Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 40)



  Q20  Derek Wyatt: No, which local authority library has done that?

  Mr Coates: None.

  Ms Wills: Ours!

  Q21  Derek Wyatt: One!

  Mr Coates: I do beg your pardon. You should go and see the Idea Store in Bow. What Heather has done there is absolutely fantastic and it is not just what she has done, if I can pay tribute to her, but the energy that she and her colleagues have put into that operation is the management that is missing everywhere else in the country. That is the solution to the problem. She has been so brave, what she has gone through with her council—and she gives credit to the councillors for doing what she has done. One has to pay public tribute to what they have achieved in Bow. It is marvellous.

  Q22  Derek Wyatt: It is seriously that easy, and there is only one authority—you—that has done this?

  Ms Wills: I would not say we were the only ones. There have been authorities who have moved to Sunday opening, but it is a challenge, there is no question about it. Any change is challenging. You need a clear vision of where you are trying to end up and you need to take people along with you and find a different way of doing it. Sometimes that is challenging within the service and sometimes it is challenging outside the service. Every local authority has its own set of circumstances but there is proof that it can be done, certainly.

  Q23  Derek Wyatt: So if we had an exemplar of best practice, would that help?

  Mr Coates: Actually Westminster Council were boasting just recently that they have increased their opening hours quite dramatically and that it has had a fantastic effect on the number of people using it and the evening class students and so on. It is the opening hours and then having in stock the evening class books. You go into your libraries in the evening and people are starting Spanish for their evening class or archaeology for beginners—you know the things that everybody does in Floodlight, in September of the year. Go in the library and you will not find any of those books. The library will be shut anyhow, but they have not bought anything in September. The stock is the key really, and the other key ingredient is opening.

  Q24  Alan Keen: We have rightly started with basics and it is proved that that is where it should start—no question about that. In my own local authority, Hounslow—and I represent the western half of that—they have hived off leisure services, including libraries, to an arm's length organisation to take advantage of being able to apply for grants and benefit on the VAT side. Our local authority, like so many others, the government has tried to make them more efficient by reducing the revenue support grant and so it has made it very, very tough for the local authorities. To be devil's advocate, supposing we shut the libraries altogether? There is a vast amount of them; there are billions of pounds worth of property involved and masses of revenue spent every year. If we shut them altogether what would we actually lose? How many adults, for instance, use the libraries? What would we lose if we shut them altogether and where would we have to replace the stuff that we lost? What would be the biggest loss if we closed the libraries completely?

  Ms Wills: I am sure we could all give a very long list. I would have at the top of my list a contribution to "life long learning" in its widest sense, from the support to under-fives, the ages at which they start their learning and being introduced to books, to classes coming in and becoming aware and learning the range of services that are available, to support for people as, has been said, for adult evening classes. In Tower Hamlets particularly, where people have been very strongly turned off, in many cases, the formal learning experience over many, many years, access to a learning environment and the resources to support that in an informal, non-threatening space, and an environment in which it is pleasant to spend time, is absolutely crucial in terms of increasing people's skills. So you would actually find a very significant effect over every level of the skills and the education and training spectrum. I am sure other colleagues would have issues that would be brought to bear.

  Q25  Alan Keen: We would lose that in Tower Hamlets—and Tim has been praising you for what you would produce there—but would we lose that in 95% of other local authorities, Tim, or would that not be there to lose?

  Mr Coates: It is still true to say, as people do, that even now the library services are hugely popular. It is popular in the sense that I think it is about 95% of the people will tell you that it is a wonderful thing and should be good. But even now there are as many books borrowed from libraries as there are books sold in the country. My grumble is that only 15 years ago it was actually twice as many books were borrowed and that has been the collapse, but even now you have the order of 300 million books a year are borrowed from libraries. So it is a fantastically popular service, particularly for children and families with small children. They do   an enormously important job in the local community. You mentioned the aspect of how important they are to smaller local communities; they do a job that no other retailer does, for example. I suppose the nearest thing is the local pub, but the library is the serious alternative to a pub, if only it were open.

  Mr Holden: For me there are two really big things. One is that libraries are probably the most trusted places that there are, places of politeness and civility, and there is not enough of that around. So I think that is something that you would lose. Another thing that you would lose is that, for kids like me who had no books in the house, there would be no access to books. There are still a lot of people who cannot afford books and they need libraries.

