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August 26, 2015

New ambition for our libraries

In any consideration of a community’s assets, you’d expect to see the local library somewhere fairly high on the list. If that is, they still have one. Speaking at Edinburgh’s Book Festival, Ali Smith railed against the policy to close libraries arguing that it threatened the ‘democracy of reading’. Carnegie UK have always had a keen interest in the future of libraries. With good reason too – Andrew Carnegie founded 2509 public libraries worldwide. Earlier this year, Carnegie explored with COSLA and others, how libraries could adapt but still stay relevant to the communities they serve.


Martyn Evans, Carnegie UK

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” has become a cliché. But that does not stop it being true. A poor culture within a service will undermine the best strategy. A positive culture will always add substantial value and embrace change. The public library service in Scotland has an extraordinarily positive culture. I should not have been surprised that this was reinforced at every library visit and meeting I attended the across Scotland.

The Strategic Group wanted to articulate clearly the activities, aims and impacts of our public libraries in a way that draws in and engages a wider set of partners, advocates and stakeholders.  The Strategy also challenges those who say ‘but libraries already do all this’: examples of innovative practice do exist of course but this does not equate to good practice across the board. There is also a lack of convincing evidence of libraries’ contributions that is at all meaningful to Scotland’s decision-makers and influencers.

The approach of our Strategic Group was to work out how best to provide both a map and a compass: a map to show the terrain ahead and a compass to set a clear direction of travel. We wanted to be realistic about the challenges before us, and to provide suggestions about how the public library service can be equipped to tackle this terrain, showing how they can plot a way through the ever-changing territory which is the future.

We hope to strengthen the role of libraries in their local communities, while at the same time encouraging stronger partnerships, stimulating innovative practice and promoting shared learning. We have worked hard to sift through the evidence and views of library funders and providers, users and non-users of public libraries. We have learned from library services in other jurisdictions of the UK and further afield.

As with the rest of the UK and beyond, public libraries in Scotland are undergoing a period of disruptive transition. Digital technology has led to a sea-change in how information and knowledge is created and shared, there is a decline in book-lending, the needs and aspirations of communities are shifting, and within the sector there is a need for stronger leadership. Finally, although public libraries are statutory services in Scotland, they have not been championed in any particular national policy – and the current economic climate and drive to identify efficiency savings means there is no room for complacency.

Given the breadth of the challenges, the Strategic Group took an evidence-based and inclusive approach. There was independent deliberative research, questionnaires to gather views throughout the service, a series of presentations by library and non-library stakeholders (including approaches in Nordic countries and digital participation in Scotland), and a visits to public libraries across Scotland.

The Group built up a picture of a service in transition, keen to embrace the opportunities of digital technology and partnership working but at times struggling with skills and capacities and the need to articulate and evidence their contribution to outcomes for the public. The Group also resolved to remain focused on a positive future for the service – a future where libraries shift from safeguarding and lending information to actively helping citizens engage with information to improve their wellbeing, aspirations and potential.

Our eventual strategic vision is that ‘public libraries are trusted guides connecting all of our people to the world’s possibilities and opportunities’.  It was also clear that libraries are part, albeit an important part, of a wider, ‘shared civic ambition to fulfil the potential of individuals and communities’. This became the mission.

To read a full copy of the report click here