“New Birmingham Library Interior 2” by Tony Hisgett
Licensed under CC-BY 2.0
I have recently been investigating the situation of public library standards in the UK. I first encountered them as a library assistant working in England in 2004. The English standards were first introduced in 2001 to ensure that public money was being used effectively and to give transparency to what was considered a good quality resource. There were 19 standards in 2001 which were reduced to 10 in 2006. Two further revisions followed but by 2008 they quietly disappeared, replaced by the softer “Benchmarks”.
In the UK public libraries are free for any individual to join and to borrow books and other resources (some charges may apply, such as fines for the late return of books and borrowing other items). The vanished standards took into account the latest UK legislation on public libraries – the 1964 Libraries Act. Some 54 years later that act still stands and one of its main tenets is that local government authorities have to supply a library service to all anyone who wishes to visit a library and to all the population of the local authority.
“It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof…”
In recent years, as local authorities across the UK are trying to find financial efficiencies the above phrase has become a mantra for anyone, professional or public, who are desperately trying to keeps libraries open.
The standards measured such things as library distance from citizen’s homes, opening hours, electronic access, efficiency of book issues, customer care, staff qualifications and up to date stock. They were monitored and assessed by the then Department of Culture Media and Sport and heads of service were answerable. Back in 2004, the library authority where I worked took the standards very seriously. Even us lowly library assistants were trained in them, and we were expected to gather information daily about the use of the library.
I benefited from being given excellent training in customer care, equality awareness and a qualification in ICT. I was supported and encouraged to take a course in librarianship (distance learning), although the training budget did not stretch to paying the fees. Opening hours were scrutinised and adjusted to cover times when people could easily visit the libraries, at evenings, on Saturday afternoons and Sunday opening was being considered. the service was expanding.
Now, the very same service is contracting. Like many other local authorities before them they have stopped short of closing any static libraries, although both mobile libraries have gone. Opening hours have been reduced, homework clubs disappeared and staff numbers have dwindled. Soon there will be only one qualified librarian not in a management role. As I mentioned, they are not the only library authority that are doing this – there are many pressures on local government.
The other UK home nations have different strategies. Scotland does not have Standards, but it does have the “How good is our public library service” framework which is a rigorous self assessment and forward planning tool that is peer reviewed and reported on behalf of SLIC, the Scottish Library and Information Council, which is an independent advisory body for the Scottish Government. This framework is closely linked to a National strategy for public libraries in Scotland, the current iteration being: Ambition & Opportunity The framework and strategy are prompts for library managers to scrutinise their library service ensuring that tax payers receive high quality service and value for money. Note that SLIC is a Scottish charity, not the Scottish Government itself although it works on it’s behalf.
The Welsh Government does have Welsh Public Library Standards (WPLS), which are administered through MALD, the Museums, Archives and Libraries Division, part of the Welsh Government’s civil service. The current framework is Connected and Ambition Libraries which has an accompanying guide called How good is your public library. These are confusingly similar titles to the Scottish Framework. The Welsh Public Library Standards comprise 12 core entitlements and 16 quality indicators. As for the Scottish framework, there is an element of self assessment by library management with the addition of the future direction of the library. Similarly, the purpose is to ensure that Welsh tax payers receive a high quality service with money being spent well. These standards are assessed annually, reviewed by an independent adviser and peer-reviewed.
Northern Island also has Public Library Standards which are assessed, although I do not know the assessment mechanism. It appears to be by centrally sourced surveys and data from the Northern Ireland Library management system. The 12 standards cover the same sort of areas as WPLS and the Scottish strategy. They are based on a Northern Ireland government act, The Libraries Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 which states :
“…to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service for persons living, working or studying in Northern Ireland.”
The main difference is that there is only one public library service that covers all of Northern Ireland, and it is part of the Northern Irish Department for Communities, whereas Wales, Scotland and England have multiple library services as part of local government.
So what is the point of having these standards, or strategic framework, apart from providing a checklist of good practice and demonstrating value? In my opinion, it is so that things are done. If someone has to look at what they are doing, if they have to count, assess, gather statistics, collect evidence they are paying attention to what is happening in their service and issues can be solved before they get out of hand and achievements can be noticed and celebrated.
Guidelines are good, as long as they are voluntarily followed, but when there are multiple pressures on services and their employees, it is the statutory actions that are prioritised. Standards are better, because even if a service knows that they cannot fully achieve a standard, they will work towards it and the issue receives a higher priority than it would otherwise. Similarly, standards give justification to actions, such as increasing the book-fund, or training staff. Standards also stimulate creativity. If you don’t have the money to achieve a standard, find a way around the problem, for collaborating with another organisation or simply coming up with an inventive idea. For example, several Welsh Authorities are collaborating with FE colleges to provide library and information qualifications to library staff.
Surely it is time that England had standards again?