Special agent for library development
The Arts Council England is the development agency for public
libraries and Sir Nicholas Serota, its chair, believes the sector could use the experience of other cultural organisations as it
builds a public library service fit for the 21st century.
Nick became chair of Arts Council England (ACE) in February 2017 after nearly 30 years as director of the Tate Gallery. ACE has been the development agency for public libraries since 2011, so his ideas, experience and skills should be of interest to the sector.
The extent of his influence not only depends on the priority and resources that ACE directs towards libraries, but also on the extent to which the sector and local authorities are prepared to listen.
He explains that ACE’s role may be more about pushing strings than pulling them: “We can’t take responsibility for running the library services,” he says, “we don’t have the funding to do it, we don’t have the locus to do it, they are the responsibility of the local authorities. The sums of money coming from the Arts Council are tiny in comparison with the sums that are available, even now, through the local authority finance, but I think what we can do is highlight the value of libraries, without having a tail that wags the dog.”
While wary of overstating ACE’s influence, he believes its role must include implementing radical changes: “I wouldn’t want to think of the Arts Council as simply being a tail! In a way, talking about tails and dogs, it suggests there is something that we all know to be a library, and you’re trying to add something onto it. I think the core of the library activity remains freeing imaginations through access to literature, knowledge in its broadest sense. But I think we’re really talking about reinventing what that dog is rather than adding something to it, and I think the Arts Council can play a role in that.”
This requirement for change is almost universal, he says: “Education, information and entertainment organisations ranging from the BBC to the arts organisations and the libraries have to think about new ways of doing things in the 21st century. One hundred and fifty years on, libraries ought to be different kinds of organisations from the ones that Carnegie and Passmore Edwards and others created and I just think that the arts have a part to play in that.”
Harder for libraries?
“I think libraries are more challenged by technological developments than museums and galleries. In libraries, the principal carrier of knowledge and information, i.e. the book, is now only one of a number of such carriers whereas in museums and galleries, the work of art or the object remains the principal, which isn’t to say there aren’t forms of art that use the new technologies in different ways. Nevertheless, the experience is focused on the material object or the material or relic of a culture. How you present those is changing very rapidly and the context in which you present them in relation to using information technology is changing very rapidly. I think the challenges are greater for libraries because it’s a question of what are you actually holding onto? In the case of a museum or gallery you have the physical object. I don’t think books are going to disappear, being able to leaf through a book is a totally different experience than leafing through pages on the screen and it has a material quality to it that is very strong – but information can be gained in so many different ways.”
Respect and envy
Libraries face both physical and conceptual challenges, something like the dilemma he faced at the Tate and summed up in his Richard Dimbleby lecture in 2000: “Many are delighted to praise the museum, but remain deeply suspicious of the contents.”
And while there is great respect for the role of libraries in the past, there is uncertainty about their future role and value. The former potentially making it hard to experiment with the latter. But Sir Nicholas has a clear sight of the values he’s interested in and which will need to be saved: “Libraries have an enviable place, enviable in the sense of having been embedded into their communities for more than a century. So if you go to most libraries you will find a more diverse community using them than would be the case in many arts organisations, even in the same town. This is observational but I imagine there is data that could prove it.” (For example, the DCMS Taking Part survey)
If the diversity is valuable then so are the mechanisms that enable it to exist. These are qualities that he may be able see more clearly because he has seen organisations where they are missing. “Libraries are places that are trusted, they are places that are regarded as safe. That’s often not true of some arts organisations, which can be regarded as being elitist and separate. At their worst, they are regarded as things that are being done to, rather than with the community. There are of course hundreds of arts organisations across the country that break those stereotypes but many arts organisation audiences are drawn from rather narrow socio-economic groups and it is felt that you have to have university education to attend an arts event, which of course you don’t.”
