Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Gareth Osler

I would like to:

1.make three suggestions; before then going on to

2.briefly comment on each of the issues on which views are being sought.

My suggestions:

1. A small permanent body consisting of staff with appropriate skills whose job is not their own opinion, but to advise the public and stakeholders otherwise through analysis and reason and on an ongoing basis, as to the value of the public libraries to our society—to our towns and cities, communities, institutions, individuals. The staff would draw for their knowledge from all stakeholders in addition to library professionals and experts—actively seeking comment and feedback from the public so as to be in touch with the reality of the experience of library users on the ground (almost an ombudsman role), whilst also seeking opinions of professionals with an interest in the public libraries (eg, teachers) and literature professionals working within the literary ecosystem of our culture otherwise. An ongoing body is necessary because of the rapidly changing nature of the society around us in the times we live (communications and information technologies etc., but also an evolving Library Science itself). This would provide the necessary ongoing assessment and joined up thinking on the subject of libraries which has been missing from the series of reports we have had presented to us in recent years which have largely tended to reflect the values of those commissioning the report. An ongoing body is also necessary because as Library Science is a young science, so our understanding of the value of our public libraries is still unfolding, and we can expect the thinking of such a body to change and evolve accordingly with this understanding.

2. That a museum be created (online and physical) to our public libraries, being instrumental towards the ends of the latter suggestion in inducting people into the tradition of our public libraries, and in ensuring that we do not lose our sense of the value of the tradition of our public libraries.

3. As a starting point and as a matter of urgency, that the issue of the 1964 public library standards be clarified. I am not in a position to provide a reliable account of the 1964 Act, however if I may venture for consideration the following. The second reading of the Act states that expected standards for an efficient library service were defined within the Standards. I would ask also if not a third “tier” of the Act (on top of the Statute itself and the Standards), comprising of advice that would be provided to library authorities where issues arose otherwise. I would ask also if any such advice has to be reasoned based on the best advice the department has available, advice which in 1964 was well documented in the form of the committee reports leading up to the formulation of the 1964 Act. Should not subsequent advice then have been then reasoned from this point, and in terms of this initial statement of a comprehensive and efficient library service—yet The Library Campaigner, Autumn 2011, reports (page 13) “there are no more national standards”, further inquiry revealing that they were “dropped” by the MLA in 2007 on the instructions of the then government department for local authorities and communities (anecdotal, MLA staff). Surely the terms comprehensive and efficient in the 1964 Act were defined by the meaning given to them at the time, and the Act most certainly did not state that they could be removed should a Government department make the request. The 1964 Act was there in respect of public libraries to define a minimum quality library service that the public could expect. We very much at this point need this clarifying—with the arguments from those that hold the Standards can be “dropped”, and those who disagree, clearly laying out for all to see and examine. The truth of the Act appears at this point to be at issue, and in need of clarifying.

Taking each of the four issues for which views are being sought in turn:

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

In evaluating the worth of results of the committee’s enquiry could I ask the committee to consider the following point. You have not explained what the terms comprehensive and efficient mean— they are used in the documentation leading up to the formulation and passing of the 1964 Act and their meaning can be understood from this documentation (ie, from how the terms were used and understood at the time—they are “technical” terms, and as such I would suggest did not need defining in the Act, but would perhaps need explaining to those not schooled, and to a high level, in librarianship). Once this understanding of our public library service and the public libraries’ value to society is understood in the context of the value that those who created the Act saw public libraries as having for society, then as we are beginning to see in the times we live, the way in which people have found and read books during the past 50 years (primarily paper books and the physical library building) will be very different to the way people will find and read books in the next 50 years—the comprehensive and efficient library service of the next 50 years will be very different to the comprehensive and efficient library service of the future. (My contribution to this issue for now is to define the problem some more.)

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

The committee could begin to answer this question themselves by studying the reports of the committees leading up to the passing of the 1964 Act and proceedings during the progress of the Act through Parliament. The Act has to be carried out in a manner consistent with the intentions and spirit of the Act (“A mere literal compliance without the substance will not suffice”, Francis Bennion, The Library Campaigner, Autumn 2011), and so any assessment of implementation of the Act would need this knowledge in the first instance. (I am not able to comment on the Charteris report at the moment, though I do understand it does identify process in assessing a library service, eg, “statement of needs” in respect of meeting the requirements of the 1964 Act.)

The impact library closures have on local communities

Addressing this issue with a question: is it not at this stage only possible to speculate as to the impact. As a library assistant I am beginning to see the effects on the lives of the people who use the libraries as closures begin to unfold (the teenager whose parents will only allow her to leave the house alone during the evening if visiting the library, the computer users who do not own a personal computer, local playgroups who will lose a valuable resource, the regular readers who will only now be making a journey to their nearest library when the reason for using the library justifies the extra one hour journey time and additional approx. £5 travel expense, etc.). The full effect I think will only be known if at all in years to follow from this point in time. We can speculate on the effect, but even this is not straightforward as the value of the public libraries in society is not fully understood—a library is of value in every context of our lives, and while acknowledging that this is true in some contexts more than others, understanding their value is by no means straightforward. The value of the public libraries is a broad ranging and complex subject, as complex as the society we live in. The impact of closures is by no means a straightforward question for this reason.

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

For the reasons I have identified above (applying the 1964 Act in spirit and not purely literally), when an authority replaces library staff with One-Stop-Shop staff they are breaking the laws defined in the 1964 Act, or indeed when replacing a librarian library manager with someone not qualified as such. If the public library service is not demonstrating that it is making full use of new technologies in delivering a comprehensive and efficient service (and it should be a much more comprehensive and efficient service for these technologies) then the Secretary of State is not advising the public libraries properly. If community libraries with shelf space and computing facilities already fully utilised find themselves serving an urban population of 30,000 instead of 15,000 then the requirements of the 1964 Act are not being met, etc. The Secretary of State though I would suggest is not failing in not ensuring these standards are met, the economy may not permit this, His failure is much more grievous, in not ensuring that a sense of the value of the tradition of our public library service is being kept alive, values on which our World class library system depends and on which our democracy depends and the future that we desire.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012