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The Information Specialist - the Warrant of Information Literacy?

Empowering the UK Learning Community

Barbara Buckley, Resource: the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries; United Kingdom

Education and lifelong learning are very high on the UK political agenda. In 1999 the UK Secretaries of State for Education and Culture commissioned the Library and Information Commission to investigate how public libraries and the academic sector could collaborate to provide access to users from the cradle to the grave to support their learning. This learning might be through a formal course or might simply be following a personal interest. The resulting report, 'Empowering the Learning Community', made recommendations on funding, joint training of teachers and librarians, and mapping of resources. These recommendations are now being taken forward by a partnership between the relevant government departments, with support from Resource: the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, which is the successor body to the Library and Information Commission. This paper will discuss the issues raised in the 'Empowering' report and highlight progress to date on implementation.

How it all began

It all began in the back of a car. In 1998, the Library & Information Commission (LIC) held a conference at Sunderland University called ”Libraries in the Learning Community: building strategic partnerships”. The Education Minister Baroness Blackstone was scheduled to speak and, sharing a car with her to the conference venue, LIC Chairman Matthew Evans made clear to her the current unsatisfactorily unjoined-up nature of public and educational library services for lifelong learners. He later referred publicly to the same issue in his speech to the conference. His remarks struck a chord. Baroness Blackstone did not forget them, and as a result a seed had been planted in the Department for Education & Employment.

It took some time for the seed to germinate but in 1999 the Library and Information Commission was asked to set up a Task Group:

”To advise the Secretaries of State for Culture, Media & Sport and for Education & Employment (as well as those for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) on the ways in which co-operation between the education and public library sectors could be stimulated and improved to support lifelong learning.”

Empowering the Learning Community, the report of the Library & Information Commission’s Education & Libraries Task Group, was published in March 2000, just before the LIC’s winding-up. It was gratifyingly well received – by the information profession and by the two Government departments most directly concerned. The report had been jointly commissioned by both Secretaries of State, and this was vital to its success.

The principle behind the recommendations was the creation of new, learner-centred services, and that the Task Group should concern itself with the needs of learners rather than the problems of the providers. However the terms of reference made clear that the Group was expected to make recommendations on what specific institutions would have to do to bring this aim about. Finally, the Task Group also determined very early in its existence that ”lifelong learning” meant precisely that – formal as well as informal and self-directed learning, from the cradle to the grave. One Task Group member described it as ”learning for life”.

Where did I come in?

At the time of the LIC conference I was working for the British Library as a Research Analyst, commissioning research in, amongst other topics, lifelong learning so I attended the conference and was there to hear both Baroness Blackstone and Matthew Evans talk about the need for cooperation between public libraries and the education sector. This was music to my ears as I had just left a job where I had been trying to improve cooperation between all the libraries in the region and had set up an access agreement between the public, college and university libraries.

In the 6 years of running SWIFT (South West Libraries Information Network) I had seen a change in the access that the public had to information. Two things happened in particular: the fall of the Net Book Agreement and the incorporation of colleges.

Net Book Agreement

The Net Book Agreement, between publishers and booksellers, set prices for books: they could only be sold at the price set by the publisher. As part of this, libraries that opted into the agreement could get a discount on the books they purchased, but in exchange they had to allow access to the public. When the agreement fell apart, university and college libraries managed to get good deals with publishers anyway, but they no longer had to allow the public into the library. At the same time many were bringing in electronic security systems which meant in some cases that you actually had to have a membership card to get through the gates.

Incorporation of Colleges

All local authority colleges used to be funded by the local education authority, part of the municipality which also funded public libraries. With the incorporation of colleges, individual institutions were now given their own budgets to use for the benefit of the students. This led to a change in attitude amongst some of the senior college staff (but not the librarians, who as a breed like to cooperate): the college was there to serve the needs of its students and was not there to support the local community. They were now in competition with colleges down the road to attract students.

