Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)

WEDNESDAY 17 NOVEMBER 2004

MS MIRANDA MCKEARNEY, MR JOHN HOLDEN, MS HEATHER WILLS AND MR TIM COATES

  Chairman: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We are very pleased to see you this morning. We are returning to the subject of libraries. I say, rather conceitedly, that we got a pretty good reception the last time we looked at libraries and maybe we will do, in the eyes of others, as good a job as we did then.  I will ask Rosemary McKenna to open the questioning.

  Q1  Rosemary McKenna: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted that the Committee has made the decision to look at public libraries because, as an advocate of public libraries, I have long felt it was time they looked at the whole situation again. Can I ask each one of you what one thing do you think would have an impact on the public library service as it is today?

  Ms McKearney: Getting clear about what they are there for and, having done that, shaping a few priority national programmes. Our particular interest is in the reading field.

  Q2  Chairman: Could you speak up, please?

  Ms McKearney: Yes. Getting clear what they are there for, which, for us, is about reading; and having done that create a shared national sense of purpose, agree a few key priority national programmes which deliver to some target audiences what only libraries can deliver. For instance, support for children's reading in the breaks from school and creating national economies of scale to deliver those programmes, which at the same time do not blow the local responsiveness, which is the key to what is so important about libraries.

  Q3  Chairman: Could I just interrupt before Rosemary goes on? It may well be that Rosemary or other members of the Committee will address questions to one individual person, but if any of the panel feels they would like to answer any question, please feel free to do so.

  Mr Holden: For me one of the big things is library buildings; I think there are a lot of very tired library buildings in the wrong place, configured wrongly and sometimes with the wrong stuff in them. In visiting a lot of libraries around the country I have seen that where there has been a combination of energy and reform, along with investment in infrastructure, it has worked. So I would like to see a well-conceived programme of capital investment in libraries.

  Ms Wills: Based on our experience in Tower Hamlets, I would say that a clear vision of what is required is essentially echoing what Miranda said, based on speaking to people and finding out what the punters actually want, and translating that into clear outcomes of what is required, and I think there are a number of clear themes that would come out of that. And to deliver that, very crucially associated with that is a need for a joined-up approach. Libraries, public libraries in particular, look to DCMS look to DfES, look to ODPM and a whole host of other organisations at local and regional levels as well, and that makes the delivery of a clear vision problematic, to say the least.

  Mr Coates: The public are very keen to have good libraries and they want three things. They want a much better stock of books and material for reading, learning and information; they want the libraries to be open much longer than they are; they want the libraries to be clean, smart and well presented, so that they are safe and good places to work and study. Those three things need to be done, and in order to do them the management of the service and the efficiency of the operation has to be improved beyond dreams, beyond all recognition because it is very, very poor at the moment.

  Q4  Rosemary McKenna: I get the impression that libraries did become for some time the Cinderella of leisure services or education services, and a lot of it depends where the libraries sit within a local authority, and if they have an advocate. The local government will say that their budgets are constrained and therefore it is difficult for them to give the kind of finance to the libraries that is required. Is there anything that you can do to improve that?

  Mr Coates: My belief is that there is £250 million a year out of the £1,000 million a year, which is what the country pays for its public library service. Of that, £250 million a year is wasted in extremely old-fashioned systems, in duplicated work, in arrangements for cataloguing which are long outdated. In my opinion there is plenty of money. There is no shortage of money at all, would be my case, but it needs to be spent in a radically different way to that which it is at the moment. When I have talked to councillors—and I have talked to a lot—they are very confused because they get a very unclear picture from their own library operation as to exactly how it is worked and how the money is spent within it. So I think councils, who are the right people to run library services, in my view, need a lot more help than they are currently getting in learning how to run them more efficiently and more effectively for the public.

  Ms McKearney: I certainly would not disagree with Tim about the need for streamlining and efficiencies. For me it probably starts at the top as well, because libraries have become curiously politically invisible, both in the local authority and at national government level and the DfES five-year strategy hardly mentions libraries; there is a huge chunk of the informal learning world just not recognised at all. So I think a clear lead from central government would help at local level as well.

  Mr Holden: I think that is right. The way the systems work locally and nationally are very confusing for people outside it and advocacy at local level is often poor and, paradoxically, perhaps because it is a statutory spend and protected, there is maybe not the need to raise the voice in the way that there is for other parts of the cultural world. But nationally, who are the advocates for libraries? Who are the people standing up and beating the drum for them?

