Yesterday the Society of Chief Librarians (S.C.L) announced the launch of four universal offers for public libraries , which will be “rolled out nationally across all public libraries in England and Wales.” These universal offers focus on reading, health, digital access and information – areas the SCL have indicated library users regard as key to public library service provision. Alongside these offers the S.C.L. announced a range of initiatives that libraries will also be encouraged to participate in.
The announcement pulled together strands of work that the SCL have been working on previously with partners including Arts Council England and The Reading Agency.
The Society of Chief Librarians intention to “reaffirm the relevance of public libraries to Britain” via these offers is welcome and we hope that this is just the beginning of a continuing co-ordinated programme of support and development for libraries. Janene Cox (President of S.C.L.) commented, “’At present public libraries are facing huge challenges – there are reduced budgets within local authorities, new and developing operating models and changing customer expectations and as a result SCL have worked with our partners to devise a new and creative strategy for library services which is focused around 4 universal service offers. These offers focus upon the service areas that our customers tell us are important and they enable libraries to continue to develop these service areas.”
We would hope that these offers are extended to cover all aspects of public library services that users across the nation value and not focus solely on the four offers named above to the detriment of wider library service provision. Users benefit from libraries in such a variety of ways that other areas with less of a high profile should not be ignored.
Although the universal offers are intended to be implemented by all public library services in England and Wales, they are not compulsory. The S.C.L. have indicated that 98% of local authorities have already signed up to these offers being delivered in their local area, which is very encouraging, but it is not universal. At the same time not all of these library services have signed up to all four offers. Only 80% out of the 98% have signed up to the information offer and less than half have signed up to the full digital offer. So, how many of our public libraries will actually be delivering all four offers and initiatives, and what is the reasoning behind those authorities who do not intend to do so? How will those that aren’t intending to be involved at the outset be encouraged to do so in future? If they are not willing, what will the implications be and will there be any sanctions against those library services who do not participate with initiatives that are intended as a step towards a national library service?
With regard to delivery, will it be feasible to effectively support these initiatives in libraries with current levels of staffing cuts? Alongside this, the increasing removal of specialist information and reference staff will undermine any attempt to provide a universally high quality enquiry service in libraries.
We also wonder how the universal offer will be implemented effectively now that so many libraries have been removed from direct local authority control – those that have been outsourced, privatised, or are volunteer led? Will this reinforce the divide in library provision that is emerging between libraries in different communities, based upon who is leading on the provision of that service?
Furthermore, we hope that the focus of these universal offers and initiatives, alongside the SCL report on “The new super-users of Britain’s public libraries” will be useful in highlighting the continued importance of public libraries to those who do not currently appreciate their relevance.
Finally, we are also keen to know if standards will be set out for measuring libraries achievements against these universal aims, and also how the aims of the S.C.L. offers and initiatives sit with current statutory duties and laws laid out in the Public Libraries and Museums Act and other acts of parliament linked to public libraries?
Even though we have these questions and concerns, we still believe it is a step in the right direction by the Society of Chief Librarians and their partners and hope that it is something that will be developed and built on in the future as part of an appropriately funded and managed library service.