Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Sixth Report


IV. ACCESS TO PUBLIC LIBRARIES

(i) Libraries as a physical entity

27. The location and physical structure of a library is the primary factor in determining the level of access it provides. The nature of the building is also key to accessibility, not only in terms of access for the disabled, for example, but also in projecting an impression of accessibility to the community. The scale of the reduction in access to library services has been recorded for the period 1986-87 to 1996-97 by a University of Sheffield study that found that 112 of 128 authorities reported reductions in library access.[65] These reductions in access take the form of either a reduction in opening hours or the closure of library branches.

(ii) Libraries as a virtual entity

28. With the onset of the Internet there is a danger that there will be a severe, potentially wasteful and confusing duplication of network services provided by schools, libraries, post offices and further education colleges. The public library should take the lead role in such provision. We recommend as a matter of urgency that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education and Employment hold discussions to co-ordinate the supply and sources at community level of information and communication technology with a view to ensuring public libraries take a lead in such provision in view of their wider coverage and community role. That pivotal role will open the way for access to public libraries through new technology 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

(iii) Opening Hours

29. The restriction of public library opening hours has concerned many library user groups and professional organisations.[66] The Library Association noted that only 15 libraries in the United Kingdom are now open for 60 hours or more per week, a dramatic reduction in the level of service provision on that provided 20 years ago.[67] There is an understanding that opening hours have been cut as a result of funding problems: the LIC was not convinced that there had "always been adequate investment" to ensure that libraries were open sufficient hours to fulfil the "role they should be carrying out in today's society".[68]

30. Opening hours have been reduced by many authorities, with the popular evening and weekend openings being the most vulnerable to cuts.[69] Library users contend that libraries should be open when users require them. Libraries for Life for Londoners stated that opening times should cater to both working populations and to those who use the library in the day, such as the elderly and those with young children.[70] Library authorities must try to steer a course that satisfies the competing claims for ideal opening times. We expect the published library standards to provide local authorities with further guidance on minimal opening hours for individual libraries and ensure that library authorities adopt opening regimes that take account of the needs of the client population.

(iv) Library Closures

31. Since 1993-94, 203 libraries and 29 mobile libraries have been closed,[71] and local authorities have proposed closing many more.[72] Closures and plans for closing libraries have provoked a vociferous reaction from library users and library professionals.[73] Many library users' and library friends' groups were initially formed in response to proposals to close libraries.[74]

32. Library closures are opposed because of the affect on the communities that they serve. Library user groups claim that closures affect the social fabric of communities adversely by reducing access for children, the elderly, disabled and ethnic minorities.[75] Suggestions that people use alternative libraries are viewed as unacceptable on the grounds of distance, transport and safety.[76] Library user groups express concern at the loss of a cultural, educational and social centre for their communities and argue that libraries should be seen and funded as sustainable and long-term resources.[77]

33. Library users and professionals identified as the key factor in the reduction of library access as local authority funding.[78] The Library Campaign stated that library closures were often the result of "insufficient funding from the local authority".[79] However, the LGA held that library closures were not necessarily the result of budget cuts but were "more often than not ... actually reorganisation of a library service to meet the needs of the community",[80] because many "library buildings are no longer best located to deliver services to the intended community".[81] For example, new housing projects may have created communities located some distance from existing library services. Local authorities plan changing locations and new library buildings to cater for such changes.[82] Mr Neville Mackay agreed that "there is a historical legacy sometimes with the nature of the buildings and the location of library premises and ... in some cases that can be re-visited in order to come up with a more sensible and strategic allocation of library resources".[83]

34. Camden Public Library Users' Group, reflecting the views of many users, said that it finds "no compelling rational argument for closing small local libraries".[84] In many cases, the rationale for closing small local branches is that resources have been redirected to larger, more centrally located 'centres of excellence' or 'flagship' libraries that provide a greater range of facilities.[85] Such developments have been opposed because they do not provide the benefits of traditional local libraries.[86] Libraries for Life for Londoners, whilst accepting the need and demand for 'centres of excellence', contended that "the local library should be available for the elderly, for mothers with children, for people who are only able to go a short distance and it should be there when people are able to get at it".[87]

35. The LIC conceded that "some service points are poorly located or under-used", but suggested that that was the "result of a complex equation involving inadequacy of services, stock and opening hours".[88] However, Mr Alan Howarth stated that "the intention of Parliament in passing [the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964] has not always been very generously or adequately fulfilled".[89] Lord Evans said that "there are very good arguments for closing down some branch libraries and there are also some very good arguments for not closing libraries and I think some of the London boroughs have been suggesting closure for the wrong reasons".[90]

