Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Anne Bennet

Submission by me, Anne Bennet, in my personal capacity. I was a user of Lewisham’s Blackheath Village Library until it was closed at the end of May 2011, I am a member of Libraries for Life for Londoners and member of The Library Campaign, and I am an active campaigner against library closures.

Summary

In all circumstances the users come first, otherwise there is no point in having a library service. The library should serve the needs of people of all intellectual levels.

Location of the building—convenience for users.

Sufficient number of books on the shelves to serve and inspire users and borrowers.

The library service must be properly costed and properly funded, all costs to be known and to be publicly available. No depending on other budgets.

The service should advertise itself and have a presence whenever possible where there are people.

All online services must be very user friendly and open source software used wherever possible.

If possible there should be room and quiet for study and homework.

Policy on Inter-library and international inter-library loans—Links to world libraries—policy on charging for specialist service.

Volunteers and work experience.

Dire effects of closing or reducing the size of a library.

The Secretary of State must be seen to use his powers.

The Act should say something about the library budget.

What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library services for the 21st century?

1. Location—Preferably the library building should be in a place of common resort/thoroughfare. It should be within reach of as many people as possible. The main reason for the Public Library’s existence is to provide books for the users. So it must be a sustainable and useful service that is easy and cheap to reach. Visiting the library for most library users is not a separate activity, people wish to multi-task; so the library must be where they can do shopping, banking, posting letters, collecting children from school, catching a bus or visiting a park during the same outing.

2. The central or main library—ought to be in the busiest place in the borough and of a size considered in relation to the number of people it serves. It should not be an iconic building at the expense of the branch and neighbourhood libraries. Size and beauty is not a formula for value or fairness or usefulness. Indeed, Londoners may be able get to specialist and large libraries throughout the city centre more directly and as cheaply as they can get to their borough’s central library.

3. Number of books—The library ought to have a sufficient number of books on the shelves to satisfy the varied interests of the users, to wet their appetites and to invite browsing. What this number is I do not know but somewhere above 20,000 looks right. I have not found any guidance on this, there must be a tipping point below which there are not enough books to serve the users.

4. Properly funded—The library service must be lean and the core business should be identified and properly costed and funded. There will be many desirable extras but these should be capable of dismantling in hard times without affecting the core business. Services which are not sustainable should not be initiated, I am thinking of the people’s network which in some libraries is slow. If the library is used to display council information such as events or planning notices. or to house non library activities, the library budget should be credited. All expenditure necessary to run the library should be contained in the library budget. The library budget should be available to be read in every public library.

5. Advertising and promotion—It is part of our world and libraries need to do this. Take a lesson from the shop window displays and have something tempting and informative on view when the building is closed. Display the contents in a way that will establish the idea of reading as normal, desirable and just what people do. Offer appropriate book lists to local organisations and clubs and possibly also at concerts and theatres. The library must show what it has to offer and how it can enhance everyday life. It must reach out as well as invite users to come into the building.

6. Hi-tech and traditional—Literacy is fundamental to an educated society but is in danger of being overshadowed by the more immediate transmission of information and entertainment through television, radio, graphic posters, etc. These are appealing, easy and undemanding but lack the variety of mind’s-eye images, interpretations and connections of ideas that are stimulated by reading and are truly original and personal. Books allow ideas to be absorbed at a speed suited to the reader unlike electronic media where information is often ephemeral. The library can fuse the two and turn this into an advantage if its own electronic systems are slick. Self service, the catalogue, the public computers, communications with borrowers, e-books must be trouble free. Preferably the library should use open source software and communications be readable on both old and new technology. This should not drive out the conventional presentation of the service but there should be a link between unhurried and fast contents—quick reads, quick choice, quick exchange of books contrasting with quiet, leisured browsing and study will make for a comprehensive service..

7. Online services must be user friendly and errors or faults acknowledged on screen as soon as notified. There must not be a barrier between the user and the operator of the system.

8. Room for study—If there is room, the library should accommodate homework clubs, and be a place for peaceful book based research with an atmosphere of aspiration, at all levels. Few of us have enough quiet space at home, so libraries are vital for studying whether it is after hours for school and college people and workers, or after years for retired people.

9. Links to world libraries—I think the public library service needs to address the gap between what is available in college, university and Institution libraries and what is in the ordinary public library so that graduates are not shocked by the reduced service that is apparently available from their local library. How does the public library link with specialist and academic libraries?

