Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Friends of Carnegie Library

Summary

A short introduction to our library and the Friends. We were formed in 1999, successfully fought to prevent closure of our library and have achieved a great deal in increasing membership and use. We liaise with the Herne Hill Society, fostered a chess club, support Ruskin Readers adult literacy clubs and others.

Definitions. We outline what constitutes a comprehensive service, what people want and expect from the service and what would make the service efficient. We note some results of a local survey and more recent meetings and give examples of inefficiencies which could be improved.

We touch on access, including minimum distance recommended, and opening hours required to be fully inclusive. The range of material to appeal to all. We also stress the need for sensible stock policy (purchases and disposal), building maintenance and promotion of the service.

It should be obvious from these points that planned library closures, by failing to meet the standards of providing a comprehensive service, are not compatible with the requirements of the 1964 Act. They also fall foul of the Charteris Report by not conducting a proper needs analysis. Furthermore, far from being an example of efficiency, closures are generally the reverse. Closing a library is an act of despair, an unimaginative, seemingly easy cost-cutting exercise, a quick fix that fixes nothing, but rather causes far more problems: lack of community cohesion, social isolation, rising illiteracy, mental and emotional maladjustment.

We have seen a growing outcry for the Secretary of State to intervene, and we cannot understand how or why he has thus far failed to do so. A strong stand rather than the unhelpful watch and wait attitude would be very effective in getting local authorities to think again, to find other ways to save money by greater efficiency and more effective, less top-heavy management. What is needed is a creative approach, which the Secretary could and should guide.

Introduction

1. The Carnegie Library was opened to the public in July 1906. It is a Grade II listed building in the heart of the community of Herne Hill. Run by Lambeth, but situated 180 metres from the Southwark boundary, about a third of the members and users are Southwark residents. It has suffered from neglect over the years, with book stocks diminished and opening hours reduced: at 31 hours a week spread over four days, we have the worst in Lambeth. A threat of closure from 1999–2002 was averted by the formation of a very active Friends group, who continue to work to improve and enhance the library and raise its profile, including organising events and activities, successfully applying for funding, creating an art gallery, reopening and maintaining a reading & wildlife garden and so on. With the current budget cuts threatening the level of service further, we are adopting the “community hub” model, aiming to bring in compatible uses, bookings and functions to augment the core library service. We have been noting with dismay the closures and threatened closures in other parts of London and around the country; this submission has general application.

2. Comprehensive is defined as “covering or including everything or a great deal; complete; containing much, inclusive”. This indicates that libraries should provide a wide range of books and other material to appeal to all ages, tastes and interests and that they should be located to be accessible to everyone who wishes or needs to use them. Some dozen years ago the Government produced a set of standards specifying a minimum number of books per head of population in any area and stated everyone in greater London should have a standing public library within a mile of his/her residence. Advances in technology since then notwithstanding, these standards and principles are as valid for the 21st century as they were for the 19th and 20th.

3. People generally like to walk to their local library and can do so only if it is within 15–20 minutes of their home. The local library is also seen as the community gathering place or hub. It is often the only free to enter, non-denominational building in the neighbourhood, the one place where everyone belongs and feels welcome and safe. To ensure the library is truly inclusive, it must be open for use by all, whether pre-school, student, working, unemployed or retired. Limited opening hours cannot provide a comprehensive service.

4. Efficient, from the Latin base meaning to accomplish, is defined as “producing satisfactory results with an economy of effort and a minimum of waste, competent, capable of doing what may be required, effective”. Too often, inefficient book buying policies result in multiple copies of some titles in one location, few or no copies in another. Consultation with user groups and briefing on the demographics, local history and heritage of an area would help. Also, the arbitrary policy of “weeding” and selling off books precipitously is wasteful. An efficient system assesses need, provides material to satisfy it, retains material as long as it is in good condition and is not out of date and adds to the stock to fill any gaps and keep up with demand.

5. In 2000, with our library under threat, the Friends conducted a survey of 2865 households. There was massive support for retaining the library and improving it with more and better books and increased opening hours. Results showed overall use of public libraries would decrease significantly if the Carnegie were closed: 39% would stop using libraries altogether, 28% would reduce a lot, 15% by a small amount, 6% not stated. Of the 55% indicating they would use another library, the majority opted for one 1 ½ miles away in the next borough; other libraries named were 1 ½–2 miles away. The reaction to a mobile library alternative was either apathy or antipathy. Typical comments: “Elderly people can”t travel and young people won”t.” “This is the only local library within walking distance for my children. Its closure will, in reality, deprive them of such a facility due to the time, cost and difficulty of using an alternative.” The town centre library favoured by Lambeth (Brixton) was judged “too far away and too difficult to park. Need to be able to walk to library with kids and books, not on bus.” “To people of my age, 79, who are avid readers, it is essential to have a library within easy reach.” “The library is the cultural and social focal point of the neighbourhood.”