36. The DCMS's over-arching policy is that service changes, including closures, are acceptable where they form part of an overall review of services that will result in an improved and modernised service.[91] Mr Beauchamp, Chief Library Adviser to the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Arts, stated that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is kept informed about local authority decisions on libraries. He believed that proposals to reduce the service could be resolved "with a bit of judicious discussion and expressions of concern by myself on behalf of Ministers" and concluded that that was "a much better way generally of achieving a good result".[92] Mr Howarth added that, although library authorities had "difficult judgments ... to make in budget-making and prioritising", and whilst respecting "the rights of library authorities to design the pattern of their own provision", it still fell to the DCMS "to remind local authorities ... of the very great importance of the public library service which they are under a statutory obligation to maintain as a comprehensive and efficient service".[93]

37. Public libraries have an impact on local retailers and other businesses.[94] This fact has been recognised by local authorities. For example, Kent County Council stated in its first Annual Library Plan: "Libraries play an important part in bringing about economic regeneration in deprived areas, for example, in helping to revitalise town centres".[95]

38. The LGA stated that it hoped that the reasons and consequences of decisions on library opening hours and closures will become more transparent following the publication of Annual Library Plans.[96]

39. The DCMS is seeking to establish clearer national standards on the location of libraries and access to them through its recent consultation paper. It suggests as a possible standard "that no person who is entitled by statute to use an authority's library service should have to travel for more than 20 minutes to a library in both urban and rural areas".[97] Even taking into account the early stage at which the Government now is in the definition of these standards, we are concerned at the lack of precision about mode of transport. We recommend that any standard for the location of libraries should be linked specifically to modes of transport and in particular to measures of the quality of public transport provision. We further recommend that the standards as finally issued should require authorities to assess the community value of individual libraries, a value which goes beyond internal definitions of user satisfaction, even if this community value is not readily susceptible to statistical analysis.

40. This Committee has received many letters expressing the concerns of library users about reduced opening hours and library closures. Although we did not consider individual cases of closure or reduced access, we share many of those concerns and welcome the requirement for local authorities to "justify library resource reductions".[98] In addition, we consider that no such reductions should take place without extensive public consultation, a full explanation of the justification and full analysis of the implications. Some library campaigns have achieved their immediate goals in preventing closure. However, if the effect of this achievement delays the development of improved library services, then this Committee fears the victories of library campaigns may prove Pyrrhic.

(v) Social Exclusion and Social Inclusion

Libraries: a history of combatting social exclusion

41. In Libraries for All: Social Inclusion in Public Libraries, the Government stated that combatting social exclusion is one of its highest priorities and that "few [organisations] are ... as well placed as public libraries to generate change".[99] Public libraries have attained that important position because, according to the LGA, they "reach into parts of our communities more extraordinarily than any other public service. They have to reach across all kinds of people who rub shoulders uniquely in the library environment."[100] That sentiment was echoed by the LIC, which stated that libraries play an increasingly important role "in supporting people of all ages from babies through to the very elderly, all abilities, all backgrounds, all cultures."[101] Through mobile libraries, the public library service has been able to reach not only remote, rural communities, but also isolated urban communities such as old people's homes and to provide special services for children.[102]

42. Combatting social exclusion "takes public libraries back to their roots",[103] as libraries have attempted to reach the disadvantaged since their inception. At the opening of Manchester public library in 1852, Dickens described the public library as a "source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets and the ghettos of the poorest of our people".[104] The principle of inclusiveness in library service developed, with groups such as "black and ethnic minority communities; the elderly; teenagers [and] people with a wide range of disabilities" being specifically identified in the 1970s as likely to be disadvantaged.[105] Despite the principles of universal access, the public library service continues to face "some real problems about providing targeted and focused services and resources for the excluded".[106]

43. Tackling social exclusion requires library authorities to "consult and involve socially excluded groups in order to ascertain their needs and aspirations".[107] The DCMS stated that, although some local authorities have made excellent progress in combatting social exclusion, "activity is patchy and uncoordinated, and there is more that can, and should, be done".[108] The Social Exclusion Action Planning Network expressed concern that some library authorities have met "loud opposition from 'traditional' library users" when attempting to redirect funds to tackle social exclusion.[109]

Unemployed and low waged

44. Library usage statistics show that upper middle and middle-class people are the most frequent users of library services.[110] Differing levels of library usage have been explained by the fact that "working class non-users of public libraries ... point to the institutional culture of the public library as a barrier to use ... For many, public libraries continue to be associated with a white, middle class, academic culture which alienates many disadvantaged people".[111] However, Libraries for Life for Londoners agreed with the principle expressed by the LGA that "the middle class myth of libraries is dead".[112] This claim is supported by a study in Sheffield that concluded there was a "very high value [is] placed on the use of the library as a social resource, particularly in communities with a higher than average incidence of social and economic deprivation".[113]

