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Libraries must look to the future

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Over the last few weeks we’ve been consulting widely on the future direction of the library service and recently held a Library 2020 round-table with contributors from local government, broadcasting, publishing and beyond.

As libraries respond to the Comprehensive Spending Review, cuts must be strategic, with an eye to the long term and focus on priorities. Our take on the situation is that in some places there’s a very real danger of libraries retrenching to a position where the reading service is just books on shelves. That would be a disaster.

The last ten years which have seen a profound re-imagining of libraries’ reading service. There has been a focused growth of engaging activity and outreach designed to get people reading - from reading challenges to author events, reading groups to toddler rhyme times.

This new reading service is reversing major trends and there is a growing evidence base for the social impact of this service on people’s sense of community, their reading range, literacy levels, confidence and self esteem.

Children’s work has been most intense and children’s borrowing has risen for five years running. A remarkable 75% of the child population uses libraries.

We’d argue that continuing to develop the impact of the new reading service should be a priority. No business would ignore the growth trends we’re seeing, and no local authority should ignore the outcomes it can achieve for local people.

There’s a hard edged imperative to this priority. We need new solutions to the country’s major literacy skills problem. One in six young people leave school unable to read and write properly; 63% of employers want action to improve literacy and numeracy skills. There’s an urgent need for action, and libraries have a key role to play.

As well as being key to tackling skills problems, libraries’ modern, more engaging reading service also has huge potential to act as a springboard for community activism, engaging local people in shaping services and volunteering. Local authorities pondering their new “duty to involve” should look immediately to libraries .

Exciting models like the accredited teenage volunteering through The Summer Reading Challenge should be part of Big Society thinking and the new National Citizens Service.

The Reading Agency is talking to libraries about smart ways to save money while safeguarding the expertise of the staff who know how to bring reading alive in communities. We’re discussing shared services models, with staff working across clusters of authorities, drawing down on cost saving shared programmes and partnerships.

Comments included:

Lord Graham Tope, Sutton LBC’s portfolio holder for libraries: “I’d like us to think about the cuts as an opportunity rather than a threat. We’re being forced to think radically at the moment — and that’s often when the good ideas come.”

Matt Locke, acting head of cross platform at Channel 4: “Public spaces are under attack, and libraries are one of the last remaining great examples. The really radical thing about libraries is not reading, but reading in public.”

Graham Tope: “I long for a politically engaged library service. At the moment the political profile is only there when people threaten to close libraries.”

Neil MacInnes, head of library and information services, Manchester City Council: “We’ve worked hard in Manchester to make sure that the profile of the service is lifted. Library staff have a responsibility to ensure that the perception of libraries is raised.”

All three participated in the Library 2020 round table discussion hosted by the Reading Agency. The Reading Agency is an independent charity specialising in helping library services make more social impact.

Miranda McKearne, director, Reading Agency

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