Speech at Speak up for Libraries conference

This is the text of my speech at yesterday’s Speak up for Libraries conference in London:

Speak up for Libraries conference

We meet at a time when the profile of libraries has never been higher and the challenges facing them have never been more pressing. Some school libraries are closing or being starved of resources. School Library Services are diminishing in numbers. The future of the public library service hangs in the balance.

In 2012, an OECD survey revealed that UK schoolchildren had fallen from 17th to 25th in its international league tables for standards in reading. Disregarding some problems with the methodology of the reports, this is an indication that there is a problem. South Korea is at the top of the rankings. It is building 180 public libraries. In the UK over 200 are currently at risk. 10% of professional librarians’ jobs have been lost. Opening hours are being cut. Bookstocks are being reduced. Which of these two countries is serious about reading?

Meanwhile a new National Literacy Trust survey indicates that the culture of reading for pleasure is under very real pressure. The NLT survey of children’s reading patterns was first conducted in 2005. Then four in 10 children said they read daily in their own time. That figure is now down to three in ten. This is deeply worrying and neglecting libraries, something this country has sadly been doing for some years now, can only add to the problem.

The social impact of poor literacy is clear:
70% of pupils permanently excluded from school have difficulties in basic literacy skills. 25% of young offenders are said to have reading skills below those of the average seven-year-old. 60% of the prison population is said to have difficulties in basic literacy skills and 40% had severe literacy problems.

Similarly, the Social Exclusion Unit reported that 80% of prisoners have writing skills at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old child; the equivalent figure for reading is 50% (Social Exclusion Unit, 2002:6).
80% of those arrested in the August riots had poor literacy levels.

Prisons have a statutory right to a library. Schools do not. Maybe if we paid attention to the recent lobby for school libraries and changed that status some of those sent to prison would have the literacy skills not to end up there. If youngsters were inducted into the joy of reading by a good librarian they might not end up in prison.

Can anything be done? Well, yes it can. When people pull together they can make a difference for the better. Reforms improve things. Bad or neglectful policy makes things worse.

In the December 2005 survey Children’s and Young People’s Reading Habits and Preferences, 21% of respondents stated that they would read more if libraries were better, and 18% said they would read more if libraries were closer.

In other words if the UK did what South Korea or Bolivia or India or South Africa are doing, all of which have investment plans, we could make a difference. If we had a plan like New Zealand’s: Public Libraries of New Zealand – A Strategic Framework 2012 – 2017, we could arrest the alleged relative decline.
The Kiwis Count survey, carried out by the State Services Commission earlier this year, showed New Zealanders were visiting public libraries more often and rated their service higher than any other public service.

We should be celebrating libraries as places where you can borrow books physical and digital, where there are computers, printers and faxes, where you can go from computer illiteracy to computer literacy, where there is a space to meet, discuss and listen to stories, to do research and view art, for the elderly to break their isolation and the young to fall in love with books and stories and information and improve their chances in life, where comminities have a space to learn and to live.

Not all our libraries are this good, mainly because of government neglect. Sometimes they are tired and of insufficient quality, but they won’t get better if they are closed or gutted. You won’t get the library of tomorrow if you fail to defend the library of today.

So what does the Minister ultimately in charge of libraries Maria Miller say:
“Reading is the key to all education and learning and it is so important to ensure that books and reading play an important part in children’s lives.”

So there must surely be a strategic plan to get the UK reading in book form and digitally? You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

Maybe we will find it in the Future Libraries Programme. Remember that?
Ten areas were chosen:

Northumberland with Durham
Bolton, with Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan
Lincolnshire, with Rutland, Cambridgeshire, North East Lincs, Peterborough
Oxfordshire with Kent
Herefordshire with Shropshire
Cornwall with Devon, Plymouth, Torbay
Lewisham with Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Greenwich, Lambeth and Southwark
Kensington & Chelsea with Hammersmith & Fulham
Many of these authorities have made shocking cuts or handed over services to volunteers, provident societies or other providers. In other words, it is fragmentation caused by the absentee landlords at the DCMS.

Maybe we will find it in the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee report.

CSM report
The CSM report recognises that public libraries are: “a vital and much loved service.” Good, but I think we knew that.

“Recent campaigns against the closure of local libraries have highlighted the strong attachment that many people feel to this service.”
Well, thank you, but we do know that it is the ordinary people who have continued to carry the banner for libraries, not the Ministers at the department.

It is explicitly said that it is pressure from local campaigns that has led to this report. We have an important role. We can make a difference.

