Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Third Report


6  Accessibility

Opening hours

93. Libraries should be open when people want to use them. When questioned on this issue in 2003, the Secretary of State told us: "I share your frustration at this…Of course libraries should be open on Sundays. Of course they should be open in the evenings. In some parts of the country we should look to 24-hour libraries where kids who would otherwise be getting up to no good out on the streets can at least go and sit at the computers and so forth."[113] Tessa Jowell explained that "the problem is funding" and, in terms of achieving progress, "this is an area where my department has the responsibility for setting national library standards, but the implementation of [those] standards is a matter for local authorities."[114] The Secretary of State also cited the overall policy of reducing the number of specific obligations on local government which we have discussed above.

94. Opening hours are the subject of a Public Library Service Standard (PLSS). PLSS 2 currently advocates that the aggregate scheduled opening hours per 1,000 population for all libraries is 128 hours. However, this standard is too blunt to encourage libraries to open their doors when they are wanted; after work or throughout the weekend. In addition the formulation of the standard seems completely opaque when considered against Lord McIntosh's stated aim of "informing library users what they have a right to expect, and how well their own service is performing compared to others." There is evidence that suggests the standard has achieved some extension of opening hours overall.[115] As the LGA said: "There appears to have been a fairly widespread extension of opening hours" but the Association went on to say that: "in many areas this has been confined to the main libraries in an area with only a significant minority of [library authorities] extending opening in most of their libraries."[116]

95. We believe that a clearer standard for opening hours should be put in place to fulfil the Minister's stated objective of informing users. We recommend that this be augmented by a challenging target explicitly aimed at encouraging libraries to open outside normal office, and particularly school, hours and at weekends; subject to local demands.

96. We recognise the challenges inherent in such a development; in terms of demands on staff and on service resources. However, many other organisations have changed their culture and have achieved increased opening hours with flexible working patterns which actually allow staff to balance more effectively home—and work—life. We expect that, in a majority of residential areas, local communities would prefer extended opening hours but we recommend that local library authorities make it a priority to ascertain the views of both their existing users and the wider community in this area and act accordingly.

The People's Network

97. The People's Network is a lottery-funded programme which was established to provide ICT learning facilities in all UK libraries and to train library staff in ICT skills. The project was funded with £120 million from the New Opportunities Fund and is managed by MLA. £2.5 million was also donated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to MLA in 1999 for the provision of information technology learning centres in public libraries.[117] The implementation and roll-out was timed to coincide with the completion of the People's Network.[118] Through the People's Network all public libraries now provide access to the internet and online services with trained library staff on hand to assist.[119]

98. The People's Network has received significant plaudits on its success in meeting the Government's target for achieving universal internet access in the UK. The Network has also been credited with reversing the decline in library visits[120] as well as broadening the 'user base'.[121] We applaud its introduction as a way of giving as many people as possible the opportunity to use the internet and e-mail and see what all the fuss is about. This introduction to ICT will close the technological illiteracy gap for some by giving people everywhere the chance to learn to use this technological tool which has fast become so fundamental in the apparatus of learning and communication.

99. We heard one or two voices of dissent that drew our attention to the costs of implementing the Network; the potential for its use to be limited, in practice, to the playing of games and swapping of gossip by young people unsupervised by adults; and the potential disruption of traditional library activities by the introduction of computers.[122] There was an overwhelming majority of opinion, however, backed up by evaluation of the Network, that the initiative was a success and has broadened the base of users in a majority of libraries. There was also a majority amongst our witnesses, including the Government's own advisory panel, that believed that the service should be provided free at the point of use and that this should be the subject of a national library standard.

100. We note that the following library authorities have elected to impose a charge for this service:

Table 11:
AuthorityPeriod of free use
BarnetFirst 30 minutes free
BuckinghamshireNot known
CambridgeshireNot known
CamdenFirst hour free
CheshireFirst hour free
CornwallNot known
CumbriaNot known
DevonNot known
EnfieldFirst 30 minutes free
Isles of ScillyNot known
LutonFirst 35 minutes free
Milton KeynesFirst 30 minutes free
NorthamptonshireFirst 20 minutes free
North East LincolnshireFirst 30 minutes free
PeterboroughNot known
RutlandFirst 30 minutes free
TamesideFirst hour free

101. We also understand that Lancashire and Trafford will charge from 2005.[123] Ministers from DCMS and ODPM pointed out that the matter was one for local authority discretion and that there was currently no evidence that, where relatively low charges were imposed, significant reductions in demand for the service occurred. Mr Nick Raynsford, Minister of State at ODPM, pointed out that the Audit Commission was working on new user-focused measures for the revised Comprehensive Performance Assessment system and that these would soon reveal where there was substantial disquiet amongst library users.

