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Libraries without boundaries

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Good practice, Library news

[Editors note: this is a guest post from Leon Bolton, a professional librarian who also writes on Leon’s Library blog. As part of the consultation on the Libraries Deliver document, we are gathering views on the proposed content and what the priorities for actions should be. In this blog, Leon lays out what he would like to see in the final document. Over the consultation period, we will share some other views on this blog.
Leon’s response - along with hundreds of others that we have already received and the many more that I know will come in by the consultation closing date (Friday 3 June) - will all be considered in coming to a final judgement. ]

It’s been 16 months since the publication of the Sieghart report, which for me, was distinguished not so much by what it said as what it didn’t say. By that, I mean it’s difficult to reconcile the outcomes of the report with the feedback given by many individual campaigners and library bodies such as CILIP, ASCEL and the SCL.
For instance CILIP, in its submission, raised a number of important strategic issues, including:

  • "We also believe that there is a lack of definition of what a comprehensive and efficient library service should look like according to the 1964 Act, and therefore it is very difficult to measure something against a moving target."
  • “The focus on localism has been a barrier to the development of national standards that would support local delivery and identifying major economies of scale. The public library is a national brand and some elements of it can be delivered more effectively on a national scale.”
  • “In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient.”

CILIP wasn’t the only one to articulate such concerns as many campaigners made similar points. Unfortunately, these concerns were noticeably absent in the report although Sieghart would have been well aware of the importance of them to the profession. Perhaps they were passed over simply as a matter of pragmatism in that they were not politically acceptable and contrary to government dogma around localism, etc.

What we finally got was a report that recognised the challenges libraries faced but with solutions that mirrored the government’s ambition for libraries.

Since then, CILIP, campaigners, and many within the profession, have continued to push for a more strategic approach including:

  • The provision of statutory guidance to local authorities on their duties under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act (My Library By Right campaign)
  • The development of a national strategy for public libraries in England, as referenced in the Bookseller 
  • The adoption of national standards such as those found in Wales

The challenge is to reconcile these aspirations in a realistic way that finds consensus amongst all parties, whilst recognising there will ultimately be irreconcilable differences. Some of which might be from the government itself around the localism and devolution agendas.

Ambitions for libraries

One potential way of resolving these differences is the Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 - 2021 document. Despite the cynicism around such initiatives, there is much in the draft document that should be welcomed and, if sufficiently strengthened by legislation, could provide a positive road map for the sector and profession.

Certainly the areas around, vision, what libraries can achieve, and purpose encapsulates what’s important and vital about libraries. How we get there and develop the library infrastructure of the future – including developing staff, adopting effective metrics, and marketing libraries – will depend very much on the governance models adopted and clarification around the legislative framework.

That’s why it’s important as many people as possible, not just the profession, but also strategic partners and the public, contribute towards the development of the document.

What next?

In my own submission to Sieghart and subsequent blog posts, I have argued for greater integration of library authorities, the development of a core set of library principles, the setting up of an independent oversight body, and the creation of regional library services. It is gratifying to see some of this reflected in the Ambition document.
However, I would also go much further than the current Ambition document. For me, the way forward is to move libraries out of local authority control - but without compromising accountability - and providing ring-fenced funding. What I would like to see the final document recommend is:

  • The adoption of set principles to underpin and clarify the 1964 Act particularly around defining ‘comprehensive and efficient’
  • Reduction in the number of library authorities and replaced with regional library consortia or organisations
  • Direct central government funding for libraries, availability of national funding opportunities, and emphasis on realistic local income generation
  • Creation of an independent advisory body similar to the Scottish Library and Information Council
  • The advisory body to have responsibility for advising the Culture Secretary, developing national standards, and the authority to challenge and enforce levels of library provision in light of the 1964 Act
  • A set of library standards similar to that in Wales  to assess if library services are complying with their duties under the 1964 Act.


The establishment of regional library services, set-up and run as not for profit social enterprises, are an innovative solution and similar to existing models of public service provision, which would complement the government’s devolution agenda. Such trusts are more familiar in the NHS and education but could work equally as well for libraries.
Regional library services would work across traditional council borders and be free of the shackles of local authority bureaucracy. In other words, a library service without boundaries both in geographical scope and aspiration.
As recognised in the Ambition document, libraries offer a broad range of benefits to society in general and individuals in particular. As William Sieghart expressed it; “Libraries are, let us not forget, a golden thread throughout our lives.”
This is summed up by the following infographic from the Ambition document:

Graphic from Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Libraries in England 2016-2021
Graphic from Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Libraries in England 2016-2021

Unfortunately, the ‘golden thread’ is becoming perilously frayed and in danger of snapping altogether. The Ambition document offers a way to strengthen the ties between libraries and their communities but it also needs to be bolder, more radical, less reflective of government policy, and more in tune with the profession’s aspirations in order to build a library service fit for the future.

Please note, as mentioned above, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce.

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  1. Comment by Stephanie Crossley posted on

    This is such a good summary of the problems facing PLAs and the 'What next' list is an agenda for change which the ACE Library team could seize and take forward. I never thought I'd say this after four decades working in libraries but I would agree that libraries should now come out of council control, not least to mitgate the impact of local councillors making decisions about services which are politically self-serving and do not reflect the demands of the community. How else do you explain Lambeth and Swindon and W Berks? It would also prevent the further fragmentation of the national network into 1001 charity or computer recycling shops or yoga centres or whatever the next iteration of "community-led" libraries is. I too was pleasantly surprised by some of the Ambition document ideas but we urgently need an independent advisory body for libraries. The Arts Council has shown its sad inability to lead, develop strategy or even understand the problems facing managers every day, otherwise why Sieghart? Thanks ACE for the dribs and drabs of grant money for arts in libraries; it ain't worth a damn if there are no staff to work collaboratively to take this forward, never mind run bog standard services.
    And well done to Nick Poole and CILIP for providing leadership and challenge.