Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Camden Public Libraries Users Group

Cost reduction is not necessarily the same as efficiency improvement.

A service which excludes the less affluent, the elderly, the infirm and mothers with young children can never be a comprehensive service.

Without an easily accessible local public library, poor families do not have the opportunity to acquire a reading habit and illiteracy becomes entrenched.

The consultation process is very important—it is not a box ticking exercise or a publicity stunt.

The public library problem can be solved/mitigated, if the will exists.

Clear, firm, visible guidance is needed from the DCMS—something that was provided in the past by the Public Library Standards.

There is much work necessary to stop and then reverse the falling level of literacy in this country. Closing public libraries makes the task more difficult.

1. Camden Public Libraries Users Group

Camden Public Libraries Users Group (CPLUG) was formed in 1998 to coordinate the activities of individual library user groups within the London Borough of Camden. In particular, it was tasked with opposing the library closure policies of that were being formulated by the local authority at that time. Since 1998, it has continued to represent the borough’s library users and to carry out research on subjects related to Camden’s libraries.

2. An Efficient Service

2.1 The UK has a major financial problem and local government has to share in the efforts to solve it. This is a fact and it has to be accepted as the starting point for any consideration of medium-term future public library policies. From this, it is reasonable to conclude that it is necessary to make all local government activities as efficient as possible ie to reduce costs, whilst minimizing service reduction. However, at present, the imperative appears to be to simply reduce costs and this approach often masks and overrides the need to improve efficiency. Yet, in the medium/long term, it is efficiency which is the important factor. Indeed, efficiency is a major requirement of the Public Libraries and Museums Act, but minimum cost is not.

2.2 Local authorities usually claim that proposed changes to their library policies will result in increases in efficiency and the local decision makers may genuinely believe that this is the case. However, this belief is usually based on only a sketchy understanding of the work of modern public libraries. There is usually no professional library management experience at the top of local council bureaucracies and local politicians do not have the time or resources to engage in effective research—councillors rarely enter any of the libraries they are responsible for. In these circumstances, it is sensible to critically examine the basis for improved efficiency claims.

2.3 In the 1950s, a public library provided little more than a book lending service. The add-ons to this were limited to the provision of a reference book collection and newspapers. As the average duration of a visit was short and the purpose of the visits was overwhelmingly for book borrowing, it was quite acceptable to use the cost per visit and the cost per issue as yardsticks to measure its efficiency. In more recent times, the range of services on offer has increased considerably and the average duration of visits has also noticeably increased. The library profession and local authorities have responded to these changes by placing greater emphasis on the visits figures. This approach has the advantage of using data which is easily acquired. However, it has the disadvantage of not providing an accurate measure of a library’s use, because the time element is ignored.

2.4 If the number of visits to a library falls by 10%, but the average duration of the visits rises by 20%; the overall service provided to the local community has increased. Although this library is providing a better service to its community, at present it will be labelled as a failing library. This improving library will inevitably feature in a proposed closure list and, if it is closed, the efficiency of the service will probably diminish. Of course, if the changes to the number and duration of visits were reversed, the library would be considered a success, although the overall service to the community (and the efficiency of the library service) will have fallen. Without a reliable method of efficiency measurement, it is impossible for local authorities to make informed judgements and judicial review claims that library closures are necessary to improve efficiency cannot be proved (the evidence is missing). In spite of it being impossible to validate these improvement claims, the wide-spread local government assumption is that they are correct. It is inevitable that this will lead to further rounds of closures.

2.5 Perhaps it is a little harsh to suggest that “garbage in equals garbage out” applies to the cost reduction decisions local authorities have recently made with respect to their library services. Nevertheless, the claims of improved efficiency need to be viewed with scepticism. We are unaware of any attempt by local authorities to measure library visits in terms of man.hours (user.hours?). The retail sector has long used measurements from computer vision systems and thermal imaging systems to maximize the efficiency and safety of its outlets. A similar approach could be used by library authorities to obtain more relevant data.

2.6 A combination of ignorance at the strategic decision making level and faulty data is inevitably going to result in mistakes and councils throughout the country are being vilified for these. The DCMS has also not escaped criticism and its policy of disengagement has certainly not been helpful. Cosy, private chats with a few local government officers are no substitute for clear, firm, visible guidance. Such guidance has been lacking since the Public Library Standards were allowed to fall out of use.

