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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 1815-i
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
CULTURE, MEDIA AND SPORT COMMITTEE
TUESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2012
MIRANDA MCKEARNEY OBE, ABIGAIL BARKER and ANDREW COBURN
Evidence heard in Public
Questions 1 - 61
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Taken before the Culture, Media and Sport
on Tuesday 7 February 2012
Mr John Whittingdale (Chair)
Mr Adrian Sanders
Mr Gerry Sutcliffe
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Miranda McKearney OBE, Director, The Reading Agency, Abigail Barker, Voices for the Library, and Andrew Coburn, The Library Campaign, gave evidence.
Chair: Good morning. This is the first session of a short inquiry into library closures that the Committee has decided to conduct. I therefore welcome in our first panel this morning Miranda McKearney of the Reading Agency, Andrew Coburn of the Library Campaign, and Abigail Barker of Voices for the Library.
Q1 Louise Mensch: Speaking as an author, sadly, I know that both book loans and library usage in general have declined over the last 20 years. If we can start with a very general question, what do you think that says about the attitude of the public towards their libraries?
Miranda McKearney: The problem with looking at the global statistics is that they mask the growth areas. There has actually been some really encouraging growth, particularly in children’s services, and children’s book issues have actually risen for seven years now. Some astonishing figure like 77% of five to 10-year-olds use libraries, and the schemes that we run as a charity-the biggest is the Summer Reading Challenge-grow year on year. As with all public services, patterns of use are changing-web visits are rising, for instance-so when informing library strategy, it is really important to look at where the changes are coming in the statistics and where the public is showing demand for libraries’ reading services, for example, because the service is changing so fast.
Andrew Coburn: I agree with that. There are also a couple of other things. One is that we should not be too limited to talking about book issues when we are discussing library use. Books are clearly important-arguably the most important thing-but there are all the other areas of libraries’ work in terms of information, education, and so on. The second point is that, in the best library services, there are initiatives that are raising use and raising issues-perhaps in particular subject or interest areas is how you would best describe it, and one of the things that we need to do is capture some of that and spread it around.
Abigail Barker: A lot of the information and data that we have is quantitative-it is on footfall and book issues. It does not take into account how people use libraries not only to borrow books. There are lots of groups, such as homework groups; in Suffolk, where I come from, there is Top Time, which is for the over-65s who get together; there are craft groups. There is a huge, wide range. I could probably sit here all day and list them. Footfall in libraries does not take into account the increase in online use. I can sit at home and borrow a book from my library or use one of their online reference databases. I could sit in bed and do that if I wanted. I do not have to leave the comfort of my house. Online access has grown hand in hand with the actual physical space of a library.
If you ask the public’s view of libraries, I would say that they absolutely love them. On National Libraries day, I took part in a Bookstart Bear reading group with some under-fives. It was brilliant-their faces just lit up as they ran in and chose their own books and handed them to the bear while saying, "Read this one next! Read this one next!" Their parents got five minutes to themselves to choose their own books while their kids learned how to use the library. Libraries are still very relevant to the public, even if the usage statistics have gone down.
Q2 Louise Mensch: I have a couple of questions that follow on from that. First, you understand that in these straitened times all local authorities are facing heavy cuts, and they have to look at what services they can cut that will impact the fewest people. Many things that all three of you have advocated in favour of library services can be delivered through other methods: for example, electronic data do not have to be delivered via a library; they can be delivered through other methods. Places for groups that use a library to meet can be delivered through other community services and meeting places. It does not have to library-specific. What does have to be library-specific is books, and the withdrawal of books and footfall. I would be interested to know if you have calibrated whether the increase in children’s usage of libraries, to which you referred, compensates for the general loss of library footfall. Do you not think it is reasonably natural for local authorities to want to close services that have declining users, such as libraries and footfall, in times when they have to balance their budgets against the needs of their local residents?
A perennial problem that local authorities appear to have is that while people, when asked, say that they love their local library service and want to save it-they will say that all day long-they do not actually use their local library service. Is it not reasonable for a local authority to make a cut based on evidence of how that service is being used? As a corollary, why should they specifically target budget towards libraries when some services you have cited can be delivered elsewhere?
Abigail Barker: I do not think those services can be delivered elsewhere. If you are talking about online reference databases, they would still need to be paid for from the library budget or certainly from a county council budget. Those databases are not free.
You talk about the needs of local residents. Lots of cuts have been made with no thought of the needs of local residents. There have been consultations that were basically, "If you do not step forward and run your libraries, they will close." People were not asked, "How and when do you use your library? How could we improve it? If we closed earlier in the week and it meant we could open at the weekend, how would you use it?" In Suffolk, there are libraries that open in schools on a Saturday and Sunday that nobody uses. Of course cuts need to be made, and we are not saying that the library service should be immune from cuts, but why not close those libraries that are not used at the weekend and save or put the money elsewhere?
Local needs have not been taken into account and equality impact assessments have not been carried out. These cuts have been made as a knee-jerk reaction, and if they are that concerned that library usage is going down and they feel the need to make cuts, we would ask that they make them sensibly and make sure that they have the information first.
Andrew Coburn: To add to what Abigail said about the electronic stuff, apart from having to pay for it, the most effective way of using it is if it is properly mediated. Yes, we can all google, and probably most of us do on occasion, but using some sources that library services can provide, as well as some sources that are out there on the net, is something for which you need staff who have some training, insight and the ability to make effective comparisons.
On meeting places, yes, there are other community meeting places in many areas, but lots of them-pubs and so on-are closing down, not only in rural areas. It is quite difficult where I live to find a room for a relatively cheap price for a community meeting. I know because I have tried, and it was nothing to do with libraries. The other thing is that the events that libraries hold are very often about the material that is in the library, or how to make better use of that material-and, as a spin-off, see if there is a book.
Finally, on closing services, as well as what Abigail has already said, authorities do need to look quite closely at their services, how they are running them and what they could be doing better, cheaper and more effectively. In many areas, not enough of that is being done.
Miranda McKearney: Gosh, there is lots in your question. I do not think anybody here would argue that libraries should be immune from all cuts, because clearly everybody is having to take that hit. The distressing thing is when there is not a strategic approach to the cuts. There are some examples of innovation, where less money is being dealt with very intelligently: the tri-borough project in London, where three library services are merging and cutting management costs to preserve the front line, is a fantastic example of reinventing the delivery of the service.
Even if there were no cuts, libraries would still have to change, because they have to move with the times. The best services that we see are where there is an intelligent overview from the council of what this extraordinary network and force for social change delivers across the wider local authority. A lot of interesting work is going on in health at the moment, so sticking to libraries’ fundamental purpose of promoting reading, learning and information, they can face that in an intelligent way that capitalises on what local authorities have to deliver. With public health coming into local authorities, the best libraries are looking hard at how their reading and learning work delivers on those priorities, which brings them into a different relationship with the council.
I always think that the building thing is a complicated issue, because clearly the library as a precious civic space in the community is vital. I wish we could look again at what the network means in the 21st century and what is happening internationally, where places such as Korea are investing heavily in their public library network. It is about a balance between ensuring that we have the right places in the right communities doing the right things, but it is also about thinking about the library beyond the building as a force for social change in the community. One of the things that really concerns me at the moment is the loss of expert staff. A lot of that expertise is focused on outreach work in the community-spreading reading, but not necessarily doing it in a building-based way.
On your final point about footfall. Although library use has declined, I think it has held up remarkably well. If you think about the competitive forces at play, libraries are largely to be congratulated on moving their work forward, particularly their work with children. If we looked at the lessons from children’s work and thought about how they could be applied to other areas of work in a really strategic way, we could look at a more exciting future.
Q3 Louise Mensch: That leads on neatly to my next question. When I was a girl, my local bookshop and library did not have to compete with the internet and 24-hour kids’ TV for my eyeballs, so I read thousands of books, which led to terrible eyesight but probably quite a good vocabulary. My own children are playing computer games; they read books and like books, but, as a parent, I have to insert reading into the multiple choices they have for their leisure time. You have already touched on the encouraging trends in reading by children-as opposed to teenagers, I suppose-so I take it that you mean younger children. Do you?