Sadly, there is also a misguided criticism:

“much of the focus of the campaigns has been on branches rather than the broader question of the preservation- and if possible enhancement- of the library service.”

This could, of course, be a mealy-mouthed way of further detaching libraries from the project of creating a reading culture and having an educational role. We have been talking about a national strategy since Moses was a lad!

The library service’s role is enshrined in the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act with its now notorious requirement to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. It also requires the Secretary of State to superintend the service.

In 2005 the Culture committee demanded more clarity on what “ comprehensive and efficient” meant. We are still waiting. It called leadership in the sector “woeful.” Have Mr Vaizey, Mr Hunt and Mrs Miller changed that perception by refusing to intervene in Lewisham, Bolton, the Isle of Wight? Has Ed Vaizey who championed libraries in opposition continued to champion them in office? I will leave that to you to judge.

The library service was considered a service under stress by a previous report in 2005. This has been exacerbated dramatically by the economic crisis. The Comprehensive Spending Review has cut the income of councils by 28% and is the context within which all public services operate.

This is a personal comment and not Speak Up for Libraries coalition policy, but I do not think we can win unless we are part of a broader fight to defeat the unfair austerity drive of Chancellor George G Osborne who mischievously says we are all in it together when the poor pay the cost of a crisis created by the rich.

The CSM says the Arts Council England consultation is a good starting point for superintending the service. Could this be the same Arts Council that is to restructure and cut staff by 21% as it seeks to reduce its administrative costs?
Money allocated to libraries in the Arts Council’s budget is tiny: £230.000 or £76 per library.

The Arts Council also alloted £6 million in grants, negligible compared to the cuts.

Surely the responsibility lies with the Secretary of State.
The Arts Council says “it is not the Arts Council’s role to report back to the DCMS on whether a library services meets the statutory requirements of the 1964 Act.”

Ed Vaizey says : “A £6 million fund has been provided by the Arts Council, which is now responsible for superintending and promoting the library service.” Hansard -12th September 2012
This sounds like a two-headed donkey devouring its own stomach. This sounds like gross abdication of responsibility.

The CSM report says there should be “a full assessment of the needs,” of communities. Campaigners have been arguing for this for decades and there is still no sign of it.

The report says the DCMS needs to do more to disseminate good practice. Maybe it should have a national plan, but Mr Vaizey eschews these responsibilities.

The DCMS has only used its power twice in 21 years, in Derbyshire and in Wirral. Wirral of course was the moment campaigners forced Andy Burnham to call in the attempt to close eleven of the borough’s libraries. There have been other Wirrals but no interventions.

For all the DCMS’s refusal to exercise its duty to superintend the library service, libraries are not in terminal decline. Many flourish in spite of the DCMS, not because of it.

Even though visits to libraries fell back between 2005/6 to 2010/11 from 48.2% of the adult population to 39.7%, there has been no significant decrease over the last few years.

Children’s visits are high: 75.6%.

In 2011 there were 314 million visits and 300 million loans of books. The library service is probably the second most important service after the NHS.

Loans of children’s books showed a slight increase even though there had been a 6.3% cut in library budgets and a 14% cut in stock acquisitions.

Libraries helped 2.5 million get online in a 2012 initiative.

In spite of poor leadership, particularly from the DCMS, the service has high satisfaction rates from users and there is still widespread usage.

As I wrote on behalf of the Campaign for the Book:
“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.”

Yet the government and councils continue to preside over the diminuition of the service. In a Cilip survey of library authorities it was found:

*80% had reduced library staff. This is on top of a long term decline in staff numbers. There has been a significant fall in professional librarian numbers. Annie Mauger said 700 gone out of 3,500. Volunteers have increased 22% since 2010.

Council plans also oversee the following:
*30% had reduced opening hours
*14% had closed or would close libraries
*13% had set up volunteer libraries

The High Court backed Brent’s decision to close half its libraries (six). This was the council that came like thieves in the night to remove the plaque that commemorated author Mark Twain opening it! We had the groesque sight of a Labour council- a Labour council- stripping a well-loved facility.

The High Court found that Gloucestershire and Somerset had failed to carry out a sufficiently comprehensive and detailed analysis of local needs. The threatened Gloucestershire libraries were in the more deprived communities. Any analysis of Gloucestershire’s recent plans suggest they are still failing to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. Recent reports suggest an utter shambles in the operation of what is left of its mobile libraries.

The Isle of Wight has closed five rather than eleven of its libraries. Court rejected judicial review.

Dorset closed nine rather than 20 of its 34 libraries.