Universities in the UK receive government funding centrally through the Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although they also make money through student fees and research. Many of them also took the view that they were funded to serve their students, not the wider community.

Fortunately we are now seeing a change in attitude again. Whilst there were always good examples of open access policies in colleges and universities around the country, the UK Government is now putting much more emphasis on forming partnerships at the local and regional level, including those with educational establishments, so the recommendations of the Task Group came at an opportune moment. But clearly, different funding streams for services was going to be one of the major problems to address.

Whilst the idea for the Task Group was growing in the Departments for Education & Employment and Culture, Media & Sport, my division of the British Library was moved to the Library and Information Commission, so I was able to volunteer to help the Task Group. I was particularly responsible for research and examples of best practice whilst Tim Owen, the other member of the LIC staff working with the Task Group, concentrated on the drafting, and re-drafting, and re-drafting of the main report, as you will see.

The three meetings

From the start, Chairman Mark Wood faced a number of challenges. The Group consisted of 12 members, representing a formidably wide range of special interests: secondary, further and higher education; public, school and academic libraries; formal and self-directed learning; LIC Commissioners; plus external special interests. They had only three meetings in which to agree the issues, reach a broad consensus on the recommendations and approve a draft report. Finally, there were only six months to the ultimate guillotine: the winding-up of the LIC. (A new body, Resource: the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, was set up in April 2000 to succeed both the LIC and the Museums & Galleries Commission.)

For that first meeting, I had commissioned a short research project from the University of Central England, giving examples of current co-operation initiatives. It was to grow into the comprehensive set of examples of good practice that supported the report’s final recommendations.

For most of that first meeting, Task Group members brainstormed on the key issues to be addressed. Despite the very different interests they represented, there was consensus from the outset. Policies of isolationism among educational libraries were no longer justifiable, they agreed. At the same time, however, any cooperation strategies would have to be accompanied by funding. The principle of ”funding following the learner” was born. Nor was it good enough simply to open up institutions to lifelong learners; if they were to benefit properly from such an initiative, the information skills of both learners and teachers would need to be addressed. As a first stage, the mapping of available resources was essential. It was important to know what resources were available that would be of use to learners. Expert advice and guidance would also be needed so that the learner was sent on the best path. Finally, special consideration must be given to meeting the learning needs of excluded communities.

At the second meeting, Mark Wood began by synthesising the Task Group’s previous discussions into a set of key propositions and proposals. I explained how the examples of cooperation identified thus far could support the Task Group’s proposals, and continuing debate clarified the priority issues further. Underlying the Group’s final recommendations would be the following four principles:

  • joint planning, leading to
  • integrated delivery, supported by
  • coordinated funding, all underpinned by
  • agreed standards

So successful was the Group in reaching consensus on some quite radical recommendations that the issue of presenting them to Government effectively now became paramount. Bluntly, it would be a waste of everyone’s time if excellent proposals were rendered null and void by unconvincing presentation. By this time, Tim had started doing some sample drafting – no more than a dozen pages or so, to establish style and tone. However Task Group members felt this early partial draft was too long and detailed, so a short, sharp summary was needed.

By the time of the third and final meeting, Tim had compared our voluminous files of notes and collated Task Group members’ further comments made by e-mail. From this exercise we could determine the crucial issues, assess the extent of consensus between Task Group members, decide on the best examples to support the proposals, and come up with a set of core recommendations. In response to the Group’s concerns about length and impact, the draft report was collapsed to just six pages, including examples. However, when the abridged version was presented to the third Task Group meeting, the consequences were immediately clear to all: the report was now too elliptical and too compressed to be comprehensible. Three weeks before Christmas 1999, it was a case of ”back to the drawing board”.

