I want briefly to reflect on where I came from and what public libraries did for me. For those who know, I suspect you’d be surprised to know that I was a shy teenager with a lack of self confidence.
I can honestly say that the public library changed me into the person I am now, not just because I’ve worked in it, but also in the way it allowed me to explore the world and to learn about myself and the people around me.
In 1976 I had my first job at Kettering Public Library in Northamptonshire where I grew up. My mother had worked there since we returned to the town in 1969 and so I was used to the life of the library and its team.
The Borough Librarian of the time, John Burden, was a man who inspired me and who played a vital role in the development of the public library service in the town and what a service it was.
Prior to reorganisation in 1974 he had run the library, museum and Alfred East Art Gallery with a flair that produced the kind of service we’d recognise today. It was a different world of course, no computers, no internet, but a service which cared for the people who came through the door and sought to provide them with a huge range of opportunities to experience other people’s literary and artistic works.
When he died 10 years ago, his children (one of whom had also became a librarian), reflected on his life in an obituary in the Guardian. They said:
Terms such as 'quality of life', 'wellbeing', 'community engagement' and 'placemaking' had not then been taken up as local government buzzwords, but John was into all four. He believed the cultural life of the town was important to its health in the broadest sense; his work was devoted to developing and celebrating this.
So I’m really proud to stand here as the first President of Libraries Connected and I know that he too would have been proud that he inspired someone to continue the work he loved so much. The Library in Kettering had a good vintage and I know of at least three of us who ended up as chief librarians having working there, one of whom also became a President of SCL.
I know that we have a challenging time ahead of us as Libraries Connected, most especially as we move into our new organisation and develop our sector support role. I also know though, that we have been well prepared for this through the fantastic work of our transformation team who have worked incredibly hard using all of their expertise to get us where we are now.
Particular thanks must go to Ayub, Medi, Ciara, Janene and of course our outgoing President, Neil MacInnes, who have put so much of their time into making the change we have now made become reality.
We also wouldn’t be where we are without the people who worked so hard in the background, Helen Drakard, Marsha Lowe, Alison Wheeler and Katie Pekacar. We had help from many others so please forgive me for not mentioning everyone who played their part.
SCL has a great track record and over the last five years we have achieved an enormous amount and the ground work our previous presidents have done along with our Executive has provided us with the framework we have for the future development of the new organisation. So it’s that framework that we’ll be starting from with our new team who are now settling into our first permanent office space at Islington Central Library in London.
I know that our new team has all the skills we’ll need to face the challenges which we will be presented with and it’s good to see familiar faces amongst the new colleagues who will be working with us to deliver our business plan over the next four years. Isobel is an incredibly enthusiastic Chief Executive and I’m looking forward to working closely with her over the next two years to support all of you.
I know that she’ll be well looked after by Robert, our new administrator and by Sarah and Helen who have all of the background knowledge and experience to be able to support Isobel through the complexities of our network. With the help of Marsha to keep our communications and marketing going I think we now have just about everything we need. I say just about everything we need as we are still looking for a finance officer, but I know we’ll get there!
So what next? I think for my part, I want to support Isobel as much as I can without getting in the way! Our organisation is different and we both want to ensure that it works for us and for our members and so our first job is making sure that our structure maintains its links between the constituent parts.
Our impressive Board of Trustees who met for the first time yesterday, need to maintain a clear link with the Advisory Board, and particularly with our regions and with you, our members. We have a lot of work ahead of us looking at our Universal Offers to review and develop them as necessary.
We also need to work closely with our other professional partners, CILIP, ACE and the Libraries Taskforce, to take forward our Skills Strategy and to work on developing our support role for frontline library services. We’ll want your help on all of this too.
There will be challenges ahead of us I have no doubt and some of the work we do will be controversial; we have already experienced that in recent weeks. What I would say is that we need to sustain our services for the future.
I’m sure everyone agrees with me that there is still an important role for public library services for the future and that we have to look for innovative ways of supporting the demands of modern society. The world is a very different place from the library I mentioned earlier where I began my career and in which the most advanced piece of equipment we had was our black vinyl disc record player!
I would never have believed then, that I could communicate almost instantaneously with colleagues through computer messaging and social networking, or share thoughts, expertise or ideas with fellow librarians in far off places. Each year in Kettering Library postgraduate students from the then School of Librarianship in Aberystwyth would spend six weeks working alongside us and sharing their culture with us.
Meeting people from far off places like Mauritius, Kenya and Malaysia, taught me that the world might be a big place but that the people in it share many of the same experiences and challenges that we all do. Ironically, 40 years later, I am still in touch with one or two of the people who visited us but these days through social media, and it will be my turn to visit in person in August when I go to Kuala Lumpur for the IFLA congress to represent us all as part of an international presentation.
I want us to shout out our contribution to health, art, learning, and of course reading. I want as many people as possible to know what we do for them and what we can potentially do for them; I want our message to be heard not only across the UK but across the world too.
I never fail to be impressed with the ingenuity and the passion that library staff show in the face of really difficult times and we can learn so much from each other. Our job over the next four years will be to build on the expertise that is there across all of our services and make sure we share it with each other.
Libraries Connected will help us to do that as it will provide us with a platform for support and a permanent team to help us to drive forward new initiatives and developments which will benefit us all and, of course, the people we are there to serve.
I also have one final duty to perform. I’ve watched many of our presidents being thanked for their contributions and now it’s my opportunity to turn to a Past President and thank him for his commitment over the last two years. Neil MacInnes has been a worthy successor to those who have gone before him and has given so much to us over his term of office.
We may have to deliver our public services in different ways these days, but essentially what we are doing is exactly what that 16 year old Northants lad was doing back in 1976 at the beginning of his career, supporting people and giving them the chance to change their lives too. So let’s take our title to heart and really build on our past for a stronger future.