On Thursday 31 January 2013, a set of ‘universal offers’ were launched in London jointly by the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), the Arts Council England (ACE), and the Reading Agency (TRA). They are based around four themes (health, information, digital and reading) and set out what public libraries can offer to members of the public. The details are in the SCL press release and in a more detailed media pack (which is not just for the media).
These ‘universal offers’ have been agreed by SCL in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, although it’s worth noting that in Wales we have a library strategy (Libraries Inspire 2012-16) which includes a ‘core offer’ of 15 things that libraries do/provide/offer, and the Welsh list applies to all libraries, not just public libraries.
The press release notes that this is the first integrated ‘national’ (my speech marks) approach to library services, defining what public library services should provide, and what users should expect.
As well as launching some new schemes (such as books on prescription in England – we’ve been doing it in Wales since 2005, and to be fair, they did note that), the launch was also partly to emphasise what libraries do on a daily basis – to reaffirm the place of the library in society.
The newly launched ‘universal offers’ generated quite a bit of media coverage, with the press mainly picking up on the bibliotheraphy scheme such as in the Guardian, Independent and Daily Mail. On the day itself I noticed a tendencay towards the negative on Twitter (maybe it’s just the people I follow?!), with some people claiming there was nothing new in the offers, or questioning the value of launching offers when people’s local branches were being closed.
Without wishing to bash the universal offers or the work of SCL and the other bodies, because I think there is merit to outlining some of the core things libraries do and their benefits, I also want to highlight some of the additional things public libraries in Wales do, in relation to these universal offers. Wales is only a small country which helps when doing things on an all-Wales basis, but also our achievements can be overlooked outside the border, so here’s my plug for Welsh libraries!
With regard to the digital offer, Welsh public libraries meet or exceed the “best practice” outlined in the offer documents and meet many of the elements which public libraries “should aspire to provide”. For example:
- Free Internet access – in Wales public libraries provide access to the Internet for free, with no time limit on the free access period
- E-books – by April 2013, all 22 public library services in Wales will be offering free e-books to their citizens. 21 of these are through an all-Wales consortium approach, and one has procured its own subscription.
- Assistive technology – all 22 public library services in Wales provide a range of assistive technology for their computers.
- Digital heritage and local history – through the People’s Collection Wales, a growing interactive digital collection of local history and memories is being created. Public libraries are contributing to the content.
- Library portal – since 2006, there has been a single portal for information about Welsh libraries (librarywales.org), including a cross-catalogue search (see below), the ability to join a local library online, access to digital newspaper subscription, news stories from libraries in Wales, a book review section, and Ask Cymru where users can ask a question and be answered by a librarian.
- Federated search – since 2006 it has been possible to search all Welsh library catalogues in one search (Cat Cymru). NB- England’s portal (Bookmark) is now in beta with a public library catalogue search (Find a Book).
- Addressing the digital divide –SCL Wales published a report highlighting how libraries help work towards digital inclusion.
I hope the universal offers will spark renewed enthusiam among the public for using and benefitting from the public library service.