What’s your vision for libraries?

What should a 21st century public library service look like? (Image c/o Landeshauptstadt Stuttgart on Flickr).

Voices for the Library needs your help.  We want to create a manifesto for public libraries, a clear vision for what we believe a 21st Century library service should look like and how it should be delivered.  We have been fighting library closures across the country for a long time. When we formed Voices For The Library our intention was to highlight the positive aspects of public libraries, but our energy has been focused on fighting the immediate threat to them. Consequently we haven’t had time to build a picture of what libraries should be.  It is time to express a clear vision, so that when politicians and the media ask the question we can clearly articulate what a library service should deliver.

Until now there has been no attempt to communicate a strong statement about the basic standards we expect of our libraries in the UK, or a clear vision for the future for public libraries.  We want you, everybody who uses, loves, works in, or needs libraries, to share your ideas and tell us your vision for public libraries.  What services should they provide?  How should they be provided?  Who should run libraries? How should they be staffed?  We want you to help us to devise and communicate this vision to the media and government.

If you have any ideas that you would like to share, why not post them in the comments below (click comments at the top of this post)? If you are on Twitter use the hashtag #libfesto or join our Facebook group to share your thoughts.  So tell us: what do you think a 21st century public library service should look like?

28 thoughts on “What’s your vision for libraries?

  1. Shirley Burnham

    The “university of the street corner” should be ‘on the street corner’ – accessible, not a journey away.

    It should be a public service, run be trained staff and managed by Library professionals.

    Its core function should be to loan books, promote reading for pleasure, encourage reading and literacy and show dedication to these primary aims.

    It will also provide access to the Internet and be staffed by individuals with no personal agenda or axe to grind. These who will assist people to stay up to date with new technology.

    The local library will be identifiable as a ‘Library’ – recognised as the first port-of-call for those seeking information or desiring to undertake quiet study, reading for pleasure and research.

    ‘Updating’ libraries should not be an excuse to reduce their bookstock, their paid staff, their accessibility or their core functions.

  2. David Kenvyn

    A public library should meet the reading needs of its local population – whether that be for information, education or recreation, and it should provide that reading material in any formats required by its users – printed, downloadable, electronic, large print, spoken word – so that it meets the needs of all its readers.

    A public library should be a cultural beacon for its local community, encouraging a love especially of literature, music, poetry, drama, but also of all the arts, and all the forms of the arts.

    A public library should encourage literacy and mumeracy, encourage people to extend the range of their reading, introduce people to new authors and new genres (new to them or newly-published, and should support local writers to gain the skills that they need to be published.

    A public library should provide the tools to help people to find out about the history and culture of their locality.

    A public library should support the minority ethnic and linguistic communities within the area that it serves.

    A public library should be available to everyone who wishes to use it, encouraging reading skills and the enjoyment of reading amongst the whole population, from the cradle to the grave.

    A public library should be a storehouse of knowledge organised for use.

    1. Laura Marney

      I agree with everything David says and it should also be a sanctuary, a warm cosy place to escape your own dreary existence, to forget your problems and just lose yourself in a book

  3. Adam Haigh

    Though I work in an academic library, through the various “Save ___ Library” campaigns all over Britain (and with my British heritage) I have gained a new appreciation and understanding of the populations public libraries serve. In my hometown growing up, I certainly used the public library and could not have afforded to purchase all the books that I chose to read as a child/teen. I did see those libraries evolve, albeit at a slower pace, by adding computers. That kind of evolution seemed great back then, but would be very slow by today’s standards.

    Libraries of today have a responsibility to bring together information for their user populations in whatever way it comes, whether it be electronic, paper, fiche/film, etc. Each library further has the right to decide what forms of media are most useful and cost effective for their population.

    Libraries are also a place to meet, network, socialise, and gain a cultural awareness of happenings in a given community. It is about much more than the physical books on shelves. Every citizen has a right to information, and the library serves as a means for them to get it.

  4. Alan Wylie


    Publicly funded and accountable

    Paid professional, knowledgeable and specialist library staff

    A healthy network of local community libraries housed in easily identifiable library buildings.

    At the core reading, learning and information delivered through books, e-books, e-resources etc

    Responsive and inclusive


    Trusts, privatised or any other form of divestment.