Miranda McKearney: The biggest growth has been in the areas of primary school children and early years work, but there is some really interesting teenage work, too.
Q4 Louise Mensch: That is very important, because if one does not catch a child young and instil that love of reading, it is very difficult to instil it later. What can libraries offer in an age when they have to compete with social media, Facebook, free online games and round-the-clock television? Do you see this as something that libraries can uniquely provide to fight that tide of anti-literacy, if you like, and computer screens-IT as the be-all and end-all?
Perhaps you could answer a supplementary question. Reading trends are changing, and you have referred to digital borrowing. On my phone I have a Kindle app with perhaps 75 books, so my own reading habits are shifting towards digital reading because it is easier to carry around. I know that in publishing we are already seeing in this country what is happening in the States, where the book market is shifting inexorably towards e-reading. How do you see that affecting the future of libraries?
So sum up my two questions: how do you target young people’s multiplicity of choices; and are libraries keeping up with changing reading habits in the shift towards electronic books? I do not know where that shift will end, but it certainly continues to grow for the moment.
Andrew Coburn: I’ll go first, although I suspect Miranda will have a lot to say, possibly on both parts of the question but particularly on the first part. It seems to me on children’s participation, that libraries have a number of things. One is that they are there, in specific buildings. There is a space there where somebody can go and study if they want and get the material that they want. It is not part of this inquiry, but another part of the library world that is facing considerable problems is school library services, which are being closed where they exist, and where they do not exist some schools are taking a different view of how they should be providing stuff and doing it electronically. That is not a view that I suspect we would share.
A lot of libraries are building on the stuff you talked about-the television, the internet and all the rest of it-to try to get children in in a participative way. They are having sessions around manga, the Japanese graphic novels, and indeed there are libraries that have had rock concerts and that kind of thing, which capitalise on that. Once you get people in the door, the good libraries will build on that and try to get them involved in other stuff. The other thing on that question is that I think libraries are about access. There are children and families who do not have all that i-stuff and e-stuff. If they can go to the library and get access to some of it, they are at least a little bit closer to some of their peers.
On digital reading, I agree that it is going to make a difference. At the moment, until the publishers get themselves sorted out with what they are prepared to offer libraries and allow libraries to do, we are not going to have a clearer picture. There are innovations, and there are plenty of libraries that are offering e-reading. If Kindle makes its library app available in this country, that will no doubt expand. The catch will be that libraries will have to make it attractive to people to say, "Yes, I will borrow that from the library,"-free, I hope-"because it is there and it is a more focused collection. If I want stuff on the history of the Second World War, the library has got a more focused collection."
Q5 Paul Farrelly: On that last point, one of the striking things for me from the briefing that we have had is the statistic about children’s visits at a very high level of 75.6%. That certainly accords with my experience as a parent. Next week, during half term, my son would willingly spend his whole week in the library, not only reading but using the computers. For many families you have to remember that something such as iPlayer is not "freePlayer", because there is a definite cost in terms of your telephone bill at the end of the day, which people may increasingly not be able to afford in these straitened times. I just wanted to ask the question: do you think there is a danger-particularly among more affluent, older decision makers who probably do not use libraries themselves and, therefore, are possibly not interested in driving change to outdated libraries-that this notion becomes fixed that libraries are old-fashioned and old hat because of the changes in social media? Is that a danger that libraries face?
Abigail Barker: Absolutely. I am a professional librarian, so that stereotype of libraries being staid, boring and dusty places where you should not make a noise or, heaven forbid, enjoy yourself, really strikes a chord with me. Libraries have very definitely kept up, and in some ways are ahead of many other areas of technology. At the weekend a gentleman-a pensioner-came in, sat down and watched a programme on iPlayer with his hour’s free internet, and off he went home. He did not look at a book and he did not borrow anything; he went in, watched the iPlayer, watched his hour’s programme and went home. I do not have the internet at home, which might shock some people. If I want to use the internet, if I do not use it at work, I have to go to my public library to use it. With the technology that libraries have you can join online and you can renew your books online-again, that might lead to a decrease in library use if you do not physically have to go to the library to renew your books, which you certainly did when I was a child; it was a weekly outing to avoid fines-you can reserve and use reference services online. Library management systems are all online now. I had to use card catalogues. I cannot imagine my teenage self using a card catalogue, but I did to find the books that I wanted. You do not have to do that anymore. You can serve yourself in a library in the same way that you can serve yourself in a supermarket. So they are certainly not behind the times at all, although I think you are absolutely right: people have an outdated opinion of what a library is. I don’t think a lot of these people who are making these cuts understand what a library is, what a library does or even what a librarian can offer.
Miranda McKearney: It is interesting to think about how museums have had major national investment and why the decision makers you are talking about have made that possible, but the library network has not. The passionate work of the campaigners over the last 18 months has started to shift the debate about what the idea of the library means to us all. I would love to see that progressed. What about the next spending round? What about a major investment in the library network but done really strategically and an intelligent look at who the big partners for the library network are nationally as well as locally? We are doing some work with the BBC-there is huge potential to join up the BBC’s digital riches around reading with the library offer-but there is a major gap in the ability of libraries to act and plan nationally.
There are some things you can only do nationally, such as create a national digital portal for libraries and a suite of national, planned 24/7 services. If we could capture the interest of the people you are talking about in the possibilities, and by thinking much bigger and more imaginatively about what nationally, regionally and locally the network could look like in 10 or 20 years’ time, we might overcome some of those hurdles. It just drives me bonkers when you hear people on the radio saying that we do not need libraries anymore because everybody can afford mass paperbacks. That does not accord with the experience of the communities that need them very badly.
Q6 Paul Farrelly: A final quick follow-up question: that statistic-75.6% of children-seems to me to speak for itself as to how relevant libraries are. One of the dangers of ill-thought-out cuts is to make irrelevance a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Miranda McKearney: Yes, and how do we think about our ambitions as a nation and factoring libraries into them? You have one bit of Government today talking about the importance of reading for pleasure but that task is seen as located with schools, so what about taking a more joined-up approach systematically between the school and the library in the community as a force for developing children’s reading? It is remarkably difficult to join up that conversation.
Chair: Before I call Adrian, we have spent 25 minutes on the first questions. Given that we have quite a lot of ground to cover, can we try to keep answers and questions relatively succinct?
Q7 Mr Sanders: Many of the library campaigners who have written to us seem to have been concerned with keeping specific library buildings open in their area. To what extent could these campaigns be described as sentimental about buildings and the library of yesteryear?
Abigail Barker: The library building, for some campaigns, has become a symbol. It is seeing that hub of the community potentially being closed down that they are trying to put forward in their campaigns. Not all campaigns are like that. A lot of campaigns are based on the service and all the things that the service can offer. We appreciate that although the library building is incredibly important, because it brings the community together, some library buildings that are not being used or library services that could be moved to shared buildings-it is not to say that we would not consider that. I think that there is a sentimentality for libraries, particularly lovely red-brick buildings-not so much the portakabins in a car park somewhere-but the majority of campaigners would agree that it is the library service that needs saving.
Andrew Coburn: Yes, I would echo that. They are concerned about having access to a library service. I said earlier about authorities looking at efficiencies and different ways of doing things, and part of that ought to be, "Can we offer this service in a different place, co-located somehow or offered in a different way, in a different physical place?" A lot of those campaigners are also concerned about access and proximity, which have to be taken into account in those alternative solutions.
Miranda McKearney: That passion with which people are fighting for their local library is telling us something loud and clear, isn’t it? But of course change has to happen. The key, as we said earlier, is how that change is planned and whether the council is addressing that in a systematic way.
Q8 Mr Sanders: To what extent do library authorities need bricks and mortar in order to promote literacy and numeracy? Should that not be the task of the education authority, not the library service?
