Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Appetite for instruction

An interesting article in the Independent on the weekend by Andrew Motion, the poet laureate. Motion, recently appointed as chair of the MLA, apparently wants to shake up our libraries.

Not too much new in Motion's article for those of us in the trade... libraries are old fashioned (check), libraries have an image problem (check), lots of people think libraries are not for them (check) along with the usual anxiety around the medium for storing and diseminating knowledge - book vs computer.

He does have a good point about community engagement though. In libraries we all know that there is something for everyone. Outside of libraries there are a huge number of people who are kind of vaguely aware that libraries exist and that they are on balance "a good thing" but would never think of crossing the threshold themselves. Non users surveys are remarkably consistent. Depending on your vantage point, libraries are simultaneously for the poor and disadvantaged who can't afford to buy their own books and largely populated by the middle classes and posh educated people - exclusive.

A lot of what Motion suggests is already going on in the better libraries - remodelling, refurbishments, family history workshops, online services, literary events etc. What some libraries seem to get wrong though is acting in isolation or picking one thing to focus on at the expense of others.

How many of us have experienced the "fur coat and no knickers" of library refurbs or new builds where someone has spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on a fantastic new building and then stocked it with the same old books as before?
Or the amazing events programme, reading groups, author talks and baby rhyme time in a building with plaster coming off in chunks and no toilet?
Or the modern, accessible, light and airy, toilet filled library that is shut on Saturday afternoon?
Or (possibly worst of all), the new library with every book, PC, event and toilet you could want, whenever you want it - staffed with the grumpiest, most miserable, untrained, unmotivated staff you could ever wish to see.

In my view we need to apply a simple and holistic approach to library service delivery.

Great product - books, services, information, events, ICT
Accessible places - opening hours, cleanliness, design, repair, location
Great staff - trained, motivated, friendly, diverse

Then - let peple know about it.

All good things come from here and we need to get it right - all of it. Libraries fell down when they lost pace with customer expectations. Never pass something second rate off to customers and expect to get away with it. Aim high - that's where customer expectations are.

Don't get in a comfort zone - very few businesses have the luxury of segmenting their market and staying alive. Libraries are for everyone and we have to reach out to all sections of the community - not just the easy hits.

Often the cry is for more money, but it's time for services to prove that they are competent to spend it

In Swansea we are trying hard to achieve this high quality, customer focused and holistic service. The ongoing programme of refurbishments (ticking all the boxes) and the opening of our new Central library have had a big impact but we have a long way to go yet. We are an improving business, looking to grow.

Come and visit us Mr Motion (we can all forget that we're in Wales for the purpose of the exercise) - and we promise that if you give us some money, it won't be wasted.


Mark said...

Interesting article indeed, and quite a clarion call of a response.

There’s surely no argument on what you identify as the 3 key areas (well, 4 – as you say, never forget the ‘telling people about it’ bit). I do think you’ll find the devil is in the detail though.. one service’s interpretation of ‘great book stock’ or ‘great information provision’ will differ wildly from another’s currently, and the existing Public Library standards don’t do enough, in my view, to help clarify that situation. As a sector I think we need to be more self critical if we truly want to aim higher.

There are pools of very good practice around – and Swansea is one of them (though I admit I may be biased) , but there’s still a lot of mediocrity out there (For fear of causing embarrassment I won’t mention by name the library in England I visited recently which I was truly horrified by).

The bright ideas are all out there, and there’s been some good lessons learnt about what works and what doesn’t for libraries, so why haven’t these been taken on board more widely? Are libraries not communicating their successes well enough? Are people like Paige wrong about what constitutes a ‘good’ library service? Are the ‘failing’ services unwilling / unable to change? Is it just inertia holding services back?

Lets be honest in debating all this, because I think UK Public Library provision really is under threat unless something changes soon, and that's a heart-breaking prospect.

Anonymous said...

There are over 200 library authorities in the UK and over 3000 actual libraries. The standard is so very varied and influenced by all those points Paige makes so well. Yes we need to be holistic.

If you think of the hotel trade if the welcome is poor or the pool cold the star rating is quickly forgotten. However the hotel trade are up front in saying what you can expect and as a customer the star rating influences your expectation. Why not the same for libraries (including inspection, mystery customer and criteria based assessment) Swansea Central **** Newark ** etc..

Anyway we do need to get in Motion! and start firing on all fronts and stop the navel gazing …..

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