British libraries have been forced to re-assess their function in society,
and are now entering a period of transition, and some are re-emerging as 21st
century ‘Idea Stores’. Simon Kent reports
In February 2003, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published a
Framework for The Future of the library service, challenging them to focus on
delivering to those who would benefit most from their services.
Regarded by some as the bastion of the white middle class, where books are
treated with reverence by bespectacled librarians who say little more than
"Sh!", public libraries are in the process of taking a proactive role
within the communities they serve.
They are an increasingly necessary resource for accessing local and national
government information – both in print and online – as well as information from
around the globe, via the internet. They are centres for personal learning and
improvement, while remaining a lender of books, music and films.
While placed on the frontline of local authority service provision, they
historically have little profile within those organisations – head librarians
have rarely enjoyed senior management status without assuming responsibility
for additional leisure services.
Libraries have suffered from negative criticism levelled at local government
in general, as well as at their various re-organisations of the past decade or
"As in other parts of the public sector, there has been the perception
of a lack of leadership within libraries," says Guy Daines, principal
policy adviser for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information
Professionals (CILIP). "Libraries haven’t had the articulate spokespeople
they need within local authorities."
Daines notes that careers within the public service currently have little
appeal for graduates of information and library studies. The sector requires a
generalist approach, whereas students usually have a specific area of interest
where they want to apply their skills.
Ray Templeton, head of libraries and education at the British Film Institute
(BFI), supports this, pointing to the strong talent pool its own library can
"A lot of our staff have taken film or television studies at MA
level," he says. "Subsequently, it’s not difficult for us to find
people who have the right qualifications and who are also film fanatics."
While noting that the BFI’s library has a significant history of using
technology to support its work, Templeton explains the advent of the internet
has changed the day-to-day job of librarians in general. Library users can now
receive documents and publications and make enquires via e-mail, and can be
directed to further resources on the web – a move which has reduced telephone
enquiries by 40 per cent over the past five years.
Information technology has certainly been one of the biggest drivers of
change within the public library sector, and seems key to libraries playing a
greater role in the daily lives of their users.
In 1998, a lottery-funded initiative called The People’s Network dedicated
some £170m to connecting all of the UK’s libraries to the internet – £20m of
which was set aside for training every library worker in internet use.
The Library & Information Commission (now known as Resource) published a
document in October that year which identified a number of roles that library
staff should now assume. These included ‘net navigator’, ‘information
technology gatekeeper’ and ‘educator’.
To fulfil these roles, all library staff were trained up to and beyond the
European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) standard. The delivery of this
training programme – now practically complete – is not just impressive in terms
of its scale, but also because it was run while libraries were still operating,
despite the related challenges of staff cover.
According to Carolyn Date, personnel officer and chartered librarian at the
new Bournemouth library, all its 125 staff took the course – including the
library’s courier – and achieved the required standard in two years. Having
carried out an initial skills audit, the library established a close
relationship with the Dorset Training and Enterprise Council, and utilised
funds from Individual Learning Accounts to get staff up to the initial ECDL
"The staff have become lifelong learners in the best possible way; they
suddenly realised they could do something they didn’t think they could,"
says Date. "Among some of our female staff – who were usually the ones at
home who didn’t use the computer – self-esteem has increased
The training event itself has therefore given employees valuable ‘outreach’
skills; they can identify closely with users for whom this may be their first
experience of using IT or the internet.
While acknowledging the challenges represented by the People’s Network and
Framework for The Future, Date does not perceive the work of libraries to be
changing in any radical way.
"Libraries have always been about social inclusion and lifelong
learning," she says. "In a way, the rest of the world has only just
caught up with us. We have new tools with IT and the internet, but we’re still
using the same skills of evaluating an information resource and making that
resource accessible to others."
The creation of the new Bournemouth library also raised other challenges for
Date and her colleagues. The new building, which opened in April 2002, brings
together three separate private funding initiative deals covering the building
itself, IT services and maintenance.
"The furniture, the building and the fittings belong to private
contractors," says Date. "The staff have to be very disciplined in
how they relate to the contractors – the way in which issues are raised and
reported is very tightly governed. That might mean there’s inflexibility in the
arrangement, but it means we make sure the council gets what it’s paying
Indeed, last year the IT contractor scored 99.75 per cent on its delivery to
Clearly the role of libraries is set to evolve over the years, but it
appears that the initial and perhaps most significant changes have already
occurred. There is a distinct change in mindset to increase accessibility to
the service – matching opening hours to those of high street retailers, for
example – and providing a resource that keys into diverse aspects of a
Alan Warner, vice-president of the Society of Personnel Officers in Local
Government (Socpo), and corporate director of people and property at
Hertfordshire County Council, feels the service is more than ready to meet the
challenges of the future. "The
service cracked the issue of customer-friendly staff a while ago," he
says. "People who work in libraries are very focused, clear about why they
are there, and can’t do enough to help.
"It is now a question of identifying precisely where they fit into
society, and how they can use technology to help them fulfil that role,"
Taking it to the streets
With opening hours to rival Safeway and a recruitment process taken in part
from Pret a Manger, Idea Stores are Tower Hamlets’ answer to providing a
library service that is actually used by local residents.
An amalgamation of library and lifelong education services, the Idea Store’s
logo bears no evidence of council involvement, even though the next five to
seven years will see the introduction of these centres in place of traditional
According to Sergio Dogliani, manager of the first Idea Store in Bow, Tower
Hamlets’ libraries had the lowest usage figures in the UK. Today, the Idea
Store records 30,000 users per month, and can boast a 35 per cent increase in
loans since opening in May 2002.
Employment at the first Idea Store was open to all existing library staff,
but only 30 of the 120 combined employees applied for the 16 positions – not all
of whom were taken on by the new centre.
"We needed staff with good communication skills and a bit of
administration experience, but most of all they had to be ‘people
people’," says Dogliani. "None of the traditional shy librarians who
only light up when they talk about literature."
With help from Pret a Manager and Marks and Spencer, the Idea Store has
taken the approach of recruiting people for personality first, and training
them with the required skills later.
Subsequent recruitment procedures have included a paid four-hour day where
applicants shadow a member of staff, after which the staff member’s opinion of
the potential recruit is factored into the final hiring decision.
Bar-code readers have made the borrowing and returning of books a
self-service task, leaving staff free to undertake more valuable activities,
such as dealing with queries or advising on computer use. In a further break
from tradition, staff wear uniforms – long sleeve shirts and fleece tank tops –
and ‘floor walk’ the store, making them visible and available to users in much
the same way as shop assistants are on hand for customers.
Initial scepticism and resistance to the transition from traditional library
and education centres to Idea Stores from library and education centre staff
was tempered by the provision of week-long outplacements for current staff at
the existing Idea Store.
"Previously, there were only rumours about the store," says
Dogliani. "But when we open the next store in April, people will know what
it’s all about."
– Framework for the Future
– Better Public Libraries
www.readingagency.co.uk – A
reading programme joint initiative by CILIP and The Arts Council of England