Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Derbyshire County Council

Derbyshire County Council welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s call for submissions relating to the public library service.

1. Summary

1.1 It is important to retain key teams of professional librarians operating in core areas.

1.2 Libraries have a vital role to play in literacy, learning, overcoming digital exclusion, promoting information literacy and encouraging democratic engagement.

1.3 A strength of the service is that every branch and mobile library is the gateway to a network offering access to a world of resources.

1.4 The best library services are located at the heart of their local authorities—no other system of governance offers the same advantages.

1.5 Libraries must diversify if they are to remain relevant to a population which enjoys a choice of ways in which to access services.

1.6 Working in partnership, and smart use of other funding opportunities has enabled service development at an affordable cost.

1.7 Libraries in the UK are working together, with partners in other sectors and with their parent organisations to create a compelling offer—one that combines a focus on local needs with all the benefits of wider collaboration.

1.8 These initiatives will be threatened if the emphasis is solely on the management of the public library as a local community resource, without taking into account its broader potential.

2. Introduction

2.1 In common with all other local authorities, Derbyshire is meeting challenging savings targets. The impact on the library service over four years is a reduction of £2.3 million on a controllable budget of around £9 million. Despite these difficult circumstances the council has no plans to close any of its 45 branch libraries or to make them over to alternative forms of governance. We have tackled back-office and overhead costs rigorously, reduced spending on resources (although our investment in books per head of population is still among highest in the UK) and made some modest reductions in opening hours. Our priority is to preserve the network of libraries which are such an important focal point for their local communities and which provide a foundation on which to build for the future.

2.2 Inevitably, budget reductions have entailed the loss of some posts. However, Derbyshire has retained key teams of professional librarians operating in core areas. These include services to children and young people, information and learning provision, access and inclusion for users with additional needs, and reader development. The emphasis across all these teams is on working with communities, developing partnerships, creating new audiences and ensuring the best possible experience for library users.

2.3 Locally and nationally, it is vital that a career structure be retained for professionally-qualified librarians. If libraries are to rise to the challenge of the future they need to be able to recruit and retain creative and talented people. Without realistic career opportunities for their graduates, higher education courses will no longer be viable and library services will be denied the supply of new blood and innovative thinking on which they rely.

2.4 While it would not be appropriate to comment on the impact of budget decisions made by other authorities, we do wish to respond to the Select Committee’s question of what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient service, and illustrate that from our experience in Derbyshire.

3. Why Libraries are Needed

3.1 More people are reading than ever before, but stubbornly low levels of literacy remain at the root of many social problems.

New technology is ubiquitous, but many people lack the resources or the skills to benefit.

Information is all around us but reliable, accurate and unbiased sources are hard to find.

People need new skills to make the most of work and leisure opportunities, but resources for non-vocational learning are reducing.

In today’s society many people are disengaged from community activity or democratic processes.

While public libraries on their own cannot resolve these contradictions, they are an important part of the solution.

3.2 Libraries help satisfy a growing demand for reading and book-related activities which cannot be met by the private sector alone. Their work with children and families, often in partnership with other agencies, promotes literacy in the early years and throughout life.

3.3 Broadband Internet access is by no means universal. Libraries provide what may be the only access to online resources for those on low incomes or whose personal circumstances might otherwise exclude them. Many lack the confidence to get to grips with new technology; public libraries are making a major contribution to the achievement of the government’s Race Online target.

3.4 Libraries make available a wide variety of reliable printed and online resources which would be unaffordable for individuals and families; they also offer mediation and interpretation to help people make sense of a plethora of competing information sources.

3.5 Libraries have a traditional role to support the independent learner; increasingly they are complementing this role with a range of formal learning opportunities which enable people to gain new skills in a familiar, non-threatening environment, and often at a pace and time which suits their needs.

3.6 Through their experience of working in partnership with other agencies libraries serve as a convenient access point on the high street for many other public and community services. Their informality, their reputation for impartiality and their many millions of visitors make them an attractive partner for agencies and organisations of all kinds. They prompt and encourage people to engage in and be better informed about the community they live in and the wider society.

4. Positioning the Service

4.1 The place of the library service is within the local authority. None of the alternative forms of governance that have been mooted offer the same degree of democratic accountability, responsiveness to local communities, or consistency and reliability of service delivery. In a large, and largely rural, authority such as Derbyshire, private sector operators are interested in cherry-picking the largest and busiest libraries, not in serving the needs of smaller and isolated communities. Many communities lack the social capital and capacity to take over the running over the service, and the community ownership model in any case risks destroying one of the traditional strengths of UK libraries—that every branch and mobile library is the gateway to a network offering access to a world of resources.

4.2 This means that library service leaders have to be able to operate effectively in what is a political environment. The best of them have positioned their services at the heart of the local authority’s business. The Library Service in Derbyshire is the largest component of a Cultural and Community Services Department, and the Cabinet member with responsibility for culture is also the Leader of the Council. Libraries are seen as places where the council can reach out to and engage with local communities. They deliver on their core functions of reading, literacy, information and learning, but they are also community spaces and access points to a range of other services, and they deliver on wider agendas such as health and wellbeing, economic regeneration and community safety.