Drafting and redrafting the report

By now, the proposals to be put to Government boiled down to the following:

  • coordinate audits of community learning resources
  • provide expert mediation of access to resources
  • develop skills in supporting resource-based learning
  • fund small collaborative pilots
  • coordinate community funding and purchasing
  • consult the Treasury on innovative forms of funding
  • make income strands conditional on collaboration
  • create performance measures to cover collaboration
  • require collaboration in information support for learning
  • benefit excluded communities
  • make school library facilities a legal requirement

Thereafter, the freshly expanded draft went through eight separate versions between December 1999 and February 2000. Eventually the final format was determined: there was to be:

  • a Foreword by Mark Wood, ”Libraries for Learning: time for a new kind of partnership”
  • then four recommendations for action
  • a ”Who does what?” section including specific recommendations for DCMS, DfEE and local authorities/specialist agencies
  • and finally a ”What happens next?” section, recommending that DCMS and DfEE establish an inter-departmental working group to carry the proposals forward. (In the event, this is precisely what they have done.)
  • appendices would cover the terms of reference, and the examples of good practice, which were also referred to as appropriate in the main text.

Empowering the Learning Communitywas finally launched by Mark Wood in March 2000, just days before the Library & Information Commission ceased to exist.

In outline, the Task Group’s four final recommendations for action were:

  1. Public and educational libraries to establish co-operative arrangements.
  2. Cross-sectoral funding arrangements to be established. Funding to include an element measured against progress towards partnership.
  3. Public and educational libraries to draw up ”access maps”. Consideration to be given to making school library and information services statutory.
  4. Training of librarians, resource managers and teachers to be coordinated. Performance measures to be set for all collaborative strategies.

In April 2000, the mantle was passed on. As provided for by the DCMS’s 1999 report A New Cultural Framework, the Library & Information Commission and the Museums & Galleries Commission were replaced by Resource: the Council for Museums, Archives & Libraries. The new body had a fresh remit: to seek out and exploit the synergies that existed between the three types of services and their respective institutions. In these changed circumstances, what would happen to the LIC Task Group’s report?

The official reaction

Thus far, the news had been good. There were grounds for cautious optimism. There was DfEE commitment to working with libraries, support from both Ministers and a promise of action. There was also incidental endorsement from a Committee of MPs. An inter-departmental steering group was to work on the next steps, with help from an expert advisory panel, and Resource was fully involved.

DfEE commitment in principle to working with libraries was given before the Task Group’s final report was published, in the Department’s Education & Training Development Agenda 2000-01. This said that ”the Department is interested in continuing to explore the role of broadcasters, museums, galleries, libraries and others in stimulating demand for learning, introducing individuals to learning opportunities.”

Thereafter, Ministers in both Departments gave the report an encouraging first response. ”I am very grateful to the LIC, and the Task Group in particular, for producing this impressive document within such a tight timescale,” said Arts and Libraries Minister Alan Howarth. ”The report is as bold and imaginative as we have come to expect from the LIC. It sets out a clear vision for cross-sectoral cooperation in support of lifelong learning.” Lifelong Learning Minister Alan Wicks said ”I should like to thank you and your Task Group members for delivering such a helpful and timely piece of work… There is growing recognition – and not before time, some may feel – of the contribution that libraries can make to the promotion and delivery of lifelong learning.”

Further endorsement came from MPs in the Commons Culture, Media & Sport Committee report Public Libraries, which recommended ”that the Government and the higher education funding councils support the continued establishment and development of collaborative, cross-sectoral initiatives between public libraries and libraries of all institutions of higher education, based on the principle of open access.” And in a final thank-you letter to Task Group members, Mark Wood added ”I am told by Alan [Howarth] that the report is widely regarded as one of the most focussed sets of recommendations to come out of such a committee and that there is a firm commitment to producing an action plan in response.”

