Arts Council England’s Envisioning the Library of the Future project has concluded that libraries should be at the hub of their communities, but states that libraries can provide greater benefit when they are co-located with other services.
Brian Ashley, ACE director for libraries, said: “One of the things that came through loud and clear is that libraries are a trusted space where people want to spend their time. There are benefits for ordinary members of the public in having different services in one space. There are also benefits in terms of savings too—which could allow local authorities to protect local services.”
The research came up with four priority areas for development: placing the library at the hub of the community; making the most of digital and technology and creative media; ensuring that libraries are resilient and sustainable; and delivering the right skills for those who work in them.
However, campaigners have criticised the findings for lacking a sense of action. Desmond Clarke said: “There is very little in the Envisioning report that has not been seen before in numerous other reports. It is still keeping its head in the sand about the extent of cuts, and is not proposing solid suggestions for steps that people should be taking. It also completely fails to mention any sort of new leadership for libraries, which is what the service needs.”
Begun in January 2012, the Envisioning project used workshops, surveys and interviews to gather the thoughts of hundreds of people to try and “re-assert the value, role and purpose of public libraries”, and move the debate from “short-term issues of funding, the closure of libraries and a perceived tension between books and digital technology”.
The research found there is “a clear, compelling and continuing need for a publicly funded library service”, with even non-library users “passionate about their value”. The report said: "Public libraries are trusted spaces, free to enter and open to all" and named the three definitive ingredients of a public library as: a safe, creative community space that is easy and enjoyable to use; an excellent range of quality books and digital resources; and well trained, friendly people to help users.
Although the research concluded that making libraries the hub of their community is a key priority, it also stated that “the future public library will be both a physical and a virtual place”. It reported that “libraries’ physical space will be more flexible and integrated with a virtual presence that includes web-based reading groups, social networking and links to other online resources”.
It added: “Space shared with community based services (such as council, health, business support, and learning organisations) will be be better for local people, and will bring benefits such as skills exchanges, reaching more people and cutting costs.”
Another aspect of the research stated: “We expect to see a shift from a service provided to a community to one in which local people are more active and involved in its design and delivery.”
Ashley said: “It is about much more than community-managed libraries and volunteers. The policy of having people involved with the design of the services they will want to use and enjoy is a sound one."
Asked what he would like to see people take from Envisioning, Ashley said: “I would like everyone who has interest in public libraries to come together around the ideas proposed of what a library is and what it’s for. We spend an awful lot of time debating these things—if we can use the energy to work towards finding solutions I think campaigners would be delighted by that.”