Thank you for having me here today. I am delighted to be here as the minister responsible for public libraries. I took a great deal of interest in your sector in opposition and it continues to be a focus for me now that I am in government.
There are three things that I want to achieve for public libraries as your minister:
First, I want to ensure we have effective leadership in the sector. I don’t think this means any radical change but we need to better use the leaders we already have, not just to guide libraries through the deficit, but to ensure every library authority is as effective as possible.
Second, I want libraries to be at the heart of the digital agenda, which is absolutely intrinsic to libraries’ information role.
Third, I want to be a champion for public libraries - I am a genuine fan and I think others - in central and local government, and more members of the public, in fact - should recognise and exploit the potential of libraries.
I think these three challenges can be met by creating better partnerships, working better together across different boundaries and at all levels. The next few years are going to be some of the most challenging we have seen in generations. This is a time when we must show more flexibility, more innovation and more teamwork than ever. I am ready to play my part, I want others to play theirs too.
The role of libraries
Public libraries have a unique status in the nation’s consciousness as places where anyone can go without judgement in order to learn, read, access information, get online, find entertainment. They are spaces for the individual alone or as part of a community.
Libraries have an enviable network of estate and expertise and a tribe of incredibly diverse and passionate customers. 325 million visits were made to libraries last year and an additional 113 million visits online.
Almost 80% of 11-15 year olds visit a library and children’s borrowing continues to increase year on year. For many areas of the country there are tremendous success stories as library visits increase during the recession.
And the library service is in a position to build even more on this success.
Libraries are the facilitators of a national passion for reading. The book trade itself is a success story - The UK publishing industry has total annual sales of around £20 billion, just over 1% of UK Gross value added.
Libraries support literacy. The Reading Agency’s Summer Reading and Six Book Challenge show some impressive results in terms of literacy rates and reader confidence.
But libraries are also places where anyone can go to access information and entertainment, go online and find out about public services and citizenship.
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Libraries as partners
Libraries are natural partners and are delivering across a whole range of different areas at national and local level. The best libraries are not isolated services - they are working locally with lots of different services.
For example, libraries are helping people to find employment - a vital service during a recession. The Workzone area of the Shepherd’s Bush library in Westfield is an innovative partnership between Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College, Job Centre Plus and Hammersmith & Fulham Council. The project provides a dedicated recruitment and retention service for retailers on the Westfield site and for other employers, helping them to fill their jobs locally. Individuals benefit from a range of services from financial help with childcare costs to help with job interview techniques.
Recent research shows how wide a range of health and well-being activity public libraries are delivering. The Healthy Living Hub in Croydon Central Library is an innovative project funded jointly by NHS Croydon and Croydon Council. It offers face to face meetings offering advice and support about health issues and the community setting helps to overcome the barriers that often prevent people accessing health information. The Hub is contributing to Council targets for increasing participation in sport; reducing obesity and reducing smoking.
The Leeds Library Services’ Count Me In project is a great example of how libraries support education. The project aims to develop mathematical ideas and concepts for children in three age groups (1-4, 5-11 & 11-14) through story, rhymes and games in partnership with Yorkshire Bank. Parents report a greater understanding of numbers by their children and the service contributes to the financial literacy of older children.
Co-location arrangements are bringing many libraries even closer to other public services, be it job centres, primary care trusts or cultural organisations.
And there is entertainment too, with Lancashire’s Get it Loud in libraries gigs - showcasing Juliette Lewis, Adele, Florence and the Machine and VV Brown. Library Champions, all.
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The Big Society
Libraries also have a home at the heart of the Big Society where communities have more of a role in determining the shape of the public service and what it delivers. When David Cameron announced the Big Society Plans in March he said:
“[The Big Society] is a guiding philosophy. A society where the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control. It includes a whole set of unifying approaches - breaking state monopolies, allowing charities, social enterprises and companies to provide public services, devolving power down to neighbourhoods, making government more accountable. And it’s the thread that runs consistently through our whole policy programme.”
This is particularly relevant to libraries because at the centre of your role are the needs of your communities and of library users. You can - and I know many do already - use that relationship to bring about community-led changes in your service.
There are all sorts of ways of configuring the Big Society - The George and Dragon pub in North Yorkshire is now delivering a library service and a pint to the community in Hudswell. That sounds like a good partnership to me.
The library service’s ability to reach out and engage with groups who might otherwise be on the outskirts of the community - makes that role in the Big Society all the more vital.
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The last government carried out the Public Library Modernisation Review. The Review included some good recommendations which I supported - library membership from birth, free internet access, co-location and I want those things to go ahead.
But what has changed in our approach is this. It is not for central government to come up with ideas, through a centrally managed process, and then impose them as policy on the sector as a whole. Rather, it is for local authorities to take up these initiatives where they are suitable, and for local authorities to learn from each other. For example, Norfolk and Gloucestershire already offer library membership from birth, 79% of libraries already provide internet access for free and many libraries are already co-located. If any library authority wants to take up these approaches, they can learn from their peers, rather than be told to do so by central government.
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Leadership in a time of deficit
In the challenges ahead it is critical that we commit to improving that quality of outcome, not input.
During economic challenges people need the library service more than ever - to help get back to work, to access learning and entertainment and to provide community cohesion.
A symbol of hope in turbulent times, libraries have proved their resilience in recent years. The speedy setting up of a temporary library in Cockermouth last year and the impressive number of libraries open in many areas of the country during the terrible snow storms of this winter are examples of the commitment that the service shows, particularly during times of hardship.
The deficit will lead to hard decisions and I want to support this process as much as possible.
My first objective - effective leadership for the sector - will be vital
This is what I am going to do.
