Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Jules Channer

I wish to share my views with the Select Committee as an individual member of the public with a severe disability (blindness) who uses libraries for pleasure, academic study and professional research purposes. Also, I draw on my experiences as a mother of three children and daughter of a house-bound mother. In short, there is no one category that a library user fits in because of the multiple reasons for visiting a library over time (past, present and future).

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

There is much talk about the power of the web to enhance information-gathering, and the transformation of people’s reading habits brought about by electronic formats and the Kindle. Of these digital innovations, I am fully in favour and use them regularly. But the 21st century library needs to embrace these technological tools and integrate them with traditional formats. A modern service is not a question of either/or, old or new reading formats, but one that taps into the best of both worlds.

As a regular library user (once or twice a month) with a visual impairment, the introduction of electronic books (CD and MP3 formats) transformed my access to the written word and particularly fiction. Libraries now offer an impressive catalogue of such books that are otherwise prohibitively costly for me to buy. Yes, downloads are available from publishers but the joy of libraries stretches far beyond the remote purchase of an occasional MP3. For me, the modern library should be a place that:

provides access to a broad and sometimes unknown choice of authors and literary material;

offers a safe environment for children and young people, older citizens, disabled people to have physical access to books and keep informed (eg internet work stations);

is a central source of community information and advice, council news, governmental brochures etc;

integrates a public space for local exhibitions, talks, small events;

attracts visitors and students (local tourist information, study spaces, internet connections, print services);

where appropriate, co-located with commercial businesses (cafe, supermarkets, pharmacy, cinema, local products).

Many libraries are modernising their services, such as those involved in the Future Libraries programme, and many charge a small fee for certain services. These actions are admirable and avoid the sledge-hammer solution of “closure”. But more can be done to make libraries a “must visit’ place for different people, and to find sustainable business models that suit individual locations.

Let me give you an example of a regular trip to my local library in Bath. Accompanied by my husband, we head for the electronic book section and he either randomly selects books or finds the one I want. Note, electronic books in my library are stored on the shelves alphabetically by author, so I try and get recommendations from BBC Radio 4 or friends to reduce search time and irritation. Also note, online lists of electronic books are available but (a) they are not necessarily on the Bath Library shelves but (b) can be pre-ordered. Back to the search—If you’ve ever looked at the front and back covers of an audio book, you will know that the graphic design and text size are the same as the print version—that is, unreadable to a sight-impaired person! Reading spine, front cover and back synopsis with a magnifier was abandoned long ago as too frustrating for both of us. While husband quietly reads the story synopsis, helpful fellow visitors or library staff often recommend books. Having found a few books, we then walk over to a computer and husband punches in the required information to return read books and check out new ones. Again, the screens are configured for sighted users although staff are usually on hand to help. On the way out, husband scans the notice boards for local events, news etcetera and reads out ones of potential interest. Often we take a detour through the side room in case there is an arts exhibition, talk or theatre performance. And finally, a coffee in the downstairs café and a Waitrose shop on the way out. A pleasant and sociable experience that in the past included a trip to the children’s section, and other times a quiet space to set up a lap top and work. It is not difficult to conclude that there is scope for improvement and I await the re-furbishment of the Podium site with interest!

Clearly, financial constraints on local council budgets make costly modernisation of libraries an impossible objective at present. But adopting a strategy that looks to the long term would allow local councils time to develop public-private partnerships and to explore more innovative solutions to modern multi-purpose facilities. The UK is extraordinarily risk-averse to large-scale, ambitious and imaginative urban cultural infrastructure projects that would otherwise transform our cities and towns. Government is committed to de-regulation and the growth of creative industries and tourism—goals that could all be associated with the development of 21st century urban multi-purpose library centres.

And finally, a 21st century library is a public resource that needs to look beyond a general reading public and to co-exist with other public-funded libraries—schools, colleges, universities, specialist collections and archives. Again, a more imaginative and collaborative approach should be taken by those with responsibility for public-funded libraries and archives.

2. Extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report

No comment

3. The impact library closures have on local communities

For me, a central library is a valued resource that forms the heart of a civilised and educated community. It is ironic that the UK is well-known for its charitable work in providing books for Africa and under-developed countries, and yet its own libraries are facing closure!

For people living in remote and isolated parts of the UK, and for those with mobility difficulties, a mobile library service is the only means of access to books and sometimes people to talk to about books. Closure of central and mobile library services is a brutal and knee-jerk reaction to what is a solvable and possibly temporary problem. To transfer public assets to the voluntary sector is equally irresponsible because of the inherent loss of power over their future management and public access.

4. The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964

No comment

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012