Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Birmingham Library and Archive Services

Summary

Public Libraries …

Are a place to share, create, discover, visit, make connections, exchange ideas, find surprises and inspiration, communicate, interact, teach, learn.

Are a socially inclusive place for all.

Unlock the door to creative reading experiences.

Support all kinds of learning, formal and informal for people of all ages.

Minimise digital exclusion through free Internet access and helping people learn digital skills.

Support the information needs for the knowledge economy.

Delivering central and local government priorities through …

Access to reading material and reader development, which supports literacy and promotes reading as an essential life skill as well as a source of pleasure and enjoyment.

The encouragement of early literacy and confidence in reading.

Skills acquisition for success in a knowledge-driven economy.

An understanding of individual and community heritage and history.

Adult informal learning.

Support for small and medium sized businesses and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Information, services and resources supporting healthy lifestyles and life choices.

Knowledge and skills for citizenship.

Access to the digital and virtual environments.

Cultural activity (music, dance, art, poetry, theatre …).

A community meeting place.

Trained, knowledgeable, helpful and welcoming staff.

Partnership with other public, private and voluntary services and other library services.

The library service of the future is moving beyonf its traditional transactional functions of book lending and information provision. Core library roles in relation to reading, learning and information will be fulfilled by staff acting as facilitators rather than gatekeepers.

There should be a basic consistent message about what constitutes a library service—a “National Library Offer” capable of being applied locally and enhanced and extended depending on local community needs.

The local authority must always have a clear strategic plan for the development of the library service and be able to demonstrate that any proposed closures fit in with this plan and that the needs of service users have been satisfactorily accommodated.

Previous library closures had the greatest impact on parents with small children, school age children and older people.

Central Government should have a role in setting the vision and objectives for the service—providing a strong national framework within which the library service can operate while still responding to the needs of local communities. The 1964 Act is still valid whether library services are directly managed or commissioned from a third party but the Secretary of State needs to provide clarity on what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service—and how this will be robustly monitored and failure to deliver challenged.

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

1. The public library service is a national service that is delivered locally and contributes significantly in many of the key priority areas for national and local government in actively supporting learning and literacy, community development and community cohesion, digital inclusion, individual development and wellbeing, culture and creativity, and the information needs for the knowledge economy, with an emphasis on enhancing knowledge and 21st century skills.

2. Libraries must be subject to local influence and respond to the needs of their local communities but this need not necessarily mean that they remain under local government control. True economies of scale will only be possible by reducing the number of library authorities—or by alternative governance models which cut across local authority boundaries. The development of the service is held back and inefficiency is encouraged by current governance arrangements.

3. There should be a basic consistent message about what constitutes a library service—a “National Library Offer” capable of being applied locally and enhanced and extended depending on local community needs. This would provide clarity of purpose and facilitate performance and outcome evaluation.

4. The provision of a wide range of resources is a means to achieving various central and local government priorities—economic, social and cultural—and the active and deliberate intervention of trained and knowledgeable staff in exploiting these resources and to develop partnerships for and with local communities is absolutely fundamental to the future health of the public library service.

5. Library services should be “comprehensive and efficient” with defined criteria against which delivery can be measured. These criteria should be based on delivery and enhancement of a ‘National Library Offer’ and should be robustly monitored through relevant performance indicators relating to levels of use, satisfaction and cost. Local authorities must be able to demonstrate that the service delivers and extends the National Offer while meeting the needs of their local community—if they can do this, further prescription is unnecessary.

6. There is an increasing expectation that information and services will be available online and sometimes in very different formats—Web, Virtual World etc. To support this more and more, information sources and documents are being digitised with increasing sophistication in the retrieval of knowledge. Organisations delivering services that do not recognise this change will continue to see a reduction in their customer base. Libraries need to meet the expectations of a digital generation whose thinking is influenced by social networking and gaming.

7. The devices we use and the information we store are becoming increasingly personalised—this applies across a broad range of consumer technologies from model phones to iPods and digital set top boxes. Thousands of websites now provide personalisation and with the more effective ones, simplification and more intelligent and intuitive access. Wireless provision for use with laptops, mobile phones & hand held devices etc. will be more important than the provision of PCs.

