Isobel Hunter, CEO, Libraries Connected
Whenever I have a new person joining my team, I’m keen to hear their first impressions as their fresh eyes often spot things that us old-timers overlook. So now I’ve been in post for two months, it seems like the perfect time to ask myself about my first impressions! Here are five key things that have struck me about libraries and the job ahead for Libraries Connected.
Our members have an enormous amount of good will for Libraries Connected, and I have been given a tremendous welcome. This reflects the reputation of SCL – and the fact that its achievements were due to the sheer hard work and commitment of its members. Libraries Connected can’t take this for granted, but over the next year we need to work hard to ensure we continue to be rooted in our membership – especially by engaging with the regional and Universal Offer networks. It is members’ creativity and energy that has got us this far, and it’s essential to our future success that we remain in and of the sector.
We also have great support from partner bodies, and a unique opportunity to look again at how we can work best together. Over the last couple of years, the Task Force has brought us closer together and helped us understand our complimentary and differing agenda. At the same time as LC is changing, we also have a new Libraries Director at Arts Council and a refreshed approach at CILIP after its recent relaunch. Initial discussions have already confirmed our three-way ambition to work really closely together, and to grasp the nettle of tackling the structural issues facing libraries.
There is so much going on! Libraries are bursting with innovative good practice, and work that really has a beneficial impact on the lives of individuals and communities. Work across the Universal Offers is driven by really practical toolkits and frameworks, illustrated by case studies and underpinned by a banks of evidence. However, there is a danger that more activity can make less impact as it can be harder to make sense of it or talk about it as a big picture. Individual library services can find it bewildering to identify which areas to focus on, or to find toolkits or programmes that meets our needs. Our review of the Universal Offers this year will work with libraries to explore how we can streamline and strengthen the Universal Offers to ensure they continue to have impacts on library practice, deliver to users and work as a powerful tool to funders and decision makers.
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The pace and scale of change is unprecedented. It is driven by three forces of technological change, major shifts in user needs and expectations, and the massive reductions in local authority finances. One of these forces alone would be hard enough to deal with, but dealing with all three at once is traumatic and can feel overwhelming. In this environment, initiating new activities or bringing in piecemeal funding can seem like icing on an increasingly crumbling cake. We need to deal with the cake, and work with our partners to look at the statutory underpinnings of public libraries and to think again about how we develop a resilient service for the future. As a shorter term ambition, I am now exploring how we can develop support at the regional level and for individual services, to assist their decision making and forward planning in what is often highly pressured circumstances.
Libraries Connected needs to be an assured advocate. Change of the type we are experiencing is bewildering and highly contested, and any sector experiencing this needs leadership that gives a positive vision for the future and instils confidence that we can get there. As a starting point, we need to speak clearly about the strengths of libraries – that we are innovative and entrepreneurial, and to showcase the impacts we make in our communities. We need to show we are ready for investment and that we will bring valuable social returns on the investment. But we also need to be clear that we need the investment, as services are stretched to the limit and we can’t trim any more off the cake without the whole thing collapsing.
Its complicated. Change is complex, and we are having to try new and untested approaches and make major decisions at speed. There are a number of issues that are highly contentious and highly complex. For example – community managed libraries take many forms, and deliver very varying levels of service. A simple sweeping statement of good or bad does not fit with the situation on the ground. Libraries Connected needs to be confident in taking a measured and evidence-based approach to discuss these complex and contentious issues with its membership before we can agree our position on them. We also need to be confident in our ability to assess individual cases as they arise, to ensure we understand the facts and local circumstances so that we can remain focused on the need to deliver the best quality of service with the available resources.
These are all major challenges that we can’t tackle overnight, and Libraries Connected will take time to grow into this new role. There is a danger that focus on these infrastructure issues can get swamped by the busyness of the everyday or by the push to initiate more new activities. However, I hope that by setting them down here I can revisit them periodically as a reminder to keep my eyes on the horizon!