Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Christopher Pipe


I am a chartered librarian with experience of running libraries in three state schools and of advising one private school. I now work as a freelance editor and researcher but carefully watch developments in librarianship, especially school libraries. I am a lifelong user of public libraries.


Public libraries support self-improvement through personal development, independent learning and business enterprise. This is a service driven by professional expertise, not just a random accumulation of books.

Comprehensive service should include range and format of resources as well as all kinds of users.

Where library provision is inadequate, people must buy resources privately, which is inefficient. Those who cannot afford their own resources will lack important means of personal development, learning and informed enterprise, to the detriment of society and the economy as a whole.

School library provision varies in quality and when funding is reduced some headteachers look to make savings on library budgets, even to the extent of making skilled librarians “redundant”. Public libraries are then of special importance in supporting the development of children’s literacy and information skills.

Financial decisions are made by national government, local authorities, chief librarians and head teachers. If libraries budgets are cut, learners suffer, whoever made the decision, and some cuts are illusory because they merely shift the burden of funding from one fund holder to another.

1. Supporting learning

1.1 Libraries serve to link readers and researchers with books and information, exploiting the resources available for maximum effect. (See also the Appendix, section five below.) The knowledge business is highly complex and the domain of skilled professionals but many people, including decision makers, fail to appreciate the work that is done behind the scenes to give people access to knowledge.

1.2 I have worked in both public and school libraries as a volunteer, and when I was running school libraries I made great use of pupils as library assistants. The role of volunteers is important not only in keeping inadequately staffed libraries running smoothly but also in developing the volunteers’ own awareness of library resources, building appropriate relationships between staff and users, and promoting the personal development and self-confidence of the volunteers themselves.

1.3 I cannot see how any library can be run successfully if it is not under the close personal oversight of qualified and experienced professional staff. I remain to be convinced that the management and training of volunteers can be done by one highly paid officer working at local-authority level.

1.4 The views of professional librarians threatened with budget cuts and redundancy have rarely been heard—partly because their contracts of employment may forbid public comment on their employers’ decisions—but this means the considered views of experienced professional staff are often never known. Library users may never be sure whether the proposed cuts are fiercely opposed and resented by the library staff, or are part of a genuine vision for a different pattern of future library provision. This is the more regrettable if it means that decision makers such as local councillors remain unaware of the implications of their decisions.

1.5 Public protests have mainly focused on the local branch library as a valued community centre, as a provider of recreational reading and of help for the unemployed, not to mention its importance to children’s development as readers. Much less evident has been any understanding of the vital role played by libraries in serving the needs of students, independent researchers and businesses.

1.6 The media (including letters pages) tend to assume that libraries are valued by those who “like reading” and are assumed to be happy with almost any sort of reading; they can therefore be directed to charity shops for a source of “reading”. Charity shops are not, however, of any use whatsoever to those whose reading is more purposeful, or indeed to those who are discriminating in the authors, titles and genres they seek.

2. A comprehensive service

2.1 Public libraries should serve all age groups: children, young people, working and unwaged adults, the elderly. They should serve all social classes: the working class, the leisured middle classes, the senior executives and politicians. They should serve those of all educational standards: those with learning difficulties, those flying through school and needing to read voraciously, those struggling through college, those undertaking study or research. They should provide for those of all ethnic groups and for those with physical disabilities including mobility difficulties and visual impairment. Library stocks should include a comprehensive range of media formats (printed books, maps, sound recordings, films etc.) covering a full range of subjects at all levels of understanding and from a range of viewpoints (political, social, male/female etc). Without this range, libraries cannot serve the three categories of users mentioned in the 1964 Act, namely those who live, work and study in the area.

2.2 Special mention has to be made of school library provision because the quality of education is coming under attack from three directions:

2.2.1School budgets are suffering cuts (despite what some politicians wish us to believe), and head teachers are reducing the funds allocated to library staff and stock.

2.2.2Local authority budgets are being cut, and the school library services (funded through education or libraries budgets or both) are being destroyed.