Abigail Barker: The two are tied hand in hand. The education service needs libraries as much as libraries need the education service. I work in a university library and I quite often see return-to-study students, who are maybe in their early twenties, who did not have use of the library and are at a disadvantage when they start their degrees. They are the most keen, and they will come and ask how the library service works, even down to, "How do I borrow a book? What can I do with this book? Can I take it away with me?" Students who have used the libraries all their lives are very much more confident and can jump into their degree and really enjoy it. Those things are very much hand in hand. In particular, with the schools library service I think they need to be invested in. In some parts of the country they are under threat, and the link between education and libraries is unbreakable, as far as I am concerned; they are very much partners together.
Andrew Coburn: Yes. The other thing is that although it is clearly the responsibility of the education system to promote literacy and numeracy, if libraries can offer an alternative, more leisure-related way in, and almost certainly a greater range of stock and possibilities-and possibly more locally-there is still a place for libraries to be doing that kind of work.
Miranda McKearney: I would argue that the place is really important. It is interesting, picking up on your stuff about the digital and how the experience of reading is changing, if you look at the music industry the growth of digital has been accompanied by a growth in the live. In libraries, a lot of their most successful work is around making reading much more social and much more engaging. There has been a real explosion in reading groups, author events and baby rhyme times. You do need a place to do that. I see that as being a very important part of libraries’ future. There is something too about if they are about promoting reading and literacy, do they have to just do that in a building? Absolutely not. Partnering appropriately, nationally and locally, with the education system and local schools to fuse their skills, experience and resources into how the community is tackling those issues seems to me important.
Q9 Mr Sutcliffe: Having been a councillor for many years and also a Minister, that wonderful phrase "joined-up government" comes to mind, and you talked about the strategic nature of what needs to happen, but there is that diversity around, and-to go back to Adrian’s point-how important is a fixed library site in the scale of things?
Abigail Barker: Fixed libraries can be incredibly important, particularly to rural communities that may not have a mobile library service. If you are talking about joined-up thinking in the promotion and future of libraries, you cannot just open a new library or improve a library without thinking about things like public transport. People need to be able to get to the library. If you are talking about a very rural part of the country, there could be a mobile library, which is not fixed except for as long as it stops in the village. The library service needs to be delivered, and it needs to be delivered in ways that best fit local needs. If it is a mobile library service, then it is mobile library service. If it is a fixed library, then it is a fixed library. There is all too great a chance that we will get fixated on the library as a building when we should be looking at the library as a service as well.
Q10 Mr Sutcliffe: Again, some local authorities have said to us that libraries are best placed in town centres because of public transport and their availability. Is that an issue? You said that it was in terms of public transport.
Abigail Barker: Yes. I live in Ipswich and very close to the town centre. My nearest library is 10 minutes away, and the town centre library is 20 minutes away. I am young. I do not have any children. I am fit and healthy. I can walk to the town library if my local one is closed. If I had children and a buggy or if I was elderly and could not walk, I could not walk for 20 minutes, borrow a whole load of books, and then walk back for 20 minutes. It just would not be feasible. The disabled parking, for example, is nowhere near the town library, whereas Rosehill, which is my local library, has a disabled parking space right outside the door, and it is 10 paces from the door to the issue desk. There is almost a queue sometimes of people waiting to use that parking space. Town libraries are great, and if people can get into them, then brilliant, but you have to remember branch libraries and that they have an audience that need to be considered.
Q11 Mr Sutcliffe: Is there an issue about where the library services fits in local government? Would you like to see something different happen in terms of provision of library services? You talked earlier about how we are promoting museums. What would you like to see happen?
Miranda McKearney: For me, it is not just locally; it is nationally as well. It is about how much sense it makes to have such an important chunk of our national infrastructure in a small Government Department with the money in another and what better arrangements might there be for libraries nationally, where they would get the proper attention that they need. Locally, it depends on what political passion is championing the service, as opposed to which Department it is in, and on how appropriately the council is thinking about how it is delivering on its other priorities, but also from the basis of a real clarity of purpose about what it is there to do.
Q12 Jim Sheridan: Miranda, can I frustrate you even more? I am one of the millions of people who do not use libraries-if you read my speeches, that will become obvious-and are libraries not just a luxury that we cannot afford in these difficult times? Like Gerry, I have been a local councillor, and if I am faced with a decision of keeping either a local health centre or a library open, it is a no-brainer. People would say to me, "Close the library." Convince me not to do that.
Miranda McKearney: I am trying not to leap over the table. [Laughter.] You clearly have access to the things that you need to live your life without a library, but there are millions of people who do not. I think it is easy for those of us who are well-provisioned with digital access to forget that many people do not own a computer and do not know how to get online. There has been some really interesting work going on recently around libraries getting loads and loads of people online for the first time, because that whole thing about the library as an idea and as a communal asset is very powerful, so people are prepared to do things by going to their library that they would not otherwise be prepared to do, because it is seen as a communal, unintimidating place to go to learn. There are lots of homes where children have no books because their parents cannot afford them, and the library, with its free provision of books, is absolutely vital for the families that need it most. If we do not crack some of this country’s literacy problems, which are shameful for a developed country, and if we do not think intelligently about how each bit of the system can do that, we are going to struggle on with the same kind of figures that we have at the moment. I would say that you are in a privileged position; there are those who are in much more disadvantaged positions in life, and they need their library.
Andrew Coburn: May I add something to that? This goes back to the point about the buildings. I am not arguing for keeping all the buildings, but in a small rural environment, or even a suburban environment, the local population know the library staff, so they can come in and ask a question that has absolutely nothing to do with the library. I was told a story about somebody whose father or elderly relative had died, and they did not know what to do next in terms of how to register it, and all those other things. They went to the local library and got the answer. They got more than the answer, because they got some books about bereavement, and that kind of thing. So there is a social place, as well as an actual place, but the actual place is quite important for building communities.
Abigail Barker: Again, as you mentioned, it is another point where you have to go to your constituents and say, "It is either the health service or the library service." We are often put in an either/or situation, and, again, there could be more joined-up thinking. In Suffolk, they have books on prescription, whereby a GP will recommend a particular book to help with, say, depression, or they may suggest, "Go and read a novel. It might give you five minutes’ peace." The Future Libraries programme recommended that and said that it was best practice. Library services fit in with health. I refer you to paragraph 17 of the Voices for the Library submission, which states that we deal with "physical, mental and emotional health". Again, there is another story about bereavement where a lady whose husband had died took her children into the library, and the librarian found them books on bereavement and helped to start the process. So I think that libraries are entwined in all aspects of the community, and people do not necessarily realise that.
Jim Sheridan: I could go on, Chair, but I will not push my luck any further.
Q13 Paul Farrelly: What is happening with local government cuts is that local government, particularly county councils, are now rationalising their estates and are closing other buildings. I have direct evidence locally that there is an enhanced need for a library to remain as a focal point to offer people a warm, lively and safe place to meet and enhance participation among the groups that some people might consider to be fundamental to the Big Society. Do you agree?
Andrew Coburn: Yes.
Q14 Paul Farrelly: Right, thank you very much. Staffordshire has a Conservative-run county council and I am a Labour politician, but there is cross-party agreement that we will maintain our libraries. On the previous point, if anyone wanted to see a succinct summary of what a library can offer, I would draw their attention to the Conservative county council’s submission 26, which concludes: "When library provision is withdrawn, individuals are denied access to more than just books and will lose opportunities to learn, socialise, participate, contribute and volunteer within a safe and strong community." Yes or no, is that a statement that you would agree with.
Miranda McKearney, Andrew Coburn: and Abigail Barker: Yes.
Q15 Paul Farrelly: Yes, absolutely-thank you very much. In Staffordshire, there is no doubt that they are automating more-I need someone in a library to tell me how to use the automated machine-and cutting staff. One thing they did in Staffordshire that was not terribly popular is that they made some older librarians redundant just before the new legislation came in whereby they could have carried on working beyond the retirement age, which denied libraries some very experienced professionals. Do you agree that it would to the detriment of libraries if automation and cuts went too far, and if people like me or children were stuck in a position as in big superstores, where you are wandering around for hours trying to find a number 10 brass Phillips-headed screw, or heaven forbid, in a massive supermarket, a jar of pickled ginger? Would it be to the detriment of libraries if librarians could not show people how to use all the facilities?
