Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Gillian Johnson

I am a retired chartered librarian who spent 42 years working in the public library service in a number of library authorities ending my career as Head of Library and Information services in Doncaster in 2004.

Summary

Before addressing the four main issues in detail I want to emphasise my belief that the three essentials of a good public library system of well-sited buildings open for suitable hours, managed by trained and enthusiastic staff and providing a good range of print and electronic resources are still what constitute a comprehensive and efficient service, relevant and important in the 21st century and having at its core these basic priorities:

Helping everyone to read.

Supporting children, young people and families.

Supporting learning and skills, including digital inclusion.

Supporting communities and vulnerable people.

I do not believe that planned library closures of, in some areas, up to 50% of service points are compatible with the 1964 Act and the Charteris Report. Following the recent national debate about the future of the service it seems to be the very people who do not use libraries whose voices are loudest about their irrelevance. Many of these commentators suggest that books are now so cheap that anyone can afford to buy what they want. As a dedicated, purposeful reader on a fixed income I can assure the committee that this is not true—nor should I have to. The Public Libraries Act of 1964 should ensure that wherever I live in the country I should be able to access a “comprehensive and efficient service”.

There are those who say that the two dominant types of experience today are actual, ie reality and virtual, ie the web. However reading books offers something else—a way into an imaginative world. Reading for pleasure is not wasted downtime; rather it is more subtle, working from the inside out; calming and clearing the head and allowing the mind to expand and become more aware. There is already some suggestion that young children who spend a lot of time looking at and interacting with electronic media could well be “wiring” their developing brains in a different way. Longitudinal studies will be needed to show whether this will prove to be better. In the meantime a great deal of importance is still attached to a high level of literacy in our society and libraries have an important part to play in this. Research published by the National Literacy Trust in February 2011 showed that young people aged 8–16 who used a public library were nearly twice as likely to be above average readers than peers who do not visit their library (18% compared with 9.5%).

Those who point to declining use of public libraries should also look at how many councils have, to use current jargon, presided over a lengthy period of “managed decline” with disproportionate cuts being made to staffing, opening hours and resource budgets. There are still a few library services standing out as beacons of good practice with increasing use. It is there that we should be looking for the way forward. If we are serious about investing in the next generation we need to invest in our public and school library services. Despite the present economic situation, it is almost beyond belief that so many libraries are under threat with the consequent impact this will have on many communities.

Although the Secretary of State should intervene under the 1964 Act recent experience of this and previous administrations only show that once in government , successive Secretaries of State have lacked the political will to do so. This part of the 1964 Act should be enforced.

1. What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for 21st century?

1.1 To meet the above a local authority library service should provide the following:

A service for both adults and children.

Be freely available to everyone who wishes to use it and meet any special needs required bymembers of the local community.

Recognise the role of the public library as a social, non-threatening public space accessible for lonely, needy or difficult individuals and for hosting community groups.

Encourage participation and full use of the service by those not already users by means of outreach activities especially working in partnership with other agencies.

Provide materials in sufficient number, range and quality to meet general and specific requirements of those in the community.

Provide value for money especially working with other Authorities, eg joint purchasing; shared backroom services such as library management systems, and with other agencies eg education providers at every level; health information etc.

Use IT to assist with information dissemination but not rely on this as the main means of communicating with users.

1.2 In particular a good library service needs to be sufficiently resourced with regard to buildings, materials and staff.

1.2.1 Buildings, location and accessibility

Libraries should be conveniently located near local communities and transport links in order to be accessible. Mobile library services will continue to have relevance in isolated communities and remote, rural areas.

More specialised services such as reference enquiries, local studies and archive services can be based more centrally but will need particular marketing to users and communities not close to this specialised provision.

Opportunities for sharing space/facilities with other services should be explored.

Opening hours should suit local needs and lifestyles.

Library services should be available beyond the walls of the library, both online and via home delivery to vulnerable individuals.

1.2.2 Materials and resources

Library buildings, equipment and ICT facilities should be well designed and kept up-to-date.

Library resources in all media (print, audio-visual, online) should be contemporary, provide a wide range of information, ideas and works of creative imagination, and be sufficient in quantity to meet the needs of library users. This includes those who borrow materials, use them in the library or receive them electronically.

1.2.3 Staffing and activities

Staff should be helpful, knowledgeable, welcoming and well-trained. They should be involved in a workforce development programme. Staff in front line customer service roles should be supported by specialists in service planning and promotion, leadership and management, and those areas of service delivery requiring specialist skills and expertise.

The use of volunteers has become an increasingly important issue as more and more local authorities propose turning over local libraries to them (sometimes euphemistically referred to as community-led/managed). Volunteers can and do have a place in enhancing a library service but should not totally replace paid, trained staff.

2. The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the 1964 Act and the Charteris Report

2.1 The Charteris Report emphasised the main requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 as follows:

securing and keeping a wide range of free resources, including books and other printed matter, pictures, sound recordings, films and other materials, to browse and borrow in sufficient number, range and quality;

to meet the general requirements (and any special requirements) of both adults and children living, working or studying in the local area;

free independent information and advice from staff; and

encouraging use and participation of the service, for example, through clear and easy ways to join, access, shape and influence the service.

