Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Elizabeth Chapman

Executive Summary

A “comprehensive and efficient library service” shall provide books and other materials in various media, including electronic and online materials, to meet the needs of its local communities.

The needs of all community members must be considered, including disadvantaged and hard-to-reach groups.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to encourage people to use the library service.

The library service must be accessible, in terms of location, opening hours, and access for people with disabilities (this applies to both physical buildings and online services).

Consultation with local communities is essential.

Trained, paid library staff are vital to running a comprehensive and efficient service.

Library services should provide value for money, but cuts may be a false economy, as library services return approximately four times the amount invested in them.

It can be argued that closure of branch library buildings would constitute a failure to provide a “comprehensive” service under the terms of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, as well as constituting a breach of equalities obligations laid out in the Equalities Act 2010.

Similarly, cuts to other elements of the service, such as the materials fund or staff numbers, would also compromise the library’s ability to provide a comprehensive and efficient service.

For many library users, libraries are irreplaceable, in terms of both their services and their provision of a free, safe public space. This is particularly true for vulnerable or disadvantaged people.

The Secretary of State’s intervention had a positive impact in the case of the Wirral Inquiry, and this power should thus be retained, and used where appropriate.

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

1.1 The Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 states that public libraries should provide “books … and other materials, sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children”. In the 21st century, “other materials” may be held to include a variety of media, including but audio-visual materials, electronic materials such as e-books, and online materials. Public libraries are one of the key providers of Internet access, which is increasingly important to full participation in modern life. The terms of the Act as quoted above also make it clear that libraries have a legal duty to meet the requirements of all members of the community, including for example speakers of other languages, black and minority ethic people, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people, people with disabilities or mental health difficulties, elderly people, people from areas of socio-economic deprivation, travellers and homeless people.

1.2 The Act also states that local authorities have a duty to “encourage[e] both adults and children to make full use of the library service”, which necessitates that resources are available for marketing and outreach work, particularly for hard-to-reach communities, which may be those most in need of the library’s services.

1.3 If the library service is to be well used and meet the needs of its communities, it is essential that the service is accessible. There are numerous facets to this. First, buildings should be in convenient locations (the former Public Library Service Standards stipulated the proportion of households that should be within a specified distance of a library; this ranged from 100% within 1 mile for Inner London authorities, to 72% within 2 miles for “sparse” unitary or county authorities—see
http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.culture.gov.uk/images/publications/PulbicLibraryServicesApril08.pdf for a full table). Local branch libraries are particularly important for those who may be less able to travel, such as children, the elderly and people with disabilities or health problems (Disability access was a key concern in the Charteris report; see section 2). Moreover, buildings should be fit for purpose and meet the requirements for disabled access set out in the Equality Act 2010, and the library’s online services should also be compliant with accessibility guidelines such as those developed by W3C. In addition, opening hours should be sufficient and appropriate to meet the requirements of the community.

1.4 Consultation with local communities is essential to ensure that the library service is meeting their needs, both in terms of day-to-day services and any planned changes to the service, such as proposed closures. An Equality Impact Assessment should be carried out when considering any change to service delivery. Moreover, library services should consider that vulnerable people and minority voices within communities may not always feel able to speak up, and there may be additional community needs which are not expressed. Specialist library staff and partnerships with specialist organisations are vital for addressing these issues.

1.5 Trained library staff are vital to the proper functioning of a library, and their skills cannot be replaced with volunteers. The proliferation of online information has made librarians more, rather than less, necessary, as many people need guidance in order to help with finding relevant, high-quality information among the mass of data available. Some of the many tasks carried out by librarians and other trained library staff include: training people in ICT, information literacy and lifelong learning skills; ensuring that libraries stock an appropriate range of materials as set out in paragraph 1.1; accessing material which is not currently held by the library, eg through inter-library loans; providing specialist information such as help for small businesses; carrying out reader development work; organising events such as book groups, author visits, literature festivals etc; bibliotherapy; running rhymetimes and storytimes to develop children’s literacy and reading enjoyment; working with schools; monitoring library usage and assessing community needs using both qualitative and quantitative techniques; marketing the library service; and managing staff and budgets. Professional library staff also need to be conversant with a wide range of laws and international human rights agreements, including the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964, the Equalities Act 2010, the Data Protection Act 1998, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and intellectual freedom rights as set out in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

