New libraries minister Rob Wilson has said the libraries brief "overlaps" with his existing role as minister for civil society, both in the aim of encouraging volunteering and community action and in developing new governance models including mutuals, trusts and co-operatives.
But campaigners have expressed concerns over what that emphasis means for libraries.
In a letter to "colleagues" in the public library service, Wilson argued the "exciting new opportunity” of the library brief fitted well with his existing role. He said a "number of overlaps" between his civil society work and "what you are trying to achieve in public libraries" included volunteering, particularly by younger people; exploitation of new governance models (like mutual, trusts and co-operatives); and new funding opportunities (such as social investment bonds and crowd-funding) and the importance of co-creation of services.
In the letter, Wilson praised the Libraries Taskforce for its achievements over the past year, highlighting its work to ensure that over 99% of libraries now have free wi-fi access.
Going further, Wilson said he has been "very encouraged to hear about the level of debate and engagement that has gone into the development of the Taskforce’s new 'Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries' document" and now intends on taking some time to review the document, visit some libraries and talk to colleagues.
"I hope this can be done quickly and the document will be published as soon as possible,” Wilson said, adding: "I look forward to working with you and to discussing how we can achieve our collective ambitions for public libraries in England."
Chair of The Library Campaign Laura Swaffield expressed her concern about Wilson's stress on volunteers. "The minister's brief at the Cabinet Office - which he seems to be bringing with him intact - is very focused around volunteers," Swaffield said. "He's just added libraries to it. That's not encouraging."
She added: "[Former culture minister] Ed Vaizey waved through a massive transition to volunteer-run libraries, and it's still going on. The effects have never been been researched, though there's a fair bit of anecdotal evidence that their performance plummets. The Taskforce isn't getting to grips with the problem either (beyond producing a bland how-to guide that glosses over the problems). Similar work needs to be done on alternative funding models. DCMS insiders say he 'gets' the social value of libraries. Let's hope so. And let's hope he visits and consults well outside the DCMS/Taskforce circles to find out about the real world."
Ian Anstice, librarian and editor of Public Libraries News, said: “The new libraries minister has spoken, showing an interest in the field and an awareness of the Taskforce, amongst other things. He points out that his interest in volunteering has a bearing in libraries, which will be seen as a bad omen by many (especially paid staff) but he does single out young volunteers, which suggests he’s thinking more in terms of Reading Hacks. It’s a good thing he has already had at least one meeting with public libraries people, anyway.”
A spokesperson for librarians body CILIP told The Bookseller: "We welcome the libraries minister’s clear recognition that public libraries support a range of outcomes including better health, improved literacies, employment and business start-ups, and stronger communities. Trained and skilled staff, working with volunteers and in collaboration with communities, are the backbone of our public library services. CILIP is committed to developing an effective skills strategy with the Society of Chief Librarians to support the library workforce to provide services that meet the needs of their communities and deliver outcomes that improve life chances and create a fairer, culturally vibrant and prosperous society.”
Campaigner Desmond Clarke added: “Paul Blantern, chair of the Taskforce said that the previous library minister had few levers that he could pull. That may be true but Rob Wilson can at least ensure that the Taskforce produces urgently an imaginative plan that addresses the structural, technological and resource management issues, re-invigorates the library network and reverses the marked decline in usage in many authorities. We have had endless consultations and reports, what we need are effective solutions and real action."