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Ambition, Opportunity, Strong Leadership, Innovation, Imagination and Bravery in the Public Sector

Category: Blog

by Craig Green – Chair, Trustee Board, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

This year I’ve had the honour to chair the Trustee Board of CILIP in Scotland. It’s been a challenging year for public library services in Scotland, and a year in which the challenges have been set out along with the opportunities to overcome them in the national strategy documentAmbition and Opportunity launched at this year’s CILIP in Scotland conference. For those who’ve not read it, I would urge that you do. For those who have when it was launched in June, it’s worth returning to as a source of hope and inspiration for the future.

The national strategy celebrates the proud history and traditions of Scottish public library services and outlines the ambition of its leaders as they face current challenges, initiate, support and foster innovation, facilitate and unlock the imagination of those in the sector. Challenging times require bravery, strong leadership, imagination and innovation and here in Scotland we’ve much cause to be thankful that despite imposed austerity measures, public library services are being led by dedicated people preserving and developing services key to the Scottish Government’s strategic priorities and economic strategy, and thankful as well that the advocacy of these services has been by and large effective as local authorities are forced to make difficult decisions about their priorities.

As noted in the national strategy, “…while much of the UK debate focuses on the reduction in the number of libraries it is important to note that since 2009/10 there has been only a small decrease in the number of libraries in Scotland”.

The leaders of public library services in Scotland are responsible for a great deal of what makes us, in Scotland, who we are, and who it’s our ambition to be.

More than anything, it’s the innovation of public library services, supported by its managers and leaders, which not just protects our traditional contribution but develops it.

The innovation in Scottish public libraries builds on original core services providing access to information, knowledge and reading for leisure, these days also supporting social activities, inclusion, community and belonging for people. It’s our national ambition to see a Fairer Scotland, and it’s in public libraries that this often begins, for many, as the public library serves communities, combating isolation and loneliness, equalising opportunity to be informed, diminishing the digital divide between those able to afford connectivity and those not, and those who know how to take advantage of Internet-based information and those who don’t.

As the First Minister put it when launching pilots to support automatic membership of public libraries for every child in Scotland, “Libraries can empower communities – often in our most deprived areas where we know that young people can have lower levels of literacy and numeracy. Access to books and learning materials will help us to make sure that every child has the opportunity to get excited about reading. Our libraries are often the hub of a local community – providing vital access to information and resources that people would otherwise not have”.

While it’s impossible to know what of the hype will become true, the future of how we produce could be transformed by distributed manufacturing using 3D printing technology. Where do we go to get an early experience and see what it looks like?  Try Dundee library, the first in the UK to install and make available to people the printer and some early designs.

What could be the impact of seeing public libraries become social spaces for creativity and ideas, encouraging young people to engage with technology and science, supported to access the knowledge they need as they need it?  Try the Mitchell Library Maker Space in Glasgow or one of the pop-up and mobile Maker Spaces provided by Aberdeen and Stirling libraries

Want to try an app that teaches safe and informed use of digital technologies for children?  Try ‘Appiness’ from North Ayrshire Libraries, winner of the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award innovation in community engagement.

Interested in the impact of e-books beyond the narrow range of mass distribution of seller recommendations?  North Ayrshire libraries are piloting the development of community capacity to “develop and digitise local history resources, to be created and used in intergenerational, family and community learning situations in libraries and to widen access to these resources to all libraries, community centres and arts centres and on the web”.

Who’s looking at how to encourage and support reading attainment in boys in deprived areas?  West Lothian Libraries are trying new approaches with their ‘Boys Toys’.

And who’s providing information and bibliotherapeutic activities to support health and wellbeing?  Take a look at East Dunbartonshire’s Words for Wellbeing or Midlothian’s Braw Blether Network

There are many examples of innovation in the public library sector in Scotland supported by the Scottish Library and Information Council (see and many others developed outwith it.

Where, for example, is there work to develop digital inclusion and learning services in partnership between a housing association, the public library and a local college?  Try Castlemilk Library’s new ‘Click and Connect’centre.

You don’t have to look hard or far to see such examples…

The importance of digital services and access to them is recognised in Scotland’s Economic Strategy.  Where will people otherwise unable to afford it or facing other barriers gain access and support to develop the skills they need to participate? For most part, in Scotland’s public libraries, everywhere they are.

The Community Empowerment Act (Scotland) gives local community groups (which don’t have to be constituted, just be community led and have a majority of members  from the local community) new rights to request to participate in and improve local public services.  Where is the obvious place to come together and get support to gain the information they need? Aye, public libraries, made for the last few years more accessible by public library service leaders. And it’s a certainty that the Locality Plans required by the Act for areas where there are ‘significantly poorer outcomes’ than elsewhere will include public library services as key assets at their heart, because of the way in which Scotland’s library services are based on innovation and their leaders are open to imagination.

It’s also worth remembering that despite the massive growth in private ownership of books both physical and digital, public library services remain the only opportunity for many to gain access to them, and it’s not something which public sector library service leaders have forgotten. They’re simply becoming more innovative about how the services are delivered. Witness the plethora of book festivals and awards organised by library services up and down the country.

It’s important, of course to recognise the contribution of large private sector suppliers in delivering support infrastructure to enable routine services, but it seems very often that the greatest library service innovations are  delivered by its leaders facilitating innovation among its teams and encouraging co-production, community collaboration and work with the voluntary sector like Macmillan Cancer Trust’s information services, transforming approaches to delivery of our core mission –  making it possible for local communities, including those most disadvantaged, to come together and gain and grow from supported access to quality information assets.

Public library services support wealth generation as free places to learn, develop and create and as connected community meeting places for entrepreneurs. They contribute significantly to our ambitions for a Fairer Scotland. They’re needed to help us become a smarter Scotland, as places for young people and adults to learn. They’re safe places for local communities, helping them to flourish, become stronger, offering improved opportunities and a better quality of life and they contribute to the health and wellbeing of the nation in all of the above.

The leadership and advocacy, strategy, planning and management skills, customer focus, service design and marketing abilities of public library service leaders are celebrated, supported and strengthened by the branches, special interest groups and professional development opportunities derived from membership of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland. I’m from an education sector information services background, personally, but one in which I’ve long worked in partnership with public library services, and it’s been a year in which through CILIP in Scotland’s Trustee Board I’ve had the privilege of working more in the wider context. It’s been an interesting, challenging, and rewarding year in which I’ve been inspired by what I’ve seen and heard of in public library services.

In 2016 the profession will face more and different challenges. It’s not too difficult, though, to feel optimism as we face them, because more than ever we’re seeing in the sector the bravery, imagination, innovation and strong leadership needed for us to realise the opportunities which come from change, and develop our ambition to contribute to Scotland’s strategic objectives.

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