The latest UK government-level developments on library policy and funding have delivered a mixed but predominantly bad newsbag for British libraries and e-lending initiatives.

As reported in The Bookseller, the latest round of spending cuts in the UK government’s Comprehensive Spending Review threaten to crimp library services already decimated by closures and cutbacks. An editorial on the UK Public Libraries News website declared that the cuts will force public library authorities and councils to “adapt or die.”

The March 2013 report ‘An Independent Review of E-Lending in Public Libraries in England,’ prepared by William Sieghart under the auspices of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, is the most up-to-date document on future UK policy towards e-lending.

Kicking off with the first-time publication of a 1997 poem by the late Ted Hughes, released for the occasion by his estate, which declares that: “Decay of libraries is like/Alzheimer’s in the nation’s brain,” the Review warns that:

“the atmosphere between the publishing and library communities has become strained and, combined with the other, bigger uncertainties that the digital revolution poses, makes it hard for both parties to establish agreed norms for digital lending,”

but notes equally that,

“it is plain that an inability to offer digital lending will make libraries increasingly irrelevant in a relatively short time.  Library services therefore do not have the luxury of waiting any longer to expand, or in many cases start, their provision of digital lending.”

Sieghart himself, incidentally, is an independent publisher, whose Forward Arts Foundation supports the Forward Poetry Prize and National Poetry Day. One hopes that the UK publishing industry got some added comfort by working with one of their own.

All the same, his report came out with some sensible conclusions around e-lending from UK libraries, especially around public lending right (PLR), the reimbursement to authors from library lending that recently has been a bone of contention between the UK Society of Authors and Publishers Association over e-lending.

The Sieghart Review recommends that “further legislative changes should be made to allow PLR to take account of remote e-loans,” and that “the overall PLR pot should be increased to recognise the increase in rights holders.”

As it happens, the UK House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport Committee has just published its report on a draft government order to abolish the  Registrar of Public Lending Right, which handles PLR, and transfer its duties to the British Library.

The report’s conclusions stated categorically that:

“It was resoundingly clear from the public consultation that there was overwhelming opposition to the Government’s proposal to abolish the Registrar of Public Lending Right and to transfer its functions to another public body. We continue to believe that the British Library is not a suitable host organisation for the PLR function given its many responsibilities.”

All the same, the UK government still plans to do it. The reason given, as quoted in The Bookseller, is that:

“The transfer is expected to save £750k [$1,145,400] in running costs over 10 years maximising the grant-in-aid available to be distributed as PLR payments.”

So the UK government is prepared to gut the UK PLR system to save such a pitiful figure.

“National bodies like Arts Council England and the Society of Chief Librarians must come forward and start seriously earning their wages by disseminating best practice and pushing through needed change,” insists the Public Libraries News editorial.

With such unbelievable penny-pinching driving UK government library policy, just where UK library services are going to find the resources, let alone the leadership and morale, to drive such expansion is really an open question now.


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