The following post was contributed by Professor Charles Oppenheim, formerly Professor of Information Science at Loughborough University.
It’s now 50 years since this key piece of legislation became law! In my view, it is high time it was updated to reflect the technologies that have now become pervasive in public libraries, especially, of course the Internet, but also to give the Act teeth. It has in theory some teeth, but in practice the teeth rarely bite. I am referring to the power of the Secretary of State to intervene in cases where the duty of every library authority to “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof” is not being provided. This is enshrined in section 10 of the Act:
Default powers of Secretary of State.
a complaint is made to the Secretary of State that any library authority has failed to carry out duties relating to the public library service imposed on it by or under this Act; or
the Secretary of State is of opinion that an investigation should be made as to whether any such failure by a library authority has occurred,
and, after causing a local enquiry to be held into the matter, the Secretary of State is satisfied that there has been such a failure by the library authority, he may make an order declaring it to be in default and directing it for the purpose of removing the default to carry out such of its duties, in such manner and within such time, as may be specified in the order.
The clear implication of this is that if ANY complaint is made, whether by an individual, a group of people, or an organisation, that the Secretary of State shall cause a “local enquiry” to be held. Yet in practice, the Secretaries of State over the years have rarely exercised their powers under the Act, even when pressed to do so by campaigners. A typical example is the recent proposed restructuring of Lincolnshire Public Library services, where campaigners had to take the matter to Courts rather than asking the Secretary of State to intervene .
So why is this important? Because in recent years, the question of online access to information for educational, social and recreational use for those without the resources or technology to set up networked computers at home, and do not have appropriate access at work or in educational establishments they belong to has become problematic. This is in part due to the trend towards having such information resources only available online (or if available in other formats, at high prices), whilst at the same time that public libraries are having their funds cut because of restrictions on local authority budgets imposed by central Government.
As a result, many public libraries are closing, have reduced hours, or are being handed over to volunteers to run. These volunteers are, almost by definition, unable to provide the level of commitment and service that paid professional staff used to do. They do not understand the subtleties and weaknesses of search engines and other popular Internet tools; they may well not know the most reliable sources for a particular query, and will not have the necessary reference interview skills to tease out what a patron really is after.
Looking at the combination of trends – reduced public library service provision combined with increasing dependence on online sources – it seems that we have a perfect storm approaching. A well-informed, socially and professionally engaged population is not just an ideal to strive for; it is necessary for the economic well-being of both the individuals and the country as a whole. A well-resourced, efficient and effective public library service with an emphasis on providing high quality information to all citizens in whatever format is appropriate for their needs is an essential component of today’s world. Right now, we should be investing heavily in public libraries to develop and enhance their role, not cutting back on them. Furthermore, token gestures such as the recently launched Access to Research are just that – token gestures. The initiative does not cover all public libraries, and the restrictive terms and conditions imposed on users of the service make it virtually useless. We need to address the fundamental problem.
I believe it is time to revisit the 50 year-old Act to make it more relevant to 21st century conditions and priorities. In particular, the obligations on the library authorities for a comprehensive and efficient service should make it explicit that this must include reasonable free of charge provision to networked information services, and the obligations on the Secretary of State to investigate complaints should require them to justify why they won’t investigate, and require them to investigate whether they like it or not when more than a certain percentage (10%) of taxpayers in a particular library authority request an investigation. It should also oblige the Secretary of State to include at least one local user of library services in any investigation team that is set up. Finally, if the Secretary of State refuses to hold an inquiry following a complaint, that refusal should be subject to review by an independent body.
One final thought. The response of the main professional body representing librarians (CILIP) to these issues has been muted. This is in part because of its charitable status, which prevents it from engaging in explicitly political lobbying. CILIP’s timidity in the face of a direct assault on its members is not surprising bearing in mind its long history of lack of backbone when faced with political challenges, but is still extremely disappointing. High time for a change in approach. Instead of being so risk-averse, it should push the boundaries of political action. But I am sure that plea will fall on deaf ears.