Alan Gibbons reports: Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson, Gloucestershire Library
Campaigner John Holland, Voices for the Library Representative Gary Green and I met Culture Minister Ed Vaizey at the palace of Westminster on Wednesday, 1st February to discuss the future of libraries. The meeting was arranged by Jo Swinson MP and comes at a crucial time.
National Libraries Day is this Saturday, 4th February with events taking place all over the UK, the Select Committee for Culture Media and Sport starts taking evidence next week and a coalition of library campaign groups has called a lobby of parliament for Tuesday, 13th March. There is a good reason for all this activity. The future of a coherent, national library service hangs in the balance. The Campaign for the Book has consistently pointed to the ‘hollowing out’ of the service through:
*library branch closure
*the handing over of libraries to community volunteers
*opening hour reductions
*book fund cuts
*the sacking of library staff
I have endeavoured to give as honest a report of our discussions with Mr Vaizey as possible. I am happy to make amendments if anyone thinks the account is inaccurate.
JULIA DONALDSON argued that libraries are vital and where possible branches should be within walking distance of users. She argued that children’s reading is fundamental. Initiatives such as Bookstart, the Summer Reading Challenge and well-attended literary events are needed to instill a love of reading and a feeling for language. She insisted that we do not just need a plush city centre library that does not fit the needs of the community. A library should be local, a place where youngsters can do homework and people can access a full range of services. She voiced concerns that volunteers were replacing full time staff.
ALAN GIBBONS continued by stressing the importance of reading for pleasure, pointing to the evidence in the World Literacy Foundation report that illiteracy costs the UK £81 billion a year. He stressed that libraries were an important vehicle in combating illiteracy especially for people from less privileged backgrounds. He quoted Mr Vaizey’s words in March, 2009 when he was Shadow Minister for Culture. Mr Vaizey lambasted the then Minister Andy Burnham for not intervening in the Wirral situation (Burnham later changed his mind and commissioned the Charteris Report and stopped the library closure programme):
"Andy Burnham's refusal to take action in the Wirral effectively renders the 1964 Public Libraries Act meaningless. While it is local authorities' responsibility to provide libraries, the Act very clearly lays responsibility for ensuring a good service at the culture secretary's door. It Andy Burnham is not prepared to intervene when library provision is slashed in a local authority such as the Wirral, it is clear that he is ignoring his responsibilities as secretary of state, which in the process renders any sense of libraries being a statutory requirement for local authorities meaningless."
Alan asked under what conditions the Secretary of State would intervene when there were many situations, highlighted by recent legal challenges as serious as Wirral. He mentioned Gloucestershire, Somerset, Lewisham, Bolton and Surrey.
JOHN HOLLAND reported that Gloucestershire County Council had tried to make 43% cuts in its library service on the basis of a one-dimensional review. This was on top of a 25% cut the previous year. In addition the book fund was being slashed and mobile libraries stopped. It was as if Gloucestershire had taken everything Wirral had done wrong as an example of how to proceed. There was no local needs assessment and no focus on children. Gloucestershire ignored two of Ed Vaizey’s own recommendations made in a letter to local councils. He reported on the campaigners’ successful Judicial Review and the judge’s government that the County Council was guilty of bad government and had acted unlawfully. The judge effectively agreed with the Charteris Report into the Wirral closures. John pointed out that the judge had said the real duty of superintendence was the responsibility of the Secretary of State.
GARY GREEN argued that the councils making cuts did not understand the value of what libraries do. He attacked the myths that everyone can buy their books in commercial outlets and that librarianship was not a professional job. He argued that public libraries are a social equalizer. Not everyone has ICT skills. Librarians promote social cohesion through a series of events and informal learning. He attacked the notion that there had to be a commercial outcome from the work of libraries. Everything seemed to be about saving money rather than properly trained staff providing a vital service.
In reply ED VAIZEY said he was optimistic about the future of libraries and argued that the vast majority of libraries were doing well. He said the library service was not in crisis and argued that it was sometimes appropriate to close libraries. He was in favour of intervention in Wirral because there was no proper libraries review. He was glad when Andy Burnham called Wirral in. He argued that the library service should be configured to the interests of local councils and that the provision of a comprehensive and efficient service should remain. He said he could not intervene ‘on a political whim’ and would only act on the advice of his officials. He argued that there was a clear division of responsibilities between the judiciary and the Secretary of State and they should not be confused.
He said that Wirral was the only case of intervention in the history of the 1964 Act and that the other example, Derbyshire, was a threatened intervention which resulted in action. The Secretary of State could not intervene over every situation.
IN DISCUSSION the campaigners argued the series of legal actions indicated that the Secretary of State should have intervened and a number of areas were acting in a manner comparable to Wirral. They argued that there should be more up to date advice to councils within the framework set by Charteris. They also argued that there should be a reinstatement of public library standards.
Mr Vaizey said he had no plans for any of these measures but was prepared to listen if campaigners made representations. The campaigners stressed the need for a strong core of salaried, trained librarians. Mr Vaizey said these were important but put more stress on some libraries being run by volunteers to sustain small branches.
There was clear disagreement over many issues, but it was a blunt, purposeful exchange of views. The campaign to save the public library service will continue.