Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Sarah Tanburn

Summary

I believe that there is a great hope for the future of reading and writing. New forms of literature are emerging, and old ones are reviving. In the current revolutionary state of the art-form and the industry, libraries can play a central role in improving access to books in all media, and in encouraging stronger links within neighbourhoods. The freedom to direct scarce resources to where they create the greatest benefit is central to the responsibilities of local authorities. The key role for central Government is to support library authorities and users to make the most of new opportunities arising as the technology develops.

The Select Committee has entitled this an enquiry into library closures. The questions asked, rightly, suggest a wider debate about the role of library services in a rapidly changing technological, economic and governance context. This would be of value to everyone involved in this discussion, beyond the immediate and highly charged question of the future of specific library buildings.

1. Recommendations

1.1 The decisions on how best to determine the shape, reach and nature of library services should remain with the democratically elected local authority.

1.2 The nature of “comprehensive” and “efficient” remains best determined at a local level and that attempts to provide national definitions of the terms in statute or guidance are misplaced.

1.3 The Secretary of State should retain the right to intervene and enquire into a service where there is an obvious or egregious breach of the relevant duties.

1.4 The Secretary of State takes a proactive role in engaging with the major producers and distributors of e-books to enable library services to extend their services to new formats.

2. About me

2.1 Professionally and personally I am actively engaged in the work of libraries, their management and funding, use and role in local communities. I am making this submission on behalf of the small company I own and manage, Sarah Tanburn Associates. My business website is at www.workthewind.com.

2.2 Sarah Tanburn Associates provides consultancy and interim management services, primarily to the public sector, in cultural, regeneration and strategic management arenas. I have managed library, cultural and place-making services in several authorities and I was an in-house adviser to LB Brent during the decision-making process on the borough’s Library Transformation Project.

2.3 I am also a member of three different public library services (Suffolk and Norfolk County Councils and LB Merton). I am a borrower from the Cambridge University Library and a user of the National Archives at Kew. My fiction is available at several places on line and on paper, including Ether Books and the magazine Snapshots of History.

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

3.1 The core mission of a library service might be summarised as encouraging access to literature and enabling access to knowledge, reference and study materials. This is not, of course, a replacement for the formal duty enacted in the legislation, but a view on the central expectation of parliament as it should be applied in the 21st century.

3.2 Libraries and library buildings may do other things as well including hosting community events, lending music and film, or promoting local writers. All of these are valuable but are in many senses ancillary to the core role of the service. All of them face competition or replacement by other players, from LoveFilm to Google. Any realistic definition of the role of libraries must be centered on their mission, although decisions about specific services and locations will need to have regard to other activities.

3.3 A defining element of reading in the 21st century is the explosion of ways to do it. Only 20 years ago, if you wanted to become familiar with the contents of a book you read it on paper, or you listened to it on the radio or a tape. Today, you can still do those things, but you can also read digitally, on a wide range of platforms from your phone to your television, or you can listen to it alongside your music.

3.4 The new formats offer major challenges to the publishing industry, but have three important relevant characteristics: they are portable, they are popular, and they are cheap.

3.5 The portability applies both for the reader and the distributor. A library is a form of distributor; a central part of being comprehensive and efficient is that it enables access to books, through effective distribution, for its local community. Where or how people read the books they borrow is only secondarily a matter for the library service (subject to some protected books). A comprehensive and efficient service should therefore maximise the access channels offered through digital formats, not shy away from them.

3.6 The popularity of digital formats is obvious in the sales figures and usage. Many others will provide that evidence to the committee, but sales of the hardware (eg Kindles) and the software (ebooks) have both rocketed of recent years.

3.7 Thirdly, ebooks are cheap to produce and cheap to store. In many (but not all) cases they are cheap to buy. For a distributor, a library service, their ease of storage and circulation are valuable features.

3.8 All these features have implications for how a library service considers access to and use of books. They lead me to consider the importance of the “book as object”—the occasions on which the physical paper is the only, the best or the most popular way to access its content. Access to reading and study is changing so fast that this is difficult to pin down, but I suggest five types in particular:

(i)Reading with small children, with exciting, manipulable picture books that generate excitement, curiosity and togetherness.

(ii)Reading reference and study books that are wanted for only a short time but represent a significant investment for individuals during a formal course of study, which may be closely associated with space to use the books.

(iii)Reference books used for research or study outside the formal academic context, which may not be used often. These latter categories particularly reflect the fact that no digital experience yet matches a “real” book for ease of study, cross-reference etc.

(iv)Books produced to be beautiful objects in their own right, often thought of as coffee–table books, and including a small but growing segment of hand-printed chap books.

(v)Books not available in digital format, including many books in languages other than English, minority and small press imprints, mid-list writers etc.

3.9 Another element of access to reading is browsing, that serendipitous discovery of a new book, a new writer, a new adventure. A comprehensive library service must facilitate that exploration both on line and in the real world. An excellent example of addressing some of the online barriers to such investigation comes from New Zealand, at http://www.taslib.govt.nz/. Many libraries have increased their use of face-out display, reading groups and other ways to help readers discover new books. Both rely on staff commitment and expertise in communicating their ideas.

3.10 A comprehensive library service in the 21st century needs therefore to think both about its use of digital platforms for their convenience, portability, popularity and relative cheapness (efficiency) as well as the demand of its membership for the book-as-object. In any community the stock in all formats, as in the 20th century, will vary reflecting the needs and aspirations of local people. These reflections, in turn, influence the use, location, layout and management of library buildings and have implications for the nature of the service’s online presence and the skills of staff.

