The Sieghart review into public libraries, to be published today (18th December), calls on central government to give local authorities the funding to create a national digital resource for libraries, with free Wi-fi as standard, and workforce training for all public libraries in England.
Speaking on BBC Radio Four’s “Today” programme this morning, Sieghart said: “It is a critical moment now because we are facing a few more years of austerity ahead of us and many of the library services around the country have been whittled down as far as they can go…. Government, big and little government, wants to deliver services digitally in the future and the library is the safe and most obvious place to do that.”
As previously revealed, the report also calls for the creation of a new task force, to provide a strategic framework for libraries in England and work with local authorities to improve their services.
The Independent Library Report for England has been compiled by Sieghart and a panel made up of Sue Charteris, former Society of Chief Librarians president Janene Cox, former Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson, The British Library's c.e.o. Roly Keating, PFD's Caroline Michel, Faber chief executive Stephen Page and author Joanna Trollope. Although the report was completed at the start of the autumn, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has delayed publishing it until just before the Christmas break.
In it, Sieghart describes libraries as "a golden thread throughout our lives", saying: "Despite the growth in digital technologies, there is still a clear need and demand within communities for modern, safe, non-judgemental, flexible spaces, where citizens of all ages can mine the knowledge of the world for free, supported by the help and knowledge of the library workforce. This is particularly true for the most vulnerable in society who need support and guidance and to children and young people who benefit from engagement with libraries outside of the formal classroom environment."
The report has a heavy focus on digital, calling for government funding to local authorities to enable extended wi-fi access, computer facilities and staff training, and for a national digital library network, moving more library facilities online, with e-lending bolstered by and extension of the Public Lending Right (PLR) to e-books lent remotely, which should be attained through changing UK and EU copyright laws during the next legislative term.
The report states: "Libraries are already facilitating access to a wide range of government services including education, welfare reform, business and economic growth and health care and this will dramatically grow as more services go online."
Sieghart says the wider roll-out of Wi-fi and improved facilities would form the basis of a national digital network, which "could include a single library platform and a national library card and catalogue."
The new library task force, led by councils, is envisioned not as a new body, but a combined group drawing on a number of organisations, such as as Arts Council England, the British Library, the Local Government Association and the Reading Agency, to push forwards library leadership and share best practice. The group is provisionally called "Leadership for Libraries".
The report also looks at volunteers and community-run libraries, questioning the "long term viability" of community models, but acknowledging the value that volunteers and community involvement can provide.
Martyn Wade, chair of the board of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), called the report a "convincing roadmap". He said: "The Sieghart report is short, accessible, practical and to the point. It provides a convincing roadmap towards a revitalised future for public libraries in England. It must be implemented. The report has been published in an extremely tough financial climate, which continues to affect libraries. Compared to five years ago across the UK there are 337 fewer libraries and nearly 5,500 fewer staff. Library opening hours and visits to libraries have also declined. The financial outlook for libraries is equally, if not more, grim. The Sieghart report rightly recognises the power of libraries to transform lives and communities, and how this only increases in the digital age."
However, CILIP also pointed out that the report does not go into detail on the financial predicament facing local authorities and the subsequent cuts many libraries face, or address library standards or user entitlement.
Meanwhile library campaigner Desmond Clarke said: "At last, we have a blueprint for national and local government and the profession to build a user friendly service in a world of both digital and print. In particular, the proposed task force, led by a local government chief executive, will help to fill the leadership void and allow libraries to rediscover their purpose. I also hope the Report will help introduce renewed zest, innovation and skills to the profession. Government must commit to making the required investment in technology, local government must look hard at the need for 149 separately managed authorities, and we must all ensure that this Report is not kicked into the long grass but gets cross party support. However,as a note of caution, we must ensure that every initiative is driven by a proper understanding of why people need and use libraries, and also how the digital world is unfolding."
However in an early response to the report, the Independent has criticised it as a piece of "polite evasion". The newspaper said: "It beggars belief that the social cost of recent shutdowns and transfers should almost entirely escape the notice of a panel rightly convinced that “the library does more than simply loan books. It underpins every community.” This delicate oversight ignores not so much the elephant in the room as the padlocks on the door and the boards across the window."
A ministerial response to the report is expected later today.