Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Hugh Paton

Some comments on the current dismantling of the nation’s library service from a lifelong library user and soon-to-be redundant library worker.

1.The provision of libraries was and still is a statutory requirement. The Act was and is uselessly vague in defining “comprehensive and efficient”, and hence arises the current situation that sees local authorities divesting themselves of libraries by various overt and less overt means. Library standards were far from perfect but had the merit of providing a benchmark of some kind; most importantly in my view around the density of library provision per head of population, together with opening hours, stock and IT recommendations. That said, one has to accept that the current economic reality makes previous levels of provision unaffordable and reduction and reconfiguring of services inevitable. The present rate of closures is, I fear, well within the capacity of the Act to permit, as it is so unspecific, but I would say that anything that puts the average urban citizen more than two miles away from a library is beyond an acceptable level.

2.A modern library service needs to be flexible and adaptable to allow for the rapidly shifting technological climate. Yesterday’s gadgets are today’s commonplaces (computers, mobile phones, eBooks etc) and libraries still have a place for a large proportion (25%+) of the population who have no other access to the digital world. It’s really a development of the original educational purpose of libraries as constituted by Mechanics’ Institutes and onwards.

3.They should nowadays have a role wider than simply providing books, technology and the space to use these things—they are generally very well placed within communities to provide access to wider local authority and other local services. They are one of the few places everyone and anyone can use freely and without being made to buy something or be otherwise bothered. Closures clearly have a very bad effect on local communities—the current outcry demonstrates this.

4.The Secretary of State’s powers to intervene are perfectly adequate if said Secretary actually chose to implement them!

5.Finally, libraries are not only about education and skills—they are about reading for its own sake as an activity that enriches the individual’s life, opens up new ways of seeing the world and enables an active and concentrated participation in cultural life, rather than, for example, the short attention span passivity of TV channel hopping.

Libraries are one of the few remaining public institutions that actually improve the quality of life and help give some kind of social cohesion in an increasingly fragmented and individuated society. They can (if resourced) adapt to social and technological change and continue to provide a cultural, recreational, social and educational focus for all. Once gone, they will not return, and we will all be much the poorer for it.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012