  Ms Wills: I would endorse all of that. Again, coming back to the need for a focus on outcomes, if we had done more work in that direction it would be easier to convince many, many people of the contribution we make to so many different agendas, in terms of social inclusion, in terms of education, as Miranda says. By delivering the libraries' day job too we can do that, but (a) we have not had the clear outcomes to show it, and (b) we have not been very good at marketing or communicating that to anyone.

  Q5  Rosemary McKenna: Tim, you said that the £250 million was not properly spent. In your report you are saying that local authorities really need to get together. Do you think that could be best done by a directive from the DCMS or the Local Government Association? How would you see that happening?

  Mr Coates: I think there is no mechanism at the moment for doing the work that needs to be done. I think there is a need for an urgent programme, almost an emergency programme if you like, in which four or five or six councils who wanted to reform themselves, who wanted to become better, went through every single process that they have and looked at all the resources and all budgeting processes and the planning processes and at the marketing and everything, and sorted themselves out, with help. They need support from a project team of some kind with seniority. Having got half a dozen sorted out properly it would then be easy to roll it out. But there is no mechanism for such a project team at the moment. It is something that should be in the gift of the Minister, if you like, because as I understand it the Minister has some powers of intervention and can go to a council and say, "Look, you really should do better than this," and I think that that power of intervention needs to be elaborated; it needs to have stages and it needs to be carefully thought out. But that project team ought to have the ability to use that power of intervention.

  Q6  Rosemary McKenna: Which Minister?

  Mr Coates: As it is at the moment it would be Lord McIntosh.

  Q7  Rosemary McKenna: And of course Lord McIntosh is an advocate of libraries.

  Mr Coates: Indeed he is. He just does not have the tool in his hand to take this action.

  Q8  Rosemary McKenna: Actually to take it forward? That is something that the Committee would want very much to take on board because very often a pilot project like that can actually be rolled out. I know that that kind of work was done in Scotland and it did work, where our libraries are now doing extremely well and they are very well supported.

  Mr Coates: I think in that project team it is important to involve the Audit Commission because in local government work at the moment the Audit Commission are the other people who have, as it were, the stick within their hands, within the CPA, and I think that project team should work with the Audit Commission to make sure that the carrots which are applied to the library service fit in with what the Audit Commission is doing, because at the moment there is a gap between what the Audit Commission do and what the DCMS do, and that leaves us with a road through which people can drive. They need to be brought really close together, even if only for three years. I understand that in the end they have a separate role to play, but for the duration of this project they need to make sure that they are both looking for the same thing, and councils know that they are looking for the same thing.

  Ms McKearney: May I add something? I do not disagree with any of that but I think it is important as well to look at some very interesting models of national solutions to economies of scale that are emerging, and one of the things which cheers me up is the National Summer Reading Challenge that we set up just as a very small charity five years ago. We were very heftily warned not to be so naïve as to expect that local authorities would abandon their own local summer reading activities for children in favour of a large national one, but it is now run in 91% of authorities; the standard of activity that children get is incredibly high; it allows libraries to compete with credibility for children's attention; and it has now attracted funding from DfES. So it is that sort of magnet for investment. I think that models like that could be very powerful. As well as national partnerships we are just talking to the BBC about constructing a major partnership between BBC Learning and the Public Library Network, and they do not want to be working with 208 local authorities, they want to be working with one team that can deliver libraries to them, and that would have huge local knock-on benefits.

  Mr Holden: May I add something too? I would not disagree with Tim at all in that there are huge efficiency gains in procurement, in management, in the way things are run, in building and so forth, but one sentence that he said, "to get it sorted out properly", I think that is the interesting issue. What do we mean by "sorted out properly"? What are we trying to aim for libraries to do? What are the measures that we are going to use? How do we know that they are successful?

  Q9  Rosemary McKenna: Up to now we have been talking about books, and can we move on to the People's Network? I believe that is an absolutely crucial part of developing libraries and bringing more people in. I understand that it is available now in all authority areas but that in some areas a charge is levied for access to the People's Network, which I do not think was ever envisaged when the idea was rolled out at the beginning. Would you have a view on that?

