Last week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group launched their new report: an inquiry into the governance and leadership of the public library service in England. On the basis of the progression we have seen with the DCMS modernisation review, I had little expectation of this report providing any real insight or vision. As I worked my way through the report, I found myself scribbling and highlighting away, only to find the very thought I had just noted to be clarified in the upcoming paragraph. So I was pleasantly surprised to say the least, as I found the report to consider more perspectives than I anticipated.
It would have been too easy for the scope of the report to be wide and vague, which no doubt would have provided a foggy vision if any. So it was good to see that the focus of this report is specifically on the effectiveness of arrangements for the governance and leadership of public library services. The six lines of enquiry were very appropriate in light of the current situation. They were:
1) What are the strengths and weaknesses of the present system for the governance and leadership of the public library service in England?
2) Should local communities have a greater say in decisions about the public library service?
3) Should central government do more to superintend the public library service?
4) Are local authorities the best agency to provide library services?
5) What are the governance and leadership roles of the Advisory Council on Libraries (ACL), the Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)?
6) What changes (if any) are required to improve and strengthen governance and leadership?
Perhaps a closer look into the role of technology and innovation may have been a potential area for inquiry, though this may be something which stems from point six. As the report began to take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of the public library service, they acknowledged that:
“The submissions presented a bleak national picture with more weaknesses than strengths being identified.”
Amongst some of the more legitimate and agreeable points raised, there were a few points which led me to frown as I read. For example, the group believes the library service is diverse and innovative, listing it as one of its strengths. But is this really the case? Would this report really be necessary if they were? A couple of contradictions arose too, for example, listing staff to be helpful and experts at one point and then ill equipped and unhelpful at another.
In summary, the key recommendations were to develop one lead voice for libraries through the establishment of a single Library Development Agency for England (LDAE). A reassuring recognition, as a vision leading the library service could not be any more crucial than it is today. The current role and purpose of the many national agencies has brought confusion to the service, lacking a prominent player leading the way. The report rightly recognises the library sector has lost its way, and is sadly regarded to be of low value by decision makers.
Whist the LDAE is in the making (I assume answers around who, when and how are yet to come) we can expect a mid-term communications strategy and training and development programmes for public library personnel to improve management and leadership skills, from the MLA. Interesting, as the report recognised the MLA’s poor record with libraries in the past, and some contributors felt regret around the recent changes to its regional structures. The formation of LDAE would result in revision to the role, function and allocated funding of the MLA, making them a surprising/uncertain candidate to lead the way on the mid-term plans.
Overall, I was pleased to see the group recognise dramatic action is required and quickly. Yet it could be argued that recognising the problem is the easy part, finding and implementing the solution is the real challenge.
Image copyright of APPG. Publisher, CILIP.
Full report available to download from CILIP.