Abigail Barker: Absolutely, you just said yourself that you needed help with the automated machine. Who helped you? A librarian. The role of the librarian has been almost ignored in these cuts. They are focused on books and buildings and they do not understand what a librarian can offer. We are not just there to stamp your books or to help you use the automated machine-although we will if you can’t, in the same way that I would expect a supermarket employee to help me as I am swearing at the machine. We are there to enhance your visit to the library. We can point you in the right direction and help you with queries. We can tell you how to upload an MP3 on to your iPod, as I have seen in my local library. We can show you how to rip vinyl to your computer, which was something else that was going on as well.
Q16 Chair: I hope you give a lecture on copyright too.
Abigail Barker: Yes, I live in constant terror of the copyright police, I have to say. Librarians are as important as the library building.
Q17 Paul Farrelly: I have asked three leading questions, people might think. A non-leading question: what do you think will be the impact on current trends of the reduction in professional librarians?
Andrew Coburn: In a sense, it is what I talked about before. A lot of what library staff do-because some of them are professionals and some are not qualified librarians, but they have a lot of experience, training and the rest of it-is about mediation, direction and assistance. The fewer people you have doing that, and the fewer of those qualified librarians, with those qualifications and experience, that you have around, the more difficult it is for people to find out what they want to know.
You have been talking about a county council but it would be equally true in a large urban authority, I am sure; the fewer of those people there are anywhere in this system, the more difficult it is to get the answer from anywhere in the system. There might be a number of them in the central library and you might be able to ring in from one of 40 branches to ask what the capital of-that is not a very good example. I was about to say, "What is the capital of Venezuela?"-it still could be an example. However, if all those people are on the phone dealing with other things, it is much more difficult to get the answers. I will stop there.
Miranda McKearney: There is certainly evidence in the work that we do that a lot of children’s expertise in particular is being lost. A lot of the reader support posts in libraries are now being merged, so what was a separate adult and a children’s post is now becoming a more generic one, which seems extremely short-sighted to me, when you look at the kind of areas of growth that I talked about earlier.
One other really big impact is that it makes the service less able to work in partnership across the local authority and indeed, nationally. It is very difficult at the moment to bring librarians to any kind of training or development opportunity, because there are not enough of them and they are manning the decks.
Q18 Jim Sheridan: What is the capital of Venezuela?
Andrew Coburn: Caracas.
Q19 Louise Mensch: Can I ask you one question that came up from something you said in your very first answer, when you praised the example of where local authorities had merged a library service to save front-line services? Might there be a trend where local authorities are trying to do things piecemeal with small budgets that cannot cope with library services-I am putting this out to ask your opinions-and might it not be better for individual, small local authorities to do cheaper services like a mobile service, let us say, and then there could be a destination library, in the same way that we have seen destination shopping centres, which have revived the fortune of retail? There could be one large mega-library to which people would come, an event place, which would be well-stocked, have excellent librarians and be lit up like Borders bookshops-perhaps not the best example, as they have closed-used to be in the United States with cafes, with everything. So, it is a destination library that really drives people to it.
It strikes me that local authorities which individually have very small budgets can only provide small libraries. One thing we know in bookshops is that it is the amount of stock that drives usage. You will go to a bookstore that has a large range of stock even if you don’t use the more obscure titles because you are more likely to get what you need. There is some evidence that mega-libraries-destination libraries-work very well, but it is not something a local authority is likely to be able to do within its own budget. Has research indicated or have your campaigners ever suggested that shared services and one very large, well equipped, well stocked and well served library might be better than the current little and piecemeal arrangements which local authorities find it increasingly difficult to justify? Whatever we may say and however we may gloss over the figures, that footfall is dropping.
Abigail Barker: In Suffolk, the mega-library is absolutely not what people want. I saw a report on "Channel 4 News" last week about the Birmingham mega-library, which I think is brilliant. But we have to remember that with destination libraries people have to be able to get to them. The same with mobile libraries: the mobile libraries have to be able to get to the people. People in Suffolk very much value their local library and their local library staff. It is almost as though they have a mega-library. No matter how small the library may be, they can order any book from anywhere in the county and it will be there within three days, provided that somebody else does not have it out on loan. So they do have that selection.
Q20 Louise Mensch: Forgive me for interrupting, that is a pool system where somebody goes to the library and they are looking for a particular book. The essence of the library experience for me as a girl going into libraries was that one browsed. You are not going in to look for "The Gruffalo’s Child" but at what children’s books are on the shelves. For that to be attractive requires a wide range of stock and books.
Abigail Barker: I agree with you there. I quite often go in completely clueless as to what I want to borrow. I am afraid I do judge books by their cover and I will pick something that I want to read. But at the same time if I have a conversation with friends and they recommend a book to me, the first thing I will do is go online and reserve it so that I know that in a few days’ time it will waiting for me at my local library. There is room for both push and pull to lead to an effective library service.
Andrew Coburn: The other thing about the destination library is that I am not sure it is necessarily the right answer. What the question touched on tangentially is things like, as I understand it, Warwickshire runs the mobile library that serves Solihull, which is in a completely separate local authority. Miranda mentioned the tri-borough system. In the north-west there is an awful lot of co-operation between public library authorities. Those kind of things, if encouraged and focused, are not quite a mega-library, but you could go back to the good old days-he said, as someone who has worked in libraries for too long-where one library authority would specialise in books on fine arts and another would specialise in books on 20th-century history or whatever. A lot of those co-operative systems have broken down. If we are talking about access and your destination library is really about regional or sub-regional destinations, then that might be another way of tackling it. But it requires some co-operation and some thought by the local authority librarians and leaders.
Miranda McKearney: I guess there are two things there. The sort of underlying system that allows services to share or merge has proved politically to be really hard in the last 18 months. So the case may have been made but politically it is really hard to pull off.
Q21 Louise Mensch: Is that because local authorities don’t want to share their services?
Miranda McKearney: They might set out wanting to do so to save the money but then politically it is very difficult for them to step away from their own particular library service.
On destination libraries, I agree with the notion of having a supercharged building that will drive traffic. Newcastle is an interesting example of a new library that houses some fantastic regional collections. But that surely cannot be the only provision there is.
Q22 Louise Mensch: I was not suggesting that. I was saying that for those people who could not get to a large regional library, you would always have the mobile service-there is a back-up. If, however, overall usage and footfall will be driven by a large and successful library-I was on the library taskforce in opposition and we have seen that some of these large libraries do very well and drive footfall-I was wondering what your thoughts were as experts on it: I was not suggesting that should totally replace a local library service.
Q23 Steve Rotheram: I visited my local library in Fazakerley on Saturday for national libraries day. I witnessed lots of the non-book stuff-the activities that were mentioned earlier such as the internet, CDs, DVDs and even a kids’ group who were meeting there. There were books as well; I saw one by an author called Louise Bagshawe, but I did not take it out. Obviously, the library services in Liverpool are facing cuts, like they are in the rest of the country, through the poor central Government settlement that Liverpool got. I was reading in the notes that the 1964 Act places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide a "comprehensive and efficient" library service for local people. Given that libraries are a local service, to what extent are local authorities best placed to assess what is a comprehensive and efficient library service?
Abigail Barker: The problem with "comprehensive and efficient" is that it is open to interpretation, and my definition of "comprehensive and efficient" would not necessarily be the same as Suffolk county council’s. If there is the potential to be more explicit with what "comprehensive and efficient" means, this is the time to do it so that we have some kind of standard to go by. Local authorities, certainly in my experience, do not understand the library service. They do not understand what is needed, so they cannot begin to imagine what a comprehensive and efficient library service is, which is why they need more help. They are making these cuts in very difficult times, and if you do not have information to hand it makes it even more difficult. If "comprehensive and efficient" could be more clearly defined and more help could be given to local authorities, they would be making better judgments as far as the cuts are concerned.
