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PUBLIC LIBRARIES REPORT - DIAGNOSIS MAY BE RIGHT, TREATMENT ISN'T

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The diagnosis may be right, but the treatment isn't - that was the immediate response from the Chartered Institute ...
The diagnosis may be right, but the treatment isn't - that was the immediate response from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals to Who's in Charge? - a new report from Libri on the public library service in the UK (see LGCnet).

Commenting in The Guardian on 28 April on the report, by former Waterstone's managing director Tim Coates, CILIP's chief executive Bob McKee said: 'Mr Coates paints a picture of a public library service in terminal decline. It isn't. It certainly faces challenges - just like bookshops do from supermarkets selling cut-price bestsellers or the BBC does from cable and satellite. But [it] is still a huge operation.'

Mr Coates's treatment is flawed, CILIP believes, because it makes the assumption that libraries are just like bookshops that happen to lend books instead of selling them. 'Libraries don't just carry multiple copies of what's currently in print,' Dr McKee told The Guardian's John Ezard. 'They're required by law to be comprehensive, so they carry large numbers of out-of-print works as well. Managing them is a task that bookshops just don't have.'

In an hour-long debate with the report's author Tim Coates on the BBC Radio 5 Live Simon Mayo Show on Tuesday, CILIP's head of external relations Tim Buckley Owen also questioned some of the assumptions behind the report's findings. 'Bookshops extend their opening hours in the expectation of increased revenues and profit,' he pointed out. 'If libraries open late, they just see their costs increase.'

Who's In Charge? raises several points that are worthy of serious debate, CILIP believes. Longer opening hours and more books on the shelves are certainly desirable goals - and CILIP also approves of the report's conclusions that management of libraries should be left to the professionals but that councillors must take proper responsibility for the service and assume leadership. Improved training and appro priate professional qualifications for public library staff were other recommendations that CILIP supported, and Tim Buckley Owen told the launch press conference that these were areas where CILIP could make a direct contribution.

However CILIP does have concerns at Mr Coates's contention that improvements can be achieved entirely within the existing public library budget. In a speech to MPs and authors at a House of Commons reception to celebrate 25 years of Public Lending Right, coincidentally held on the day of the report's launch, CILIP's president Margaret Haines said: 'There is pressure from government on public libraries to make even better use of the resources they already have. To be candid, this isn't the whole story; public libraries have suffered from years of under-investment, and increased efficiency is only part of the equation.'

Mr Coates also bases many of his figures on highly questionable assumptions, CILIP believes. In a raft of responses to the newspapers on the day news of the report broke, Bob McKee rebutted claims that libraries spent£24 on each£10 book they bought, or that it took 28 librarians to put a book on a shelf. 'By all means let's have a debate on where libraries go from here,' Dr McKee said. 'But let's have it on the basis of a proper understanding of how public libraries work.'

Notes

CILIP is the leading professional body for librarians, information specialists and knowledge managers, with around 23,000 members working in all sectors, including business and industry, science and technology, further and higher education, schools, local and central government, the health service, the voluntary sector, national and public libraries. For more information about CILIP, please go to www.cilip.org.uk

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