Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Campaign for the Book
1.1 The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act sets the framework for the public library service. At its heart is the requirement to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service to users.
1.2 Between 2000 and 2011 the United Kingdom’s position in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) reading rankings has declined from seventh to 25th.
1.3 The National Literacy Trust has found that a child who visits a library is twice as likely to read well as one who does not. (Report 4.2.2011).
1.4 The National Literacy Trust has reported that one child in three does not own a book. Seven years ago it was one in 10. (Report 5.12.2011).
1.5 The Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development says that reading for pleasure is more important than social class in determining academic and social success. (2005).
1.6 600 public libraries face loss of funding or closure (CILIP).
1.7 Many School Library Services have closed in the last year and a number of school librarians have been made redundant. This further narrows users’ opportunities to access books, ICT and information. It correspondingly strengthens the case that the public library service should be developed.
1.8 One third of homes does not have access to the Internet.
1.9 We can see from this digest of reports that reading is vital especially for the young and the elderly who use libraries most heavily and are the least likely to have their own transport to travel a long distance to a library. It fosters social and academic success, social inclusion and wellbeing. With the onset of the financial and economic crisis the Public Library Service, already described as one “under stress” is facing major challenges.
1.10 The UK, which has performed relatively poorly in international comparisons, can ill afford to allow the erosion of the mainstay of its reading culture, the public library service. We need a greater focus on literacy and reading, not a weaker one. Any cost-savings will prove illusory as the impact of poor literacy levels in reduced international competitiveness and social deprivation is seen. We need only look at the fact that 80% of August rioters arrested had poor literacy levels.
1.11 My name is Alan Gibbons. I am an award-winning children’s author, former teacher and Organiser of the Campaign for the book established to promote reading for pleasure. This has led me to campaign for libraries and librarians. I organized the 110 Read Ins involving some 10,000 people on 5 February 2010 and initiated the call for National Libraries Day.
2. What is a Comprehensive and Efficient Service?
2.1 Library authorities have to fulfil their duty to provide a comprehensive service. They promote reading, information retrieval, knowledge, literacy and education. Communities should be able to access a local branch library easily. There is a duty to observe equal opportunities, ensuring that the young and elderly, people with English as a second language, the housebound and disabled all have equal access to facilities. This duty was a feature of the recent Gloucestershire and Somerset legal cases. A comprehensive service is not just a glittering central library in every town. Citizens should have a branch library within a mile to a mile and a half from their homes. This featured in discussions of the future of Brent libraries.
3. A Comprehensive Service should Include the Following:
3.1 Sufficient professional, full time staff working directly with the public to serve its needs.
3.2 Provision of up to date, appropriate and attractive books.
3.3 Computers and research materials.
3.4 E books for free loan.
3.5 Bright, airy, attractive buildings.
3.6 A users’ group drawn from the local community to ensure the library meets their needs.
3.7 Regular events with authors, poets, storytellers, etc.
3.8 Outreach activities with schools and community groups.
4. An Efficient Service should Include the Following:
4.1 Consistency of scale
There are currently 151 library authorities of varying size. There were 98, 14 years ago. Merged library services could increase efficiency and reduce costs and duplication. (The consultant Tim Coates has some experience in examining these issues in Hillingdon. His expertise should be sought.)
4.2 Simplicity of operation
The sharing of back office functions, the simplifying of procurement procedures, supply chain operations, central service charges should all be reviewed to place the emphasis on serving the public, ensuring the richest book stock and the widest range of services available.
5. Consistent Standards
Public library service standards should be reinstated to establish the fine detail of the minimum level of service users should be able to expect. There are wide regional and local disparities at the moment. This is at odds with the notion of a comprehensive and efficient public library service.
6. The Threat of Closures
6.1 CILIP estimates that up to 600 libraries are threatened with closure. Nothing like this figure of closures has occurred so far, but there has been a process of “hollowing out” with job losses, reduced opening hours, the slashing of book stock and the transfer of responsibility for running libraries to volunteer groups.
6.2 This has been happening piecemeal and constitutes a betrayal of the public.
6.3 It would be far better if there were strong, strategic leadership in the form of a Library Development Board setting priorities and pursuing them single-mindedly.
6.4 The priorities are to establish a strong national network of branches open as long as possible, with good book stocks and ICT and confident, accessible staff.
Where costs are an issue, these should be the priorities in the channeling of resources.
6.5 Some authorities are carrying out crude cost-cutting exercises without considering long-term effects on communities.
7.1 Volunteers have been a feature of libraries for many years. Councils should not misuse their talents and enthusiasm however. Librarianship is a profession and full time staff are central to the running of any library. Strong, strategic leadership would place the emphasis on putting as many full time staff in direct contact with the public as possible.
7.2 Volunteers should supplement, rather than replace, full time staff.
8. Strong, Strategic Leadership
8.1 The Secretary of State has a duty to “superintend” library authorities and set up a local inquiry when required. A previous Secretary of State did just this in Wirral preventing the authority closing half its libraries. The current Secretary of State was vociferous in pressing Andy Burnham on such issues, but has been silent over recent “Wirrals” such as Gloucestershire, Somerset, Lewisham, Isle of Wight, Bolton, Doncaster and Brent. 8.2 The All Party Parliamentary Group described leadership in the sector as “woeful.” The situation has deteriorated since. There was good cause for the Secretary of State to intervene in all these cases. The silence from the DCMS was deafening.
8.2 It is high time the Secretary of State observed his duties and:
8.3 drew on the expertise of library users, campaign groups and professional bodies to establish a Libraries Development Board;
8.4 took his duty to superintend the service seriously; rejected the siren voices in the Local Government Association that want the repeal of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act; and
8.5 drew up a strategic plan with a strong vision for the future health and improvement of the public library service.