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Reading between the lines

Source: Public Sector Executive Feb/Mar 2014

Library services are among the features of local government hit hardest by the cuts, with many facilities closed and previously professional jobs handed off to volunteers. PSE spoke to Dr Darren Smart of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) to ask what the future holds. 

Library closures are a sensitive and politically contentious issue, with even the hard numbers disputed. The government estimates 90 static library closures since 2010, while CIPFA says there have been 272 library service point closures in the same timeframe, but figures from Public Libraries News suggest 377 buildings and 76 mobile units have either closed, left council control, or now face closure.

Most people might prefer a volunteer-run library to no library at all, but campaigners are angry that councils are having to make such choices in the first place, and CILIP wants the government to properly apply and enforce the provisions of the Public Libraries and Museum Act 1964, which makes the provision of a “comprehensive and efficient library” service a statutory requirement.

The government considered scrapping those requirements under the DCLG’s 2011 ‘review of statutory duties placed on local government’, but decided against any action. Changes were again encouraged by the LGA in its evidence to a 2012 inquiry to make it easier for cash-strapped councils to cut services in “smaller, older, little-used libraries which are often in old buildings with no disabled access”, allowing them to reinvest that money in more modern suitable libraries and digital services.

In December 2012, Viscount Young of Leckie, Lords government spokesperson for DCMS, said: “DCMS has no plans at present to review the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.”

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But now advice on the main website promotes volunteer-managed community libraries ahead of those delivered by local authorities staffed by professionals, CILIP says – but it adds that this advice has never had ministerial approval or been stated as official government policy.

These concerns about the government’s true feelings and apparent lack of support for a comprehensive, professional library service were reflected in CILIP members’ vote of no confidence last year in libraries minister Ed Vaizey.

Dr Darren Smart, chair of CILIP’s Public and Mobile Libraries Group, told PSE that CILIP has concerns about the fragmented leadership on libraries policy, with DCMS, Arts Council England, local authorities and others all having different roles.

He added: “CILIP are generally opposed to the use of volunteers to replace paid professional staff. However, where volunteers are used to add to and enhance and help support a service, we’re quite happy with that. We fully understand and acknowledge the difficult financial times – but there are authorities out there coping with these financial challenges without closing libraries and cutting services. It’s not so common, but they are doing it. They’re recognising that public libraries are a statutory responsibility – they are not an option, even though that’s a term regularly used to describe them. [Councils say things like] ‘We must focus on statutory services’, mentioning things like social care, which every professional understands has to be a priority, but it implies libraries are not statutory services. Indeed in some briefings there’s been statements to the effect that there is no statutory requirement.

“Volunteer-led libraries do not fall under the requirements of the ’64 Act, as opposed to volunteer-supported libraries. There was a useful piece of work from Arts Council England defining those different categories.”


Not just glorified book swaps

While the LGA and many councils want to redefine libraries’ principal focus away from borrowing books and towards “the provision of powerful information and providing an environment for learning”, CILIP insists that its members are not against progress.

Dr Smart said: “We fully understand the issues that local authorities are going through. One of the problems is people not understanding the value of public libraries. They are often portrayed as glorified book swaps, which you can indeed do in church halls with local volunteers. But they are critical services which support the 20% most vulnerable people in the country. For example, if you’re unemployed, it can be virtually impossible to apply for a job unless you do it online now; if you don’t have a computer or know how to use one, you’ve got no chance of competing for a job. The government’s own scheme, Digital by Default, requires not only the physical resources of a library to provide access, but actually trained staff able to deliver the support required to those not able to use ICT successfully in their own lives. Still, in this country, independent research suggests that somewhere in the region of 21m people are either digitally ‘illiterate’ or only ‘semi-literate’.

“We certainly don’t justify libraries sitting there in the glorified past! We’re looking at the future; fabulous new services in libraries such as fab labs and 3D printing spaces, libraries engaged in health such as in Warrington’s libraries’ work with LiveWire (see box out below). There are a whole host of innovative responses being tried. But they’re being done on an experimental basis because there is no clear guidance or support from the centre.

“CILIP has specifically asked the secretary of state to set out a fresh vision for the 21st-century public library service, defining what comprehensive, efficient and accessible mean, and forming a basis of local planning and delivery.”

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Sieghart review

The government has indeed recently announced another review, jointly commissioned by DCLG and DCMS and to be chaired by William Sieghart. Among its panel members will be Sue Charteris, whose 2009 public inquiry into the library service provided by Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council, finding it to be in breach of its statutory duties, is an important document for library campaigners.

Vaizey has said the last major review – the Library Modernisation Review under the last government – was “a classic ministerial excuse for not acting”.

