The Public Library Debate

The debate about public libraries that emerged after Rachel Cooke’s article in The Observer last week left me feeling a little cold. Whilst I am pleased that there are still people out there who care enough about their library service to write articles warning of their decline, I did feel that the main thrust seemed to focus to miss the point a little and seemed to follow the Tim Coates school of thought that throwing money at books would go a good way towards solving the problem of lack of usage. This is in itself rather depressing to consider that Tim Coates is some public library guru sent from on high to deliver us from our ultimate destruction (perhaps an exaggeration, but you get the drift).

Predictably, the comments that were posted on Cooke’s blog post followed the same mantra: more books=more issues=the salvation of the library service. For example, one respondant wrote:

Well done, Rachel Cooke for stating the obvious – libraries are about books. But libraries are no longer run by librarians, they are run by managers. Managers arent [sic] interested in books – they are concerned with fulfilling the local councils agenda and various government targets which have nothing to do with books. One of the targets library staff were given in my local authority was reducing the fear of crime!

So libraries offer something that non-book lovers will want – free internet use, games, social networking, and as a result, alienate people who want to read or study. The excuse used is that people will come in for the Internet, and then borrow books. But they dont [sic] do anything of the kind, as the falling book issue statistics demonstrate.

This kind of argument is often used by Tim Coates as part of his drive to ‘raise standards in public libraries’. In an article from 2005, Coates wrote:

They [senior managers] anticipated that all information could be organised in an accessible way. Not only was the electronic future technically innovative but it was also attractive to young people. Computers were introduced to libraries and book collections were allowed to fall into neglect. As a consequence, demand dwindled. Libraries found a role instead as free internet cafes.

Coates clearly draws a parallel between lack of library usage and the introduction of computers into public libraries. This is, in my opinion, a rather simplistic parallel. X can never solely be blamed on Y. There are numerous other factors that need to be taken into account. Certainly, the growth of the internet has had an impact. Whereas once the library was the first place to go for information, now (for many people) it is Google. Furthermore there is a general reluctance to change layouts to meet the needs of borrowers. For example, in my library we had paperback books shelved in at least three different locations (four if you include the returns shelves). When it came to finding a particular paperback, it was necessary to literally hunt around the library until it could be located – a highly inefficient system. This system was altered and now paperbacks are either on the returns shelf, or located in the run of fiction.

Now, I’m not saying that thinking about the layout will suddenly turn things around (I don’t take the simplistic approach of the ‘buy more books’ brigade). I can no more credibly suggest that than those who suggest that massively increasing the book budget will make a difference. However, it does indicate that there is a number of factors that have an impact on the delivery of the public library service. There is no point believing that there is a golden bullet that will ensure the long-term prospects of the library service.

The one thing that tends to get overlooked in these discussion is virtual usage of the library system. In my authority, visits to the library has declined by around 130,000 compared to 2007. Visits via the website have, in comparison, increased by just over 130,000 compared to 2007. Therefore, putting together the two figures, there has been a relatively stable number of visits to the library, whether it be physical or virtual library space. This is significant because a number of services that users would once have taken advantage of in the library can now be accessed at home via the internet. Book renewals and reservations are just two examples of services that can now be performed from the comfort of your own house without having to visit the physical library. In the past, a reservation would have led to two visits to the library. One to place the reservation and one to collect it. Likewise, the user would have visited the library to take out books and revisited to renew them up to three or four times. Now they can renew books via the internet they no longer need to visit the library in order to extend their book loans. Furthermore, with the addition of a number of subscriptions, users an access a number of resources (such as Encyclopaedia Britannica) from their computer where once they would have required a trip to their local library (or else purchase a hugely expense collection of the hard copies).

Solely relying on book issues as an indicator of a library’s success is a big mistake. Book issues are a part of a number of methods with which to measure the delivery of the service. They are deeply flawed as they do not take into account those that come into their local library to utilise the reference or local studies collections, nor does it take into account the many enquiries that are dealt with at enquiry desks in every public library. You cannot capture these aspects of the service by focusing in on book issues. And yet these are important aspects of the library service, so why is there this focus? Targets and statistics are not always the best way to determine the success of a service.

For me, I would like to see this growth in virtual access to library services taken advantage of. There is clearly a change in user behaviour in relation to this and it seems logical to adapt the service to take make the most of it. I would desperately like to see ebooks become an integral part of the virtual library space. There advantages are numerous and as remote access grows, there is an opportunity to tap into a change in user behaviour. If users are using the internet more, why not provide them with electronic copies of books? Ok, it’s an emerging technology and still rather niche, but library’s should be at the forefront of these developments, not stuck in the back seat dealing with archaic and flawed arguments about book stock. Library’s should also be engaged in raising literacy and supporting schools as deliverers of educational standards. Homework clubs have already proven massively successful and it is vital that libraries continue to aid the development of our children.

I was always taught at university never to end a piece of writing with a quote. Well, I am going to break this rule but with good reason I think. Not everyone who posted comments on the Observer blog fell in line with the groupthink about why libraries have got it wrong. One in particular highlighted exactly why libraries have changed for the better and restored my faith in those that are passionate about their library service:


28 Mar 09, 9:55am

In the early sixties my dad would take me to the library every Tuesday night. Yes, I read all the books I wanted and more – Henry Treese, Geoffrey Trease, Lucy Boston etc. But it was so austere with typical “Shhh” librarians and despite the fact that I was there every week they never knew my name and when once (only once!) I asked if I could stamp my own books the horror I was met with “If we let you do that , every child…”

I contrast that with the inner city sheffield library where my son has been a member since babyhood – thanks to Bookstart. The staff know our names and we know theirs. They are welcoming, they say “Oh this book’s just come in, I think you’ll like it”. In the summer there was a sea-side day complete with sand and water and seaside books.