Action from Government

The action promised by the two Ministers was now starting to manifest itself. Alan Howarth had said ”I am anxious that the two Departments should develop an action plan for taking matters forward as soon as possible.” Malcolm Wicks confirmed that ”My officials are already working closely with DCMS colleagues in considering how best to respond to the Task Group’s many interesting and helpful recommendations.” Finally, in its response to the Commons Committee’s public libraries report, the Government said that it ”proposes to establish an Inter-Departmental Steering Group, comprising officials of DfEE and DCMS, to give full and thorough consideration to the Report's recommendations in the light of current developments and Government priorities. In addition, a wider consultative group comprising representatives of external organisations will be established to provide advice to the Steering Group in relation to the Report's recommendations.”

That External Adviser Group held its first meeting in September 2000, and was generally very supportive of the report’s thrust. Advised that they did not need to feel constrained by Task Group’s four recommendations, members agreed that the ”learner-led” principle was critical, as was the mapping of needs and provision. Some may have felt that the report was too much concerned with institutions, although I think it is fair to say in defence of Empowering that this was a requirement of the original terms of reference, since it is the institutions that will deliver the results that the Task Group envisages. The advisory group also called for even more emphasis to be placed on mediation, believing that the report was currently too much concerned with resources rather than with people. Encouragingly - and despite the difficulties involved - its members did agree that school library standards needed to be examined. They also accepted the principle of funding following the learner, although they were concerned that this would be particularly difficult to deliver.

The Inter-Departmental Steering Group, consisting of officials from various sections of the Department for Education and Employment as well as the Department for Culture and Media and Sport, met twice to decide what actions they needed to take to start implementing the recommendations. Resource made itself useful to the Group by providing the secretariat, writing the supporting papers and providing expert advice. By doing this, we managed to get ourselves a place at the table; this is proving invaluable in enabling us to make sure that the departments follow through with their commitments.

The internal steering group had two main tasks:

  • to draw up the Government’s official response to the Empowering report, including an Action Plan
  • to organise a major conference to launch the response and encourage the education sector to cooperate with libraries.

Getting all the parties to work together was quite a challenge, particularly as Resource and the DCMS were based in London but the lead team for DfEE was based in the north of England, and this at a time when our rail system was severely disrupted.

The Government’s Response

The Action Plan, initially drafted by Resource, quickly took shape as the two departments decided on priorities, considered what could be done without legislation, what they had the money to do – and what they were prepared to do. Resource was actually very pleased that none of the original recommendations were completely rejected and progress is being made against all of them.

We had two imperatives which meant that the Action Plan had to be agreed, and the conference held, before the end of March this year. The end of the UK financial year falls on 31 March so the DfEE needed to spend the money that it had put aside for the conference by then – and a General Election was looming. We didn’t know exactly when it was going to be called but the rumours were that it would be in early May, at the same time as the local elections. Once a general election is called, the Government has to cease any political operations and so it would be unable to publish any statements. The likely date for announcing a May election would have been 29th March, the day after the conference. As it turned out, the spread of foot and mouth disease around the country meant that the elections were postponed for at least a month, but we could not have predicted that when we set the date for the event.

The Government’s response was very positive. In the foreword signed by Minister for the Arts and Libraries Alan Howarth and Minister for Lifelong Learning Malcolm Wicks, the recommendations of Empowering the Learning Community were clearly seen to be in line with the Government’s vision of a ”learning society in which everyone is able to learn and upgrade their skills throughout life”. It went on to say:

”Libraries have a vital role to play in underpinning education in the broadest sense, and that is why we must ensure that both the institutions and the individuals who work in or with them (whether they are librarians, resource managers, teachers, archivists or museum educators):

  • have a good understanding of their local communities and of the available resources
  • are aware of, and can adapt, good practice to suit the needs of their communities and
  • are properly trained in the art of information handling and can actively assist people to learn.”

These three principles underpin the Response and the Action Plan, however I think the key principle is down on page 8: ”…we believe that the focus for all action must be learners - and potential learners - themselves. Their needs and wishes should drive the system.” This is crucial; it is the needs of the learner which must predominate, not the needs of the institutions.