Dr Smart said he welcomed the new review and that CILIP would be ensuring its views are heard. He said: “We will be actively taking part in it and providing our feedback. The timing is unfortunate because it will report just prior to an election and therefore is not likely to be acted on at least in the immediate future – and potentially may not be acted on at all.

“We also want a strategic framework that can be used by local authorities when re-shaping their services. The Wirral review showed clearly that authorities can get it wrong, and there have been several instances since, with authorities such as Gloucestershire and Somerset being required to change their plans. But that only came after a legal challenge, rather than directly from the minister. The secretary of state can use his available powers to intervene when there’s clear evidence of a potential breach of the ’64 Act. This comes back to the problem: there have been several clear breaches, and they’ve resulted in successful court action against the changes, but the secretary of state hasn’t actually taken the action earlier before it went to court, which is what we’d expect under those circumstances under the ’64 Act.”


CILIP and the LGA agree on the potential for libraries to be fantastic resources for local people – but a key difference is on access. Many local authorities, including Birmingham and Manchester, have invested millions in improving their central libraries and making them just such a public resource, with book borrowing just one function among many. But there is a danger that these grand projects mean diverting resources away from smaller libraries, cutting the access opportunities for people, CILIP says.

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(Above: The Library of Birmingham, copyright Katie Hughes, used here under a Creative Commons licence)

Dr Smart said: “There is a disproportionate closure of small branch libraries and old-style community libraries. There’s a sense that big projects are centralising resources. That’s not to say that projects like the Library of Birmingham, or the Hive at Worcester, or The Forum in Southend, are not welcome: it’s the unintended consequences. Birmingham is having to make cuts, some of which is being borne by the new library, but the majority by the small libraries – because the view is that if there’s a big new facility, people can all go to that.

“However, research by Sheffield University’s Centre for the Public Library and Information in Society showed that the heaviest impact of library closures, particularly branch library closures, fall on the young, the elderly, and the unwaged. They are the people most in need of that resource. Approximately 20% of users do not transfer their custom to another library facility [if theirs closes]. Many because they cannot access the new facility.

“Public library standards are still in use in Wales and Scotland, where there’s a requirement in terms of mileage – how far 95% of the population have to be from a public library. Those standards were scrapped in England some years ago.”

Top performers

Dr Smart had specific praise for local authorities whose library services are delivering services in new ways, and that are managing cuts where necessary in a controlled and sensible fashion.

These included Essex, well-known for its commitment to its own libraries but also for its management contract to run Slough’s library service. Geoff Elgar, interim head of libraries, told PSE: “Essex County Council recognises the importance of the library service to its residents and has established an excellent reputation within the sector. In the current economic climate libraries need to be more innovative and entrepreneurial than ever before. With our strong management and innovative approach, we’ve been able to support other local authorities providing expertise ranging from stock management to total outsourcing.”

Cambridgeshire is another praiseworthy council, Dr Smart said, having managed cuts appropriately. Christine May, head of community and cultural services at the county council, said the council listened carefully in planning its redesign, and said its libraries have a “unique value”, calling them “a safe and trusted place in the community that is open to all, without judgement”. She said: “The council is using the strength of the library network as a corporate resource, placing it at the heart of its strategy to create community hubs that are the ‘face to face channel’ for council services and that help deliver across all of the Council’s priorities. Flexibility – in the use of spaces, staff, technology and resources – for a wider range of uses is key to this agenda.

“That’s not to say the service is avoiding its fair share of the savings ‘pain’ (more than £1.5m saved over the last 3 years), but that we do this in a creative and resourceful way. We have to be open-minded about the changes that redesigning the service for the future brings – and be prepared to let go sometimes. I strongly believe that we can’t do this alone – we need to share this challenge with our citizens and partners. Cambridgeshire Libraries has one of the highest levels of volunteer support in the country, led the way in creating community run libraries (which have just celebrated their 10th anniversary), makes use of all the latest technologies, works and co-locates with a huge range of partners, is championing a self-service driven approach – and has redesigned the service accordingly.”

Warrington’s libraries are now managed by a community interest company, LiveWire Warrington. Simon Kenton, assistant director for integrated commissioning at the borough council, said: “One of the first public libraries in the country, Warrington’s library service has always prided itself on its ability to provide a quality service to the town’s residents. We face challenges positively using them as an opportunity to develop different ways of working and engage with new audiences. We remain true to our core values of reading and access to quality information for all, and constantly evolve to deliver services in innovative ways to ensure we’re fit for purpose in the 21st century.”

LiveWire’s managing director Jan Souness said the redesign widened the libraries’ role in delivering wellbeing services and a ‘universal health offer’. She said: “Working with leisure & lifestyles colleagues has opened the doors to new partnerships and we pride ourselves on our outreach work where we engage with hard-to-reach individuals  and families to make a real difference. We have seen an increase in visits to libraries and memberships across the town, especially from residents using the service for the first time.”


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