2.2.3Public libraries are under threat of closure and some of those remaining are being deprofessionalised and their stock and buildings run down. They do not have the capacity to support teachers and pupils. No one seems prepared to take responsibility for seeing that school pupils have the benefit of expert guidance by specialists in children’s literature and the multiple literacies required in our complex society.

3. An efficient service


Not efficient

3.1 Purchase of resources is shared.

Each individual/family/business has to buy resources separately.

3.2 People take turns to use resources.

People pay the full price of ownership and for a limited time try to find buyers for resources which are no longer needed.

3.2.1As an example, I listed 10 books which I read or consulted recently, or plan to read or consult in the near future. None was out of print; none was available as a free ebook. The cost of purchasing them (in ebook format if available) would have been £427.26. The cost of ordering them from the library (including the charges for reservation or inter-library loan where applicable) came to £29.20—it would have been less if my local library had a larger stock and had some of them sitting on the shelf, and/or if my library had had more of them in the system without requiring loans from the British Library or other public library systems. I have no need to own these books permanently, and other readers will be able to use them once I have finished with them. Even with overheads taken into consideration, no one can persuade me that it would have been more efficient for me to buy all these books myself. Libraries are efficient!


Not efficient

3.3 Licences to use online resources are negotiated on behalf of large groups of users.

Each individual/family/business must subscribe separately to online.

3.4 Experienced stock editors, with local knowledge, are employed to keep abreast of new resources (books, recordings, technology, online databases and services) and buy or licence what users are likely to find useful.

Each individual/family/business has to keep abreast of new titles/technologies/or miss out on things through ignorance of what is available. This is not only economically inefficient, it also fails to make the most of human potential.

3.5 Collections and study spaces are provided in local libraries for anyone to use.

Each user must travel to a major central library, or else must find his or her own space which is conducive to study and has the printed and computer resources needed—which is highly desirable but not practicable for everyone.

4. Decision making

4.1 Some politicians and local councillors, and (I believe) civil servants and local government officials who advise them, lack any vision for how public libraries can serve the intellectual and economic well-being of private individuals and the whole nation. Funding decisions are taken in many different quarters, but the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has a statutory duty to promote the improvement of the public library service and secure the proper discharge by local authorities of their functions in relation to libraries. He has conspicuously failed to do so, ignoring repeated demands for his intervention. Arts Council England has ostensibly been charged with some responsibility but its funding for library work has been cut from the former MLA’s £13 million to a mere £3 million.

4.2 The Future Libraries document fails to engage with the real issues, lacks vision and has even been described as “absurd”.

4.3 It is difficult to judge how effective the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention could be, since he has refused to use them. The law and the courts say it is his job to supervise library services, but he watches from the sidelines while local authorities (who are deprived of funds by central government restrictions) destroy their comprehensive and efficient service. It cannot have been Parliament’s intention in 1964 that the Act should result in this buck-passing farce.

5. Appendix: Some typical users and their needs

Voices for the Library recently published a list of 93 jobs done by librarians (with the emphasis on public libraries). Here is a complementary list of user needs that often go unrecognised in the media and by local councillors:

Alison enjoys books by a certain living author. What books has he written since the last one Alison read? (Finding out from the catalogue ought to be easy, but is often complicated.) What similar writers might Alison enjoy?

Brian has a keen interest in local history. What books or articles have been published on the area recently?

Colin runs a small business making widgets. A recent research report could suggest ways of making them much more efficiently—but there again, it might not. Colin is clearly not going to invest £185 (the published price) in a report whose relevance is not certain. Can a copy be obtained on interlibrary loan?

Dolores is a keen knitter running out of ideas. She needs to compare a large range of books to see which will provide her with patterns and ideas which (a) she has not used before, and (b) are appropriate for the ages and styles of the people she knits for.

Eddie was never a high-flier academically but has recently become a voracious teenage reader of certain sorts of fiction, getting through two or three books a week either printed or in electronic format. He doesn’t earn a lot from his Saturday job, so to build on his new-found confidence as a reader he needs to borrow lots of titles either from his school library or from his local public library.

