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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."
 

ISC 17. Framework for the future: or the present?

John Pateman

Framework for the Future: libraries, learning and information in the next decade , Department for Culture, Media and Sport, February 2003

One thing which forcibly struck me when reading the government's Framework for the Future (DCMS, 2003) was how familiar much of its content seemed. All of the pictures and stories about best practice appeared to me to be nothing more than descriptions of what a good public library service should be today - not in ten years time. And yet the Framework is about Libraries, Learning and Information in the next decade. The vision takes us to 2013 but the contents are very much rooted in 2003.

My concern is that many Chief Librarians will draw great comfort from the Framework because they can easily produce evidence to show how they are already doing it. And the last thing we need is comfortable Chief Librarians; what we need is a Framework which will make Chief Librarians uncomfortable enough to have to start transforming their library services so that they can better meet the needs of their communities.

Tessa Blackstone puts great emphasis on this issue of libraries meeting community needs. In her introduction she talks about library services which are "adapted to local need" and her vision of the library service is that it should be "able to respond to the needs of society". But the Framework which follows is not a strategy for meeting needs: it is evolutionary when it should be revolutionary; it is modernising when it should be transforming; and it is deregulatory when it should be interventionist.

The Framework is based on a number of fundamental myths and misconceptions about public libraries. It is claimed that they are "open to all" when all the research evidence suggests that they are only actively used by 30% of the population; two out of three library users are middle class; and libraries are massively underused by Black communities, Travellers, refugees, asylum seekers, the homeless and other marginalised groups. Libraries are used most by those who need them least; and they are used least by those who need them most.

Another myth is that libraries offer "neutral welcoming community space" and they are "run by committed staff". The experience of some library users does not support these contentions. Some libraries are seen as threatening and intimidating environments where systems, procedures, staff attitudes and behaviours are positively off putting. These issues are not addressed in the Framework. The view is that a few more computers, some building improvements and staff training will solve the problem. It will not. What is needed is a radical transformation of public libraries along the lines of Open to All? The Public Library and Social Exclusion (Resource, 2000).

Having made these initial criticisms, there is much in the Framework to be welcomed and applauded. It notes a "tendency amongst libraries to focus on current users rather than non-users, and patterns of opening hours which do not match the needs of would-be users". And there is recognition that "there has been little turnover of the workforce at senior level, promotion opportunities are limited and there is an urgent need to develop a new generation of library leaders".

The Framework also makes a brave attempt to put some flesh on the bare bones of the 1964 Public Libraries Act. We now know that the government's definition of a "comprehensive and efficient" public library service is one which:

  • promotes reading and informal learning
  • provides access to digital skills and services including e-government
  • tackles social exclusion, builds community identity and develops citizenship

In terms of books, learning and reading it is time that the issues of what books are selected by public libraries, and by whom, should be addressed. It is not surprising that only 59% of users find the book they come to borrow or use, when book selection is dominated by white middle class professional librarians choosing books from the arid stocks of multi national companies. Book selection should be thrown open to the community; the books are bought with their money, and they should have a big say in what is purchased.

With regard to digital citizenship, this has received a huge boost through the People's Network and the New Opportunity Fund. But care should be taken that the People's Network does not become a free public subsidy for middle class users seeking to reduce their Internet bills. The service should be focussed and targeted on those who need it most, including those who do not have access at home. No library authority should be allowed to charge people for using the Network, and filtering software and Acceptable User Policies should not be used to censor access and create a second class service.

But the real opportunities for public libraries are to be found in the third strand of the Framework: libraries have the potential to play an important role in the promotion of community and civic values. Libraries must become relevant to the needs of the communities they serve. Failure to do so will threaten their very survival. Libraries must survey and review community needs, focussing particularly on the needs of the people who do not currently use them. The success of the Framework should be measured by how many new and different people start to use their local libraries.

The Framework will not be delivered by throwing more money at libraries or making sure that Chief Librarians are first or second tier officers. In the past when Chief Librarians had the power and the resources to meet community needs, they still failed to do so. Instead, as the Framework says, library authorities must "look critically at how they use their existing resources and arrive at decisions locally about the balance of priorities". Where this approach has been taken, in places like Leicester and Merton, the library service has been radically transformed.

One final criticism - the Framework is heavy on carrots but light on sticks. Public libraries have been reluctant to change for 150 years. The introduction of Annual Library Plans and Public Library Standards were a big move in the right direction. For the first time there was some real scrutiny of public library policies, practices and performance. Proof that they were effective could be found in the high level of whingeing and complaining about them by Chief Librarians and professional staff. If the Framework is to be delivered we need an Office for the Improvement of Public Libraries (Oflib) with the same powers of monitoring, inspection and intervention as Ofsted.

 

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