Are public libraries about books, or about meeting shared national and local government priorities? The obvious answer to this question is that they are about both, and that these things are not mutually exclusive. However, the public library sector in the UK seems to be suffering from an identity crisis, or perhaps more accurately, those with a significant stake in the service are divided as to its function and purpose. Consequently, what needs to be done to improve it, and how we should assess whether it is achieving its goals are matters of considerable discussion. If we are not sure who we are, or what our (main) purpose is, how can we establish and implement the best methods for assessing whether or not we are achieving our goals? Can we ‘prove our worth’ if there is significant disagreement about what the core nature of that ‘worth’ is? These might seem abstract distractions from the solid need to develop performance measures, and to devise methods for proving value and impact, but this paper argues that the issue of developing relevant measures of success is actually as much political as methodological.
Changing landscape of the public library service
The history of the public library displays a continuity of purpose and service provision (notably the provision of reference services and fiction, the promotion of reading, and attempting to meet the needs of all communities). In the last decade or so, however, there have been a number of trends that have significantly affected not only service provision, but also how the service perceives itself. The key question is one of purpose: what should a 21st-century library service look like and do? Allied to this are issues of how it should account for itself.
These trends can be summarized under three main headings, although the issues cannot be easily separated as they have developed concurrently and are closely interwoven:
1 Changing political landscape
2 Formalization of library roles
3 Technological developments.
Changing political landscape
There are two key factors at work here: changes in the way local government has to account for itself to central government, with a greater emphasis on value for money and meeting set targets that relate to central government goals; and the role of the public library service in delivering national agendas, such as equipping citizens with the necessary skills to participate in the ‘information society’.