Today has seen the publication of William Sieghart's Independent Library Report. We welcome the recognition of the 'remarkable and vital value' a good library service offers to local communities but also the need to re-invigorate the network and support it with a national strategy that drives advocacy and action. The Society of Chief Librarians' Universal Offers, which we support in the areas of reading and health, and the Arts Council's Envisioning Libraries of the Future strategy provide a strong foundation on which to build and roll out this national thinking. The report rightly emphasises that libraries are operating in a rapidly changing world and need to adapt accordingly, which makes the case for a national strategy and for local investment in the service even more vital.
We know that continued austerity is having a major impact on local government. All public services, including libraries, are having to make a strong case for sustained funding and investment; however good the case they make, in many places there is fierce competition for the limited resources available. We therefore welcome the emphasis placed in this report on the wide ranging contribution libraries make to society both as physical and virtual spaces and as service providers. Our own submission to the working group focused in the essential role libraries play in delivering a wide range of important community services including health, learning and cultural enrichment, often for some of our most vulnerable and excluded communities. It also covered the way in which we work with our library partners to assist with the development and delivery of their Universal Offers around reading and health, to support new thinking and innovation as well as scaling up local best practice, ensuring reach, impact and economies of scale.
From the base of our library partnership our programmes like the Summer Reading Challenge, Reading Well Books on Prescription, the Six Book Challenge and Reading Activists now run in prisons, colleges, workplaces, hospitals and schools reaching over 1.5 million people every year. This demonstrates the benefits which come from an approach which has all the efficiency of a shared national service but which is local at the point of delivery. We therefore agree that partnership working is critical to delivering a high quality service in the future and we hope that there will be strong local government engagement with, as well as leadership of, the proposed taskforce to help identify and disseminate the new approaches. This will be needed to help the service to develop and thrive in the future.
Community engagement and workforce development
We also welcome the strong emphasis placed on the value of community engagement with and support for libraries. The suggestion of a TeachFirst-style programme is a great idea. We agree that we need to start thinking now about building the workforce of the future; it is why we are increasingly building a strong volunteering element into all our own programmes. The evaluation of our Reading Activists programme for young people identified the impact volunteering in libraries has had on their skills and confidence and we have already seen some of the Summer Reading Challenge volunteers securing paid posts in libraries.
We do however think it is important to recognise the distinction between the knowledge and expertise provided by professional library staff, and the help provided by volunteers, so we welcome the recommendations around creating best practice guidelines in this area and building the library workforce of the future.
Digital infrastructure and content
The report rightly calls for investment in library digital infrastructure and content. Ofcom says that '83% of adults now go on-line using any type of device in any location' and identifies user generated content as 'an important information source for users'. We played a key role in the development of the Library 21 concept with Arts Council England, which explored the benefits of libraries working with our publisher partners to provide dynamic new reader-focused or cultural content.
We are looking forward to working alongside library and publisher partners to move this onto the next stage and to ensure that everyone can access the data, information and resources they need to manage their own lives and to engage with their communities and with society as a whole. How we measure the impact of this investment and of the service more broadly is something which we are very interested in: it is our view that we need other more sophisticated tools than library loans to measure the reach and impact of the services libraries provide. We are investing heavily in this area for our own reading for pleasure and health programmes with the support of the Peter Sowerby Foundation.
We all hoped that the report would come with investment; given the tough economic climate we currently live in we recognise that it is not going to be easy to resource the recommendations outlined here. What we very much hope is that national and local government will recognise the case Sieghart is making for sustained engagement with a service which can and does have a critical role to play in creating literate, connected, employable, healthy, happy and engaged communities. We hope that they will work with partners to implement the recommendations, deliver key national agendas and to build public libraries into their broader national and local infrastructure, investment and delivery plans. We welcome the role which has been proposed for us in the report and look forward to working with the task force to identify and disseminate the best practice and new delivery models needed to create the 21st century library service.
Sue Wilkinson, Chief Executive, The Reading Agency
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