Text of Speech by Justin Tomlinson MP
when opening the Westminster Hall Debate and Link to video on iPlayer
Please click here to access the 'Libraries Debate' video on iPlayer. Please note that the Debate commences 4 hours, 1 minute into the link.
THE FUTURE OF LIBRARY PROVISION
It is vital that the libraries are preserved for future generations. They provide a unique environment where anyone is welcome to read, learn and access the internet in their local area. They are a place where you can relax and reflect in a quiet and open setting. A place where children can be entertained by stories and encouraged to explore their imaginations, whilst learning. They are a focal point for communities and provide important sources of information, as well as bringing people from all generations together.
It is of real concern that libraries are in steady decline in the UK and that there are a number of further potential library closures across the country. Having spent 4 years as a Cabinet member covering libraries in Swindon, I was able to see firsthand how much local residents supported the new libraries that we built, including the award winning £10m central library and also the real concern and anger when local community libraries were threatened, something I am sure all MPs can relate to within their own constituency.
This trend clearly needs to change as with each closure a community is deprived of a key service. That said, as with all areas of the public sector it is important to recognise that savings across the public budget are necessary and that difficult decisions will need to be made by local authorities. In this context, libraries have the challenge of improving customer services whilst reducing costs. I am not calling for an increase in spending on public libraries, but for a revamp of the way that libraries are run in order to ensure that they are viable and fit for purpose for future generations.
Changes need to be made in the way that library services are delivered, so as to encourage customers to utilise them, as public use is in decline. This is demonstrated in the 2010 Taking Part report commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which was published last month. The report shows that since 2005/6 there has been an overall downward trend in the number of adults visiting public libraries in England across all adult age categories and socio-demographic groups. Only 39.4 per cent of the adults surveyed said they had visited a public library in the last year, compared to over 48 per cent of adults 5 years ago.
However, reading figures are not declining. The same DCMS report shows that there has been an increase in the number of people who read for pleasure. Over 65 per cent of the adults surveyed read for pleasure and of these 80 per cent had done so within the last week. In addition, book sales have grown. With the popularity of books such as Harry Potter and the Twilight series, annual figures from Nielson Bookscan show that children’s book sales in 2009 increased by nearly 5 per cent from the previous year.
This suggests that the problem lies in the service offered by libraries. Numerous surveys have showed that the public wants good choice, convenient opening hours and a pleasant environment from their local library. However, many libraries are not providing a service that is attracting a significant portion of the reading population. There is a market for libraries, but they need to improve in their ability to attract readers. Libraries need to provide a professional service that is useful and an environment in which people want to be. They need to do the job properly, and well. They need to adapt to what the public want and need, in order to ensure that they remain and are embraced by communities.
This is why I am pleased that my Honourable friend, the Member for Wantage (Ed Vaisey MP), and Culture Minister, has announced that the Future Libraries Programme, led by the MLA and the LGA Group, will work with and support Councils to deliver key services for communities while driving costs down. I welcome a rethink of how library services are delivered, and endorse the introduction of shared services, merging functions, staffing across authorities and greater connection with other local services where appropriate for the community. Councils need to deliver fresh initiatives to achieve cost savings, new partnerships and make the most of digital advancements as further opportunities will arise through the use of digital books as a medium.
We need to ensure that libraries deliver the services that communities want and need, that adapt and are shaped by the local people who use the service. This is why library services should be run at a local level. Local authorities are important to the delivery of library services; however, the responsibility of the day to day running of libraries is with library managers.
What matters is the person running the library, and their relationship with the community. Flexibility and efficiencies can be enabled by cutting out bureaucracy and upper management. If libraries are run from the bottom up, front-line staff are given the freedom to provide a service which caters for the public who want to use the service. Managers are often too controlled from above and each individual library needs to be released to be able to have a relationship with the community. The most important person should be the Manager, the person who knows the library, knows their customers and knows their communities needs. By cutting corporate structure and giving management back to individual libraries, services can be tailored to, and led by, the community.
