Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Save Oxfordshire Libraries

This submission is made by Save Oxfordshire Libraries (SOL), an alliance of 20 library support groups set up after Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) in November 2010 named 20 of its 43 libraries that it intended to close. SOL is an umbrella group with no party-political agenda. Some of the “Friends” groups have been in existence since 1998, when OCC last proposed to reduce the library service substantially: two of these became registered charities and have contributed to the refurbishment or staffing of their libraries. Other groups were only formed in response to the current situation and are not formally constituted.1

Save Oxfordshire Libraries would be willing to provide someone to give oral evidence to the Inquiry if requested.

Summary

Local Authorities have been developing models for a library service based on the most restricted understanding of the 1964 Act that they think they can get away with.

A single model may not be suitable for the whole of an LA, eg large central library versus rural communities.

The role of good libraries as community hubs must be recognised: they provide social cohesion.

Any proposal for reconfiguring a library service should start with a thorough assessment of what people value about the current service, and the connections to other services. LAs should not think in budget silos.

Where an LA substantially reduces a library service, is can no longer claim that it complies with the Act.

The role of technology in the development of a library service for the 21st century should be the subject of thorough research, not anecdote. This should include studies of the potential for on-screen communication to increase isolation.

Libraries are well placed to teach evaluation of online information.

A “comprehensive and efficient” library service cannot exist without staff: minimum standards for staff provision should be set.

Closure of libraries may undermine community cohesion.

There needs to be an agreed process for assessing needs and risk factors in relation to a library service: one that recognises the differences between urban and rural communities.

So many Local Authorities have been trying to reduce library services that the Secretary of State (and the DCMS) has lacked the resources to intervene: in consequence local people have had to meet much of the legal costs of mounting a challenge.

MPs, including ministers, are incorrectly implying that decisions about libraries are the sole responsibility of LAs, ignoring the duty of the Secretary of State.

What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century

1.1 There are a number of models recently developed by Local Authorities with the purpose of trying to restrict the definition of a “comprehensive and efficient library service”—the purpose being to justify limiting the service provided by the particular Local Authority (LA). These models have particularly sought to avoid taking account of the additional words in Clause 7(1) of the 1964 Act: “for all persons desiring to make use thereof”, arguing that for the service to be “efficient” it can only be provided in a limited number of large libraries often with reduced levels of staff. Some proposals seem to be made on the basis that cuts will go as far as they can without risking a legal challenge.2 Such decisions are presented as being taken on economic grounds, and yet often remove or reduce the service from libraries that are both cost effective in terms of high levels of usage and seen by their users as providing a high level of service.

1.2 New recommendations for a library service for the 21st Century need to recognise that the areas served by LAs are not uniform in their geography and their local needs; and indeed that a single model of service may not be appropriate for the whole of an LA. A model appropriate for a large central library in a city may not be suitable for rural communities. However, there are also parts of cities where attempts to sustain or generate community cohesion could focus around a library.

1.3 The best of the libraries in rural areas of Oxfordshire already act as community hubs: while access to books (DVDs, audio books etc.) remains a core function, the libraries serve far wider needs. They add social value in the form of community cohesion: a centre for personal interaction for those such as the elderly, the unemployed or mothers with children who might otherwise suffer isolation. Their educational value ranges from developing literacy in the very young, to encouraging reading by potentially disaffected teenagers, to maintaining ongoing learning by older people—thereby contributing to mental wellbeing. As physical centres, they relate closely to local schools, youth centres, and community activities and contribute to the viability of local shops and post offices: in some cases several of these activities take place within the same building, thus providing a recognisable centre for the community and contributing to a sense of belonging.

1.4 It should be a requirement that any proposal for reconfiguring a library service start by a thorough assessment of the value of what is being currently provided and the connections to other activities. One of the grounds for rejecting the proposals by Wirral was that the Council did not know enough about the service that they sought to reduce, especially the connections between library services, education and community services (pages 5.49–60). In spite of this, Oxfordshire in 2011 failed to take evidence in advance of its proposals from local library groups or schools, even those where the library is actually on school premises and has a dual function for the school and the public.

1.5 An efficient library service should be recognised for its contribution to education for people of all ages. Because LAs tend to think in budget silos, they seem unable to take account of this. Even where service need has supposedly been assessed, there is no agreement about how to do the assessment.3 There needs to be an agreed definition of what factors should go into an Equalities and Impact Assessment for a library service—including the impact on other services.

1.6 A mere list, as has been provided by Oxfordshire, of such things as “rhyme time” sessions, book groups, computer learning sessions etc gives no sense of how such activities interact to form a totality and are viewed by the local community—again the Wirral Inquiry endorsed this view. It also misses out the uses made by library users of computers and reference works in the library to enable them to access information eg health information following explicit recommendation by local GPs, details of job vacancies and help with preparing applications etc.

1.7 The MLA report on Community engagement in public libraries (June 2010) recognises the potential for libraries in inner city areas to have some of the social functions that we see in rural areas in Oxfordshire: in some cases Social Services became involved because of this recognition. The study also considered Social Return on Investment: LAs are now supposed to consider social impact of any major proposals but seem ignorant of tools being developed for this purpose.