The priorities for action are:

  • to identify best practice in collaborative working
  • to evaluate and disseminate the effectiveness of different approaches
  • to identify the perceived and actual barriers to participation in learning and to consider options for removing them
  • to devise tools to identify user needs and to monitor and benchmark collaborative projects
  • to encourage publicly-funded organisations to work across sectors in support of lifelong learning, and
  • to encourage debate in the English regions on how to develop local collaborative working.

Most importantly from my point of view, the DCMS and DfEE have committed in print to working with Resource to act on these priorities.

This is how the UK Government responded to each of the individual recommendations in the Empowering report:

Recommendation 1

      Public and educational libraries in communities or defined geographic areas should establish co-operative arrangements to improve services to their users.

During the next 12 months DfEE will fund a small number of broadly-focused demonstration projects between libraries, learning providers and others, to develop cooperative arrangements and to improve and expand their services to users (including both learners and potential learners). These demonstration projects will be developed and steered by a group led by DfEE and DCMS and including representatives of both the library and learning sectors.

There are now a number of initiatives, both national and local, which aim to support lifelong learning. A key one for libraries and the Empowering agenda is the national Learning and Skills Council which was launched on the same day as the Empowering the Learner conference. This organisation will coordinate skills training and learning for post-16s, including formal further education but not university education. As well as the national Council, there are 47 local councils around England. These are supplemented by local Learning Partnerships, which bring together all the organisations that support learning in a local area, including libraries in many cases. Ufi (the University for Industry), and its trading arm LearnDirect provide online training courses aimed at those in employment or seeking employment, accessed through over 900 learning centres around the country. Many of these centres are based in public libraries. These, and many other learning organisations, will be represented on the steering group and involved in the pilot projects. For more information on the individual initiatives see the web addresses in the references at the end of the paper.

As part of this exercise, consideration will be given to the practicality and value of bringing together and coordinating the various library and learning related plans produced by local partners, including the learning plans of Learning Partnership and Local Authority Annual Library Plans. One of the problems about local planning at the moment is that the government requires local authorities to produce a variety of plans which involve lifelong learning in some way, but until now there has been little coordination between them.

Recommendation 2

      Cross-sectoral funding arrangements should be established. Funding for libraries in all sectors should include an element which is measured against progress towards closer cross-sectoral community partnerships.

DfEE and DCMS will invite representatives of local government, the Learning and Skills Council at national and local level, Ufi, the Higher Education Funding Council, the library authorities and others to participate in a working group. This group will consider appropriate flexibility of funding arrangements in relation to libraries and learning and to look at establishing coordinated purchasing arrangements between providers of library services within a community. The demonstration projects to be set up to address Recommendation 1 will inform this process. This will be a key group as it will have to identify how ”funding following the learner” could be implemented.

Recommendation 3

      Public and educational libraries in any community or region should draw up ”access maps” to enable users and learners to reach resources or assistance in other libraries on a managed basis. Consideration should also be given to making provision of school library and information services a statutory responsibility.

One of the activities that will form part of the projects under Recommendation 1 will be the drawing up of ”access maps” to the learning needs and learning resources available in the geographic areas covered. In deciding on the areas, the steering group will be taking into account existing good practice, building on the best. The methodologies developed will be shared with the rest of the country.

The issue of making school library services a legal requirement is not one that the Government wants to address directly at the moment; that would require legislation and they are trying to give schools more autonomy in deciding how to spend their grants, not be more prescriptive. But it is an idea that the school librarians and others are still promoting and the Government does understand that the services need improving. So instead of legislation they want to work with key partners such as the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), the Library Association, the School Library Association and the Association of Senior Children’s and Educational Librarians to consider what levers exist to support the development of school libraries. Avenues to consider; for example, are a quality assurance framework linked to peer review, and models of cooperative working between school libraries and Local Educational Authority School Library Services.

Recommendation 4

      Training of librarians, resource managers and teachers should be coordinated and should include ways of developing mutual support. Objective and quantifiable performance measures should be set for all these collaborative strategies.

