Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Alan Dove

1. I have used public libraries for over 60 years. My comments are based on my limited experience, mainly in connection with Lewisham libraries. In 1999 I was very reluctantly involved in defending them when Lewisham Council wanted to close three small local libraries. In 2010 I again joined others trying to make sure that we are left with an effective service. This led me to private discussions with people in similar situations, most notably last autumn at a national seminar in London. The complaints I heard about consultation, openness, and answers to reasonable questions were surprisingly similar to what I had seen.

2. My main concern is for a local service providing everyone with a library they can easily reach, though larger central borough libraries are also needed.

3. The main points I raise cover:

Libraries should be easily reached.

They should be based on printed material, but offer other facilities.

Electronic resources will need examination, including consideration of their scope and use of open-source software on some public computers.

Libraries should be run by professionals. Volunteers should help them.

Libraries should be properly maintained.

More work is needed to make sure the experiences and views of ordinary users are brought home to Councils and the Minister.

Consultation on library closures has often worked poorly.

A library is a great asset to its neighbourhood.

The Minister should make better use of his powers in order to comply with his duties.

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

4. Any good local library service should reach out to its users. In urban areas this means most users should be within an easy walk of a library. This might seem less exciting than a memorable new facility, but it is the basis of a service bringing a civilising influence to the places in which we live. Rural areas obviously have particular problems, but not having lived in the country I cannot say more than that they must not be overlooked.

5. This committee’s 2004–05 third report quite rightly concluded that books, newspapers and journals must be the bedrock of library services. This remains the case.

6. The library should be a place where adults and children can sit comfortably to study as well as collect and return loan material. It might be an advantage for it to be located together with other services or near them, but this should not be at the expense of its core function. Council managers need to be encouraged to resist the temptation to use “co-location” as a justification for pushing the library aside or for forcing its users into a space where few would want to linger long or indulge in quiet reading.

7. Sensible people know their local authority cannot pay for an ideal service on everything. When a choice must be made the priority should be to put libraries where young and old can get to them on foot.

Electronic technology

8. A modern library needs to offer access to electronic resources. This fits well with a truly local service because electronic resources can be made available at many points. And, the local library still has an unassuming role in introducing people to these systems. That, however, is likely to decline along with the number of people new to the technology.

9. At some point the disparity between electronic resources in public libraries and those now expected in institutions of higher learning will need to be addressed. People coming from these institutions are unlikely to be satisfied with what is in the public libraries. And, it is unfair that those who do not attend these institutions must either pay fees to gatekeepers or be denied ever having access to the resources, particularly those based on information collected or maintained at public expense, including theirs (eg Census, book and newspaper collections, official statistics, archives).

10. This is might not the time to spend money extending resources, but as prosperity returns it should have a high priority. And, it would be worth looking now at whether information that belongs to the public is being made accessible to all its owners, and if occasional users need to find it costly or troublesome to obtain.

11. The software used also needs examination. Every public library computer I have ever used had an operating system and software sold by the same company. These machines must influence what people are comfortable using at home and work. It is surely time to look at having some of them use open-source software. This might be inconvenient but the library should do what it can to offer the same opportunity to use different computer software as it does when it offers books from different publishers. Private monopolies might for a time be comfortable for users as well as officials, but must end in tears.

Controlling the library

12. The service should be well run. This is best done by handing the immediate task to professionals who have chosen to make a career in the libraries, and who have substantial local control. Democratic local control needs to be maintained of course, so that the constituents who pay for the service can make a direct input when they feel moved to do so. This also requires a strong external force able and willing to intervene when necessary to prevent special interests taking over. That should be the Minister’s job.

13. There have undoubtedly been difficulties with Council management of many libraries. The remedy is to make councils work in the interests of their constituents.

14. The present fashion for transferring libraries to charities or not for profit companies or outsourcing them to commercial businesses will not put things right.

15 If a library is moved to a charity or company we must still pay for it; we just pay in a different way. But we lose control. We have already seen questions to Council officials about a service it is obliged by statute to provide turned aside because the library is now run by new management (which is not under the same obligation to answer questions or deal with criticism).

16. A charity answers to trustees who are normally chosen by the existing trustees and management. A company ultimately answers to directors and shareholders. Neither are appointed by the electors. This is satisfactory for a club, but not for an important public service. The founders are usually well-intentioned, but social history shows that such systems must tend to partiality and self-interest.

17. A small recent example, is that we tried but so far failed, to obtain the terms under which the Council gave a charity a substantial amount of money to operate a library. It seems that grants were conditional, with provision for claw-back if certain things are not done. But, for what those things are we have only a general gloss from officials. As far as we have thus far gathered this is because of “commercial in confidence” restrictions. It leaves us knowing something has been bought with tax payers money but not exactly what has been bought.

Maintaining the libraries

18. Both libraries and what is in them must be maintained. Some councils have fallen down on this.

19. I was particularly struck when the council proposed to transfer a nearby small library, built with Carnegie funds in early in the last century. This meant disclosing that cripplingly costly repairs are needed because roof beams are rotten. We wanted to find out why a much loved and useful building that had survived two world wars, the Great Depression and sundry recessions is in that state. Someone familiar with the place for a long time explained that a few years ago gutter cleaning had been dropped to save money. This covered a time when money had been found for a shiny new library elsewhere, which has already been declared unfit for purpose and replaced with another shiny one.