  Ms McKearney: These guys have said it all really. Libraries are a mark of civilised society, are they not? They embody a set of values as well as all those services—and you have covered all the reading bits. They mean something and a set of values are attached to that shared civic space, which I think would be a huge loss.

  Q26  Alan Keen: I agree with you. It was simply a question of course. Tim has mentioned a lack of national co-ordination—and I do not want to waste time in asking you to give the same answers as you gave before—but if you could write our report what would be the main thing you would put in that? I see that it is outstandingly necessary to get some sort of national co-ordination, an organisation with real teeth, not to dominate the local libraries but to help them.

  Mr Coates: I have tried to write it in my memorandum; I have tried to put exactly what I thought you should say really, which is cheeky. We do not want to change the structure. I believe that the local council element is really essential. You will only give good service to local communities if there is a political cycle where the local person can go to the local council and say, "My library should be open at 9 o'clock." You will never get that if it all becomes a national operation, I do not think. Even the local councils think it is too big in some instances, that it wants breaking down a bit into   smaller operations. So I think the local management thing is terribly important. But what they do need is so much more help and support in contrast to what they do get. Again, excuse me for being critical, but if you look at the DCMS standards that they put out last week, just read the language; it says, "You will by next Thursday have 5,000 visitors a week." It is not in the language of saying, "We understand you have a problem, these are the things that might help you sort it out, this is the way you might approach your budget, we will come and talk to you." It is given out as an imperial edict as to what needs to be done. The last lot of standards did not work and nor will this lot. The whole management style is wrong.

  Q27  Alan Keen: Can I put one last point to you, and you may be giving some solutions to it. Just to illustrate one of the problems, a few years ago—before 1997—Hounslow Council wanted to save money and they were talking about the rumours that the library hours were going to be reduced. So there was a series of meetings throughout the borough. I attended one meeting in Feltham, my own constituency, with about 25 people in the scout hut. Another centre on an estate still in my constituency delivered eight people at a public meeting. The other meeting I attended in Chiswick, which is outside my constituency—and it was before my wife was elected so I dared go down that meeting—and if I ask you to guess the figures you will obviously guess, and 300 people were there and they could not all get in the room. So the people in Feltham were not even aware of what they would be losing if there were cuts, but the people in Chiswick were very, very aware. You can probably say the reason my wife was not elected in '92 but she was in '97 was that it was a harder seat to win and therefore it was more middle class and the middle class did not move over to vote labour en masse until '97. So how do we serve people of Feltham who do not even see the value of libraries? It is not their fault, but how do we get over that? Tower Hamlets is a great example, is it not?

  Ms Wills: If I can respond very quickly to that? We very much recognise that if we had increased our opening hours, produced wonderful buildings, even put them on the High Street and put all these great books in them, and it still had "Library" on the door and it looked to the outside world the same, we probably would not have achieved the significant results that we have. What we have done is very directly and deliberately gone out to learn from retail about modern branding techniques, modern marketing and communication techniques, to go out there and to communicate to people, and to say, "You may have had all those perceptions in the past but that is not what we are about; we are about providing modern, accessible, relevant services which are fun and enjoyable and places where you want to be." People come into our building because they think, "What is this? This looks interesting, this looks like a nice place to be. Oh, is it a library? Oh, right." That is great. I do not care if they do not know what they are coming into, but the point is they come over the threshold because it is welcoming, it is accessible, bright and colourful, and then they come and use the services.

  Alan Keen: I had better stop there, Chairman, because we could go on and on.

  Q28  Mr Doran: I am interested in the political dimension of all of this because you are all coming from different perspectives, but at the end of the day you are saying the same thing. If I could summarise my interpretation of what you are saying, it is that there is no co-ordinated government approach and when you have a mixture of government plus the endless numbers of local authorities we have in the country, then you are left with what can be best described as a patchwork of provision. How do you deal with that? One of the things that I am conscious of, as a politician, is who is lobbying me? I do not think I have ever been lobbied by anyone about the quality of libraries in this country, or even in my own constituency, which is Aberdeen, in the North of Scotland, where we have a fairly good provision of libraries and a Presbyterian ethos of what libraries are for, but they are pretty dull places? Who are the advocates, who are the people who are going to come and sell this to us as politicians?

  Mr Holden: I hope us to a certain degree! You are right, I think there is a gap; that that advocacy at local, regional and national level is not well developed and is not developed enough. I just do not hear those voices either.

