Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence Kirsty Braithwaite

This is a response to a request for evidence on the issue of what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century, and the impact of public library closures on communities. Other areas of interest in the Inquiry Brief are addressed only peripherally.

Summary

A comprehensive and efficient service public library service enables people of all ages and abilities to access the information and resources they need for work, education, and leisure.

Public library closures on the scale that has been seen, particularly in England, over the past year are disproportionate to overall cuts which are being made to public services, and will damage digital literacy, educational attainment, and quality of life.

It is unrealistic to expect communities to run a public service with little or no support for volunteers.

It is desirable for national standards for a public library service to be developed, so that communities have a say in the standards of service they can expect, and local authorities are aware of the obligations they have to fulfil.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee cannot ignore the High Court’s ruling that library closures in Somerset and Gloucestershire were unlawful on equalities grounds. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport must therefore fully consider impact of library closures on vulnerable groups of people.

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

1.1 A comprehensive and efficient service public library service is created by provision of programmes and materials for the communities they serve, and also by realistic consideration of accessibility of library buildings.

1.2 Public libraries must be placed in locations which are convenient for users, and mobile library services provided if desirable. This requires an awareness that for some of the people who need libraries the most—for example, young families, the elderly, the poor, and people with disabilities—travelling to a building that is far away is no small undertaking. Public libraries must also have opening hours which realistically meet the needs of the communities they serve.

1.3 Public libraries provide use of computers, free internet access, and computing instruction. Through national policy initiatives like Race Online 2012, the government recognises that the digital divide—the fact that millions of households in the UK have no home internet access, and millions of people have never used the internet at all—is a problem. Public libraries are well-placed to help in fulfilling these goals. Public libraries help bridge the digital divide by providing free access to computers for the many people who can not afford computers or ebook readers, and who are unable to access the internet at home. Public libraries also provide support through staff who have the knowledge and patience to teach someone to use a computer if they lack experience or confidence. Lack of access to and knowledge of computers results in both short and long-term difficulties for individuals and for communities as a whole, as members of the public may be unable to access e-government initiatives, have difficulties hunting for jobs, or be excluded from the many educational opportunities which are available online. Finally, while a wealth of information is available electronically, that does not mean it is freely available online; many periodicals, ebooks and newspapers are available solely or partly through paid subscription, and once again, this is an area where public libraries bridge a gap for their users.

1.4 Public libraries should, where applicable, provide support for people who speak English as a second language. This may include providing materials in community languages according to local needs, as well as educational materials and programming for people who are learning English as a foreign language.

1.5 Public library staff are trained to provide a knowledgeable and competent reference service, including readers advisory for people of all ages and abilities. Library staff are trained to respond to a range of enquiries; these may range from research questions from students looking for reference materials, book recommendations for children, queries about local history for people interested in genealogy, or questions about different government and council-run services.

1.6 Public libraries work in partnership with schools and other educational institutions—for example, further education colleges, or local adult learning services—to encourage love of reading and literacy in all ages, as well as information literacy skills. This requires up-to-date knowledge of the curriculum and how schools function. It may include promoting the library and the materials it provides to school groups, and providing access to reference materials as well as paid subscriptions to electronic resources. Giving talks as requested on referencing to secondary school students.

1.7 Support for carers and people with disabilities. Public libraries provide material in a wide variety of formats, including audio books and large print. To give due regard to the needs of users with particular special needs, such as the disabled and the visually impaired.

2. The impact library closures have on local communities

2.1 Public library closures will make it harder for people to access books or other educational materials, and improve computer literacy.

2.2 Populations with specific information needs—eg people who have disabilities or speak English as a foreign language—may also become more marginalized as a result of library closures.

2.3 While some local authorities are making the decision to concentrate resources on “core” libraries, this isn’t a perfect solution; many sectors of the population for whom public library services are the most important—eg the elderly, disabled people, poorer people, or young children—may find it difficult to reach more far-flung facilities.

2.4 The role of volunteers in public library provision has been debated in the wake of funding cuts, with some councils making the decision to hand over the management and funding of public libraries to community groups. There may be a role for volunteers in public libraries. However, none of the goals of service provision mentioned above are easy; building relationships with community groups, and having the skills to assess and respond to community needs, requires training and experience. While the management of public libraries has, in some cases, been successfully handed over to community groups, this should be considered with the caveat that this is not a realistic option for every community. Specifically, community-led libraries have succeeded in those communities where the time, social capital, and money to run one with little support has been available. In time, cash, or experience-poor areas, building a collection, renting a building, purchasing computers, and training and retaining staff may not be possible.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012