And the library isn’t just full of “nice middle class people” like me. It is full of young people borrowing books. Young Somali girls with armfuls of Jacqueline Wilson and the Princess Diaries; people using the internet to contact home (Somaliland has no postal service so you have to email); Parents & Toddlers learning to read together; children doing homework or using the library as a safe place after school to wait for parents. It’s not silent but there is just a quiet hubbub of activity. Anyone making too much noise gets short shrift from other users.

It’s very different from the library of my childhood – libraries have moved on – but is just as loved, just as relevant, just as needed and still welcoming of everyone.


33 thoughts on “The Public Library Debate

  1. Absolutely cracking post. I couldn’t agree more on the sad influence that Tim Coates seems to have on library policy. The lack of recognition that libraries are about information, regardless of the medium, rather than just books is IMHO the biggest threat that this profession faces. Focussing all of our attention on a medium that, let’s face it, for some types of information need is not the best, will send us the way of the dodo.

    Coates also seems to place little value in professional librarianship. It seems he would prefer cheaper staff or volunteers in order to buy more books. If I were cynical I would suggest this is the attitude of a book seller rather than someone who cares about providing a valuable public service.

    Well done on a great post!

  2. Thanks Neil, that is very kind of you. I agree entirely with you. The medium is irrelevant. The main purpose of a library service is the provision of information. As for Tim Coates, he certainly has a book seller orientated viewpoint on public libraries, which is not entirely useful. Plus I can’t help thinking, given the stability in overall library visits, that he stokes this question about failing libraries to further his own ends. After all, claiming there is a crisis and then promoting yourself as the saviour will surely lead to offers to act as a consult on ‘improving’ the service. It’s a little like the medical profession. Invent an illness, claim that you have a ‘cure’ and then watch the money come flooding in. The oldest trick in the book.

  3. Some excellent points here…regarding performance indicators, until a few years ago we kept daily statistics for each enquiry point i.e. enquiry desk, ref, local studies, noting down EVERY enquiry we dealt with, rather than just relying on the CIPFA sampling week which to my mind isn’t necessarily a representative week. Then we were told we didn’t need to keep the daily stats, presumably because someone in Management felt we didn’t need to or considered them too time consuming to maintain. Yet at one stroke we lost the ammunition we could use as performance indicators to show we were not just in the business of lending books. No doubt, in a few years, someone in Management will decide we need to keep daily statistics again, as if no one had ever thought of the idea before!

    It’s a crazy mixed-up world, and this debate about the function of libraries seems to have been around for as long as I have been in the profession. People have been predicting the end of public libraries for as long as I can remember, and yet, we’re still here! We adapt, and refocus, and move with the times. So maybe that gives us hope for the future?

  4. I hope you don’t mind if I make a comment. I don’t connect the lack of library usage with the introduction of computers. In every public library in which I work we introduce more computers, with less restriction and more functions than were there before.

    Nor do I say that book issues are the main function of a library, nor is the measure of them the only measure that matters. What I say is that book collections need to be much more comprehensive than they have become, of fiction, non fiction and particularly of reference books. Generally the more books that are borrowed, however, the better all those collections are likely to be– so to see increase in issue is better than to see a decline, as I see it. If a liubrary service has falling book issues this is likely to be a symptom of something not being right.

    I don’t say these things just because I believe them to be true (although i do believe that) – I say them because that is what most polling of, or market research with, the general public says they want in public libraries. And I also believe that the path of the public library service should be the one that the public wants and will recognise and not the one that librarians think it should be, per se. Thanks– and always happy to talk—- Tim

  5. Pingback: Topics about Education » The Public Library Debate

  6. I do feel to quote you back ‘This kind of argument is often used’ against Tim Coates is wrong. Coates is not just a lover of books but knowledge and better library services. I found it quite wonderful that this man came to meet us post graduates at City University and given us a view of libraries ‘from a users’ view.Whatevever you say about Coates, one thing you can never say is he is not passionate on the subject. Which in our profession seems rare with the mla,cilip and government having no passion. The observer was being obvious, but to quote Mae West ‘It’s better to be looked over than overlooked’.

  7. Tim – No problem at all with you making a comment! I may disagree with you but I am more than happy for you to have your say. Apologies if you feel I have mis-represented your views in the above blog post. The remarks I read in the piece I quoted led me to make those assumptions but if, as you say, this is not accurate, then I am happy for you to put the record straight.

    Regarding the use of market research/polling informing the decisions that should be taken in relation to the library service, I could not possibly comment without being fully aware of the methodology. As you know, such methods are not always a fair indication of what is best for libraries. A lot depends on how the poll/research is conducted. What questions are asked? To whom are they asked? Are they truly representative? In my opinion, if research/polling is to be used as the basis of any decision making process, all stakeholders need to be involved. In other words, a representative sample of the general public as well as staff who work in the library service. Such sampling would lead to a balanced picture as to what is required in order to improve service delivery. To solely poll the views of the general public is a huge mistake.
    I actually came into libraries via the private sector myself. And whilst I think there are a lot of things that can be learnt from the private sector (encouraging staff to be creative and giving them more responsibilty for their work), there are a lot of things that trouble me deeply (relentless focus on cutting costs and dispensing with expertise). Too much focus on the latter would do tremendous damage to the library service.
    As such, I am interest to know your views on the outcomes of your consultancy with Hillingdon libraries. It would appear from some of the comments that have been made that the changes have resulted in cuts to some of the most important services provided by the library service:

    It is very clear from reading the actual cabinet papers that valuable library services will be very badly affected as the services of the professional librarians responsible for them are being dispensed with. The Information Service is to cease, outreach to schools, clubs, etc. is to cease. The Housebound library service is to rely entirely on volunteers. These are things a lick of paint and some expensive wallpaper will not be able to disguise. They are real cuts, and they will hurt!

