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.