Here is BVLUG's submission to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
It was published in the Committee's Report called "Public Libraries" 24th May, 2000. - Paper copy Ј19.50 from: the Parliamentary Bookshop; The Stationery Office outlets or The Stationery Office Publications Centre (Telephone orders: 020-7873 9090; Fax orders: 020-7873 8200). - BVLUG members may borrow it from our committee
LOCAL LIBRARIES IN LONDON
Blackheath Village Library Users Group
1 We formed our group in October 1999 when we discovered that Lewisham Borough Council's library modernisation plans involved the closure of our local library along with two others. There are now about 100 members, and a larger number of sympathisers, working to resist the closure. We are trying to persuade Lewisham Council to keep a library in Blackheath Village and to work with the Council to improve the library's services.
2 Our submission sets out our concerns about the way the present arrangements work and recommends that Government should investigate the feasibility and desirability of establishing a national inspecting body for library services.
Central and local libraries
3 We think a good Local Authority library service will have both central libraries and local libraries serving local communities. These comments deal only with local libraries in London.
4 We are using our own experience to illustrate our points because we know that they represent problems which are widespread.
Fitting the local library into the community
5 Our library in Blackheath Village is one of the "non-threatening community institutions" recently praised in an article by Tony Williamson of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It serves the community with more than books and a computer linked to the internet. It is a valued local focus, a centre for information and advice, and a venue for activities. It is used by people of all ages and all economic groups. The very young receive their first introduction to written knowledge and retired people use their newly free time to take up new interests. At its best the local library performs the magical trick of being both a place owned by the local community and of being open to every passer-by: it declares "this neighbourhood is not exclusive".
6 We think
the services in any good local library would include:
- Local information
- Items providing other means of conveying information, eg CDs, videos.
- Access to electronic communication including the planned People's Network.
- A venue for some local cultural activities
- art exhibitions
- sessions for children
- meetings of local groups and national bodies such as the University of the Third Age - some of them very particular to the area, some bringing in visitors.
7 Sensible people know their Local Authority cannot afford to give an ideal service on everything. When a choice must be made we think the priority should be to put libraries where young and old can get to them on foot and to have them open at convenient times. One of the joys of living in London should be that we can walk to our local library; this should be not only more pleasant, but by reducing car use contribute to safety. Increasingly this joy is being taken away from us. If our local library is closed many current users especially the elderly, infirm and mothers with young children will have no accessible library.
8 If standards for judging libraries are introduced they should focus on the service preferred by people in the neighbourhood rather than some average level of provision per library. Bureaucracies instinctively want to demonstrate compliance with standards, and where there are problems with the amount of equipment that can be installed in small libraries they may find it easier to bring up the average level by simply closing them. This does nothing to bring service to places where the community wants it.
9 We want as many opening hours as are possible, though we naturally recognise that they must often be limited. But even limited hours should suit the users; schools, people at work, commuters and so on.
10 We have seen local officials define the catchment area of libraries by plotting radii on a map. In our experience getting to the library is more than a mere matter of distance from it. People decide on sensible routes considering various factors - barriers (main roads, inclines, undesirable areas) and ways in (road crossings, public transport, lighting, footpaths, and familiarity).
11 Free public libraries are, by their very nature, socially inclusive facilities, but only for those people who can get to them. Access by particular groups, including the very young, those with mobility problems, and carers will present special problems which involve not just the library premises but the routes to them, all of which need to be resolved together with the users. In urban areas the aim should be a library easily reached on foot. When the location of libraries comes under review the views of the communities they mainly serve should be taken into account.
Other factors affecting choice of location
12 Neighbourhoods will vary considerably, so "one size fits all" thinking on the best location will inevitably lead to disasters. For example, often a local shopping centre will be the best place, indeed the presence of a library is likely to increase business for the shops. In other neighbourhoods people find proximity to a park or children's playgound, or a station used by commuters, fits their needs best.
13 A local library will usually be beneficial to the area around it. When Local Authorities are making decisions about opening and closing libraries they should carry out a full analysis of the economic and environmental impact that the decision will have. At the moment they seem more inclined to take account of the potential benefit from any new library they wish to open, but to slide to one side the detrimental effects of closures. Lewisham Council's plans can be cited as an example. These make much of the economic benefit of extra "footfalls" in an area where a new library is promised but do not consider the effect of taking footfalls away from the places where three libraries would be closed.
14 The community which the library is to serve should be identified and consulted about where the library should be, its opening hours, etc. User's preferences are influenced by factors such as convenient walking routes, bus routes, bus reliability, safety, and so on. People usually recognise their own community and are likely to have strong views on what it is. The straight line mentality does not reflect the lives of those with a strong sense of locality.
15 Consultation should be seen to be completedly open minded but often it is viewed with suspicion. If council officials use surveys with questions slanted in favour of their preferred outcome, retain a firm grip of membership and reporting of focus groups, and release information selectively an atmosphere of mutual distrust will be generated. All of this can only tend to undermine confidence in the consultation and indeed the political process itself. In many areas there will now be an uphill task restoring faith in the consultation process. Most library users would prefer to spend their time using the services rather than political lobbying, but repeated attempts to close local libraries (in the Lewisham area some have had to fight off repeated attempts over more than 6 years) have lead to a state where users feel they must be constantly suspicious of what their council intends for them.
The People's Network
16 We welcome development of the People's Network, but are concerned that it might lead to the downgrading or destruction of other roles of small libraries in particular book services. The sheer volume of official reports devoted solely to this network may well affect the thinking of officials planning services, resulting in them losing sight of the other functions the local libraries serve. This is particularly unfortunate at a time when we believe the trend in book reading continues to grow; in our own library book issues are steadily increasing.
17 We are also concerned that some Local Authorities will use the People's Network to justify the closure of small local libraries, when their real reasons are quite different. For example, at a public consultation meeting Lewisham Council officials have asserted that local libraries such as that at Blackheath Village must be closed because of difficulties in installing in them the number of computers required by (as yet unpublished) standards being developed by the DCMS. Closer scrutiny of the Council's plan, however, suggests that old fashioned aims of cutting running costs and releasing valuable property for sale are more potent reasons, and that this fits into a pattern of attempting to close small libraries extending back many years. This can only tend to bring into disrepute the DCMS standards.
Collaboration between Local Authorities
18 Borough boundaries in cities tend to be invisible, so that libraries will serve people from more than one Local Authority. The Authority providing the local library should pay more than lip service to users living in another Borough, but often it does not. For example Blackheath Village Library is the local library for both Greenwich and Lewisham Council Tax payers. Even though the boundary runs right in front of the library Lewisham Council, which owns it, took plans for closing it to an advanced stage before even discussing the matter with Greenwich Borough Council. The "Greenwich" users are being cut out of any genuine input to Lewisham's public consultation and of participation in the "citizen's panel" which officials will cite as evidence of consultation.
19 Local Authorities could help to extend facilities to residents of other boroughs by working towards computerised systems capable of accepting tickets from libraries other than their own. At the moment this is impracticable because of incompatibilities between computer systems, but as a long-term goal it should be attainable. It appears prima facie absurd that mutual recognition of tickets which was commonplace before the development of computerised systems seems now to have disappeared.
A new inspecting body
20 The many pressures on Local Authorities mean that left entirely to their own devices they are unlikely to give public libraries the priority we think they should have, or to apply consistent long-term policies for their improvement. We think that the committee should consider the merits of an enquiry into the feasibility and desirability of a national inspecting body with powers to intervene where library services are failing. OFSTED might form a model for such a body.