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

This is a response to the DCMS inquiry into library closures from The Friends of Wiveliscombe Library (FOWL). We are a volunteer organization that was formed as an advocacy group when Somerset County Council threatened our library with closure. We represent the local community as well as the surrounding rural parishes whose total population numbers approximately 5,000 people. Our primary role is to organize events that promote library use, as well as encouraging the public to use our window display space to share their interests, groups, and functions, which enhances community knowledge, involvement and cohesion. We also act in a support role to the Friends of Somerset Libraries group, keeping tabs on library service throughout the county and the nation. These are our views.

The impact library closures have on local communities

Libraries are a lifeline for rural communities.

Libraries keep small communities thriving.

The library is the only place that is free to go and sit, study and meet people.

The library is the quiet place for school children to do their homework.

Mobile libraries reduce isolation in rural communities.

Alternatives do not exist—Lack of internet in rural communities.

Library computers access education and jobs.

What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service?

Libraries should be open to the public seven days a week, excluding holidays.

They should be open some evenings.

They should not charge for books. Nor should they charge for reserving books, computer use, DVD or CD loan. All usage and services should be free, except copying and paper charges.

They should have public toilets.

They should have night book depositories for public convenience.

They should include a main library and satellite libraries.

Meeting and group areas belonging to the library should be easily accessible and open to the public; there should be no charge for reservation of these areas.

Late fees/fines should be minimal and fair.

Libraries should have a wide selection of national and regional magazines and newspapers. Also a selection of topical magazines and periodicals.

They should have a rich and varied stock of new additions.

Night deposit boxes.

No return line.

Streamlined book ordering.

Abandon the rental of premier DVDs.

Trained, paid employees.

Include representatives from local library “Friends” groups to represent communities and give testimony alongside local authority representatives at DCMS Committee meeting.

The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention

This power is completely ineffective if it is not used.

1. The impact library closures have on local communities

A library is “at the heart of its community”, but it cannot be the heart if it does not exist. Closing libraries will weaken all the affected rural communities and damage a way of life we seek to protect. The residents of our town make a point of using Wiveliscombe’s shops, Post Office and garage; it is the sustainable way forward and having a branch library adds to the amenities our residents can patronize locally, keeping our town thriving. Wellington, our next nearest town, is 14 miles away and a car is needed, unless one has all day to sit on a very infrequent bus. As people find this distance a prohibitive trek, overall library visitation would drop if that were our closest branch, which would lead to the view that people don’t use libraries anymore. From a green perspective, the chance for people to reserve books online that are delivered in one trip for pick up from the local branch minimizes the carbon footprint of each individual travelling to a hub library. For the elderly, parents with young children and the unemployed who are unable to afford to go to Taunton or Wellington, the library is a warm welcoming place, where they can go without having to spend money, where they can borrow books, read the paper, use the computer, and feel part of the community. It is a lifeline to many.

The Wiveliscombe library is well used by adults and children from our two thriving schools which both have excellent Ofsted reports. Libraries are a quiet warm safe place for children to research and study. Parents with young children can develop a love of books and read to children there. As parents we can’t afford to buy all the books our children read. Wiveliscombe library has more reading groups attached to it than any other Somerset library (a total of 13). These reading groups are developing and sustaining community links, preventing loneliness and in many cases are informal education and discussion groups. Open University is accessed through the Internet, the coursework books are very expensive, but are available through the inter-library loan service.

The mobile libraries visit isolated farm communities and houses where people live and work, but who don’t travel into towns because of the cost of fuel. Some look after young children or elderly relatives and are disadvantaged, as they don’t have access to private or public transport.

In rural areas, Internet access is via the phone line, which is expensive and very slow. Broadband, is not available or affordable to many households. Not all households in this area have electricity, mains water or mobile phones even today, so the ability to download a book from the Internet is not there. Libraries are the places where one can keep in touch with friends and family via email by using the Internet.

