Some libraries are better than others

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 16

Helen Milner, chief executive of Good Things Foundation, formerly the Tinder Foundation, expands on the organisation’s recent claims that protecting libraries at all costs could be holding the sector back, and that those which fail to serve communities need to close – with funding being channelled to those mindful of community needs instead.

At the end of October, I said something which shocked a few people. Although I had said it before, the article I published did cause something of a stir. I said that some libraries were better than others. And I said that if we wanted to protect the really good ones, then some of the empty or failing libraries should improve or even close. 

It was heartening to see how many people came out in defence of libraries. Libraries clearly have many friends and I would definitely count myself amongst them. I love libraries – when they are fulfilling their potential. 

The piece was in response to a debate in the House of Lords about libraries and bookshops. In it, publisher Baroness Rebuck cited libraries as key community ‘hubs’ where, alongside books, people can rely on other essential life services. I think lots of libraries do perform this function, but not all, and I think we can support the ones that don’t tend to be better.

At Good Things Foundation, we work on a day-to-day basis with lots of great community organisations – including great libraries – doing amazing things for local people. They’re called the Online Centres Network. And while what they do for us is in the nature of digital inclusion, they are also involved in literacy, adult education, community cohesion, health programmes, and much, much more. 

Many ‘community hubs’ are suffering under austerity and, despite innovating around income generation, they are still struggling to make ends meet. And they are all having to do more for less to make things work for the communities they serve. They are not all getting a Lords debate, or extensive media coverage. That doesn’t seem very fair to me. 

I do not want great libraries, or great community centres, to close their doors. And I am very aware of how hard many library staff, local authority staff, and community organisation staff are working – how much they are being asked to do with much smaller budgets.

But I do want us to talk about quality and relevance. I want us to look strategically at the bigger picture of what communities need and how they are being served. 

What I’d like to see next is a national strategic development plan for libraries. I would like to see libraries given a mandate to put social inclusion at the heart of their services. And then I would like to see us celebrate and demonstrate the impact libraries have, so we can prove they’re so valuable that no one in their right mind would dare to shut another one.



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Tim Coates   06/01/2017 at 10:14

There are lots of public functions- both state and private - that have 'social inclusion' at the heart of their intentions - even corner shops and pubs - bus services and churches . But a library offers social inclusion because it gives people the opportunity to read and read widely. The only significant impact measure of a library is whether people read It is pointless trying to promote them as 'community hubs' if they don't perform that one key function. The decline of our UK library service is not recent - it has taken place over thirty years because slowly we have removed the depth of access to reading and written information and replaced them with other services in a wholly misguided attempt at 'social inclusion' by other means. Helen Milner missed the point that libraries have been failing because they offer poor service in their core activity - in the activity that people expect from them. It is not because they should be changed to be something else The evidence for what I say is so clear in library user surveys and performance data - just nobody looks at the figures before spouting some new theory about what needs to be done

Libraryuser1   06/01/2017 at 18:48

I’m not convinced of the need for a social exclusion mandate. People are typically socially excluded because of poverty or because they belong to a minority social group. By law public libraries must be available to all, lend books without charge and comply with the public sector equalities duty. Thus the mandate for public libraries to meet the needs of the socially excluded is built in. The proportion of library resource that goes into meeting the needs of particular groups is up to the local service and their councillors. At the moment lack of money is the problem - not mandates.

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