Annie Mauger of CILIP demonstrates the danger when councils go through with closures. When a library closes 44% of users do not transfer to another branch

Are volunteer libraries the panacea? Hardly.
The CSM report says volunteer libraries must be given support so they do not “wither” or be a victim of “closure by stealth.” This echoes the concerns of campaigners over many months.

In its conclusions the report says not all libraries can be saved but that “wholesale closures” are unhelpful. The authors are masters of understatement. An element of national oversight is essential, it says. Well, that is the legal remit in the Act. The Minister must provide a report by the end of 2014. That smacks of urgency, doesn’t it? The technical word for that, by the way Mr Vaizey, is irony! It is worrying that the Arts Council will not have the resources to play the role the report recommends.

Essentially, the report comes across as well meaning but toothless. It hints at solutions, but fails to pursue them to their logical conclusions. It relies on a body ACE that has been neutered by cuts.

It asks the Minister to deliver a report by 2014 when the service is under pressure now. It shies away from demanding a national strategy for libraries. It says some councils are unaware of their duties but proposes no concrete action to change that situation.

Ed Vaizey regularly tells us to look on the bright side and to stop being moaning minnies. So how fares the fight to resist the destruction of the library service? There are new central libraries, but if we allow the branch libraries to wither it particularly discriminates against the biggest users, the young and the elderly.

Initially we faced a situation where 600 libraries could close. We organised:
*the Campaign for the Book conference attended by 200 people
*local and national campaigners forced the Charteris report to stop eleven closures in the Wirral
*we organised 110 Read ins
*we organised the 350 strong Speak up for Libraries rally and lobby of parliament
*there has been direct action such as the New Cross and Friern Barnet occupations and numerous other local rallies, protests and lobbies
*on the school library front there have been lobbies in England and Scotland
We are fighting for our service. Oh that the DCMS showed equal passion.

The government and councils learned from that resistance and closure became a less favoured option. Instead the focus shifted to ‘hollowing out.’ Job losses, open hour cuts, book stock cuts.
This is in line with the broader situation in the public sector.
Richard Seymour in the Guardian:
“Job losses are taking place over the long term. The government plans to cut up to 710,000 jobs in the public sector. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have indeed been lost since 2010, but as of the first quarter of this year the total public sector employment level was only 50,000 lower than in the last quarter of 2007. The main squeeze thus far has been experienced as a cut in pay, pensions and conditions.
What is happening is that the effects of the crisis are being carefully managed and staggered. The offensive against popular living standards, whether conducted in the private sector or the public sector, by employers or by the government, is being done in a way that delays its worst effects – within limits imposed by the sweeping ambition of the structural adjustment programme.”

What are the components of the current crisis?

1) Branch closures

VISITORS to Up Hatherley Library in Gloucestershire have dropped by more than 20 per cent since it cut its opening hours last month.

VISITS to Brent’s libraries have dropped by more than 130,000 since six branches were closed in October last year, from 701,122 between April and August 2011 to 565,179 for the same period this year. 54 per cent of users from the closed libraries had not used a different library.

According to the council’s own figures, more than one in 10 people in Bolton have stopped using a library since the closures.

The same pattern is reflected in Lewisham where half the branches closed.

2) The Law.

Campaigners won some legal victories.
Gloucester and Somerset campaigners forced a High Court ruling, but councils remain determined to close mobile libraries and to hand over branches to volunteers. The judgement was damning.

Surrey County Council was ordered not to replace paid staff by volunteers. Campaigners discovered that the plans, on the councils own admission, would save no money.

Councillor Helyn Clack, Surrey County Council’s cabinet member for community services, said at a cabinet meeting in June: “There are no expected financial savings in 2012/2013 in the library service as a result of community partnered libraries proposals, and there are no expected annual savings as a result of the community partnered libraries proposals.”

3) Job losses

According the latest figures an estimated 2159 library posts have been lost this financial year but many more Librarians have been downgraded due to service restructurings and many library staff have been pushed from pillar to post in forced moves. All this upheaval has a negative effect on staff morale and motivation and will surely ultimately lead to a poorer service.

Recent CIPFA figures had a 13% drop in staff before most of the cuts were made.

Barnet Unison has revealed that council bosses are proposing to reduce the number of professional librarian positions from 24.5 to just six in a bid to make budget savings of £500,000. ??The six remaining librarians will be moved into back-of-house roles. Can this council really be fulfilling its statutory duties with virtually no professional staff serving the public directly?

3) Opening hour cuts.
People don’t know where their library is open.
Numbers fall.
Councillors say the branch is no longer viable.