2.2 he most important aspect of the Library Service for most of those who have opposed the level of closures being proposed is its “localness”. These include particular requirements for those living in deprived or isolated areas where scattered populations depend heavily on smaller libraries; unemployed people; older people, disabled people or those with mobility problems; children and young people; and young families. Although most councils have stated they have undertaken consultation/Equality Impact Assessments, it appears that the results have not always been fully understood when making the decisions. In particular there have been complaints that closure plans have been approved despite objectors providing specific information for their individual community about such matters as :

the time (and costs) involved in travelling to reach centres;

the difficulties of accessing public transport for older people, disabled people and those with mobility problems;

safety concerns for children and young people in travelling further from their local neighbourhood/area; and

removing local links with schools, where pupils currently walk to a library for regular visits.

2.3 owever many councils seem to have assumed that a local service is not an efficient one, rather than exploring how this model can be made more efficient (for example, through co-location/joint provision with other services/agencies eg One-Stop-Shops, or customising opening hours to meet local needs). Many of the libraries faced with closure are already providing information on a whole range of services and other issues, as well as staff providing very proactive support to individual library users, not just in choosing books or providing support to internet based searches, but with queries of all kinds. This service is clearly very highly regarded by the public.

2.4 The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act requires councils to provide a service for all those desiring to make use thereof (ie an implicit requirement to assess local needs/desire) and, in respect of its resources, an explicit requirement to have regard to the desirability of meeting the general and special requirements of both adults and children. However, it seems that many councils have reached their final decision without truly considering how the potential risks of their proposals unintentionally curtail or inhibit users and residents from accessing the Library Service and potentially to those most in need. Whilst recognising that it is not possible for every resident to have a library “round the corner” this still leaves a number of places where such points particularly around disability access, have been insufficiently addressed.

3. The impact that library closures have on communities

3.1 The current scale of proposed library closures is unprecedented. Various alternative delivery methods are being proposed especially around asking community volunteers to assume responsibility for staffing, managing and in some cases building/running costs .The latter charge would be over and above the element of the Council Tax already being contributed by all residents for maintaining the statutory Public Library Service—in effect a form of double taxation on that specific community.

3.2 Even the MLA in its report “Community Managed Libraries” in June 2011 recognised that the evidence base for this model is very small and warned that :

transferring services to communities will not necessarily produce the economic benefits local authorities need;

may also bring about wide varieties in the quality of provision;

sustainability is not assured;

may not be able to offer consistent access to the same level of advice and support as the trained and paid staff of the public library service .

3.3 Libraries need a huge support base. One successful community library reports that its committee of half a dozen works almost 24/7. It has 60 volunteers. Fewer and it would not continue to exist. Any library without a proper strategic plan and a huge team of volunteer workers would fail. Where are these volunteers to be found? Who has the time, no other significant responsibilities of any sort, and are sufficiently wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? So many other services are now looking for a much greater volunteer input. How many will choose to make the library their priority? According to statistics from the Third Sector Research Centre they are more likely to be found from a “civic core” of largely educated, middle-aged and more prosperous volunteers who are unlikely to live in the deprived communities where the loss of a local library might have the most impact. Public libraries are already criticised as being mainly for the middle-class. Such emphasis on volunteer-run libraries seems to be a recipe for making this a self-fulfilling prophesy.

3.4 Increasingly local politicians in a number of authorities have been reported stating that if insufficient volunteers come forward to keep their local library open this indicates a lack of interest/enthusiasm for the concept of the public library service. This would seem to be making volunteering a political football, a weapon pointed at communities throughout the country. Not only will they lose their library—they will be expected to take the blame for its closure.

3.5 One very apparent result of the current situation is the way it sets one community against another. In some areas the move towards community-led libraries has been promoted with the opportunity for communities to bid into a finite pot for funding. Inevitably this will result in victory for one side and defeat for the other because it is set up to do that. With the commercial pressure to win or to lose, it has imported market fundamentalism into an arena that used to be safe from them and is putting yet another responsibility on to volunteers.

4. Effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the 1964 Act

4.1 Through numerous administrations, reflecting a variety of political ideologies, one consistent factor has been the reluctance of successive Secretaries of State to use their powers of intervention when people have complained about what they perceived to be a failure of their local authority to fully implement the 1964 Act.

4.2 The usual excuse has been that local authorities make the decision on how much to allocate to the public library service in their area based on what they perceive to be local priorities. Meanwhile if people complain to their local authority they are told that this is a decision that would not have been taken had it not been for the requirement to make the level of cuts imposed by central government.

4.3 The Charteris Report into the Public Library Service provided by Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council in September 2009 is the most recent example of this. With the report’s criticism of a local authority apparently reflecting local government settlements made by a Labour administration the then shadow minister with responsibility for libraries, Ed Vaizey, criticised the Secretary of State, Andy Burnham, for “ignoring his responsibilities as secretary of state”. He added that “while it is local authorities’ responsibility to provide libraries, the act clearly lays responsibility for ensuring a good service at the culture secretary’s door.”

4.4 As recently as February 2011 in an adjournment debate on libraries Mr. Vaizey, now the serving minister, stated that “the statutory duty remains a very important safety net for the provision of libraries”. The Public Libraries & Museums Act refers specifically to the rights of the Secretary of State to gather information and inspect services.

4.5 Yet the experience of a number of groups in different parts of the country faced with the current level of proposed closures has been very different. The Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries have provided detailed documentation setting out the failure of the DCMS to take any action on their concerns thus forcing the Group to go to judicial review. This is perhaps the most obvious, recent and well documented example of the failure of a Secretary of State to intervene as the 1964 Act says he should. This demonstrates the Act has not been effective although the result of the successful judicial review in the Gloucestershire/Somerset case shows that the judge believes that Section 10 of the Act clearly gives The Secretary of State the powers to intervene where necessary. What successive administrations, once in government, appear to lack is the political will to do so.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012