A new future for Public Libraries

COVID-19 has been a human tragedy on a global scale. It has also been an opportunity to showcase what public libraries and library staff are capable of. The scale of the disruption is such that it can be hard to think beyond the immediate priorities of re-opening services. But we must. There is a new, better future to be had for our much-loved public libraries.

When on the 20th March 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson stepped in front of the cameras and announced the closure of pubs, bars, restaurants and public spaces as a protective measure against a growing pandemic, public libraries were not on the list.

By all accounts, their omission wasn’t an oversight. A decision had apparently been made at the highest levels in Government to keep libraries open because for many people, entirely dependent on Internet access in our digital age, they were the only place they could get online, find information and stay connected.

It was a recognition of something that those of us in the library business have known for many years. That what we offer is far more than a transactional service. It is social infrastructure, a place to be connected, a platform for our communities to build a better future for themselves, both in-person and online.

The questions we must answer

There are no simple answers. But there are hard questions and we must not shy away from them. Libraries before COVID-19 had been in a kind of limbo. Having left behind the Victorian era that shaped them, with its basic belief in emancipation and education, there was an implicit question hanging over our institutions — “what will you be for, now that I have the world’s knowledge at my fingertips?”

Again, those of us in the business know all too well that the bounties of the Internet age were not evenly distributed. For the millions of UK citizens disenfranchised by technology, society or economics, libraries have never stopped being a place of refuge and empowerment. But societies run on simple narratives, and for too long the narrative about public libraries has been “we know what we were, but not what we will be.” If we re-open without correcting this narrative, without being bold and ambitious in claiming a new role in a post-COVID society, we ultimately set ourselves on a path to oblivion.

COVID-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our sector to correct this lingering sense of doubt. We must articulate — loudly and confidently — the role we intend to occupy in the daily lives of every citizen in our fast-moving, connected society. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

So what are the components of this confident new role for public libraries? This needs to be a topic of national debate and co-creation within our profession. The ambition cannot be the preserve of a small group — it has to emerge organically from every library worker in every service. But there are elements of it that have begun to come into view in recent years.

The brand coherence of the NHS

The reality of the NHS is that it comprises an entire complex ecosystem of different kinds of providers, operating nationally, regionally and locally. It is organisationally fragmented, built up, layer-on-layer over successive generations of policy. And yet it is, unquestionably and simply, “our NHS”.

The brand of the public library has none of this coherence in the hearts and minds of today’s audiences. One of the reasons why our sector is defined around nostalgic ideas of what we were is because the it is only in previous times that people had a clear and singular sense of what their public library was for.

If we are going to be successful in staking our claim to a new relevance in a post-COVID society, we must learn to take all the complexity and fragmentation of today’s public library landscape and hide it behind a single, simple and confident brand expression — “this is us, this is what we are about, this is what you can get from your local library”. We must learn to speak with the singular identity and coherence of the NHS.

The breadth and ambition of the BBC

As an economist would understand it, libraries offer “secondary educational value”. We create value that amplifies and extends learning, well-being, skills and confidence in a way that is not solely attributable to us. As a result, we have foundered in a world that demands a direct return on investment.

It is in the nature of public libraries to be all things to all people. It is, in fact, part of our core purpose. In this sense, public libraries bear more than a passing resemblance to that other national public service — the BBC.

As one of the world’s leading public service broadcasters, the BBC has to pull off a similar trick. It has to create and amplify educational value for everyone. It has to have universal appeal but its mission to inform and educate means that it cannot simply put ‘bums on seats’. It has to provide infrastructure, content and services that are both good and good for people.

If we are to build a new, coherent and ambitious identity for public libraries in our post-COVID society, we need a shared mission for them of the same scale and ambition as the BBC’s “to inform, educate and entertain”. Public libraries must re-discover our identity and sense of purpose as a great British institution, focused on the welfare, education and progress of the people we are here to serve.

Focusing on humanity and kindness

Alongside this reminder of our humanity, there is a renewed sense of connection to basic human values — community, kindness, care, personal connection, time spent simply enjoying being with other people.

As our communities emerge from lockdown, kindling the embers of this sense of connectedness and community will be every bit as important as social distancing and quarantining books. Libraries are fundamentally human places — as long as people have congregated in one place throughout human history, they have put up something like a library. That is why you will find much-loved and used ‘libraries’ in places like The Jungle, the migrant and refugee camp in Calais and mobile libraries serving displaced people across the Mediterranean.

