Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Simon Barron

Summary

I am pleased that the DCMS is investigating the closure of well-used public libraries in England and the rest of the UK.

The closure of libraries would not only contravene the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 but devastate local communities and public library users.

A comprehensive and efficient library needs to be available to its community at their point of need.

It would be difficult for volunteers to provide library services definable as “comprehensive and efficient”.

Public libraries are a right and are absolutely necessary in an information-rich society and during an economic recession.

Sweeping library closures would leave our country indefinably poorer and I hope the Committee will consider calling for a moratorium on all closures until proper inquiry and consultations have taken place.

Introduction

1. I would like to submit my personal views and evidence of public library service provision in the United Kingdom. Having worked in, campaigned for, and most importantly, used public libraries for years, I hope my thoughts can help you come to an informed and partisan decision about our public libraries and the impact of closures. I am also available to provide verbal evidence to the Committee if required.

Main Body

2. First of all, let me say how pleased I am that the DCMS is now investigating the public library crisis in the UK. For the past year, we’ve seen councils threatening to close well-used libraries, continuing with plans to dramatically cut public library provision despite poorly-done consultations (see the Gloucestershire and Somerset judicial review), and thousands of people petitioning Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey to look into the cultural impact of hundreds of public library closures. As such, it’s wonderful that the DCMS are going to examine the cultural impact of libraries and how the UK’s libraries operate in the 21st Century.

3. At the time of writing, there are 422 public libraries under direct threat of closure in the UK. CILIP, the professional body for librarians forecasts that 600 libraries in total are under threat accounting for 20% of the UK’s public libraries. The impact of such sweeping closures would inevitably mean that dozens of councils would fail to meet the legal requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Closing many libraries in a single area could not but have a devastating and detrimental effect on local communities impacting on everyone in the community from children whose parents lack the disposable income to buy books to elderly people finding a place to talk to others or experience some privacy to unemployed people who require Web access to apply for jobs and update their skills.

4. In order to assess whether library provision after such cuts would be “comprehensive and efficient”, it’s necessary to define what makes a “comprehensive and efficient” library service in the 21st Century. A public library service needs to be available to its community: this means opening hours that meet the needs of working people including evenings and weekends; it means wide geographic coverage across an area so that those without access to a car or other private transport can reach their libraries; it means everyone should be allowed perfectly equitable access regardless of income, socio-economic background, or age.

5. Importantly, it would be tremendously difficult for volunteers to provide a comprehensive and efficient service in lieu of trained library staff. In Hudswell in North Yorkshire, the library has been moved into a local pub under a “community library” model. The library now consists of a single shelf of books: there are no trained library staff; there is no access to computers or to the Web; there is no way to access information. This is simply not a library and even if it were, it could not be called “comprehensive and efficient”. Many councils are pursuing plans to replace professional public library workers with volunteers. Aside from concerns about the accountability of volunteers and their handling of sensitive information, it’s clear that volunteer library workers would not necessarily have the skills required to run a busy library. Cataloguing, acquisitions, reference enquiries, IT support, childcare, handling of confidential information: these are all skills that require training and simply cannot be performed by someone walking in off the street. Volunteer-run libraries—“community libraries” as they are often called—are no replacement for professionally-run libraries, cannot be considered comprehensive and efficient, and do not meet the legal requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.

6. Public libraries and the access to information that they provide should be considered a right rather than a privilege. In a country with falling literacy rates and increasing youth unemployment, it’s more important than ever that children and young people have access to books without the restrictions of money. Everyone in fact deserves access to humanity’s corpus of shared knowledge and public libraries can provide a local link to this vast body of information. Not everything is on the Internet and even that information that is on the Web is unorganised and often unreliable. Reliable information—our history, our literature, our culture, our science—is in books and in other documents. Only a fragment is on the Internet and there is therefore no way to say that libraries can be closed because everything is on the Internet. Even if it were, millions of people in the UK—an estimated 23% of the population—have no access to the Web, many relying instead on public libraries for their link to job websites, forums for communication, and information sources like Wikipedia.

7. I’m sure the Committee will receive hundreds of submissions similar to this one and I hope that, despite the repetition of the message, the content will be taken onboard. Library closures have a devastating impact on local communities, they contravene the requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, and they leave our country indefinably poorer. Public libraries are valuable and for too long, they’ve suffered from diminishing resources and a stark lack of marketing from councils: despite budget cuts and opening hour reductions, many have kept providing their service to the community, have kept providing a place for people, and have kept meeting the increasing demands of a society saturated with information. We live in an information-rich world and at this time it would be illogical to close portals that give access to information.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012