The future of our public libraries is at stake, we must act now

people in a library computer room

As the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, we are responsible under our Royal Charter for ‘ensuring the adequate provision of library and information services’.

Our My Library By Right campaign is the start of re-asserting the statutory basis of public library services. In light of the Local Government Settlement we believe it is now time to go further and to set out what needs to be done to secure the future of the public library network in England for the benefit of the public, communities and the nation.

Putting the public first

Public libraries are one of our most essential public services. Over 850 events took place across the UK for National Libraries Day last weekend. They were a celebration of the diversity, creativity, innovation and public-service ethos which lie at the heart of public libraries, and their counterparts in schools, colleges, prisons and health services across the country.

Our vision of the future development of the UK’s public libraries must be driven first and foremost by the needs of current and potential library users – both in person and online. Delivering real progress for our society and our economy depends on every single person having the opportunity to read, to develop their digital and critical thinking skills and to be part of their community.

The threats to public library services – of cuts, closures and ‘hollowing-out’ – reported daily in the press must be countered not on the basis of retaining buildings or jobs (although buildings and jobs are essential to delivery) but on the basis that they limit equality of opportunity and our progress as a nation.

CILIP wants every single UK citizen to have access to free, high-quality public library services which promote the right to read, to learn, to interact and to build confidence and skills.

Setting a strategy

Our strategy for public libraries in England needs 4 key elements to succeed:

  • A clear, positive vision of the future
  • A realistic roadmap for achieving it
  • The will, resource and influence to put it into action, and
  • The time to deliver it properly

Thankfully, we have good examples to draw on. Closest to home are the strategies in Scotland and Wales. Ambition and Opportunity, the strategy for public libraries in Scotland speaks of defining a ‘map and a compass: a map to show the terrain ahead and a compass to show the direction of travel’.

As part of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce, CILIP believes now is our last chance to work together in unity across the library profession, the Local Government Association and key partners and to take ownership of a similar strategy for public libraries in England. The benefits libraries offer to society as a joined-up, universal service are too valuable to be left to a chaotic and economically-driven process.

What lies ahead?

Due to their statutory nature, the fate of public library authorities and library services in England is closely tied to the future direction of Local Authorities.

We know that what lies ahead for Local Authorities is complex and challenging. With the reduction and eventual withdrawal of central Government funding, Councils will depend on business rates and Council Tax to fund local services. The integration of health and social care, and in particular the spiralling costs of adult social care, will place these limited resources under extreme pressure.

Many Authorities have reacted already by withdrawing funding for local libraries and seeking to transfer services out of statutory provision into community-led, volunteer-run models. At the extreme end, a further 4 years of this process will demolish the very principle of a joined-up national public library network.

Foundations for the future

CILIP believes that it is now beyond urgent to stem the tide of attrition. The Leadership for Libraries Taskforce must take ownership of the future development of public libraries and together we need to lead action to deliver the sustainable, vibrant future for our public libraries that serves the interests of the public.

CILIP believes that, jointly with the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce, we urgently need to establish the following foundations to secure the future of our public libraries and promote the interests of their users:

  • A National Strategy for Public Libraries in England, developed jointly by the library profession and the Local Government Association and endorsed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)
  • The creation and endorsement of an outcomes-based Public Library Service Framework for public libraries in England, drawing on the Welsh Public Library Standard and structured around the SCL Universal Offers
  • A clear definition of a tiered service, highlighting the core offers to be delivered by statutory public libraries (based on the SCL Universal Offers) as differentiated from non-statutory Community Hubs
  • Development Plans, created by library authorities in consultation with library users with transitional support from the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce and DCMS and based on clear, accurate data
  • A clear organisational model for the governance and implementation of the National Strategy, based on the core partners of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce

Transitional funding support from Treasury to mitigate against ad-hoc and reactive decision-making and provide sufficient time to set viable and realistic development plans in place, ensuring that this support is distributed fairly across England, irrespective of Parliamentary boundaries

A longer-term strategy for the Transformation and Modernisation of the Public Library Network in England, supported explicitly in national policy and funding priorities and with appropriate infrastructure to support the long-term development of library services.

Confronting our challenges

In developing these foundations, it is essential that professional colleagues in England work with public library leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as internationally to learn from best practices and innovative ideas.

To be clear – developing a realistic and achievable plan will demand that we confront difficult issues. As a profession, we will need to confront the challenge of structural reform of the public library network, which may impact on the jobs of CILIP members. The opportunity is to achieve a vibrant and sustainable future for our public libraries and to re-assert the principle that a library is not truly a library without a skilled professional librarian. 

The next steps

CILIP believes that, to be successful, a strategy for Public Libraries in England must be owned and developed jointly between all of the partners in the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce, drawing on the knowledge and expertise of library staff, campaigners and users.

We are therefore calling on the Taskforce to consider this proposal and to work with us to take it forward. As a community of 13,000 library and information professionals, we believe that it is vital to engage our members in using your skills and professional values to set a new direction for our public libraries for the long-term benefit of everyone.


Image source: Libraries Change Lives video by Martin Salter in Leeds Central Library.

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