The thinking of Comrade F. Dobler from the early 20th century remains relevant and even prescient: those who need open access to information may be those who are fundamentally excluded from public libraries.
Whenever I travel around the world I always visit the local public library because I think that this is an indicator of how progressive – or not – any particular country is at that moment in time. The high quality and quantity of public libraries in Cuba and Scandinavia, for example, speaks volumes (pardon the pun) about the government priorities in these nation states. Good public libraries do not happen by accident. They are a product of political intent. And that intent is often expressed via a robust culture strategy, which positions public libraries within a panoply of inter-connecting and mutually reinforcing culture services.
So whether a country has a culture strategy, and the nature of that strategy, is a key straw in the wind. Cuba and France have had culture strategies for many years. The UK and Ontario are only now developing their culture strategies for the first time; but better late than never, eh? So let’s take a look at the Ontario Culture Strategy Telling our stories, growing our economy. You should never judge a book by its cover, but there is a bit of a clue in the title which suggests that the strategy seeks to balance the social and economic benefits of culture. The strategy has four strategic goals.
Goal 1: Promote cultural engagement and inclusion
Focus on removing barriers and increasing opportunities for cultural participation
For this to happen in public libraries they will need to change many of their systems, such as requiring proof of identity / address for library members, and the charging of overdue fines and fees. These are significant barriers to the participation in libraries of economically disadvantaged and other socially excluded groups and individuals. The test of success will be that public libraries are used by all sections of the community – not just the white middle class – and that active use increases from 30-50% to 60-80% and above.
Goal 2: Strengthen culture in communities
Focus on strengthening community-based arts, culture and heritage
In the public library world this means developing community-led libraries which have the strategies, structures, systems and organisational culture which enable them to identify, prioritise and meet community needs. This will require the active engagement of all sections of the community – particularly those with the greatest needs – in the planning, design, delivery and evaluation of library services. There will need to be as much focus on outreach and community development as on programming and collection development. The success criteria will be an increase in personal visits to the library and physical circulation, which have been in long term decline.
Goal 3: Fuel the creative economy
Focus on maximizing the contributions of the creative economy to Ontario’s cultural vitality and economic prosperity
At first sight the third strategic goal does not seem to have much relevance to public libraries. But the devil is in the detail, and public libraries can contribute to this goal by actively engaging members of indigenous, ethno-cultural and Deaf and disability communities as well as newcomers to Ontario. To achieve this goal public libraries may need to lower or remove barriers to entry into the workforce, including the requirement for professional and educational qualifications. The library worker skill set will also need to change, with less emphasis on traditional library skills and more focus on community development skills such as empathy, active listening and managing conflict. The outcome will be a public library workforce which reflects the community it serves.
Goal 4: Promote the value of the arts throughout government
Focus on enhancing the profile of the arts sector across government for the benefit of the sector and all Ontarians
The Federation of Ontario Public Libraries (FOPL) does a very good job of enhancing the profile of public libraries across government for the benefit of the sector and all Ontarians. Where FOPL can go further, in my view, is to highlight and champion partnerships between the different sectors of the culture domain, and particularly the development of community hubs where libraries, museums, performing and visual arts come together under one roof; and where it is not possible to tell where one begins and another ends. We are stronger working together with our comrades across all parts of the culture landscape. The end result will be a more creative and innovative integration of culture services to advance Ontario’s social and economic objectives. An added bonus will be new opportunities for public libraries to engage with other sectors in government.
Moving forward, public libraries need to demonstrate how they are delivering these goals, which will determine priorities and funding for the next five years. These goals should be reflected in public library strategies, structures, systems and organisational culture. And the success of public libraries in meeting these goals should be measured in terms of impact and outcomes rather than inputs and outputs. This will require a new way of evaluating the performance of public libraries. The FOPL performance evaluation framework of five key dimensions and 16 variables is a good start, but in many instances these are proxy indicators for much larger and important outcomes such as equality, happiness and well being. It is the contribution of public libraries to these outcomes which will reposition them as part of the wider solution to some of the most intractable problems that are facing municipal, provincial and federal governments.