Librarians are skilled in information handling and teachers are skilled in supporting the learning needs, but not vice versa, so the initial Task Group identified the need for coordinated training of the two groups so that each could benefit from the other’s expertise. To address this recommendation, DCMS will establish a working group to define the nature of the training that is required, and to explore the scope for developing common training modules and skill sharing arrangements. These will be both at initial entry level and as part of career development planning. The working group should have regard to the work which Resource is undertaking to develop a cross-sectoral education and access standard.

Should the working group conclude that common training modules represent the way forward, DCMS will need to establish a system of quality assurance and to identify a suitable vehicle for delivering the training programmes on the ground.

The Empowering the Learner conference

Whilst the Government can take forward the recommendations, to truly make a difference to learners, all the agencies at national, regional and local level need to work together. To start the process, it was decided to organise a major conference to launch the Action Plan and stimulate the various bodies to want to address the Empowering agenda. The library world had received the Empowering the Learning Community report very favourably, but we had not done such a good job of disseminating the report to the education sector. The conference would prove a vehicle for attracting interest from both local and national learning organisations.

The event was organised jointly by the Department for Education and Employment, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Resource. Having three different bodies each responsible for part of the workload was not ideal, however it did mean that we were able to get Ministers from both the DfEE (Malcom Wicks, Minister for Lifelong Learning) and DCMS (Alan Howarth, Minister for the Arts and Libraries) to speak on the day – a major coup, and one that guaranteed a good audience.

Although the Empowering report was addressing the role of libraries, Resource’s remit and that of the DCMS, covers museums and archives as well. We therefore decided to broaden out the conference to include good practice in addressing learning needs through museums as well as libraries. Excellent examples of how museums and reading had changed lives, giving socially-excluded individuals a new sense of self-worth and purpose, inspired the audience and many were surprised by the overlap in benefits that libraries and museums could offer.

We held the conference at the Science Museum in London, partly because it was a prestigious venue, but importantly because it is the UK Year of Science and we wanted to give the message that ”culture” does not equal ”arts”; it is broader and includes science. We could go round the Museum afterwards but I seemed to be one of the few who took the opportunity to visit the Star Trek exhibition. I’m not sure whether this was a good or a bad thing…

This is only the very beginning of a long process to break down the barriers between institutions for the benefit of learners, but the conference got the education and library sectors talking. There was a real buzz in the air and many of the local learning and skills councils and learning partnerships have asked for extra copies of the Empowering report. There have been letters to Ministers asking to be involved in the future discussions and the evaluation forms are giving valuable feedback about current good practice and willingness to be included in future projects. This all bodes very well but it will be important for Resource to keep the pressure on. With a new Government soon (probably) there will be a new challenge and perhaps new Ministers to inspire. I will be doing my best to make sure that the Action Plan is implemented, with the needs of the learner guiding our work.

Useful Web addresses

Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)


DCMS Annual Library Plans


Department for Education and Employment (DfEE)


DfEE Individual Learning Accounts


DfEE Lifelong Learning


Empowering the Learning Community


Government Response to Empowering the Learning Community




Learning and Skills Council


Library Association


National Grid for Learning


Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED)


Resource: the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries


University for Industry (UfI)



Barbara Buckley started her professional career as a teacher then moved into librarianship, graduating from Loughborough University. She has worked in both the private and public sector, from the smallest research institute library up to the British Library. Before re-joining the BL in 1997 she set up and managed the Library and Information Plan SWIFT (South West London Information Network) for 6 years. For the BL's Research and Innovation Centre she was in charge of the Value and Impact Research Programme and was responsible for commissioning research on social inclusion, lifelong learning and cultural diversity. She continued this work at the Library and Information Commission when the research function was transferred. With the move to Resource she is now a Policy Adviser within the Strategy and Planning Team but is charged with taking forward the recommendations of the Empowering the Learning Community report.


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