Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Save Croydon Libraries Campaign

Background

1. Croydon Council consulted on the potential closure of six libraries. Save Sanderstead Library Campaign was formed by local residents, along with campaign groups in other areas.

2. There were many concerns that the consultation process was flawed. Despite this, and although the council did not consult the residents who use the other seven libraries, Croydon decided to move to outsource the whole network in partnership with Wandsworth. This was on the basis of just 412 responses, of responses in excess of 20,000 received. A breakdown of the responses, that Croydon claim informed the decision, has been denied.
www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/breakdown_of_responses_to_librar#incoming-199932

3. Croydon is a diverse borough. There are concerns that the Equalities Impact Assessments carried out so far have been too general and fail to address the specific needs of the communities the individual libraries serve.

4. Campaign groups were networked throughout the process but when it became apparent that the whole network of libraries was under threat the Save Sanderstead Library Campaign group widened its remit to form Save Croydon Libraries Campaign.

5. An internal reshuffle, taking effect in April 2011, realised a drastic reduction of experienced library staff and librarians. This was masked by a reorganisation and alteration of job titles, including re-badging some back office staff along with qualified librarians as “Reading and Learning librarians”.

6. Residents have noticed a drastic reduction in the service on offer and are very concerned for the morale and wellbeing of the remaining staff, who work under extremely difficult circumstances at times. All these points have been brought to the attention of the cabinet member in charge, Councillor Sara Bashford.

Summary

7. We believe a comprehensive and efficient library service plays a vital role in the community it serves. We hope the Inquiry considers not only the impact of closures, but places strong emphasis on evaluating the quality of the service on offer, where libraries remain open, to ensure the service meets statutory obligations.

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

8. To be comprehensive, libraries should offer a range of facilities to meet the needs of all who wish to make use of it. Central to this is ensuring that libraries are staffed in sufficient numbers, led by qualified librarians, to enable all users to access the resources of the library effectively.

9. A comprehensive and efficient service should offer:

trained experienced staff and qualified librarians;

free book loans;

a broad selection of books that appeals to all sections of society. For example, not limiting choice by pandering to one particular group’s need above others, based on faith, belief, background, colour or sexual orientation;

a loans system that allows books to be easily borrowed from other bases, such as other libraries in the network or from further afield if this is more cost-effective;

free access to the internet and sufficient computers to meet the needs of the community served. Wi-Fi is highly desirable, as is access to e-books;

access to other, often expensive, hard copy reference books such as Who’s Who, Debrett’s, encyclopaedias;

sufficient space for people to study, meet, relax and socialise;

confidentiality of information held eg personal contact information, books on prescription, loans records;

to act as a focal point for the community it serves, holding all relevant information for that community; and

good access and facilities to meet the needs of all, including young, elderly and disabled. Eg disabled access and toilet facilities, baby-change facilities, large print books, plus texts and newspapers available in languages appropriate to the community.

10. Ideally they would offer:

a welcoming, comfortable and vibrant space, which would also encourage more to make use of libraries;

relevant information, including local and community information, council information, charities, local help groups, organisations and events;

library events that are well organised and publicised so people are not only aware but encouraged to access them;

help with study, including support for school children eg homework clubs;

schemes to encourage literacy and promote literacy for the young and those with poor literacy levels; and

facilities for job seekers to improve their chances of securing employment eg ready access to newspapers, the internet etc.

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

11. Anything that acts as a barrier to accessing library services for those who wish to make use of it is in breach of the 1964 Act, and should be considered as such. We feel strongly that the DCMS should not just be focusing solely on the impact of closure but should be taking full account of the level of service on offer. An open door does not necessarily assure a comprehensive and efficient service.

The impact library closures have on local communities.

12. Our concern is that those who most use libraries—the young and the elderly, have greatest difficulty travelling independently or using public transport to get to anywhere other than their local library. This is also a clear barrier for the disabled.

13. For example, Bradmore Green and Sanderstead library users would need to negotiate steep hills to access another library or it would require two bus journeys either way. The difficulty parking around several libraries was cited by many elderly residents and those with young children as a real barrier to using a library, other than the one in their community, which they can access easily.

14. There was concern expressed by residents in the north of the borough that, whilst the next nearest library appeared accessible, it was again a difficult route to travel, often along busy and congested roads. eg travelling from Norbury to access Thornton Heath Library.