4) Volunteers
Volunteer libraries need a huge reservoir of people with time on their hands and professional expertise. This is more common in the shires than the inner cities.
No volunteer should substitute for a professional librarian.
The suspicion exists that some volunteer libraries are being set up to fail. When there aren’t enough volunteers to sustain the branch councillors can say there is insufficient interest in the community.

4) Outsourcing and privatisation
Cornwall has retreated on its plans. The fiasco led to sacking of the council’s leader Alec Robertson
The consultation by Industrial Provident Society (IPS) – the agency which took control of Suffolk’s 44 libraries at the start of August – was branded a “sham” by Unison, with some workers claiming they felt too scared to even ask questions.
Wokingham’s Tory council have withdrawn plans for outsourcing.
The council leader called the anti-privatisation campaign ‘laughable’ then withdrew the plans!
Plans to let private firms run 11 libraries in Berkshire have been scrapped.

LSSI has made little progress and seems to see the UK as very unpromising.

But the interest in this option continues, with Greenwich Leisure Ltd apparently winning the Wandsworth libraries contract. Ipswich has its Industrial and Provident Society. Again, does this kind of fragmentation suggest any kind of strategic vision from the DCMS?

In Durham 39 libraries, 15 leisure centres, two theatres, two museums, an arts centre, an outdoor learning centre, and sports and art development, countryside and outdoor sport and leisure services could be outsourced to a trust.

On another front, Tory Croydon has effectively pulled the plug on Upper Norwood library.

A strategy is urgently needed or libraries will become redundant and commercial book operations like Amazon are waiting in the wings.

As Phil Bradley says:
“Instead of paying £49 to Amazon to borrow one free book a month, maybe the idea of borrowing unlimited numbers of books from my library – for nothing – is an even better deal.”

Again, this needs a strategy. Ed Vaizey has said this. Will his words on digital reading lead to any more progress than his words on libraries in general?

6) Premises sharing
Wolverhampton on new premises sharing:
There has been a delight that a library has been saved, but dismay that community hub plans are going ahead.
A good example of the Council ‘not closing libraries’ is Tettenhall Wood Library—once a loved and popular facility serving its local community. Where is it now? It hasn’t ‘closed’, instead it has been turned into 5 bookcases up a corner of a room in a community centre.
Ed Vaizey says he can’t intervene willy nilly (where does he get his Woosterish vocabulary?), a point repeated by Maria Miller when not intervening in three authorities. The CSM report repeats this. But we have never had a crisis this deep. Libraries have never faced such challenges. There have only been two previous interventions, but there are many areas where there is not a comprehensive and efficient service. Julia Donaldson and I, Gary and John from Voices and Gloucestershire made this point to Vaizey to his face. The reply was convivial, but essentially vacuous.
Where libraries are refurbished numbers rise dramatically as evidenced in newlibraries in Prescot, north Manchester and others. Change is possible, but it needs will, a vision, commitment. None of those are evident from the DCMS.
In Hampshire which has had its trouble visits to the library and book borrowing are both on the increase for the first time in 14 years, the latest.
The number of books borrowed at 51 county-run libraries is up by 4 per cent to 6.7 million in 2011-12 compared with the previous 12 months. And the number of visitors has also increased by 2 per cent to 6.4 million over the same period – showing trips to the library are not a thing of the past

So campaigners have been very successful in raising the issue with the public and blunting the initial onslaught. Some areas rethought their plans for wholesale closures but the threat remains.

We have to be firm in principle, but flexible in tactics.
1) Pressure on the DCMS ministers to superintend the service and fulfill their statutory duties.
2) Pressure on local councils.
3) Direct action where necessary (occupations, strikes, pickets, lobbies).
4) Legal action where it is suitable.
5) The maximum unity in action. We have a responsibility to act, but we act in conditions not of our own choosing. We can’t slip into voluntarism, believing we have more power than we do. Similarly we must avoid the danger that we blame one another when, though we have won the argument, we still witness the bleeding of our libraries by a thousand cuts. The government and the councils are responsible. We can debate our differences but we must be cordial and know that we are on the same side.

Let’s leave the last word to Coronation Street’s Jean Alexander ‘Hilda Ogden’:
“I am speaking for all the people who rely on libraries. They are the lifeblood of our communities.
“We rely on libraries for entertainment, for knowledge, to be able to go out and meet people.
“So many older people live on their own and libraries are a place where people can go out and meet other people instead of staying inside talking to themselves.
“It is essential that they stay open. It is astonishing that people we elect can close them down without a second thought. It is a scandal.”
She is correct. It is a scandal and it would be a scandal for us to relax our fight for the library service. We fight on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *