not have had to do. It should shame everyone paid to run libraries and hold senior posts in the library sector to see the people walking from town to town with their hopeful placards of sincere and genuine supplication.

We need a new fresh start. One that centres on the library needs of local people, not local and central government.  One which is based on the availability of books and reading material, not hopeful jargon-ridden social enterprise. One that allows local library branch managers to respond to their own community, not be driven by the career aspirations of local government officers and hierarchical management. One that is not overloaded with wasteful overhead expenses that drain the money that should be spent on books, opening hours and good people.

And if those currently in charge can’t see or do that, they should be replaced—and very quickly, this autumn. Those are the senior people in the DCMS, ACE, LC, CILIP, LGA and local councils.

It's time for change at the top, if services on the ground are to survive.

Tim Coates has been managing director of several book companies in Europe and America including Waterstones. He now advises public and academic libraries around the world. He is also a published author of fiction and non-fiction.