Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Josephine Grahl

I am a qualified librarian and wrote my MSc dissertation on the importance of public libraries in a democracy. I am also a lifelong user of the public library system. This evidence is submitted in a personal capacity, and draws heavily on my dissertation work.

Summary

Public libraries play a valuable role in the democratic infrastructure of the UK, for a number of reasons. These include:

Their educational role, particularly for children and people for whom English is not the first language.

Open access to the culture and knowledge of our society as well as to educational materials, news, technical, business and political information.

The provision of a quiet, welcoming space, open to all, with no barriers to entry.

An archival and historical role: the preservation of national culture in a way which ensure that it is as widely accessible to the public as possible.

There are three alternatives to keeping local public library branches open and free at point of use; all are problematic.

Closing library branches and preserving the collection at a borough level with one or two centralised libraries rather than a network of small branches.

Making use of commercial locations (coffee shops, supermarkets) to house public library collections.

Replacing public library collections (especially reference works) with the expectation that the same information could be found electronically.

Problems with the above suggestions:

A borough- or city-level centralised library collection would have to be primarily a closed collection, significantly reducing access to users.

Libraries are valuable not just for the collections they hold but for the quiet, freely accessible space they offer. Commercial premises need to make profit, which means that access to their premises cannot be made genuinely free to all.

Online information cannot replace the types of information held and made available in libraries.

The above points comprise the ways in which the widespread closure of public library branches would mark a dereliction of “the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof” and by implication of the Secretary of State’s responsibility to “superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities” (Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964).

1. The democratic function of the library as a functioning aspect of the public sphere seems self-evident. The public library is widely used: 39.4% adults used a library in 2009–10, and over 70% of children,1 making the library service one of the most widely used cultural institutions in the country. It is available to all, and a library offers almost unlimited access to information (through the inter-library loan system, by which users can request material not held by their own local library service). In its funding, the library service maintains the necessary disjuncture from political pressure: governments cannot exert direct pressure over the type of materials made available or withheld.

2. Colleen Alstad and Ann Curry identified six ways in which the library services contribute to a healthy democracy:

1.“they are the entry point into a wider culture: libraries reflect the ideals of the civil society and ensure that all citizens have access to the basic resources that allow them to enter a public sphere, to belong to their society”;

2.“[they are] regularly and uniformly open to children and young people, [providing youth with] social and educational opportunities in a place that is neither school nor home”;

3.“it gives access to news and information that helps to form public opinion [and] provides the means for individuals to take part in political and social debate”;

4.“the library is a positive place and supports positive activity and growth”;

5.“people can just sit quietly, read and reflect, “without the pressure to act as consumers […]”; and

6.“he library is a place where [new immigrants] can feel included and productive”.2

It is significant that none of these aspects can easily be measured or evaluated—which is not to say that such evaluation is impossible. But these aspects of the public sphere role of the public libraries have subtle but wide-reaching social effects, which go beyond counting books borrowed, numbers of visitors, or other technical measure of library performance.

3. A public library provides not only access to current material, but also has an archival function: the system as a whole is a permanent store of public knowledge. While a bookshop which holds unpopular out-of-print material at the expense of contemporary popular works will soon go out of business, the libraries have the facility (if not always the space!) to hold much greater reserves of literature and reference material. Projects like the regional Joint Fiction Reserves and the Scottish Fiction Reserve maintain universal access to material which might otherwise quickly become inaccessible.

4. Another vital democratic and community function of the library service is the way in which the library provides a quiet public space, open to all, including children, young people, pensioners, the homeless, and recent immigrants. At the library you can study or sit quietly and reflect; in general your right to be there goes unquestioned. For marginalised groups it provides a safe place in the community—for example, for people with poor English skills, the space can be used without having to negotiate or request permission. Libraries in supermarkets or coffee shops are not as free to use: the coffee shop’s owner will prefer the customers who buy coffee to those who come in and browse the shelves without buying anything.

5. The neutrality of the public library space also provides a way for users to encounter other people in a safe environment, in which social and political conflicts do not impinge. For example in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, most social gathering places, likes churches or pubs, were non-neutral in nature. The library was one of the few non-sectarian spaces in the community3. The neutrality of the space also allows for personal and cultural education: for example, the public library may be one of the first places where young people have free access to information about sexuality, which they can use without fear of criticism or restriction. Replacing local libraries with one or two large centralised libraries, or moving the ‘public library’ into a commercial space would detract from this function as a social space.

6. Replacing local branch libraries with centralised libraries would also limit access to many users of the local libraries. While many people now have the computer skills to browse on an online catalogue and request the materials they wish to use, many (such as older people, young children, and the visually impaired) would find this kind of library use a barrier to access. The open-access public library also allows for browsing and serendipity, so that users may have more opportunity to try something new or unusual.

7. The service and expertise offered by librarians has the potential to open up the available information resources to even very inexperienced users. Professional, trained librarians can select and present a wide variety of material which offers broad access to social and political information, cultural resources, and educational material. Volunteer staff may be able to carry out a lot of the day-to-day tasks of a library, but will not have the training and dedication of professional librarians. As the way that people use information changes, so can libraries and librarians guide readers and assist them in using new tools and new technologies.

8. There is a perception that in the age of Wikipedia and Google, libraries are no longer needed: ‘everything is on the internet’. The public library services cannot simply be replaced by online information: the wealth of cultural, business, technical and local information that is available in the average library branch is not necessarily available online. The economies of scale that mean that borough library services can purchase expensive reference materials mean that libraries may also have a use to small businesses who would not otherwise have access to useful but expensive commercial information. Information on the internet will not reliably be there tomorrow; access to information may change depending on commercial pressures on online information providers. By contrast, the public libraries offer a stability and reliable source of information, free from the pressures of profit and competition.

Conclusion

9. Libraries have the potential to offer access to human debate of the present and the past, a safe space within the community which is open to all, and a rational organisation of human knowledge and culture. The public libraries offer information which is rooted in history, which is independent of private and commercial interests, and furthermore offer different ways for the public to pursue knowledge through discourse. We are told constantly that we are living in an age in which information is all-important. We are also living in a period in which democracy has grown steadily weaker, with more and more people experiencing political apathy and turning away from the political process. It is at this point that the public library service needs to emphasise its own unique potential.

10. I hope I have shown how I feel the closure of public libraries would detract from the current library service and would damage aspects of the public library system which are unique and irreplaceable. In particular the requirement for library authorities to provide a “comprehensive library service for every person desiring to make use thereof” would be fatally damaged even by the closure of just one or two libraries by every library authority. A Secretary of State who permitted or authorised such closures could not claim to have “promoted the improvement” of the public library service and would therefore be fully in dereliction of the duties laid down in the Public Libraries and Museums Act.

January 2012

1 DCMS “Taking Part” report, 2010: www.dcms.gov.uk/publications/7386.aspx

2 ALSTAD, Colleen and CURRY, Ann, 2003: “Public space, public discourse and public libraries” in LIBRES. http://libres.curtin.edu.au/libres13n1/pub_space.htm

3 CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) report, 2004: 21st century libraries: changing forms, changing futures. www.cabe.org.uk/files/21st-century-libraries.pdf

Prepared 5th November 2012