Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 17 NOVEMBER 2004
Q20 Derek Wyatt: No, which local
authority library has done that?
Mr Coates: None.
Ms Wills: Ours!
Q21 Derek Wyatt: One!
Mr Coates: I do beg your pardon.
You should go and see the Idea Store in Bow. What Heather has
done there is absolutely fantastic and it is not just what she
has done, if I can pay tribute to her, but the energy that she
and her colleagues have put into that operation is the management
that is missing everywhere else in the country. That is the solution
to the problem. She has been so brave, what she has gone through
with her counciland she gives credit to the councillors
for doing what she has done. One has to pay public tribute to
what they have achieved in Bow. It is marvellous.
Q22 Derek Wyatt: It is seriously
that easy, and there is only one authorityyouthat
has done this?
Ms Wills: I would not say we were
the only ones. There have been authorities who have moved to Sunday
opening, but it is a challenge, there is no question about it.
Any change is challenging. You need a clear vision of where you
are trying to end up and you need to take people along with you
and find a different way of doing it. Sometimes that is challenging
within the service and sometimes it is challenging outside the
service. Every local authority has its own set of circumstances
but there is proof that it can be done, certainly.
Q23 Derek Wyatt: So if we had an
exemplar of best practice, would that help?
Mr Coates: Actually Westminster
Council were boasting just recently that they have increased their
opening hours quite dramatically and that it has had a fantastic
effect on the number of people using it and the evening class
students and so on. It is the opening hours and then having in
stock the evening class books. You go into your libraries in the
evening and people are starting Spanish for their evening class
or archaeology for beginnersyou know the things that everybody
does in Floodlight, in September of the year. Go in the
library and you will not find any of those books. The library
will be shut anyhow, but they have not bought anything in September.
The stock is the key really, and the other key ingredient is opening.
Q24 Alan Keen: We have rightly started
with basics and it is proved that that is where it should startno
question about that. In my own local authority, Hounslowand
I represent the western half of thatthey have hived off
leisure services, including libraries, to an arm's length organisation
to take advantage of being able to apply for grants and benefit
on the VAT side. Our local authority, like so many others, the
government has tried to make them more efficient by reducing the
revenue support grant and so it has made it very, very tough for
the local authorities. To be devil's advocate, supposing we shut
the libraries altogether? There is a vast amount of them; there
are billions of pounds worth of property involved and masses of
revenue spent every year. If we shut them altogether what would
we actually lose? How many adults, for instance, use the libraries?
What would we lose if we shut them altogether and where would
we have to replace the stuff that we lost? What would be the biggest
loss if we closed the libraries completely?
Ms Wills: I am sure we could all
give a very long list. I would have at the top of my list a contribution
to "life long learning" in its widest sense, from the
support to under-fives, the ages at which they start their learning
and being introduced to books, to classes coming in and becoming
aware and learning the range of services that are available, to
support for people as, has been said, for adult evening classes.
In Tower Hamlets particularly, where people have been very strongly
turned off, in many cases, the formal learning experience over
many, many years, access to a learning environment and the resources
to support that in an informal, non-threatening space, and an
environment in which it is pleasant to spend time, is absolutely
crucial in terms of increasing people's skills. So you would actually
find a very significant effect over every level of the skills
and the education and training spectrum. I am sure other colleagues
would have issues that would be brought to bear.
Q25 Alan Keen: We would lose that
in Tower Hamletsand Tim has been praising you for what
you would produce therebut would we lose that in 95% of
other local authorities, Tim, or would that not be there to lose?
Mr Coates: It is still true to
say, as people do, that even now the library services are hugely
popular. It is popular in the sense that I think it is about 95%
of the people will tell you that it is a wonderful thing and should
be good. But even now there are as many books borrowed from libraries
as there are books sold in the country. My grumble is that only
15 years ago it was actually twice as many books were borrowed
and that has been the collapse, but even now you have the order
of 300 million books a year are borrowed from libraries. So it
is a fantastically popular service, particularly for children
and families with small children. They do an enormously important
job in the local community. You mentioned the aspect of how important
they are to smaller local communities; they do a job that no other
retailer does, for example. I suppose the nearest thing is the
local pub, but the library is the serious alternative to a pub,
if only it were open.
Mr Holden: For me there are two
really big things. One is that libraries are probably the most
trusted places that there are, places of politeness and civility,
and there is not enough of that around. So I think that is something
that you would lose. Another thing that you would lose is that,
for kids like me who had no books in the house, there would be
no access to books. There are still a lot of people who cannot
afford books and they need libraries.
