Ciara Eastell, SCL President
It’s been a lively few days of debate in the public library world, especially for those of us in the Society of Chief Librarians, so this seemed a good moment to offer some personal perspectives, in my role as SCL President, on some of the issues being discussed.
Public libraries do amazing things within local communities. They help people find work; inspire children to develop a love of reading and connect people physically and virtually. The difference that public libraries make – and their potential to do even more – is what inspires me and my colleagues on SCL to put so much of our own time and energy into the work that SCL does.
Clearly, none of us would ever claim that SCL has cracked all the challenges that public library services face. The combination of significant reductions in local authority funding, along with the changing ways in which many people want to read and learn and the lightning speed of technological change, all call for radical and long term solutions for libraries.
Campaigners have quite rightly called on the Taskforce to be bold and act swiftly and confidently to secure a positive future for public libraries and, as a member of the Taskforce, I know that message has been heard loud and clear. I doubt whether anyone is going to find a magic pot of money to ease the pressure on libraries (however welcome that would be) so I genuinely believe that the Taskforce’s work in the coming weeks and months on developing the ‘ambition for public libraries’ gives all of us – whether library campaigners, library staff, users or indeed SCL members – the best shot we’ve had in recent years to articulate a strong, confident and compelling message about libraries and what they offer. I’d personally like to see some really big ideas explored – what big sources of investment for libraries might there be, for example, such as social investment bonds? Could we really get the NHS and the Government to understand that libraries could help reduce pressure on health services for only a fraction of the cost of other organisations? Could similar cases be made around lifelong learning, employment and digital inclusion?
SCL will play its part in this work with the Taskforce and, in parallel, we’ll maintain our own momentum on the Universal Offers. We will be shortly be making available a whole suite of free e-learning resources for 10,000 library staff which will help library staff provide better services to those needing help with Universal Credit. Working with ASCEL, we will be releasing 4 modules focused on ensuring children, young people and families have a good experience in the library. In addition, with The Reading Agency, we will be launching the next Books on Prescription scheme focused on supporting positive mental health of children and young people. And we will be doing another round of Universal Offers roadshows to share best practice at a regional level.
Our partnership with the Halifax Bank is an example of the way in which SCL seeks to partner with those who can help libraries meet the huge demand for digital inclusion support within libraries. Their staff are getting involved as part of the company’s commitment to supporting local communities. I understand why this has received scrutiny but, as Ian himself has implied on several occasions, we cannot afford not to try out opportunities like this. In the case of the Halifax, we value their support just as we do our colleagues at the Tinder Foundation and Citizens Advice Bureau. I’m sure we’ll learn more from our partnership with Halifax and we would be happy to share lessons learnt with the wider sector as the partnership develops in the coming months.
I completely understand that some people would have liked SCL to have signed up to CILIP’s My Library By Right campaign but, as our members know, SCL is not, and never has been, a campaigning body as the great majority of us – the Heads of Library Services across the country – are officers in local authorities, many in politically restricted posts.
In spite of those restrictions, though, you would be hard pushed to find another library body that has delivered so much tangible benefit for library services in recent years. Working with a terrific network of engaged staff and partners, SCL has used the Universal Offers as a framework for delivering initiatives in response to what Heads of Library Services (and their teams) say they need, including a wide range of workforce development opportunities; the hugely successful Books on Prescription scheme with The Reading Agency and access to high quality partnerships from major national players like the British Library, the BBC and Wellcome as well as our growing partnerships in the digital sphere with the likes of Code Club, Nesta and FutureLearn.
As SCL’s President since June 2014, I take my responsibilities very seriously and work hard to represent libraries well but, like everyone, I can always learn so I welcome the questions and challenges that have been raised in recent days. I’m sure that we could do more to let stakeholders know what SCL is working on and how our thinking is shaping up. There can be no doubt that this is an incredibly challenging time to be leading library services and views will inevitably differ on the best tactic to adopt when faced with such significant challenges but I remain immensely proud of all that SCL has achieved at this time. Many library practitioners and Heads of Library Services regularly tell me the value of SCL in providing practical support, imaginative ideas, partnerships that have brought real benefit as well as training and development opportunities that have met local needs in recent years. I look forward to continuing SCL’s work to ensure we do our very best for local communities who so value libraries and to working alongside a whole range of stakeholders who are equally committed to sustaining our libraries.