Should the library user be made aware of the links with the wider library world and if so how?

How can the library budget accommodate the costs of providing a proper inter-library and international-inter-library loans.

Should the public library user pay for search and delivery beyond the scope of the normal public library, should he be denied access to the facilities of the British Library’s lending division, etc. because his public library’s policy is that lending is free but the budget can’t stretch?

What readers and other users of the library service want is not always obvious to administrators who have difficulty seeing their service from the perspective of a user so they must encourage requests for literature. There must be prominent invitations to ask for what cannot be found on the shelf and the extraordinary range of the library’s holdings and reach in terms of its borrowing capacity should be advertised.

10. Volunteers—The library in particular and councils and government in general need to meet the demand from school and college leavers for work experience. Volunteering is a valuable way for young people to get to know about work and the library is a safe environment for very young people to learn to be useful.

11. Service provided by the Library Authority—If the library authority wants, or needs, to use volunteers the authority must provide the essentials, the premises, the books and basic technology. Abandoning a complete library to volunteers is not acceptable. The community might be able to provide manpower but actual cash for rent, utilities, etc is very hard to come by. Sidney & Beatrice Webb described local government as “the obligatory Association of Consumers for the collective provision of those services and commodities for which profit-making enterprise seemed less well adapted than communal organisation.” and I think this is what my taxes are for. I will pick-up litter on the street when there is a publicly funded litter bin for me to drop it into.

The impact library closures have on local communities

12. Loss of footfall—Our local paper, The Mercury, on Wednesday 12 May 2010 featured the plight of shopkeepers who claimed their businesses were suffering because of the loss of footfall due to the neighbouring library being closed for refurbishment. The headline was “closed library saw trade dip”. The library is in a council owned row of shops. Since then two of the businesses featured in the article have closed, I used both of them frequently.

13. Loss of footfall—Similarly, my hairdresser, next door to the now closed Blackheath Village Library, says he has lost business in excess of what had already occurred due to the economic downturn. He has made his own submission in this regard. If he goes out of business, this will affect me and, of course, the rest of his customers who are mainly elderly.

14. Reduced visits and issues—The proper, council run, Blackheath Village Library (BVL) is now closed. In 2009–10 the CIPFA figure for visits to BVL was 91,797. BVL has been replaced by a very small volunteer run library in a nearby charity owned building with increased opening hours and opening days but about a third of the stock. The change of location, unfamiliarity, loss of habit and reduced stock has naturally caused the number of issues and visits to drop. Comparing the council’s figures for the relocated library in 2011 with the original library in the previous year and covering the same three months: August, September and October shows a reduction of approx 90% in visits and 87% in issues. There may be an improvement once planned alterations to the building are completed and an extra 1,000 books are added to the stock.

15. With fewer visits to the library the council has less opportunity to interact and communicate with residents. Information about local events, about developments in the library service and personal contact is diminished.

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

16. Execution of powers—The effectiveness of his powers lies in the execution of the powers. Having it written in the Act does not affect the job.

17. Lack of foresight—The Secretary of State is entrusted with superintending the provision of the library service but has not faced up to his responsibilities in this direction. Where was the foresight to curb back-office functions, costs and expansion of the service that might have avoided the need for such disastrous cutting back? It is his duty to promote the improvement of the public library service he has not done this.

18. Library premises—The Secretary of State has a clear duty under the Act to inspect the library premises “Every library authority shall furnish such information, and provide such facilities for the inspection of library premises, stocks and records, as the Secretary of State may require for carrying out his duty under this section”. Condition reports on four of Lewisham’s library buildings show that they are suffering from lack of investment in repairs and maintenance leading to: deterioration of the roof and internal decoration in all four and, in three of them, the windows too. The consulting engineers estimate the repair costs will be over half a million in the first year and more than a million and a half over ten years. These libraries were scheduled for closure but subsequently the buildings were transferred to social enterprise and community control as volunteer run libraries. However, I am unsure of the meaning of “require” in the above paragraph of the Act Is it up to the library authority to volunteer what is needed or must the Secretary of State demand what is needed? Perhaps this needs clarification in the hope that the Secretary of State will prevent other library buildings becoming unfit for purpose.

19. In Lewisham’s case, the library buildings were not included in the library budget. I think the Act should say something about the budget of the library service. And I think the budget ought to contain everything that allows the library service to function so that responsibility and authority for the running of the service is clear.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012