    How sad that there are to be so many cuts to our well loved library services, and that they have been recommended by a bookseller! How will councillor Higgins ever raise staff morale, (surely crucial to good customer service) after such devastating cuts. As a council tax payer in Hillindgon I strongly object to the outlined changes, and hope they will be reconsidered before it is too late


    This is what disturbs me. Outreach to the local community is a core part of the library service. To dispense with these services is not only a blow to the library service, it is a blow to the local community. It’s very well having nice new stock, but without reaching out to all sections of the community, it is entirely pointless. Furthermore, another commentator made the following remark on Ed Vaizey’s blog:

    Higgins did not ‘get a shopfitter to do the library at a good price’ – the total cost was well over 100k and the shelving came from an established library supplier. Hillingdon paid for the ‘design’ at taxpayers expense when other Authorities get this service free.
    The counter – from a shopfitter – needs to be altered as the design was so poor and not good for staff or public.. There is not ‘a Starbucks’ – but there is a coffee bar staffed at great expense dispensed from machinery costing 12k; the coffee is bought at market rates. A machine would have been a far better option. Note also the signage does not match the books in many places…………apart from that, a triumph.
    The rise in usage is typical of all refurbished libraries – other Hillingdon libraries at Yiewsley, Oak Farm and Yeading experineced similar rises, pre-Higgins. The temporay closure of nearby Ruislip library has helped swell issues and footfall. If Higgins thinks this library is ground-breaking he needs to get out more – the whole story is spun to feed Higgins’s vaunting ambition and over-blown ego.


    So even the improvements were needlessly over budget. Spending money that could better have been utilised to maintain vital community links that ensure that the library service provides for everyone. This is exactly why I have concerns about private sector involvement in libraries. Costs are cut and the service is streamlined to focus on narrow objectives that neglect the important role they play in the community.

    I would be interested to hear your views on Hillingdon libraries. I hope you can assuage my fears of your project to make libraries ‘better’.

  8. Ian — ok

    The first quotation is, I think, misleading to the point of being silly. I have seen it before and I have no idea who wrote it, but you, for the first time, give me the chance to correct it

    In no way will the outreach stop; what I proposed was that instead of it being run by an office in the council, that the outreach programme for each community should be operated by the staff in the local library.

    Secondly, I abolutely do not suggest that the role of the professional librarian should be played down– I say two things: firstly that the public believe that they are dealing with professional librarians when they come into the library. I believe that all library staff should be professional- and should be trained to be so. Some, inevitably, are more skilled and experienced than others, but all should aspire, as should their employers, to be knowledgable, expert and professional in the service they provide. I believe that the best and most knowledgeable professional library staff should be at the counters of libraries available to the public. I don not believe in demaraction of roles between so called ‘professionals’ and non-professionalas’ I don’t think any staff should be spending significant time in offices away from the library floor. I say everywhere that I don’t believe that undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, as they are taught now, are neccessarily the right professional training for public library work and I have called endlessly for CILIP and others to address this.

    I am utterly devoted and committed to the specialisms of public libraries- their work in local history, in music, in reference coillections and so on. I am an author- how could I think otherwise.

    I think the note was written when the work was at the stage of being proposed and discussed and it might have been written by someone affected by the changes. I am not involved any longer, but I called into the newly refitted library in Harefield last week, as I had done in West Drayton the week before. The staff in those libraries were extremely cheery, very professional, very enthusiastic about their new libraries and very proud of the increased use in the community. If they use volunteers to take boxes of books to more housebound readers than the old arrangement permitted, then what is wrong with that? Both places were full of school children and librarians in both commented that it was the schoolchildren who had past the message around that the library needed to be seen after its refit

    The second quote I have also seen before, and it comes from a very much affected source. That same person wrote in many places and I’m afraid much of what is said is not right. He is a library refit contractor, whose proposals, i believe, are not currently being used by Hillingdon. For example, design work is paid for by councils. Whoever pays for it, it comes from our taxes. I think the graphic design which was adopted as a design element for all the libraries in Hillingdon is very successful. You may have seen the wallpaper with quotations from first lines of books– it is a talking point and a feature which is admirable and attractive. Go and have a look.

    So far as I know, the expenditure isn’t over budget- and the budget itself is remarkable. Where other councils have spent many millions of pounds on one building and several hundred thousand pounds on smaller libraries, the whole estate of 17 libraries will be refitted over 4 years for £1.5 and £2m in total. This money is coming from an old capital budget for some projects and from the revenue budget savings made by reducing back office costs. Therefore a whole new capital programme is effectively costing nothing, that would not otherwise have been spent. You are welcome to see the detail of the plan. As far as I know, the programme is on budget and on time. The change that was made, and it is an important one, is that priority is now being given to the small community libraries (the kind that so many councils close) and the refurbishment of the central library will come later in the programme. Initially we thought we should do the central library first, but the response from smaller communities has been so popular that it was sensible to reverse the order.

    So in short, I don’t think any of those criticisms were fair and they have been proved not to be correct. But if you or your colleagues would like to come and see the new libraries and talk about the programme, I certainly would be happy to do that, and I’m fairly certain so would Councillor Higgins. He has done a remarkable job and he is a nice guy. He is certainly ambitious to do a good job for his local community, and so he should be– one can only wish that more councillors, responsible for libraries, would engage in the subject with the energy and commitment that he has.