  Ms Wills: Certainly in Tower Hamlets, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, we would not envisage making a charge for direct access to the Internet; it is a crucial part of our service and a core part of the service we provide to support learning in our Idea Stores because our Idea Stores are libraries and Adult Education Centres as well as much else combined and the IT supports everything that we do in the store, whether it be activities for children, whether it be introductions to the use of IT for learning, introductions as to how to find your way around family history information. It underpins everything that we do and the provision of IT quality services is a major attractor to bring people into the service to go on and use other things as well. So I think many libraries around the country have found that it has been a re-generator of interest in the service and has brought people back to use other parts of the service as well. So it is absolutely crucial for us. What that leaves hanging, however, is the question about sustainability and we cannot underestimate the importance. We are fine now, we have invested in this and we will replace the odd PC as it falls over, but there is a very big question left hanging as to what happens as all of these PCs need to be replaced and all of the infrastructure comes to be upgraded? I would suggest that all the while each local authority is looking at that individually and trying to come up with its own technical solutions and its own procurement decisions that will continue to be problematic.

  Q10  Rosemary McKenna: So there is a danger that that initial investment, because of lack of revenue, is going to be considerably undermined?

  Ms Wills: I do not think many authorities have a full answer at the moment to how that is going to be sustained, ongoing at the moment. I certainly do not have any great guarantees as far as we are concerned, albeit that we are looking at it, and we are factoring some degree of provision into our medium-term budget plan; but I know it is a concern for many.

  Mr Holden: On IT I am not aware of any figures about what proportion of libraries are charging and who is not. What I have noticed in a lot of library visits is that IT is used extensively; almost everywhere you go in the country when you walk into a library the computer terminals are used and there is a queue for them. But I think there is a lot of confusion in libraries about what we charge for and what we do not. Most libraries charge for DVDs, CDs, videos; they do not charge for books. Some of them charge for IT, some do not. Some charge when you want to get a book from the backlist or something, others do not. It is a very confused picture with little consistency.

  Q11  Rosemary McKenna: I think the difference with IT was that it was about information. Libraries are basically about information, and it was about information and it was also about enabling access to people who had no other opportunity of having access and as an education tool.

  Ms McKearney: It comes back to this question about what are libraries there for? If you go back to their roots, radical social roots, I think the best of them are rediscovering that sense of radical social purpose and free access to information. For me, whether that is through computers or books, that is a fundamental principle. I do not see a huge distinction. It is about reading, is it not? If you make reading at the heart of what libraries do that runs through the IT and the provision of books, and I think it would be fantastic if we could reach some clarity about what libraries' purpose is around reading because then that takes you away from their work being measured only by book issues, which I think absolutely does not capture the value of what they are doing.

  Mr Coates: I have no problem with computers in libraries for information. I worry slightly when I see them being used for playing games outside parental control, which is what a lot of them are used for. As far as I can see there is no proper data being gathered about what the computers are being used for, but if they are used for the right thing that should be free—no difficulty at all about that—and I know that a lot of councils are looking for that. But like everything in libraries somebody will tell you a figure—and I do not know what figure they are bandying about—and say, "We need £100 million" or £50 million, or whatever it is, and they should look very hard at those figures when they come in because there are 30,000 computers in libraries and to replace all of them physically can only cost £10 million, and out of £1,000 million. That is an economy: it is not a need for an extra wave of funding. The councils that I have been working with, if you read one of my pieces of written evidence there is a report on the London Borough of Richmond, where you can see that out of the £5 million available for that service £2 million of it is being used up in the administrative office. Then they will turn round and tell you they need more money to replace computers, and I say just sort the job out first. But at the same time as they do not have computers their book stock is appalling—they have no Graham Greene, they have no Tolstoy there to be borrowed. That is also a priority, and the book stock is a much more expensive priority. So of course computers should be free for the use of information, but the high cost of replacement is a symptom rather than a problem, in my view.

  Q12  Derek Wyatt: Good morning. My local authority is Kent, which is the largest in Britain, and spends the least amount of money on libraries and in the poorest areas has the worst opening hours and the worst stock, which is madness and goes against the whole principle of what a library service is. So what do we have to stiffen to make it possible that there is equal access and equal opportunity to libraries? Do we need a new law? What do we need?

  Mr Coates: The person who is not doing the thing that they should, to be brave, is the Chief Executive of Kent County Council because if they sat at budget time, which is this time of year for them, and they prepared a plan as the Audit Commission told them to do five years ago, and they looked at the money that they have available and they looked at how it was being spent in a critical way and in a managerial way, they would realise that they have plenty of money in Kent. I know it is not well-funded but—

  Q13  Derek Wyatt: It is wealthy.

  Mr Coates: It is wealthy, that is right. But their book lending is down 25%.

  Q14  Derek Wyatt: It is appalling.