Andrew Coburn: I boil it down to two words: leadership and standards-leadership at both national and local level. To answer your question, I think local authorities are where the final decision should rest, but there needs to be leadership locally to ask, "What do we mean by comprehensive and efficient?" and to look at the sorts of issues that we have talked about, and some that we have not. Nationally there needs to be assistance, guidance and possibly something stronger than that given to local authorities to say, "These are the kind of things that we are looking at." I recognise that in the current climate that will mean difficult political decisions, but the demise of the public library standards was unfortunate, to say the least. The Welsh have retained them, and there needs to be some consideration given to how something-if not like that, at least some fairly strong guidance-can be given from the top.
Miranda McKearney: I agree that "comprehensive and efficient" needs more definition and guidance, and I would ask what the point is of something being statutory if that is never called into question.
Q24 Steve Rotheram: There was an attempt in 2005 to clarify the definition, but I believe that was unsuccessful. The Local Government Association has also provided us with some information. It has told us that local authorities do not take the decision to close libraries lightly-I know that from my own experiences-and that local authorities consult local people and their needs are identified. What else should local authorities be doing before making such drastic decisions?
Abigail Barker: That is something I feel quite strongly about. Local authorities are not consulting the needs of local people. There are very few consultations that have asked what people want. The consultations have been from the top down, effectively saying, "These are the changes we are making. If you do not volunteer to run this library, you will lose it." For local authorities to say that they are making changes to fit the needs of their communities is, as far as I am concerned, a lie.
Andrew Coburn: Right-follow that. [Laughter.] I am not going to disagree with that, but I think that consultation-I think we said this in our submission-has to be about more than just saying, "Here is option A and here is option B; which one would you like?" Local users and campaign groups need to be able to get access to the data and the information about the service, so that they can make informed decisions. They need to be consulted on whether things could be done differently and on whether a library could be closed if it could be opened up somewhere else. Swindon is the classic example. The old town library in Swindon had a huge campaign, which was very well known and which is probably watching us even now. They have opened a library in a building round the corner. It may not be exactly what the campaigners wanted, but it came after campaigning and after at least some discussion with them. We should be looking for those kinds of things.
Miranda McKearney: What has really stung recently is where libraries have been handed over to volunteers without appropriate negotiations about how those libraries will stay part of a supported network. It seems as though they are being cast adrift. Threatened libraries are often in communities where it is least likely that volunteers will be able to step forward. That has been one of the things that have most upset people.
Q25 Steve Rotheram: Can I suggest to Abigail, because I think she feels the most strongly about this having come out with what she did, that she come up with some criteria or a methodology that might help us in our understanding of how local authorities could better do what they are being asked to do?
Abigail Barker: My local campaign came up with a methodology that we gave to the local county council, so I could pass that on.
Q26 Chair: Thank you. Can I turn to the backstop power of the Secretary of State? The ability to have an inquiry to assess whether the library service is being properly provided has only very seldom been used, and the ability actually to take on the direct running has never really been used. Is there any point in the Secretary of State having such powers?
Andrew Coburn: Not if he or she does not use them. Our submission and those of a number of others have said that the current Ministers, who were very forceful in arguing for their predecessors to take action in the Wirral, have been very reluctant to do so themselves when faced with what are, from my perspective, equally strong campaigns and cases in a variety of local authorities. Yes, the argument is that it is a local authority decision, but the Minister does need to eventually grasp the nettle.
Abigail Barker: He is offering no guidance at the moment. Again, the local authorities are stuck in the middle not quite knowing what to do, which is why they are making these rash decisions. Campaigners feel completely ignored by the Secretary of State. We have numerous examples of people who have written and received the same pro forma reply, which has been a bit of a slap in the face for them. We are working very hard to point out why we need libraries and the hole that they will leave in our communities, and we are told that he will intervene when he feels that it is serious enough. We wonder what his definition of "serious enough" is when Gloucestershire, Brent, Somerset, Surrey, and others are going to court and getting judicial reviews. We want to know what will make him intervene and help the local authorities, who need his help.
Miranda McKearney: It is a national service. It may be locally delivered, but it is a national service and a national network, and therefore there is a statutory national responsibility.
Q27 Chair: For example, the Secretary of State does not have the power to take over the provision of street cleaning or many other local authority services. You regard libraries as somehow different to other local authority services in that they should have this special protection.
Andrew Coburn: We are where we are, and if he has that power, there is no reason why it should not be used. My understanding is that Ministers have, in effect, taken over or intervened to get things run in the way that they wish in other services, such as failing education authorities. Indeed, in Doncaster, which ironically has serious problems with its libraries, my understanding is that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has been involved there as well. If that is the case, it does not make libraries unique.
Miranda McKearney: It is not necessarily about taking over, but calling an inquiry can be very powerful. The inquiry before Wirral was Derbyshire, and, if you look at it, the Derbyshire library service is now absolutely thriving.
Q28 Chair: But the thrust of the Government’s policy across a range of areas is to try to devolve responsibility, because people on the ground at local level are best equipped to determine what is appropriate. Do you not think that local authorities should be responsible for deciding what is right for their communities?
Andrew Coburn: Yes, they should, but, as Miranda said a couple of seconds ago, it is a de facto national service. I can go into my local library and discover that the nearest copy of the book I want to borrow is in Keswick; I live in Essex, but I can get that book, perhaps not the next day, but very quickly. There are all sorts of other aspects that make it a national service, and, therefore, there is a place for some national governance, for want of a better word.
Q29 Chair: Where do you think the Secretary of State should have called an inquiry?
Abigail Barker: Gloucestershire, Somerset-all the ones that have gone to judicial review. As ordinary people who work 9 to 5 and campaign in their spare time feel so powerfully that their library service will be taken from them that they are willing to spend their time and money taking their local county councils to court, the Secretary of State should have intervened.
Q30 Chair: Lastly, there has been a gradual development of community-offered library services. Do you think that is a good thing, or do you think it is a threat to the traditional library model?
Andrew Coburn: The way it has been done-I am never one to be backward in coming forward-is likely to be a threat. It is being done piecemeal with all sorts of different solutions. There are all sorts of problems: do volunteers who have been asked to run a library, or who have stepped up to run a library, have to have CRB clearance? What about data protection? It comes down to whether some of those libraries are going to be part of the statutory service. If they are not going to be part of the statutory service, for all sorts of reasons-because they are not connected to the library system, they have no accountability to the local authority-that diminishes the statutory service and could be argued to be the thin end of a wedge.
Miranda McKearney: There is a big spectrum, isn’t there? There are community libraries that have been completely divested to the community without any appropriate support from the network and local authority, and there are others where the arrangements are very different. When you talk about community-run libraries, it is important to distinguish between the different models.
Q31 Damian Collins: In your earlier evidence, as a group you said that the growth area for access to libraries seems to be events, such as reading groups and programmes aimed at young children. I would imagine that libraries with large local-research facilities would support activities such as family history research. I would have thought that community involvement could be quite successful with such activities, because it would be designed around what the community wants and there would be an absence of similar services elsewhere. I can see how you might have concerns about the core lending function and borrowing from other libraries, but, if anything, that seems to be a diminishing activity. I am slightly surprised by your level of concern about what community involvement would bring, because, in some ways, I think the community is pretty good at designing the popular new services that libraries offer.
Abigail Barker: Community involvement and volunteers can help to enhance a library service, but I do not think they can replace a library service. I find it quite insulting at times, as a librarian, that my chosen career and profession is so easily thrown away-when a retired bank manager can take over. I would never go into a bank and say, "I am a retired librarian, let me take over," so I do not see why it should be the other way around.
Q32 Damian Collins: Maybe you should.
Abigail Barker: Yes, maybe I should. I think we need to use volunteers and community groups to their best advantage. If we have someone who is a local historian, great. Get them in, and help them to run the service and enhance the service, but do not ask them to make stock choices, and do not ask them to come in and do the boring day-to-day, behind-the-scenes, ignored jobs that librarians have to do to make sure that you can come in and borrow a book. It is not all boring, sorry-I should take that back.
