English public libraries – a 'dysfunctional' service?


As we wait for the independent report on public libraries from William Sieghart and his Advisory Panel, perhaps our hopes are tempered by the concern that too much is being asked?

I was interested by remarks William made at a recent Westminster Media Forum event, as reported by the Bookseller, “The way the service is set up, it is run totally dysfunctional. The DCMS has responsibility, but no budget, the Arts Council has been given a role reluctantly, and the DCLG looks at the local authorities who actually make decisions. I’m frightened and worried for the library network”. 

Library development agency

CILIP has argued that the current national governance structure of public libraries in England is not fit for purpose.

Most recently we raised concerns, with others, if Arts Council England (ACE) is the most appropriate body to take on the development agency role for public libraries. We argue that its cultural focus is not broad enough to encompass all the interests that libraries should reflect. 

Advising Government

But it is not only the old Museums, Libraries & Archives Council that is missed, with its more defined sector role and a willingness, on occasion, to make robust comment or recommend intervention, as in the Wirral.

A few weeks ago the Government formally abolished the Advisory Council on Libraries, which had been left to wither on its vine for a number of years and made redundant. Although advisory it was also about leadership bringing together leaders from a range of library sectors, not just public libraries, as well as other stakeholders such as publishers and authors.

This helped put public libraries within the context of broader library and information provision and set the challenge of improving performance and quality.

User entitlements and development plan

There are points from the recent Culture Media and Sport Select Committee report on the “Work of Arts Council England” that will resonate with the library community. 

The first recommendation of the report is that the Government “produces and publishes a comprehensive arts policy”. Yes please we could do with one of those for libraries too!  

We have looked with jealousy at Wales which has the national Libraries Inspire strategy underpinned by a set of public library standards. As we have stated in a number of recent responses to Government consultations, CILIP believes that in England there should be a set of national public library user entitlements and that an overarching development and improvement plan should be created to support long term innovation and help the weakest services achieve the standards of the best.


Elsewhere the Select Committee report on the Work of the Arts Council acknowledges that public libraries are the only statutory service within its coverage. Despite that there are two very interesting recommendations concerning more robust interventions by ACE and the Government when faced with poor or limited cultural provision locally.  

It recommends that “The Arts Council should take a far more robust stance than it already does with local authorities ... who show little inclination to support the arts”. For Government it encourages the Minister for the Arts with his strategic oversight of arts policy not “...to shy away from challenging any [local authorities] in danger of acquiring the status of cultural pariahs”. 

Yes we would welcome that for libraries too! Most recently Ed Vaizey announced that Culture Secretary Sajid Javid is “not currently minded” to open an inquiry into public library closures in Sheffield, where more than half the city’s libraries could close if communities do not volunteer to run them.

It was the same Select Committee that recommended, in its report on Library Closures two years ago, that ACE with its regional presence should be the eyes and ears of the Minister in identifying poor performance and provision by local authorities – but as we know ACE does not wish to be involved in the regulatory process for public libraries.

Action plan

Which leads us back to William Sieghart, and the fact that he is talking a language that will be understood by users as well as CILIP members working in the sector. It is refreshing that he appreciates that we do not want yet another “bloody report” but an action plan. 

As quoted in the Bookseller he also makes another intriguing comment, “One of my recommendations is to create a body that can implement these kind of recommendations and one of those will be to end the hiatus on e-book lending and come up [with] a working model or models”. 

Dare we hope that Sieghart will be able to take us from a dysfunctional national governance framework for public libraries in England to one that can be seen to be leading the sector and actively shaping the public library service of the future, as well as knocking heads together and getting things done?

What do you think about public library services in England? Let us know in the comments below


Image source: "Library" by ellf, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Original cropped and resized


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