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What is your name? What is your favorite color? What is the airspeed velocity of a library?

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[Editors note: American spellings throughout are deliberate - this guest post was written by Margaret Craft, a library science graduate student from the iSchool, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, USA; who spent some of the summer studying with the Taskforce team in London]

For those wondering about the title, I am paraphrasing the indomitable Monty Python.

For those reading and wondering how a Yankee got involved in a Taskforce in London... I had the pleasure of meeting Kathy Settle at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter meeting in Boston, MA, this last January. She was asking the eternal question “what brings people in the door of public libraries?” at a roundtable. The ensuing discussion was passionate and energized each participant to describe the best (and often unexpected) successes of their libraries, aka the weird and wonderful world of developing programs and spaces that communities love and use.

Buoyed by the discussion, and curious about the accent, I asked to meet with Kathy afterward and we talked about the possibility of me spending study time with the Taskforce team, which she agreed to with surprising aplomb. Here was a golden opportunity for me, as a librarian-in-the-wings, to learn about policy making. The prospect of seeing Big Ben out the window every day wouldn’t hurt either.

Tea and London - occasional recurring themes in this post. Photo credit: Margaret Craft
Tea and London - occasional recurring themes in this post. Photo credit: Margaret Craft

Five amazing weeks

I sped across the pond just 4 months after ALA, and have since spent an amazing five weeks doing a study placement in the London DCMS office with the Taskforce team.

As a quick scan, I have learned about (breath): the various models of public library governance and delivery and how they are funded in England; the local, regional and national government bodies that affect local offers and services; methods and strategies for effective policy development at a national level; and the ins and outs of successful large scale collaboration amongst public library organizations, partner agencies, library stakeholders and government affiliates. I have absorbed so much about large scale outreach and collaboration; my head is filled with newfound awareness of the avenues of support and partner development opportunities for libraries. We are not alone.

In the thick of it

On the research end, I’ve learned how to gather evidence from a host of sources, government documents, research studies, case studies and the like; how to analyze statistics, quotes, data and case studies for the stories they tell about the impact of libraries and gaps in research that need filling. I’ve also learnt to think about practicalities, not just theory - what information is it feasible for public libraries to collect and track on a systematic basis? How can we back up individual anecdote with harder evidence? I’ve gained new appreciation for considerations of feasibility and resource allocation for intensive data collection by public libraries.

I attended 2 of the 13 ambition consultation workshops that collected feedback, opinions and insights on the draft document. I’ve learned the value of asking questions that invite not just yeas or nays, but encourage input and suggestions.

Hillsborough library - one of the libraries I visited in Sheffield. Photo credit: Margaret Craft
Hillsborough library - one of the libraries I visited in Sheffield. Photo credit: Margaret Craft

I visited 4 incredible libraries in Sheffield in the company of Sheffield Library Service Manager Nick Partridge and volunteer coordinator Darrell Porter, allowing me to meet staff at 2 Council run libraries and trained volunteers at 2 community led libraries. This gave me newfound appreciation for the various models, insights into the commitment of the people working in all those libraries, and abiding respect for the sincere determination of British communities to keep their libraries open.

Policy making (it’s complicated)

Ultimately, setting a strategic direction like this is fruitless without the momentum for change, and that momentum depends on the awareness and support of everyone across the library sector that it will affect. That support demands more than just writing a sound document. Everyone needs to buy in - from library staff and volunteers on the ground, heads of service, partners, and decision-makers for libraries. It also needs active commitment from organisations, services and government departments who share common goals, values and aspirations with library services.It also needs to take into account the legal, economic, political and social climate libraries are working within now, and how these might change in the future.

Most importantly, (and exhaustingly), the policy making process requires being transparent and inviting comment and insight every step of the way so that the final product reflects the full range of opinions offered and views put forward as far as logic can allow.

The reward of balancing so many voices is that a rich living document is produced, one that hopefully will inspire public libraries across England not only to design themselves to meet local needs, but to gear themselves up to prove it, and suggest new avenues of investment in them. As a result I feel that such libraries might well be unstoppable.

“What is the airspeed velocity of a library?
How fast can you run?”

I’m immeasurably grateful to the Taskforce team and members of DCMS library policy team who allowed me to sit in on their meetings, ask many many questions and make endless suggestions, without defenestrating me once. It was a complicated fast-paced river of activity that I stepped into, and fortunately there was more than enough room, tea and biscuits on the raft for me. I have vast realms of new knowledge to apply in whatever libraries I work with in the future - who will also hopefully restrain from defenestrating me.

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

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