If our future libraries are to be successful, we must be careful to preserve their humanity. Our services need to be personal, caring, kind and respectful. Our library of the future must be a place where everyone in our society knows they will be welcomed and respected as an equal, whether they visit us in person or via a screen.

Blending physical and digital

At the same time, the recognition that life is now both physical and digital is a powerful reminder of the deep inequality that arises when people are digitally-excluded. It is not just that there is some ‘add-on’ to which they are denied access. Digital exclusion is one of the most dangerous causes of disempowerment in our modern world.

The other, perhaps equally important but less visible impact of this disruption is that it has finally prompted millions of people to ‘give it a go’. To try video-conferencing or social media. To have a go at editing a video or building a web page. There are very few moments in the history of our society when the whole population has been inspired to gain new skills on this scale.

The post-COVID society that public libraries will serve is unlikely to accept services that aren’t much good at digital, or that still treat digital as somehow shiny, new and different. They will expect excellence in our digital spaces as much as they do our physical buildings. They will demand good bandwidth, quality content, opportunities to get connected, services which empower them to get creative, explore and share. Our new, bold articulation of the public library of the future will need to stop being a physical Victorian infrastructure with some technology attached. Instead, the idea of the ‘library’ must become synonymous with rich, playful and empowering digital experiences.

A central belief in information

A library is a place of information. Not in the passive sense of the noticeboard and leaflets, but in the positive and active sense that the public library is a place where people are free to transact, seek, create and share information. Where they can build their skills and confidence and ultimately make use of information to improve their lives.

All of the social and economic benefits of the public library — whether in terms of education, health and well-being or active citizenship — track back to quality information.

There is an incredibly important line — and it is one that librarians are uniquely skilled in drawing — between information and advice. The role of the library is to empower people to access and use quality information to answer their own questions, not to provide them with the answers.

As we look ahead to the future, we know that the NHS will only be able to meet increasing demand if we succeed in creating a more health-literate population. We know that our democracy will only remain strong if we succeed in creating information-literate citizens. We know that our economy will only grow if we succeed in creating a population that can use today’s information to generate tomorrow’s innovations.

Books and reading are central to the purpose of libraries because they drive all forms of literacy. Literacy drives the citizenship, self-care, empathy, skills and imagination we need to drive our future economy. Our bold, ambitious vision of the future of libraries must step up to and take ownership of the fact that the path to our future success as an advanced-skills economy and an inclusive liberal society runs straight through the public library.

A network of trusted places

Retail chains look longingly both at the distribution of public libraries and their resonance with the public as trusted spaces. And yet, the fragmentation of today’s public library community means that we risk squandering the unique power and leverage that this network ought to give us.

When we divide the network of public libraries up into local fiefdoms, it makes it far easier to salami-slice pieces of it. It also makes it far harder to manage the network as a network. We know as librarians that the contemporary distribution of public library buildings made sense in a bygone age. The job of actively re-configuring this network to the shape of today’s High Street and the communities of tomorrow remains to be done.

So our bold articulation of the ‘new normal’ for public libraries must regain the confidence of our power as a nationally-distributed network — able to act locally on the one hand and actively to shape and steward the network nationally on the other.

Bringing it all together

We need a new plan. A plan which empowers us to re-discover the simplicity and coherence of our brand and the power of our network. We need a public-focused mission which unifies and galvanises in the same way as the BBC’s ‘inform, educate and entertain’. We need to take strength, unity and confidence from our central role as places of information. We must inspire and enthuse an entirely new audience with services that are seamlessly physical and digital, which empower them to learn, be well and be active participants in the cultural and democratic life of their community. We must create places and spaces that are accessible, attractive and that reinforce our user’s sense of empowerment. And most of all, we must be clear and resolute in founding our services in the values of kindness, humanity, personal care and a respect for each and every user.

It is incumbent on every generation to re-shape libraries to meet the emerging needs of their future society. For too long, we have been in thrall to a previous generation’s idea of what public libraries are for. COVID-19 is a tragedy on a global scale. But it might also just be the impetus we need to transform public libraries. Let’s not waste it.

Chief Executive of CILIP, the professional association for everyone working in knowedge, information and libraries.

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