It can be easy to forget that the local studies service should be considered part of the “comprehensive and efficient” service required by statute because many local authorities choose not to manage it through the library structure.
Local Studies Collections obviously benefit from having very close links with archive services, and users often benefit from both collections being available on the same site. Most users do not differentiate between archives and printed sources, they just want the material whatever its format. Both services can benefit from the different skills of library staff and archivists. There is also a strong case for the service to be linked with museums, making a combined heritage service, they share similar problems of preservation and conservation of materials, as well as some of the problems of cataloguing and providing access. All this makes a heritage management structure, separate from the general library structure, seem logical. But it also serves to divorce the local studies service from the library service which enjoys some protection in times of economic pressure by virtue of its statutory status. We must remember museums are not a statutory service and the legal basis for the archives service is restricted to the local authority’s obligations to preserve its own records.
Users expect a local studies service to exist. They are generally very popular, experiencing increasing use and having a high profile – local studies libraries appear frequently on the popular BBC TV programme Who do you think you are. The Arts Council research documents for Envisioning the library of the future show that users value libraries’ role in local and family history. Local studies libraries are heavily used by family historians but experience shows school children, academics and local historians form an important additional core of users. The most popular online sources provided by the general library service also tend to be those which appeal to family and local historians. Nor should we forget that the local studies service contributes to the local authority’s wider agenda, with the important so-called “soft outcomes” of developing local identity and a commitment to a local community.
CILIP in its paper What makes a good library service lists “promotion and support of study of local history” and notes the importance of specialist staff. It is important to realise that the knowledge and enthusiasm of local studies specialists is vital to proper access to the collections.
The Arts Council Library of the future report of May 2013 emphasises community engagement, development of digital services and learning, all areas where local studies is very strong. Most places have very active local and family history societies who have close links with their local studies libraries and are very involved with developing the service. And many older users of the internet and other new technologies have come to it through an interest in family history. The research documents for Envisioning the library of the future include several references to a local history project in Peterborough as evidence of innovation in the library world. In The library of the future, the Arts Council response to the research, high priority is given to the role of libraries in helping “us understand ourselves, our place in the world, and the heritage of the communities in which we live.”
The Bookmark your library website (provided by the Arts Council, Society of Chief Librarians, Reading Agency etc) gives very welcome prominence to opportunities for family history study in libraries, but it concentrates on electronic sources not the wealth of printed material about the lives of our ancestors in local studies collections. There is no similar prominence given to local history study.
So the traditional interpretation of a library service, the expectations of users, the need for the local authority to develop local identity, CILIP, the Arts Council and, to some extent, Bookmark your library all argue for local studies to be an important part of the library service. There are no library standards now so it is difficult to know if the government considers local studies libraries to be part of a comprehensive and efficient service (insofar as it still exists).
Although the evidence seems to suggest that local studies is still considered as part of the core service library campaigners need to be aware of the pitfalls, as well as the advantages, of divorcing the service, sometimes physically as well as through management structures, from the rest of the library service.
One of the great strengths of the library service is the treasure house of printed material recording the history of each area. Many items were donated by people who wished them to be permanently preserved and made freely available. Let’s hope we are not the generation which erodes rather than develops the legacy with which we have been entrusted.