45. Public libraries are one of the most accessible resources for the unemployed and those seeking a change of employment for information on skills training and educational and job opportunities.[114] Mr Beauchamp, Chief Library Advisor to DCMS, stated that "the principle of free access to libraries is at the heart of the library service".[115] It is that free access that enables libraries to fulfil their vital role in tackling social exclusion. Local authorities must constantly monitor that accessibility. For example, Lincolnshire library services identified procedures, in particular the requirement to complete an enrolment form, as a significant barrier to sections of the population. In that case, the library service worked with social services to implement more appropriate procedures.[116] Mr Wicks, the Minister responsible for Lifelong Learning, stated about 20 per cent of the population struggles with basic literacy and for them the library is effectively "not accessible".[117]

Disability

46. Public libraries must comply with relevant disability legislation. They are required to provide access and facilities for the disabled, which may include the removal of physical barriers, the provision of auxiliary aids and the introduction or changing of access practice, staff training and appropriate book stock.[118] The DCMS asserted that libraries have a "good record" of providing specific services for the disabled.[119] However, a survey by Scope found that 45 per cent of disabled people have difficulty in obtaining access to information about the services they need.[120] Scope also argues that disabled people have a greater need for information because of the barriers that they face in employment, income and housing.[121] Libraries have considered the requirements of several disabled communities. To date, the blind and partially sighted have possibly been best served. Many library authorities subscribe to the Talking Books Service, which is supported by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, although East Sussex libraries expressed concern at the cost of providing that service.[122] The development of library services for the blind is carried forward by Share the Vision, a national agency that encompasses relevant professional and charitable bodies and is supported by a £200,000 grant from the DCMS.[123] The Library Association suggests adapting that approach for other disabled communities.[124]

47. The British Deaf Association pointed out that for many deaf people British Sign Language is a first language and English is a second language. Many library materials are therefore less accessible to them, as is information from staff who do not possess sign language skills. The Association noted that some councils have provided particularly good facilities such as induction loops and closed caption video recorders. Gateshead council was praised for the facilities it has provided, such as videophone access to a librarian who was a sign language-user.[125] However, Gateshead council noted that the additional cost of such services was not accounted for in the expenditure league tables of public library authorities, and doubted that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions would make allowance for the additional cost to public libraries of compliance with disability legislation.[126] This Committee is concerned that the relevant authorities recognise that different disabled groups have specific and distinctive requirements for access to libraries and that funding allocations reflect this fact. We endorse the Library Association's suggestion and recommend that the Government seek to expand the Share the Vision model to all disabled groups.

Ethnic minorities

48. Libraries for All: Social Inclusion in Public Libraries recommends that library authorities "consider what specific services need to be tailored to meet the needs of minority groups and communities".[127] Local libraries have long been considered havens for ethnic minorities, providing a safe environment in which to meet and read books and newspapers in their first language or to find study materials for learning English.[128] Although there appear to be no national statistics kept on library use by ethnic minority groups, according to the LIC, ethnic minorities generally have a positive attitude towards the library service.[129] However, there have also been claims that there is an urgent need to create more friendly working conditions for staff from the ethnic minority communities and to improve services to these communities by improving the black and ethnic minority book stock.[130]

Rural communities

49. The Library Association has argued that public libraries "play an essential part in helping to overcome rural isolation", and tackle some of the problems of rural poverty.[131] The DCMS stated that it was necessary to investigate the "ways in which the traditional services of a public library can be enhanced, particularly in rural areas".[132] Geographical isolation often means that rural communities are served only by mobile libraries.[133]

50. The Countryside Agency has argued that there should be "a commitment to make ICT readily available in rural areas through libraries ... so the people living and working in rural areas are not denied the benefits of the communications revolution".[134] Mobile libraries were initially excluded from the plans to provide ICT through the library service,[135] but the LIC confirmed to us that it was encouraging local authorities to develop "innovative ways of providing [ICT] on mobiles".[136] The extension of the People's Network to mobile libraries will support the Government's stated aim to extend ICT provision to rural communities.[137] However the LIC confirmed that there were still problems with the technology.[138] The Society of Chief Librarians said that bandwidth problems "are still too great for mobile libraries to offer state of the art access to multimedia digital content".[139] The LGA argue that utilisation of non-library buildings and remote access to libraries via ICT may "limit the need for mobile libraries.[140] We welcome the commitment that mobile libraries will provide access to information and communication technology and urge the Government and local authorities to make urgent efforts to overcome the barriers to such access.

