Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by The We ♥ Libraries Team

This submission is made on behalf of the library user group We ♥ Libraries which covers North Herts and Stevenage.

1. Summary

About us: An introduction to our group and the area we cover.

Our local situation: A summary of the situation regarding library cuts and their impact.

A comprehensive and efficient service for the 21st Century: Our view of what such a service must consist of.

Library cuts and the requirements of the Public Libraries & Museums Act (1964): An analysis of how a “hollowed-out” service may not be comprehensive or efficient.

The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention: A request for clarification over the point at which these powers should be invoked.

2. About Us

We ♥ Libraries (“We Heart Libraries”) is an independent, recently-formed user group set up to champion and celebrate the public library service in the districts of North Herts and Stevenage Borough. The area includes towns such as Hitchin, Stevenage, Letchworth Garden City, Baldock, Royston and Knebworth, and their surrounding villages. This is an area of strong contrasts – it includes both urban and rural settlements, modern planned towns and those with hundreds of years of history, affluent districts and those which register on national indices of deprivation. There are seven libraries in this area – one large central library that is among the biggest in the county, four mid-sized town branches and two small local libraries with more limited opening. They are run by Hertfordshire County Council.

3. Our Local Situation and the Impact of Library Cuts on our Communities

Hertfordshire has a Conservative administration consisting of councillors who combine a welcome belief in the intrinsic and practical value of the public library service with a strong commitment to localism and to redefining the way their organisation will provide its services in the future. This has resulted in a situation where no library branches in the county have closed recently – something we very much welcome – but where we have still experienced very significant cuts which threaten to undermine the effectiveness of the service, a phenomenon that has become known among campaigners as “hollowing out”. Branch opening hours have been cut by a third, resulting in significantly reduced access. One Hertfordshire town council has become so concerned about the effects on child literacy from this loss of access that it is funding three hours a week of branch opening itself for the next year.

The Central Resource Library, which deals with reference services and special collections, has been downsized and mobile library services have been restricted. The Schools Library Service, which had offered professional support from librarians to primary and secondary schools helping children read for pleasure, develop information literacy and learn research skills, and which is regarded as a national flagship, is due to close on 31 March 2012, a move that has drawn criticism nationally from a literacy body, the professional organisation for librarians and a prominent children’s author. This is happening because an insufficient number of schools can find the money to buy its services and it is therefore running at a deficit of less than £50,000, which the council does not choose to cover.

Finally, the council is about to launch a pilot to find voluntary groups who may be prepared to co-operate in opening library branches during the times they are now closed thanks to opening hours reductions. It envisages basic access to stock, the ability to issue, return and renew items and the possibility of computer access if this proves feasible. It sees this as a positive plan to make the best of a poor financial situation; however we have grave concerns about its potential effects on the service.

Hertfordshire libraries operate a kiosk system for the issue, return and renewal of books and for basic account enquires. While this system operates effectively for many users, there are inevitably many queries and difficulties that require time and attention from staff with experience of how the library works. Also, staff spend a significant amount of time shelving and tidying stock – if branches are open without people on hand to do this, and to ensure resources are in their correct places, it is hard to see how an effective service can operate. We are also concerned that involving voluntary groups in running library services risks compromising the neutrality of the service, since libraries are places which help users with whatever needs they have rather than having an agenda of their own. Voluntary groups, community groups and charities, by contrast, inevitably exist to promote a cause. And, once the principle of operating libraries unstaffed is established, we feel it will prove irresistible to extend this next time that savings must be found.

If library buildings are opened unstaffed and operated by community groups we fear a two-tier system where users will experience a significantly different level of service depending on when they call. We feel this risks severely damaging both the comprehensiveness and the efficiency of the service, as well as its deserved reputation for excellent customer service. In short, we fear it will short-change the library user who cannot necessarily be expected to differentiate between two different kinds of opening on offer when they call.

4. A Comprehensive and Efficient Library Service for the 21st Century

We believe that the public library service is a great achievement and should remain an essential component of British civic society. It is a powerful tool for social engagement and a method by which councils and other agencies can achieve their strategic objectives while securing enviable value for money. Just as university departments, schools and colleges, law practices and medical facilities are all underpinned and supported by their libraries, so public libraries play the same role in achieving and sustaining vibrant and healthy communities. They celebrate diversity while allowing the propagation of common cultural values; allow citizens with different outlooks, backgrounds and circumstances to meet and mix on common ground; promote civic engagement and economic activity; make a vital contribution to citizens’ mental and physical health and wellbeing; support and promote the arts and community activities; and make a crucial contribution to child literacy and all kinds of education, to name just a few of their functions.

In order to continue to do all these things, we believe absolutely that they must be operated by staff who are trained in the discipline of information management and properly remunerated for the work they do. It is simply not true that you can find anything these days by Googling it – many people still do not have access to a fast, unmoderated internet connection, even though some now regard such a thing as a basic human right. Google is not an unbiased source – search results often vary depending on the location and previous activity of the user. And this method also relies on the user having the skills to sift and evaluate the information they find and judge its accuracy and usefulness. Rather than being obsolete, the skills of information professionals such as librarians are more relevant and valuable to society than ever before.

