Comment on Arts Council England “Culture, knowledge and understanding” report

The Arts Council England (A.C.E.) recently published “Culture, knowledge and understanding: great museums and libraries for everyone“, which is its first major publication covering libraries since it was announced that A.C.E. would take over the responsibility for them from the Museums Libraries and Archives Council.
It explains what the Arts Council considers as important and what they are planning to do. It starts with a summary of the situation, including this paragraph which rebuts the arguments of people who say libraries are naturally declining, stagnating or middle class:

“Although public libraries have seen a decrease in the numbers of people borrowing books, evidence shows that where there has been strategic investment – such as in promoting children’s reading – visits rise. And patterns of use are changing, with a significant increase in users accessing services digitally. Libraries have innovated in response, offering enhanced digital provision and actively promoting libraries as local social spaces which can draw in and support new users. Unlike museums or the arts, differences in people’s socio-economic status do not affect their likelihood of using a library; neither does illness or having a disability.” (p.9/10)

The Council makes very clear that they do not have large amounts of money.  In fact, they have far less than the old MLA and so are keen on things which save money while still continuing the service:

 “The Arts Council is keen to see museums and libraries continuing to innovate in their approaches to engaging with communities and making more effective use of volunteers; we are keen to see them working together to achieve this” (p.11)

This above quote shows, and it is a recurring theme in the document, the importance of Museums, Arts and Libraries in working together and learning from each other in order to spread good ideas and make the most of less money.  Similarly, the Arts Council is not against outsourcing, be it private or through trusts.  They especially like the idea of philanthropy:

“Museums and libraries similarly need to strengthen their business models, diversify their income streams and look at new ways of encouraging private giving and supporting enterprise. Likewise, they need to continue to explore new ways of collaborating and improving efficiency in order to thrive
not just survive.” (p.12)

The document lists five aims.  These are listed in colourful management-speak and would be relatively meaningless to show here in their original form.  However, a rough translation of the aims is:
  1. Funding new initiatives that show original thinking, especially if they will save money
  2. To get more people to use libraries
  3. To find ways of surviving with less council money
  4. A lessening in the dominance of white middle class staff
  5. Encourage more children in

The Council is keen on advocacy work for libraries and working with the Local Government Group, Society of Chief Librarians and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals “to develop clear messages about the public value libraries can provide and a shared vision for the library service in 10 years’ time.”.  It is perhaps at least good to see that the Council thinks libraries will still be here in 2021.

Other key points raised in the report were:
  • Libraries are at the heart of the community and are not just “nice to have”.
  • They are innovative.
  • The quality of services they provide is important.
  • They need to be invested in.
  • Communities want to be involved in the development of library services they receive.
  • Libraries help create empowered citizens and this ability to empower should be expanded right across the broader arts sector.
  • Digital access to information is important, but A.C.E. also recognises that not everything is accessible digitally/online and not everyone wants to, or can access services in this way.
  • Rural services may be able to benefit from collaboration across the arts sector.
  • Libraries have a broader impact on our wider life experiences.
  • A.C.E. recognises the educational, knowledge and informative roles libraries have, as much as their arts/cultural role.
  • Advocacy is essential at all levels of the profession.
  • Relationships and partnerships between libraries and all sectors need to be developed.

It’s encouraging to see that the report is so positive about the role/services libraries can and do provide and how they are developing to meet users needs. The acknowledgement that libraries provide opportunities for citizens that other arts sector areas don’t, but can take advantage of in the future, is important, as it demonstrates that libraries do have a uniqueness and this is partly why they have a key role to play in the future. However, how does the steady increase of removing professional staff from libraries and replacing them with volunteers tie in with A.C.E.’s acknowledgement of the importance of providing quality services?

It’s important that the report also goes some way to allaying fears that the Arts Council may have placed its focus on the cultural/arts aspects of libraries at the expense of education and knowledge, etc.

As indicated earlier in this post, the Arts Council does have a 10 year plan, but for this year, the main activity, appears to be simply to continue with the Future Libraries Programme with guidance from the Local Government Group, which may cause some worries amongst those who do not highly regard it. There are certain aspects of this programme that aren’t necessarily seen as successful by local communities or the library profession, especially when they involve reductions in service.

It is worth noting that you can email your views as to what you think is important for the Arts Council to consider to  Get emailing.

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