The problem is that the library’s mechanisms are hidden from communities and their leaders: “People like Carnegie and John Passmore Edwards created a foundation for learning and social mobility which the best of library services continue but aren’t always recognised for doing it. So their place in the community is threatened and we know there have been a large number of library closures.”
These deep roots are double edged. When libraries face threats, their leaders are put in a bind that is not unfamiliar to Sir Nicholas: “If you’re running an organisation, you have a responsibility to hand it on in a better state than you inherited it, that means having a great idea but also not taking a risk that’s completely uncovered. So you have the responsibility to make sure the organisation survives if it still has a purpose.
“I think organisations that have been in existence for a long time and are well bedded into national and local government structures often find it quite difficult to be entrepreneurial. That doesn’t mean that every library organisation – or every arts organisation – should be an independent trust. There are circumstances in which I think that can work but libraries are in a slightly different position because they are a statutory service, but obviously you can pursue the provision of a statutory service in a way that is either more or less imaginative. You make decisions every day about how much of your budget you devote to what – never easy because there is never enough money, but you have to make those decisions and the way you make them starts to give the institution or organisation either more or less energy or traction with the community.
“But you can’t throw caution to the winds. If you inherit something that has been there for a long time, you’ve got a responsibility to make sure it survives first of all, and then improves itself.”
Playing its part in the process, he said: “The Arts Council has the responsibility to try and support those library services that seem to be finding ways of being relevant in contemporary society and if libraries are relevant in contemporary society I have enough faith to believe that something will be found for them.”
The solution won’t just be about what libraries do, it will be about how to change the way people think about them: “It’s about creating relevance, it’s about both satisfying need but also stimulating need, and stimulating people to recognise that there are parts of their lives that will be enormously enhanced by making use of the library. I think libraries and librarians have a responsibility to try and build a service that is inspirational as well as simply offering cover for basic needs. And that’s probably where the Arts Council has a part to play.”
Becoming entrepreneurial is not a comfortable process. In order to see where opportunities lie, people have to look outside what they know: “Some people are good at making partnerships. They are good brokers. They are good at building bridges and good at seeing opportunity because they’ve got a broader view.”
He says ACE aims to bring that experience together adding: “We need to use that breadth of experience to help in particular places, because breadth of experience is like oxygen, you need it in the room, and you need to be open to it and you need to be prepared to breathe it – even if it feels as if its got a different smell from the air that you normally breathe.”
Asked to highlight areas where this sort of exchange of ideas might occur, he says: “One of the big changes in museums and galleries, particularly in museums that are concerned with contemporary art in the last 50 years has been that artists are much more engaged in how their work is presented than was the case. You’d make your painting in the studio, send it off to museum, they’ll hang it, maybe the curator will make decisions about the order and arrangement of the paintings. Now, of course, artists want to make works that are specifically designed for a given site or a given community in particular circumstances, so they are much more engaged. Writers have probably been less engaged in the development of libraries than they might be, but may be they haven’t been asked in the same terms.”
To date ACE’s involvement in the public library sector is still relatively restrained. This is because the Sieghart Review of Public Libraries was initiated soon after the MLA was disbanded and ACE took responsibility. The Leadership for Libraries Taskforce followed shortly afterwards, the outcomes of which are still awaited.
Progress has come through ACE’s 2015-18 funding programme. “A good number of libraries took up that opportunity,” according to Sir Nicholas. “There were a sufficient number doing regular work to warrant drawing some of them into the National Portfolio, organisations that receive funding on an annual basis. It’s not a large number – it’s only seven but some cover large geographical areas like Libraries Unlimited in Devon or Cambridgeshire Libraries (it also includes the Society of Chief Librarians).”
He said: “This doesn’t preclude other library services applying for grants and maybe some will do programmes that will see them taken into the National Portfolio. This is what happened with museums. They are now in the portfolio and the number of museums that are supported has gone up from 40 to 70.”
Banner photo copyright Hugo Glendinning
Body photo copyright Olivia Hemmingway