Ms McKearney: These guys have
said it all really. Libraries are a mark of civilised society,
are they not? They embody a set of values as well as all those
servicesand you have covered all the reading bits. They
mean something and a set of values are attached to that shared
civic space, which I think would be a huge loss.
Q26 Alan Keen: I agree with you.
It was simply a question of course. Tim has mentioned a lack of
national co-ordinationand I do not want to waste time in
asking you to give the same answers as you gave beforebut
if you could write our report what would be the main thing you
would put in that? I see that it is outstandingly necessary to
get some sort of national co-ordination, an organisation with
real teeth, not to dominate the local libraries but to help them.
Mr Coates: I have tried to write
it in my memorandum; I have tried to put exactly what I thought
you should say really, which is cheeky. We do not want to change
the structure. I believe that the local council element is really
essential. You will only give good service to local communities
if there is a political cycle where the local person can go to
the local council and say, "My library should be open at
9 o'clock." You will never get that if it all becomes a national
operation, I do not think. Even the local councils think it is
too big in some instances, that it wants breaking down a bit into
smaller operations. So I think the local management thing is terribly
important. But what they do need is so much more help and support
in contrast to what they do get. Again, excuse me for being critical,
but if you look at the DCMS standards that they put out last week,
just read the language; it says, "You will by next Thursday
have 5,000 visitors a week." It is not in the language of
saying, "We understand you have a problem, these are the
things that might help you sort it out, this is the way you might
approach your budget, we will come and talk to you." It is
given out as an imperial edict as to what needs to be done. The
last lot of standards did not work and nor will this lot. The
whole management style is wrong.
Q27 Alan Keen: Can I put one last
point to you, and you may be giving some solutions to it. Just
to illustrate one of the problems, a few years agobefore
1997Hounslow Council wanted to save money and they were
talking about the rumours that the library hours were going to
be reduced. So there was a series of meetings throughout the borough.
I attended one meeting in Feltham, my own constituency, with about
25 people in the scout hut. Another centre on an estate still
in my constituency delivered eight people at a public meeting.
The other meeting I attended in Chiswick, which is outside my
constituencyand it was before my wife was elected so I
dared go down that meetingand if I ask you to guess the
figures you will obviously guess, and 300 people were there and
they could not all get in the room. So the people in Feltham were
not even aware of what they would be losing if there were cuts,
but the people in Chiswick were very, very aware. You can probably
say the reason my wife was not elected in '92 but she was in '97
was that it was a harder seat to win and therefore it was more
middle class and the middle class did not move over to vote labour
en masse until '97. So how do we serve people of Feltham who do
not even see the value of libraries? It is not their fault, but
how do we get over that? Tower Hamlets is a great example, is
Ms Wills: If I can respond very
quickly to that? We very much recognise that if we had increased
our opening hours, produced wonderful buildings, even put them
on the High Street and put all these great books in them, and
it still had "Library" on the door and it looked to
the outside world the same, we probably would not have achieved
the significant results that we have. What we have done is very
directly and deliberately gone out to learn from retail about
modern branding techniques, modern marketing and communication
techniques, to go out there and to communicate to people, and
to say, "You may have had all those perceptions in the past
but that is not what we are about; we are about providing modern,
accessible, relevant services which are fun and enjoyable and
places where you want to be." People come into our building
because they think, "What is this? This looks interesting,
this looks like a nice place to be. Oh, is it a library? Oh, right."
That is great. I do not care if they do not know what they are
coming into, but the point is they come over the threshold because
it is welcoming, it is accessible, bright and colourful, and then
they come and use the services.
Alan Keen: I had better stop there, Chairman,
because we could go on and on.
Q28 Mr Doran: I am interested in
the political dimension of all of this because you are all coming
from different perspectives, but at the end of the day you are
saying the same thing. If I could summarise my interpretation
of what you are saying, it is that there is no co-ordinated government
approach and when you have a mixture of government plus the endless
numbers of local authorities we have in the country, then you
are left with what can be best described as a patchwork of provision.
How do you deal with that? One of the things that I am conscious
of, as a politician, is who is lobbying me? I do not think I have
ever been lobbied by anyone about the quality of libraries in
this country, or even in my own constituency, which is Aberdeen,
in the North of Scotland, where we have a fairly good provision
of libraries and a Presbyterian ethos of what libraries are for,
but they are pretty dull places? Who are the advocates, who are
the people who are going to come and sell this to us as politicians?
Mr Holden: I hope us to a certain
degree! You are right, I think there is a gap; that that advocacy
at local, regional and national level is not well developed and
is not developed enough. I just do not hear those voices either.
Q29 Mr Doran: But where are they
going to come from?
