Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Peter Griffiths

0. Introduction

0.1 I make this submission in a personal capacity.

0.2 I began my career in public libraries in Harrow public libraries in 1969 shortly after the reorganisation of London local government. I obtained professional qualifications in librarianship in 1973 through a graduate trainee scheme at Harrow, and also qualified in information science in 1986. I was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Information Scientists in 1996, becoming a Fellow of CILIP on vesting day in 2002, and was CILIP’s President in 2009. The majority of my professional career, from 1974 to 2008, was spent in government libraries, information and knowledge management services, retiring as Head of Information at the Home Office. I was a founder member of the Knowledge Council, working to support implementation of the Information Matters strategy for government and the public sector. I continue to support the strategy as a member of a CILIP working group on information management., having adopted it as my Presidential theme at CILIP.

0.3 I therefore comment as someone professionally educated as a public librarian and with direct experience of public libraries soon after implementation of the 1964 Act. I also have leadership and management experience in libraries and information management and have had responsibility for library finance in the public sector. Through my professional writing and speaking I continue to promote a wide-ranging vision for librarianship and for the broad swathe of information management professions, a vision that extends far beyond the stereotypical image of public librarianship.

1. Summary of my Submission

1.1 Based on Ministerial statements from the original debate on the 1964 Act it can be argued by definition that the present library authorities deliver a service that is “comprehensive” and “efficient”, since local government reform in the 1960s and 1970s eliminated the small inefficient authorities that the Act sought to do away with . But cumulative cuts to services mean that some no longer meet these criteria, while some authorities appear to have no data on what library users require or want (on which basis the Charteris report found Wirral to be, or likely to become, in breach of the Act). But library closures and the increased reliance on unqualified (though undoubtedly highly motivated) volunteers make it likely that more and more library authorities will fail to deliver the intent of the Act or its spirit. Even if they comply broadly with its letter, their actions are slowly eroding the Act’s intent that library services should provide general access to high quality collections managed by a professionally-led workforce.

1.2 Rather than nugatory effort being expended on interpreting and challenging the terms “comprehensive” and “efficient” in legislation that is now half a century old (and arguably no longer fit for purpose), DCMS in consultation with other departments must bring forward a new Bill that specifies and enables delivery of a public library service fit for 21st century requirements.

1.3 New legislation must be an enabler of innovative library service delivery. Government must address the issue holistically, taking into account all relevant issues: these include the availability and quality of rural broadband, information support to small and medium enterprises, access to public transport (or the cost of motor fuel) to access libraries, copyright and other constraints on the use of e-books and other media in libraries, and the impact of library closures on the UK’s digital and creative industries. Government must consider how libraries help deliver the objectives of a number of Departments, not just DCMS.

1.4 The Secretary of State’s powers of intervention are clearly set out in section 10 of the Act but in the absence of a clear statutory definition of failure by a library authority it is difficult to know when these cumbersome powers may be used. The Committee should note that the Secretary of State also has a duty not only to superintend but to promote the improvement of library services (§1 of the Act), and should hold him to account for this duty.

1.5 In my view a major problem has been the lack of evidence about the impact of library services and of rapid developments in ICT since the 1960s. The ideal corpus of evidence would cover the role of public libraries in social inclusion, information literacy, information support to business, rural conditions and prison education as well as statistics of library use such as the current CIPFA data set.

1.6 Your Committee will doubtless receive a number of first-hand accounts of the effect of current closures on their communities and with no personal experience I leave this question to those better informed. But as a migrant on my retirement from London to Dorset I have come to understand the importance of libraries to rural communities and why these services need to be strengthened, not cut.

1.7 Library provision at current levels cannot be seen as an ongoing and unending entitlement. There must be changes over time to services to take account of changes in society and its needs, and of technological advance. But the nation’s literacy and economic competitiveness are being damaged by library closures for which the business case is not established. To cite the Secretary of State’s recent evidence to your Committee, modernisation yes, vandalism no.

