… there was a world before Covid-19 … a world even before austerity … a world before performance management. So before focusing on the year ahead I thought I’d start “À la recherche de temps perdu”. No, I won’t be quoting from Proust’s novels in French, although I still recall a time when they were considered essential on the library’s ‘foreign language’ shelves, albeit even then rarely borrowed.
But to recall that ‘lost time’ I’d like to take you back to the winding staircase above Richmond Library, which (November blog) once led to Alfred Cotgreave’s living quarters. When I first worked there as a young library assistant, one of the tasks was to answer calls on a small mahogany-cased PABX switchboard, which itself appeared to be from Cotgreave’s day. Fresh, young and enthusiastic I took a call asking to speak to “Miss Crimp”. Puzzled, I appealed to a nearby colleague who replied, “Oh she won’t be there, she never is, just say she’s gone to Mortlake Vestry”, which indeed seemed to work on this and many a future occasion. On further enquiry I learned that Miss Crimp was the former Borough Librarian of Barnes, a tiny municipal service and one of the last to adopt the Public Library Act, in 1943. Hence, in its short existence until London local government reorganisation it only ever had one Borough Librarian, Miss Crimp.
In 1965 the newly formed London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, inheriting a surfeit of Chiefs and Deputies, had resolved this by giving Miss Crimp (amongst others) an honorific job title and allowing her to gainfully use her time organising the history of Barnes and Mortlake while occupying, occasionally, one of Alfred’s old rooms. I did eventually pass Miss Crimp on the stairs – or rather, I deferentially waited on the small landing for her to sweep past – a pleasant, though somewhat reclusive woman. But can anyone imagine that kind of arrangement being contemplated today?
Bringing you back to 2021 with a jolt! Since my last blog, daily life in the UK is once again subject to severe restrictions, meaning ongoing limitations and uncertainty for public library services. This useful listing by Public Library News gives an indication of the services currently being offered by each library service across the whole of the UK. It is drawn from each authority’s own website, so is inevitably dependent on the accuracy of the information they post, but there continues to be much variation in what users will be experiencing locally.
Last month CIPFA reported that in the year to March 2020 (so before the impact of Covid had started to be felt) spending on British public libraries dropped by nearly £20million over the previous financial year. Levels of ‘traditional’ use had also continued to fall, though pre-Covid levels of online use and e-materials were already steadily rising. All of which only serves to underline my message last month, that it really is time to take a fresh look at the future role of library services and how these will be delivered. When Caroline Dinenage, the Libraries Minister, spoke at the Libraries Connected seminar in early December she made exactly that point: “At a local level, making the case to your council decision-makers about how libraries will help them deliver their wider ambitions for local people”
If library services, and indeed council services generally, are in the future going to effectively meet local needs, we need to become much smarter at understanding what those needs are. Which means first of all identifying the social, economic and other factors driving people’s attitudes, behaviours and aspirations. The Coronavirus Diaries, a programme of research launched last April by Britain Thinks, offers a very readable starting point: “We wanted to see … how the experience of the pandemic has changed people and their lives and how they’re feeling about … the longer-term future”. Given the approach, using focus groups, some of the evidence inevitably feels a little ‘anecdotal’ but it certainly provides food for thought.
During the Covid pandemic, which at times can seem endless, it is easy to become focused on our own immediate environment and what is happening locally, so let’s briefly look further afield:
While UK council leaders and directors may be considering having less libraries, the message in Kenya is that more libraries are needed. Kenya has been identified as one of four countries that control 60% of Africa’s digital economy. Yet only a privileged few have had access to digital infrastructure to continue their education uninterrupted during the restrictions imposed because of Covid. ‘Community Libraries great equaliser’ outlines the part more libraries could play in meeting that need.
And for insight into how the leaders of library services in Asia and Oceania have been coping during the Covid pandemic, take a few minutes to watch this Leaders’ Conversations video. Library services across this region have been no less affected than have ours in the UK and Europe, but the upbeat way this group talk about not only survival, but innovation, is inspiring. Leader’s Conversations is a new digital platform for leaders in the region and beyond to share their insights on major developments in the library world and receives support from IFLA (the International Federation of Library Association and Institutions). This first Conversation took place in September 2020.
Geoff Allen is a senior associate consultant with Activist Group. The views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Activist.