Chair: Right. I think that’s all the questions we have. I thank all three of you very much.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Sue Charteris, Independent adviser on public policy; and author of the Report on Wirral Library Service, gave evidence.
Chair: I welcome Sue Charteris for the second part of this morning’s session. Your report has already been mentioned this morning, and it is obviously one of the key documents in considering this area. I invite Adrian Sanders to begin.
Q33 Mr Sanders: Do you think it would be helpful for local authorities to have set criteria against which to measure whether a library service is comprehensive and efficient?
Sue Charteris: I think that is quite a difficult thing to do beyond the advice I have already given, which is part of my original report and which I have repeated here. Only the local authority can evaluate what "comprehensive and efficient" means in its particular locality, given how different local government communities are. Key to that is doing a needs assessment and applying the responsibilities in the Act as currently drafted to serve the needs of all communities. That means looking at a number of issues, particularly those of access, deprivation and so on. There is some guidance, but local authorities have to do that decision making themselves and ideally with local communities.
Q34 Mr Sanders: Isn’t the problem that the terms "comprehensive" and "efficient" are subjective and, therefore, open to legal challenge, which is precisely what has been happening?
Sue Charteris: We are certainly in a situation where it is becoming a legal minefield. I am worried about policy making by judicial review, so I understand some of the concerns that were mentioned earlier today. The thrust of my advice in my report in looking at "comprehensive"-I will come back to "efficient"-is looking at the needs of different sections of your community. Since I wrote my report we now have the Equality Act, which is very specific in terms of protected groups. As a mode of analysis and as a means of thinking about how well our current service is meeting those needs, and how any changes we want to make meet those needs, I think it can be a very valuable thing to do. It is not an argument for the status quo. It is not an argument for saying that you must have a library around every corner, which is why I am not so keen on more rules and regulations saying that you must have a library every two miles. Does that mean as the crow flies and so on? You get into difficulties there.
What would be helpful to councils at the moment, given that it is a legal minefield, is more guidance from the Secretary of State, maybe with the help of the Arts Council, on how to navigate your way around that and what the lessons from the different judgments are. You have to be really keen and/or have a great deal of time to read the nuances and all the different judgments that there have been, to pick your way through sound decision-making. This is in a context where there is not a lot of time, where councils are faced with profoundly challenging decisions. My concern is that some councils now will decide it is all too difficult-"Let’s promise to keep all the buildings open and find a different way of taking money out of the service"-and that is when we come back to efficient and what we mean by efficient, which perhaps I will come back to later.
Q35 Damian Collins: Do you think local authorities have the latitude to consider how some of these services can be delivered outside of the library as well? For example, we heard earlier about the popularity of children’s reading groups. When libraries were created, we did not have Sure Start centres and initiatives like Bookstart, which we now do, so to what extent should councils consider the provision of those types of local services alongside what libraries can provide?
Sue Charteris: If I can answer your question in a slightly different way, I served on the Lambeth Libraries Commission, which is an interesting model for deciding how to review public library services, and we had evidence from some really good library change agents from across the country. They all said, "Don’t try to fix the library service on your own. Think about it in the round. What facilities are there in the locality, and which are best placed to run facilities like reading, or libraries?" Sometimes it will be the library. Sometimes the library is the only public building left in the locality. Sometimes it is one of nine or 10 buildings, one of which is the Sure Start centre, and one a community centre-I could go on. Where councils can use money more intelligently is to have a look at what the stock of physical presence is in a locality and work out where best to locate those facilities.
It comes back to needing to know what your service is currently doing. The good library authorities are regularly reviewing their service and regularly advising their elected members how the service is being used, so when they come to a point of needing to rationalise the service, they have that information at their fingertips.
Q36 Damian Collins: Do you think that a combination of perhaps political pressure and a fear of judicial review is making libraries too conservative in the way they plan their library services for the future?
Sue Charteris: I would rather look at it the other way round and say, "Actually, there is some really good practice here. How can we accelerate that good practice?" It is going to be a love-in for the tri-borough project today, I think. We have heard about it already, but it is a model. We do not have years to get this right. How can we accelerate the partnership between different local authorities and make it really worth their while to speed up that inter-borough co-operation, so that the capacity exists in the service? There are some very good models around at the moment.
Q37 Damian Collins: For the library service to be sustainable in the future, do you think those sorts of major initiatives like tri-borough in London are going to be required, otherwise the service will wither on the vine?
Sue Charteris: It is essential. You cannot take 20%, 25%, or 30% out of the service and expect it to stay the same. You have to look at how the money is currently being spent on the service. The more you can do that in partnership with local communities, the more robust decision making you will have and the more likely you are to get a consensus about the way forward. I know that many leaders of councils think that the tri-borough approach only works in an urban area, and I can see that it is much easier where you have much more economies of scale, but I think that there are partnership possibilities, even among counties or different groupings of councils across the country, to do much more working together. If we do not do that, the professional capacity will not be in the service-we have heard today how denuded that is. Real expertise and professional leadership, as well as political leadership, is needed.
Very few libraries spend much money on communications. I can take you past a lot of libraries where most of the population would not know that there is a library inside. They certainly would not know what range of facilities there are going on in it. That is best done by a proper comms team promoting and branding the service.
Damian Collins: Counties are not all the same size, so some counties manage to run large services over much bigger areas than others. I imagine it is possible to achieve those sorts of synergies.
Q38 Louise Mensch: You talked about the digital revolution and how that has been a driver for change, but, obviously, digital and IT equipment is pretty costly. Since upgrading also costs a lot of money, how is that being stymied by local authority cuts, because it becomes ever more expensive to upgrade your services? Perhaps as a secondary question I can ask you about the proportionate spend on IT and books. When we did some research on this a few years ago, I think that we found that the total area of library expenditure on books was only 9%, which is a tiny amount of money. As a matter of fact, IT services cost an awful lot more than books and a wider book stock, which has been seen to drive footfall and library visits.
Perhaps you can comment first on the nature of the costs of the digital revolution as a driver for library change; and, secondly, whether the balance has tilted too far in favour of computers, IT and other things, and too far away from books, which are cheaper and where the overall spend appears to be very low at a national level.
Sue Charteris: This is where I come to understanding, on a service-by-service basis, how you are spending the money on the service. That gets into some tricky territory in most local authorities, because quite often the IT costs of a library service are part of what is called the central recharges, which is a mysterious area that takes some unravelling.
I think there is a very sound case to be made for investing in IT-I am talking about electronic book issuing and so on. Having broadband available in libraries is an essential for a modern library service now, but it does have to go alongside books. I agree with what you are saying about how the offer has to be stimulating and exciting enough not only in what you called the flagship stores, but in the local community libraries as well.
I remember visiting a wonderful partnership between a tourist office and a library service in a rural part of the north-east. I saw this woman looking anxiously along the shelves; she was looking for something that she had not read. If you are going to have more limited stock, you do need to rotate it; you need to have new opportunities coming forward. Yes, I think the amount spent on books is embarrassingly low. There is a much better deal to be struck in purchasing arrangements and I do not really see why local authorities are doing that on their own anymore. Other people have mentioned today that we need to decide what is best done nationally and what should be done in big procurement partnerships; that way, we get a lot more for our money.
Q39 Louise Mensch: Would you say that libraries have lost focus on books overall?
Sue Charteris: It is very hard to generalise. A number of libraries have misunderstood the needs of their readers and they have had to change tack. For example, some of the newly opened community libraries, opened with Big Lottery Fund resources, deliberately went for wide open spaces, emptier shelves and more IT and they had to change tack because people did not find they had enough to stimulate and excite in the form of reading material.
Again, there are imaginative ways of doing this. You may have come across the Sutton Bookshare, which is a giving service administered by the library service alongside the main lending service. When I have done work with people who do not use libraries but care about them, some of them refer to themselves as guilty book buyers-in other words, they have to have the latest book. They have gone out and bought it, but actually they have not messed it up: they have not spilled coffee all over it or written in the margins. The Sutton experiment is worth replicating, so that you can have a mix of books for loan, books for borrowing and maybe books for buying in the same place. Newcastle is a good example of that.