Mr Coates: From a myriad of agencies.
If you look at Framework for the Future or the Action Plan
document that comes after it, there is a list of stakeholders
for libraries and then we have all kinds of initialsCILIP
and SCL and all the rest of it. None of those lists, incidentally,
includes the general public, who are not only the stakeholders
who pay but also the stakeholders who use the library service.
If you look down that list there are so many agencies, but all
they ever ask for is more money. They do not say, "We could
do this, we could do that, this is what we are here to do,"
all they ever say isand I have seen a statement from CILIP
yesterday, who is the main agencysaying, "The problem
is we just need more money," and it is so disappointing because
it is within their hands; they have tremendous ability to influence
how local authorities operate their service and they do not. They
do not act with responsibility; they act with self-interest. I
am an advocate and it is very dispiriting to find the way senior
people respond, to be truthful.
Q30 Mr Doran: Within the local authority
networks, if local authorities were arguing for more money, for
example, for libraries then we would be very well aware of it,
but we are not. I am interested how you managed to get your Idea
Store off the ground, just to sell the concept, because that must
have been difficult and there must have been money involved in
that and finding the correct property. There was a complete sea
change in ideas; how did you manage that?
Ms Wills: It was about having
a vision and it was about recognising the need for change and
recognising the need for radical change. When the council adopted
the strategy to move from its existing libraries and Adult Education
Centres network to a network of seven Idea Stores it was about
saying, "These things are going to change radically,"
recognising that capital investment would be needed, and that
included going outside and looking for external investment and
external funding to a very great extent, but was also upfront
about recognising that increased investment in longer opening
hours and an improved book stock would be there from the beginning,
and recognising that if you are opening these buildings longer
then they need more maintenance and more investment than was there
before. So what we are doing is working more efficiently by combining
two services, the Adult Education Service and the library service,
achieving economies of scale there and driving unit costs down
significantly. The crucial thing was that the council recognised
the contribution that these Idea Stores could make to the learning
agenda, to the regeneration and the social inclusion agenda in
an extremely diverse borough and one that scores regularly on
the indices of deprivation.
Q31 Mr Doran: When did the light
flash on? How did you present it to them?
Ms Wills: It was presented as
a strategy borne out of significant market research. Officers
went out and engaged high quality market research, a programme
Q32 Mr Doran: How did you persuade
them to spend that money?
Ms Wills: As Tim suggested, if
there is a determination money can be found to do quality market
research to start off the process and it was the initiative of
a few key individuals to say, "We have to do things differently
but we need quality information to inform us as to how we should
do things differently." One in 10 households in the borough
responded one way or another to say, "This is what we want
with our new service," and then it was up to officers to
go away and say, "Right, this is how we do it, can we have
your permission, members, for this new vision?YesGreat,
now we will go out and raise the money."
Q33 Mr Doran: You have the project
there, delivered the service being enjoyed and used by the community.
Are other libraries or other authorities interested? Are you getting
a lot of visitors, are you spending a lot of time selling this
idea to other people?
Ms Wills: A huge amount of interest
in the UK and internationally, I have to say. There are many other
authorities who are looking at it or looking at angles of it.
There are examples in other places, for example the Discovery
Centres in Kent and Hampshire; there are new library buildings
being built that are learning from elements of that. Nobody is
doing the whole package of what we are doing, but certainly it
has a huge amount of interest and people are looking to learn
Q34 Mr Doran: I am taking a step
at a time. So who is now selling this idea to ODPM and DCMS that
this is a road down which the libraries should go?
Ms Wills: The Idea Store strategy
does appear as one of the exemplars of best practice in the Framework
for the Future document by DCMS. So we have had constructive
dialogues with DCMS since the very early stages of the strategy.
The trick for us is to do that and have dialogue with DfES around
how we can make people aware of the contribution we can make to
the learning agenda and ODPM particularly around the regeneration
agenda, and social inclusion agenda we are looking at the Cabinet
Office. It is how many angles can we talk to and there is a real
difficulty of getting out of one silo and into the next because
libraries are one of the few truly joined up services that hit
so many agendas, but when we try to talk upwards it is very difficult
to get people to recognise them.
Q35 Mr Doran: It would make your
job much easier if government could pull all these services together
and give you a one-stop shop?
Ms Wills: Yes.
Q36 Mr Doran: Presumably the DWP
would be in there as well? Are they part of the package?
Ms Wills: We have a very good
relationship locally with Job Centre Plus and they provide advice
and service in the stores, yes.
Q37 Chairman: A couple of questions
relating to the place of libraries and the administration of libraries.