    I also read your comments about how to conduct market research. It is a subject with which I have some acquaintance and would also be happy to talk about it. The polls and research I am referring to were conducted by Ipsos Mori, specifically on the subject and I am sure they, too, would be happy to talk about how these things are done and what can be learned from them, if you would like

  9. It is rare that public libraries achieve the sort of broad media coverage that they are doing so at present. And not only because they are closing, but because (in these straitened times) they are getting positive mentions in the press – one of my favourite marketing lines by a library I saw recently (sadly I cannot remember who coined it!) is “Buy none, get 8 free!”.

    But to enjoy those 8 free, someone, somewhere has to get them into the library in the first place. I am a bit disappointed in the unnecessary either/or arguments regarding books versus ‘e’. There is no ‘versus’ if you are providing a rounded library service. Tim Coates has already responded to some of those points, and I broadly agree with him.

    Yes, libraries are the ‘university on the street corner’ (and increasingly in our own homes through e-resources subscribed to by the libraries on our behalf), but they are not solely about ‘information’. And medium does matter. I feel it is wrong to relegate the book as a medium, and call it outdated. It’s a vehicle for knowledge and aspiration that is extremely efficient for its purpose. I am someone who possesses most of the gadgets for information on the move (I couldn’t survive without my iPhone and all its apps), and generally consider myself to be an ‘internet librarian’ rather than a ‘traditionalist’. But I am also an avid user of books, both fiction and non-fiction.

    Analogies are always difficult, as one may have intended a particular parallel to be drawn, but those reading or hearing you, will make their own parallels. And so it is with the now over-used ‘libraries as shops’ analogy. As regards attractive stock, it works. And that is a point Tim Coates has made work in the past. People will ‘shop’ if the ‘shop’ has something they want in it. Otherwise they won’t. They won’t even go into the shop if it looks shabby and unappealing. Make the environment nice, and you will get footfall. Have something they want inside, and they will return. That ‘something’ definitely does include a good, regularly replenished bookstock. Fiction, non-fiction and reference – the whole caboodle. Easy access to the internet is needed too, and a quiet zone somewhere for working in.

    The staff need to be knowledgeable and friendly too. We should be wary about using outdated and perjorative terms like ‘non-professional’ or ‘para-professional’ when we are talking about staff who are not qualified librarians. CILIP is considering this whole area of ‘what do we mean by professionalism?’ right now, with the new landscape of qualifications, including vocational, that we now work in.

    There is a huge amount of great work being carried out by public librarians around the country, and I would like to see this being trumpeted much more than it is. What works well in one place, could work well in another. Let’s talk up the unique position public libraries have.

    The public are the customers of public libraries, and their needs/wants vary between communities. A tailored offering at local level will boost use. This will include homework clubs, book groups, exhibitions etc – the *fundamentals* of what public libraries provide are universal, but local differences will change the mix on offer. What is wanted in a small branch in leafy Hampshire will differ in significant ways with what is wanted in an already economically deprived area in the Wirral, for example.

    What is important is that Councils live up to their Statutory duty to provide a universal, comprehensive and efficient library service. Any support in that campaign, whether it comes from booksellers, authors, MPs or members of the public is welcome, and should be encouraged – even (or perhaps especially so) if the ideas of how to rescue public libraries may be different from our own knowledge-base.

  10. I have to confess I find some of Tim Coates’ comments a little confusing; on the one hand he states that outreach is a core function of libraries; yet on the other states that staff shouldn’t be spending significant time away from the library floor. Yet outreach IS significant time away from the library floor! And outreach involves planning and organising; it’s not just a case of going into a school (or whatever) with a few books. These days we have to focus on organising activities to meet out authority’s annual operating plan’s aims and objectives, deciding what generic learning outcomes we expect from our activities, delivering the activities themselves and then evaluating them after they have taken place. And feeding the results into plans for the following year’s activities. I would argue that this DOES require investment in library training so that staff are equipped and supported to deliver these roles.

    Similarly, Tim rightly applauds the specialist aspects of libraries, such as music and local studies, but fails to recognise that the specialist roles to organise these services are often those that are cut by library authorities during restructures, which are often as a result of the need to make budgetary savings. Yes, other staff can be supported to deliver these services, but again, this takes a significant investment in time and training.

    I am a professionally qualified and chartered librarian but I don’t speak from any sense of professional “preciousness”; during the course of my career I have survived several restructurings in more than one library authority and believe I have been adaptable and flexible enough to move from specialist roles, such as Local Studies Librarian, into a more generic role. Currently my post of Customer Service Development Librarian means I am the only “librarian” in my district (of 5 static and 2 mobile libraries), with all the “specialisms” (information, local studies, stock, young people’s services etc) vested in my one post. I would not be able to juggle all these balls without significant support from my front-line colleagues, who are dedicated, motivated and professional, even though they may not have “professional” library qualifications. I wholeheartedly agree we need to get away from this professional/non-professional debate, but yet, feel that public libraries DO still have a need for trained librarians in order to help us meet the challenges we face as outlined in my previous two paragraphs.

    And yes, I agree we want attractive lending stock on the shelves in our libraries, but also need our electronic resources. My authority currently has a huge variety of e-resources available via our website, which can be consulted from home using a library card. Therefore we can make available titles such as the Dictionary of National Biography to ALL our users, not just those who happen to live in the main town centres. This is to be applauded and the simplistic argument that “libraries need more books” is, in my view, disingenuous.

