Safeguarding the future of Scotland’s libraries
In exquisite homage to the written word, ten pieces of art mysteriously appeared in Scotland last year. An anonymous artist gifted one of the beautiful paper sculptures, the Poetree, to the public at the Scottish Poetry Library. Carved out of paper and mounted on a book, a note was attached saying: “We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words… This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…”
It is unsurprising such a charming and selfless gesture would happen in Edinburgh, home to the world’s largest book festival and a UNESCO World City of Literature. The strength of our national library is to be reinforced by a new bill that seeks to “modernise for the 21st century” its “functions and governance arrangements”.
Collections at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) will be safeguarded and supported in bringing the “nation’s history and culture to life,” Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop told Holyrood.
The Bill will also seek to “reduce the size of the board, remove ‘reserved’ places and ensure all appointments are made by Scottish ministers based on merit and selection,” said Hyslop. The NLS is one of Europe’s leading libraries and should be protected. But what of our smaller public libraries? For millions of us, libraries are the heartbeat of our communities. However, with budgets across Scotland having been continuously scythed over the last few years, we have seen the reduction of opening hours, cuts to funding for new books, the axing of mobile vans and, in some cases – closure.
Ahead of National Libraries Day in February, Dave Watson of Unison Scotland, warned: “Our library services themselves are increasingly under threat from cutbacks in opening hours and jobs.” According to the union, Falkirk and Dumfries and Galloway libraries have already been affected, and Glasgow is to lose half its professional librarians over the next year. Falkirk librarian and Unison branch secretary, Gray Allan, said: “If you can’t afford a key book for your studies and the library can’t afford to buy it either, how are you to achieve your full potential?”
Fiona McLeod, MSP and a former librarian, agreed. “Library closures are not the real threat – it is the slow erosion of opening hours, staffing and resources which will, in time, affect the lives of real people,” she said.
Rhona Arthur, assistant director of the Scottish Library Information Council, was sceptical of scaremongering over potential library closures. She pointed out the picture in England was very different to the one north of the border. And libraries will always be soft targets when competing with, say, education services. “In Scotland, our libraries have traditionally been of great value and highly regarded by both the public and the local politicians,” she said. “They’re not daft – they know how difficult it can be to close a much-loved public resource.”
So instead of closures, local authorities are looking to be more “creative” about sharing services to deliver a public resource, while making budget cuts. Hyslop has allocated £500,000 of funding to public libraries for 2012/13, protecting them for another year. Some councils are even bucking the flat-lining trend with increases in visitor numbers, membership figures and the number of books issued.
Glasgow is one of these, despite warnings over potential job cuts. Karen Cunningham, head of libraries and cultural venues for Glasgow Life, told a debate this month that the secret to its success is investment in books, online facilities and upgrading its network of community libraries. The recession, she added, has boosted visitors as fewer readers are able to afford books. In addition, National Literacy Trust research found that a child who goes to a library is twice as likely to read well as one who does not.
But undeniably the role of the library is changing. Book sales for the electronic Kindle now outstrips demand for paperbacks for US distributor Amazon.com. Readers can now curl up with ebooks having paid a fraction of the hard-copy price. McLeod considers the rise of the ebook a somewhat controversial addition to library services. “Ebooks have the potential to create a bigger divide in society,” she said. “We can’t all just log on and pay for an ebook, its device, the broadband connectivity and so on.”
However, Arthur considers it is an opportunity for libraries to expand into new markets. She explained: “For instance, in Aberdeenshire where they’ve got offshore populations out in the North Sea, they’re able to still be part of their local library service because they can log on and download ebooks from the Aberdeenshire catalogue.”
The future for libraries will be pressured. Services face financial and capacity issues when delivering change and innovation. Key drivers for the Scottish Government are economic competitiveness and growth, with an emphasis on a flexible, more computer-literate workforce.
Arthur thinks this driver will allow libraries to play an enlarged role in a recessionary environment. She said: “Libraries are full of cost-learning opportunities. It’s very challenging to fill in job applications online if perhaps you don’t have the right level of literacy skills or ICT skills. There are all sorts of things that libraries can help support. We’ve also got the delivery of the Government services online as well – filling in things like HMRC returns – so again there’s another growing role within local and national government.”