Q40 Chair: Do you think we will one day get to a situation where the library consists of a large stack of Kindles through which you can access a central server and download digital copies, and there will be no need ever to have any books there at all?
Sue Charteris: We might. I saw a programme that Alan Yentob made recently about the extent of the digital revolution, and that is a future scenario. The whole point is that the library service is in transition; it is in transition because there is a financial crisis and because there is a digital revolution. The reason why people are so exercised and emotional about this is that their communities are in that transition space as well. There are sections of our community, particularly older adults, who are not yet devotees of the digital revolution. Libraries have a major role to play in helping older adults and people who are not technologically confident to access information in that new way. I cannot say how long it will take, whether it will be 10 years or 50 years, but we have to straddle that journey in the library service.
Q41 Chair: The library service could play a key part in doing this. Kindles may be much easier for elderly people to use than traditional books. You can enlarge the print and it is easy to turn the pages. The library service could be a force to encourage adoption of these technologies for people who are less familiar with them.
Sue Charteris: I absolutely agree. To do that we have to sort out digital licensing. That has to be done nationally. Individual library authorities trying to sort that out are wasting their time. Even coming out with individual policies and innovative ways of doing it-until we grasp that nationally and get a really good deal going, then it will be a blighted area. That is a tragedy.
Chair: That is a whole new Committee inquiry, which we may well come on to.
Q42 Damian Collins: Just a follow-up to that last question: do you think there is room for technology to improve the delivery of library services? For example, in book retailing Amazon tries to recreate the browsing experience you get in a bookshop by recommending things to you based on your purchasing patterns and what other people buy. Could you see more innovation like that in the online-delivered library services and, as the Chair suggested, the library itself potentially being a smaller building where people go to pick up the books they have requested, to attend events or to get other sorts of information?
Sue Charteris: Yes, and this is where we come back with the need for a strategic vision for each library authority in terms of which of its venues are best placed to be that, "Now here is everything we have-our showcase, our website". That whole presence has to be spot on. It is naive to expect that to be replicated in every place. How best do you it in a local village hall, for example? We have to have the debate about whether the local village hall, with a library as a key part of its offer, however small, is better than a mobile service that makes two or three stops in the village for 10 minutes every couple of weeks. We have to look at the whole provision to get an answer to your question.
Q43 Damian Collins: Is the answer to that question not inevitably local, rather than national? The way to save a small library with a lower number of users could be to involve the local history society, which currently meets somewhere else, or other groups, and to provide extra services beyond those that a core library service will deliver.
Sue Charteris: Yes, I think so.
Q44 Damian Collins: Do you think that one of the problems the library service across the country has is that it has an estate of buildings that might not necessarily be appropriate for what it needs to work with, and might be expensive to maintain? Buildings might be too big in some places, or they might be in the wrong place.
Sue Charteris: Yes. I am not a libraries historian, but it seems to me we have the Carnegie and the Tate generation of libraries, and then we have a lot of libraries that were modern in the 1950s and 1960s, which are a maintenance nightmare. We have seen from the newer libraries that have been built what an attractive and much more cost-efficient model they are, but yes, we are stuck with a difficult estate and that means looking on a community-by-community basis to see how you can best make provision.
Q45 Paul Farrelly: I was pretty lucky growing up compared with many kids of my age. My granddad did not have much of a formal education before he went to serve in the First World War, but he made sure that I knew the value of an education and that I did my homework. Weekend after weekend, he took me to the local Clayton library, which thankfully is still open. He did not take me to the town centre library because Clayton library was within walking distance for a pensioner. What do you think when you hear councils such as Brent say that libraries are best situated in town centres with all the public transport links, possibly to the exclusion of other considerations?
Sue Charteris: I don’t want to talk about Brent or any library authority in particular. It is based on the knowledge that they will have of how people use facilities in their locality. If a local authority can demonstrate that it can meet needs in a different way, the question of what you do about the very local library might have a different answer. Councils need to decide whether they still need those very local libraries to deliver their statutory offer and whether they can run a comprehensive and efficient service without them. If they are convinced that they can, there may be a means of persuading your granddad that he can have help to go that library or that there is an offer than can come to him in a different way. The real challenges are in councils where there is a very large network of rural provision, where public transport is not that great and where we need different models to emerge. That is why I have been giving some thought to the whole notion of community libraries and the role of communities in partnering the council in a different way.
Q46 Paul Farrelly: In your evidence you say, not surprisingly, that smaller local community libraries are the most under threat. You can understand why. Take Clayton, which is on a bus route. There are so many scenarios where, if people are going to cut back, the little libraries are just going to go indiscriminately, unless a council, as a body, takes what you might call an emotive decision to protect all its libraries as far as it can. I am not sure how, without that buy-in-that emotive decision, "We will protect our service"-how small and local libraries can be saved by some rigid set of rules about how you assess local need or not.
Sue Charteris: We could discuss whether it is emotive, strategic or political, but what it needs is local leadership to decide what vision there is for the pattern of community provision and the role that libraries play in that. It is a bit like the post offices debate. If the library is the only building left in the locality, then it gets very challenging and you have ask yourself whether there is a different way of running that service, but before you decide, you must know how much that facility is costing in the first place-it might be a very small part of the council’s budget. That comes back to balancing the comprehensive and the efficient, and how we want to spend our resources on the library service.
Q47 Paul Farrelly: "Emotive" is a very emotive word.
Can I now talk about librarians and move us to Newcastle town centre library? While my son was busy hovering up acres of shelves of books to borrow in 2010, I decided that a requisite holiday read for Mrs Farrelly was a book called "Sparkles", and that I should find it. It was by a certain author of a certain genre, and I am sure that that gesture will be cited in the divorce papers in the future. Without a professional librarian, I would not have known which genre it was. Was it for children? Was it for adults? Was it a classic, like a Dickens-we are celebrating the anniversary of his birth today-or was it a new wave book? I would not have known without a professional librarian to show me. Also, if it were a community library, without a professional librarian to order the book and to stock it, I fear that "Sparkles" would not have been there in the first place. What do you think about what is happening to professional librarians at the moment?
Sue Charteris: There has to be a prominent role for professional librarians in deciding what good service looks like, curating the service properly, deciding what needs to go where, and how to stimulate. I am as frustrated as you are when I go into some local libraries and try to find my way around. I do not necessarily want to have to go to the catalogue; I want to be stimulated. I may not even find the book I want in alphabetical order, but I am playing to prejudices here. There is a role for professional librarians, and they must be used extremely well.
These are not my words, but a colleague referred to the role of the professional librarian as being like the genius in the Apple store. If you are of a certain generation, you do not go to the genius bar. What on earth can they teach you? You know your way around and how to navigate for information. They can teach you nothing, but for other people the access to genius expertise is vital. I think professional librarians are absolutely key in doing that.
Steve Rotheram: I have to go, Chair, but just to let you know, "Sparkles" is available at Fazakerley library, with a whole host of similar novels.
Paul Farrelly: Because there is a host of novels, it is a book I preferred to borrow than to buy. The whole run would have cost a fortune.
Sue Charteris: You need not buy the rest.
Q48 Paul Farrelly: You are ex-local government, so you know the pressures very well. There is a movement at the moment, because of budgetary pressures not only on sport and community centres, but everywhere, not just to use it or lose it, but to run it or lose it. The danger with a community-run library is that it could be a library that is being run down, rather than being run actively and professionally. What do you think are the risks associated with jumping wholesale into backing community-run libraries?
Sue Charteris: This is probably going to sound like a boring bureaucratic answer, but I think councils need to be really clear about what they mean when they talk about community-run libraries. We had a big debate on the Lambeth Libraries Commission about what we mean, and there has been a high-profile debate about it in Suffolk. The outcome of the Suffolk debate, as far as I understand-I do not know all the details-is an interesting industrial and provident society model whereby the council is clear about how it will provide its statutory obligations, how it will service and maintain the network of community-run libraries, how it will resource it, and so on. That is a very interesting model, and I would like to see more innovation in that area, not necessarily for all libraries, but for some.
