What role for public libraries in the Big Society?

This week number 10 Downing Street is making a series of high profile announcements in defence of the Big Society. The Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals is seriously concerned that without professional support and management, community managed public libraries run by volunteers will fail to deliver the ‘comprehensive and efficient’ public library services that local authorities have a statutory duty to deliver.

Public libraries could be key in delivering the Big Society agenda, but so far the role they could play has not been clearly articulated. Public libraries are much more than a collection of books, they play a central role in many communities. For example by providing spaces where groups can hold events and meetings, running activities for children that allow families to meet, helping people with literacy problems, providing access to the internet and services for the house-bound.

Annie Mauger, CILIP’s Chief Executive, said: “Ed Milliband asked David Cameron how he expects people to volunteer at their local library if it is being shut down. This is a good question but plenty more spring to mind. What support will volunteers and community managed libraries receive? How will volunteers replace the unique knowledge and skills that professional librarians possess? What ideas does Mr Cameron have for utilizing libraries to deliver the Big Society? The role of public libraries in the Big Society is currently unclear, we are going to end up with a depleted service if it is not made clear, and quickly.”

CILIP recognises that volunteers contribute a great deal to the public library service. They enrich public libraries; forming part of a professionally managed service that includes sufficient paid staff to ensure the direction, development and quality of the service provided. Volunteers are not a free solution, proper management and professional support is necessary.

Professional staff have a unique range specialist skills and skills, integral to the overall public library service. They help the public find and interpret information; develop information handling skills; provide knowledge about available resources; work with groups such as children and people with literacy problems; help libraries develop new digital services; work with local partners such as schools, health trusts and the police; and work with national partners to enhance the library service. This range of unique skills and knowledge cannot simply be replaced by volunteers in a wholesale fashion.

Community managed public libraries are a new departure for many local authorities. CILIP is calling on the Secretary of State for Culture to provide guidance on best practice for community managed libraries. It is unclear from many of the proposals being put forward by public library authorities as to what support, if any, will be offered to community managed libraries. CILIP is concerned that they will just be left to sink or swim without any support at all.

CILIP has published a clear set of action for the Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, to fulfil his statutory duty to superintend and promote the public library service in England. Read CILIP’s full set of actions for Jeremy Hunt

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One Response to What role for public libraries in the Big Society?

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