The going was good, not only for the Grand National runners at Aintree, but also for the future of our public library services, as the public librarians gathered for LAs Public Libraries Group study school (the alternative event of the weekend) set out their visions for the future.
Resurrection: a new life for powerful public libraries was the title of the Library Associations Public Libraries Group bi-annual study school, that I attended in April. The study school was timely, picking up on emerging Government initiatives such as New Library and the National Grid for Learning, that have the potential to profoundly affect the future shape of our public library services as we move towards the new millennium.
I headed east to the University of East Anglia for a cold, grey, damp Spring weekend, but one that was enthused with a feeling of excitement and optimism. I left with the feeling that now is the time for public libraries, the opportunities are there and the political climate is right for them to seize the moment and take forward their agenda.
The study schools stated aim was to marshal evidence, demonstrate the worth of what public libraries do and to consider their impact. The weekend brought together over one hundred public librarians from Oban to Guernsey, and representatives of library suppliers. A welcome attendee was Peter Beauchamp, Chief Library Advisor to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
In all, ten speakers presented papers, all arguing passionately, for the recognition of the worth, impact and relevance of public libraries in the newly emerging social and political climate.
The feeling that we are poised on the brink of a truly defining moment was eloquently articulated in the opening paper, presented by Grace Kempster. Grace argued that public libraries are perfectly placed to be a major player in social inclusion, the current political big idea. We are facing a new beginning, not only in terms of information technologies available to us but a new learning culture. Public library can be at the heart of digital delivery of local government information. She emphasised the fact the public libraries can and should be leading the way, showing the government what can be done. On the question of funding, the opinion expressed was that public libraries get the funds that they deserve, and yes, we will have to continue fighting even harder for these, with all library staff having a role to play; junior staff having to deliver the promises of their leaders.
Following this battle cry from Grace was Paul Martin, speaking on his experiences as a survivor of local government reorganisation. Paul is, since 1st April, Director of Community Services with responsibility for libraries, for the new Unitary Authority of Peterborough. The weekends theme of resurrection was obviously a powerful theme in this context. Paul gave a balanced account of the new opportunities that have emerged from the reorganisation and some of the dangers that can be associated with small, insular and parochial services. Greater opportunities for senior library staff to work in the corporate structure were cited as one of the benefits of smaller, authorities. It was also argued that the sense of ownership of council services and local accountability, usually associated with smaller authorities, is perhaps less important to people than is sometimes assumed. To illustrate the point, an analogy with private industry was given, where organisational structures are very flat and individual employees often are unsure of who they ultimately work for without this being an issue.
Saturdays programme opened with a presentation of the research findings of a new piece of national research A Place for Children which is investigating the relationship between childrens reading and libraries. The project will also produce service criteria and performance indicators which can be used to inform policy decisions for public libraries.
Debbie Denham, the project co-ordinator at the University of Central England with assistance from Patsy Heap, Head of Childrens Youth and Education Services for Birmingham City Council, explained that the aim of the research was to produce evidence of the role of the public library in support of childrens literacy development and to produce good practical guidelines. Immediately the difficulties of defining excellence in this area of service provision and the need for qualitative measures to measure excellence were highlighted. Despite this, the research is producing a wealth of evidence in support of the public libraries role in developing childrens literacy skills. The importance of IT was highlighted as the research suggests that increasingly childrens librarians are recognising the value of web access and other forms of software in developing reading skills. However some concern has been felt amongst library staff that children are becoming over reliance on IT, and particularly that they may be relying on one or two electronic resources at the expense of richer forms information that are only available to them in traditional forms. The paper also picked up on the importance of cross-corporate planning for childrens services.
John Allred, a partner of Information for Learning, illustrated the idea of the educative community a learning place where people live, by describing the experiences of farmers in isolated communities having to relearn and investigate opportunities for training as traditional employment opportunities dwindled. He argued that a lot of learning happens out of need, the need to retrain for job opportunities, for example. In the farming community, the farmers wives were being introduced to ICT by the need to learn to use word processing and accounting packages at open learning centres in public libraries. This community was making good use of a number of specialist databases and web sites, particularly a database of learning opportunities. It was felt that there is a need to develop national CD-ROM learning packages rather than local, idiosyncratic systems. Developing a seamless web of databases, OPACs and other catalogues with library staff adding value to information, by rating the quality of information on a web site could be the result of closer collaboration with players in education and employment fields.
Being in Norwich, the opportunity to describe the planning behind the development of the replacement library for Norfolk and Norwich could not be missed it being another excellent example of resurrection, literally a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Hilary Hammond described the situation that Norfolk found itself in in 1995 and how this afforded an opportunity to go back and ask the fundamental question, do we need a central library? The answer that yes, a physical building was needed was arrived at partial by recognising that a public library is valued as a neutral place for people to meet. Picking up on an emerging theme of the weekend, Hilary noted that the Education Department had asked the library to include a recommendation for schools to be connected to the Internet in the bid for Millennium money. This is an example, not only of cross-corporate working but recognition of the library as the vehicle for initiation.
Raymond Gray, Chief Executive of the Cypher library supply group provided a dose of commercial realism to the proceedings. He provoked much commenting by suggesting that by developing quality chain of supply systems, with commercial library suppliers much time and effort could be saved, as such systems negate the need, for example, for orders to be checked in when they arrive. Notable too was the attitude of lets do it, then see what the problems are.
Cross-sectoral alliances were the theme of the paper given by Derek Law, Director of Information Services and Systems, Kings College London. He also emphasised that the political climate was now right for such alliances to be possible, suggesting a single, cross-sectoral network and the subsequent need for standards in, for example, resource discovery, such as metadata.
The penultimate presentation by Amanda Arrowsmith, Director of Libraries and Heritage for Suffolk County Council, looked of the role and activities of user groups in libraries. This provided a wealth of anecdotes about the perception and activities of friends of public libraries, and again provided evidence of the impact of the public library in peoples lives.
The President of the Library Association, Bob Usherwood, presented the closing paper. This paper argued the value of the library professional in the communication of information and ideas. He urged us all to rediscover the confidence to make professional judgements, face the opportunities and problems of the future and meet these challenges and implement solutions.
The papers presented all supported the themes of the study school. Throughout the weekend, the message was coming through load and clear that now is the time for public libraries. The opportunities are there and the political climate is right. Several papers highlighted the need for libraries to interact with local authorities at a corporate level. Whilst it was acknowledged that funding remains an issue, there was a real sense of determination to fight for funds. Inspired with the evidence and arguments articulated over the three days, we left Norwich ready to grasp the opportunities that are so tantalisingly close.