Libraries 'invisible' to digital policymakers

The UK's library services are facing excessively heavy cuts despite playing a vital role in creating a fair digital society, delegates heard at this week's Edge 2012 conference on the future of library services.

Annie Mauger, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), told the event in Edinburgh that the library profession seemed to be "invisible" to policymakers, despite playing many social roles.

As well as helping many millions of UK adults who cannot read with basic literacy skills, librarians have a broad technical role helping people with both digital literacy - helping people use computers and get online - and information literacy - "helping people to understand that not everything they read on Google is true," Mauger saidLibrarians are well trained in these areas, and work not just in public lending libraries but in universities and schools where teaching people how to evaluate information they find online is increasingly vital, she said. However, in many cases a school librarian is treated as inferior to teachers, despite being just as highly qualified.

Among public services, libraries and librarians often lead in adopting of new digital technologies such as social media, Mauger said. As an example she cited the Orkney library service which in December won two (rather ambivalent-sounding) international 'Golden Twit' awards for its work using Twitter to engage with and inform the public. The Twitter feed is maintained by library assistant Stewart Bain, whose grasp of how to create a lively, amusing tone to engage library users led to the victory in both the Information Service and Public Service categories.

On top of these skills, librarians have to manage and plan services for users of all ages across a community; have an understanding of the law in many areas such as copyright, data protection, freedom of information and child protection; and have the negotiating skills to form partnerships with a wide range of bodies from schools to businesses and other council departments to work alongside policy initiatives in areas as diverse as inward investment and the teaching of children with special needs.

Despite all this, "People don't understand what librarians do, and they are taken for granted." Library services are seen in isolation, she said - the recent action plan on "Scotland's Digital Future" published by the Scottish government does not build in plan for libraries, for example, despite them offering internet access in every community, with the relevant skills.

As for cuts, "There is an argument at the moment that usage of libraries is going down, so they are an easy target for more cuts, but although levels of declining usage are estimated at 2%, spending cuts are averaging 6.4% and cuts in buying books 14%," Mauger said. And children's use of libraries is actually increasing, she said.

With the rise of the electronic book, spending on physical books may fall further but total spending on books represents only about 10% of a library's budget in any case, Mauger said - the biggest costs are staff. And e-books still have some way to go before they become an accessible format: they are currently read by a minority of people and only around 6% of books are available as e-books.

Only time will tell if these arguments are heeded, however. "We are in the eye of the storm, and we don't know what's ahead".

Edge 2012