[Editors note: this post was written by Leon Bolton, library blogger, who shares his thoughts on the way the world of public libraries in England is evolving]
The incredible pace of change during the last six years has seen library staff, librarians and senior managers having to adapt in ways that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
However, the impact of deficit reduction and austerity has changed the public library landscape considerably, with the main drivers for change being the decrease of the central government grant to local authorities, the Localism Act, and the drive towards decentralisation and devolution in England.
Impact of localism
The Localism Act has made a particular impression on libraries as councils seek to balance budgets and devolve decision-making powers to individuals and communities. This has led to greater local involvement in running libraries through community groups and volunteers.
It has also created a mosaic of local provision with statutory and non-statutory libraries existing side by side, reflecting a spectrum of different delivery and governance models. Added to this mix is the increasing involvement of parish and town councils in library delivery and the creation of library trusts and mutuals.
Different skills, different operating models
This is the new reality and operating in such an environment will require a high degree of adaptation and flexibility from all library staff. Senior managers especially will require a more flexible skills set and shift in mental attitude to new ways of working in order to manage such a montage of local provision. Diplomacy, patience and the ability to build consensus will be important when dealing with volunteers, community groups, councillors at all levels, commercial partners, and organisations. Flexibility will be particularly important for developing new delivery models and maintaining positive relations with trustees to ensure success.
Dedicated library trusts are still in their infancy in England and so there is a certain amount of expectation on those that do exist to be the trailblazers and make a success of the model. The publication of Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 to 2021 has put consideration of the transition to new governance models high on the agenda, with a greater emphasis on libraries exploring alternative models that might make them more independent from local authority direct control and financially more self-sufficient.
While flexibility and diplomacy are essential qualities, so to will be sheer 'bloody minded' determination to achieve the best outcome for the service. Knowing when and how to gain a tactical advantage by playing 'hard ball' will be an invaluable skill that requires strong leadership. Maintaining knowledge of the constantly shifting alliances amongst groups, council members, and key individuals in the local area will also require a measure of political nous and machination to achieve optimum outcomes.
Library leaders will also need to respond quickly and positively to changing customer expectations, advancements in technology, and developments in the local government landscape in order to keep services relevant. A key factor will be keeping track of the trends and changes within the sector in order to evolve the service. This could range from exploiting crazes such as Pokemon Go to appeal to a wider usage base, developing space for creative, artistic and technological projects, or the use of social media to attract the widest possible audience and create a strong library brand.
Libraries position in communities
Libraries have long been civic hubs and perhaps only now is that being recognised more widely. Alongside providing social value, libraries will also continue to provide social cohesion in their locality. Building on this, and developing strong ties with communities to build frameworks, will require particular skills around community engagement to facilitate and evolve interdependent networks.
However, such altruism, whilst not necessarily self-serving, must be mutually beneficial as services look to communities to support them with income generation activities such as fundraising and direct giving to ensure sustainability.
Perhaps not surprisingly, income generation is playing a greater role in libraries and for some will be a matter of survival. The ability to take advantage of different income streams, generate additional funding, and successfully bid for grants, will require developing knowledge of fundraising that has not been part of the traditional skills set for librarians and service managers.
The external environment is becoming more dynamic and fluid and non-traditional elements will dominate in order to ensure the continuity of the core library offer. Sharing resources across authority boundaries, increasing retail offers, developing traded services, greater partnership working with commercial, public and third sector organisations, and balancing a diffused budget will become the norm.
In such an environment, the importance of strong strategic leadership is paramount to provide vision and aspiration. Perhaps more importantly, library leaders will need the mental flexibility and managerial adaptability to bring all these distributed elements into a coherent whole to ensure the continuing success of libraries into the future.
Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce