Politiche statali per il servizio bibliotecario pubblico in Inghilterra: 1997-2001

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Domenico Ciccarello


The article concentrates on the Government's strategy for the promotion and improvement of public library services in England. It does not examine the role of public libraries in the information society or well-known programmes such as The people's network and the National Grid for Learning. It rather focuses on initiatives recently undertaken by the Secretary of State for Culture, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in relation to their functions, under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, to secure that local authorities fulfil their statutory duty to "provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all". Following a period of budget cuts and closures of local branches, the DCMS and other central departments and agencies decided to put emphasis on management issues for the sector, with special attention devoted to three key elements: criteria for the planning process; modernisation of local government; proposal of nationwide agreed levels of service. Social inclusion is also of high importance in the government's agenda.
One of the co-ordinated actions by central government in recent years was the development of a common framework for planning. Since 1998, the Secretary of State has asked all library authorities to produce an Annual Library Plan, including background information on the area they serve, a mission statement of the library service, along with data regarding access, opening hours, buildings, services for adults, children and special groups (ethnic minorities, people with disabilities), levels of expenditure, staff management and training, ICT systems. In particular, the plan must contain: a performance appraisal for the last financial year, a medium term strategy for the next three years, and details of the action plan and performance targets for the same period. Each year authorities get confidential feedback on the quality of their plan, and the DCMS publishes an overall appraisal of plans, and guidelines for preparation of the plan for the following year.
Best Value framework, defined in the Local Government Act 1999, is another relevant factor of development in the public library system in England and Wales. All local authorities must ensure a suitable combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness in exercising their functions, so they have to prepare a Best Value Performance Plan each financial year for all services, showing past and current performance and addressing priorities to achieve higher quality, and conduct a service-specific Best Value Review covering all functions over a five-year planning cycle. Four principles (called "the 4Cs") guide authorities in carrying out their reviews: Challenge the reasons for the service provided, reconsidering strategies and practices; Compare outcome indicators in relation to their own performance over time and with other authorities; Consult users through regular surveys and research on community needs; Compete with other service providers, exploring alternative means of delivering services effectively. Best Value legislation confers on the Audit Commission powers to inspect each authority's Best Value plans and reviews and their impact on the outcomes. It also sets performance indicators to help authorities with self-assessment, and with keeping both users and the Government informed.
In May 2000, the Culture Secretary announced the new draft Public Library Standards. Following wide-ranging consultation and revision, they were finally agreed and published in April 2001. As a consequence, the indicators have undergone important changes, with an overall result of simplification in the final version. Now library users have a clear idea of what they can expect from the public service. Library managers and stakeholders should gain a realistic framework for setting new targets for improvements. The DCMS hopes that the 19 PLS should bring about substantial improvements in services provided by library authorities. The threshold is fixed at the upper quartile by the year 2004. Service areas include: suitable access, adequate opening hours, provision of electronic workstations, issuing and reserving of books, encouraging physical and virtual visits, ensuring user satisfaction, choice of books and other materials, overall quality of book stocks, fund for purchasing new items, qualified staff. Library authorities are further requested to assess their performance against Best Value indicators and the PLS in the annual library planning process.
Social inclusion issues are at the heart of Government policies for the public library service too. Libraries are seen as the essence of inclusion, being secure, respectful, non-competitive and welcoming places, where everyone, irrespective of their age, sex or social background, can access a wide range of information, knowledge and services. Libraries for all is the most relevant policy document by DCMS on the matter. It takes into account the challenges that libraries have to face; it considers the different kinds of barriers that may result in social exclusion; and it encourages library authorities to adopt a long-term, sustainable strategy, based on community consultation and partnership, cultural change, specific staff training, performance evaluation and demonstration of benefits and outcomes. More recent documents by the DCMS concentrate on a cross-cutting social inclusion policy, in which the leading role of libraries is recognised, along with galleries, archives and museums, in tackling social exclusion and acting as agents for social change.

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