Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by S R Sibley, Chief Executive Officer, W F Howes Ltd

I am writing to you in both a professional capacity and also personal capacity. I run an audiobook Publishing business and have two children aged 27 and 22 who have both benefited in primary, secondary and tertiary education and without the availability of local and central library facilities would not have reached their current level of attainment.

If one looks at the current educational problems with levels of literacy in school leavers then the impact the Public Library has on supporting and improving literacy and comprehension are clear and undeniable. Additionally this is achieved without stigma and from a genuine professional caring approach by Librarians. In the recent past while numbers of issues may have not necessarily risen the library has acted a real community centre for all ages including job seekers and immigrants and what strikes me as the most significant act is that during the summer when we experienced riots on the streets—there were no attacks on public libraries. A very public statement.

I have an elderly mother who is housebound and the fortnightly visit by the library volunteer helper to bring books for here to read is an absolute highlight in her life and affords social inclusion and interaction—take it away and undoubtedly health costs will rise in some shape or form.

Both of my children supplemented “A” level studies with visits to Birmingham Central library and were amazed at the resources and benefited accordingly.

So what constitutes a Library function for the future where we have a population growing and levels of literacy not conducive to gaining sustainable employment. Firstly an understanding of what Libraries are offering is fundamental and there are some perceptions as to an industry that has not moved in the last few decades which could not be further from the truth. Also the embracement of on line services has been very strong and yet what we have asked of our service does not give rise to developing strong marketeers so we need to blend more carefully the resources employed in libraries to further the impact in the community. During the recession footfall at libraries increased and without doubt depression of people was offset by the library facility—what price do you put on this?

Secondly locations and accessibility have to change—undoubtedly some branches would benefit from different opening hours to meet the local usage needs and with the world being a 24/7 society having branches open when workers finish their hours makes immense sense. If you reduce hours to those when people cannot attend then the numbers of users will fall and the relevance of the branch would be deemed minimal and closure would result for totally the wrong reasons.

Thirdly we should have the rule of life membership when a person is borne so that they can use a branch wherever they are located or visiting. It doesn’t mean they can borrow a book in Scotland and return in London but they can access a lot of other services wherever they happen to be and have borrowing capacity at their local branch.

I have had the benefit of setting up a business in Australia and it is amazing how central to life the library is to the whole population and they (Australia) did meet the recession challenge a little better than Europe and America and they also coped with mopping up disasters in Queensland by getting the public services back up and running first, including Libraries.

It is clear we have to cut costs as a nation but the important aspect is to shed costs which do not lead to increase costs in other areas. It is not just the poor and the vulnerable who will suffer it is also those who we look to help grow the country for the future who will have the edge blunted.

Councils have to cut costs but it must surely be the duty of any responsible government to step in and ensure that waste is cut first, then those services which have low impact such as twinning visits and new council offices and mayoral cars. We are very good at pomp and ceremony but let’s delay some of it for a while whilst we regroup.

Then my final point is that of a supplier—Libraries can streamline structure and reduce costs like any other business but if we shut branches and reduce activity then the supplier base will shrink or costs will rise and inevitably jobs will come under pressure—jobs that support an industry that is central to civilised society.

Maybe the industry should actually be centralised rather than regionalised as it seems to me that different authorities derive different outputs and where one has mobile libraries travelling huge distances in one authority because it is large maybe we could better apportion boundary activity thereby reducing environmental impact as well as serving a need at lower cost.

Please do not tear down part of the fabric of our society that underpins true social need and benefit. By all means prune sensibly but ensure that feeding also takes place.

November 2011

Prepared 5th November 2012