Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Yinnon Ezra MBE

IS THERE A ROLE FOR GOVERNMENT IN PUBLIC LIBRARIES?

BackgroundA Very Brief Personal Summary

Local Authorities (LAs) have a duty to provide Public Libraries—interestingly the origins of this “duty” are linked very much to the developing Education and schools agenda of the time. Also “books” were expensive and for working class communities a “luxury”—the visit to the local library often in a lovely expansive “Carnegie” building, spacious, smelling of wax polish was a family outing. This for many of today’s “library campaigners” was the golden age of local libraries with the only pressing personal question being the number of books one could borrow. For, the local authorities who built these libraries and ran them, it was a matter of civic pride to open as many as possible with due ceremony and pomp. The local librarians, who although not particularly well paid, had status and respect in the community which was the envy of many public service employees of the day.

These statutory roots have been hugely important to generations of librarians—the fact that a Royal Charter is in the foundation of their Professional Organisation gives the “profession” an equivalent status (in their minds at least) to many other leading public service professions, for example, teachers, doctors and nurses. This professional role was re-enforced by clear lines being drawn between those who “ran” the service including those “qualified” to work with the public. The “non-professional”, although being unrecognisable at the front desk “knew their place” knowing when to refer/defer to the qualified librarian. This practice was not challenged until about the late 1970s and some of this continues today, even in the most progressive of local authorities. This professional culture also played itself out in what service was provided to the public, in that it was the librarian who decided which books were bought, the opening hours and the general rules of engagement. The public including the local politicians accepted this with gracious passivity.

When in the 1980s a lack of cash together with the sudden growth of information technology began to impact on public libraries the reaction among the “profession” was profound. It was everything from denial, to protest, to rejection; but some librarians faced up to the intellectual challenge looking to adapt, mould and embrace change. The staunch independence of the librarian and the library service within local authority structures was also being eroded. New governance structures creating larger portfolio service departments meant that the status of the Chief Librarian so long the respected top of the profession was also being subsumed. The abolition of the Net Book Agreement was an important external factor as the price of books fell—this made them cheaper to buy and when linked to the rapid growth of the internet all contributed to a dramatic decline in book lending.

When Chris Smith became Secretary of State (S of S) at the DCMS his vision for libraries had a different ring to it—“the street corner university”—a clear recognition that the role of public libraries was much wider—yes, a place you could borrow books but also somewhere you could go “on-line”—tackling the “information haves and have not’s” by the provision of free access to the internet. The “Peoples Network” was born with your local public library being the key to universal information. Link that to “e” learning and suddenly the number of people visiting public libraries began to increase dramatically, this also had an impact on book lending which also rose. The clever thing here was that through a “quango” lottery cash was put at the disposal of local authorities to buy the equipment to make this happen—it was the only time where any S of S put any real cash into library service delivery. The snag was that it was “one off” and some LAs even charged for the service particularly as new systems were required to replace worn out kit.

Public Libraries are Local!!

Unlike schools, there is NO money that is given to LAs for this service—in fact there is no cash in the annual settlement for LAs for any cultural services. This is a very important fact as central government has no financial leaver it can pull to “make” LAs do anything they do not want to do. Some librarians, instead of focusing on the importance of libraries to local people thus expanding a truly local constituency, always seemed to look “behind” hoping that a new S of S would “ride over the hill” and prevent, for example, a book fund from being reduced or a small branch close. It is this looking for someone else to take the initiative which is deeply imbedded into the consciousness of some local library leaders. Yet, some of the most radical improvements, investments and change in local libraries have been driven by local politicians with enlightened and progressive professional advice. It is a service with much contrasting leadership!

