Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Libraries and Information East Midlands

Summary

This submission highlights the value of the public library in:

Enabling access to resources.

Promoting literacy and a love of reading.

Supporting readers.

Supporting the informal learner.

Bridging the digital divide.

Providing online access to resources.

Improving access to resources across the library network.

Ensuring professional support.

Working in partnership.

Working efficiently.

It argues that the loss of the local public library is felt most keenly in isolated communities and impacts most severely on children and young people, those at risk of exclusion, including digital exclusion, and those for whom travel to an alternative venue is difficult or impossible.

It concludes by considering briefly the role of the public library in helping to deliver wider social objectives, and concludes that the most appropriate location for the public library service is at the heart of the local authority.

1. Libraries and Information East Midlands (LIEM) is the strategic voice for libraries in the East Midlands region. An organisation entirely funded by membership subscriptions it works to encourage and enable libraries of all kinds to work in partnership for the benefit of the people they serve.

2. LIEM welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s call for submissions relating to the public library service and in this short response we would like to focus on addressing two of the questions posed:

“What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient service” and “what impact closures have on local communities?”

What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient service?

3. LIEM believes that every public library should offer a service which is open to all, that is free to join and free to use. We believe that the key components of this service should be:

Enabling access to a wide range of resources

4. A comprehensive and efficient service should enable access to a wide range of resources including works of creative fiction, non-fiction, audio visual resources, e-books, IT and other media; all of which help people to understand and connect with world around them, offering both a current and historical perspective.

Promoting literacy and a love of reading

5. The public library has a crucial role to play in the development of an informed and literate society. A comprehensive and efficient public library service should offer resources and activities for children and young people to encourage and support the development of literacy skills and to foster a lifelong enjoyment of books and reading. From story times and rhythm and rhyme sessions for the very youngest to children’s book clubs and homework support for older children the potential for libraries to enhance the literacy skills and help improve the life chances of young people should not be underestimated.

Supporting readers

6. Public libraries can help adult readers to expand their horizons too. Attractive and stimulating displays, often linked into national reading promotions, author events, talks and workshops, support for readers’ groups, literature festivals and readers’ days are just some of the imaginative ways in which public library services reach out to existing readers and help to draw in and develop new audiences for books and reading. A comprehensive and efficient public library service should offer a strategic approach to promoting reading. The emerging national reading offer is an exciting opportunity to enable all authorities to take part in celebrating the creativity, enjoyment and inspiration of reading and its links to learning, economic and health benefits.

6.1 In the East Midlands, the region’s public libraries have a long tradition of working in partnership to support readers. Much of this partnership working has focused on literature promotion and reader development but it also recognises the valuable role that libraries play in a wider range of art forms and how support for local artists can have an impact on the broader corporate policies of regeneration and creative industries. The benefits of public libraries working together across the region have been enormous, with high quality promotional material produced to support imaginative and stimulating promotions, staff training and networking to share expertise and most importantly with tangible outcomes for users of public libraries.

Supporting the informal learner

7. Libraries have a key role in supporting the informal learner too. For some, libraries enable their first steps on the learning ladder, giving the stimulus and support to take a hobby or interest further. For others, the public library offers the flexibility to study at their own pace and at times which suit busy lifestyles, or provide access to the ICT infrastructure which may otherwise be out of reach for the individual. There are still many people who do not have access to the internet from home and libraries help to enable and support the digital inclusion of many who would otherwise be excluded.

Bridging the digital divide

8. Libraries offer a gateway to learning and information through the provision of ICT resources. ICT, funded through the one-off People’s Network programme, has been an important feature of library provision, but the absence of guaranteed funding for maintenance and refresh of equipment has led to an increasingly fragmented service across the country.

8.1 Well trained staff, confident in the use of their library’s ICT resources, are able to provide support to those wishing to use these services. There are many excellent examples of library staff providing training for members of the public in the use of email and internet searching by working with individuals and small groups through taster sessions, or lengthier programmes leading to an accredited qualification. These training initiatives, which are often targeted at older people or those more traditionally hard to reach such as teenage parents, adult basic skills students and refugees and asylum seekers, help to engender a sense of belonging, whilst providing skills and competencies which may lead to further learning opportunities.

Providing on line access to resources

9. Every library authority should offer on-line access to a range of information resources either from the library or from home. The development of the national reference online service has enabled public library authorities to provide remote access to a wide range of first class reference material, making services and facilities available to those unable to visit a library building. For example, people working unsocial hours, disabled people and those living in small rural communities can now access major reference sources through their library membership. These include the Encyclopaedia Britannica and World Book on line, Oxford English Dictionary and Dictionary of National Biography, the Grove Art and Music online services and Ancestry, which is heavily used by family historians at all levels from beginner to professional researcher. Massive newspaper and periodical databases including the Times Archive are also available. These resources are tremendously valuable for learners at all levels and to small and medium sized enterprises. Library services working in partnership to procure these resources have been able to take advantage of generous discounts offered by the publishers.

Improving access to resources across the libraries network

10. Public libraries have a particularly valuable role in acting as a gateway to wider resources and improving access to materials is a cornerstone of libraries’ work. Libraries should offer a request and interlending service so that material sought by a user and not stocked by their local library can be obtained from elsewhere. Material may be obtained from the home library authority, elsewhere in the region or from a national or international source.

10.1 The importance of the interlending facility for supporting the independent learner should not be underestimated—through their local public library and its links with the British Library and the wider library community, older and out of print books, journals and other materials, items held in reserve and special collections, and less popular items such as works in other languages or items of particular regional or local significance can all be located and supplied for the public library user.

