Providing a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ is considered the touchstone of library provision and a constant refrain during campaigns to save libraries from closure. The notion is enshrined in law through the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and until 2010 there was little reason to fully discuss, let alone define, what this actually meant. After all, we all knew what it meant, right! In the best progressive tradition libraries were not only considered a good thing by their very existence but de facto ‘efficient & comprehensive’ became synonymous with expansion: more libraries, more staff, more resources to cater for a growing population and expanding towns and cities.
Only twice has a government felt compelled to conduct a formal public inquiry into local authorities plans for library closures: once in Derbyshire in 1991, and more significantly in the Wirral in 2009. Unfortunately, such intervention was short-lived as were the lessons learned.
The election of 2010 and the introduction of an austerity driven coalition government resulted in a rude awakening for the library sector including the abolition of the MLA and the Advisory Council on Libraries. Faced with large scale reductions, deprofessionalisation, and the steadfast non-intervention by the Minister of State for Culture – who for decades it was thought would always intercede for the benefit of libraries – the great cornerstone of library protection turned out to be more fiction than fact.
The difficulty is that no one is able to define what comprehensive and efficient actually means, at least not to the extent that meets general consensus and acceptance. For some the term is associated with an extensive network of physical buildings and paid staff, while to others the term is equally applicable to few service points but with reliance on technology such as RFID, 24/7 online services, wifi, and mobile apps for libraries.
Some authorities consider volunteer libraries to form part of their statutory provision and thus retain the characteristics of a comprehensive service, while many campaigners would take issue with this approach. Because the term is not defined in the 1964 Act it is open to a wide variety of interpretations.
Even during judicial reviews the courts have refused to get drawn into the quagmire of a legal definition, concentrating instead on the technical aspects of the consultation process.The MLA had produced a checklist for local authorities to use but again this has more to do with the process rather than defining terms or meaning.
Thus, the concept has failed so ‘comprehensively’ (pun intended) that Herefordshire Council can now seriously suggest reducing library provision down to a single main library, with the remaining taken over by volunteers or being self-service only.
So the question becomes that if the notion is no longer fit for purpose does it need replacing and if so what with? I realise this will be a contentious and in some quarters heretical suggestion but to continue with a principle that has become so outdated and impractical allows others to control the narrative to the disadvantage of meaningful library provision.
In my submission to the Sieghart Review I suggested that a set of core principles and values should be established similar to that which underpins the NHS. These principles should be regulated nationally but with scope for local interpretation.
For example, principles for the public library service might include:
- Free access and membership for all
- Provision of and access to information in appropriate formats e.g. online resources
- Access to books in all formats
- Provision of a community space – for individual study, lifelong learning, workshops, and changing expectations e.g. maker spaces/hack spaces
- Access to economic wellbeing opportunities – recognising the economic roles of libraries e.g. providing access to employment and benefits information, facilities for job hunting, re-skilling, and innovative approaches such as business hubs and enterprising libraries
The Voices for the Library manifesto is similar in advocating for a defined level of service including paid staff and professional librarians.
Such core principles should be overseen by an independent body that recognises the specific opportunities and remit of public libraries, enables evidence based research, sets standard, shares best practice, and provides advice to the relevant government departments and Minister for Culture. Perhaps along the lines of the Scottish Library & Information Council.
The term ‘comprehensive’ and efficient’ is no longer helpful and is inadequate to capture the changing nature of library provision. It lacks definition, is relative, and in many instances unquantifiable and could more usefully be replaced with a set of core principles and values as outlined above.
The principles and values should be based on continuing free access to literacy, learning and information and underpin the social value and instrumental role libraries play in creating a literate and educated population.
A detailed account of the now defunct library standards and relation to the 1964 Act can be found on Public Library News: Public Library Standards in England.
In a twitter conversation with Nick Poole, CEO of Cilip, he quite rightly points out that standards and regulation are needed to underpin the principle of ‘comprehensive and efficient’. I totally agree and the NHS principles & values I highlighted are obviously underpinned by standards & regulation.
Nick also points out that industry standards might prove useful. Again I agree and look forward to Cilip developing some as well as stating what its view of ‘comprehensive & efficient’ is. After all, if the professional body for librarians is unable to define the term what hope has anyone got!
Situation in Wales (from Alyson Tyler)
Wales is a lot smaller than England, but your readers might be interested in the Welsh Public Library Standards, which have been in operation since 2002. Frameworks run on a three year cycle. The current framework has 18 core entitlements which sound much like your principles and values, and also 16 quality indicators, some of which have targets, some of which can be benchmarked, and some of which are impact measures. No system is perfect and not everyone agrees on everything of course. http://gov.wales/topics/cultureandsport/museums-archives-libraries/libraries/standards/?lang=en