Yet in a locality the library is a vital neutral facility that welcomes everyone. It is staffed with intelligent, helpful, public spirited people who have often worked in the area for a while and have enormous local knowledge. This simple fact is often NOT recognised by others in the local authority structure –in fact some local authorities have created “information centres” which duplicate what libraries have been doing for years. This is a crucial issue as the duplication is as much to do with the fact that what local libraries do as a matter of daily grind is just not known by others often in the “office or building next door”. If this is then added to the eternal quest of so many public services to be “close to their customers”, the picture that emerges quickly is the vast amount of money that is tied up in the buildings and people across a large part of the public sector all trying to engage with local people. The public library was their first!

So In Summary

My first contention is that the value of local public libraries needs to be recognised, appreciated and nurtured by the people who pay for them. This may sound obvious, but when the local Council is seeking a vehicle for getting closer to its community or, for example, the Children’s Services Department are looking for a way to getting parents and young children together—they need not look any further than their local library. The broadening of what local libraries do is crucial to their survival and evolution. Some will argue that the decline in use is down to the erosion of book stocks and opening hours through cuts, hence all that is required is for this to be reversed for local libraries to flourish again. The counter argument is that given that the “council tax” pays for local libraries with the average library attracting about 28% of local residents on a regular basis, the singular answer described would give that reducing percentage of local tax payers an excellent service—with the rest of the population continuing to walk past! To arrest the decline nothing short of the radical re-invention of local libraries as welcoming learning, community, cultural, information spaces, stocked with books, other media, open when local people want to use them and completely in line with the latest views of the local community are the ingredients of positive creative survival.

So what of Central Government

The current framework is at best confusing and at worst time consuming for all concerned. Government has now gone the full circle—before the “statutory force” for libraries came from the S of S through the Office of Arts and Libraries, then the Department of National Heritage and the DCMS. I, with many others, was one who argued that the Public Library sector required a body like the Arts Council to act as advocate, “launch pad” into government, a co-ordinator of innovative/creative practice and policeman. Various structures were constructed and duly dismantled.

This linked together with local authorities being required to report on their “performance” through the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) regime meant that for a time both government and local people were able to rank their local library authority and by doing so get some idea as to how they were doing. The fact that the CPA regime was an integrated audited framework was important, as if a library service was particularly bad, it could affect the overall LA score –hence Leaders and Chief Executives were “forced” to “take an interest” in their local libraries and many progressed over the years up the “star” ratings. This worked for a while but as the public appetite, mood and taste kept changing seemed “frozen in time”. Hence, a library service could have some of the best value for money results with customer satisfaction of the service being at an all time low and still score well—the weightings given to various performance indicators become quickly out-of-date. This has also now been abolished.

The quangos created by government did do some good work. The last, the MLA, after many years of activity did understand the importance of local authorities and got alongside many in a drive to raise standards. This local support with practical “on the ground” help has fostered much good practice. This together with the Wirral enquiry raised the profile of local libraries but importantly challenged the “strategic leadership” of the service requiring LAs to think more creatively about the role. The Local Government Association has never been a huge supporter of quangos as rightly they see public libraries as “their” responsibility, but at the same time as managing the “re-invention” of the service they are having to do this and more against a background of sustained reductions in cash. Also, more recently, they have been part of a positive DCMS/MLA link up –helped with a little government money- which has encouraged best practice but more importantly the highlighting of many practical initiatives and schemes from encouraging new audiences to saving money by closer collaboration between LAs. This sort of “working together” with the LGA closely locked into the management of any scheme and its outcome is well worth continuing into the future.

The Future

The future must be the bringing together of public libraries as being local and the clear responsibility of local authorities- with any future S of S creating a framework for creative “outcomes based –principles based” supervision. The abandonment of an “output” based framework to one that seeks the views of local people as to “what they want” and tests whether this has been delivered. It is this building of a bridge between the role of the S of S, local authorities and local people which is the first step rather than a debate about a structural framework. The teasing out of what these precious “outcomes” could be will by its very nature depend on local people—the structures, incentives, means by which local government can own and respond has always eluded the government of the day. Maybe it will be different next time?

December 2011

Prepared 5th November 2012