What is the primary role and function of the public library in 21st Century Britain? Are public libraries in danger of trying to do too many things? Are they trying to please all of the people all of the time? How can the People's Network be sustained post-lottery funding? What is special about public libraries - do they have a Unique Selling Point? Are traditional, book-based services being run down as the focus switches to ICT and e-everything? What action, if any, should be taken in response to the report on public libraries from the Audit Commission in 2002  .
These are the sort of questions that have been gathering like storm clouds on library horizons for some time. Opinions as to what activities public libraries should focus on were aired at the Public Library Authority conference in September 2002 , with strong cases being made for the promotion of books and reading on the one hand, and for e-government on the other. Reading and libraries, according to the report Start with the Child  are "crucial to achieving our national ambitions for community cohesion, active citizenship, lifelong learning and happy lives for our children". McKeone and McKearney, of The Reading Agency, take this one stage further, and argue that libraries should use imaginative approaches to get more people to use their public libraries, and that libraries should be seen as "a centre of the community where exciting things are happening" . Robert Kirk, Head of e-government at West Sussex County Council, argues that libraries are a finite resource and therefore need to prioritise. For West Sussex, e-government is seen as the way forward because it underpins all public services. A quick trip around West Sussex's website revealed that several of their one stop shops (described as 'Help points' -"single points of contact for any enquiry by the public about any local government or health authority service in West Sussex") are based in libraries. Whichever model you favour, the new report from DCMS (see below) sees libraries playing a critical role in "promoting greater equality of access to and capability in using information, engaging in learning and acquiring knowledge".
Framework for the future, the DCMS review of public libraries , was expected to provide some of the answers, not only to what libraries should be doing, but how these activities might be funded once initial funding has ended. The framework was promised in Autumn 2002, and here it is at last - but does it deliver? It does provide praise and encouragement - especially for those on the 'right' track, but it does read a bit like an end of term school report - "Janet/John has done quite well but could do better". There is praise for libraries housed in bright, new, shiny buildings; the concept of library as physical space and tangible place seems to be making a come-back, despite the lure of the virtual model - the library "without walls", and the increasing trend in formal education towards e-learning.
The report then moves on to the nitty gritty stuff - the vision for the public library service for the next decade, which would take us to 2013 - quite a long time, given the rate at which government departments change their names, merge or even disappear completely. We may even have a change of government during this timeframe - what happens then? Arriving at this vision involved extensive consultation with the library community and beyond, and one might anticipate that something of major concern to this community i.e. funding, would be dealt with. A stakeholder group was appointed with representation from a host of organisations including the Basic Skills Agency, the Local Government Association, and the Office of the e-Envoy. There was input from the Advisory Council on Libraries, and the acknowledgments run to several pages. The day after publication, CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) ran a news item on their website headed: "'Essential' Public Libraries need resources to do the job". The article quotes Dr Bob McKee, CILIP's Chief Executive:
"As the report acknowledges, money for public libraries comes not from DCMS but from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister - and the Department for Education & Skills also has a strong potential interest, which is already recognised by the Education Secretary," Dr McKee points out. This fragmentation of the funding base is a systemic weakness referred to in the report, and Dr McKee believes that it contributes directly to the variation in standards of public library service across the country. "Much of the innovation praised in the report comes from fixed-term project or partnership funding which is not always provided through central government, "Dr McKee notes, "The core funding for the Reading Agency, for example, comes from various arts bodies and from CILIP." 
How these funding anomalies might be overcome seems to have been overlooked by DCMS, or perhaps they simply don't have any answers. Project funding is certainly the only means by which many libraries are able to develop and pilot new services, although the report did not highlight this fact. However, one could argue that the fact that certain libraries have successfully bid for funds indicates that they are proactive, and able to seize opportunities when they come along. Many libraries, however, will have lost out in the bidding process, whilst others may not have the resources to even contemplate applying for funds. Most projects disseminate the lessons they have learnt so that others may follow in their footsteps. However, developing new services requires cash, even when the groundwork has been done by others. Barry Cropper, Chair of the CILIP Executive Board, reinforces this message when he argues that building relationships with business "is no substitute for adequate core funding"; and that the public library service is a statutory service, which should be adequately supported by public spending .