Libraries can occupy a great symbolic place in urban life as well
as in rural life. For example, if you have seen the disaster move
The Day After Tomorrow, the great climax is in the New
York Public Library, and that is because everybody, certainly
in the States, knows about the New York Public Library. That being
so, is one of the problems for libraries that because of the expectations
of them they are spreading themselves too thin? Derek talked,
for example, about people's need to know about their housing benefit
and various things like that, and there is no doubt that people
do need to know about it. But with the establishment of government
funding online centres in many placesI have already, I
am happy to say, several in my own constituencyall with
very great computer facilities in the schools, which perhaps ought
to be opened up to the general public out of school hours, would
that kind of access to information not be better done in a different
way so that libraries can concentrate more, with their limited
funding, on their core activities? Again, there is a problem there,
is there not? When I was a teenager I went to Sheepscar Library
in Leeds, or if I needed a bigger collection I went to the Central
Library in Leeds, and basically what they had were great swathes
of books, a newspaper room which in those days was mainly used
by unemployed people to keep warm and, in the case of the Central
Library, a Reference Library. The ethos then grew up that they
had to do other things. You had a record library, and now of course
we have spread to CDs, videos, DVDs, the lot. Ought there to be
some kind of definition of what a library should adhere to so
that librarians, many of whom are brilliant, can concentrate on
the job which libraries were originally founded to do, without
too stringent limits? They do wonderful things. For example, Gorton
Library in my constituency has, in the past at any rate, made
a practice during the Booker period of having the Booker shortlist
available in a special section so that people can read them. So
the first question I would like to ask you is about the definition
of library and whether there ought to be some way of defining
what a library does so that with their limited funds they do not
spread themselves too thinly?
Ms McKearney: Absolutely. For
me, coming from a marketing background, part of the problem has
been about trying to do all things for all people, and if there
were a clearer definition of particular outcomes for particular
audiences, and libraries' role in achieving that outcome were
clearly defined and expected, then you could be much clearer with
the public about what they could expect from their library. One
of the things that they could expect is if they were a parent
their child would be supported in early years' language development
and reading when they were under five, and then supported around
the reading for pleasure elements when schools were shut. That
would be a very powerful role for libraries to be playing, and
this kind of thinkingthe jargon is "national offer"is
very much around at the moment in the planning systems around
the Framework for the Future. What is it that libraries
can uniquely offer to the nation that we need to create the kind
of society that we need that nobody else can? And to which groups
of people? Should that be the definition of what their main purpose
Mr Holden: For me the definition
does not come from us or anyone else, really, stating what libraries
ought to do; it comes more from what the public values in libraries.
Libraries are not just physical spaces they are psychological
spaces and if someone from the public feels comfortable engaging
with the Employment Service in a library but not in a Job Centre
then that is a reason to have things in the library which other
libraries might not have. Just as in Tim's world of bookselling;
booksellers are not in the business of selling coffee but they
do it because that is what their customers want. We have to think
in those kinds of terms in defining what a library does.
Mr Coates: A coffee shop does
not make a poor bookshop into a better bookshop.
Mr Holden: It is the experience
of the person who is
Mr Coates: I do rather agree with
what the Chairman said. You do not try to make a bad bookshop
into a good one by putting a coffee shop in it. May I read from
my submission? I think if we are going to correct the problem
in libraries, which is very, very serious, we have really to understand
that we have made some mistakes and that there are real problems.
"There has been a fundamental error of approach over the
past 20 years wherein the assumption has been made that in order
to increase their appeal and use, libraries should diversify.
The effect of this has been to reduce the quality of reading material
and information on offer and, consequently, the reputation of
the service to the public, particularly to new generations of
readers. Greengrocers do not improve or modernise by selling ice
cream just because they perceive that is what children like to
eat. The service should have modernised . . . not diversified".
Modernisation means improving the ranges and the collections of
books that are available to the public; it means better access
to information, which is why computers are an important partI
think that is the reason they are there, it is not so that people
can play games on themmore agreeable buildings (which,
obviously, is right as everybody in the country knowsretailers
and restaurants have improved in the last 20 years), more up-to-date
service and behaviour by the library staff towards people, and
longer opening hours. It does not mean changing the fundamental
and core service that a library used to offer and still should.