1.6 Libraries also have a statutory duty to be efficient, and it is therefore important that money should not be wasted. To this end, the library should consider appropriate innovations, partnerships or co-location with other services, as recommended by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) in their document What Makes a Good Library Service
(www.cilip.org.uk/get-involved/advocacy/public-libraries/Documents/What_makes_a_good_library_service_CILIP_guidelines.pdf). However, the points laid out in paragraphs 1.1 to 1.5 should be considered when planning changes in service provision. Indeed, cutting library services is likely to prove to be a false economy, due to the vast range of social and economic events provided by libraries at relatively little cost. A meta-analysis of studies on public libraries and return on investment (Aabø, 2009;
www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1805424&show=abstract) found that libraries returned on average four times the amount invested in them.

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

2.1 At the time of writing, 428 libraries (337 buildings and 91 mobiles) are currently under threat or have closed/left council control since 1 April 2011 out of c 4,612 in the UK, according to the Public Libraries News blog (www.publiclibrariesnews.com) CILIP forecasts that 600 libraries are under threat (including 20% of English libraries). Some local authorities (with high-profile examples including Brent and Doncaster) are making swingeing cuts to library services, including closure of several branches and/or a shift to volunteer-run services, despite massive public outcry. Other authorities are keeping libraries open only at the expense of other key elements of the service, such as the materials fund, professional library staff, the mobile service or the Schools Library Service.

2.2 The Charteris Report made very clear that Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council was in breach of its statutory duty as it had failed to assess local needs. There was particular concern about the impact of the proposed closures on children and people with disabilities, who might have difficulty travelling further to a library.

2.3 The High Court recently ruled that proposed cuts to library services in Gloucestershire and Somerset were unlawful as they would disproportionately disadvantage vulnerable members of the community. The authorities had thus failed to take account of their equalities duties. This sets a precedent in case law.

2.4 Thus, it can be argued that closure of branch library buildings would constitute a failure to provide a “comprehensive” service, as detailed in section 1.3, under the terms of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, as well as constituting a breach of equalities obligations laid out in the Equalities Act 2010. Moreover, cutting the materials fund could mean that the library service was failing to meet the requirement to provide “books… and other materials, sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children”, as set out in section 1.1. Cutting trained, paid staff would also severely compromise the library service’s ability to provide a comprehensive and efficient service for the reasons set out in section 1.5.

3. The impact library closures have on local communities

3.1 Little research has been carried out into the effect of library closures on local communities, with the exception of a piece of research carried out by Professor Bob Usherwood during an eight-week closure in Sheffield in the mid-90s. The findings of this research are worth citing due to its seminal nature, although it must also be remembered that the information environment has changed since the research was carried out; for example, Internet access is likely to be a service that would be missed in the event of a present-day library closure. Bearing this in mind, key findings from Usherwood’s research include:

Libraries were particularly important in communities where unemployment was high and where other resources, including economic resources, were limited.

The majority of library users were unable to find suitable replacements for the service during the closure period.

Provision of books and other reading material was a key service which was particularly missed during the library closures.

The library was also an important social resource, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

Library users visited their local centres less often during the closure period, suggesting that the presence of a library has a positive effect on local businesses.

The full research report is available at:
www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.128103!/file/CPLIS---Sheffield-Libraries-Strike-Report.pdf

3.2 Libraries are particularly important to local communities because the majority of the services that they provide are free and available to all. These services include but are by no means limited to: access to reading materials for leisure and education, access to information, Internet access, and not least a safe, public space. Library cuts and closures are thus particularly problematic for those members of society who are already vulnerable or disadvantaged, and who are thus unable or reluctant to access other services or spaces. There is significant research and anecdotal evidence that library users value public libraries for their services, their staff and their social space, and public responses to planned library closures have highlighted this.

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

4.1 In the case of the Wirral Inquiry, the Secretary of State’s intervention led to the publication of the Charteris Report, which found that Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council had failed to comply with its statutory obligations under the 1964 Act. As a result of this, the local authority renounced its plans to close local branches, and is currently investing in its library service at a time when other local authorities are making cuts. The Secretary of State’s intervention thus prevented a situation where local citizens were deprived of their statutory rights. I believe it is therefore essential for the Secretary of State to retain these powers, and to use them in situations where the lawfulness of a local authority’s actions appears questionable, as is the case for several local authorities at present.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012