5. Investing in the Right Areas

5.1 Despite the current financial difficulties, Derbyshire has maintained and even increased business by concentrating on sound principles. Books and reading are at the core of what we do. Our materials fund per head of population is among the largest in the UK, and it is spent on materials, not other initiatives. The county is a leader in reader development with people of all ages, our programmes help make children confident readers and keep them reading into adulthood.

5.2 While not losing sight of the core purpose, libraries must diversify if they are to remain relevant to a population which enjoys a choice of ways in which to access services.

5.3 The growth of the market in ebooks has created new opportunities and Derbyshire has invested a modest amount from its Materials Fund in a new online service which in the first five months has attracted well over 2,000 users. It is particularly significant that over 25% of these users are new to libraries, or had allowed their membership to lapse. This service is reaching out to those who are unable to visit libraries, or who prefer to access content electronically. It is not a threat to the traditional operation of branch libraries, but it is bringing an added dimension to the service. Derbyshire libraries also have the broadest range of online resources in the region and a central enquiry team, contactable by phone or email, ensures an expert and consistent level of response to users of even the smallest library. Use of our online information resources is almost doubling year on year. These results indicate the potential of new technology to inject new impetus and relevance into library services.

5.4 Working in partnership, and smart use of other funding opportunities has enabled service development at an affordable cost. So for example our partnership with Health has created a number of Health Zones in libraries; work with the adult education service has enabled 1,200 people to gain qualifications through courses offered in libraries; and a new library is at the centre of The Hub, an exciting new joint service centre which brings together county and district council services, health services, retail and leisure in one of the county’s most deprived communities.

5.5 In recent years there has been an emphasis nationally on creating iconic “flagship” library buildings, sometimes at the expense of libraries in local communities. We would not take issue with the value of centres of excellence: in Chesterfield, a market town of only 100,000 inhabitants, Derbyshire boasts the fifth-busiest library in the UK. A new Derbyshire Record Office and Local Studies Centre will open in early 2013, at a cost of £4 million. However, we believe that capital investment in local communities is vital. As well as The Hub, mentioned above, new libraries are being created in Glossop, Belper and Ashbourne, all communities of around 20,000 people. As a matter of course, these buildings are designed to accommodate other services, in the interests of efficiency and of convenience for the user. The evidence is that communities respond to the confidence shown by the council; use of the library in The Hub has increased by 92% in the first year. This does not suggest a service which has lost its appeal or its relevance to local people.

6. Efficiency

6.1 Derbyshire has been rigorous and imaginative in its pursuit of efficiency. We have pruned back office costs, largely through the use of ICT, until we have a very small team, and we have made the optimum use of electronic ordering and procurement.

6.2 In terms of procurement, we have brokered multi-authority partnerships with neighbouring authorities which have delivered higher discounts for books, lower licence fees for the library management system and a massively successful online database of historic images, www.picturethepast.org.uk

6.3 We have worked with the county council to provide:

Public access wifi at no cost to the user or the library service.

Shared HR, e-recruitment, Property Services, Health and Safety and attendance management.

Shared transport services.

Use of the council’s contact centre for membership, service enquiries, renewals (libraries are the heaviest volume user).

Use of libraries as touchdown centres for other council employees.

6.4 In libraries, ICT has helped facilitate a shift from routine transactions to more meaningful interaction with the public. We have introduced self-service in twelve large libraries, with more to follow, and a new remote online booking system for PCs. Derbyshire is developing the use of volunteers, within a clearly managed framework, to assist with children’s activities, reading groups, ICT training and local studies. Properly managed volunteers can bring new skills, increased levels of personal support to readers and learners, older people and children; with the increasing adoption of self-service technology they can be used to keep branch libraries open for longer. They can deliver added value while the local authority focuses on maintaining a high quality core service.

7. More than merely Local

7.1 In emphasising the importance of the library as a community facility, it is important not to lose sight of the value of the wider library network. Over many years library users have benefited from access to a nationwide and international network. Libraries have shared resources, intelligence and services in the interests of the user. They have not been motivated by parochial concerns or inhibited by commercial considerations. The whole has been greater than the sum of its parts.

7.2 Libraries in the UK are working together, with partners in other sectors and with their parent organisations to create a compelling offer—one that combines a focus on local needs with all the benefits of wider collaboration.

7.3 That collaboration includes joint procurement to achieve greater efficiency. It will also lead to the development of national offers that bring economies of scale, are reasonably cheap to buy into, but which give a consistently high standard of provision—and an enhanced national profile. It has already been spectacularly successful in children’s services, with Bookstart and the Summer Reading Challenge, in ICT provision and in work with the BBC. A national catalogue and a national reading offer are under development, both of which will be launched in the Spring, and a national information offer is being piloted.

7.4 These initiatives will be threatened if the emphasis is solely on the management of the public library as a local community resource, without taking into account its broader potential. As local authorities plan their response to budget pressures, it is to be hoped that the decisions they make will not destroy the sector’s ability to act strategically in the interests of their users and of the nation as a whole.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012