  Q29  Mr Doran: But where are they going to come from?

  Mr Coates: From a myriad of agencies. If you look at Framework for the Future or the Action Plan document that comes after it, there is a list of stakeholders for libraries and then we have all kinds of initials—CILIP and SCL and all the rest of it. None of those lists, incidentally, includes the general public, who are not only the stakeholders who pay but also the stakeholders who use the library service. If you look down that list there are so many agencies, but all they ever ask for is more money. They do not say, "We could do this, we could do that, this is what we are here to do," all they ever say is—and I have seen a statement from CILIP yesterday, who is the main agency—saying, "The problem is we just need more money," and it is so disappointing because it is within their hands; they have tremendous ability to influence how local authorities operate their service and they do not. They do not act with responsibility; they act with self-interest. I am an advocate and it is very dispiriting to find the way senior people respond, to be truthful.

  Q30  Mr Doran: Within the local authority networks, if local authorities were arguing for more money, for example, for libraries then we would be very well aware of it, but we are not. I am interested how you managed to get your Idea Store off the ground, just to sell the concept, because that must have been difficult and there must have been money involved in that and finding the correct property. There was a complete sea change in ideas; how did you manage that?

  Ms Wills: It was about having a vision and it was about recognising the need for change and recognising the need for radical change. When the council adopted the strategy to move from its existing libraries and Adult Education Centres network to a network of seven Idea Stores it was about saying, "These things are going to change radically," recognising that capital investment would be needed, and that included going outside and looking for external investment and external funding to a very great extent, but was also upfront about recognising that increased investment in longer opening hours and an improved book stock would be there from the beginning, and recognising that if you are opening these buildings longer then they need more maintenance and more investment than was there before. So what we are doing is working more efficiently by combining two services, the Adult Education Service and the library service, achieving economies of scale there and driving unit costs down significantly. The crucial thing was that the council recognised the contribution that these Idea Stores could make to the learning agenda, to the regeneration and the social inclusion agenda in an extremely diverse borough and one that scores regularly on the indices of deprivation.

  Q31  Mr Doran: When did the light flash on? How did you present it to them?

  Ms Wills: It was presented as a strategy borne out of significant market research. Officers went out and engaged high quality market research, a programme went out—

  Q32  Mr Doran: How did you persuade them to spend that money?

  Ms Wills: As Tim suggested, if there is a determination money can be found to do quality market research to start off the process and it was the initiative of a few key individuals to say, "We have to do things differently but we need quality information to inform us as to how we should do things differently." One in 10 households in the borough responded one way or another to say, "This is what we want with our new service," and then it was up to officers to go away and say, "Right, this is how we do it, can we have your permission, members, for this new vision?—Yes—Great, now we will go out and raise the money."

  Q33  Mr Doran: You have the project there, delivered the service being enjoyed and used by the community. Are other libraries or other authorities interested? Are you getting a lot of visitors, are you spending a lot of time selling this idea to other people?

  Ms Wills: A huge amount of interest in the UK and internationally, I have to say. There are many other authorities who are looking at it or looking at angles of it. There are examples in other places, for example the Discovery Centres in Kent and Hampshire; there are new library buildings being built that are learning from elements of that. Nobody is doing the whole package of what we are doing, but certainly it has a huge amount of interest and people are looking to learn the lessons.

  Q34  Mr Doran: I am taking a step at a time. So who is now selling this idea to ODPM and DCMS that this is a road down which the libraries should go?

  Ms Wills: The Idea Store strategy does appear as one of the exemplars of best practice in the Framework for the Future document by DCMS. So we have had constructive dialogues with DCMS since the very early stages of the strategy. The trick for us is to do that and have dialogue with DfES around how we can make people aware of the contribution we can make to the learning agenda and ODPM particularly around the regeneration agenda, and social inclusion agenda we are looking at the Cabinet Office. It is how many angles can we talk to and there is a real difficulty of getting out of one silo and into the next because libraries are one of the few truly joined up services that hit so many agendas, but when we try to talk upwards it is very difficult to get people to recognise them.

  Q35  Mr Doran: It would make your job much easier if government could pull all these services together and give you a one-stop shop?

  Ms Wills: Yes.

  Q36  Mr Doran: Presumably the DWP would be in there as well? Are they part of the package?

  Ms Wills: We have a very good relationship locally with Job Centre Plus and they provide advice and service in the stores, yes.

