Some reflections on the Sieghart Report

The Independent Library Report for England, written by Willian Sieghart & Panel, was published by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport on 18 December 2014. At 34 pages, it should have been possible to digest, even over Christmas, for those interested parties in central and local government diligent enough to do so.

Tasked with investigating how the public library system could best work in the future, Sieghart & Panel (seven bigwigs, with expertise ranging from reforming public services, entrepreneurship, publishing, writing, and librarianship itself) took seven months and arrived at some clear, if rather ambitious, conclusions and recommendations.

The report is published in the middle (if we are lucky) of the UK government’s programme to eliminate the structural deficit that arose as a result of the global financial crisis that became apparent in 2008, the immediate borrowing required to shore up the financial industry (which had caused the problem) and the subsequent collapse of tax revenues due to the inevitable economic recession. The provision of public libraries in England is a statutory responsibility of local government, and local authorities have seen, and will continue to see, large reductions in their grants from central government.

The law (Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964) requires local authorities to “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof,” which is a strong requirement, but one that must be subject to interpretation when resources are so scarce. Indeed, the period of the current coalition government, which is drawing to a close, has seen many public libraries close (see www.publiclibrariesnews.com) and many more change the model on which they are run – various case studies of which are given at the end of the report.

On top of this the technological changes that most of us have quickly come to rely on during the last 15 years or so – namely the web, mobile telephony, mobile computing, WiFi… – have threatened the conventional place of the library as a citizen’s primary source of good information.

Of course, those of us who work in public libraries know very well that sections of the population tend to come to the library to get online because they don’t have a smartphone, or a printer at home. And they often need help to access government services, including those relating to citizenship. At Reading Central Library we deal with people from all over the world who are making a life for themselves in our town, either temporarily or indefinitely, every day. Some of our most popular books are those that help immigrants learn English and pass their driving test.

So, what does the report have to say about all this? Actions are recommended for both central and local government, much of which should be implemented by a “task and finish force” led by local government but also comprising other relevant bodies. One consistent theme is that cost savings should be sought by collaboration between local authorities, taking advantage of economies of scale where possible.

A national library card and catalogue is suggested, though it isn’t clear how much research was done into the practical consequences of this. Yes, it would be a positive step towards “future generations [being] able to take the excellence and efficiency of the library service for granted,” but it would also be a great technical challenge; though one that no doubt, any of the larger library management systems providers would be happy to bid to take on. Yet big government IT projects have been known to fail, at great cost. It would probably better to implement an open source platform under the direction of academic libraries that are already collaborating on such projects.

It could also be argued that, from a local authority’s point-of-view, a national catalogue would benefit those library services that have cut back their book budgets at the expense of those who have made efforts to maintain them, despite financial pressures. Policies vary throughout the country – after all, local authorities are run by elected politicians that run on a manifesto that addresses local needs and priorities. People correctly think of their public libraries as a local service and the reports’ recommendations, if successfully implemented, could change this.

Most of the press coverage of the report highlighted its statement that a public library should be “a comfortable, retail-standard environment, with the usual amenities of coffee, sofas and toilets.” This was just the context to what is perhaps the reports key recommendation, that all public libraries should offer free WiFi. Again, academic libraries (which more directly operate in a competitive environment) are ahead here. At a university today a library is as much a space to work as a place to a find book. A lot of what a student needs to read is available online, not freely on the internet but via subscriptions that the library pays to publishers in order to have access to scholarly journals. Consequently, book stacks are giving way to computer desks, including ones designed to help students to work together.

Sieghart tasks central government with finding the money to make WiFi ubiquitous in public libraries in England. Not only will this bring people in, including the current generations of workers who these days go elsewhere for coffee, sofas and WiFi. It will also be at the heart of an overhaul of library IT, much of which dates back to funding around the turn of the millennium. Better IT will be the platform for much of this collaboration (perhaps ‘nationalisation’) of the service.

Let’s hope that the pre-Christmas publication wasn’t a ruse to minimise the report’s impact. Perhaps its most laudable recommendation is that public libraries’ trajectory towards being ‘community hubs’ of ‘digital fluency’ depends on having a highly skilled and respected workforce. Amen to that.