Changing face of public libraries

At the SCONUL Access Contacts AGM (more of which later) I attended a talk given by Ciara Eastell on the Changing Face of Public Libraries.

Ciara is the President of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and Head of Libraries, Culture and Heritage at Devon CC.  She spoke about many of the challenges faced by public libraries today, many of which I knew about but had never really spent time thinking about.  It is hard to talk about many of these things without getting slightly political, but I will endeavour to remain neutral, in true BBC fashion.

Ciara’s main point was that customer needs are changing and public libraries are adapting, or will have to adapt, to this in a number of ways.

Community Level

For example, the austerity cuts and associated welfare reforms and job seeking changes have resulted in everything being put online, yet 1/5th of the population still do not have internet access, and many do not have the resources or skills needed to access and use the forms needed to apply for benefits.  This is putting a huge pressure on public libraries, an issue that has largely been ignored by policy makers.

Another change is that people are now looking for experiences rather than transactions.  They want to gain more from interacting with the library service but cuts are driving services towards a  pared down transactional approach, away from delivering a cultural experience that enriches people’s lives.

Local Authority Level

Local authorities are seeing increasing demands for services, particularly in Adult Social Care, whilst still having to cut budgets by tens of millions.  This is resulting in smaller and smaller budgets for libraries.  One way of saving some money is moving towards the co-location of services.  Buildings cost a lot to buy/rent and run; reducing the property portfolio and operating services in new and innovative ways reduces costs.  Libraries are already public facing and are proving an ideal place to bring services together.

Local authorities are also changing how libraries are run, with Suffolk and York libraries becoming Industrial and Provident Societies, with Devon to follow suit in 2016.  This means that they are no longer part of the local authority, but instead are owned and run by the local community and the staff.  Being a mutual also allows access to a wider range of funding opportunities and protection from the challenges faced by local authorities.  This model of library service is still very new to the UK, it will be interesting to see how Suffolk, York and Devon fare in the coming years.

 National Level

In December 2014 the Independent library report for England was published, making a number of recommendations.  In order to implement these recommendations a Leadership for Libraries Task Force has been set up.  The Task Force have set themselves a number of challenging aims, including providing free WiFi at all UK libraries by April 2016 and setting up e-lending.  They also want to see a move away from the ‘negative national public narrative’ around public libraries.

To facilitate these the SCL will launch a Universal Learning Offer (expected November 2015).  By signing up public libraries agree to provide many things, including access to free resources, access to spaces, opportunities for exploration and creation.  The exact details have yet to be published, but it looks as though there will be stretch offers (i.e. beyond the basic aims) that include involvement with those studying on MOOCs and facilitating family learning for vulnerable families.  The other Universal Offers that the SCL have developed have had a very high uptake, so it is likely this will too.


It was really interesting to hear someone from public libraries talk about the day to day challenges they face both at the local level as well as the national strategic challenges faced.  We have our own challenges in HE and we can often lose sight of what else is happening in the wider profession, events like these are a useful way to keep up to date and gain a broad overview of other areas of our profession.


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