  Q37  Chairman: A couple of questions relating to the place of libraries and the administration of libraries. Libraries can occupy a great symbolic place in urban life as well as in rural life. For example, if you have seen the disaster move The Day After Tomorrow, the great climax is in the New York Public Library, and that is because everybody, certainly in the States, knows about the New York Public Library. That being so, is one of the problems for libraries that because of the expectations of them they are spreading themselves too thin? Derek talked, for example, about people's need to know about their housing benefit and various things like that, and there is no doubt that people do need to know about it. But with the establishment of government funding online centres in many places—I have already, I am happy to say, several in my own constituency—all with very great computer facilities in the schools, which perhaps ought to be opened up to the general public out of school hours, would that kind of access to information not be better done in a different way so that libraries can concentrate more, with their limited funding, on their core activities? Again, there is a problem there, is there not? When I was a teenager I went to Sheepscar Library in Leeds, or if I needed a bigger collection I went to the Central Library in Leeds, and basically what they had were great swathes of books, a newspaper room which in those days was mainly used by unemployed people to keep warm and, in the case of the Central Library, a Reference Library. The ethos then grew up that they had to do other things. You had a record library, and now of course we have spread to CDs, videos, DVDs, the lot. Ought there to be some kind of definition of what a library should adhere to so that librarians, many of whom are brilliant, can concentrate on the job which libraries were originally founded to do, without too stringent limits? They do wonderful things. For example, Gorton Library in my constituency has, in the past at any rate, made a practice during the Booker period of having the Booker shortlist available in a special section so that people can read them. So the first question I would like to ask you is about the definition of library and whether there ought to be some way of defining what a library does so that with their limited funds they do not spread themselves too thinly?

  Ms McKearney: Absolutely. For me, coming from a marketing background, part of the problem has been about trying to do all things for all people, and if there were a clearer definition of particular outcomes for particular audiences, and libraries' role in achieving that outcome were clearly defined and expected, then you could be much clearer with the public about what they could expect from their library. One of the things that they could expect is if they were a parent their child would be supported in early years' language development and reading when they were under five, and then supported around the reading for pleasure elements when schools were shut. That would be a very powerful role for libraries to be playing, and this kind of thinking—the jargon is "national offer"—is very much around at the moment in the planning systems around the Framework for the Future. What is it that libraries can uniquely offer to the nation that we need to create the kind of society that we need that nobody else can? And to which groups of people? Should that be the definition of what their main purpose is?

  Mr Holden: For me the definition does not come from us or anyone else, really, stating what libraries ought to do; it comes more from what the public values in libraries. Libraries are not just physical spaces they are psychological spaces and if someone from the public feels comfortable engaging with the Employment Service in a library but not in a Job Centre then that is a reason to have things in the library which other libraries might not have. Just as in Tim's world of bookselling; booksellers are not in the business of selling coffee but they do it because that is what their customers want. We have to think in those kinds of terms in defining what a library does.

  Mr Coates: A coffee shop does not make a poor bookshop into a better bookshop.

  Mr Holden: It is the experience of the person who is—

  Mr Coates: I do rather agree with what the Chairman said. You do not try to make a bad bookshop into a good one by putting a coffee shop in it. May I read from my submission? I think if we are going to correct the problem in libraries, which is very, very serious, we have really to understand that we have made some mistakes and that there are real problems. "There has been a fundamental error of approach over the past 20 years wherein the assumption has been made that in order to increase their appeal and use, libraries should diversify. The effect of this has been to reduce the quality of reading material and information on offer and, consequently, the reputation of the service to the public, particularly to new generations of readers. Greengrocers do not improve or modernise by selling ice cream just because they perceive that is what children like to eat. The service should have modernised . . . not diversified". Modernisation means improving the ranges and the collections of books that are available to the public; it means better access to information, which is why computers are an important part—I think that is the reason they are there, it is not so that people can play games on them—more agreeable buildings (which, obviously, is right as everybody in the country knows—retailers and restaurants have improved in the last 20 years), more up-to-date service and behaviour by the library staff towards people, and longer opening hours. It does not mean changing the fundamental and core service that a library used to offer and still should. You are not out-of-date, sir. What you are saying should still be exactly the reason why a library is so useful to every little community in which it stands or every big city. The Manchester Central Library is a most fantastic place. However, the range of books in there is awful—it is just absolutely, plain dreadful. They are all old, they are tatty and it has got nothing of the last three years currently. I was there the other day and Waterstones opened down the road the most fantastic shop, and it just contrasted the two things. In one place the guy really believed in what he was doing and would not have allowed himself to be distracted even for sales of wrapping paper, I should not think, but in the library they would have sold anything just to kind of make an excuse to get someone through the door, it felt like. There is a wonderful collection of literature upstairs still, thank God; let us hope they do not take that away. The policy of diversification has been a catastrophe for libraries, and I believe we have got to recognise that and pull it back.