Moreover, back offices should be reduced where possible and activities which are not the libraries themselves should be removed. According to Public Library statistics it is staggering that only 7.5% of library expenditure for 2008/09 was spent on book stock. There should be a reduction in bureaucracy by using universal categorising and cataloguing, and labelling should be standardised. Costs saved by cutting through the red tape can then be spent on improving stock, opening hours and the environment of the libraries; areas which have been shown to be important to the public and have yet all too often have been neglected. National library campaigner Tim Coates is passionate about this and rightly so, as this is exactly how Hillingdon have helped transform their library service.
In having services released from the corporate structure, which undermines managers, they can be left to make decisions on vital areas such as stock. These decisions can then be made directly in response to requests and local demand, without additional levels of bureaucracy or delays. This is important as people are not going to use libraries if they do not have the books they want, or if the stock is not up to date with new releases or trends. Big name book stores such as Waterstones often provide a wide variety and up-to-date collection and a pleasant coffee culture environment to enjoy a book. Libraries have to be able to compete and go further by also providing additional services that are unique and accustomed to the local area.
Local communities need to be able to access services and or be offered a service they want. The library manager can be responsible for successfully offering and delivering services appropriate for the area, as they know it best, working in conjunction with volunteers. For example, delivery services to the elderly in local care homes, or reading time for children after nurseries or schools finish, with the use of volunteer groups can help take the library directly to the community. I recently experienced this having taken part in the launch of the children’s Swindon Summer Reading challenge, acting as an elephant in the support cast for author Neil Griffiths excellent live story time! Thankfully my red faced performance didn’t put off the children with an amazing 2598 children signing up, a just reward for the staff and volunteers who went that extra mile to make the library exciting for the children.
Local solutions can be developed to increase opening times. For example in Swindon we saw the Old Town community library facing closure, with concerns over limited opening times, fears of falling usage following the opening of the new central library and an unsuitable and cramped building – typical of so many potential closures across the country. Local campaigns were organised, led by local activist and passionate library supporter Shirley Burnham. Thankfully a practical solution was found by moving the library into the modern Art Centre just around the corner; incidentally this move is happening today and knowing Councillor Fionuala Foley and Head of Libraries Allyson Jordan there will be no delay. This will not only provide a modern, improved environment but in addition to transferring the existing 18 hours of staffed opening, through the use of the self-service machines it will also now be extended to the 40 hours of the Art Centre opening times, plus during any evening performances at no extra cost to the hard pressed local Council Tax payers. With the additional footfall driven by the library, the Art Centre will surely see increased sales for its performances and help make their cafe more viable, a real win – win thanks to a willingness to adapt and change – this really is the thrust of my pro-active case.
In order for libraries to attract more readers they need to improve the library experience. The environment must be welcoming for all ages and clean. Staff should be smart and well presented as well as friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Opening times can also be synchronised to the opening hours of local shops or footfall for the area, for example, if there is late night shopping, or Sunday trading then this should be taken into account.
Innovative ideas need to be encouraged to provide new solutions that fit the local area and demand. The space can be shared if it works for the local area. Where there is capacity, Councils can use libraries as an information centre, a source to deliver on the localism agenda and as a vehicle and focal point for the Big Society agenda.
More must be done to ensure that libraries, particularly our small community libraries, can survive the current financial climate, and are providing a service that is fit for purpose and the community in which it serves, not a one size fits all approach. Libraries need to adapt to changing times and be led by local demand. Services must deliver choice, convenience, and quality customer care. Responsibility for management should be based at a local level, so that the people who use and cherish libraries can have a say, and are involved, in the future of their community libraries.
My fear is that whilst many people will agree with the sentiments of my speech, failure to act will see the steady and continual decline of our much loved local community facilities. I would urge you the Minster, in your most determined and enthusiastic style to do all you can to encourage local authorities to ensure that libraries are viable and fit for purpose for future generations.
North Swindon Conservative MP