A new task force for libraries, which met for the first time last week, will focus its attention on sharing best practice between councils, promoting the role of digital and shaping a workforce for the future.
One of the key aims of the Leadership for Libraries task force will be to highlight to council decision-makers the wide variety of roles that libraries play in their communities—be it boosting health, safety or information agendas. It will also look to help services to share their skills and showcase their value.
Dr Paul Blantern [pictured], the chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council and chair of the new task force, which was created at the recommendation of the Sieghart Review into public libraries, told The Bookseller: “One thing that has become very clear to me since I started is that there’s absolutely fantastic innovation happening out there, but people just don’t realise it. One very quick win that the task force can deliver is to highlight these things that are working.”
Blantern said the task force, which includes panellists from local authorities, the BBC, Public Health England, the Government Digital Service and The Reading Agency, was keen to deliver practical results, admitting parts of the service are in “crisis”. He added: “I don’t want to spend six months saying, ‘Should we do this?’ When that happens, 20% of people say yes, do it, 20% disagree with you, and the rest don’t know. We have to get on and do it. There is a crisis out there in some parts of the service and we have to get out there and start taking action now . . . William Sieghart went out and engaged with people, and spoke to everyone. We can’t just speak, we have to take action.”
Blantern admitted that the panel had no power to intervene in authority decisions, but said it could act to guide councils in future. “We have no statutory requirement, no specific ability to tell a council to do X or Y,” he said. “What I can do is lay out what the alternatives might be and I can try to make these choices as easy as possible . . . We have to be realistic, we can’t save every building. What we’re trying to do is build a real library service that is fit for the future.”
The panel has been assembled at a time when several local authorities have been setting their budgets for the year ahead, with many making cuts to their library services as a way of lowering costs. The flagship Library of Birmingham, which opened to plaudits in September 2013, has already been hit by plans to virtually halve its opening hours and shed half its staff, while last year Lincolnshire pushed ahead with plans to hand over 30 libraries to volunteers and keep just 15 as council-run operations, despite losing a High Court battle which condemned the plans as “flawed”.
Asked whether the task force would be affected by the looming general election, Blantern said the value of libraries was in their ability to be at the heart of a range of services, as “trusted spaces, universally accessible and universally accepted. What William [Sieghart] did with his review was make sure he had cross-party support. If you think of what we’re trying to do, which is make libraries community bases that support a range of agendas—health, prosperity, information—then that’s true of all parties. In May, once the dust has settled, we will go and knock on the doors of the departments—whoever is there—and say we are neutral, we have all these facilities and we can support your aims.”
Conceding his career background was not in libraries, Blantern said: “I was one of those classic people who had a family, was working hard, had the internet at home, and never saw the need to go into a library. It wasn’t until I took on running libraries as a director in Solihull that I suddenly realised what an amazing asset they are. They are at the heart of the community . . . Last week I challenged people on local radio: if you haven’t been to a library in the past three years, go in and see what’s changed. See what they offer and the range of services they have.”
Speaking about Northamptonshire’s library service, which along with nearly all authorities has seen a decline in visits and loans over the past decade, Blantern said that when he visited libraries he saw them being well used and offering a range of services. He said: “We changed the whole way we organised how people accessed council services. If people are accessing face-to-face services in Northamptonshire now, they go through libraries.” He added: “Our authority is one of the lowest-funded councils in the country, but if we can do it, so can anyone.”
Sue Wilkinson, chief executive of the Reading Agency and a member of the panel, said action was the key theme of the first meeting. “Everyone around the table wants to see action, and what we discovered was how much best practice there is out there and how to start joining that up.”
She added: “The critical thing is that the task force has local government and national parties as well. The big shift in terms of delivery in what [Sieghart] was trying to achieve is having local authority involvement. They have to understand they have the ability to deliver their agendas with libraries.”
Fellow panellist Brian Ashley, director of libraries at Arts Council England (ACE), said: “It was a very positive first meeting which provided a very strong basis for our future work. We can always debate who should be around the table, and I think by and large the right people are there. ACE is keen to do whatever we can to support the task force and help it be successful.”