We also believe that, while volunteers can make a powerful contribution to libraries when they augment the work of staff, a volunteer- or community-run library does not fall within the definition of a “comprehensive and efficient” service and cannot be regarded as part of statutory provision under the Public Libraries Act. The service would not be comprehensive because it is offered at different levels depending on the location of the user – a “postcode lottery” of libraries, in fact. And it would be neither efficient nor comprehensive if expertise in offering a full range of information services was absent. In effect, councils who are offering residents the choice of running a library themselves or losing it are blackmailing them into taking on a near-impossible task, and one which is more likely to delay closure than avert it. The job of running libraries is one for a local authority, and not something it should be attempting to delegate to citizens under the banner of “localism” or “austerity”.

As well as operating from a bricks-and-mortar building which functions as an important community hub, and being run by a cohort of paid and trained staff, the 21st century library should have a well-developed online presence. In Hertfordshire we enjoy an excellent selection of online services including a monthly email newsletter, a reference enquiry service, catalogue access, account management and the ability to borrow ebooks. We welcome this and believe it is an important way for libraries to extend their reach and offer their services in ways that engage and suit more users. We also think it would be a welcome and necessary development if more library services were able to free themselves from the straitjacket of institutional council websites and the often unreasonable constraints imposed by IT departments. We would like to see more libraries able to commission their own online services directly, and to make better use of social media, as well as to see librarians collaborating with suppliers in developing bespoke library software to the specifications they require. At present virtually no library service in the UK does this, which we feel constitutes a very serious constraint on their operation.

We note, however, that the rising popularity of the ebook does raise some very serious issues for the future of the lending library throughout Europe and the world, not just in the UK. More and more people are choosing to read books electronically. While public libraries can stock and lend ebooks perfectly well they have practically no negotiating power with publishers who will soon be in a position to dictate terms, if they are not already. The problem is that, legally speaking, a physical bound book and an ebook are entirely different entities. When we buy or borrow a physical volume we mostly have a pretty good idea what we own and what we can do with it. We can, for example, lend it to a friend or sell it on when we don’t need it. We can give it away or even donate it to a library to become part of its lending stock. When we buy or borrow an ebook none of that is true – we are operating in an arena that is more analogous to buying computer games or other software. Buy an ebook and you buy a licence to use an electronic artefact which isn’t transferable to others. The concept of “lending” does not operate in licensing law.

Clearly this lack of clarity on lending electronic materials represents a significant threat to the future of the lending library and, as a result, to the dissemination of knowledge, ideas and culture around the whole of Europe. If ebooks become established as the dominant form of reading material, can libraries survive? EBLIDA (European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations), which is a European association for librarians and information professionals, believes that this problem can only be tackled on a supra-national level and is best addressed by Europe-wide legislation. It would be good to see support for this position from the UK government.

One of the greatest achievements of the public library service is its neutrality. No-one is trying to sell you anything, convince you of anything, solicit your support or steer you away from one thing or towards another. It is provided regardless of your personal views and circumstances and free to anyone who walks through the door (or, increasingly, anyone logging onto the service online). The minute that a library is situated in some corner of a commercial premises, or comes under the management of a private company, that will change. Users will be encouraged to borrow the material that suits the company, in a way that suits the company. It will cease to be about them and start to be about someone else’s bottom line. This is wrong and it is the reason why we oppose the involvement of the private sector – quite apart from some emerging evidence that it could lead to staff cuts, branch closures and a very negative attitude towards library personnel.

Similarly, voluntary organisations may well do wonderful work but they always, by their nature, bring their own agenda to the table – it’s their purpose for existing, after all. And that agenda may not serve all the citizens of a particular district or neighbourhood. That’s perfectly fine while the group is campaigning on an issue but not so quite good when it takes charge of a public service that’s supposed to be universally available. This is why we believe library services are always best operated by democratically-accountable local authorities and never by any kind of commercial or special-interest groups.

Our vision for the 21st-century library is therefore a powerful, agenda-free and adequately-resourced community hub that is under the democratic control of a local authority and able to respond to the needs of its users with flexibility by offering the services they require. We further think that the supply of printed media such as books, newspapers and magazines will remain a core function. The supply of electronic media, while essential to the future of libraries, risks having its development seriously impeded by compatibility and rights issues. The reason for this is the behaviour of proprietary device manufacturers like Amazon and Apple who are primarily interested in their own commercial advantage rather than the social implications of their behaviour. An important function of government is the regulation of businesses when their interests conflict with those of citizens and we hope this is a challenge the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will rise to. However, given its existing record of collaboration with companies and organisations who would like to censor the internet, circumscribe the behaviour of its users, destroy the level playing field it initially offered, or peddle digital rights management software that is extremely detrimental to the interests of consumers as well as often being unfit for purpose, we do not hold out much hope that it will.