  Mr Coates: And they have had all kinds of initiatives, all full of brave new worlds. It is not possible for a councillor to tell you what the answer is but it is possible for a Chief Executive to be firm about how budgets are spent. I do not think it is necessary to redefine and be clear about what libraries are for; I think we know. I do not think we need any more debates; I think librarians will debate until the end of time what they are there for. In fact the public in a MORI research poll will tell you in three lines what a library is for, and I think we should stick to that. The Chief Executive of Kent County Council, with help—and I would sit with him and say, "Look at this budget and see how daft it is because you are still paying for a bibliographic services department and you absolutely do not need that," they do not need them at all these days because of the systems that are available, Book Data[14] and so on. They have duplication of staff in the sense that they have non-professional staff running the libraries and then they have a whole raft of so-called professional librarians who are in reserve, as it were, which just means that there are two levels of people when you only need one. There will be eight or nine levels of management, I guarantee without even looking, because there will be a councillor and then a Head of Library Service, a Head of Education, then a Senior Management Team, then a Middle Management Team and then a Libraries Team and probably several Area Teams, where, if you were a retailer running these things, instead of probably 250 people actually in the libraries you only need six. Those economies are quite visible, quite obvious and what is needed is for the Chief Executive of the Council to say, "I am sorry, this budget is no good, and we can recycle until we get it right, and we have six months. If you do not, fine, we will still open the libraries but let us have a different management team."

  Ms McKearney: I really disagree with this thing about the debate because the external environment in which the libraries operate around reading has significantly changed. There is Internet bookselling, a huge explosion in book buying, a huge explosion of media interest in books. So what are the libraries' role in that? To me their role in encouraging reading is about much more than lending books, it is about active intervention at key life stages in a way that connects to policy and helps build the kind of society that we want. So it may be it is work with socially excluded young people who have come out of school unable to read, that the library plays a profound role in putting the bit of the jigsaw back in place, but the worth of that work may not express itself in terms of book issues. So I think there does need to be a debate about them championing reading and addressing some of our fundamental social problems, literacy not least amongst them. And that their role in that is understood and valued by the formal education sector as injecting critical informal learning into the system.

  Q15  Chairman: Could I just interrupt you at that point, Derek? What you have just said, in my view, raises an absolutely fundamental question, namely, what are libraries for?

  Ms McKearney: I hope you agree with me!

  Q16  Chairman: I was brought up in a bygone era where libraries existed to have books which people borrowed and they borrowed those books to a very considerable extent for pleasure but also to get some information. On the whole, if people wanted information they went to the reference library as I went to Leeds Reference Library when I was at school. So I think it is a fundamental question, is it not, what are libraries for? If you will forgive me for going on a bit longer, one of my great pleasures, in travelling to this building on the tube in the morning, is to see people sitting in their seats on the tubes reading books. I think it is absolutely fantastic. All kinds of books. I may be old-fashioned—I probably am, but I accept that we live in a different world in that there is online communication, that people want information—but when you look at the response, for example, to the BBC's Big Read, this ethos that it is a good thing for people to read books for pleasure it seems to me is being lost partly because of the distractions (which I do not criticise) of the Internet, but also partly because of the economic privations to which local authorities have been subjected and the ethos that was imbued in local authorities of "Do not do it if it does not make a profit", which has led, for example, to my local authorities closing down the swimming pools, and has affected the whole approach to what has been one of the greatest inventions of a modern era, namely, libraries out of which you take books.

  Ms McKearney: I am so glad that you said about reading for pleasure because for me that is the absolutely critical bit of the jigsaw that libraries can add in. The OECD research shows that if children like reading and do it recreationally it is a more important lever for social change than their family background. Libraries are really getting into this in a very big way—active intervention to help children actually enjoy reading. The Adult Basic Skills Unit at DfES is beginning to look at reading for pleasure as a critical factor in Skills for Life Strategy and libraries' role in that. But libraries' role around that area has not been shaped or articulated very clearly yet, which comes back to Heather's point about what are we here for, what are we being measured by?

  Mr Holden: I quite agree and it is a figure I use in the book I wrote about creative reading, about this importance of enjoyment and pleasure in reading. I think one of the things is that the more people read the better readers they become, and it is very important for people to become better readers. Literacy simply is not enough these days, it has to be about how well you can read not just whether you can read, because people have to exercise their creative skills and apply knowledge in order to enjoy their lives more and create economic value. It seems to me that a lot of the programmes that Miranda is involved with and others that some of the best public libraries are pursuing are having a really profound effect on reading levels in that way. I agree with you entirely that it is great to see people reading on the tube. The difference these days is that a lot more of them will have bought the books and so what, I say?