First, I intend to wind down the Advisory Council on Libraries through the public bodies bill. As a statutory body with no flexibility, I don’t think it is a relevant structure anymore. I do, however, have a great deal of admiration for its members who have each contributed expertise and experience, and whose skills and influence I will continue to value as individuals in the sector.
I have previously talked about a Library Development Agency for libraries. Now is clearly not the time to make huge changes to the infrastructure - we must focus on supporting libraries right now, not in 3 years time.
I think we can achieve this amongst our current leaders, simply by agreeing our roles and priorities amongst ourselves.
With this in mind I am today announcing a support programme led by the MLA and LGA Group who will work together to support councils, especially where councils want to work in partnership with each other in order to drive efficiencies and deliver an effective service
I would like to express my thanks to Roy Clare from the MLA and Councillor Chris White from the LGA Group for establishing and leading this programme.
I know that changes to encourage co-operation across library authority boundaries are already emerging. So are new governance models.
Wigan and Luton library services are delivered through Trust models and Hounslow library service is now run by a private company.
The London Library Change Programme envisages savings by combining borough services in different models of delivery. There are estimated savings of £20m in total - about 10% of total London spend - simply by implementing best practice on a borough by borough basis, although this was not uniformly spread over all authorities. In the East of England seven councils are working together on the SPINE project, which is investigating viable options for sharing their library services - Joining up backroom activities will save at least a million pounds, freeing up councils and communities to concentrate their resources on the frontline.
I think that library services need to think even more fundamentally.
151 separate library authorities and 151 library management teams is too many. It’s as simple as that. This number will not be sustainable in future years.
I would like to see voluntary alliances that help reduce the overhead significantly. Think about how much we could save collectively if we only had 100 library authority management teams rather than 151. And those savings could help protect the service to the library user.
I think library users will be right to challenge where frontline services are closed if library services haven’t thought about some radical efficiency options - shared services, merging functions or staffing across authorities or public services, use of volunteers or of other community buildings.
The support programme I am announcing today will involve some intensive, proactive work with about ten library authorities initially, to investigate where they can drive down costs whilst maintaining a quality service. This will not be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is based on the principle that the solutions will be owned and driven by councils.
This is a great opportunity to be at the forefront of that innovative thinking, and we envisage a lot of interest from library authorities - those who are selected as the first wave will be confirmed over the next few weeks.
The best learning from those pioneering library services will then be disseminated across the wider public library network so that everyone can benefit from the work.
The Project Board for the work will include representatives from the MLA, LGA Group, and central Government as well as CILIP, Race Online and the Society of Chief Librarians - who all have contributions to make.
If this approach is effective, we will consider extending the support programme to take on a wider agenda when the time is right. This could include other priority areas such as co-location with other services, training and skills and disseminating best practice. That next stage could then co-opt library leaders and colleagues with the relevant expertise.
I hope that through the support programme we can model the pioneers in the sector, capture their learning and create templates which can be used and adapted by others.
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My second objective is to promote the vital role of libraries in the digital agenda.
I am the first minister to bring together the culture and digital briefs
I believe that librarians are more important than ever in a digital age. The core role of a librarian is to manage information. With an almost infinite amount of information now available, that role is now indispensable. Librarians today should be trained to be able to guide users to the best and most reliable sources of the information they need on-line. Equally importantly, they should be able to guide library users of whatever age to stay safe on-line, be it from identity theft or even more sinister developments. And with the increasing number of complex gadgets now available, a library should be a place to go for guidance and help on what to use and how to use it.
I recognise also the vital contribution libraries make to digital inclusion. Libraries provide a remarkable level of service for people to get online every day. Involved with projects like Silver Surfers Day and Get Online Day, there is an average of 762 hours of internet access available across all libraries in a Local Authority area per week. Large libraries typically get 6,500 visitors a week using their internet access.
I want to see libraries right at the heart of the digital inclusion mission.
Race Online 2012, led by the UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox, is inviting partners who wish to help get the UK 100% online by the time of the Olympics to signal their commitment on the Race Online website.
I am announcing today - in collaboration with the Society of Chief Librarians - a public library promise to Race Online 2012. To reduce the digital divide, the library network will work together to reach out to half a million digitally excluded people and support them to become confident digital citizens by the end of 2012.
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My third commitment is to do my best to be a champion for libraries as your minister.
I will do my best to link the library service to national priorities and get libraries on big agendas like digital inclusion, like the Big Society, like health and education.
Earlier today, for instance, the Deputy Prime Minister was in a library in East London launching a public consultation which allows people to contribute ideas and comments that will inform the process of repealing bits of legislation, cutting red tape and restoring civil liberties. The Deputy Prime Minister recognised instinctively that, as hubs of community activity, libraries are an ideal setting for people to engage with government, public services and to play their part as citizens.
As your minister I promise to keep emphasizing the importance of libraries in this way.
But I want you to do the same at local level. I want to continue to hear about innovative partnerships between libraries and other services, to hear about libraries delivering on key policies for their local authorities.
I also want to challenge the leadership at local authority level to look at the opportunities that libraries offer. I will be writing to all chief executives to underline this point. The best library authorities have support at political and chief executive level and are able to make connections across their organisations and policies for the benefit of communities. Libraries offer opportunities and sustainable solutions - they are not a service that is simply an easy cut in tough times.
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So these are my three priorities:
To ensure effective leadership in the deficit
To promote the role of libraries in the digital agenda,
To be a champion for public libraries
I hope that you will help me to deliver those objectives. I am publishing this speech online in a commentable form and you can access it through the DCMS website. I look forward to reading your views.
This speech was available for online comment at Write to reply > re- modelling public libraries from 1 - 8 July 2010.