2. “Comprehensive and efficient”

2.1 The then Minister for Libraries set out the intent of the terms “comprehensive” and “efficient” when the 1964 Act was debated in Parliament. The current Secretary of State set out some of the rationale in his evidence to your committee on 27 October 2011, referring briefly to the report of the 1958 Roberts Committee. But it would have been helpful he could usefully have also mentioned the 1962 Bourdillon report which set out standards that would assure comprehensiveness and efficiency, or the earlier work of the Kenyon committee in 1927. [ref 5 provides useful historical context and commentary].

2.2 Our present library authorities are likely to provide comprehensive and efficient services: the small inefficient authorities that the 1964 Act was designed to eliminate were swept away by local government reforms in 1964 and 1974. Services became comprehensive, usually well funded in the time when the rates produced sufficient resources and the high price inflation of the mid to late 1970s had not set in. Current library services are comprehensive in the dictionary sense because library authorities generally provide users with access to a wide range of materials (as specified in section 7.2(a) of the Act). But the growth of electronic publishing, the upward trend in the cost of specialist publications, budget reductions and the ease of small-scale publication mean that library services are steadily becoming less comprehensive than they were in the 1970s and 1980s and it is now open to debate whether services remain “sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general needs and any special requirements both of adults and children.”

2.3 Authorities can be said to provide services that are efficient in the sense that there is co-operation between the various layers of library service (§7.2(c) of the Act). But again it is open to question whether sufficient information services are available through library services (§7.2(b) of the Act), and in particular whether volunteer-operated services are compliant. The 1964 legislators intended their Act to increase the proportion of professionally qualified library staff to around 40%, but many libraries devolved to community management will have access to little or no professional expertise and therefore fail this test.

2.4 However the current levels of protest and judicial action against closures and cuts suggests strongly that users fear their requirements of a 21st century public library are not being met, or will not be if closures continue. The current Act does not provide any benchmarks to judge this: while section 10 of the Act details the complex process by which the Secretary of State may intervene following a complaint, a subsequent decision to investigate and finally an investigation (such as the Charteris review). This means that each case will be assessed separately using primarily subjective measures and that no benchmark can be easily established for other authorities to use.

2.5 The powers of intervention appear to be further restricted in England compared to other parts of the United Kingdom due to the lack of standards and to the large (and increasing) number of bodies responsible for delivering library services. Welsh public library standards managed by CyMAL [ref 1] provide benchmarks for library services and channels through which the Secretary of State can intervene effectively in Wales. Outside the scope of the 1964 Act for England and Wales control is made simpler in Northern Ireland through the single authority while the Scottish quality improvement framework provides authorities with benchmarks for improvement. In particular it will prove difficult for the Secretary of State to intervene where control has been divested to individual community groups, however dedicated and motivated these may be; closing down non-compliant volunteer-run libraries would seem to be totally counter-productive.

3. The Need for a New Legislative Approach

3.1 These problems would best be addressed by new legislation. The 1964 Act has now been in force for almost half a century—longer than its predecessor from 1919—and deals with issues that are no longer of concern, but fails to address 21st century requirements. It has been overtaken by rapid developments in information and communications technology and by the enormous expansion of information and entertainment resources accessed directly by users without the use of an intermediary such as a library. The effort currently going into defining “comprehensive and efficient” is in effect wasted: modern library authorities comply by definition since they fulfil the Roberts committee’s proposals for authorities to serve viable populations and to collaborate to provide a full range of library materials to users. Local government reforms in the 1960s (London) and 1970s abolished inefficient authorities whilst inter-library co-operation, with British Library resources as the backstop, supports the requirement for comprehensiveness. A 21st century Bill will consider issues such as co-operation between different types of library in order to identify new synergies (subject to other legal requirements such as CRB checks where school and public libraries are jointly operated). It will address issues such as digital rights management and should have regard for related issues such as the availability of broadband and 3G/4G telephony (particularly in rural areas) as well as the more obvious issues of social inclusion, reading skills and information literacy. New legislation must be enabling rather than prescriptive, making it possible for libraries to deliver innovative services through innovative channels within a new legal framework.

