Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by The Society of Authors

1. Executive Summary

1(a) The Committee is inviting written submissions and requesting views on the following issues:

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

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

the impact library closures have on local communities; and

the effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964.

1(b) Our conclusions are:

While we do not feel it is for the Society to dictate how library services are best provided, a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century must allow free access to physical books in safe, comfortable, convenient and accessible space. It must be knowledgeably managed and curated by trained professional staff.

That the planned library closures are a breach of the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report.

That library closures will have a devastating, long-lasting and irreparable effect on local communities as well as on the wider community and the nation.

We do not comment on the effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 save to say that we are confident that Government has sufficient powers under its general jurisdiction to prevent these devastating closures and ensure that Britain has a thriving, comprehensive and efficient public library service throughout the 21st century and beyond and we urge the Government and the Society of State to exercise those powers now.

In addition we urge that:

Public Lending Right should be maintained and the rate increased;

Public Lending Right should be introduced for ebooks and audiobooks; and

School libraries be made compulsory.

2. Brief Introduction

2(a) The Society of Authors exists to protect the rights and further the interests of authors. It has more than 9,000 members writing in all areas of the profession (from novelists to doctors, textbook writers to ghost writers, broadcasters to academics, illustrators to translators). Members are concerned about libraries both as suppliers of books and library content but also as heavy users of libraries both for reading for pleasure and for research.

2(b) Many members of the Society of Authors will be responding to this consultation either individually or as part of different interest groups. We do not attempt to comprehensively cover all points or to pre-empt their expert recommendations. This paper therefore is concerned with broad points pertaining to most authors.

3. Factual Information

3(a) The impact of library closures on local communities

While this is not chronologically the first question asked by the Committee, it underpins our answers to the other questions and we therefore respond to this question first.

Library closures will have a devastating impact on local communities and the nation. As member, Anne Sebba, recently wrote “Libraries are the foundation of a civilised society. Please support them”. Local libraries are crucial in the following spheres:

(i) Fostering Imagination and Creating Readers

The importance of libraries in nurturing and fostering imagination was well put by Society member Patrick Ness in the speech he gave on accepting the prestigious 2011 Cilip Carnegie Medal for his novel Monsters of Men:

“As a reader, particularly as a child reader, libraries were basically the world on my doorstep…... I was a hugely unchaperoned reader, and I would wander into my local public library and there sat the world, waiting for me to look at it, to find out about it, to discover who I might be inside it.

I’d take pretty much any old thing off the shelf, and the local librarians, sensing just exactly what kind of reader I was, would let me check out some eyebrow-raising books and then cheerfully ask me when I returned them what I’d thought of Harold Robbins or the life of Margaret Mead. Yeah, okay, I might have been a slightly weird kid, but really, aren’t we all? Isn’t that the point of being a kid? To be slightly weird?
I owe most of the breadth of my reading to libraries, and particularly to librarians who seemed to know exactly when to recommend and when to look the other way when an eager young reader possibly over-reached. But, and I really believe this, what better way for reading to seem dangerous and risky?

And also, how ideal to have a safe space to figure out who I was and what mattered to me? There’s so much proscription in the life of young people, and it’s so vital to have a place that says, look, here are the doors onto the world and amazingly, you’re free to choose any one you like”.

For more on this theme see the Society’s response of May 2011 to the Independent Review of Cultural Education attached at Appendix A (not printed).

(ii) Education and research skills

A survey of members of the Society’s Educational Writers Group carried out in the summer of 2010 revealed grave concerns about the current structure of secondary education. Feedback suggested that there was little incentive or opportunity for students to appreciate a subject’s subtleties, to research complexity, to write discursively or even to learn to think for themselves. Public Libraries provide such opportunities and space.

For further information see the Society’s report to the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into the administration of examinations for 15-to-19-year-olds in England attached at Appendix B (not printed).

(iii) Access to knowledge and research

Chris Smith when Secretary of State described public libraries as “the university of the street corner”. Libraries have been and will continue to be a powerful resource in supporting literacy and the acquisition of knowledge and information. Closure of public libraries imposes barriers impeding millions of people from having free and convenient access to literature, information and knowledge.

(iv) Access to entertainment

Reading for pleasure remains a favourite pastime of children and adults in the UK. While books remain cheap when compared to other forms of entertainment, the cost of regularly buying new books is out of the range of much of the UK population, particularly those from the most disadvantaged groups. Young children can get through many books in a week and the cost of buying them would be prohibitive so many families rely on libraries for this purpose. Libraries provide crucial access to books for those who may have little else to enjoy or to transport their imaginations. Some provide pleasure; others—equally importantly—provoke, or unsettle the reader. Reading and being read to for pleasure can engender, better than almost anything else, an enquiring mind and a real capacity for deduction, empathy, and extended concentration. Readers encounter information and perspectives beyond merely those being sought, an awareness of values beyond those of celebrity. Extended reading encourages a critical faculty, independent thinking, the ability to be more discriminating, to assess things in their own right and realise the value of the source. The value of reading for pleasure was highlighted in a study on “Family, scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations” published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility (www.sciencedirect.com). It makes the point that regular reading for pleasure is the single most useful and effective improver of educational achievement, and that having access to books can raise a child on average 3.2 years in education.

