Education and Science // Analysis

23 april 2014

Future for Public Libraries

Ian Clark Academic librarian at the University of East London
Super-library, Birmingham

Libraries across Europe are currently facing very serious challenges in the face of the wave of austerity sweeping across the continent. As governments sell people on the notion that public spending needs to be curtailed to overcome the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, public libraries are increasingly seen as an easy target, one that is unlikely to rally the people in quite the same way as cuts to other services where the outcomes of such cuts appear more immediately tangible.

But libraries continue to play an important role in our communities across Europe. They facilitate access to knowledge that is free at the point of use in a way that is increasingly threatened as we move towards a world where access to information comes at a price. They are the great leveller in democracies, ensuring everyone has access to the same quality of information. Public libraries, for example, still offer those without internet access (around 30% of the European population do not have a broadband internet connection) somewhere to go to ensure they have access to the same information as those already online. This feature is important not only for supporting children with their education, but also helping the unemployed and those who rely on social security, particularly in the UK where the people least likely to have a home internet connection are increasingly being forced to use such technology for their own financial security.

But libraries aren’t simply important in terms of providing access to new technologies; they are also vital for helping to raise literacy standards and encouraging children to develop their reading skills. The importance of libraries for children is perhaps best exemplified by statistics that demonstrate that children are increasingly using public libraries, despite the existence of the Internet and the proliferation of a range of competing activities. Over the past eight years in the UK, children’s fiction borrowing has risen year upon year, underlining how important public libraries are for supporting the educational development of the next generation.

In terms of the future of library service, we are already seeing hints of how it might develop and, perhaps, how it should develop. In the UK, there has been a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’. The terminology appears harmless, but the reality is quite different. In order to support the drive to austerity, libraries are increasingly being forced upon communities who are then compelled to run them against their will. Whilst the majority of library users would prefer their public library to be run by local authorities, policymakers are more interested in cutting costs and passing them directly onto the community, effectively increasing their tax burden.

This ‘plague’ is sweeping across the UK and has been noticed elsewhere across Europe. In Spain, for example, volunteer-run libraries are increasingly being seen as an option, at least in part due to their ‘commonality’ in the UK. Ideas that spring up in one European nation are sure to be experimented with elsewhere, particularly when it appears that the idea helps to support the austerity agenda that is so prevalent across the continent. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that volunteer-run libraries could, over the coming years, spread across Europe and become seen as a standard way of delivering library services, complemented by large city ‘super-libraries’ such as that which opened in Birmingham in 2013.

If this is to be the future for public libraries across Europe, it is fair to say that the future looks bleak.There is likely to be only a small number of suitable libraries across Europe as smaller libraries disappear and community libraries close due to their unsustainable nature. It would appear that one future is to have a well-funded, flagship library in each major city, but a steady decline in the number of small libraries serving local communities. In the UK alone we could see the number of public libraries drop from the thousands to the hundreds between now and the next century.

Whilst this is how things might develop, it is not necessarily how things should develop. Recent elections have shown just how important the Internet has been in influencing results. President Obama’s election campaign in 2008 showed how the Internet could be harnessed to drive a successful presidential election. Not only is it the case that elections have become increasingly fought online, but the battle between political parties has sought more and more to channel the power of the Internet as a vital weapon in the information wars. But this ‘war’ is not only being fought between politicians, as there are other actors that influence the flow of political information. Websites such as Full Fact, What Do They Know? And They Work For You provide the tools to make it easier for those with an Internet connection to hold their elected representatives to account, as well as to get to the truth about their activities. It is far easier to engage in the political process now than it has ever been, provided you are connected to the Internet.

We know that many people do not have an internet connection. We also know that, as with literacy standards, there is always likely to be a minority of the populace who either cannot access or make use of the information and tools that are at their disposal. We know that despite many years of efforts to address literacy standards, there are still many who struggle with literacy (one in six according to the UK’s National Literacy Trust). For those that do struggle, the Internet will present additional problems. Issues surrounding literacy do not disappear once you sit in front of a computer. They persist, ensuring that a divide remains between those with high levels of literacy and those without.

So perhaps this points the way to an alternative role for libraries, and how things should develop in the next one hundred years. Perhaps libraries should increasingly become gateways to our democracy, helping people to hold their elected officials to account and ensuring that the electorate is well informed and able to influence the political system. As well as supporting them through the provision of access to government portals as governments increasingly adopt a ‘digital by default’ strategy, maybe libraries can also help to ensure that people can watch over the state and ensure it can be held to account. This may require a different model across Europe, one that is more independent of the state and therefore at enough of a distance to ensure it can hold governments to account.
Mondragon operates on a co-operative model
that is highly de-centralised and engages all
partners in the delivery of education

Perhaps the volunteer model that is rapidly being adopted is a hint to a better alternative that is being ignored on the basis of political ideology. Rather than ‘community libraries’ run by people with a gun held to their head, maybe a closer, stronger partnership between the community and the professionally delivered service is the answer. Perhaps the example of the University of Mondragon suggests an interesting, more desirable alternative.

Mondragon operates on a co-operative model that is highly de-centralised and engages all partners in the delivery of education. It also has a highly democratic governance structure:

Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team.

Perhaps this is a model that libraries across Europe should be exploring: a professionally delivered service run in partnership with its users and other co-operative libraries. The potential for such a service is great, but the idea itself could be easily corrupted. Efforts to expand on mutuals in the UK have already raised alarm amongst interested parties such as Co-operatives UK and the Trades Union Congress. As such, this alternative future should perhaps be handled with care and advocates should be careful to ensure the idea is not corrupted and abused.

There is certainly the potential to build an alternative future for public (and, indeed, academic) libraries in the future. At present the future appears to be developing in a way that will result in the slow destruction of a public library network across Europe. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Libraries should develop as institutions that can help the people of Europe engage in democratic processes and should be at the centre of a drive towards transparency across the continent. A well-funded and well-resourced library service should enhance democracy throughout Europe. The future might look bleak, but it should look transparent.

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Ian Clark, “Future for Public Libraries,” Russian International Affairs Council, 23 April 2014,

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