  Ms Wills: Could I respond to the point that you started off making because I very much recognise the picture you painted of some of the areas in Kent, and I know some of those areas anyway. In Tower Hamlets five or six years ago we had buildings that were crumbling, open very strange, intermittent hours, a service that had not been invested in and, not surprisingly, nobody was using it. But the Council recognised that the money that it was spending on that service could be being used so much better, and asked how shall we need to do things radically differently to make people use our services? That has led to a radical turnaround, a strong concentration on the provision of library services and adult learning services in high quality environments, so that the people want to go and spend time there; open long hours during the week at the times that the people want them, based on market research with people telling us what they wanted to see; significant investment in books, making sure that we have the books that people want to see on the shelves. By doing that, which takes capital investment, which has included revenue investment by the local council—but our unit costs have gone way down because we have increased footfall into the buildings by more than three times the numbers who came into the new facilities that each of our new Idea Stores have replaced—book issues have gone up significantly, class enrolments into adult education have gone up significantly. There is another way of doing it.

  Derek Wyatt: The dilemma I have is that, like the Chairman, I have always thought that libraries were the corner shop university, but I am now not always certain what they are. I think adding the computer section to the library, for which we were all evangelists, has confused us further. In a sense, when you look at what a community would need, it would want a really good central public library in each of your towns and versions of that in your villages if you could have it—or minor towns or small towns. But then you look at the schools and their libraries are shocking. They were the Cinderella bits of the 70s and 80s and so you have two sections in the community disconnecting, yet you have also got both sections of those which has computing space. Then you have UK online centres in your village halls and in your pubs, which do not connect to the library, and it seems to me that we disaggregated, by accident, without really thinking up here, "Look, strategically what we want"—if I could put it crudely—"is probably the BBC learning hub with the Open University," and that if we could ask the BBC to brand libraries and take over that role as a public service, instead of it being the local authority, we would then be able to say, "Look, we are going to put in a hub, we are going to put this amount of space in, we are going to connect the libraries in each of the schools and village halls and everywhere together." If we do not we are going to have this debate with you every five years and it will not go anywhere. The other thing that is coming underneath is that there is a disconnect between people and what we do here, and, if you like, we want a "Gov Is Us" store. People want to know what housing benefit is. There is nowhere to go to touch government anywhere. You used to go to the library because there were reference sections but they have cut those, and there are no reference sections anymore. You all say, "It is online," but people who cannot read cannot go online, and it is harder and harder to fill in forms and so on. It seems to me that there is a dilemma—I am making a speech here—about what it is we want in the community, and reading is only an element of that now. In my library I doubt if we have the top 100 books in this year—there are one or two of them in—in fiction and non-fiction. So what is the point? If you cannot get the best sellers what is the point of going? I am sorry about the speech, but I would like to understand whether you feel that strategically the Government has not really understood the changes over the last five years?

  Q17  Chairman: Not only the Government—if I could add to that—but also the local authorities, local authorities understanding what their responsibilities are and accepting their responsibilities.

  Mr Holden: I think part of the problem is a concentration on the product—is it books, is it IT, is it X, is it Y, when we should be thinking more what is the public need, what is the public value that we are trying to generate out of this? That might make libraries configure themselves differently in different places. It might mean that they have partnerships with different sorts of people in different places which provide all the elements you were just talking about. I know of libraries that have Citizens' Advice Bureaus in them—some do, some do not. I know of others where there are employment services inside of them, and that is perfectly proper in some places and unnecessary for others I suspect. So I think we ought to think about them, not in terms of the physicality of what is there and now being the definition, but the role that they play in society being their definition.

  Q18  Derek Wyatt: Rosemary mentioned this—and we raised this before and we raise it all the time—the hours. If you do not have books at home, which lots of families do not, and you do not have computing space, and you shut at five, you do not run homework clubs like football teams do and rugby teams do, which is a shame because the library is the perfect place for homework clubs. So you do not open at the weekends after five o'clock, you are not open on Sunday when kids do their homework, and so on—and you know all this—is there a short-term fix where libraries could be told not to open until 12 o'clock, so that they stayed open until nine o'clock? How do we get them open when kids need them most?

  Mr Coates: Every retailer in the country in the last 20 years has learnt how you do that; you just reorganise your staff time. Many people prefer to work in the evenings, they prefer to work weekends, and you just build up a rota of people who work the times that it suits them. But the libraries have resisted.

  Q19  Derek Wyatt: Who has done that?

  Mr Coates: Every retailer in the country.


14   "Book Date" is the name of the agency that provides standard bibliographic data to the publishing industry. They were also formerly "British Books in Print". The Service is not universal and electronic. Back


 
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