(v) Community spaces

Many villages, small towns and residential areas have already lost their post office and possibly, the local pub. The library is a safe haven, a source of valuable information, a centre for education and entertainment, the provider of internet access and other valued services such as baby and toddler groups, homework clubs, internet access and home delivery to the housebound. As comedian and author Tony Hawks recently commented, in many communities it is the only place where a person can go during the day to keep warm in a free and safe environment:

“Libraries are, and should remain at, the heart of each community. They provide essential services for all, but particularly for children, elderly and unemployed, and should be supported—not undermined. Along with theatres, museums and galleries libraries preserve, inform and develop our cultural heritage. How can we become a literate, intelligent and productive nation without this shared resource?” Jo McCrum, Secretary of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group of the Society of Authors

(vi) Equality

The closure of community and mobile services can have a disproportionate impact on the young, the elderly, the disadvantaged and the housebound as well as impacting disproportionately on some minority ethnic groups:

“The provision of libraries nationwide made a huge impact on the British way of life, all of it good. How could any politician bear to be the one held responsible for dismantling such a heritage? It could never be put back, and huge numbers of people would be the worse off for its loss”. Geraldine McCaughrean (Children’s author and Society member)

3(b) What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century?

The Society does not feel that it is appropriate for it to enter the debate about the most efficient use of library resources and whether there is a need to streamline the service and reduce the 151 separately managed authorities. However the Society believes that any comprehensive and efficient library service must encompass the following:

(i) Stock

Provision of a suitable and appropriate range of books, newspapers, magazines and reference works, ebooks and if thought appropriate music and film and computers for public use. Sufficient funding to update, maintain and augment the stock and ensure that an exciting and comprehensive range of books are available for reference and loan. Books must be at the core of a library. Access to ebooks within the library and the ability to borrow them from the library will be increasingly important. However we remain strongly of the view that remote lending of ebooks is not an essential or primary role of an efficient library service.

(ii) Premises

Provision of adequate space and attractively laid out, suitably heated buildings. Library resources should be easily accessible by public transport and available during key periods of demand. In particular an authority should ensure that children, the elderly, the disadvantaged and the housebound can access a thriving network of branch and community libraries supported by mobile services and home delivery. All communities should be able to access a library within walking distance or a short ride by public transport.

(iii) Adequate staffing by suitably trained staff

Libraries need librarians: Patrick Ness again—”I saw firsthand what librarians do. They are tour-guides for all of knowledge. Knowledge and information—and by which I do very much include the internet—is a forest. And true, sometimes it’s fun getting lost, sometimes that’s how you learn some surprising things. But how much more can you discover when someone can point you in the right direction, when someone can maybe give you a map. When someone can maybe even give you a treasure map, to places you may not have even thought you were allowed to go. This is what librarians do. I mean I remember kind of wanting to keep the librarians I knew as a young reader a secret. Because they seemed to be the ones who might really understand what I was looking for…..That’s what librarians do. They open up the world. Because knowledge is useless if you don’t know how to find it, if you don’t even know where to begin to look.”

(iv) Adequate Public Lending Right (PLR) payments to authors

The Public Lending Right scheme provides authors with a modest payment each time one of their books is borrowed from a public library. PLR is designed to balance the social need for free public access to books against an author’s right to be remunerated for the use of their work. Individual PLR payments are capped in order to benefit those most in need; many elderly writers whose books are no longer in print rely on their annual PLR payments, which they see as a form of pension. PLR is particularly important to authors whose books are sold mainly to libraries and to those whose books are no longer in print but are still being used. Press coverage tends to focus on a few successful authors, yet most struggle to make ends meet. PLR provides a significant and much-valued part of authors’ incomes.

Although PLR is a legal right rather than a grant or subsidy, its funding has already been subject to significant cuts. We remain disappointed at the proposed 3.2% cut this year on top of last year’s 3% cut and note that there will be further cuts up to 2015 and we would hope that consideration will be given to funding being reinstated.

We also wish to remind you that s 43 of the Digital Economy Act 2010 extends PLR to audiobooks and ebooks “lent out” from library premises for a limited time but these payments have never been implemented. This is patently unjust and we urge that this provision be brought into force and that extra funds be made available to cover PLR payments for such lending.