3.2 New legislation must define library service requirements that extend well beyond the stereotypical belief that libraries exist only to lend popular fiction and non-fiction books. Many other functions of libraries are very important to sectors of the community, whether these are long-standing or recently-developed services:

3.2.1Reference and business—reference libraries support local enterprise by giving them access to reliable information sources that would not otherwise be readily available. Although their numbers have fallen in the past 20–30 years a number of regional library co-operatives (eg the Sheffield-based SINTO and the Hampshire-centred HATRICS) provide tailored and appropriately localised services through public libraries whose quality, understanding and scope cannot be matched by generalised web-based facilities such as Business Link.

3.2.2Mobile libraries—rural communities depend on mobile library services, which provide a lifeline for many. However these services are threatened with closure either directly (central Bedfordshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset) or indirectly where mobiles are diverted to serve urban areas losing their permanent branches.

3.2.3Broadband is not yet reliable in many rural areas and in many places is non-existent. BDUK aims to address these issues but its target completion date is 2015, putting rural residents and rural businesses at continuing disadvantage. Rural public transport is often so limited that it is impossible for many people to reach their nearest libraries, or it becomes a day’s expedition to make a return journey. (see also 5 below)

3.2.4E-books could be part of a solution, but there are unresolved problems over licensing that threaten to make them impractical as an element of library services to rural areas. Many major publishers still do not publish in electronic formats—and in particular Amazon’s business model for the Kindle does not support its use for library e-book lending.

3.2.5The UK’s digital and creative industries gain considerable revenue from libraries. Library closures and bookfund cuts reduce the viability of these industries and make it more difficult for authors to earn their living.

3.3. Public library closures affect not just DCMS interests but those of several other government departments (among them BIS and MoJ for prison libraries, which are mainly delivered by public libraries authorities; DfE for libraries supporting education outside the school; and Defra for the role of libraries supporting rural communities). A silo approach addressing the issues facing DCMS alone will not deliver a sustainable solution.

4. Evidence

There is a striking lack of evidence about library services in the UK, particularly public library services, so that much of the current debate is led by opinion and conjecture not fact. Your committee will undoubtedly receive submissions that there is inadequate research into user needs, and that librarians have set up a raft of services that fail to meet the true requirements of users whilst creating an illusion of activity. My view would be that as we have no evidence, it is impossible to state with certainty whether new services meet requirements any better or worse than what went before. The level of public outcry provoked by library closures, not to mention legal challenge, indicates that closure goes against the expressed needs of many public library users. Yet there is little published evidence and decisions are based on conjecture rather than analysis of relevant case studies. CIPFA data sets provide basic figures about things that libraries can count, but measures such as stock renewal rates are not necessarily indicators of quality, or of the relevance of library stock to local user needs. Whilst the annual statistical census served to demonstrate improvements from the pre-1964 position, fifty years later there is little point in continuing to collect much of this data. In order to make valid and effective decisions about future library services a qualitative evidence base must be created as a matter of urgency.

5. Rural Areas

Following my retirement I moved to a rural community that is served by a fortnightly visit from a mobile library. This brings a limited and basic stock of (primarily) fiction and children’s literature that is popular and clearly much appreciated. But it is by no means a “comprehensive” service. In the 1964 debate the Minister (Lord Newton) said: “Clearly, some small towns and villages cannot provide the same facilities as large cities. But differences in standards at present go far beyond those which these geographical considerations would justify. It is important that these disparities should be reduced and the general level raised, if the growing demands on the public library service are to be satisfied”. How does this play out in 2012? A visit to the public library is a day’s expedition by public transport, even where this is available. Licensing restrictions and the lack of available titles for the Kindle mean that e-books are not yet a viable alternative. While I enjoy fast broadband (because I live by the telephone exchange) other parts of my village report service so slow that electronic access to the library is cumbersome and impractical. (And the library van cannot connect to the Internet, despite the fact that it parks on the telephone exchange forecourt, while public Internet access is on a different day in the parish office where there is no professional help for novice users). Many improvements needed if rural residents and rural businesses are to be properly supported by libraries. (See also 3.2.3 above)

