Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by The Bookseller

Executive Summary of Key Points

1. A “comprehensive and efficient” library service must mean that libraries are accessible to all local communities, well-stocked with a full range of books, and run by trained professionals.

2. Plans to close libraries or replace them with volunteer-run library schemes do not fulfil the requirements of the 1964 Act but instead create two-tier systems within boroughs and severely diminish provision for some communities, with risks that they may later terminate altogether.

3. The example of Lewisham indicates that the early signs are that closing council-run libraries in favour of private or volunteer ventures can be disastrous for the quality of the service.

4. The Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the 1964 Libraries Act are sufficient and effective when they are used, but Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey are abrogating their responsibility to superintend the library service despite widespread calls to do so, leaving it to local communities to pursue costly legal cases instead.

5. The Bookseller recommends that the Secretary of State and the Culture Minister be censured for breach of their duties under the 1964 Act and that an inquiry be called into library closures on a national basis.

Introduction to the Submitter

The Bookseller is the long-established trade magazine for the book industry, read by publishers, booksellers, librarians, agents and authors. The publication has been reporting on developments in the library world for many years and for the past 12 months it has been running a “Fight for Libraries” campaign both in the magazine and online. This has included a Facebook campaign page which has close to 6,000 followers.

What constitutes a “comprehensive and efficient” library service?

Our belief is that a “comprehensive and efficient” library service as envisaged by the creators of the 1964 Public Libraries Act must be one which is accessible to all local communities, including disadvantaged groups, and one which offers a full selection of reading material and reading guidance from trained professional staff.

The book trade believes that libraries are the seedbed of literacy and the love of reading, because they allow children to discover the world of books and to explore and experiment with their reading whatever the financial circumstances of their family. Numerous recent studies have proved the importance of such reading in helping children develop and achieve their potential. In terms of adult readers, publishers know from experience that by working with libraries they can reach communities which do not to go bookshops because they lack financial resources or feel intimidated in the bookshop environment. Meanwhile there is ample evidence to suggest that the elderly population, who are heavy readers, find libraries both an important source of reading material and a place where they can feel engaged with their community and avoid isolation.

We do not accept that changes in technology have made the existence of physical libraries any less essential. Computers and e-readers are expensive and a substantial proportion of the population still do not have access to them. Many children live in homes where finding a quiet space to study and do homework is impossible. The safe, community space that is a library, with a full book collection, and reading guidance on offer from a trained library professional, remains a hugely important resource within the community.

Accessibility of the service within local communities is central to this.

Are planned closures compatible with the 1964 Act?

The pattern commonly adopted by councils planning substantial restructuring of their library services is to focus resources into one big central library, or a few privileged libraries, while cutting back on small local libraries and mobile services. Our view is that this destroys this accessibility and therefore the “comprehensiveness” and “efficiency” of the provision.

Mothers with small children cannot easily undertake a bus journey to the big central library if they live in the outskirts; children cannot use a big, central library many miles away to call in on their way home from school and spend a couple of hours of quiet, uninterrupted work; elderly people also find travel difficult or impossible. It involves expense for all groups and for those in rural areas, the distances involved can be very large. Therefore the policy of cutting public funding to the libraries catering for many of the smaller communities creates in effect a “two-tier” service, in which those lucky enough to live close to one of the chosen libraries keep their service, but those in other areas lose it. This is clearly contrary to the 1964 Act.

The Bookseller does not accept that volunteer-run libraries are an adequate substitute for those funded and managed by councils. There are serious and unanswered questions over the long-term sustainability of such ventures, which are often required to raise sizeable annual funds for their own upkeep and rely on the variable resources of the local community. The loss of trained professional staff in such ventures is a major, not an incidental, disadvantage. Librarianship is a serious professional role and cannot be replicated by untrained volunteers, no matter how enthusiastic. Volunteer staff come and go. They are very welcome as an addition to a professional library team, but not as a substitute for one. As a close observer of the situation, The Bookseller has come to the conclusion that many such volunteer-run ventures are pure cost-cutting measures which cannot but offer the local community a severely diminished service, with no guarantee that the service is likely to continue in coming years. Some campaigners have described volunteer-run libraries as “the slow death of the library service” and The Bookseller agrees with this view.

Replacing libraries with “kiosk” style mini-libraries located in other facilities and with a very limited number of books on offer is also highly unsatisfactory.