(v) Statutory school libraries

We believe it is essential that, in addition to the core curriculum and studying of set texts, reading and creative writing are included within education. Failure to engage in culture, and poor literacy and imagination skills, lead to a failure in empathy. A child can learn more about, absorb and empathise more closely with a country, race or religion, say, through half an hour’s drama or fiction, than through a day of news reports or baldly didactic lessons. Books stimulate the imagination and independent thought in ways that the more passive act of watching TV or films simply cannot. For these reasons, in our submission to the Independent Review of Cultural Education we strongly urged the government to reconsider and make libraries statutory in schools (as they are in prisons), and—for schools with above a certain number of students—to make school librarians statutory also. Many people do not take their children to public libraries and a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century must include satisfactory and ring- fenced provision for school libraries in every school.

3(c) The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report; and

3(d) the effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964

Section 1 of the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 reads:

1. Secretary of State to superintend library service.

“(1) From the commencement of this Act it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act”.

It is our view that proposed library closures breach this obligation. As the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries recently wrote to Mr Vaizey in an open letter signed by many of the Society’s members:

“Council after council is viewing public libraries as a ‘soft target’ for spending cuts. Opposition to the draconian, swingeing and short-termist nature of these cuts has emanated from across the political spectrum and united library users from all socio-economic backgrounds and walks of life. But this opposition has too often been ignored by local authority administrations, who have been quick to freeze service users out of decision-making and democratic scrutiny processes.

Over the past year countless library users from across the country have written to you with concerns about their local authority’s plans for library services, and implored you to intervene. Petitions have been submitted, meetings have been attended with your officials, and demonstrations held on your department’s doorstep. In response we have all received the same brief, standard letter, informing us that the situations in our areas are being ‘monitored’. You have continued to ‘monitor’ as plans for devastating cuts are voted in by councils and implemented. You have ‘monitored’ as dedicated library staff are made redundant, as much-loved library buildings are made ready to be closed or sold, and as mobile libraries—a lifeline for the vulnerable and isolated—are parked up for good.

Faced with your inaction, library users have had no option but to turn to the courts. Following long, stressful and costly legal battles, library users in Gloucestershire and Somerset have been vindicated by a High Court ruling that their councils’ plans for library services were unlawful. Library users in Brent await the judgment of the Court of Appeal, and further legal challenges are likely to be launched in coming months. This would not, and should not have been necessary, had you and your department fulfilled your duty to superintend.

Mr Vaizey, in opposition you were a passionate critic of library closures. You described the planned 2009 closures in the Wirral as ‘offensive and outrageous’, and called, in the strongest possible terms, for your then opposite number, Andy Burnham, to intervene. But, faced with the current, unprecedented threat to our nationwide network of public libraries, your silence has been deafening.

It is time to act Mr Vaizey. Those who rely on public libraries across the country, including some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our communities, need your support and firm reassurance that you will superintend in line with your responsibilities as secretary of state. Please act Mr Vaizey, and show library users across the country that you remain a passionate advocate for our public library service, and have not left your convictions at the door on entering office”.

The Wirral libraries inquiry report of 2009, (the Charteris report) found that Wirral Council’s plan to close libraries was “in breach of its statutory duties under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964” because the council “failed to make an assessment of local needs” before deciding to rationalise its library service by investing £20 million in 13 Neighbourhood Centres, effectively replacing a service comprising 24 libraries. As the recent judicial reviews have shown many local authorities are failing to assess local needs or take full account of the particular needs of the young, the elderly and disabled, the unwaged and particular ethnic groups when making cuts and drawing up their plans for closure. The decision to close libraries or transfer responsibility in many authorities is not compatible with the requirements of the 1964 Act. Difficult access to a library, sometimes involving several bus trips, the closure of mobile services, cuts in opening hours and much reduced resources is not compatible with the duty to ensure that the service is comprehensive. The Secretary of State has adequate powers under the Act to intervene and to set up a local inquiry if required as was shown by the Wirral and previously, the threatened Derbyshire cases. While the “light touch” adopted by the current Minister may be welcomed by the Local Government Association and councils, it does not deal effectively with the worst cases and has necessitated some local campaign groups having to seek expensive Judicial Reviews. It has also led to widespread criticism of ministers in the media:

“How can you claim to support literacy and not support libraries?” Jamila Gavin (children’s author).

4. Recommendations for Action

While we do not feel it is for the Society to dictate how library services are best provided, a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century must allow free access to physical books in safe, comfortable, convenient and accessible space. It must be knowledgeably managed and curated by trained professional staff.

We do not comment on the effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 save to say that library closures will have a devastating, long-lasting and irreparable effect on local communities as well as on the wider community and the nation; we are confident that Government has sufficient powers under its general jurisdiction to prevent these devastating closures and ensure that Britain has a thriving, comprehensive and efficient public library service throughout the 21st century and beyond and we urge the Government and the Society of State to exercise those powers now.

In addition we urge that:

Public Lending Right should be maintained and the rate increased;

Public Lending Right should be introduced for ebooks and audiobooks; and

Make school libraries compulsory.

Appendix A: (not printed)

The Society’s response of May 2011 to the Independent Review of Cultural Education

Appendix B: (not printed)

The Society’s Report to the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into the administration of examinations for 15-to-19-year-olds in England.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012