For leading experts, the financial climate still presents a considerable challenge for libraries. Peter Reid, professor of librarianship at Robert Gordon University, said: “We may still have the worst to come, but I think libraries have been preparing for some time for that in Scotland.
“North Ayrshire Council is quite ahead of the game in the move to ebooks. They see that as the natural evolution in that delivery. It’s not something they’re doing because they’re worried they’re going to lose four branches or members of staff. It’s really a response to where users and people’s needs and expectations are going.”
Reid agreed that in Scotland the situation is materially different from England. Scotland’s library profession is a much tighter community, he said. For him the main challenge was online technology and resources. “That’s undoubtedly one of the things that we must sustain,” he said. “The public library network probably adds financial value to the whole economy in Scotland. Think in terms of what public libraries do in terms of enhancing employability skills. Many libraries are certified training centres for qualifications.”
However, the humble library is much more than a simple “service” for users. As Cunningham pointed out, they are in some respects an egalitarian ideal. Why else would the Dalai Lama choose to visit the NLS when he visits Scotland? “People’s right to free access to information is probably more important than ever before,” said Cunningham. “We are a free library service providing broadband access and free wifi.”
Reid agreed: “I think they still are beacons of the community. I was struck by a comment on Twitter @lovescottishlibraries. One that came from Orkney said: ‘They are the lifeblood of our community. They are free, they are free at the point of use and they are safe environments. They’re one of the few public spaces that women feel particularly safe in.’”
He also argued the library is a politically neutral space. “They are quite highly trusted as brands in the minds of the general public,” he said. “Although organisations and agencies are very clued up on that, and libraries are often seen as the ideal target as a partnership with say, Citizens Advice Bureau, tourist information and Job Centre Plus.”
541 public libraries in Scotland
82 mobile libraries
30 million library visits made last year
1 million borrowers from public libraries
4.7 million: number of times learning points were accessed
Martyn Wade, NLS chief executive, writes exclusively for Holyrood magazine on what the future holds for the NLS
The world of libraries is changing. Traditionally, the library has been a place that encouraged and “pulled” people in to the building to get the information they want. While libraries will always be important public spaces for research, learning and enjoyment, they will increasingly “push” information and knowledge out to serve the public wherever they are.
The National Library of Scotland (NLS) is already working this way, with more than a million pages of our content available online, including historic items such as the Gutenberg Bible, the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots and the Kilmarnock edition of Burns’s poems. In addition, free online access to journals and databases support businesses and researchers.
We also have specific online learning services, including Scotland on Screen, and the Learning Zone. These make the most of the library’s huge bank of knowledge providing a wealth of learning materials that can be used by schools or in the home.
The NLS Bill is an important development and is very welcome. For the future, we are keen to build upon the legislation to make an even bigger impact both within Scotland and across the world. Our vision is to ensure there is online access to all the published cultural and information resources of Scotland for everyone who can benefit from them.
Stephen Harris, head librarian at Penicuik Library, Midlothian, reveals the changing role of the librarian
I started in 1996 as a school librarian, which is quite different to being a public librarian. I’ve had to take on more roles and become more adaptable. The librarian has to be able to wear many different hats. You have to be very much a people person.
You also deal with partner organisations, so you have to have negotiating skills. We’re involved in the Healthy Reading Midlothian scheme. GPs can recommend to patients who are suffering from mental health issues or depression and at the library we have an approved section [of literature] funded by the NHS.
We help people use computers, which for some can really be a lifeline. You’ve also got to be a bit of an events organiser, like at the recent Love Libraries day.
The best thing about my job is working with all sorts of people from different walks of life. I remember helping an old lady in my last job. As she left the library she said to me: “Thanks very much.
I don’t know what people like me would do without people like you.” Electronic resources are also changing. We see it very much as an opportunity as it’s something we’re increasingly asked for, so it’s a need we have to meet. Books disappear off ebooks after a certain period of time, so people are not getting fined.