Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by The Network

Summary

We welcome the inquiry as being timely.

This submission concentrates particularly on the role that public libraries play in building social justice (which we take to mean being “… about every one of us having the chances and opportunities to make the most of our lives and use our talents to the full”).1

We emphasise the positive role that libraries play, although this may not always result in huge issues or large numbers of visitors.

The submission includes examples of such work, drawn particularly from the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award winners and finalists.

We consider that it is often a time-consuming and lengthy process to engage socially-excluded people fully, and the resultant “relationships” with library staff are often quite fragile.

We argue that, for many people, public services are seen as a source of failure, of constant let-down, yet libraries have managed to get people engaged.

Finally, we argue that closures of public libraries (or the severe reduction in their services) are about much more than just the lending of library materials, and that such reductions in service will have an enormous impact on local communities.

Submission—Background Comments

1. This inquiry is very timely—and welcome—given the number of closures of public libraries which have taken place or which are threatened.

2. The Network2 was formed in May 1999 as a legacy of the then Library and Information Commission-funded research project, “Public Library Policy and Social Exclusion”, the report of which was published under the title, Open to all?3 The Network’s mission is “to assist the cultural sector, including libraries, museums, archives and galleries, heritage and other organisations, to work towards social justice.”

3. Our starting point is that there may well be occasions when the closure of a public library is necessary, for example when the centre of a community has moved, and the library is simply in the wrong place and usage is falling; or when there are libraries in neighbouring local authorities, which are very close to each other (as in parts of London), and where rationalisation of the service would be beneficial. However, since the publication of the Charteris Report, the methods for undertaking such closures—including full and thorough public consultation—have been clarified, and there should now not be occasions when local authorities decide to close libraries arbitrarily and without such consultation.

4. The inquiry should also be fully aware that decisions not to close library buildings, but to hand them over to local people to run in some way, may well fit in neatly with the Big Society philosophy, but may, in the end, lead to the slow closure of services through lack of funding and staffing resources.

Submission—Public Libraries and Social Justice

5. Others will develop the themes outlined in paras 1–4; here, we want to look at the key role that public libraries play in working towards social justice.4

In broad terms, “Social Justice is about every one of us having the chances and opportunities to make the most of our lives and use our talents to the full.”5

For libraries, it must involve:

Embracing equality and diversity.

Focusing on a needs-based service and targeting resources towards those who need them most.

Knowing and understanding the components of the local community.

Having an active, collaborative role in empathising and working in partnership with the local community.

Fully engaging the community, moving as far as possible towards co-production of service provision.

6. Work in at least the first three of these areas has gone on for as long as public libraries have existed, but is often either overlooked or downplayed in favour of “number-crunching” (the number of visits or issues, the number of people attending events, etc). This is not to downplay the importance of value-for-money and cost-effectiveness, but it is often the intangible, more complex benefits that are what people remember about a service. The real danger of the numbers approach is that provision with and for particularly needy and vulnerable people—which may involve small numbers of individuals and relatively few loans—gets pushed to one side as library services try to draw crowds. For example, one of libraries’ most successful areas of work is in supporting reading by and the development of literacy of looked-after children (children in local authority care), yet the numbers in any one local authority area may be quite tiny, and, because of the previous experiences of the young people, it may be a struggle at first to get them to read/borrow; however, we know that the eventual benefits may be life-changing and lifelong.

Libraries (and mobile libraries), often situated at the heart of communities, as well as being a physical presence, play an important role in developing a literate community – supporting reading, financial literacy, IT literacy—all of which are vital for the economic development of the UK. The role of libraries in providing information to allow citizens to make informed choices should not be underestimated, along with the role that reading and learning play in the wellbeing of the nation.

7. One of our concerns is that the more libraries become seen as material-delivery points (with even talk of Ocado-type services), the less opportunity there will be for this work to continue and flourish; as contact between library staff and their community dwindles, so these opportunities fade too.

8. Yet, despite all this, there are numerous examples of extraordinary work being carried out in public libraries, not just as one-off projects, but as continuing pieces of work—many of which may also be under threat as local authorities consider scaling back library services.

9. Examples of outstanding work can be seen on the CILIP website,6 as winners of the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award, including:

Adults with learning difficulties: Making the Difference, Kent Libraries and Archives—winner 2011; It’s My Life, Enfield Libraries and Enfield Disability Action—finalist 2005; Bradford/Care Trust Libraries Partnership Project—winner 2008

Black and minority ethnic communities: The Northamptonshire Black History Project, Northamptonshire Racial Equality Council (lead agency) and Northamptonshire Library and Information Service (community partner)—winner 2005; Multicultural Development Service, Lincolnshire County Council Library Service—finalist 2006.

Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Across the Board: Autism support for families, Leeds Library and Information Service—winner 2009.

Community engagement via IT: Nunny TV, North East Lincolnshire Library Service—finalist 2008.

Health/bibliotherapy: Read Yourself Well, East Ayrshire Library, Registration and Information Services—finalist 2007.

Looked-after children & young people: Caring about Reading, Leicestershire County Library Services—finalist 2003; The Edinburgh Reading Champion Project, City of Edinburgh Council—finalist 2009.

Refugees and asylum-seekers: Welcome To Your Library , Camden Libraries, Leicester Libraries, working with London Libraries Development Agency—winner 2007.

Travellers: The Mobile Library Travellers Project, Essex County Council Libraries—winner 2004.

Visually impaired people: eye2eye: the visually impaired IT project, Portsmouth City Libraries—winner 2003; Large (Leeds Always Reading Group for Everyone), Leeds School Library Service—finalist 2007; NEALIS (North East Accessible Library and Information Services)—finalist 2011.

Young people—excluded and vulnerable children and teenagers: Sighthill Library Youth Work, Edinburgh City Libraries and Information Service—winner 2006; and Books on the Edge, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council—finalist 2006.

10. In addition, there are library services have worked tremendously hard to build partnerships with local communities, with the voluntary sector, and across the local authority in order to get closer to what people need from libraries and to find innovative ways of providing (and, in some cases, co-providing) services to meet these needs. Just a few examples include the work by Southend Library Service with Polish and other new communities; work by East Sussex Library Service around adult learning, and health and wellbeing; work by Norfolk Library Service around IT literacy for older people, and supporting people with memory loss; Suffolk Library Service’s “Top Time” clubs run by and for older people; libraries’ positive work with volunteers and work-experience placements.

11. It is this work that is at risk as libraries start to be closed (or have their opening hours or staffing levels drastically reduced). As inquiry members will be aware, it is often a time-consuming and lengthy process to engage socially-excluded people fully, and the resultant “relationships” with library staff are often quite fragile. For many people, public services are seen as a source of failure, of constant let-down, yet libraries have managed to get people engaged, and it would be tragic if the budget decisions that are being taken broke this trust.

January 2012

1 Taken from: http://wales.gov.uk/topics/socialjustice/?lang=en

2 See: www.seapn.org.uk

3 Open to all? The public library and social exclusion. Volume 1: overview and conclusions. Resource, 2000.
www.mla.gov.uk/resources/assets//L/lic084_pdf_5679.pdf

4 John Vincent is co-author of Public libraries and social justice. Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

5 Taken from: http://wales.gov.uk/topics/socialjustice/?lang=en

6 See: www.cilip.org.uk/about-us/medalsandawards/libraries-change-lives/pages/finalists2011.aspx;
www.cilip.org.uk/about-us/medalsandawards/libraries-change-lives/pages/lclafinalist10.aspx; and
www.cilip.org.uk/about-us/medalsandawards/libraries-change-lives/pages/lclawins.aspx

Prepared 5th November 2012