    Apologies for posting at such length!

  11. I don’t think you should be ‘delivering generic learning outcomes’ whatever that means in English. That is exactly what I am trying to say. And if your council is asking you to do that, they shouldn’t be.

  12. I say everywhere that I don’t believe that undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, as they are taught now, are neccessarily the right professional training for public library work and I have called endlessly for CILIP and others to address this.

    On the contrary, judging from my experience the degree is exactly what is required. My course has demanded almost exactly the same amount of time on cataloguing as it has on management studies. Personally, coming in from the private sector, I think this is a good thing. Without being able to effectively assess the performance of the library service, it is difficult to see how you can make improvements to service delivery. Whilst I believe too much management studies is detrimental, I think it is essential for all public librarians to have an understanding of performance indicators, how to develop the service and managing budgets. My understanding is that it wasn’t always the case that librarians would study these aspects of the job. Again, coming from the private sector, I found this both surprising and alarming. I am relieved that the relevant institutions have identified this as an essential skill and have developed their programs accordingly.

  13. Ian

    Fine- so which are the performance indicators that should be applied and – if you were, for example, to review the recently published CIPFA data, what would you identify as the actions needed to be take by councils and by Government?

    I ask this, not out of mischief, but because I am pleased to read what you say and while I do not see these matters addressed by the bodies concerned, I hope they will be by the profession in the future.

    Perhaps it would be a good idea to meet and even, perhaps, to have a seminar to discuss all this. Caroline Moss Gibbons, I know, is very keen to pursue these issues and I will try to make sure that she sees this … Tim

  14. I apologise if I may have caused irritation by my previous comment that libraries should deliver “generic learning outcomes” as part of their outreach activities. I can understand and sympathise with those who dislike my use of jargon rather than plain English.

    But to try and explain…learning outcomes have developed from the Inspiring Learning for All campaign as one of the means by which libraries may capture and evidence their impact on their users, rather than simply relying on book issues as their main performance indicator. I’m sure we would all agree with the aim of Inspiring Learning for All, in promoting libraries as a place for learning and inspiration. This fits in well with libraries being the “universities of the street corner” that many others have alluded to.

    Learning outcomes cover such things as knowledge and understanding (e.g. using library computers as part of an internet taster session); social skills (e.g. interacting with others and their differing opinions at a library reading group); information management skills (e.g. using the internet in libraries to research census records) – to give but three examples. It is intensely gratifying when, for example, someone attends a family history taster session in a library and later comes back to tell us that they have been inspired to do further research. We need to become more adept at recording and evaluating this information, as I truly believe it raises our profile amongst our elected members and other partners with whom we are working to deliver our services.

    The MLA website lists a whole host of case studies in which libraries have used learning outcomes as a means of focussing their outreach activities. For example, the fantastic work librarians and their partner organisations do in delivering the Bookstart scheme (books for the under fives), the Headspace scheme (book bars set up in libraries and youth centres to inspire teenagers with the love of reading), and Silver Surfers (to introduce the over-50s to the internet via informal taster sessions in libraries – one lady who attended a session I organised actually said “Whoever thought of this idea is a bleeding genius!!”). There are many, many other examples on the MLA website, and I would urge people to take a look and see the range of activities libraries are doing and the difference these are making to people’s lives. Can all these library authorities be wrong to be delivering these activities, as Tim Coates suggests in his, frankly, rather terse response to my previous comment?

    I believe it is possible to provide a range of books (in both traditional and electronic formats) in our public libraries as well as using these resources to underpin the outreach activities we provide. The peaceful (no pun intended) coexistence of both these aspects of our core service must surely be a win-win situation, mustn’t it?

  15. Chris – this is crap. (and yes I am being terse!)

    Warren Buffett uses the test ‘My two old sisters have to understand anything I write’ – and you should try the same. Your jargon is ridiculous, and no, I still don’t think libraries should be doing this stuff. They can’t afford it. Libraries are for people to read (access if you insist) what other people have written. I know a lot of people have fallen for this argument about ‘learning’. Learning is what someone does in a library when they read or find out something useful. It’s easy. Teaching – which is what you are talking about- is what happens with teachers or lecturers in schools and colleges. The classrooms can perfectly well be in libraries, but the people who teach should not be librarians. I am not alone in observing that if we spend money doing these things, then libraries can’t afford to do the job we pay them to do. You will find it in Gerald Kaufman’s Select Committee report of 2005.

  16. “Libraries are for people to read (access if you insist) what other people have written”

    Well that sums it up pretty succintly Tim. I’m sorry, but I find your views narrow-minded and reactionary, and I resent your trashing the excellent work public libraries are doing.

    It seems that public librarians are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

  17. If Warren Buffet’s test sets the standard for this debate, perhaps we could avoid insulting opinions with terms such as ‘crap’. It rather cheapens the debate on an issue that deserves to be discussed in very serious terms. It’s sad to see that this debate is already reduced to stereotypical blog discussions whereby insults are thrown around with gay abandon. Besides, I take little notice of any advice dispensed by Mr Buffet, but that is another discussion.

