A summary of the keynote speech at this year’s meeting of the Publishers Licensing Society
09 +00002014-07-11T22:32:17+00:0031 2012 § 2 Comments
Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Publishers Licensing Society [PLS], which this year was held for the first time at Burlington House, Piccadilly – a wonderful venue at which I’ve found myself on several occasions and which I wrote about last year.
Hands down, the keynote speaker at the meeting, William Sieghart, stole the show. The founder of Forward Publishing, he has recently been asked to conduct a review of public libraries in England and map out a plan of what their future might look like.
He began by saying that there are 151 library authorities in England, which is ‘an awful lot’. Anyone wishing to appraise the public library service has to engage with all of them and also the two central government departments involved, the DCMS and Arts Connect. The money for libraries comes from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), but ultimately the organisations that influence them the most are the 151 local authorities around the country. In order to carry out his review, William Sieghart has been obliged to place himself at the centre of a very complex set of problems. His thoughts on the task so far completed are as follows:
1. Any review can only make a set of recommendations that essentially skirt around the dysfunctionality of the public library service, as there seems to be no appetite to change the way it is set up.
2. Fifteen years ago the government invested in ‘The People’s Network’, which involved placing computers in libraries for people visiting them to use. It was very exciting at the time; is less so now. Currently, only 37% of the libraries in England have wi-fi. The dysfunctionality that he referred to applies not only to the governance of libraries, but also to the way in which they buy goods and services. For example, the average commercial organisation would expect to pay £200 – £500 for setting up wi-fi, but, because of the way that they procure things, libraries can spend several thousand pounds on it.
3. “The Pub is the Hub”. This is an initiative that has taken place in local communities where the shop and all other amenities except the pub have disappeared. Its rationale is based on the fact that many pubs have a spare room that can be devoted to community activities. Libraries could and should occupy the same role within their respective communities, and some do, but because of the ‘hollowing-out’ of the system, this concept isn’t as widespread as it might be. Somewhat grimly, William Sieghart said, ‘It’s been a revelation to me over the past few months how Britain doesn’t work.’ He compared the closure of so many libraries with Beeching’s closure of much of the rail network in the 1960s, and said that we shall regret it. Andrew Carnegie founded libraries (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) as centres of self-improvement and, essentially, this function hasn’t changed. All sorts of things go on in libraries that have nothing to do with books and reading. Libraries are a haven for children, students, old people and the unemployed. For example, most jobs now require online applications, but 13% of unemployed people have no access to a computer; the public library is the only place they can go, either for this or for help with digital and literacy skills. ‘Give a library coffee and wi-fi and it will be packed.’ The problem is, said William Sieghart, that ‘joined up’ is not a term that is readily recognised in Whitehall; there is a failure of imagination to identify the many services that libraries could be used for. It is the system of management in so many places that has allowed public libraries to descend in a downward spiral, but in many others an upward spiral has been achieved.
4. We as members of the public have no stake in public libraries. William Sieghart advocates a system similar to that operated by school governing bodies. He said that Suffolk, for various complicated reasons, had to confront public library closures before anywhere else in the country (essentially, it ran out of money). All forty-two libraries in Suffolk are now run as community partnerships. One of the reasons that so many communities are in a panic about the future of their library service is because they ‘haven’t got their head around what Suffolk has done’. William Sieghart said that there should be a professional body ‘out there’ in a country like ours to make sure that this happens. Currently he’s lobbying government and big business to buy wi-fi and a digital network for every library.
5. William Sieghart also believes that there should be a ‘Librarian-first’ training campaign, run along the same lines as the ‘Teach-first’ campaign intended to attract young, energetic recruits to teaching.
The combined thrust of all his recommendations will be that a national support network for libraries should be created that is both inward- and outward-facing. More controversially, he suggested that this might, perhaps, include a ‘single content management system’. (There was little reaction from the publishers present to this, despite the unspoken effect on ‘economies of scale’ to their revenues.)
William Sieghart’s was an impassioned and eloquent speech. At the end of it, he made a plea for the creation of a ‘Library-Plus’ library service that will enable libraries to operate from a position of strength, instead of the ‘tragic, tragic position we’re in at the moment.’ He was an unusual choice for the PLS annual meeting keynote, but his speech made all the more impact because of that. Happily for me, he not only articulated many of my own deeply-held beliefs about the importance of the public library service, but outlined an ambitious and energetic plan that, if adopted, should help it not only to survive, but also to thrive.