Conclusions

51. The DCMS has consulted widely on issues of social exclusion and on the development of a strategy to promote social inclusion.[141] This Committee is pleased to note that the Annual Library Plans include an emphasis on social exclusion issues, and trusts that that emphasis will lead to continued improvements in this aspect of library provision. We recommend that the implemented national library standards provide more specific guidance on the promotion of social inclusion. We further recommend that the Government ensure the collection and publication of comprehensive statistics on library use by all socially excluded groups.



65  Access to Public Libraries: The Impact of Opening Hours Reductions and Closures 1986-87 and 1996-97 (hereafter Access to Public Libraries). British Library, Research and Innovation Centre, 1998; see also Evidence , p 13. Back

66  Evidence, p 37-38, 40. See also Public Library Statistics 1998-99, p 3 and LISU Statistics 1999, p 21. Back

67  Evidence, p 13. Back

68  QQ 2-3. Back

69  Evidence, pp 13, 37-38, 40, 110, 122-123; see also Access to Public LibrariesBack

70  Evidence, p 40. Back

71  Public Library Statistics 1998-99, p 3. Back

72  Evidence, pp 115, 140. Back

73  Evidence, pp 13, 37, 39, 101, 114, 122, 133, 140. Back

74  Evidence, pp 39, 114, 133; Q 90. Back

75  Evidence, pp 12, 13, 37, 39, 114. Back

76  Evidence, pp 27, 37-38, 127. Back

77  Evidence, p 40. Back

78  Evidence, pp 13, 37, 104, 105; see also Access to Public LibrariesBack

79  Evidence, p 37. Back

80  Q 66. Back

81  Evidence, p 26. Back

82  Q 66. Back

83  Q 265. Back

84  Evidence, p 101. Back

85  Evidence, p 37. Back

86  Evidence pp 37, 140-141; Memorandum from Greater London Forum for the Elderly. Back

87  Q 79. Back

88  Evidence, p 2. Back

89  Q 150. Back

90  Q 272. Back

91  Evidence, p 65. Back

92  Q 158. Back

93  Q 155. Back

94  What Do People Do When Their Public Library Service Closes Down? An investigation into the impact of the Sheffield Libraries strike (hereafter The impact of the Sheffield Libraries strike). British Library Research and Development Department, 1996, p 28 New Measures for the New Library: A Social Audit of Public Libraries. British Library Research and Innovation Centre, 1998, pp 49-58. See also memorandum from The Blackheath Society. Back

95  Kent County Council Arts and Libraries Annual Library Plan, September 1998. Back

96  Evidence, p 26. Back

97  Comprehensive and Efficient Standards, para 26. Back

98  Comprehensive Efficient Standards, para 10. Back

99  Libraries for All, p 4. Back

100  Q 74. Back

101  Q 1. Back

102  Evidence, p 64. Back

103  Social Inclusion: Where do libraries stand? Proceedings of a seminar held at Stamford, Lincolnshire on 11 May 1999, p 24. Back

104  Quoted in The Historical Legacy, p 1. Back

105  The Historical Legacy, p 5. Back

106  Ibid, p 7. Back

107  Libraries for All, p 5. Back

108  Evidence, p 65. Back

109  Evidence, p 120. Back

110  Review of the Public Library Services in England and Wales, Aslib: The Association for Information Management, 1995, p 118. Back

111  Muddiman, D: Images of exclusion-user and community perceptions of the public library, LMU, 1999 quoted in Social Exclusion and Public Libraries-Briefing by the Library Association, 18 November 1999. Back

112  Q 74, 84. Back

113  The Impact of the Sheffield Libraries strike, p 39. Back

114  Evidence, pp 106, 115. Back

115  Q 158. Back

116  Evidence, p 110. Back

117  Q 129. Back

118  In Good Company? Examining the provision of quality services for disabled customers in light of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Scope 1996, p 14. Back

119  Evidence, p 64. Back

120  Evidence, pp 116-117. Back

121  IbidBack

122  Evidence, p 105. Back

123  Memorandum from Share the Vision. Back

124  Evidence, p 12. Back

125  Evidence, p 116. Back

126  Memorandum from Gateshead Council. Back

127  Libraries for All, p 5. Back

128  Evidence, p 115. Back

129  Evidence, p 12. Back

130  Evidence, pp 12, 112-114. Back

131  Libraries for All: Social Inclusion in Public Libraries, The Response of the Library Association, The Library Association, January 2000, para 6. Back

132  Evidence, p 63. Back

133  Evidence, pp 105, 110, 144-146. Back

134  Memorandum from The Countryside Agency to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee in relation to that Committee's inquiry "Rural White Paper", HC (1998-99) 887, p 93. Back

135  Evidence, p 2. Back

136  Q 21. Back

137  Our Information Age-The Government's Vision, 1998. Back

138  Q 21. Back

139  Evidence, p 130. Back

140  Evidence, pp 26-27. Back

141  Evidence, p 65. Back


 
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