What is the impact of library closures on local communities?

Because many of the closures are relatively recent, and a great many volunteer-run schemes just in the process of setting up, The Bookseller has not reported widely on the confirmed impact of closures thus far—it is early days and we would refer you instead to the communities themselves for their evidence. However we recently ran an article relating to borrowing figures in Lewisham, where five libraries were closed or transferred out of council control in May 2011, which I reproduce here in full for your information. The findings in the article appear very concerning.

“Catastrophic” plunge in lending at Lewisham’s community libraries

06.12.11 | Benedicte Page

Local campaigners have accused Lewisham council of operating a two-tier library service after the council’s own statistics showed borrowing plummeting up to 89% at the libraries transferred out of council management in May.

Borrowing figures for October 2011 show Grove Park community library making just 722 loans during that month this year compared to 3,764 in October 2010, a drop of 81% on its previous year’s total. New Cross library saw just 458 issues this October compared with 2,770 in October last year; Sydenham library totalled 1,326 loans this October compared with 4,035 in the same month last year. Crofton Park library saw the best result, lending 2,836 times this October, down 53% on its total of 6,036 in October 2010. Blackheath Village library saw the worst result, lending just 572 books in October this year, down 89% on the previous October’s total of 5,044.

The figures were made public by Lewisham councillor Christine Best, the cabinet member with responsibility for libraries, at a council meeting on 29 November, in response to a query from an opposition councillor. Best stated: “There have been some initial difficulties with data collection from the community libraries, and the service overall has had a difficult year, completing a major staff reorganisation and the introduction of new technologies. The implementation of such major change has had a negative impact on performance, but the service is confident that both issues and visits will now begin to increase.”

Lewisham library campaigner Peter Richardson said: “We’re shocked at the paucity of the issues in these community libraries. We were anticipating a drop but such a drop is catastrophic and has implications for the service as a whole. We’re concerned about the two-tier system now extant, which is a breach of the 1964 Act.”

Five Lewisham libraries were closed on 28 May, later reopening in new hands. Grove Park, Sydenham and Crofton Park are now run by computer recycling firm Eco; Blackheath Village library has transferred to nearby charity Age Exchange; and New Cross is being wholly run by volunteers as New Cross People’s Library.

How effective are the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the 1964 Act?

Under the Act, the Secretary of State has a duty to superintend the service and can order a local inquiry into any service which there is evidence to suggest is not being properly run. These powers seem perfectly sufficient in themselves: the then Culture Secretary Andy Burnham was asked by local people to order an inquiry into library closures in the Wirral in 2009, and did so, which resulted in the reversal of major planned closures in the region. However having observed the situation over many months, it appears that Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt and Culture Minister Ed Vaizey have no intention of fulfilling their duty under the Act in what must surely constitute a serious breach of their responsibilities for the library service.

Campaigners in areas across the country, including in Brent, Lewisham, Gloucestershire and the Isle of Wight, have made repeated and numerous pleas over many months for the Secretary of State’s intervention over closures often more significant in extent than those proposed in the Wirral. Some campaign groups have been allowed meetings with DCMS officials to discuss their concerns—but after many months, no action has resulted from any of the meetings. Each time the issue of intervention has been raised with Mr Hunt or Mr Vaizey, a stock response saying that the DCMS is “monitoring” the situation is issued. However while the so-called “monitoring” goes on, the library closures simply go ahead with no action to prevent them. In Lewisham, where campaigners met with the DCMS and repeatedly asked for intervention over five planned library closures/divestments, no action was taken, and no formal decision for or against intervention given—and so the closure/transfer of the five libraries simply went ahead, amid widespread local protest, last May. This lack of response has forced campaigners such as those in Brent and Gloucestershire and Somerset to take their case to the courts in difficult and expensive judicial review actions—actions which in Gloucestershire and Somerset have been successful in halting the closures. If the planned Gloucestershire and Somerset library closures were unlawful, as the courts have found they were, why was the Secretary of State content simply to keep on “monitoring” them as they proceeded, with no action to prevent them?

Recommendations

The Bookseller recommends that the Secretary of State and Culture Minister be censured for their failure to carry out their duty to superintend the library service under the 1964 Act and that a national inquiry into library closures be instituted forthwith, with all existing planned closures or transfers stalled until completion.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012