    I am very interested in further discussion regarding the issues (so to speak) surrounding public libraries (although I am not sure I am the best person with which to discuss such issues due to my lack of experience and authority). However, I am a little disturbed about how this debate has evolved. I happen to agree with Chris about the role libraries should play. I come from an odd perspective in that not only have I joined libraries from the public sector, I also have experience in education. I think we can and must play an active role in supporting the education not only of children but also of adults. As Chris says, it is remarkably satisfying to know that you have helped play an important role in developing essential skills. The help provided in terms of the internet is particularly vital. Without such support, a large section of society would be disenfranchised. Given the evident digital divide, it is important that librarians help to bridge this gap. For we are not only about providing books, we are about facilitating access to information.
    I find it rather disappointing that the views of professionals such as Chris are dismissed out of hand. As I have previously stated, any development of libraries should involve all stakeholders. Not just the public, and not just those that have a concern about the future of libraries. Consultation with professionals and the public should be central to the development of the service. It is not an either/or choice.
    I have to add that getting people such as myself onboard is vital for people like yourself and CILIP. I am new to libraries, I have come in from the private sector, I am tech-savvy and I am studying towards a librarian qualification. I would suggest that to remain relevant, engagement must be sought with people like myself (which to be fair you have generally attempted). This engagement is seriously jeopardised when professionals’ views are considered ‘crap’. This is disappointing and only serves to reinforce my view that perhaps those who claim to speak for libraries are desperately out of touch. If people like me cannot be brought onboard, it will be a struggle to convince any newcomers to the profession of the merits of your arguments. Instead we will simply plough our own furrow – distinct from traditional librarians and library campaigners alike.
    Incidentally, I am no fan of jargon (perhaps due to my own rather limited vocabulary), but I didn’t particularly find Chris’ comments overloaded with it. And believe me, if I felt that was the case, Chris would be the first to know.

  18. Ian

    You started this blog entry by being extraordinarily rude and ill-informed about my work and my considerable efforts to raise the profile of and improve public libraries. I don’t believe we have ever met or corresponded and while your remarks were hurtful and irritating, I thought it best to try and ‘engage’ as you would put it. It is unbecoming of you now to be all pious because I have told your friend that his use of language is poor and his views about libraries are partial. I am, as I have said, happy and willing to talk and discuss all this, but you have some thinking to do, as well. Tim

  19. It seems I have the advantage over most of the people who are contributing personal attacks on Tim Coates in this blog. My advantage is that I’ve met him, and I know him well. I know him as a man of integrity who absolutely believes in libraries and the value of books. Which makes it all the more astonishing that he should be attacked in this way, with his motives questioned. “Furthering his own ends” indeed. If Tim were doing that he wouldn’t be bothering with his campaign to restore libraries to a respected, useful and inspiring position in our society – there are easier ways to ‘further your own ends’. That he is bothering says everything for his character. That he should be misrepresented for doing so says much about the characters of those attacking him. For some reason, Tim offers to meet you and talk. Why don’t you do so instead of trashing him and his wise words behind a veil of anonymity?

  20. This is in danger of losing sight of the debate (in part due to my admittedly unnecessary harsh comments re Tim Coates). Let’s start again. I think Chris has an excellent point about the role of librarians in society. BookStart, amongst other initiatives have made a real difference. I think that there is a real need for libraries to engage with the wider community. However, having not yet graduated (and consequently not actually a librarian), I am still but a newcomer to the world of public libraries. Although I have some ideas, they are not fully formed. Think of it as me at a crossroads trying to decide which way to turn. At the moment, I am edging towards Chris’ ideas of what a library service should offer. Convince me that this is not the direction I should take.

  21. It’s all getting rather heated on here.

    For what it’s worth I agree with Tim that far too many in the library profession have latched on to teaching roles and it has taken us away from our core concern which should be access. This is more about status than I think the profession wants to admit, but what is wrong with the being the people who provide access?

    Tim I think you’re being unfair on Ian by saying he’s ill-informed. It’s good that new entrants to the profession wish to engage with core issues, and I’m sure he’s learning as much from the feedback to his blog as any lecture or chat with a colleague.

    Public libraries have a crisis of identity, with consumerist policies from the government on one hand and a desire to have broad collections on the other. Unfortunately I don’t believe the two are compatible.

    I’ve never met Tim, but his passion for public libraries does show through. It doesn’t of course mean his analysis is correct, but there does seem a real vacuum of other contributions from what I can see.

  22. David

    Again, I’m sure it would be helpful and sensible to meet and talk about all of this, and I would be very happy to do that.

    One thing that has always puzzled me since it took place is how little notice and respect was paid to Gerald Kaufman’s Select Committee report of March 2005. Within that was a balance of views from councils, from the profession and from Parliament. Yet neither the DCMS or MLA nor CILIP and the profession have ever, in my view, really taken on board what was said nor acted on the recommendations. I claim, for what it is worth, that the views I express are not mine alone- the analysis, as you call it, is very close to that made by the Select Committee.

    When I said that Ian was ill-informed I was referring specfically to his opening remarks about me ‘drawing a parallel between lack of library usage and the introduction of computers’ . That is ill informed as I explained up there on the entries. I have never said that, or implied it, nor do I believe it.

  23. It’s with a great deal of trepidation that I post yet another comment to this debate, but I want to apologise to Tim Coates – my retaliatory comments to his criticisms of me were ill-advised and made in the heat of the moment, and haven’t done anything to raise this debate to a higher plane.

    Secondly, I would be interested to hear from Tim how I could have improved my style of writing when describing “learning outcomes” (I hate to mention this phrase again!). As I spend a lot of time answering comment cards and letters from the public, I am concerned if I come across as being full of jargon. I have never been told this by my senior managers, but maybe it takes someone from outside to spot the obvious? This blog is not the place for it, but if Tim would like to email me on, I will try and learn from this experience by taking his comments on board.

