Library closures

Written evidence submitted by Martyn Everett (LIB 132)

 

Biography and experience

 

Chairman of Saffron Walden Town Library Society; Committee member of the National Committee of the Association of Independent Libraries, in which capacity I organised a one-day conference on the ‘Future of Libraries in the Digital Age’ held at the Royal Astronomical Society, London, in November 2010.

I have worked in Libraries for over 30 years, for the majority of that time, in the public sector. I have also worked extensively in private industry (not as a librarian) in electronics, printing, banking and journalism. I was for several years Sub-Librarian at Emmanuel College, but most of my career in Libraries was with Essex County Council Libraries, where at various times I have had area responsibilities for Information Services, Marketing, Local History, Lifelong Learning (including open learning and special learning needs), liaison with the local business community. I was involved with the establishment and running of a busy Victorian Studies Centre, development of a county-wide conservation policy, and staff training.

Although I left Essex Libraries in 2005, I have continued to be actively involved with the organisation and management of the historic Town Library in Saffron Walden, of which Essex County Council is the Trustee. Formerly the Library of the Literary & Scientific Institution, the Town Library’s holdings are comprised of about 20,000 volumes ranging from an early missal (dated c1350) and early illuminated manuscripts, to many hundreds of Victorian and Edwardian novels. In addition the Library holds some 10,000 volumes published since 1970, primarily critical studies related to the original collection. I have for many years organised a wide-ranging and well-attended programme of lectures and day-schools promoting the Library, and based on its collections. We have working connections with both Cambridge University, and Anglia Ruskin University, and are currently taking the first steps towards digitising some parts of our collections.

I am also a published author, and use the public library system weekly.

Exploration of key areas that need changing, and the role of libraries in the creation of an Information Commons

Submission:

Introduction:

Public Libraries are the most important institution in a modern information environment. They extend the principles of literacy, information literacy and digital democracy. They occupy a key place in underpinning the emerging information commons, and have an important place in ensuring a vibrant co-operative economy. By bringing a wide variety of shared resources together in a single building they enhance local communities, and through their footfall they underpin the economic vitality of the surrounding area. Below I outline some areas of concern, and suggest some soloutions. Above all it is vital to stop the closure of public libraries, which although often small in size, play an important part in improving the quality of peoples lives.

Consultation Process and Statistical Evidence.

Firstly I do not think that the time allowed for consultation has been long enough to allow people to prepare a detailed presentation, particularly given the fact that all but a few basic statistics about public libraries are not freely available to ordinary people. Consequently, point one of my evidence is that the annual CIPFA statistics should be published on the internet and available to everyone without charge.

Book Stock

 

There is a clear long term correlation between expenditure on books and the quality of the bookstock and the levels of use made of public libraries. Therefore, spending on books, and management of the stock (circulation, replacement purchases of old or damaged stock, selection of new stock) should be done by trained library staff, rather than, as at present, much of the basic selection being undertaken by the book suppliers.

Libraries and their readers cannot operate in a vacuum and it is also important to ensure that libraries are at the centre of a strong book-based information environment. Present methods of book selection discriminate against local bookshops and small publishers, but instead favour large suppliers who provide large quantities across a limited range of subjects and publishers.

Over the last three decades public libraries have sold off books that were valuable (in both senses of the word) books) and which were once kept in bookstacks for use by readers on request. The result is that only high issuing recently published books are available, which effectively means that libraries no longer provide the same service in relation to the "long tail" of use that they once did. This has instead been abdicated to commercial companies like Amazon, and Abebooks, and serious research for public library users is much more difficult than it once was. The bookstacks which once formed a valuable archiving function for out of print items, and co-operative archiving through co-operatives of libraries should be re-established.

Similarly the stock of libraries has become impoverished because non-fiction books considered to be ‘academic’ and of use to to people of above ‘A’ level education are now rarely found in public libraries. This is in spite of a major expansion of degree level education throughout the population and the growth of open learning. Book budgets need to be rebalanced to ensure that a wider range of higher level non-fiction material is available.

