Sieghart: on the money

The Independent is wrong to damn the new Sieghart Report as a "romantic fiction" with nothing but euphemisms to offer a decimated public library service, in its editorial today (18th December).

What the report is doing, by pushing the role libraries can play in the digital sphere, is to align the service with the priorities of central and local government, and so try to rescue it from the neglect that has seen such destructive library closures instigated by local authorities without intervention from a clearly uninterested culture ministry.

Forget for a moment the value of libraries in inspiring a love of reading, in developing the imagination of the young, and informing, entertaining and comforting all the rest of us, promoting social cohesion in difficult times. In the current climate of austerity, such considerations butter no parsnips – as William Sieghart and his panel have apparently appreciated. Except for those truly committed and enlightened council cabinet members, who do their best to fight the corner for their local service, nobody else with a hand on the pursestrings thinks they can afford to care.

So instead, how about the library service as the deliverer of the digital education that will save government money? With public services being shifted online – benefit claims, tax payments, driving test bookings and the rest of it, set to be "digital by default" – why not use the library network, widely established, relatively inexpensive and trusted within its communities, to enable that substantial percentage of the population without digital know-how to function in the new system? And with UK PLC relying on a digitally skilled workforce for its future prosperity, libraries can help push the progress of children and young adults too.

At the recent Speak Up For Libraries conference for library campaigners in London, it was clear that many library workers are already taking on these roles. "People come in desperate for our help [in accessing services online]," noted one. What's more they're doing it without any funding or support: "Staff are run ragged, they are having to take on additional roles," another worker said. So the Sieghart Report is drawing attention to a current need that libraries are already fulfilling, and asking for the service to receive the resources to do it properly, on the grounds that it's a money-saver rather than a money-waster for hard-pressed authorities with their eyes on the bottom line.

In the longer term, libraries embracing a digital role could prove to be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas - if remote e-lending becomes the norm, as Sieghart seems to hope, why visit your library? Meanwhile asking librarians to become digitalists certainly has its downside, with some at the Speak Up for Libraries conference arguing that the profession had become "overdiversified", with the range of functions it is asked to fulfil taking it away from its core purpose of reading and education.

But then if libraries don't get more backing in the very near future, thinking longterm could be a luxury anyway.