    As I stated in a previous post I have worked in public libraries for some 25 years. I am not in a management position or directly responsible for formulating library policy. I am *merely* a front-line librarian, doing my very best to serve the library users and provide access to what they want, whether it be books or other activities. The reality is that I have to do this within the resources provided by my employers, and according to their aims and priorities, which are often driven by the government‘s agenda. Maybe I am “dead wood” and have been in the profession for too long, I don’t know? But please don’t condemn me for trying to adapt to suit changing priorities.

    I still believe, passionately, in the role that public libraries can play in lifelong learning, whether by providing books for people to read or through more formal activities. Contrary to what I might have implied, in my authority these activities aren’t necessarily delivered by library staff; we also work closely with Adult Education tutors, for example, and provide the facilities for them to run their classes (e.g. Family History courses running in libraries, and supported by the books and other resources in our Local Studies collections).

    And yes, I care passionately about providing access to books/information. For many years I worked as a local studies librarian, spending 75% of my time at the enquiry desk helping people to find the information they wanted. I have always sought to make the collections accessible to the widest possible audience e.g. by promoting to schools, community groups, devising study packs to assist school project work – the “social inclusion” role of libraries. I make no apologies for that either.

    I would be interested to hear from Tim what types of outreach activities he feels that public libraries should be providing? I sincerely hope that we are already doing many of these and that we can find some common ground that we can agree on. And perhaps all the heat generated in the posts in this blog proves that many of us are deeply committed to public libraries and care passionately about them. I hope so.

  24. Tim,

    I agree with you about the Select Comittee report, I read it for the book I’ve just written on public libraries and for me it was the most comprehensive analysis yet. Some of the stats in it were startling.

    For the record, I didn’t meant to imply you were wrong, or right for that matter. My concern really is the lack of real debate that’s taking place. Too often (as we’ve seen in the news articles on Wirral) we revert to old fashioned images of the library in some kind of utopian dream. It’s one we all cherish, but I’m not necessarily convinced the library of our childhood is the one we need now. Admittedly I don’t know what the one we may need now might actually look like, but as I say this is where the lack of true vision has created somewhat of a vacuum, in my opinion.

    The reality is the public library is a Victorian invention, and some images of our notions of what it should be haven’t moved on much. That might be fine, but I think the diametrically opposed positions of the modernisers and the traditionalists are never really going to reconcile. I really feel that’s unhealthy, as it stifles progress.

  25. David

    Here’s a completely diffferent line of thinking. I live just near Chalk Farm and Camden market. It has to be, for an 18 year old, give or take a few years, one of the most exciting brilliant places on the planet. Mad, crazy, wild, colourful, unpredictable– absolutely fascinating, the height of culture. Totally unique. etc

    I’ve noticed that in the middle of all this of all the various buildings, thousands of haunts with a million atractions, that are all universally loved – the ones that everybody enjoys more than any other without exception, are the old Victorian pubs. Especially those which have been redone as ultra Victorian, with all the stained glass and deep painted gloss ceilings. More popular than even the more modern gastro type places. Even the Hawley Arms which was burned down last year has been rebuilt a la Victorian. New loos, I’m sure, but old pub.

    I think there is a lesson in this for us– and I noted your comment about libraries being a Victorian idea. I think we try to be too clever about modernisation and we don’t use the strengths of what was created.

    (Thanks to Chris — very much, much appreciated,– I’ve sent an email)

  26. Tim,

    Good examples re the Victorian pubs, point taken. I didn’t mean the reference to a Victorian idea to be pejorative. I was hinting that they were conceptualised in that era to fulfil a need, and we may have to ask ourselves if that need still exists, or has it changed? Personally I beleive it does still exist, but we have to ask why public libraries that were so succesful in terms of quality of collection even 30 years ago have failed in recent years. My belief is similar to Bob Usherwood’s way of thinking in that it is populism that is killing public libraries.

    Have you read Bob’s “Equity and Excellence” book?

  27. Tim
    Should’ve mentioned that I issued an assignment to our Masters students here to analyse your orginal report for LASER as a potential choice of 3 for an extended essay. I’m still marking them. If you ever find yourself in Glasgow during term time and want to speak to the students in a lecture slot, let me know. It’d be valuable for them to hear from you.

  28. It is very interesting to read the comments about Victorian pubs/libraries. The library where I currently work is in a late Victorian building (opened in 1899). We have recently closed (for 2 years) and have moved to temporary premises whilst our existing building is completely refurbished and extended (it also houses the city museum and art gallery). The facade will be unaltered (it’s listed). The project has been on the cards for many years but it is now actually happening, which is very exciting. Despite the facade of the building being (in my opinion) rather grandiose and ugly (but that’s just my opinion), the building and the institutions contained therein are greatly loved by the inhabitants of the city – it is always referred to by its popular name and seldom as “the library” or “the museum”. I suppose the challenge for us will be to maintain the well-loved elements and ambience of the building, coupled with some necessary modernisation and improvements in access to the services we provide. Any tips and ideas for this would be gratefully received!

  29. This is clearly an emotive issue. I think because it goes to the very essence of what libraries are (or what we think they should be). Tim’s clearly passionate in his view that libraries need to invest more in bookstock, and need to present books to the public in an attractive way in appropriate buildings. To be fair, I can’t see alot that we can argue with about that. Yes, the public want more books, better buildings and increased opening hours. However, I cannot agree with Tim on a few points.