6. Secretary of State’s Powers

Section 10 of the Act spells out the processes of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention in considerable detail but those processes are lengthy and cumbersome, while the lack of a definition of “comprehensive and efficient” makes it difficult to know when they might be invoked. Nor is it clear how the Secretary of State is held to account for his duty (in §1) to promote the improvement of the public library service. The link between libraries and the Secretary of State has been repeatedly diluted with the role of the Office of Arts and Libraries being subsumed at various stages into ever larger and more general bodies, so that support and development for libraries in England now falls into the broad spectrum of Arts Council England. This adds further complexity to the problem that English public library policy-making and funding is fragmented. As the Demos report Overdue [ref 2] and other sources point out DCMS sets the vision for public libraries but it does not directly fund the implementation of that vision. Its arms-length bodies oversee the implementation but as noted above they have many other interests—and have been in continual flux for the past decade and a half. CLG provides funding through the grants it makes to local authorities but—especially since the 2010 election—it does not set priorities nor does it instruct local authorities on how to spend the money. Faced with shortfalls, local authorities close public libraries. As a result buck-passing for the state of English public libraries in particular has become an increasingly frenetic round, with more energy going into denying responsibility than goes into tackling the problem.

7. Change is Inevitable

Library provision at current levels cannot be seen as an ongoing and unending entitlement. The needs of users change over time, population shifts occur, and new technologies constantly affect both the sources of information available and access to that information. Libraries must evolve and have valuable new roles to play supporting information users as they learn to access and assess information resources. But the nation’s literacy and economic competitiveness are being damaged by library closures for which the business case is not established. (To cite the Secretary of State’s recent evidence to your Committee, modernisation yes, vandalism no—ref 6, Q54) Government must seek to enable solutions equally acceptable to communities, to local government and to other parties involved such as the digital industries.

8. I have drawn back from offering your Committee an opinion in areas where I lack in depth knowledge or experience. But I believe my submission is consistent with both recent reports (such as Charteris) and the historical background (Roberts [ref 3], Bourdillon [ref 4], the 1964 Parliamentary debate [ref 7]) and hope you will find it useful.

References

1. CyMAL (2011). Maintaining a valued service: the fourth framework of Welsh public library standards 2011–2014. Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

2. Leadbeater, C (2003). Overdue: how to create a modern public library service. London, Demos.

3. Ministry of Education (1959). The structure of the public library service in England. (The Roberts report). Cmnd 660. London, HMSO.

4. Ministry of Education (1962). Standards of public library service in England and Wales. (The Bourdillon report). London, HMSO.

5. Moore, N (2004). “Public library trends”. Cultural trends, 13(1), March, p 27–57.

6. Parliament. House of Commons. Culture Media and Sport Select Committee. DCMS annual report and accounts 2010–2011 and the responsibilities of the Secretary of State: uncorrected evidence, Thursday 27 October 2011. (To be published as HC 1603-i, session 2010–12)

7. Parliament. House of Lords. Debates (Hansard), 30 June 1964. (Second reading of the Public Libraries and Museums Bill) col. 514 et seq.

I should like to conclude with a quotation from the Roberts Report, where it describes what has been happening in the public library service during the last thirty years. It is this: Not only has the number both of public libraries and of readers vastly increased … but the whole concept of a library’s responsibilities has been enlarged and intensified. Furthermore, the expansion will continue. The greatly increased provision of secondary and university education and the greatly increased number of persons receiving scientific and technological training will lead students and other persons engaged in industry and research to make more demands on the resources of public libraries and the general public to make more and better use of them. That was in 1958. Great developments have taken place in education even since the Roberts Committee reported. […]. This will all lead eventually to further demands on the public library service.

The purpose of this Bill is to fit the library service to meet them.

Lord Newton (Minister for Education and Science) HL Hansard, 30 June 1964, col. 522
http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1964/jun/30/public-libraries-and-museums-bill#column_522

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012