You are not out-of-date, sir. What you are saying should still
be exactly the reason why a library is so useful to every little
community in which it stands or every big city. The Manchester
Central Library is a most fantastic place. However, the range
of books in there is awfulit is just absolutely, plain
dreadful. They are all old, they are tatty and it has got nothing
of the last three years currently. I was there the other day and
Waterstones opened down the road the most fantastic shop, and
it just contrasted the two things. In one place the guy really
believed in what he was doing and would not have allowed himself
to be distracted even for sales of wrapping paper, I should not
think, but in the library they would have sold anything just to
kind of make an excuse to get someone through the door, it felt
like. There is a wonderful collection of literature upstairs still,
thank God; let us hope they do not take that away. The policy
of diversification has been a catastrophe for libraries, and I
believe we have got to recognise that and pull it back.
Mr Holden: I think there is a
difference with flashy add-ons that have no meaning to people.
I agree with Tim totally, you do not make a bad bookshop into
a good bookshop by putting a coffee shop there but if you find
that is what your customers want and respond to and that is the
only place they can go, then there is a reason for it being there
because you are providing something of value.
Chairman: My other question is ministerial
responsibility. The last time we conducted an inquiry we found
that there was a real problem about where the locus on
ministerial responsibility was. Clearly, we are conducting this
inquiry because "Books R Us", and the Department for
Culture, Media and Sport, clearly, has a role. However, the Office
of the Deputy Prime Minister has a role because public libraries
are run by local authorities (if we are dealing with income, certainly,
they are run by local authorities); the Department for Education
and Skills, obviously, has a very important role because books
are educational too, and reading Harry Potter is education
just as much as anything else. It is always difficult and I understand
the problems the Prime Minister has in terms of structure of government,
because we found this in terms of the media, for example, and
broadcastingthe split between the Department of Trade of
Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Do you
think that there might be, as it were, a definition from which
we might consider recommending one of those three departments
as the department with lead responsibility for libraries, so that
everybody knows where they are?
Rosemary McKenna: You will also get local
authorities who shift libraries between education and leisure
services as the authority changes.
Q38 Chairman: And, also, of course,
Ms Wills: I would just say that
I think whichever one you put it into you would still have the
issue of there being issues in the other departments and needing
to break out of those silos and join up.
Mr Coates: I agree with that but
I would caution against this thing about regionalisation. There
is already enough confusion. Let us just say it stays with the
DCMS. They have to make clear that they are not responsible for
running libraries; they have to say "It is not our job; our
job is to help you and work out what help you need", but
not to pretend they are running it. Then it just completely falls
between two stools. The MLA, which we have not talked about today,
should be filling a lot of the roles we have been talkingabout
advocacy and so onbut just is not. To be honest, it just
has not got the stature or the seniority and it has not realised
its role is to help local authorities, I do not think. I think
it keeps putting out statements about what shall be done. You
have not heard Heather talk about what the MLA has done for her
because they do not. Therefore, do not waste money on regional
MLAs. We have just opened about six offices round the country
but it is just another waste of money. MLAs are pretty near a
waste of money, in my view, but what it needs is somebody acting
with authority on behalf of the Minister, the Audit Commission
and the ODPM as a sort of little board, operating to sort this
problem out urgently and get rid of all the wretched agencies
that are all over the place.
Q39 Rosemary McKenna: You mentioned
the MLA and I was the chair in Scotland of the Libraries Information
Council. We used to try and improve the situation. We persuaded
the Government to give us money for pilot funding for grants for
local authorities which they bid for. Does that not happen down
here? They came to us with a project and if we thought it was
good we grant-aided it and then used it as best practice to spread
throughout Scotland, and it worked tremendously.
Ms McKearney: When we are talking
to DfES about starting an innovation fund to encourage collaboration
between school and public libraries, which is flimsy, that would
be really exciting, I think. My take on it is where would they
have the most political clout?
Q40 Rosemary McKenna: Local authorities
have to compete for a grant, and on the basis of this is something
that will really develop the service, you get really exciting
bids coming in from the local authorities and it has paid tremendous
dividends. One of the things that happened in my constituency
was we made a bid with the local authority to put IT into sheltered
housing complexes and it was the library service which ran it,
and it is incredibly successful. The silver surfers, I think,
were the first ones to be called that. That is just one example
of the kind of thing that local authorities or library services
can do, given a bit of incentive. There is nothing like that?
Mr Coates: There are tiny, little
pockets. You guys will know better, but you hear of little projects
where there is a little charitable fund or something, but nothing
of any substance that would change a local authority's way of
Chairman: It is an interesting question
whether, if they did not exist, we would actually found them today.
They were a huge centre of life, were they not? Levenshulme Library,
in my constituency, for example, is a Carnegie Library; it is
a public library now but it has got a Carnegie foundation stone.
Just to wind up, those of you who know the musical The Music
Man know that one of the best songs in it is Marian the
Librarian. Thank you very much. That was a very stimulating
run round the course.