Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the West Midlands Society of Chief Librarians

1. Introduction

1.1 The Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) is a local government association made up of the chief librarian of each library authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The West Midlands SCL is a network of 14 chief librarians representing library authorities across the region.

1.2 The West Midlands membership commissioned two pieces of work relevant to the inquiry, and specifically to how libraries will meet the needs of the 21st century.

1.3 The first, completed in October 2010, is a strategy and toolkit for developing the health and well-being agenda in libraries through reading activities.

1.4 The second, from November 2010, makes the case for sharing or merging services sub-regionally to achieve efficiencies and savings whilst maintaining high standards of public service.

1.5 Both documents are attached in full [not printed] and briefly summarised below.

2. The West Midlands Public Library Health and Well-being Partnership Toolkit

2.1 West Midlands SCL commissioned The Reading Agency to design a toolkit to help regional libraries extend their health and well-being offer, and develop closer working partnerships with the health and social service sectors. Their report looks at regional case studies, the wider strategic context, and the evidence available for the benefits of reading, and social reading groups, both to specific audiences and more generally.

2.2 The benefits of “bilbiotherapy” explored include helping older people stay mentally agile and independent, combating loneliness, isolation and low self-esteem, reducing stress levels, and generally promoting both physical and mental health and well-being.

2.3 Emphasis is placed on the fact that libraries are a neutral, non-clinical environment which “widens access and helps to normalise the experience of health-related activities”. Libraries also offer partners “unrivalled community access reaching older people, children and families, BME groups and deprived communities”.

2.4 Recent case studies covered include the development of specially-branded health zones within libraries offering information and events, and reading activities for isolated and vulnerable groups, including people with learning disabilities or mental health problems.

2.5 Stoke-on-Trent library service is working in partnership with NHS Stoke-on-Trent to improve health literacy in the city through increased access to high quality health information and signposting to health services:

2.6 People will use the library who won’t use other services … the more you can invest in prevention, the less it is going to cost you in cure.
Linda Clark, NHS Stoke-on-Trent

2.7 Dudley library service is working with a range of partners to provide social reading activities for people with learning disabilities, including separate sessions for Asian communities. Their aim is to improve the quality of life and promote the well-being of reading group members—building confidence, supporting learning and increasing social and community engagement:

2.8 The staff were extremely motivated and passionate about providing a reading group service for our service users … some who attended this group had a profound learning disability, whilst others had complex needs due to sensory, mobility and mental health needs.
Debbie Cooper, Team Leader Amblecote Centre for Learning Disability

3. West Midlands Libraries: The Case for Efficiency through Cooperation

3.1 West Midlands SCL commissioned Black Radley Ltd to work on a business case for regional partners to share or merge some of their frontline and back-room library operations. The research was commissioned in response to anticipated library service budgets cuts of around 30% and the opportunities these presented for radical change unthinkable in more normal times.

3.2 The commissioned report was aimed at local authority decision-makers—chief executives and chief officers—as well as library professionals. Black Radley concluded that cross-boundary cooperation between regional library authorities could achieve worthwhile savings.

3.3 Progress has since been made: Solihull, Warwickshire, Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire are already operating shared mobile library services. Anticipated combined savings between Solihull and Warwickshire, for example, will be around £100,000. Other ways to cooperate—such as shared stock services and library management systems—are currently being explored by regional partners.

3.4 The Black Radley report also looked at wider issues, highlighting the role of libraries in building social capital and the “Big Society”, describing them as a catalyst for relationships between citizens, between citizen and state, and between public sector partners. Importantly:

3.5 Libraries are one of the very few public services which offer unconditional space and a service based on pleasure. As such, they have a unique potential for being the “killer app” which brings in the public, enabling wider health, welfare, educational and other messages to be conveyed. They have the ability to make the “hard to reach” less hard to reach.

West Midlands SCL hopes the above summary and attached reports [not printed] will be useful to the inquiry. Please send a copy of the report to the chairman.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012