Councils need to decide, when they are considering cuts, what they mean. Do they mean that they have done a needs analysis and do not think that that library is needed at all? Or do they mean that, actually, they do still think they need that network of provision? It might be in those places that need it most and use it least that a different community partnering model might be more effective, but it will not work if it is a case of "Here are the keys of the building Get on with it. It is up to you whether you use it or not." The council needs to be part of it.
Is there a different way of providing the service? Yes, it would be cheaper-this is emotive-but the majority of local authority spending on public libraries is staffing, so if a council decides that it is going to keep all of its network going, it has to come up with a different model of staffing and supporting those libraries, with the professionals having a key role, but not necessarily being the people who open and close the building every day.
Q49 Damian Collins: In Sandgate in Kent, which is in my constituency, the library went from being solely county council provision to being jointly run by the community and the parish council. The parish council moved its offices into the library and redesigned some of the library services around that. It strikes me that a council might decide to involve the community not just to save money, but because the community can run the library better than the county council.
Sue Charteris: It is an interesting question about what motivates a local community to provide a local service and what other networks of volunteering it can tap into. There have been some really good experiences. I was privileged to be a member of the Big Lottery Fund when we developed the community libraries programme. There are some really good examples, one of which is in a housing estate in Weston-super-Mare and is run by a social enterprise as a healthy living centre. It shares a building with a church, a social services area office and a community café. Lending has gone up 400%-it was pretty low to start with. The engagement in the service is dramatic because people buy into it in a different way, but it is hard work and finding local people to manage those services will require a sustained and determined effort. It cannot just be, "Well, it’s up to you. Get on with it."
Q50 Damian Collins: Looking at the evidence that the Department has given to this inquiry, the number of volunteers assisting in libraries has doubled in the past four years. That suggests that there is a positive trend towards more volunteer involvement, which is something that communities might embrace.
Sue Charteris: I think so, but again, it depends. Volunteers are particularly well placed to do certain things, such as young people training older people on how to use Skype or send a digital photo or set up their Kindle or whatever it happens to be. That is absolutely right. There are also some volunteers who will quite like doing the filing, but I completely agree with what previous speakers have said: that should not be assumed to be their role. A sound policy on volunteering is absolutely key for every council, it seems to me.
Q51 Damian Collins: I would imagine that libraries that have a stronger engagement with their local community are probably more popular libraries.
Sue Charteris: That is beginning to be the case, but it is early days, because it has not been an expected way of working up to now.
Q52 Damian Collins: It is interesting that, in the evidence from Isle of Wight, they said that one of the benefits out of the high-profile debates they had locally was the emergence of lots of friends groups around the libraries that were under threat. Those groups have now been beneficial to supporting the libraries under the current arrangements.
Sue Charteris: The two key determinants of the success of the Big Lottery Fund’s community libraries programme were: first, money, because it was a capital injection of funds; and secondly, a requirement to involve the community in the design, development and delivery of that service. There were two levers for change in there. We are beginning to see that that community involvement in the design, delivery and development of that service is paying off, but it is slow and painstaking work. We come back to the issue of where local authorities will find the resources to do that work from, unless they collaborate more on some of those bigger investment decisions about how they run the service.
Q53 Damian Collins: Hillingdon also gave us evidence. It has gone through a programme of cuts, but it also brought coffee shops into its libraries and visitor numbers have gone up. It seems to have been a success in making the libraries popular. Is that a type of innovation-a public-private partnership, if you like-that we should see more of?
Sue Charteris: Hillingdon has been a fantastic success and you can tell that there was a strong political vision behind the design and delivery of that service. I think that that is sound. Yes, of course, private partnerships are part of the solution. Anything that makes the service more attractive is good, but it is not a major part of the income that that service will get.
Q54 Damian Collins: It might not just be about money; it might be about making them more popular destinations.
Sue Charteris: Absolutely.
Q55 Damian Collins: Finally, there are initiatives like Hillingdon and the tri-borough, which you talked about earlier. Some people say, "Well, if they are that popular, why are more people not doing those things?" but do you think that people will be looking hard at some of these more innovative solutions to reducing costs and still delivering excellent services? Will more councils be looking to replicate what seems to be working elsewhere?
Sue Charteris: I really do hope so. I think that there is a great deal more encouragement and incentivisation needed from a combination of the Secretary of State, the Arts Council and the Local Government Group. The work that the Local Government Group has been doing recently, following the first phase of the libraries improvement programme, in getting local council leaders and portfolio holders together to share their experience is invaluable. We need a great deal more of that, because I am worried about the timeline. People are choosing to make cuts in their services, looking at how the service is currently configured, because they think that they do not have time to come up with a more strategic way of providing those services in the current climate. Somehow we need to accelerate these developments so that they are not exceptions, but the norm.
Q56 Chair: You are the only person in recent times who has undertaken one of these public inquiries at the request of the Secretary of State. Do you think that it is an effective mechanism? Is it the right way of dealing with these issues?
Sue Charteris: It is an absolute last resort. I am on record as saying I was obliged to follow something called the Public Libraries (Inquiries Procedure) Rules 1992, which had never been used before and which are virtually unworkable and need changing. What was very unfortunate about it is that it was like running a planning inquiry in all that formality. If you really want to hear the views of local people, I do not think that is the best way of doing it. It sets up a false antagonism between the Secretary of State and the local authority, which is not helpful. It is not a problem-solving way of working, which is my preferred way of working; it is a case of asking, "Is this legal or isn’t this legal?" I do not think that is helpful.
Q57 Chair: How should we change it?
Sue Charteris: Those rules need changing. If there is an appetite to review the public libraries legislation, and I think there should be, the role of the Secretary of State needs to be put much more proactively. It needs to be a much more contemporary role, where it is clear what things the Secretary of State makes happen nationally, such as the digital stuff; what other things need to be commissioned nationally; and where the role of the local authority lies. Only then can you have a discussion about what you mean by the superintending role of that. It is more analogous to the health service and the education service. Particularly in the current climate, where there is a huge push for localism, we have got to come up with something that is much more peer-led.
Q58 Chair: Where does the Arts Council fit into all of this?
Sue Charteris: I think because the Arts Council has taken over the responsibilities that were with the Museums, Libraries And Archives Council, it is the Secretary of State’s provider of advice and support on public libraries. I do not think it can do it on its own; it has to work much more closely with the Local Government Group, as it has started to do.
Q59 Chair: You still see a role for it, though.
Sue Charteris: Absolutely.
Q60 Paul Farrelly: One of the fundamental questions is why this particular Secretary of State should have this responsibility. Why should it not be vested in the Department for Communities and Local Government?
Sue Charteris: As someone said this morning, we are where we are. If there is a debate about rewriting the legislation, all that is up for grabs, but it is the detail in the scheme of things. What we really need is a contemporary interpretation of the duty to provide public libraries in the 21st century. I used to think that people who wished for a change in the Act were naive and wishing bad things on themselves, but it is proving very cumbersome and very out of date, and it is important to have a fresh look about that.
Q61 Paul Farrelly: As we all know, councils have certain statutory duties and some duties that are not statutory. Increasingly, when budgets are under pressure, they retreat towards that statutory core. If some of the councils that have given evidence had their way effectively to get rid of the Secretary of State’s superintending duties, what other protections would need to be provided-perhaps legislated-to make sure that councils had a statutory duty to protect libraries and provide a library service?
Sue Charteris: It gets quite difficult, doesn’t it? I am not sure I have the answer. It would be interesting to discuss with the Local Government Group when you see it whether it could design something that was a recognised means of peer- intervention is not quite the right word. What we really need to ask is, "Have you looked at everything? Have you really thought this through? Isn’t there something you are missing? Why don’t you partner with so and so?" as an alternative to the rather sledgehammer approach enshrined in the procedure rules I mentioned before.
Chair: I think that is all we have. Thank you very much.
Sue Charteris: Thank you.