1.8 Assumptions are being made about the role of technology in the development of a library service for the 21st century without sufficiently robust evidence. While service machines for checking books in and out can have a role, for many library users, especially in smaller libraries they could simply be a hindrance. Machines cannot replace the many human roles of paid staff, and could even undermine the social function currently fulfilled by libraries.

1.9 In the same way, the role of e-books and other electronic communication within a library service needs to be carefully assessed. There is concern in many quarters about the emotional and psychological isolation created by too much use of on-screen communication. At present, small children still learn to read from physical books—even those obsessed with computer games—and their development of literacy forms an important part of their interaction with other people. There are no obvious answers to questions concerning the circumstances in which people will prefer to use e-books and when they will still want physical books, and how this will change according to the age and lifestyle of users.

1.10 The increasing use of internet technology actually adds a role that libraries can provide: too many people lack the skills to evaluate the information they find online. The ability to assess the reliability of evidence needs to be developed through the combined use of reference books and material available online. Library staff need these skills to do their own job and are admirably placed, therefore, to teach others.

1.11 A “comprehensive and efficient” library service cannot exist without staff. As Francis Bennion, the barrister who drafted the 1964 act says, “it is implied by the 1964 Act that library authorities will fulfil their duties properly ... and will employ sufficient trained, experienced, paid staff, not relying unduly on volunteers”.4 While volunteers can undoubtedly enhance the service provided in libraries where they are supplementing the work of qualified staff, they cannot provide continuity, including knowing the detailed (and developing) needs of users, comprehensive knowledge of materials available both in the particular library and available to order—a catalogue is no substitute for personal knowledge They encourage and support reading groups of all ages, and their familiar presence gives confidence to reluctant readers. Any revision of the definition needs, therefore, to set out minimum standards for staff provision.

The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report.

2. A substantially reduced library service cannot be compatible with the requirements of the Act. If the service was “comprehensive and efficient” before, it cannot continue to be so if substantially cut: this view is endorsed by Francis Bennion.5

The impact library closures have on local communities.

3.1 We do not at present have evidence of the impact of library closures in Oxfordshire because these have been averted. The Cabinet of Oxfordshire County Council voted through in December 2011 a model which concentrates paid library staff time in those libraries which are based in areas of the highest population density. The communities surrounding libraries in more rural areas are being given no option but to recruit, and organise rotas for, volunteers to fill the staff hours to be withdrawn; unless they can find a secure source of funding to pay for those hours. Our own surveys of the limited availability of volunteers in the areas affected indicate that closures of libraries are extremely likely by the end of the three year programme of reduced funding of staff.

3.2 Our knowledge of the value added to their communities by the affected libraries at present gives us sufficient information to be able to make a reliable estimate of the impact that closures are likely to have. Much of what Oxfordshire libraries contribute to their local communities, as set out in our replies to Question 1 could be lost if they start to close.

The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964

4.1 It is very difficult to judge the effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention because they have so rarely been exercised. It would appear that the Secretary of State has been unable to exercise his powers of intervention because there have been so many different interpretations by LAs of what form of reduced service they think they can get away with. Any attempt to assess the adequacy of the different formulae that LAs have come up with could have overwhelmed the resources of the DCMS. This has left some local support groups with no alternative but to seek redress at considerable expense through the courts.

4.2 In Oxfordshire, the most effective intervention recently came not from the Secretary of State but from the Prime Minister. The standard letter David Cameron’s office sent in response to every attempt to approach him about libraries from June 2011 onwards says, “I met with representatives from Oxfordshire County council earlier this year and did intervene to put the arguments that the original proposals [to close 20 libraries] were not the right approach and that the aim should be to save money while keeping as many libraries open as possible.” Edward Vaizey, on the other hand, although Minister in the Department of Culture Media & Sport, offered no assistance to Oxfordshire people concerned about the potential detriment to the library service—while he has met with a representative from Grove library, in his constituency of Wantage & Didcot, he has not supported their campaign.

4.3 The duty of the Secretary of State to “secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them” [Act 1 (1)] appears to be ignored—it is implied by MPs and even ministers that this is a matter for the LA and nothing to do with central government.

January 2012

1 Brief history: After the first announcement, OCC sent representatives round the county to seek views on the proposed closures: that proposal was withdrawn in March 2011, and a fresh proposal produced that volunteers should replace either 2/3 or 1/3 of paid staff hours in 21 libraries. A consultation took place from 30 May to 30 September, with information released at intervals during that period. There is a general view that the evidence used in the documents was not of an acceptable standard. The final proposal that appeared in December, just before the relevant committee meetings, was that cuts in salaried staff hours should be no more than ½.

2 OCC kept assuring us that their proposals were endorsed by the MLA but could produce no evidence of this claim. They then refused to consider alternatives put forward by SOL on the grounds that these could lead to a referral to the Secretary of State—again there was no evidence adduced for this.

3 OCC even managed to use a commercial survey considering where supermarkets should be sited as a basis for the decision about the location of fully funded libraries!

4 Article written for Voices for the Library, 19 August 2011.

5 Article as above.

Prepared 5th November 2012