    Volunteer run.

    Shiny multi-million pound city centre libraries built at the expense of community libraries.

    Over-diversification of roles and services (the one-stop shop approach)

    Retail led

  5. Punch Jackson

    Who is the manifesto for? A library should reflect the needs of its community not be dictated by something from outside the community.
    The UK experienced that with all the policy direction from MLA and where did it get libraries in the UK. The Community must embrace libraries and in so doing its look, its function and its services with evolve.

  6. John Thomas

    Please get rid of self service machines and bring back LIBRARY STAFF. My local library has got rid of about half of its books, and now has a row of self service machines, and only a handful of staff, who the public rarely talk to. The elderly used to go to their libraries to meet people, i.e. the staff, as well as to borrow books, but this is just one more facet of society which is being dehumanised and this is ruining our society.
    How did we manage to afford a normal, human library service, thirty years ago, before computers were available? Every book had a card and this had to be manually placed in a card holder, filed by a human, etc. How did we have the money back then, but we allegedly don’t have the money now?
    ps the image at the top of this page is exactly what a library should NOT look like – it looks like an operating theatre crossed with a shopping centre…

    1. alan wylie

      Forgot to add self-service to my list of ‘mustn’ts’, thanks for reminding me! I’ve just written a report for my local Unison Branch on self-service and public libraries and have concluded that it has been introduced into public libraries primarily to save on staff costs, i’ve never seen any proper research that conclusively proves that it ‘improves the user experience’ or ‘frees up staff time’, in fact the opposite in most cases!
      It also fundamentally changes the relationship between staff and users, i believe creating rather than pulling down barriers!

      1. KMP

        I have no problem with Self Service machines, I would happily use them, and in Academic libraries, it allows students to take out books out of hours. No problem.

        I don’t think it’s the self-service machines that are the problem, it’s how they’re being used as an excuse to drastically cut staffing numbers. What’s more annoying is how Local Councillors then lie about why they are there.

        It does not free up staff for more ‘face-to-face’ time. It frees them up to be cut.

        Is this a problem, you may ask? Well I recently went to the newly built CLR Jame Library. Reference library / study area. No staff.
        Adult library — one staff member tucked away unseen.

        I felt like the soul had been ripped out from the library, leaving a pretty looking hollow automated shell.

        Okay this may sound a bit of an extreme reaction, but it felt so soulless to me.

        But, whenever someone talks about how libraries and the community, I think of one particular library staff member, who is absolutely loved by the kids who visit the library, who has a real relationship with the parents. He knows them by name, they invite him to birthday parties.

        When staff are removed from the frontline, this is what they’re taking away.

        However, on the other side, I think library staff can be doing better in how they engage with users. The librarian I’m thinking of is more of an exception.

        So what I want to say is, there shouldn’t be an either/or when it comes to self-service/ RFID vs front line staff. I think we can have both. But we should also help staff to develop and foster better relationships with the user.

  7. Ruth Holmes

    Services should be
    Information, lending materials, help with computers, employment, literacy and numeracy. Bookbug sessions, author visits, reading & friends group, class visits and a place for people to feel included.
    Should be provided by accountable body preferably local authority.
    Staffed by dedicated, enthusiastic paid professional staff.

  8. Anita Barry

    Libraries need to engage with the whole community but not at any one sector’s expense.Whilst I would quite like a Costa available in my local library I fully understand that other people might be offended by the concept.
    As a professional librarian working in the increasingly declining world of school libraries (have you any idea how many school libraries have recently closed)I think it is essential that a library retains a quiet spot for children and young people who have no where quiet at home/school to do homework-a little oasis of calm in our increasingly hectic fractured world.

  9. Julie Maclean

    I’ve recently visited Amsterdam Public Library. That’s what a public library should be like. Loads of books, huge number of computer terminals, plug-in points for laptops, soft seating, music for loan, gt. loos in the basement with lockers for your stuff, cafe with healthy menu…and of course plenty of interactive areas for kids and youth.
    All clean, cared for and obviously enjoyed
    The place was heaving. I’ve never seen so many bikes parked up.
    Invest in that sort of thing and literacy will shoot through the roof.