There is a final point that we would like to bring to the attention of the Committee and this is a development in a handful of American public libraries that we find very exciting. It is the introduction of the “maker space” – resources for those interested using skills such as crafts, electronics and DIY and the space in which where these things intersect to create things, whether it is the provision of expertise, teaching or mentoring, access to tools and equipment (as personified in the recent development of three-dimensional printing technology) or the ability to work alongside others with the same interests. We would love to see the concept of the “maker space” workshop incorporated into the British public library in the same way that access to personal computing and Internet access has become a staple over the last decade.

5. Library Cuts and the Requirements of the Public Libraries & Museums Act (1964)

We seek to draw the Committee’s attention to the phenomenon of “hollowing out” as indicated above. The brief for this inquiry asks for views on “the extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Public Libraries & Museums Act (1964)”—but we also wish to make the case that branch closures are not the only means by which a service could cease to meet the requirements of the Public Libraries Act. Recent figures from the public sector accountancy body CIPFA show that in crucial areas such as book stock, staffing levels, loans and visits, libraries all around Britain are suffering a decrease, and it is a real worry that this may be contributing to the service being less attractive to users, who will in time vote with their feet.

If buildings remain open but the service they provide become increasingly limited and detached from what users need then library services will no longer be fit for purpose. We understand that local authorities are under terrible budgetary pressures, with central government restricting their access to almost every source of revenue that they collect, as well as what they can do with it once they’ve got it. But once the library service has been broken up that will be it – we won’t be able to rebuild it again or recreate what’s lost.

We think it is a serious mistake to set service against service, for instance by saying that libraries must be cut to provide cash for social care. The people who use each service aren’t arranged in discrete groups, only ever taking advantage of one aspect of the council’s provision at a time. Cut the library service and you are likely undermining the quality of life of those very people whose care you are claiming to protect. In Hertfordshire that means keeping in mind the bigger picture – the fact we only have two-thirds as much access to our libraries as we had last year, that fewer people can access mobile libraries and that support for school libraries is on the way out, as well as the limitation of access to some reference collections. And, if the doors to branches are opened at times when they are unstaffed, we continue to believe that this risks seriously devaluing and damaging the service, as well as short-changing users.

The CIFPA research also shows that Britain’s most-visited library is in Norwich – a modern, innovative library that’s issued more than a million items in the last 12 months and which is a great example of how spending money on libraries will attract more users. In Hertfordshire we are a very long way from having a library service that no longer meets the definition of “comprehensive and efficient” – but, having seen the loss or restriction of so many services without a single branch being closed, we are acutely aware of the risk of calling something a library even though its stock is depleted, its professional staff are gone and its doors are hardly ever open. It is no surprise that users will not choose to use a library that is subject to this kind of erosion and “death by a thousand cuts” – and their absence will eventually be used as a reason to close it down altogether, or even to justify the end of the public library service.

6. The Effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s Powers of Intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964

It is our view that the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention are not the substantive issue at the present time. The problem at the moment is arriving at a satisfactory definition of the point at which he should use such powers – something he and library supporters and campaigners around the country currently seem to differ on substantially.

The last year or more has seen unprecedented developments in the public library world including authorities that don’t see the need to employ more than a handful of professional staff; elected officials declaring that libraries are worthless; authorities wishing to close half their branches; authorities cutting services and budgets to the bone; authorities attempting to delegate their responsibilities to community groups and volunteers; attempts by international companies to insert themselves into the UK’s public library provision and therefore change the basis on which it is run; four separate groups of campaigners preparing cases to go before the high court; and an open letter recently appealing to the Culture Minister to intervene which attracted hundreds of signatures from library friends’ groups, literacy advocates and authors.

While many people watching these developments have felt that they constitute a threat to the entire existence of the public library in the UK, and have felt that the Secretary should invoke his powers to take action where there is a strong case for a council failing to perform its duties, he has not seen fit to agree, despite substantial lobbying. Thus what should have been a strong safeguard for library services in dire straits has been redefined as a mere watching brief – a substantial dilution of its original intention, in our view. We are also alarmed at the refusal of the Secretary of State to acknowledge the big picture – instead, by insisting on taking each library authority’s plans on a case-by-case basis we feel he is ignoring much that is relevant to the Act and also the “domino effect” that sees a cut pioneered in one authority taking hold across the country once it has been successfully implemented.

We suspect the motivation for his inaction is a commitment to localism – the idea that councils are fully entitled to run services as they please without central government intervention – but this is contrary to the spirit of the 1964 Act and we would therefore like to see a clarification of exactly what constitutes a failure by a council to perform its duties. Furthermore, we would like a clarification on what the government should be doing to promote the library service nationwide, so we are in a position to hold it, and the Secretary of State, to account in a meaningful way if we feel they are not acting on these duties, as is currently the case.

Thank you very much for reading our submission, and for taking on this vitally important topic. We look forward to receiving your report.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012