Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted from Christina Burnett

Executive Summary

The Libraries and Museums Act 1964 was framed before the invention of the world wide web and therefore does not cover the crucial role of the national library system in providing public internet access.

Public libraries provide a unique learning and social space which is accessible to all citizens.

Libraries are vital to the 21st century knowledge economy/information age in many ways. They are also the most cost effective method of ensuring that all citizens are able to access the internet.

The broadband "People's Network" in libraries is a significant national resource which provides 36 million hours of public internet access per annum.

Without regular internet access it is not possible for people to apply for jobs with many major employers.

Wi-fi usage is not recorded in public library statistics, so the total figures for internet usage in libraries are largely underestimated.

Librarians are essential information technologists, helping the public navigate the increasingly overwhelming volume of data and information.

Lack of internet access at home is a major educational disadvantage for young people from low income families. Internet access in public libraries, particularly wi-fi and evening opening, can help alleviate this disadvantage.

The closure of public libraries has a disproportionate impact on women and older people.

Public libraries are one of the most valuable, and valued, resources in any community, contributing towards a wide range of social, cultural, economic, health and educational needs.

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

“The library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in history”—Carl Rowan

1. When the Libraries & Museums Act was framed in 1964, the world wide web did not exist. Thus the legislation ignores one of the most vital aspects of the modern public library: providing reliable, secure public internet access. The web is the Great Library of the World, so the library buildings at the heart of our communities are now essential in both a physical and a virtual sense.

2. Libraries are essential to our neighbourhoods as classless spaces where all citizens can study, socialise, find information, be helped by knowledgeable staff, read newspapers and borrow books music and DVDs for learning and for leisure. The traditional role of the library remains as important today as it was in the 19th century when the public library system was created. As the only universal, local, free resource for self-directed learning, libraries drive social and economic mobility for all ages.

3. The first public libraries were given to local communities by wealthy philanthropists who recognised the need to provide information and educational resources to those who could not otherwise afford them. In the knowledge economy/information age of the 21st century such provision is more important than ever before. Maintaining resources which citizens can use to improve their own prospects is good business.

4. Andrew Carnegie, then the richest man in the world, founded some 3,000 public libraries, several hundred of them in the UK. Bill Gates, one of today's richest men, is pouring millions into public libraries around the world, through the Gates Foundation. The Foundation also awards an annual prize of $1 million to a single outstanding library.

5. The public library is the most important non-religious building in any community, because it supports children, older people, the disabled and the disadvantaged on the same terms as all other members of society. It is an essential resource for schools and a consistent, trusted environment, open for long, regular hours. Everyone is welcome in the library. Because it is free, no one is excluded. It is the only warm, indoor, non-commercial space which exists in most communities and one of the few which is still considered safe for children.

6. A decade ago, the government People's Network programme used £100 million of Lottery money (and $4 million from the Gates Foundation) to install broadband-enabled computers in every UK public library. This created a national system of free broadband access for the entire population. Our libraries provide 36 million hours of public internet access every year (not including wi-fi access) (CIPFA Public Library Statistics 2009–10).

7. Although it is now under control of the separate library authorities and therefore not seen in its true role as a major national resource, the People's Network continues to serve us all—and it is used by every section of the community. It is particularly essential to those who do not have access to the internet elsewhere, usually because they are older, or disabled, or workless and/or live in poverty.

8. In a recent government survey of those in employment, every person earning £1000+ per week used the internet, while 9.2% of those who earned £200 or less did not. (ONS Internet Access Quarterly update August 2011). Among older people, 65% of those aged 65+ (approx 10.3 million people) do not have an internet connection at home (UK Adults' Media Literacy, Ofcom, 2011).

9. For disadvantaged groups, and those with little technical knowledge, internet access in the trusted and secure environment of the library is a lifeline. For many, it is also the only place where they can apply for jobs. Most large employers, from the Post Office to Sainsburys, accept online applications only, so those without regular internet access are completely excluded.

10. A recent UN report emphasises the importance of universal access:

IV. Access to Internet connection

61... access to the Internet is not only essential to enjoy the right to freedom of expression, but also other rights, such as the right to education, the right to freedom of association and assembly, the right to full participation in social, cultural and political life and the right to social and economic development.
(Promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, UN August 2011).

11. Because the People's Network is maintained in every library, and is designed for public access, libraries are the most efficient and cost-effective way of providing universal internet provision. (The UK Online Centres network has been radically reduced by funding cuts and has now been moved into the charitable sector).