4. The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (“the 1964 Act”) and the Charteris Report; and the impact library closures have on local communities

4.1 Closing a library building is never popular. Its current users, however few in number, are invariably passionately loyal and often vocal. I am well aware that many non-users also see libraries as symbolically important in their neighbourhood. However, it cannot be the case that no existing library should ever close. Communities change, needs arise and disappear, budgets are constrained.

4.2 The balancing of all the issues, alongside financial stringency and effective use of all resources must be the responsibility of the locally elected authority. Libraries represent an important and high profile service, but as that Court of Appeal said in respect of the Brent case, “a decision that the library service should bear a share of the reduction was not ... unlawful”. In short, when looking for efficiencies and savings, the library service is not exempt from consideration.

4.3 The major part of the cost of any public lending library service is the buildings and the staff. In Brent, a significant motivator for change was that only 9% of the budget was being spent on actual books. To either reduce savings or increase reach within current budgets will mean considering how money is spent on staff time and the library buildings. Some improvements and savings may be made through increased efficiencies, reduced management, improved procurement, changed opening hours and a range of other possibilities, but this is a finite pool of money from which to modernise or improve the use of the service. At some point, faced with the need to make savings, any responsible authority will consider the future of specific buildings from which it delivers services. (There may also be contingent but legitimate reasons to consider the future of a particular building from its ownership to exorbitant maintenance costs.)

4.4 In considing closure it is therefore important that library authorities can show that their proposals are part of a strategy for promoting the objectives of their library service, and that it fits within broader activities to support literacy and access to literature, including work in schools. The library service is immensely important, as represented by the statute; this does not mean that every individual library building is equally important or of equal continuing value in delivering the service’s core mission.

4.5 Sometimes a library is the only public building in a settlement, or performing a unique community function. This will be particularly important in rural areas or places where there is a particular concentration of one community that may be disadvantaged or marginalised in other ways, restricting their access to, for instance, mainstream education. If the authority wants to significantly change or end that library service, it must consider its role in that community as a function of its location, not as part of its core mission as a library. Changes to the service in this situation should also part of a community strategy for that area.

4.6 It has been argued that rather than fully close buildings, authorities should by default look to keep them open but reduce hours. This may be the best solution in some places. In others, however, this may be a poor solution to reducing costs while retaining a comprehensive and efficient service. In Brent, for example, reducing hours rather than buildings affected visits for many more library users than closing buildings, a factor taken into account in the relevant decision-making process. The Brent decision was taken for a small geographic area well served by public transport and with many other community meeting places. Such opportunities might not be reflected in a rural area with poor transport links.

4.7 This choice is therefore again a proper matter for local members.

5. The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the 1964 Act

5.1 The Secretary of State’s intervention was clearly valuable in Wirral. Although the Charteris report does not have statutory force it is very useful in providing thought out guidance about the importance of the library service and matters to be considered in developing a strategy for comprehensive and efficient delivery.

5.2 The Secretary of State should view intervention as a last resort, and only be expected to intervene when there is an obvious and egregious risk of breach of the relevant duty. Recent litigation and appeals to the Secretary of State have largely been based on rather narrower interpretations of the law. In the Brent case, the Appeal Court has now ruled that “the decision ... to close was carefully considered [and] cogent reasons were given”; the Secretary of State should only be expected to intervene where there is no evidence of such consideration by the proper decision makers.

5.3 A more active role, as apparently envisaged in some appeals has at least three major drawbacks:

It assumes that a single pattern of definition of “comprehensive and efficient” is achievable when in fact widely varying local circumstances make this impossible. The various attempts at library standards show how difficult such an idea is in reality.

It has the potential to (further) undermine the proper role of local councillors in setting budgets and services for their local communities, in direct contradiction of the stated objectives of the Coalition government and the Localism Act.

It potentially represents a significant task for the DCMS in an area where it has neither the resources nor (apparently) the will to take on local management of individual buildings and services.

5.4 In the context of the Localism Act, it is of course open to local communities to put forward proposals for community management of library buildings. Proposals made in Brent received, according to the Appeal Court, “detailed consideration”, and were rejected for “cogent and persuasive” reasons. The experience highlights the need for realism about such proposals, especially if the proponents wish the library to remain part of the authority’s fulfillment of its statutory duties. This suggests the DCMS could usefully be signposting groups to existing advice on the issues to be considered in asset and service transfer, such as the Asset Transfer Unit, rather than either taking the role themselves, or expecting individual authorities to provide detailed guidance in every case.

5.5 The Secretary of State can and should be providing leadership on the role of libraries in the changing world of publishing and reading. He should be intervening to support the expanding role of libraries in respect of formats which offer new routes to reading. In particular the major stakeholders in both publishing and distribution (especially Amazon and Apple), must be strongly encouraged to make material easily available for public libraries to lend. This lending should:

be free for library members;

come at a reasonable acquisition cost to the library (and not more than the equivalent paper version);

not be unduly restricted as to the number of loans (as Harper Collins has tried to impose in some circumstances); and

protect the public lending rights income stream for authors.

5.6 All of this is presumably technically feasible as it has been achieved in libraries in the USA. Attempts to promote e-lending by public libraries in Britain have been limited by the disinterest of the big players; concerted intervention at a national level would be invaluable.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012