Blow for the data-poor

November 19, 1999

We report this week that the planned Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has put on hold a slew of university research projects proposed to the existing Libraries and Information Commission (page 6). This unsettling move is the last thing the sector needs so soon after the commission took over funding library research from the British Library.

More importantly, it points to the danger of libraries becoming another under-researched area of British public life, at a time when their role is changing and their importance increasing. Politicians all over the world express concern about the exclusion of the data-poor from the information society of the future. In Britain and many other countries, the library is the first hope for delivering digital services, and knowledge of how to use them, to people who cannot afford computers and connections. This complex transition of our library services will need to be based on a significant research programme.

The fears of the library research community illustrate wider qualms about government's commitment to research. The headline figures for the sums spent via the funding and research councils have risen impressively in recent years but, as Ian Forbes argues (page 16), the "evidence-based" approach to policy that the present government espouses has its limits. As David Packham's letter (opposite page) shows, government departments that do not like the results of the research they commission reserve the right to change them. Ministers are not in the business of having their policies overturned by uncomfortable evidence - easier to listen to the highly paid policy adviser one sees every day and who can be guaranteed to be on-side.

Perceived bossiness and a lack of openness is one of the government's biggest public relations problems. It can help solve it by being more committed to commissioning research whose results might be uncomfortable, and to taking it seriously when the results come in.

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