Much ado about nothing…the Sieghart report

Well it’s finally here, the Independent Library Report for England, and as expected it caused frenetic activity and reaction on social media. Despite being published on the same day as the local government settlement for 2015-16 and the day before Parliament broke up for recess, the report still managed to garnish plenty of media coverage. I listened to Sieghart and Mark Taylor (Cilip) being interviewed on Radio 4 on my drive into work.

Other coverage included the BBC’s ‘libraries must emulate coffee shops’, an editorial in the Independent Romantic fiction: A review of libraries that fails to address the real problem, which the Bookseller thought was wrong and rejoined with Sieghart: on the money. Cilip regarded the report as offering a ‘convincing road map‘ albeit with some reservations. The Library Campaign also welcomed the report although considered it ‘pallid’ in places (the comment by Shirley Burnham and reply from Laura Swaffield are also worth noting).

Lauren Smith makes some telling observations on her blog and no doubt the report will continue to be digested and debated on social media for weeks and months to come. So a very mixed bag and wide spectrum of opinions with more to follow.

The report contained some important positives particularly around improved IT e.g. universal Wifi, supporting digital literacy, e-lending, and improving standards of service and the physical estate. All very sensible but equally quite costly, and there’s the rub; there was no mention of where the finance to accomplish this was to come from.

Another sensible, at least at face value, suggestion was the creation of a national task force to lead on the recommendations of the report. While sound in principle the execution however leaves much to be desired with the task force consisting of the same organisations and bodies that have so far failed to provide the strategic leadership needed in the sector. Unfortunately, it’s a case of the usual suspects with the man tasked (excuse the pun) with leading the group, Paul Blantern, having very definite and preconceived notions on how libraries should operate.

There is much more within the report to analyse and it is perhaps more nuanced that it first appears. It is a topic I will be returning to time and again especially as the outcomes of the report become more apparent. That said I have to admit that my initial response is one of disappointment. This was perhaps the best opportunity for a long time to create a serious and realistic narrative around libraries. Unfortunately, it appears to be more of a superficial short story than a deep, meaningful novel, defined more by what it didn’t say than what it did.

6 thoughts on “Much ado about nothing…the Sieghart report

  1. Did Sieghart properly answer any of the questions he was asked, for example:

    1. What are the core principles of a public library service into the future?

    Here is what his response should have been.
    Below please find 6 (six) paragraphs that are absent, on which all the Report’s recommendations could and should have been firmly based. These six paragraphs ought to have served as the Report’s introduction. Their absence robs the Report of coherency, structure and meaning – rendering it, in my view, a pretty futile exercise.

    The Six Paragraphs missing, in response to Question 1:

    ” The Public Library shall in principle be free of charge. The public library is the responsibility of local and national authorities. It must be supported by specific legislation and financed by national and local governments. It has to be an essential component of any long-term strategy for culture, information provision, literacy and education.

    Freedom, prosperity and the development of society and individuals are fundamental human values. They will only be attained through the ability of well-informed citizens to exercise their democratic rights and to play an active role in society. Constructive participation and the development of democracy depend on satisfactory education as well as on free and unlimited access to knowledge, thought, culture and information. The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups.

    “To ensure nationwide library coordination and cooperation, legislation and strategic plans must also define and promote a national library network based on agreed standards of service.

    The services of the public library are provided on the basis of equality of access for all, regardless of age, race, sex, religion, nationality, language or social status. Services have to be physically accessible to all members of the community. This requires well situated library buildings, good reading and study facilities, as well as relevant technologies and sufficient opening hours convenient to the users. It equally implies outreach services for those unable to visit the library.

    The librarian is an active intermediary between users and resources. Professional and continuing education of the librarian is indispensable to ensure adequate services.

    Key missions – which relate to information, literacy, education and culture – should be at the core of public library services ”

    Source: http://www.unesco.org/webworld/libraries/manifestos/index_manifestos.html

    Furthermore, Leon:
    Will any council, anywhere have any reason to to take any notice of this Sieghart report and change anything they would otherwise have done ? No.

    Should the panel have thought about that when writing the report ? YES.

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  2. Pretty much my views as well. The only new player seems to be the BBC which, coupled with the suggestion that the British Library should lead the task force, emphasises the underlying but unstated view that we are already living in an entirely digital age and that all we have to do to catch up – or even lead (oh the arrogance!) the way forward for the global public library market is to fully commit to digital.

    And yet even Sieghart himself mentioned the 20% of our population that have no access to the Internet. Will free wifi in libraries improve that statistic – or will it simply mean that the “As & Bs” of society will have an alternative to Starbucks and McDonalds?

