Central London conference of libraries

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I am delighted to be here this morning. I am the Minister responsible for libraries, and you may …

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I am delighted to be here this morning.

I am the Minister responsible for libraries, and you may be surprised to find me in a positive mood.  That’s because I am here today to talk about some of the fantastic work that is going on in libraries all across the country.

Only last week I was happy to endorse Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea councils’ proposals to combine library services, saving taxpayers more than £1million a year and ensuring all of their 21 public libraries remain safe from closure.   This has to be good news all round.  We really do need to see much much more of this type of merger, saving back-office costs to protect the front-line.

Last month Hillingdon library service won the Booksellers’ Library Innovation of the Year Award. I know not everyone’s been a fan of Hillingdon but there’s no arguing with the facts. At a time when many library authorities are considering closures of branches their service is so successful - it received a record number of visitors last year - that it’s undertaking a programme of library refurbishment instead of library closures.

 And Hillingdon isn’t alone. Windsor & Maidenhead announced in February that a new library will be built to serve residents in the North West of the Royal Borough who they felt were having to travel too far to access library services. This responsiveness to the needs of residents is exactly what must underpin all local authority library authorities.

And there’s more.  Last week, Lancashire Library Service celebrated “Carers’ Week” across the county by providing lots of information at number of libraries regarding services and activities available for carers, aiming to increase opportunities for carers with emphasis given to issues of health, employment, education and leisure. 
As well as integrated social service provision, Lancashire also has an exemplary partnership with the University of Central Lancashire which sponsors of the Lancashire Children’s Book Award - 10 books on the shortlist this year- “as a university dedicated to lifelong learning, we are pleased to be associated with an Award that encourages enthusiasm for reading and critical judgement in equal measure”.

In Newcastle, Jesmond Library re-opened last week following a two-month, refurbishment to make the 1960s Grade II building more accessible.  Improvements also include self-service terminals, automatic entrance doors, a larger community room with kitchen facilities, an accessible public toilet, new flooring, layout and lighting - and £5,000 of new stock.
And of course Nicky Parker.  Manchester library services are widely recognised and acknowledged as an exemplar of diverse service provision.  Like many aurhorities, I know you have run a consultation on future library provision, having in the past year up-graded many of your existing libraries.  I have looked at your services Facebook page, I was heartened to see that over 2000 visitors had taken the video tour of the Central Library “Into the Stacks” is possibly the speediest tour of library shelves I have seen, but exactly illustrates not only different ways of accessing the library, but also the potential to reach non-library visitors.

These are exciting developments, and there are many more up and down the country that I dont have time to tell you about today.  By the way, a lot of this success is not about money.  It is about passion and imagination, about realising the the public library service in an area is a huge asset to be exploited, not a burden to be got rid of.

I have now been Minister for over a year, and it has been important to engage with the sector at every level - I have had numerous meetings with various stakeholders on public library issues, engaged closely with the MLA, and also brought the Local Government Group much closer to Government through the Future Libraries Programme.  I have discussed libraries with publishers, booksellers, the British Library and digital champion Martha Lane Fox.  I’ve visited numerous library authorities, carrying on the work I was doing in Opposition, and even opened new libraries! 

In fact my first speech as a Minister was on libraries, and the Future Libraries Programme was the first programme I launched as a Minister.

Of course, as far as public libraries are concerned, the only media story at the moment are the proposed closures of libraries in several local authorities.  Quite rightly in my view, local campaigners are letting their voices be heard.  There are calls for me to intervene by “calling in” these cases with the powers Ministers have under the Public Libraries Act.  I have said again and again that I will not shy away from doing so if there is a case for it.

I have not done so yet for two reasons.

First this is a fluid situation.  Authorities that have announced widespread closures have since reversed their proposals - precisely as a result of those local campaigns I have just mentioned.  Campaigning does work.
Secondly, I think it is far better to have a dialogue with authorities before we press the nuclear button that is “call-in”.  So my officials have met five authorities to discuss their plans - and also met the campaigners from those local areas as well.  
And these are useful, constructive meetings - one campaigner was kind enough to e-mail me following a meeting in the department with my officials to say  “I am very grateful, and found them to be very pleasant , helpful , and they listened”.  And we are listening.

So why don’t I meet campaigners or individual authorities personally ?  Simple - I might be involved in any final decision on call-in, and my decision could be seen to be prejudiced if I had met an authority or a group of campaigners prior to making that decision. 

I am here as a backstop.  My powers allow me to prevent a local authority breaching its statutory duty.  But let me be clear.  I do not run library services.  Local authorities do.  And as democratically elected representatives, they have the right to configure library services in the way they believe best meets local needs.

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So what is the future for library services?

I recognise that for a number of authorities, the review of service provision has enabled you to do a root and branch assessment of your library service and introduce provision and ways of working which you’d previously had ambitions for but not impetus.  I understand the arguments. If half your libraries account for just over 10% of your visits, rationalisation is an option you might consider.

But you have to take library users with you. Intelligent people will understand your reasoning if you are open and honest with them. Carry out some meaningful consultation with your residents and you might find they come up with some ideas you hadn’t thought of.

There are creative means to manage resources and one option may be to consider if a community supported library would be not just a viable alternative, but actually a better one.  A small library which is open just a couple of days a week under local authority control could easily become a vibrant community hub open for far longer, if the local communtiy is invited in to help run it. 

The key for me is that councils continue to support community libraries with a core service - they don’t simply hand over Library services and turn their back.  That means access to book stock, equuipment, training, and the services of a professional librarian for a specific amount of time. 

MLA has now produced a document, Community Managed Libraries, which offers advice on some key issues which may be helpful to those of you who are considering this option.   I’d like to thank all those authorities that shared their experience of community libraries with MLA earlier this year.

In October responsibility for development and improvement of public library services will transfer from MLA to Arts Council England.  MLA has done good work supporting you over its lifetime and I’m sure ACE will carry this on. We’re already talking to them about the potential for another Future Libraries Programme and I’ve got a few more ideas that we need to explore.

What I think we need to realise from this merger of the MLA and ACE is that for the first time cultural and library services will be joined-up.  ACE will be able to work with local authorities across the piece, and use its extensive regional network to raise the profile of libraries and link them with the kind of community services that cultural organisations are able to offer on a local level.

There will be other opportunities as well.  There’s no reason why a library service couldn’t apply for an award from Grants for the Arts, to run a specific cultural programme in Libraries. When cultural organisation applied in the past,I bet they never thought of including libraries.  Now, hopefully, they will.

ACE has also launched its digital innovation fund.  Again, there is no reason a library service couldn’t  apply to that in future, to pioneer some digital innovation project in their libraries - perhaps a telecast of opera, dance or theatre in libraries in the evenings.

Talking of which, I really think we might be able to do more to help get all our libraries Wi-Fi enabled - the public library has always been the hub for access to knowledge, but today vast amounts of information are also available on the Internet.  Using their own devices, library users may be able to log in to a wireless network in their local library, combining the richness of the Internet with the physical books and collections at their disposal.

And we do need to make progress on e-lending, to see if we can make that an offer that is available easily nationwide.

Quite rightly, a lot of the debate over the last year has been about threats to libraries.  The campaigns have raised the profile of libraries, and led to many being saved.

But it is important to talk about the opportunities for libraries.

About the library services that are not just surviving but thriving.

About the opportunities presented by a joined up offer from museums, cultural organisations and libraries under the Arts Council.

About the opportunities of using technology to attract new users, but also to give existing users a different experience.

I will continue to work with library authorities, charities and stakeholders, to listen and engage, to protect library services where I need to, but to push them forward as well.