102. We believe that charging for the People's Network contravenes at least the spirit of the 1964 Act which permits libraries to impose fees only "where facilities made available to any person by a library authority go beyond those ordinarily provided by the authority as part of the library service."[124] We believe that the provision of the People's Network in all public libraries, coupled with the Government's target for universal access to the internet, suggests strongly that the service now falls within the statutory definition of a facility "ordinarily provided by the authority as part of the library service" and charges should not be imposed. Given evidence we received on the variations in the charges that libraries do impose, we further recommend that, where charging for services wrongly persists, the case for an applicable national standard be reviewed.

103. Now that the investment has been made in such a valuable commodity as the People's Network, it must be maintained. We have no evidence that DCMS has properly considered the issues of maintenance and repair of the People's Network. There seems, at best, an uneven pattern of preparation among local authorities as to how the service can be funded in the future.[125] We recommend DCMS, ODPM, MLA and local authorities review plans and budgets for the costs of maintenance and upgrading of the system with a view to exercising the considerable purchasing power of the combined sector.

104. We recommend that the NAO undertakes a study of the People's Network to assess the value for money secured by its procurement policy. Furthermore, the NAO should, perhaps in cooperation with the Audit Commission, identify whether savings can be made in the future along the lines suggested above.

Access and Accessibility for people with disabilities

Physical access

105. In common with many other older public buildings, libraries were not always built with easy physical access for the elderly, the infirm or wheelchair-users. An MLA survey on access for people with disabilities (covering museums and archives as well as libraries) in 2001, showed that high performance in access for those with disabilities resulted from a planned approach involving such elements as: a formal access plan for people with disabilities; an access audit; and the provision of relevant training for staff.

106. The MLA stated that there is room for many organisations to strengthen their commitment to a planned approach to providing for better access to their facilities and services. The MLA survey, based on a sample of 430 institutions, showed that:

107. Evidence from Share the Vision—a partnership of the main voluntary sector organisations which produce and loan alternative format reading materials for visually impaired people and the main UK organisation of public library bodies—however, pointed out that the DCMS's Appraisal of Annual Library Plans 2002: report on key issues stated that only 30% of authorities had responded "at least satisfactorily" to the previous requirement for "local targets for service to people with disabilities".[126]

108. The entire burden of improvement of access to libraries and the facilities therein for people with disabilities and those with visual impairment cannot be left to charity. Surveys, for example, show that people actually read more after suffering sight impairment than they had done before.[127] Provision of access to libraries for people with disabilities should be a high priority for local authorities and this requires a co-ordinated policy. We recommend that such a policy is drawn up following discussion with the Disability Rights Commission.

Accessibility of material

109. Libraries exist to provide access to material to the public. This must include those parts of the public who are visually impaired. Share the Vision was "shocked" that Framework for the Future; "the Government's 10-year vision for public libraries did not even mention disabled people despite the Government's own social inclusion policies; the Committee's specific recommendations in 2000 and the DCMS's response."[128] We welcome the lobbying undertaken by Share the Vision to ensure that these omissions were to some extent rectified by consultation and the inclusion in the Framework Action Plan of:

  • plans to sustain the Revealweb database;
  • updating and expansion of the Best Practice Manual to cover other disabilities;
  • provisions for further staff training; and
  • a feasibility study into the potential for publishers to provide electronic files to bona fide agencies in order to allow new publications to be produced simultaneously in print and alternative formats for people with visual disabilities.

110. Revealweb is an important resource which serves as a national database of materials in accessible formats.[129] This is a multi-functional, state of the art, web-based, freely accessible service which is the cornerstone of an integrated network of services for visually disabled people and is part funded by MLA.[130] Evidence from the National Library for the Blind[131] and Share the Vision[132] raised concerns over the future of the service as funding is only guaranteed up to March 2006. We recommend that secure funding is made available for the maintenance and development of Revealweb over the longer term.

111. Research cited by Share the Vision, shortly to be published, shows that only 4.6% of titles published in the UK ever become available in formats accessible to people with disabilities.[133] We recommend that DCMS takes a lead within Government in securing funding to support the production of a much greater range of material in alternative formats which are accessible to people with disabilities. We believe that the provision of material in such formats should be the subject of a national standard.


113   2003-04, HC 74, Q 39 Back

114   Ibid Back

115   For example Ev 66; Ev 30;and Ev 55 Q 102 Back

116   Ev 71 Back

117   www.gatesfoundation.org Back

118   Ibid Back

119   DCMS website Back

120   For example, Ev 29 Back

121   Ibid Back

122   Ev 226 -229 and Ev 4 Back

123   Ev 84  Back

124   Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, Section 8 (5) Back

125   Ev 14, Q9 Heather Wills: "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: "I do not think many authorities have a full answer at the moment to how that [the People's Network] is going to be sustained." Back

126   Ev 234 Back

127   Ev 218 Back

128   Ev 234 Back

129   Ev 220, Ev 234 Back

130   Ev 234 Back

131   Ev 220 Back

132   Ev 234 Back

133   Ev 235 Back


 
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