Thursday 1 January 2004

Who’s in Charge? Responsibility for the Public Library Service

Tim Coates

This report was released in April and caused a minor stir in the news. Written by Tim Coates, on behalf of the never-before-heard-of charity Libri, the report generated headlines suggesting that public libraries in the UK would all be shut down by 2020 because of the lack of demand.

No surprise there, then. We all know that public libraries have been quietly sliding into oblivion since the arrival of the internet. Between them, Google and Amazon seem to have covered most of the services traditionally supplied by your unfriendly, bespectacled, comfortable-shoe-wearing librarian. And if you actually fancy leaving the confines of your own home, Waterstone’s seems to provide a more sophisticated (leather seats and expensive coffee) bookish environment than your local library, and a wider range of bestsellers to boot.

It is because of this competition, Coates believes, that library usage has fallen each year over the past seven years. What is worse for him is that public expenditure on libraries has risen over this period. Without even reading Who’s in Charge? it is quite easy to see what this money has been spent on - computer terminals and wheelchair ramps. Book stocks, on the other hand, continue to fall into disrepair and collections are dwindling. Of course, many new libraries now being built are experiencing increased usage precisely because of the computer terminals. At places like The Idea Store in Bow, library users can surf the net, listen to CDs, and chat with friends over coffee. To his credit, though, Coates does not see this kind of non-literary activity as representing a revival for libraries. ‘The public does not want a new kind of library’, he says. ‘They just want a good efficient library that is up to date and pleasant to use’. I wouldn’t disagree with that.

So what should libraries be doing? According to the report, they should be ‘re-emphasising the importance of their book collections’. Unfortunately, what the report does not make clear is what makes a collection of books important, and this is a salient omission. With a finite amount of shelf space, a librarian needs to know which books are the most important to buy, and which can be ignored. Which books should be repaired, and which should be sold off? Judgemental questions like this form the basis of the day-to-day running of the library. For several years, though, municipal librarians have avoided answering them, prefering instead to ensure that their collections ‘reflect the ethnic profile of the local population’. Coates censures librarians for having such a policy. ‘The majority are being neglected in the pursuit of the minority’ he bemoans. However, he fails to provide a corrective. Indeed, his report is a study in how librarians can skirt the ‘importance’ issue better and more efficiently.

Instead of examining the matter of important books, the bulk of Who’s in Charge? concentrates on how those who run library services could conduct better market research, produce more detailed strategic plans and apply more efficient working practices to the public sector. Coates sees that the service lacks direction (why else would he raise the question ‘who’s in charge?’), but he also believes that the missing direction can be found from within the supply-and-demand equation of the market. It is an approach found across the public services today. Both government and opposition parties determine their direction, not through any political vision or beliefs, but through carefully controlled interviews with focus groups, by inviting comment on a plethora of fairly non-commital strategic plans, and by attacking their own bureaucracy.

Admittedly, such market research methods provide answers of sorts. It allows, for instance, librarians to work out the percentage of users who speak Urdu, compare this percentage to the number of Urdu books on the shelves, and draw up a strategy to tackle the ‘mismatch’. In short, such methods keep librarians distracted when they could be thinking about, and leading on, a debate about which books are the most important (and please don’t tell me that the BBC covered this in their sickly, judgement-free Big Read campaign).

Ultimately, however, responding to the needs of users through market research methods provides no long-term strategy. Even market-leaders in the business world know, deep down, that these methods are anathema to true leadership. Rather than lead, such companies are forced merely to react to the whims of the customer; their position of market-leader comes only from the fact that they react marginally quicker than their competitors. To look for public service strategy from such methods is, therefore, a case of the blind leading the blind. Perhaps this explains why, when it gets down to brass tacks, Coates’ report sinks into verbiage and inconsistency.

The verbiage takes the form of sentences that need to be read several times before any meaning can be determined. Whether this is Coates’s intended meaning is anyone’s guess. Under the heading ‘Action plans’ he writes:

A council should require that planning and operation of the library service is based on clear, concise and comprehensible information based on measured performance of each library and quantified understanding of the needs of the residents. This is a substantial and fundamental change from the old annual library plan and budget which should be replaced by a much more robust process involving market research to establish user requirements, plans based on user requirements and regular progress meetings to review actual performance data in order to agree appropriate management actions.

Whew! I’m glad I won’t have to attend those regular progress meetings. Anything interesting or useful in the minutes would surely be lost beneath all those clear, concise, comprehensible, substantial, fundamental, robust, actual and appropriate adjectives.

And despite his admirable majoritarianism, Coates is forced into an inconsistent line once he admits that the aim of libraries (in Hampshire at least) is to ‘understand and address the library needs of all in the community, of whatever background or stage of life, in a better way than is currently the case’. If he thought about it, I am sure that Coates would agree with me that such a seemingly inoffensive belief has motivated much of the new research being undertaken among non-users of libraries. Unfortunately, it is this research that is now de-emphasising the importance of book collections, since it provides justification for such abhorrent acts as replacing bookshelves with CD-listening posts, replacing classics with comics, and allowing unbearably noisy chatter, all in the name of addressing the needs of the community.

This is not to say that public libraries should stock only the intellectual and avoid the popular. Give me Mickey Spillane over Virginia Woolf any day. And even Catherine Cookson has her place (fairly low down) in the canon. This is because the importance of a book must take into account the shape and size of the book’s readership. Indeed, it would be difficult to deny the importance of Cookson or even JK Rowling. But importance covers other things as well, relating to aspects of man’s character revealed and examined in the book. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for instance, covers ‘forbidden love’ more deeply and broadly than the complete works of Catherine Cookson. If it were up to me, ten copies of the Shakespeare instead of a full bookcase of Cookson would free up valuable shelf space and save on the book-purchasing budget too. Oh, someone put me in charge of a library!

Fortunately for the people who enjoy a good, straightforward read, it’s not up to me. But who is it up to? Who is in charge? This is perhaps the most pertinent question asked by Coates, and one through which the total aimlessness of our elected representatives (who, technically, are in charge) could have been embarrassingly exposed. We elect these people to represent us collectively, not just in deciding on particular policies but in expressing our views on life and our hopes for the future. The values underlying this our ‘general will’ thereby reveal themselves through our public book collections. And which values are revealed? That, above all other human qualities, we value performance plans and targets backed-up by lists of extraneous adjectives. In other words, we value nothing in particular.

Having failed to say what makes a book collection important, Coates is unable to find a position from which he can be critical of such poor political leadership. His own views on what makes a leader, therefore, seem to be reducible to butt-kicking: only councillors are in a position to kick butt when chief librarians fail to conduct proper market research, so kick more butt they must. This is hardly leadership in the style of Napoleon or Frederick the Great. True leaders do not conduct research to find out what is going on; they tell you what is going on. Interestingly, in any public library there are a thousand would-be leaders, all of them authors whose words lay down the line in an authoritative take-it-or-leave-it fashion. If only councillors, and Tim Coates, could take a leaf out of their books.


Who’s in Charge is available to download from the Libri website.

Ciaran Guilfoyle is organiser of the Queen’s English Society conference ‘English Language & Human Thought’, to be held at the University of London on 23 October, at which the subject of public libraries will be discussed. Visit the QES website for further information.


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