This thesis is an examination of public libraries in Britain today. It sets forward the
hypothesis that a new type of librarianship is emerging to meet the needs of change
in the socioeconomic environment, and that this is based on a community
The thesis examines the role of public libraries within their communities through a
historical, contemporary and international review of literature and a national
questionnaire survey of community development strategies in public library
authorities. The survey forms part of a research programme funded by the British
Library Research and Innovation Centre on the social impact of libraries. It was
designed collaboratively, by myself, Andrew Green of the Community Services
Group of the Library Association and Kevin Harris of the Community Development
Foundation, although all subsequent work has been my own. In-depth analysis is
followed by telephone interviews with four library authorities chosen as case
studies, to establish the relationship between policy and practice.
The thesis as a whole considers the history and development of libraries. After
suffering years of policy drift, a poor research base and a low public profile, public
libraries are considering how best to quantify their social impact.
Rapid socioeconomic change has had a marked effect on the labour market and
social cohesion in the UK, resulting in greater demand for training, education and
information. Government has responded with community-oriented policies aimed
at improving public access to the information society, making local government more
accountable, empowering communities and supporting citizenship in an increasingly
active democracy. Rapid advances in Information Technology have increased the
potential of public libraries to contribute to this process and act as lifelong learning
facilitators and providers. This thesis presents evidence of public libraries' changing
role as an educative medium. A majority of public libraries responding to the
survey are engaged in interagency work to support the independent learner and
empower communities. Many are doing so as part of a community development
strategy, or are working on such a strategy.
Respondents to the survey of public library authorities expressed the desire to
involve their public in a meaningful way. Those library services with a written
community development strategy have taken practical steps to achieve this and
have set up systems to monitor their progress.
A new model for management of community-oriented services is proposed,
highlighting issues of policy and practice such as staff training and service
accessibility. Conclusions are drawn on an effective role for public libraries in
Britain and the need for further research on how this can be achieved.