Libraries are the place where one can search the Internet for job vacancies—many jobs now are only advertised on the Internet.

Our library is recognized as essential—In January 2011 the Wiveliscombe Civic Society called a public meeting about our library’s possible closure and although it was a wet and cold Friday night, 222 people attended. It was standing room only with 10% of the town’s population crammed into the Community Centre to defend the library service.

2. What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service?

The main library should be open all days and nights and weekends. The satellite libraries should be open some evenings and weekend hours. This would allow members of the public who work access to the service. It would also allow students access to finish researching school projects as they approach deadlines. The library should only be closed on national holidays. The facility should include meeting rooms free of charge for community groups to meet in and be able to converse.

The stock should be replenished with new books as they come out and should not suffer from the stagnation we currently see in branch libraries around Somerset. It should have a wide selection of national and regional magazines and newspapers. Also, a selection of topical magazines and periodicals should be accessible, 20 or 30 at each library. The branch libraries should have stock of recently reviewed books and bestsellers, not just sagas from yesteryear, potted local histories, and the leftovers from the main library. The goal of the system should be “access”, not “let’s see if we can make people pay money to reserve books by not having any book stock at the branch libraries.

All library services should be free with the exception of printing and copying. Late fees should not be prohibitive. An honest library service does not use late fees as an income stream. They are merely there to convince patrons to return books and items in a timely fashion.

Having no return line would improve productivity. You do not need librarians checking in books. This is a waste of librarians’ and patrons’ time. Books should be easily dropped either at the returns desk or in night deposit boxes. This frees up librarians to check out books. We do not need to stand and wait in line to return our books. Libraries across the nation are moving towards self check out systems, yet we still have to wait in line for a human librarian to check books back in?

If there is a book that is not in the system, the librarian should be able to order it immediately. The individual librarians should have a modest budget to order books that patrons inquire about. In the US the librarian at the information desk can order the book immediately from Amazon, though any acceptable wholesaler would do. When there is no librarian at the information desk the patron fills out a simple book order form and drops it in a box at the desk. This service is free of charge. There are not multiple layers of book-buying bureaucracy.

The library system should abandon the rental of premier DVDs. There are online services that are cheaper and easier and more efficient to use. You have pretty much priced yourselves out of the market now. What is the point?

Professional staff should run libraries. This does not necessarily mean every employee should hold a degree in library science. But it does mean someone who has been trained and knows the system. Volunteers are a bad idea. It would be okay to have a volunteer as an intern on some occasions, but this should not be the model we are looking to for actually running the service. This would make the library less efficient. The following are examples of the pitfalls of relying solely on volunteer staff.

Volunteering, by its very nature does not impose obligations. Family and personal matters take priority over voluntary duties so time keeping and attendance is not as reliable as paid staff. Sickness could result in no duties being carried out and no services provided. An inconsistent service confuses the public, leading to lower patronage, and the ultimate conclusion that people don’t use libraries.

As a rule, the turnover of volunteers is more frequent than that of paid staff. This necessitates greater paid staff time spent in training since training of volunteers by voluntary staff does not guarantee training to the appropriate level.

Volunteering is based purely on mutual trust and is not legally binding. This has implications for data protection as well as health and safety regulations.

If a community runs a volunteer library by levying a local rate this will mean residents are paying twice for their library service since they will see no compensatory reduction in the County rate. This is tantamount to penalising those living in rural areas. How does this tie in with the legal ruling on equality?

Our FOWL group would like very much to be invited to give testimony regarding our local library alongside local authority representatives that may be invited to speak at any DCMS Committee meetings regarding library services.

3. The Secretary of State’s powers of intervention

These powers are not at all effective if the Secretary chooses not to intervene. If there is no response during this time when there is outcry throughout the nation about the mass closure of libraries then when would these powers be effectively utilized? It seems the recognition of these powers only surfaces when it is being pointed out by other parties that they are not being used.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012