    Firstly, perhaps most importantly, I do not believe that this goal is the raison d’etre of public libraries. Personally I believe the reason for public libraries is to serve the information needs of the public. Yes, providing adequate bookstock in a pleasant environment is part of that, an important part, but I see the role of libraries (including the initiatives described by Chris above) as being a lot broader than this. In my experience, things like Bookstart or Silver Surfers really make a difference to people’s lives. As a librarian, spending a few hours to get someone started on the Internet is one of the most rewarding things I think I have done. Sadly, I fear Tim would classify this as teaching and as such it would be something that public libraries “can’t afford”. In many cases, the people I got started on computers did not have the opportunity to use them in their formal education or employment. They were afraid of computing but also afraid that they were being left behind. Spending an hour in the library often gave them just enough confidence to join an adult education class or even learn independently. Same goes for adult literacy or any number of other initiatives. If we provide any sort of information (be it books or computers) we have to be prepared to spend some time showing people how to use it. As anyone who’s actually worked in a public library will tell you – the public are not shy about asking for help! If we refuse then we are really only providing services to those who have had the educational opportunities to be able to use them.

    Secondly, while I agree with Tim that providing more books and “good” libraries is a worthy goal, I don’t agree with his ideas on how we go about doing this. Cutting “backroom” staff would seem like a good idea but actually, how many “backroom” staff are there? I can only speak from my experience when I worked in the public library service a couple of years ago. To be honest, I didn’t see alot of people who did not work with the public in some way. From what I hear from friends who are still in the public library service, staffing is already at breaking point. Remove any staff (be they back-office or front-line) and the system will fail.

    My third (and final) issue, is the way in which Tim argues his point. A few examples: writing off the recent plans for a new library in Birmingham as “political correctness” because of they are rooted in social inclusion; commenting that library staff in small branches close for lunch so that they “can go shopping together”; describing opposing arguments as “crap”. Tim, as a librarian, none of these examples really endear me to your cause. Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive but I do feel that these comments belittle the efforts of colleagues and friends who do a fantastic job helping the public.

    That said, I do perhaps wonder if we need more characters like Tim. Although I may not agree with his ideas or the way that he expresses them, he does clearly care about libraries and it’s great to see these issues being discussed. Just my £0.02.

  30. Neil

    Points in order: I do spend a lot of time working with councils on budget issues (and have done for 10 years), it is how I earn my living, so I am hardly still the newcomer to the village.

    – Of course libraries serve information needs, that is one of their prime purposes. I am very much against the destruction of reference libraries that we see. I also think that the expertise that surrounds collections of local history material should be more widely shared among staff so that local history departments can be open longer. That is why I generally urge less demarcation of roles between staff. I think library staff should be able to given any job if they are suitably experienced and have the right qualities.

    – I also agree with you that the classes and discussions that take place in libraries on a whole variety of subjects are really useful and absolutely part of a community and very important. I also think that library buildings should be designed to house them. However what I am saying is specifically is that the cost of the teaching, which has to be professional, should come from the Further Education budget of the council, not from the library budget. Library budgets are hard pressed and this is not core to library expenditure. That is what I mean when I say that ‘libraries can’t afford them’. The model I describe is exactly that used in Tower Hamlets and in the new Ruislip library in Hillingdon and many other places, where the new libraries house classrooms, but the teachers are in the employ of another department.

    – On backroom staff, my experience is not the same as yours, but I include by that everyone who is not literally on the opening rota of a library. In other words anyone, if they did not come into work, would not affect the ability of any of the libraries to be open that day. So it includes management, librarians not in the libraries, bibliographic and distribution services etc. I know those can be difficult areas to understand and accept, but that is the areas we try to address when attempting to resolve budget problems in a council

    – There are many, many libraries that close at lunchtime. That often means that the staff all take their lunch break at the same time, and at lunchtime. In this day and age, you would never find a shop doing that, and I don’t think it is acceptable.

    – I do believe that the public library service has become victim of political correctness, and that is a short hand way of describing many of these matters. It was the quote used by the Guardian last week and I stand by it. I had been writing an article on the subject and I realised it was an expression that the public would recognise. I think the use of language by governmental bodies has been slack and poor and in public service, even more than in commerce, the efficiency we owe to taxpayers demands of us that we be quite specific about what service we are going to provide, and they have to understand the language we use. Otherwise we spend their money on many many things which are of great interest to us but marginal interest to them and too little is left to service their own needs. That, I believe is what is manifest in the decline of expenditure in books and why addressing that subject will in its turn address many other important problems. i recently read a dcms paper called ‘Excellence in the arts’ or something, and I thought it was incomprehensible from start to finish; the same with the recently published report on the National Year or Reading; it is a terrible, ill-thought through document which will be the cause of much political correctness. (discuss!)

    – Finally, as you can see, I am very particular about the use and misuse of language in public service, perhaps because I also write and edit books myself. I don’t want to repeat the word I used, but actually, if you read Thomas More, or Erasmus, you will find that, while we have become used to polite evasions, it wasn’t a bad word to use, to say what I meant.

    David– I would come to Glasgow at any time, I am sure we could find a cheap way to do it. I would love to participate in a discussion with your students. I have recently been in Dublin and Northern Ireland for exactly that purpose and it was really interesting. Any time– you say.

  31. Tim – Just a quick note to say I have edited your earlier comment in light of your later correction.

    Thanks all for contributions to the debate so far. As a current student these discussions are very interesting and I have certainly gained a great deal from this particular thread, whether I agree with all of the points raised or not. I will no doubt comment on this discussion at greater length in the near future. I hope that others will also contribute to this discussion as I feel it is essential that these matters are openly discussed and debated by professionals, students, the general public and all other interested parties.

  32. Hiya, as a graduate trainee due to start my Masters in September I find your quote from the Observer very warming and inspiring. In the last few months I’ve learned that libraries aren’t just about books, they’re about education and learning in all the forms that takes. Good luck with your course!!

Tell me what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s