15. People feel more comfortable and safer using their local libraries. Parents also expressed concern that their children were more vulnerable when travelling further afield. This is also particularly true of older children, many of whom can presently use their local library independently. Residents in all parts of the borough spoke of their reticence to allow children to travel further afield out of a genuine concern for their child’s safety. This includes older Primary school aged children and teenagers.

16. A local library can aid social cohesion, act as a focal point for the community and bring different ages and groups together. In some areas such as Sanderstead and Shirley for example, the local library is the only public building where members of the community can meet. It is also the only place to access local information and for many, the internet.

17. There is a high level of anxiety and mistrust as residents voice the opinion that they have not been listened to in the consultation process and information available to residents is scant. Finding other groups or organisations to run libraries, as proposed in Croydon, has not proved beneficial in other parts of the country. The impact on library use in Lewisham libraries, for example, demonstrates this.

18. The reduced service on offer in Croydon has already impacted on residents’ effective use of their libraries. Examples of this are detailed below.

19. The drastic loss of staff has had the biggest impact. We are unable to speak with staff and are reliant on residents’ observations to ascertain the extent and impact of this across the borough.

20. The Internal Reshuffle which included the re-badging of unqualified staff as “Reading and Learning librarians” to mask the impact in the drastic loss of both experienced and highly qualified staff in Croydon libraries, has been extremely unsettling. This has led to a catalogue of problems, none of which residents attribute as the fault of the remaining staff, who are clearly working very hard indeed to try to keep the service running as well as possible under the circumstances. Despite this, a comprehensive service is no longer on offer.

21. Residents have been unable to gain entry where libraries have not opened because of staff shortages.

22. Where libraries are open there have been queues and delays as libraries are so short staffed. This has also impacted on the amount of support that staff are able to provide to residents needing help or assistance.

23. The rotation of staff has led to lack of continuity and this affects the staff’s knowledge of library users needs and interests. This is particularly relevant to elderly and vulnerable adults who may need to be dealt with in a particular manner or who derive a greater sense of well-being and enjoyment from being acknowledged and cared for by staff. It also means children have lost the reassurance of knowing and building a relationship with the staff in the library, also meaning staff are not as well equipped to offer suggestions of possible future reads or to know the best strategies to employ with individuals, such as reluctant readers.

24. Staff also appear not to have been trained on the workings of the libraries in which they work so are often unable to locate the simplest of things such as comments cards, or inadvertently give out misinformation, such as directing users to visit neighbouring libraries although they are closed that day, not knowing how to access event information or where a reserved item might be located.

25. Access to qualified and experienced staff has greatly reduced. For example, one library has access to a qualified librarian only 1 day per month after the reshuffle and even this has not been available in some months. Prior to the reshuffle, this library had regular experienced staff who knew the community well, a part time library manager post shared by senior librarians for two and a half days per week and a dedicated children’s librarian.

26. There is lack of consistency in how and which events are advertised. Residents’ access to events is being hindered by the sporadic and almost casual and haphazard way information on events is now advertised. Some libraries have a better range of activities and better publicity than others.

27. Events have been cancelled at short or, at times, no notice, including regular, one off and special events such as The Summer Booktrail for children. Having been let down, residents then lose faith and stop supporting events. Active groups have dwindled in numbers in a short space of time. Cancelled events have not been rescheduled.

28. There have been protracted delays in transfer of reserved items and errors in the processing of books. Eg reserved items loaned out to other users, items not checked out or not processed as a return, leading to the accruing of fines on already returned items and being unable to locate items that show as being in stock.

29. Parents report that liaison with schools has broken down. This was a strength previously, allowing the library serving local schools to stock resources linked to the topics and subjects covered or required for study and homework.

30. As residents are so conscious of the situation placed on the remaining staff, residents are less likely to ask for help or advice as they want to support the staff and can see how stretched they are. Many residents speak of how distressing it is to watch valued staff continue to struggle, with the uncertainty of their jobs to worry about.

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

31. The Secretary of State has clear powers to intervene but has chosen not to use them as yet. This has led to unnecessary distress to library staff and users, and the financial burden of legal challenges being brought against local authorities. The clear message from the outcome of the Gloucestershire and Somerset case, which was taken to the High Court and won on appeal, was that the actions of the councils were “unlawful”. Brent campaigners may still win their case on appeal and Surrey campaigners are embarking on their legal challenge.

32. It should not be for local communities to battle on alone, often with huge legal costs to meet, in order to do so. The Secretary of State should exercise his power to intervene.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012