Update, the CILIP magazine, devotes three pages of news to the framework in the March edition. "Framework or furore?" and "where is the leadership (and cash?)" - it asks . The selected views suggest that many feel the framework does not reach the parts it was expected to reach. It presents a balanced and fair view of the current situation, but fails to tackle the main issues. Bob Usherwood compares it unfavourably to a report from the Northern Ireland equivalent of DCMS , which includes 73 recommendations and several costed initiatives.
So what activities should libraries be focusing on? Gateshead Libraries have introduced a Weblog (described as "the world's hottest craze" in Guardian online ) and Peter Bolger ('RefDesk department') has posted a message which quotes Baroness Blackstone, Minister of State for the Arts, speaking at the launch of the framework:
Tessa Blackstone said: "Going to the library for books and general information has been part of our lives for more than a hundred years. Great literature is, without question, our country's greatest gift to the world's cultural heritage, and libraries are the means by which we share and celebrate it. Reading is essential to modern life, and a major source of pleasure for millions.
The Government is committed to public libraries and all that they stand for. Our strategy for their future makes promoting reading their key priority. Libraries also have - and will continue to have - a central role in helping people from all walks of life to be part of the communications revolution sweeping the world." 
So are the folk who advocated that reading and books should be the key priority right after all? Does this mean that People's Network computers are to be used solely to promote books and reading, and do we need a 59-page document to tell us that? Well, no, it is slightly more complex, as the Baroness's final sentence above suggests. There are four factors which libraries should consider when developing services:
Libraries should then concentrate on three main areas of activities, all of which meet the above criteria:
These areas of activity inter-relate and complement each other - they are not mutually exclusive. They meet the current political and economic agenda which is to build a skilled, literate (ICT skills and traditional literacy) citizenry who are employable, informed and contented, (well maybe the last one is a bit unrealistic). Traditional literacy skills are required before you can develop digital skills, and digital skills comprise information-handling and ICT skills. Reading fosters human qualities which can help improve quality of life and one's relationships with others; qualities such as imagination, creativity, emotional intelligence, spirituality, artistic sensibility and so on. Digital skills are essential for the workplace, and increasingly for citizenship as we enter the era of web-based government. Literacy skills are essential for survival in Western civilisation and for improved quality of life. The government aims to draw in those outside the system whilst education and lifelong learning are the raison d'être of libraries. Books, reading, and access to information and learning resources are a means to an end. In the words of the review: "...it is hard for people to be active citizens unless they can read newspapers and government publications" (4.4 page 24). Libraries should be promoting the skills and "the appetite for reading".
Many libraries are already making good progress in the areas identified in the framework. They tend to be located within local authorities where the potential of libraries has been identified and acknowledged. Some of these are 'beacon councils' which light the way for others, and they may also have achieved good ratings in the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) exercise . SOCITM (the Society of Information Technology Management), in the flier for their latest "Better Connected" report, note a strong correlation between well-developed websites and councils that have an excellent CPA result . I suspect that the same goes for library services - good libraries are located within councils that have identified their value in delivering the current agenda, and have allocated funds accordingly. Good leadership is also a critical success factor and library leadership is a hot topic, both here and in the United States and Australia, according to Sheila Corrall . There is a dearth of good candidates coming into library management at present and large numbers of senior managers are now approaching retirement. Public libraries will need people with the ability to manage change; people with vision and flair; people who thrive in a constantly changing environment, and who know how to put their libraries on the local, regional and national maps.
In the next issue, I will be dusting off the Ariadne telescope. I shall train it on one of the three key areas for future public library activity outlined in the Framework for the future report, namely: the 'access to digital skills and services (including e-government)' topic. The aim will be to seek out new life forms in the guise of innovative practice, pour encourager les autres, so to speak. I will, however, avoid focusing on libraries already highlighted in the DCMS report. This would violate the first law of 21st Century information professionalism, which states that under no circumstances must effort be duplicated or wheels reinvented (even if the original was designed for a handcart).
Your input would be most welcome. If you would like to share with Ariadne readers any successes you have had in providing access to digital services and skills, please send me an email at email@example.com. Thank you.