10.2 There were over 31,000 interlending transactions including books, playsets, music scores and orchestral parts, non-print material and serials recorded by Libraries and Information East Midlands public library member organisations in 2010–11. Some of this material reaches a much wider audience than that of an individual library user, for example the interlending of playsets and music scores enables the public performances of creative works and encourages opportunities for increased access to and participation in the arts. This is yet another way in which the public library service provides support for the cultural agenda and impacts on local communities.

10.3 The development of a national catalogue for public library materials, due to be launched in spring 2012, will be a great step forward in raising awareness of and enabling access to the resources of the public library network.

Ensuring professional support

11. Customer focused, friendly, welcoming and supportive staff, with a good knowledge of and interest in their collections and communities, help to guide and encourage library users. Helping people find all sorts of information is one of the great skills of library staff; many librarians across the country are participating in Enquire, the national on-line enquiry service, which offers a live question and answer service 24 hours a day, every day.

11.1 A comprehensive and efficient public library service should continue to recruit, train and retain professionally qualified library staff to lead, manage and deliver services to the public and to contribute to the strategic objectives of the local authority.

11.2 We recognise that volunteers can often help to extend the range of services offered by libraries but shouldn’t replace skilled and professionally trained library staff. There is strong evidence that where volunteers are used to work alongside library staff to support particular areas of service delivery such as the Summer Reading Challenge for children or work with local history collections indexing there are significant mutual benefits.

Working in partnership

12. Public libraries have consistently demonstrated their commitment to working in partnership for the benefit of local communities.

12.1 As an organisation working with libraries of all types, we recognise the contribution which public libraries make to delivering major government objectives on learning, on social inclusion and on economic and social regeneration and to the concept of the Big Society. We see at first hand the leadership role which public libraries willingly accept, the support which they offer to partners, and their commitment to providing high quality services for readers, learners, information seekers and those a risk of losing out in the information age.

12.2 Library services work with a multiplicity of partners—from the statutory and voluntary sectors, to organisations such as the BBC, The Reading Agency, the National Literacy Trust on national initiatives to promote reading, literacy, learning and access to the arts. Library services have a strong track record in working with partner agencies to provide innovative opportunities for local people.

12.3 Partnership working across libraries is strong too. Inspire, the national initiative to create a managed referral and access pathway for learners continues to gain momentum. In the East Midlands, where there has long been effective partnership working across libraries of all kinds, we offer a region-wide access scheme that all public and higher education libraries are now participating in. The Inspire in the East Midlands scheme also includes many colleges of further education, health sector and specialist libraries as diverse as the library of Lincoln Cathedral, the library of the British Geological Survey, and the Islamic Foundation Library.

12.4 No other agency embodies the concept of family learning and intergenerational engagement as successfully as the public library. For example, across the East Midlands there are countless examples of photographic projects, local and family history publications programmes and oral history initiatives which bring families together to learn.

12.5 An excellent example of co-operation and partnership working between East Midlands local authorities is the Picture the Past Website www.picturethepast.org.uk Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Libraries are working together to digitise many thousands of images from the public library and museum collections. The collections include photographs, slides, negatives, glass plates, postcards and engravings recalling the history of local communities for over 100 years. Over 90,000 images have now been indexed, scanned and digitised to create one of the largest collections of historic images on the Internet.

Working efficiently

13. Libraries have been quick to grasp the potential of sharing services and premises with other organisations to make the best use of space available and there are numerous examples of partnerships with statutory and voluntary sector service providers across the region and the country. The Hub at South Normanton in Derbyshire, New Parks Library in Leicester and Leicestershire’s multi-access centres all demonstrate how the library can be at the heart of their local communities.

13.1 Library services are working closely together to maximise the spending power of their budgets and a number of local and regional partnerships have been brokered around the joint procurement of resources and service delivery.

Impact of closures on local communities

14. Public Libraries are at the heart of many local communities and part of the community landscape, fostering a sense of ownership in the people they serve. Libraries offer an accessible, neutral space, which is inclusive and non-judgemental. For example, Derbyshire County Council’s Safe Places scheme ensures that any adult with learning disabilities can get help and support from their local library should they feel threatened or unwell when out and about

15. In many communities the local library is their point of engagement with the local authority and an effective route to other Council services.

Local libraries can provide information on the current local scene and its past history, welcoming newcomers and helping to create a sense of place, community identity and heritage.

16. The closure of local libraries can be a severe blow: for many people in rural or isolated communities, young families, unemployed, disabled or disadvantaged people, the loss of their library service may be insurmountable. The availability and cost of public transport or the time needed to travel to another locality to access library services may be a very real deterrent to regular library use.

17. At a time when book ownership amongst children is declining the need for freely available, good quality reading material is paramount and this is reflected in a continuing growth in children’s library use; the importance of digital access for all is growing; and the sustainability of community life is a key factor in the Big Society, we believe that there has never been a greater need for the retention of libraries in their local communities.

18. In this response we have attempted to highlight the excellent record of innovation and partnership in public libraries. The initiatives which we have described have been delivered by local authority library services working together, pooling resources and expertise and using their combined influence with suppliers and other agencies to improve services for users. We are concerned that some alternative forms of governance, particularly those which rely on local voluntary sector groups, will result in fragmentation and a loss of capacity and strategic capability. We believe that public libraries operate most effectively at the heart of the local authority.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012