    Clearly the future is digital – for at least the next ten years – but it may not yet be time to ditch the existing collections altogether, maybe there’s a reason why public libraries in other countries haven’t done so?

    It’s impossible to disagree with the overall aspirations of the report but I think it’s not unreasonable to be disappointed by the suggested remedies – which for the most part offer little that is new and appear not to have considered many of the existing technical obstacles to realising some of its most fundamental suggestions. Local government IT attitudes to library networks for example, (how long did it take to get them to allow libraries to create Facebook pages in the PA sponsored project?) – and creating a single library card will require negotiation with authorities like Bracknell Forest who incorporate theirs in a local card for all services, not to mention the probable need to re-register every library user in the country.

    Creating a vision is a vital activity – it’s what moves us forward – but sometimes it’s worth talking to those who may be required to deliver it as well.

    My personal view remains that with a universally acknowledged lack of technical expertise in our public library service the need for a national agency to fill that skills gap, to communicate the strategic vision of libraries to the market, and develop solutions that are open, affordable and deliverable to all remains paramount.

    Maybe the task force will reach the same conclusion before the last branch closes.

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  3. As ever an excellent review by Leon on the recent long awaited and anticipated report by Sieghart.

    However is it too little too late and at the wrong time for government money or interest in libraries/

    I fear it is.

    How will this be carried forward, what can the movers/shakers, employees and employers in the fast disappearing world of public libraries do to SAVE public libraries. Very little I suspect. Local authorities are facing more cuts, and as Lord Matthew Evans said years ago, ‘there is no shroud factor’ in public libraries. He was right of course , no one died of not getting to a library, BUT many people are saved from loneliness, lack of access to books, journals, information, internet and many many other service the public library offers.

    I am reminded though of a superb report in 2003, yes almost 12 years ago., this was a brilliant report with a plan, and a warning about the time scale. It was by Charlie Leadbeater, and I copy below:-

    Home > 2003 > January > Overdue: How to Create a Modern Public Service Library
    Overdue: How to Create a Modern Public Service Library
    Charlie Leadbeater 1 January 2003 0
    This report, written in 2003, warned of the impending crisis of the public library service. Many of its warnings have come true in the face of the austerity since 2008.
    The report argues that decisive action was needed to safeguard public libraries. Public libraries used to be central to the life of many communities but they are increasingly marginalised. People now get books and information from other sources. Libraries need to respond by making themselves more attractive, while building on their traditional strengths.
    This report recommends the creation of a new national library development agency (NLDA) which would bring together all library stakeholders from national and local government. A crucial job for the new agency would be to create a libraries network to tackle the fragmentation of the existing service. The report goes on to describe a 10-year strategy for transforming libraries. It recommends the creation of library ‘hubs’, based in shopping centres, which learned the lessons of more attractive retail environments by blending learning and leisure.

    So, here we are in almost 2015, and nothing has changed except the increasing numbers of libraries that have closed or are run by volunteers. The writing is no longer on the wall it is totally engraved on the tomb stone of libraries.

    France Hendrix
    19.12.14
    Frances@martinhousefarm.com

    Frances Hendrix

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  6. Having read and digested the contents of the Sieghart report, is seems to me a fairly poor document for all the time, money and effort it has taken. To paraphrase Monty Python – 30-odd pages of stating the blooming obvious, and a list of recommendations it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to compile.

    And all those recommendations require to enact will be money and expertise – money which is currently being drained from libraries through swingeing cuts, and expertise being lost as those in more senior positions consider the variety of retirement options open to them or, worse still, have retirement forced upon them.

    It is a great shame that the report is so non-confrontational. True, that is more likely to play better with our political masters, but really it is not what is needed. As it stands, public libraries in the form they ought to be look likely to be a thing of the past inside two electoral terms – maybe less, depending on who gets elected in 2015 – as funding continues to be siphoned away from the service, people leave in their droves and young graduates see it as a non-viable career choice? How can it be that the best way to improve something always starts by cutting funding?

    I appreciate that public library services stand at a crossroads, and that pushing too hard too soon might be counter-productive. But there are things that needed saying forcefully that weren’t (like stop cutting before there is nothing left to resurrect). And the implication that library services were not currently trying hard enough to be all the things Sieghart describes as desirable in the new models should have been roundly refuted – whatever these new models may look like (BTW, don’t be mistaken in thinking that Northamptonshire libraries are a paragon of all that is good in a modern service – all NCC are interested in is shrinking local government to it’s smallest possible size).

    So, in short, we have to conclude that the report is nothing more than a missed opportunity. It’s a shame, but there we are.

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