A report commissioned by the Society of Chief Librarians, to be released on Monday (11th January), will recommend a £20m investment in a “unified digital platform” for English libraries. However this investment risks "losing sight" of the immediate challenges facing libraries, campaigners have said.
Financed by Arts Council England (ACE), the report has been produced by commercial library services provider Bibliocommons. A draft of the report was released in September and argued that the investment was necessary to prevent libraries from becoming “soup kitchens for the written word.”
An “enriched digital offer” will “provide leverage and cohesiveness” for library services, and meet the demands of users who journey "online and off" to library institutions, the draft report said.
However, campaigners have concerns that the SCL, ACE and the Libraries Taskforce should not lose focus on the immediate issues facing library services, including the hollowing out and reduction of services, continuing reliance on volunteers and communities to run services, budget cuts, failure to invest in book stock and marked decline in usage and borrowing.
Recent analysis by library campaigner and former Waterstones m.d., Tim Coates, has shown that expenditure on print books in English public libraries has fallen from £85m in 2002 to £49m last year.
Leading library campaigner Desmond Clarke said: “No one will dispute the need to invest in technology but we must not lose sight of the immediate challenges which are leading to closures: reduced opening hours and the transfer of libraries to volunteers. The need is for a balanced and well thought through approach.”
He added: “After 10 months, we are still waiting for the Taskforce to develop a clear vision for a modern library services and an effective action plan to address the complex resource management, structural and user issues. There is increasing frustration that the immediate challenges are being ignored and the service destroyed as users fall away.”
Clarke argued that the Bibliocommons report recommends a platform to "simplify communications between themselves as the supplier and the multiple clients that represent the public library service", rather the implementation of a service to "advise skill-starved public library services on the best ways to use technology.”
A spokesperson for the SCL told The Bookseller said that the £20m will not necessarily be the amount invested if the report's proposal is accepted.
The spokesperson said: "SCL continues to work hard to support and develop library services. Next week will see the release of research into one of the ways that the sector could build a digital platform for our users to interact with our services in the future”.
Early last year, ACE announced it was to invest £7.4m in providing wi-fi for libraries, but by the time the funding programme was launched in July 2015, a number of local authorities had installed their own solutions and 106 libraries had closed down. As a result only £2.6m of the funds could actually be given out. The Taskforce and ACE are hoping to reinvest this money in improving library services in other ways The Bookseller understands.