Future library explored
FEAR of the future increases our desire to predict it. If that’s true, it may be telling that a number of reports have been published recently, examining the future of public libraries. The authors of a selection of these were gathered by the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for a roundtable discussion to address the many uncertainties and opportunities that public libraries now face.
The panel of the Creating the Library of the Future roundtable covered international, national, regional and professional perspectives.
Julian Diamond, Head of IM at Arup, talked about their Future Libraries report which looks at worldwide demographic trends such as urbanisation, ageing populations and the nature of work, and the potential for libraries to respond.
Douglas White, representing Carnegie UK, outlined findings of its report Shining a Light – an examination of library use and user attitudes in the UK – explaining the significance of its findings to the future of public libraries in the UK.
Richard Heseltine, Chair of the James Reckitt Library Trust, outlined the Trust’s work on imagining the future of public library services: Rethinking Public Library Services in Hull: a framework for transformation and growth, which is being used to develop a five to 10 year strategic plan for Hull libraries.
Caroline Brazier, Chief Librarian at the British Library, provided the perspective of a national institution and described pioneering work the BL is doing with public libraries across the UK through its Living Knowledge Network .
And Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP discussed the library workforce of the
future and how to build it.
Despite covering different geographies, timescales and perspectives, there was plenty of common ground. The findings of the reports were explored during the discussion which involved other guests from relevant organisations.
Gill Furniss, Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Steel, Postal Services and Consumer Protection, is Chair of the APPG. In her introduction she listed Artificial Intelligence, lifelong learning, health information and a number of other “big issues that we must explore and understand so we can plan and develop public libraries and library services of the future.”
Defining a purpose for public libraries provided a stable foundation from which the Reckitt foundation took its look into the future. Richard Heseltine said: “When the trust started to think about the future of libraries in our cities, we felt that we needed a really clear and concise understanding of what libraries were here for. What is their core distinctive purpose? And we tried to define that separately from the means by which that purpose is fulfilled.”
The trust’s conclusion was that “the fundamental purpose of libraries and librarians is to help people to expand their knowledge and understanding of themselves, their lives and the world about them in the wider interest of building strong knowledgeable communities.”
These were similar to Julian Diamond’s statement that libraries have the potential “to be key strategic assets for cities in the development of social resilience and economic prosperity”.
However there was a general recognition that any principles will be tested in an age when so much is changing. Nick Poole set store in the founding principles of public libraries, “they were built around the universal principles of access to learning; of civic engagement and access to knowledge.” But he also suggested that professionals need to step back a little to see where to go next: “We talk about libraries being in difficult second album territory, lets own the successes of the past but lets let go of them slightly to look ahead to future ones.”
Ask the audience
In most cases the purpose of libraries have been defined using historical references or professional expertise. All delegates also acknowledged the importance of asking their communities’ views on what services to provide – not so much for guidance on fundamental purpose.
Douglas White from Carnegie suggested that this process would not be a straightforward task: “There’s a lot to be said for proper UX (user experience) research to actually understand what people’s behaviours are”. He said that asking what they want may not be enough. “It’s like that Henry Ford quote: ‘If you ask people what they want they say “faster horses”’ – you actually have to understand what people do and what they want.”
Common ground was most clear when it came to the likely form of a future library. The panel converged towards the concept of a library, not as a place, but as a platform. The most vivid of these came from Richard Heseltine who said: “Compare a library to a smartphone. A smartphone is a platform on which a personalised collection of apps is assembled. The task of the librarian is to create a platform on which different apps are assembled to meet the needs of specific groups or communities but some will be common to all libraries."
He said: “This is a metaphor. I’m not talking about a wholly digital library that exists as a series of apps. In this metaphor a service which lends printed books is an app. In fact it’s probably useful at this point to switch from talking about apps to talking about enterprises. So the library is a platform on which various enterprises are built, and these enterprises are the specific ways in which librarians help people to expand their knowledge and understanding to release their creativity and imagination.”
Caroline Brazier said that the British Library was already pushing a similar model: “We work with public libraries to provide a range of cultural events and business workshops. These are things that libraries are not necessarily doing themselves, but working in partnership with experts from the wider community, to bring them in and use libraries as the platform. A multi-use platform. That’s exactly what libraries should be. We need to see libraries as places where almost anything can happen.”
Julian Diamond said Arup also sees “Libraries as multi-use destinations” adding that “there’s a range of examples, of places that have created environments with libraries at their hub: sources of entertainment, education, retail, culture which are bringing life to communities and cities.”
The economic value of libraries was presented from a number of perspectives. One of the key benefits of libraries, according to the Arup report, is their ability to increase the prosperity of communities. Julian said that when libraries are placed at the centre of economic and cultural life, “They’re really effective at generating revenue for neighbouring retail and leisure activities.”
Another economic angle was presented by David Fletcher, founder of Wimbletech: “I think libraries should be able to fund themselves, they should be cultural, social and economic engines in their own right, and that is something that can certainly be delivered through effective partnership and certainly if you look at the online side of things, with local IP (intellectual property)… there’s tons of IP there that could be turned into income.”
Exploring the wider economic role of public libraries, Nick Poole commented on the recent publication of the government’s Industrial Strategy saying: “We saw the announcement of the Industrial Strategy and there isn’t a single sector mentioned in it that doesn’t fundamentally depend on a literate workforce, communities everywhere being able to engage, have ideas, build enterprises and so this is our time, whether we know it or not.”
Divided we stand
Could a platform model really cope with a variety of roles and funding models? For example, managing the economic potential of libraries alongside their potential to do public good. Jonathan Douglas of the National Literacy Trust said “The truth is that the relationship between poverty and literacy in the UK is now the strongest in any country in Europe apart from Romania… I suppose the question is whether we are prepared to campaign for libraries… as something that is an active agency of equality in society and should we even be saying we need a bias to the poor?”
Can libraries of the future achieve this and also meet their economic potential?
Nick Poole warned against a “deficit model of library use” where they are for people who can’t afford to acquire books and content. He said they had to play both roles: “We have to deliver a universal service but then we have systematically to target disadvantage and inequality.”
Richard Heseltine argued that a platform model could cope with an array of enterprises. “Different management models might coexist across the library system as a whole each suited to the needs of a specific enterprise and a specific partnership.” He added that partnerships would be vital for “the renewal and sustainability of the services the community needs” but they aren’t easy to put in place when a library service is a single institution. He said: “It’s so much easier to think about partnerships in relation to specific enterprises than it is to the think about them in the context of an undifferentiated library service.”
A more detailed report on the issues covered above and the many others raised during the APPG roundtable will be produced in the new year.
It will include current issues such as volunteers, technology, data use and data gathering and how these might inform the creation of libraries in the future.
Also the future of the profession, and how to make it attractive, about which Nick Poole said: “I do think we have got to build resilience and transferability, we’ve got to be able to say to people you are an information professional, you are a librarian, you may not be working in your ideal job today but we need to look at how you can move across that sector to find that ideal job.”