8. Public libraries need staff with a wide range of skills and experience. While new skills are required eg digital, entrepreneurial and marketing skills, we should not forget the importance of more traditional skills relating to information handling and reader development. In Birmingham we have externally accredited our Learning Support staff and Business Advisors who offer a one to one support for customers using our Learning Centre and Business Services. Self Service can automate library transactions, freeing staff to deliver value added services. Core library roles in relation to reading, learning and information should be fulfilled by staff acting as facilitators rather than gatekeepers.

9. There must be capacity for staff to work outside a library building—to take the service out to community groups and venues and to meet and talk to people who may never have used a library but may value access to our services. These community relationships need to be maintained. Engagement with the local community means that a wider range of views can be fed into the decision making process and ensuring that no one group or individual has a disproportionate impact on the service.

10. There is scope to develop more extensive partnerships to deliver services eg with health providers, or rental of space to commercial companies who provide services which might enhance the library visitor’s experience—but care is needed to preserve the neutrality of the service.

11. Library locations should be based on ease of access—size and demography of the local population, travelling time, access to public transport –opening hours should be responsive to local needs and regularly reviewed.

12. Library services need to be easy, quick and convenient to use—online services are increasing in popularity and a downloadable digital book service is more likely to be successful than a postal service which relies on a customer having to post an item back to the library.

13. The private sector is often able to respond more quickly to changing customer needs and to have more flexibility in the way that services are delivered. They are also much more adept at using customer segmentation to target their services; however the public sector commitment to equal access doesn’t always sit comfortably with the private sector’s commercial focus.

14. Trusts and Social Enterprises enable library services to focus solely on the library customer and the service. They have more flexibility over budgets and staff terms and conditions enabling a more responsive service. Local authority influence is retained by Board membership. Trusts are also able to pursue alternative funding streams.

15. With any alternative governance model, the service needs to operate within a clear performance framework.

16. Best practice is being shared but true economies of scale and the wholesale implementation of best practice is difficult with the number and varying size of independent library authorities. This might be easier initially on a regional basis but would need political support to share services or functions across local authorities—each with their own IT systems and service providers.

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

17. There are a number of reasons a Local Authority might wish to close a library—changes in the size and nature of the local population, health and safety reasons, opportunities to provide a better library within reasonable distance of two less successful ones, new provision of a good alternative service. It would be unrealistic not to recognise that the strains on local authority budgets means that difficult decisions need to be made which may result in library closures.

18. The local authority must always have a clear strategic plan for the development of the library service and be able to demonstrate that any proposed closures fit in with this plan and that the needs of service users have been satisfactorily accommodated. There should always be local consultation.

19. Co-location with other services rather than complete closure should be examined but is most successful when it benefits to all partners. Libraries are often seen as services which will draw people to them, but our experience has shown that co-location works best when customers can fulfil a number of purposes on a visit to a single site. Co-location should not result in a poorer library service.

20. Library locations should be based on ease of access—size and demography of the local population, travelling time, access to public transport and preferably opportunity to co-locate with other services with complementary aims. As long as the library service is clearly identifiable, a dedicated building is not necessary.

The impact library closures have on local communities

21. Birmingham City Council is committed to retaining all its libraries; however there have been occasions in the past where there has been an occasional library closure. The closures had the greatest impact on parents with small children, school age children and older people—all of whom could not easily travel to any alternative provision or necessarily afford to buy other reading matter. In addition to the loss of access to library resources and information provision, the loss of a community space, freely available to all, was keenly felt together with the range of activities provided by the library service.

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

22. The Secretary of State’s powers of intervention might be more effective if they were actually ever used. The split at Government level between policy (DCMS) and funding (DCLG) is less than helpful especially when levels of funding or expectations for library services are not identified. This results in inequalities in provision particularly when there are no nationally agreed objectives or range of performance indicators and provides opportunities for a range of interest groups to challenge local decisions.

23. Central Government should have a role in setting the vision and objectives for the service—providing a strong national framework within which the library service can operate while still responding to the needs of local communities. The 1964 Act is still valid whether library services are directly managed or commissioned from a third party but the Secretary of State needs to provide clarity on what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service—and how this will be robustly monitored and failure to deliver challenged.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012