  10. Elaine Sykes

    Libraries should provide the services ordinary people cannot afford at home. This would include internet access and access to subscription reference websites, but also copies of new book titles fiction and non-fiction. Copies of newspapers and magazines, in fact, anything which stops poorer people from being disadvantaged.
    Closing libraries goes against all of the above as it is the less well-off members of society who need these resources but who do not have private transport to travel further when their local library is closed.

  11. Marion

    Professional, paid staff are an absolute essential.

    I agree largely with Shirley Burnham but in order to retain the ‘affordable’ element it is important that the library is not all things to all people. The enormous libraries like that pictured at the top may be appropriate in the centre of some cities but mostly I would rather see small local libraries serving their local communities within easy walking distance of most of their patrons than one huge space that does everything for everyone but fails to feel welcoming to its users and most of its users need to find transport to reach it.

    Libraries rarely need cafes – there are plenty in every high street in the country, stick to reading and information in all its forms.

  12. Steve Matthews

    IMHO, there is a 21st Century Library Paradigm that looks like this:
    “The 21st Century Library will be defined by those librarians running the library to meet the needs of their local community, more than by the profession, or schools of library and information science, or by any association of librarians’ principles.”

    The Revolutionary Library

  13. Pingback: Voices for the Library – What’s your vision for libraries? | Errol A. Adams, J.D. M.L.S' Blog

  14. Philip Benjamin-Coker

    Libraries are important because they hold information…and librarians are important because they know how to access and provide the information that people want/need. In a world of increasing information it becomes more and more and more difficult for people to access their information wants/needs through the noise of information overload. Without being too cynical there are those who see it as an advantage to foster ignorance because that will retard the wants/needs of all the people. In order to have democracy there must be access to the right information at the right time in the right place and at the appropriate level. It matters litte if this is fiction or non-fiction as all texts (as Brother William in the Name of the Rose says) speak to each other. If we cherish freedom then we need to defend our libraries that were born out of the desire of self-betterment…to quote Eliot from Choruses From The Rock
    Where is the life we have lost in living
    Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge
    Where is the knowlege we have lost in information

    …it’s in our libraries

  15. Pingback: Help create a manifesto for public libraries | SLA Europe Chapter

  16. Jackie Murrell

    A Library should help to educate, inform and entertain the public from 0-100+, with well-trained staff to help users navigate the mass of information out there. The best reading should alwsys be available, and access to hard-to-get material be offered too.E-books, audio books and internet access should be standard, and a good reference stock be provided in print and/or online. It should be a welcoming and inclusive place with helpful, friendly staff, and opening hours to suit users.

  17. Nicolas Jackman

    These are the views of a public library assistant (7 years working in public libraries) and a lifelong user/supporter of public libraries:

    The core purpose of public libraries: access, education and community.

    • Access to reading material for learning, leisure and information for everyone. This is what being a public library means.

    • Access to information in all formats: print, digital and multimedia; facilitated by library staff who understand technology and are ‘information literate’.

    • Reading advice and reader development delivered through book groups, events, displays and promotions. Once again, facilitated by library staff who are knowledgeable about reading and the reading habits of the community.

    • Supporting lifelong learning through Early Years support (baby/toddler RhymeTimes) basic skills training (beginners’ ICT classes), homework support (childrens’ homework clubs).

    • Community cohesion in the form of coffee mornings, knitting groups, arts and craft events.

    The backbone of the public library service is the professionalism, knowledge and skills of paid library staff. Moreover, these library staff should be at the
    heart of the debate on the future of public libraries.

    1. Nicola Franklin

      I support Nicholas’ comment 100% – there’s lots of great ideas posted here but I think his is the most coherent and best expressed.

      I would just add ‘community memory’ to his list; collecting local knowledge and information, print, digital, web or otherwise, and ordering it/promoting it/disseminating it for today’s and the future’s community to enjoy.

  18. LibraryWeb

    Any assessment of the situation at the ‘community’ level and of the value of public libraries to society at this point in time needs at the moment, because society is changing at a fast pace, to be done on an ongoing and frequent basis.


    – An evaluation of our current understanding of the value of public libraries.

    – The current schools of thought on the future of the public libraries (Conservative’s – they are not value for money, Seth Godin, etc.).

    Things may settle down again in a few decades and into a more mature state, but at the moment library planning needs to reflect the fast pace of change in the society around us.