2.7 Anything which restricts its room for manoeuvre is disliked by an organisation and local authorities did dislike the mild restrictions of the Library Standards. Quiet satisfaction was their response to the demise of the Library Standards and being given more freedom from supervision. A laissez faire attitude to banking regulation was also popular with banks, but it produced disaster. The current, relaxed approach to national public library guidance/supervision appears to be leading towards the same end. The difference between the two cases is that it is still possible to significantly reduce the scale of the public library disaster. The will to do so is what is missing.

3. A Comprehensive Service

3.1 Library Standard PLSS1 defined the proportion of households which should be within a specified distance of a static library (for an inner London borough, such as Camden, 100% of households should be within one mile of a static library). Although the standard is now obsolete, it is effectively being used by local authorities to justify library closure programmes. The standard is not being used as a guide to the minimum level of service provision which is occasionally acceptable, but as a target for the general downgrading of service provision. When used as a firm target, it is far too simplistic, as it does not take into account barriers to travel. These include lack/cost of public transport and the need to cross major roads/canals/railways. Whilst the transport difficulties do not affect many prosperous families, they are of great importance to the less affluent, the elderly, the infirm and mothers with young children. A service which excludes these groups can never be a comprehensive service.

3.2 The poor, the elderly, the infirm and mothers are obvious sectors of the community which have a higher than average need to use a local public library, but they are not the only groups where this applies. Local authorities sometimes find it convenient to consider their individual areas as having a homogenous population. However, this is usually far from the case. Each community within that area is unique and, because of this, the usage mix is unique for the library that serves it. In inner cities, this mix can change quite rapidly. Therefore, it is important to carefully consult the local population, when library closures are contemplated. This is not a great concession, as has been claimed in Camden Council, but is an essential tool for minimizing the damage done by library closures.

3.3 The Wirral report recognised the extreme importance of good consultation, but good consultation has been conspicuously missing from the activities of many local authorities. As a result, there have been a number of legal actions by library campaigners. These represent the visible tip of a very large iceberg. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the box ticking approach used by councils for their consultations. In extreme cases, where the council is obviously engaged in manipulating the process, the dissatisfaction becomes contempt.

3.4 A public consultation has to be undertaken with an open mind, not one which has already been made up and is closed to all else. A consultation which has a predetermined outcome becomes just another public relations exercise.

4. The Impact of Library Closures

4.1 A report published at the beginning of December 2011 by the Literacy Society (www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0001/1305/The_Gift_of_Reading_in_2011.pdf) stated:

“In 2005, one in 10 of the children and young people we surveyed said they did not have a book of their own at home; while in 2011 the figure stands at a startling one child in three. With one in six people in the UK having the literacy level expected of an 11 year old, this is of great concern.”

4.2 These two sentences describe one of the effects of the general downgrading of UK public library services over the last few years. Public libraries were founded to counter illiteracy and the failure of local authorities to recognise that there is still a country-wide literacy problem has contributed to their desire to rid themselves of what they believe are outmoded institutions.

4.3 It is sometimes suggested that books are cheap and, therefore, affordable by everyone. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that a two parent family, with a single earner and two children, needs an annual income of, at least, £31,600 to achieve a “minimum standard of living” (www.jrf.org.uk/publications/minimum-income-standard-uk-2011). Where that single earner is on the minimum wage of £6.08 per hour, he/she would need to work for 99.95 hours per week for every week of the year to give that family the minimum living standard. Even for two earners, this is an impossible task. Some things have to be sacrificed and food for the mind (books) is less immediately important than food for the stomach.

4.4 Without an easily accessible local public library, poor families do not have the opportunity to acquire a reading habit and illiteracy becomes entrenched.

4.5 A variation on the cheap books argument is the e-books one. In this case, it is suggested that library buildings are no longer necessary, because e-books can be easily downloaded via the internet. Of course, this carefully ignores the costs involved in acquiring the means to make those downloads and, as a result, is utter nonsense if a comprehensive service is to be provided. It is possible that, some time in the future, internet access may provide a valid alternative to a library building, but it cannot now or in the near term.

4.6 In the medium to long term future, it is probable that there will have to be a reassessment of which library buildings are needed for a comprehensive service to be supplied to local communities. It is essential that this takes place with clear guidelines in place. There will be a great temptation for unsympathetic councils to use this reassessment as an excuse for wholesale closure programmes.

4.7 There is much work necessary to stop and then reverse the falling level of literacy in this country. Closing public libraries makes the task more difficult.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012