6. At Lambeth-wide public meetings on libraries in 2011, residents of two areas, Clapham Park and Streatham Vale, whose libraries were closed in March 2000, stated they had not used libraries since; they wanted provision in their vicinity and lamented that a whole generation of children is growing up without access to a local library—that is the impact of closures on local communities.

7. Beyond proximity, there is the issue of even-handedness. The current thinking in Lambeth is to use 40% of the libraries budget on shoring up two libraries, Brixton and Streatham, as fully stocked facilities open all week. The other seven libraries (not counting the joint Upper Norwood one) would thus be reduced or demoted. One notion, “themed libraries” each with a narrow focus, would fly in the face of comprehensiveness and efficiency. Another notion, “library access points” dotted all over the borough, effectively no more than a vending machine or shelf in some unrelated venue, may aim to give the appearance of being comprehensive. Instead, it is rather like saying to the hungry masses they can get a full meal at two restaurants any time, a bowl of soup in seven cafes occasionally, or else scramble for grains of rice being scattered here and there.

8. Regular maintenance is also essential. It is inefficient and wasteful to avoid basic maintenance and care of library buildings or wait to take action only in emergencies. For example, clearing the gutters two or three times a year is a relatively minor, inexpensive job compared with having to refurbish every few years when ingress of water caused by clogged gutters damages plaster, paint, books and computers. Invest to save should be more than a theory. There is a further duty of care with listed library buildings, like the Carnegie, where repairs, refurbishment, etc. must be in keeping, with appropriate material. There have been instances in repairing damage, often caused by neglect, where short cuts have been taken or contractors have not been properly briefed, with poor results. False economy is inefficient; and the service suffers from unscheduled closures.

9. A worrying trend in some areas is for the authority to hand over libraries (either the building or stock or both) to a business, social enterprise or volunteers. This is being done without those expected to take over receiving sufficient preparation or support. There is some scope for a properly constituted community management team and/or a trust assuming control of a library building, with the possibilities of applying for funding for repair and refurbishment. We are looking into the idea of such a move for our library over the next few years. However, there must be a definite guarantee that the building concerned would remain first and foremost a free public library. Any additional services run from the site should link in with the main functions of a library: learning, discovery, skills development, creative expression, advice and information. Sticking a few books in a doctor”s surgery or cramming some other alien function into a library building marginalises the service and excludes potential users. Moreover, volunteers cannot be expected to run a library service, however much they may be willing. We all pay our council taxes so that the council will fulfil its statutory responsibilities, and these include provision of books and other material plus professional staff. Volunteers can assist with ancillary or complementary activities that add value.

10. A final point concerns promotion and publicity. It is no good providing a library service if people do not know it exists or where to find it, or if they are not aware there is something for them. Relying on having a website is not enough, as not everyone has access at home or thinks of using it. Street signs, notice boards, banners and direct engagement with community groups, schools and the like would help to get the message across, as would clear signage within the libraries. Scrimping on putting out this information or reaching out to estates and back streets excludes a significant potential user base. Friends groups are proactive in drawing people in for events and activities; local authorities could do more to draw people in for the service itself.

11. On that point, the 1964 Act cites a duty of “encouraging both adults and children to make full use of the library service”. Without proactive publicity to alert potential users of the service available, councils fail in their duty; this is exacerbated when libraries are closed at times people would make full use of them, eg when students are on their way home from school or adults working during the day have an evening free for self-enrichment.

12. In conclusion, a comprehensive and efficient service provides a welcoming library in every community, open sufficiently often to maximise use, with a reasonable mix of adult and children”s fiction and non-fiction, reference material, audio books, music, DVDs, computers with Internet access and such other formats as are developed to provide information. There may be additional specialist focus or identified needs in particular areas; and every authority should have local studies facility and home visit & outreach service. It may be that neighbouring boroughs could share some of these services for greater efficiency. As the Charteris Report concluded, provision must be based on need; but needs must be properly assessed to ensure they are comprehensively, efficiently and appropriately met. The Secretary has the power to take a much more active role to “superintend and promote the improvement of” the service and “to secure the proper discharge by local authorities” of their functions as library authorities. We recommend he acts.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012