What is comprehensive & efficient?

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.

Addendum

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

6 thoughts on “What is comprehensive & efficient?

  1. Dec 2010 : “Efficient” library service means change, says Vaizey http://www.thebookseller.com/news/efficient-library-service-means-change-says-vaizey

    Mr Vaizey’s interpretation of “efficient” in the 1964 Act is that it means ‘economic efficiency’. However, please note: there is NO indication in the 1964 Act that the Minister’s definition applies.

    A dictionary definition of the word ‘efficent’ is: “performing or functioning in the best possible manner”. That, I believe, is what the 1964 Act intends.

    Be careful what you wish for, Leon. Consider, before asking for a re-draft of the Act, that you risk getting a piece of Legislation that expresses current Tory and New Labour ideology. Redefining “efficient” in the Act will get you Vaizey’s skewed definition of it, as sure as eggs are eggs.

    Incidentally, Vaizey was very sensitive about the importance of the 1964 Act when in Opposition. If you or others want proof of this, I have to hand e-links which I am happy to supply.

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  2. Pingback: Library News Round-up: 20 August 2015 | The Library Campaign

  3. 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

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  4. The definition of the term I would suggest could be reasoned from the usage of the words constituting the term in the documentation leading up to the formulation of the Act – the Roberts report, Parliamentary proceedings (readings), professional press, etc.

    Comprehensive I would suggests includes the usual sense when applied to a library, a full range of literature (the full breadth of our literary heritage in fact, to include not just books but also library items in other media formats – namely audio). Efficient if you read the Roberts report you will note actually is used in the sense of how efficient it is for a borrower to obtain an item – if an item requires more time, money, resources otherwise than the end result is worth then people will not make use of the resource.

    Some politicians I’ve arrived at the conclusion have been playing on the confusion surrounding the issue for political ends, almost it seems instead of clarifying deliberating confusing people further.

    An aspect of the Act that a barrister will confirm is that an Act of Parliament should be enacted in the ‘spirit’ with which the Act was brought into being – arguments as to the exact meaning and semantics can also be argued in these terms (and probably more effectively).

    There is scope for research here if anyone can do this (or if not already researched) – relevant documentation includes not only the Act itself, that of the committees leading up to and involved in formulating the Act, but the instructions issued to councils by the Home Secretary following the final reading.

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    • A quick note – it is probably more accurate to say ‘the full breadth of the nation’s literary culture and heritage’. The libraries were to provide the full breadth of literature of interest to the public, not purely that which was judged to be of literary merit, and including also ethnic minorities. The Act preceded comprehensive education by a year, but in a similar manner (after a fashion at least) comprehensive schools brought under one roof secondary modern, secondary technical and grammar education.

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  5. A note on the word ‘spirit’, from ch. 5 of Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar, “self-concordant goals inspire–literally can put the spirit in us”. The 1964 Act was prompted by local government reforms, however I would suggest very much inspired by the vision of a quality library service and for all. From what I can gather at the point that I last looked at this (several years ago) and from no more than a quick scan of information found on the Web, one or more MPs can and presumably at the request of constituents make a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman that an authority is not meeting statutory requirements. An authority though is not under an obligation if the authority quite simply does not have the funds.

    As to the standards these were expected to be reviewed and to change over the years (e.g., it was not long following 1964 that we became a one car per household nation). However I’m not sure it is correct to say the standards have been completely removed, possibly only there not now being a requirement for authorities to carry out an audit to show they are meeting standards. The web page for the most recent incarnation, the ‘MLA Library Benchmark’ seems to no longer be live. My own notes on the subject can be found here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Where_It_Is_Mine/The_Modern_History_of_Public_Libraries_in_England

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