12. A comprehensive and efficient library service would continue to provide all the traditional core library offers, including access to the knowledge of librarians. Librarians are the information technologists who can help us navigate the complexities of our globalised, multi-channel world. How would MPs manage without the well-staffed House of Commons library? For most of us, information overload is a daily experience and the best search engine is a good librarian!

13. So, in addition to the core offers of hard-copy books and media, and librarian support, a comprehensive service will be equipped with up-to-date technology and fast broadband (and wi-fi) with sufficient bandwidth for a large number of users. Wi-fi is hugely popular in libraries, and it is greatly to be welcomed that the Minister supports the installation of Wi-fi in all our public libraries.

14. I am based in Lambeth, where only one of nine libraries, Brixton, currently has wi-fi. When wi-fi was installed at Brixton in 2010, monthly footfall over the following months increased up to 27%. CIPFA does not record data about wi-fi usage, only usage on the fixed broadband computers. Thus the CIPFA figure of 36 million hours in 2009–10 considerably underestimates the real level of public internet access used in libraries across the UK.

15. Wi-fi is a vital resource for those who have school-provided laptops but no internet access at home. It enables students and schoolchildren to use their own equipment to complete study tasks in the library. Lack of internet access is a major disadvantage when completing homework and projects. Providing wi-fi and evening access in public libraries is vital if we are to narrow the digital divide and create a more equal playing field for young people from low income families.

The impact library closures have on local communities

16. For all the reasons mentioned above, a public library is one of the most valuable assets in any community. That libraries are highly valued has been demonstrated by the unprecedented level of campaigning seen across the country in areas where library closures have been threatened.

17. In addition to the well documented—and to my view valid and strong—arguments of the damage caused by removing an accessible, trusted, local source of books, periodicals and various community educational and social resources, I would add the following points.

18. Each month in 2011, the nine libraries in Lambeth alone provided over 15,000 hours of pubiic internet access. Multiply this across the UK and it's clear that closing a library is a digital disaster, as well as a social one.

19. It is important to recognize that library closures have greater impact on women than on men. Most libraries run reading groups, and groups for older people, and the membership of these groups is overwhelmingly female.

20. Women are also a large majority of those caring for small children and most libraries offer parent and baby groups and sessions for young children. Losing a library severely curtails social and educational options for both these groups.

21. Public space is often occupied by large areas devoted to sports played mainly by men—football, rugby, cricket etc—with almost no space allocated to activities preferred specifically by women. This makes the library offer even more important for women.

22. For older women in particular, a library is a safe and social space. Loneliness and isolation are recognised as growing social problems. Of the 3.7 million older people living alone, 70% are women aged over 65. (Labour Force Survey, ONS, 2011). 91% of single person retired households do not have internet access at home. (Office for National Statistics (2010b) Living costs and food survey). Older women are statistically more likely than men to be at risk of poverty.

23. Older people in general are disproportionately affected by library closures. A considerable proportion of older people live on very low incomes, making it hard to afford books, newspapers and other media and reducing opportunities for socialising. Many visit the library because is warm, thus reducing cold-related illnesses and consequent NHS costs. Between 2003 and 2009, average household gas bills doubled and average electricity bills rose by 60%. (UK Fuel Poverty Strategy Annual Report 2009, Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2009).

24. Every community loses on many different levels when a library is shut down: In my own street, an 86 year old disabled lady who is an avid reader told me "If they close the library there will be no reason for me to live".

25. A young woman who had suffered from severe depression said that it was the library which helped her to recover—it was the first place she went, when she felt able to leave her home.

26. A middle-aged man explained that he could afford to access only a small number of the books he reads, if he had to buy them instead of borrowing.

27. One of the many young people who study regularly in the library said he lived in a noisy, shared environment with no available space for quiet study.

28. And at 7 o'clock one morning I met a woman in her 30s sobbing in the street. Her alcoholic partner had beaten her and thrown her out and she had nowhere to go. "Usually I go and sit in the library", she said.

29. A library serves so many hard-to-reach needs in a community, many of them not easily visible and never recorded in the book borrowing statistics. Loss of post offices, pubs and in many areas also local shops have all reduced common social space as well as amenities. In just one building the library can help alleviate these losses and bring people together. In my deprived inner-city neighbourhood, it's like having a village hall. The closure of the library would cut the heart out of our community.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012