Alison Wheeler

I’ve worked in libraries all my adult life and I’m still proud to call myself a librarian. Change has been a steady companion for the last 40 years with new structures to work within, periodic political neglect or support, fluctuating customer expectations, emerging competition and technological advances which would have made my eyes pop in 1974 when I shelved my first book in Long Lane library as a Saturday helper.

Even then, the Local Government Reorganisation was taking affect as my local branch stopped being part of Halesowen Borough and became part of Dudley Metropolitan. As a 16 year old I was less affected than the local permanent staff, but it was clear that a new employer was viewed with caution and trepidation.

Customers experienced it differently. A much bigger pool of books to reserve, more new books and very soon, new technology which meant the trays of tickets went, replaced by clunky machines. The evolution of library technology was at a primeval stage but even at 16 I remember the staff clucking with cynicism about whether it would work, and let’s keep the trays just in case….

Since then, the technology which supports our systems and customers has evolved with leaps, bounds and some stumbles leading to a technology which supposedly takes away the need for expert staff. I think I’ll leave that one for another day as I must not be diverted and had better get back to the topic of this one, which is

Will library services be provided like for like in the future?

Unlikely. I foresee two major factors which will determine this:

Firstly, theres a lot of competition out there. Twenty years ago, we had a monopoly on providing books and information for those who didn’t automatically stroll into a bookshop. That’s changed. With Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, charity shops and community bookswaps, we no longer have a monopoly and we appear to be irrelevant and anachronistic to the influential decision makers.

Our greatest strength is that we offer great people services by great people. Let’s keep that high on our own agenda, and everyone else’s.

Secondly, most library services are run from within costly Councils, and they are not high on a Cabinet or CMT agenda. There are notable exceptions I agree and this is no criticism of library staff or their leaders, just a reflection of where we are now.

Councils are financially squeezed because they have a lot of bureaucracy, expensive pension schemes which are increasingly out of step with the rest of the local economy, costly statutory responsibilities and their sources of funding are shrinking fast.

I just can’t see that they will be able to sustain everything they have to do without some big changes to what they provide.

These are bound to include integration with other customer facing services, joining up, consortia and new models for library delivery.

It’s easy to see why there is such a move via channel shift to online delivery and more self service. This will naturally be part of our future too , but it can’t replace everything we do.

I run a library mutual. We’re in our fifth year, and it’s been a steady slog to establish a new organisation with community ownership, keep all our libraries open and ensure we still have expert staff. In the beginning it was especially hard to do all of this while running the service, reassure the customers and motivate the staff.

The most important measure for me each year is that over 90 percent of our customers believe that the service is as good as, or got better.

Each year, we try to diversify, stretch the library brand a bit more, and attract people in to our libraries, or online to keep their interest and engagement. My sixteen year old self would be astonished at what our libraries do, and Im proud of that.

This model isn’t right for everyone and Mutuals are not the only game in town. No doubt everyone has their own view on which models they prefer. Whoever the provider is, they still have a duty to service the local population and give the best service they can. If they are external, they will also be strictly measured on that.

Councils will have to make tough decisions and library leaders will have to make the best of them. It won’t be easy, but the focus must be on the customer and how it meets their library needs, in a modern world.

I expect there will be more clustering of services to reduce management costs, out sourcing or divesting. These will happen as Councils try to reconcile increasing costs with reducing budgets.

In the future I also expect the library brand to be continuously stretched and redefined. I firmly believe that survival is not by the fittest but by those who are able to adapt. Our customers needs have flexed, has our service flexed enough to meet them?

Its a lifetime away from 1974, but where else has the world stayed static?

I predict that with meaningful evolution and enterprising responses to local needs there will be individual or groups of library services, people focussed, operating effectively in a competitive environment, able to adapt and flex. Library staff and leaders will need to have very different and more complex skills sets to create and then deliver these adapting services.

Some will see this as exciting, others anathema.

If I was 16 now and starting again, I’d still want to be a librarian, I’d still want to help shape the new world.


Alison Wheeler has worked in Suffolk’s library service since 1979. She has been a children’s librarian, stock librarian, worked in the Schools Library Service, run branches and helped introduce our Sunday service. Since 2012 she has been chief executive officer.

2017-05-22T11:13:15+00:00