20. This is not unusual. Buildings and services are erected, opened with VIP publicity, and allowed to run down because money is short. There always, however, seems to be money for consultants to recommend replacement and for the new venture to go ahead. Far better to look after what we already own.

Feedback from users

21. Any efficient service should know what difficulties and experiences its users are actually having and what would improve them. This means going beyond superficial ideas about how things work and looking at what people actually do and why. This is a difficult task. There will not be a single source of information.

22. A good and strong library professional can do much, if they see it as part of their job to know the users and the area, and make representations, possibly strongly, to senior management and technology experts about what is needed in their library.

23. Links entirely free from Council influence are also needed. A useful first step would be more entirely independent user groups. They can gather views from members, feed them to Councils and committees such as this one, and encourage individuals to put their own view directly. We must be aware, however, that getting people to run groups is hard. Most people, like me, would rather use the library than be eternally fighting to keep it open. We must also recognise the risk that groups fall under the control of activists who believe that whatever they say is what everybody thinks.

24. The Council’s formal systems for gathering users’ views are, in my experience, often seen as discredited. We have seen questionnaires we think slanted (the chuggers’ technique of asking a series of questions designed to make it hard to answer the key one “incorrectly” seems to be a favourite). Reports of public consultations by officials or consultants they choose usually lead to conclusions those who have kept up to date could forecast before anybody bothered to consult. Statistics, such as book issues, do, however, seem more reliable and useful, and any call to reduce them should be resisted.

25. The problem was demonstrated by consultations on the present round of closures. The one I followed started with officials stating that changes were necessary because the financial crisis meant money had to be saved. They had nothing at all to do with ideological reshaping of a service which they well understood to be vital. By the end I was left with the impression that someone had decided the financial crisis made this a good year for bad news.

26. From the first consultation meeting it seemed clear that the only option to be seriously considered was transfer of several small libraries to outside bodies or closure. The cost saving was, and remains, obscure. Some points raised in consultation were reported, but at times the officials seemed to become oddly affected by deafness.

27. This struck me forcibly when an American lady made one of the most clear and articulate contributions. She said she had grown up in a part of America where cities sometimes became bankrupt, but hers had kept all its libraries open by supporting professional staff with volunteers. At the age of seven she had gone to the library to help. Why not do the same here across the borough libraries? Officials’ body language showed how unwelcome her contribution was and she was blanked. As far as I can find she was never reported except in a user group’s newsletter. Elsewhere, when anyone approached a similar point or the advantages of using volunteers recruited and managed by Council experts, officials became hard of hearing or moved things on.

28. It was a much the same when anyone tried to suggest that as we all agreed that the service is valuable it might make better sense to keep it fully open through hard times, run down if need be, so it could be rebuilt when times get better.

29. This kind of consultation does a disservice not only to libraries but to confidence in the democratic process itself.

The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report

30. My only comment on this that selection of libraries for disposal often seems to be based on ideas about what premises can readily be got rid of rather than a borough-wide assessment of how available funds should be used to provide the best possible service for all, now and in the future. In a big borough the result will be uneven, with large areas badly served. I do not see how this can be compatible with a comprehensive and efficient service.

The impact library closures have on local communities

31. There can be little doubt that losing the local library invariably harms a neighbourhood.

32. An obvious result is reducing the extent to which reading and intellectual stimulus are seen as a normal activity by “people like us”. Even if we do not use a local library we daily see ordinary people going into a building to read, explore, and become interested in new things. The herd instinct in humans will put pressure on us to join in. A distant library will tend to be seen as something for a certain kind of different people who go there.

33. Closure also means losing what is probably the most socially inclusive place in the area. In areas I know I only the Post Office is used by such a wide range of people.

34. Similarly a library keeps people moving around the area to its general benefit.

35. The difficulty of travelling to alternatives is routinely glossed over by those wanting to close libraries. They say a place is easily accessible if it requires only two buses. It will not seem that way to a mother who must now take her children and pram on two crowded buses. A comfortable 15 minute walk is easily turned into an hour’s ordeal each way. It is only to be expected that the children will not see the inside of the library so often.

36. The problems of people who find it difficult to walk, and their carers, are self evident. Services directly to their homes are not a substitute because the trip to a nearby library can be a welcome, possibly the only, opportunity to get out and remain part of society.

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

37. I can see little wrong with the powers and duties of the Secretary of State. The Act seems to set them out very clearly. They impose a duty on him to supervise and give powers to require information. It appears that his role should be an active one.

38. But I would like the Minister to use his powers. The DCMS has a long history of opting out of the Act’s supervisory role. Strong pressure from activists has been needed to get it to make any use of its powers. Lately things seem to have been getting worse. I have seen letters offering only to “monitor” what is happening. And statements to the effect that libraries are entirely a matter for the local authority to decide. A local Councillor had even picked up the idea that libraries are not a statutory requirement.

39. I know there is pressure to water down the Act. I hope this will be rejected. Whatever is to happen it is now the law. But when we have spoken to local officials they gave the impression of being quite confident that the DCMS will act as though it has been watered down.

40. I take it that it is for Parliament to hold Ministers to account for the way they do their duty.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012