  Mr Holden: I think there is a difference with flashy add-ons that have no meaning to people. I agree with Tim totally, you do not make a bad bookshop into a good bookshop by putting a coffee shop there but if you find that is what your customers want and respond to and that is the only place they can go, then there is a reason for it being there because you are providing something of value.

  Chairman: My other question is ministerial responsibility. The last time we conducted an inquiry we found that there was a real problem about where the locus on ministerial responsibility was. Clearly, we are conducting this inquiry because "Books R Us", and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, clearly, has a role. However, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has a role because public libraries are run by local authorities (if we are dealing with income, certainly, they are run by local authorities); the Department for Education and Skills, obviously, has a very important role because books are educational too, and reading Harry Potter is education just as much as anything else. It is always difficult and I understand the problems the Prime Minister has in terms of structure of government, because we found this in terms of the media, for example, and broadcasting—the split between the Department of Trade of Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Do you think that there might be, as it were, a definition from which we might consider recommending one of those three departments as the department with lead responsibility for libraries, so that everybody knows where they are?

  Rosemary McKenna: You will also get local authorities who shift libraries between education and leisure services as the authority changes.

  Q38  Chairman: And, also, of course, with devolution.

  Ms Wills: I would just say that I think whichever one you put it into you would still have the issue of there being issues in the other departments and needing to break out of those silos and join up.

  Mr Coates: I agree with that but I would caution against this thing about regionalisation. There is already enough confusion. Let us just say it stays with the DCMS. They have to make clear that they are not responsible for running libraries; they have to say "It is not our job; our job is to help you and work out what help you need", but not to pretend they are running it. Then it just completely falls between two stools. The MLA, which we have not talked about today, should be filling a lot of the roles we have been talking—about advocacy and so on—but just is not. To be honest, it just has not got the stature or the seniority and it has not realised its role is to help local authorities, I do not think. I think it keeps putting out statements about what shall be done. You have not heard Heather talk about what the MLA has done for her because they do not. Therefore, do not waste money on regional MLAs. We have just opened about six offices round the country but it is just another waste of money. MLAs are pretty near a waste of money, in my view, but what it needs is somebody acting with authority on behalf of the Minister, the Audit Commission and the ODPM as a sort of little board, operating to sort this problem out urgently and get rid of all the wretched agencies that are all over the place.

  Q39  Rosemary McKenna: You mentioned the MLA and I was the chair in Scotland of the Libraries Information Council. We used to try and   improve the situation. We persuaded the Government to give us money for pilot funding for grants for local authorities which they bid for. Does that not happen down here? They came to us with a project and if we thought it was good we grant-aided it and then used it as best practice to spread throughout Scotland, and it worked tremendously.

  Ms McKearney: When we are talking to DfES about starting an innovation fund to encourage collaboration between school and public libraries, which is flimsy, that would be really exciting, I think. My take on it is where would they have the most political clout?

  Q40  Rosemary McKenna: Local authorities have to compete for a grant, and on the basis of this is something that will really develop the service, you get really exciting bids coming in from the local authorities and it has paid tremendous dividends. One of the things that happened in my constituency was we made a bid with the local authority to put IT into sheltered housing complexes and it was the library service which ran it, and it is incredibly successful. The silver surfers, I think, were the first ones to be called that. That is just one example of the kind of thing that local authorities or library services can do, given a bit of incentive. There is nothing like that?

  Mr Coates: There are tiny, little pockets. You guys will know better, but you hear of little projects where there is a little charitable fund or something, but nothing of any substance that would change a local authority's way of working.

  Chairman: It is an interesting question whether, if they did not exist, we would actually found them today. They were a huge centre of life, were they not? Levenshulme Library, in my constituency, for example, is a Carnegie Library; it is a public library now but it has got a Carnegie foundation stone. Just to wind up, those of you who know the musical The Music Man know that one of the best songs in it is Marian the Librarian. Thank you very much. That was a very stimulating run round the course.

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