Fran has three children under the age of 10. She’s a single mother living on benefits and doesn’t have time to read much for herself, but has taken her children to the library regularly and they love choosing a dozen books each week for bedtimes and homework. (Sometimes dad or gran will read to them at weekends.) Now their local library is under threat. Will their love of books survive till they reach secondary school? And when they move up to “big school”, will there be a librarian there to foster their enthusiasm and lead them on to greater things?

Grant hopes to complete his professional exams next year. He needs to do a lot of revision and extension reading, but although he can use computers when at work there is no usable broadband coverage where he lives, and he needs fast internet access to help him study in the evenings.

Hattie (her full name is quite unpronounceable by English speakers!) only arrived in England a year ago and is struggling with her school work, but she is a bright girl who needs to read news and magazine features and stories in her own language as well as relevant English fiction written in language that isn’t too demanding. Who will help her find these?

Ian was made redundant last month and is struggling to come up with a viable plan to keep his life and his home afloat. It isn’t just finding the job adverts and applying online that are proving difficult—he needs to do a lot of reading and thinking to see if there may be a different career which would offer better job prospects whilst using some of his existing skills. Or he might seek retraining for something completely different—but what? He needs a range of newspapers and magazines, contact details for people and organisations that could help him, and even some technical journals or websites that might help him formulate a Plan B.

Jasmine is wheelchair-bound; she cannot access the mobile library and although the central library is physically accessible, it is some miles away and the trip is a bit daunting. She has hitherto used a more local branch but its future is uncertain.

Keith is a governor of his local school—an unpaid position. He likes to follow the latest ideas in education but some of the reports are quite expensive and online sources give only brief summaries of them. He would like to borrow such titles to look at them in more detail at home.

Leila teaches pupils with special educational needs and wants to see what recent research has been published. She belongs to one or two online discussion forums which often refer to research published in specialist journals but access to these are often by subscription only. Where can she gain access to them without paying hundreds of pounds a year?

Molly is elderly and her sight is poor. She can (for the time being) cope with the large-print books in her local branch library but feels she would keep her mind more active if she could read a wider range of books. The big central library has a marvellous machine that displays any ordinary book on a screen at a great magnification—but Molly’s driving days are over and the bus service only operates twice a week, and then wouldn’t give her long enough in town to make full use of the library there. Neighbours are willing enough but she doesn’t like to impose on them to take her all that distance and for as long as she would need. She doubts if her local branch library will get one of those machines, and with staff cutbacks she’s not even sure if they would know about any scheme that would help her.

Najendra wants to help a cousin who is having trouble with the immigration laws. Conflicting information seems to be given depending on who is giving it. Where can the family turn for impartial advice and reliable, detailed information?

Olly is thinking of volunteering as his local library is likely to close. As a competent driver with an MPV (Multi-Purpose Vehicle), he could offer to spend two or three mornings a week picking up elderly neighbours and taking them to the nearest remaining large library, some 15 miles away, waiting while they choose new books and bringing them home again. He may not need special insurance cover, but he would like to be reimbursed at casual car user rates and would feel more confident if someone could pay for him to do a passenger care course and a first aid course in case of accidents or medical emergencies.

Pete is a taxi driver and the traffic police have told him he can’t take bookings on his mobile phone. He doesn’t want to flout the law, but other cab drivers have assured him the police were wrong. Where can he check what the law actually says, as opposed to how the policeman interpreted it?

Queenie is five and her sister faces hospital treatment for a life-threatening condition. What books does the library have that might help her (or her sister) cope with the emotional and spiritual challenge the family faces? If suitable books are available but are not in stock, how quickly could they be obtained?

Rajesh is involved with a local pressure group. He has written letters to his MP and to council officials, but the replies he gets don’t give him much satisfaction. Sometimes it seems as if they don’t even know as much about the law as he does. He needs to check whether what they are saying is right or whether there is scope for further lobbying.

How many of these users will find their needs met at a branch run by volunteers? What training will those volunteers need (and at what cost) to enable them to offer a comprehensive library service? And where it is not feasible to offer such a service in local branches, which of the users described will find their needs met by visiting the nearest main library either in person or online? What extra costs (in money or time) might this involve? Will this be efficient?

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012