  19. Jenny Harrop

    In Canterbury we are looking forward to our newly refurbished Library which will be so much more than a space for books……….. providing state-of-the-art exhibition galleries, community spaces, explorer areas, educational facilities and a programme of interactive events for all ages and much much more – just what a 21st Century Library should be providing to its community.

  20. LibraryWeb

    Can I suggest a small ongoing body (providing joined up thinking; at the moment the stream of often political oriented reports are somewhat disjoint in nature), assessing the current state of the libraries, acting as a focus point for our understanding of the libraries in our society (carrying out the necessary analysis here – liaising with all stakeholders — the public, professionals – teachers, law and order, etc. — as well as academics and researchers), advising the public on the value of libraries to our society at the moment (or at least our current understanding as it stands).

    If this body could carry out an ombudsman type of role also I think it would be popular with the public (if any public body deserves this it is libraries – along with any other mechanisms that might help improve the service). An ombudsman would help allay concerns that planners do not have a picture of the libraries on the ground as people are experiencing them.

    As mentioned above (previous post) I think this should at this point in time be a permanent body because of the rate of change our society is currently experiencing (economic, technological, social, etc.), but also because library science (a technological factor) is progressing quite rapidly as well (the potential for libraries is changing as librarians apply new technologies; social research on libraries and thinking is progressing at quite a fast pace also with the renewed interest in libraries of our age).

    I actually posited the above a number of years ago (on Tim Coates’ blog). Since then the thought surfaced that this was actually the vision of the 1964 Act anyway. Maybe there should be a focus on the quality of the strategic body that has been put in place by statute, and the quality of the planning they carry out – they shouldn’t by any means in a democracy be above criticism. [Is this a role of the select committee (assessing the competence of planning bodies)? Maybe a lot more feedback needs to go to the select committee from the public until the AC itself is able to handle the issues?]

  21. LJ Hutchins

    Having thought about this for a few days, I reckon we have the customer service pretty much sorted and are coming up with some really good ways to make the most of stock, including building networks to share the stuff we do invest in.

    Where we’re really let down is by the buildings and the years of restriction on local authority spending that means so many libraries fall short of the kinds of lovely places we’d like them to be.

    So I think the library of the future is mainly a place where much better attention is paid to surroundings and facilities. Full thoughts here – get in touch if it would help to have anything clarified:


    It was also illuminatingly hard to try to ‘think outside the box’ on this one without hearing the ‘inner critic’ goin: “But how will you PAY for that?” Turning off that voice was perhaps one of the biggest challenges of the exercise.

  22. Katie

    I agree with many of the suggestions already made, but would like to add that public libraries should provide unrestricted access to material that people can’t get access to anywhere else, for whatever reason. This might be books about LBGT issues (fiction and non-fiction), information on sexual or mental or other health issues, religious material, or anything else that they might otherwise not be able to find, or not feel safe or comfortable picking off a shelf.

  23. Library Web

    If I could tag one last comment on the end.

    It would be good to see some sort of policy looking at the difficulties the community a library serves have in using that library – I am thinking for example, the stress levels of the community and in particular how it affects their ability to read (from crime, or any other source). Taking a proactive approach to library management.

    Also it needs to be recognised that a library works with partners in the community towards similar ends – education, social services, etc. Are we not now in an age where it much easier for these people to work together towards tangible results?

  24. CW

    I agree with most of the above and strongly believe we need some joined up thinking. There are I have heard some really good library services dotted around the country but equally some really poor ones, which I have some experience. Having a National standard for Libraries that is fit for purpose which includes better services for children and vulnerable members of our society should be compulsory. It concerns me greatly that the future of a library service rests with the local authority and can be seen as a luxury we cannot afford

    It goes without saying that most libraries need more books which should be easy to find, spaces for study, knowledgable and friendly staff based and visible in libraries. Customers should not be left to their own devices and have to use a machine. Study support/homework clubs, reader development and reading advice, help with improving literacy, opening hours that suit the community, inviting environments, classes for all ages etc etc.

    Professional staff need to be involved in the development of a library service fit for the future, we are not all old dinosaurs. Many professional staff have been pushed out which is leaving a skills gap and is very short sighted.

    Use it or Lose it

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