In a speech given at the launch of the Society of Chief Librarians' (SCL) Universal Learning Offer yesterday (5th November), culture minister Ed Vaizey highlighted the "valuable" role libraries play and praised the commitment of the “remarkable” number of campaign groups fighting to keep them open.
Vaizey noted that "the way libraries fulfill their role is changing dramatically, not least because what people expect from a library is changing", with visitors seeking services including internet access, space to work, librarian assistance alongside traditional book-borrowing.
He said: “Libraries can make an important contribution to bridging the skills gap particularly in a growing and changing economy” as they offer "a huge opportunity to provide new skills and learning to people who may not access other education and training and to contribute significantly to us becoming a learning nation.”
Vaizey highlighted that the "digital revolution" is shaping the way libraries are being used, with users now expecting to be able to access library services remotely 24 hours a day.
Vaizey discussed new programmes and initatives designed to tackle the digital revolution, such as the SCL Digital Training Programme which has enabled more than 14,000 library staff to help people get online and improve their digital skills, and the new Code Green: Digital Making Kit, which launched yesterday - a how-to guide for coding, robotics, digital music making, community building and more for public libraries. "Libraries are stepping up to this challenge", Vaziey said.
He emphasised the valuable role libraries still have in society and how important services are in deprived areas. “It is worth noting that, in England, over a third of the population still visits their local library and, in the poorest areas that figure rises to nearly a half," Vaziey said. “What is clear is that public libraries are still greatly valued, especially by their local communities, as evidence by the remarkable numbers of library campaign groups that have grown up across the country.”
He added: “These groups have been sending a very clear message to their local councils and to their local elected councillors that community libraries should not be axed and, in many cases, local residents have taken over the running of their library to save it from closure. I think it is right we should all applaud both their commitment to supporting libraries, but also their efforts in keeping them open for the benefit of their communities.”
In the face of the “challenging environment” currently facing libraries, Vaizey lauded the work of the newly formed Library Taskforce. He predicted its first progress report, due to be published shortly, would demonstrate “an impressive track record of delivery even over a short period of operation” with successes including the initative to furnish 98% of libraries with Wi-Fi by March 2016, securing £100,000 to enable library services to build digital skills in socially excluded groups and using £400,000 of investment to help city libraries establish hubs for small business and entrepreneurs.
“This clearly shows the added value that the Taskforce has in harnessing and amplifying the actions of the individual members into a greater collective voice for libraries," Vaizey said. “We are most fortunate to have in the public library service a remarkably trusted institution. I do recognise it is my responsibility as well as others to ensure that, despite the challenges, public libraries continue to build literate, educated, informed and knowledgeable communities throughout the country."
He added: “We all – librarians, campaigners, the professional bodies and the other information and book trade organsiations – need to contribute to the debate about how local authorities can realistically build a modern, comprehensive and efficient service which meets the needs of those whom it exists to serve and is achievable with the resources that are available.”