Price restrictions on purchases and a prejudice against ‘academic’ books has resulted in over-reliance on the British Lending Library at Boston Spa, as a library of last resort for inter-library loans, for a wide range of books which could be provided within each library authority. This prejudice against the ‘academic’ as opposed to ‘leisure’ reading can also be seen in the fact that in a library authority as large as Essex, not one library subscribes to either the Times Literary Supplement or the London Review of Books.

Premises

 

The continued increase in the rents for library buildings has been a major factor in reducing the spending power of library budgets, which while they have often increased on paper, have seen the increases swallowed up by continually rising rents. A solution must be found to this long term problem.

Similarly, the last survey of public library buildings that I am aware of identified that a large proportion of the were not properly maintained with approximately 20% being in breach of health and safety and disability legislation. To maintain and increase the use of libraries, buildings must be in good state of repair.

People need buildings that are conveniently situated in relation to where they live and work if they are to be able to use them. Not everything can be provided online, and smaller libraries need to be adequately stocked and staffed, and have opening times which reflect the local populations needs.

Inter-Library Loans

 

Inter-Library authority loans need to be speeded up, and readers need more real-time information about how their requests are being satisfied. Requested books that come from another library authority often take one, two or three months to supply. This suggests that insufficient copies of some books are being purchased across the country as a whole, and that too much reliance is placed on the British Lending Library. Not only are supply times often far too long, but the reader has no idea of how on it will take to fill his/her request. These long supply times and lack of information result in users turning to alternative sources of supply rather than use their public library.

Purchasing new books

Purchase supply times vary from library authority to library authority, and can take two or three months from order to availability. Purchasing processes are cumbersome, and over-bureaucratic, and over-reliant on a few big library suppliers who are not really competing on delivery times. Local bookshops are able to obtain books quickly and efficiently, and libraries should rely more on them than on the big suppliers.

London

 

London is a special case. It needs more co-operation between library authorities, and also a new large central library on the model of the new library in Amsterdam. At present the British Library is by default filling the role that should be taken by a proper library for London, this puts undue strain on the British Library, and is also not available to many of the people who would benefit from a large central library. Increased co-operation between local authorities in London should not be at the expense of the principal of local democratic control.

Open Learning and Information Commons

 

The continuing trend in open learning and distance learning, and a likely further expansion given the funding changes in universities, mean that it is important that public libraries take up and expand their role as street-corner universities. This means that they should carry bookstock and online resources which enable and promote open learning. In particular libraries should be seen as a key component in an emerging information commons, offering high quality information and resources to everyone. In support of this ‘academic’ databases such as JSTOR should be available through public libraries. This can be achieved at little cost, as these databases are often already publicly funded, and extending already established services would only marginally extend the costs. Similarly ensuring that all publicly funded academic research is freely available in the public domain through libraries, which is already official policy, is rolled out as soon as possible will make libraries important as bringing together a wide range of resources. Public Libraries should also co-operate in the creation of a UK wide virtual library, providing new resources, and categorising external websites on behalf of their users.

In support of the open commons principle, public libraries should also take the role in providing the technology and expertise for community publishing in both traditional printed formats and in ebook formats.

Staff Training

 

Staff training is important to ensure that readers are able to obtain the best value from library services. Libraries should not be seen as comparable to bookshops, or supermarkets, with staff merely checking items out on behalf of readers or performing administrative functions. They need to be trained and motivated to understand the wide variety of resources and services available through the public library service.

How should libraries be run/organised

 

Libraries should continue to be the responsibility of Local Authorities under the 1964 Public Libraries Act. This act is enabling rather than prescriptive, and needs little if any change. However the democratic component and community oversight of libraries needs to be increased in order to ensure that services are not provided simply at the whim of the local authority. Recognised standards of service should be reintroduced, and the standards themselves increased, in terms of opening hours, staffing provision, quality of the bookstock, and convenience of location.

Friends of Library groups should be established in every community with a library, with consultative rights, and libraries themselves should be operated on a mutual basis, abolishing managerial hierarchies.

February 2012

Prepared 22nd February 2012