Speech to the Society of Chief Librarians Seminar

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

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Firstly, I would like to thank Janene for the introduction. I’m very glad that your programme could accommodate DCMS Parliamentary Questions this morning.

The theme of today’s seminar is that libraries are part of the solution, not part of the problem. That is absolutely true. Libraries remain a vital aspect of the lives of communities up and down the country, and more and more local councils are realising that they can provide a hub for vital local services, from adult education, to policing, to healthcare, to community services.

So you are right to say that the solution for libraries lies in their diversification.

My views on the library service are well known. I don’t accept that the public library service is in crisis. I never claimed that when I was in opposition, and I certainly do not accept that charge today. There are challenges, yes – the whole country’s facing challenges - but this is not a “crisis”.

In many parts of England, the public library service is meeting the challenges not only of the funding environment, but also changes in demographics and how people use - and want to use - a whole range of local government services.

Authorities across England have been and continue to review their library service provision and have been consulting with their community to ensure that the future library service meets local needs. The reviews inevitably lead to change and have included library buildings relocating, revised opening hours to better suit the requirements of the local residents, the engagement of the community in the managing and running of libraries and closures.

[Evidence suggests that 2 mobile library have closed] since April this year, but I recognise that the outcome of the on-going reviews by Authorities will result in further changes in the provision of library services in England. But the closure of one or even a small number of library branches does not necessarily signify a breach of the 1964 Act. Sometimes a library authority will close a library to ensure a better, more efficient service across its geographical area.

Although there have been library closures we have also seen the opening of new and refurbished library buildings. I am aware that since April this year there have been 7 new or refurbished library buildings opened, including the new Rochdale Central Library and the newly refurbished Coventry Central library.

What I primarily want to talk and hear about today is how library services share their knowledge, skills and experience - and their services - to continue to play a leading role in the provision of a comprehensive & efficient library service which reflects local needs.

However, before doing so I wanted to reflect upon the many and varied ways that library authorities across England are meeting the challenges, how libraries are able to deliver on the wider local government agenda and the opportunities for libraries.

Despite the funding environment a number of Authorities have been looking to develop their Library service provision with either new or refurbished buildings or in partnership with other stakeholders. This includes:

  • Liverpool - a £50m redevelopment over 3 years of the Central Library. The new building provides a number of new services that includes - 15,000 rare books; Wi-Fi access throughout the building, plus 150 computers and i-pads; Play on the Xbox 360 or listen to music through a Bose sound system; Space for children to discover books, plus a special area for under 5’s and a Ground floor café

  • Birmingham – opening in September, Europe’s biggest library, at a cost of £189 million. Service improvements that will be delivered include a new library management IT system; Radio Frequency Identification and Library of Birmingham online. As well as a range of new facilities and services such as a recording studio, BFI mediatheque, exhibition gallery, outdoor spaces and performance areas.

  • Southend - the Forum Southend-on-Sea a partnership project which includes a brand new state-of-the-art library and learning facilities at the heart of Southend Town Centre. This is a unique £27m enterprise bringing together Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, the University of Essex and South Essex College and is due to complete in August. The initiative means each of the organisations will benefit from upgraded and expanded library and learning opportunities, but also will meet the changing needs of the community and give better value for money.

  • East Sussex - a new £6 million development in Seaford due to open in 2014 which will include a brand new library, day services for older people and supported living flats.

  • North Tyneside - a new customer centre in North Shields is set to open on Monday next week. Over £3m has been spent to transform the old library into the state-of-the-art Customer First Centre – which includes a new library and the Council’s customer services, including Housing Advice.

So libraries continue to transform, but still remain at the hub of the community.

There are many and varied approaches to involving communities in the library service. There are a number of positive examples of libraries providing their space to help deliver on the Government’s wider community agenda, including:

  • Our Big Gig: a community-led music festival taking place nationwide next month. It aims to bring communities together to celebrate local talent and get more people involved in music making. Over 300 events will be hosted at a variety of venues including churches, museums, parks, pubs, shopping centres as well as traditional bandstands. Libraries are also playing their part and with Blackheath Library, Leeds Central Library Exhibition Space, St Helens Central Library, Lancaster Library, Thimblemill Library Smethwick, Sandwell Rowley Regis, Windermere Library Garden all involved.

  • English Language Competition: a £6 million competition launched by DCLG to discover and support projects that can deliver innovative and financially-sustainable community-based English language programmes. A number of local authorities have been identified as priority areas and DCLG are interested in supporting programmes in accessible, community-based settings, such as libraries.

  • Arts and communities: an initiative between ACE and DCLG to support and showcase good practice in arts and culture that brings communities together to increase participation, build common ground and make people’s lives better. It is expected to launch shortly.

  • DCLG and ACE investment of up to £400,000 a year will support local-level arts projects that locate culture at the heart of community life. Alongside an opportunity to bid for ACE grants for the arts lottery funding programme, participating projects will have access to DCLG investment to help ensure the artistic impact also brings real community benefit, and that experience and learning is shared to inspire people elsewhere. Although Arts and Communities is not directly focused on libraries, as local projects are identified and developed it is possible that some may involve libraries in some capacity.

  • And, as just mentioned let’s not forget that ACE has £6 million of national lottery funding available from their Grants for the arts initiative. As you know this aims to stimulate ambitious and innovative partnerships between libraries and artists and/or arts organisations, encouraging communities to participate in cultural activities.

15 successful applications to date including: a creative initiative from the Society of Chief Librarians in the North West & Yorkshire and Humberside which is a programme of high-quality reading, writing and drama events and an interactive digital portal which will be built around the Rugby League World Cup and associated themes for readers and writers.

ACE remains keen to receive further applications. I would therefore encourage you to think creatively and consider how you might take advantage of this funding opportunity. And I am sure Brian Ashley will be able to answer any of your questions later during dinner.

I am also aware that SCL is considering a major bid as part of the World War I commemorations and libraries are well placed to host activities that form part of the tributes.

So, much is going on in the library sector and in the face of the many challenges libraries are continuing to adapt and are striving to meet the changing needs of their local community in an appropriate manner.

As I said earlier I want to talk and hear about how library services share their knowledge, skills and experience. I am not interested in micro-management of how authorities group buy toner cartridges for photocopiers. Indeed some of the areas I find particularly interesting might actually not actually make significant direct financial savings but might deliver a better – shared - service.

I’m interested in where authorities creatively look at their offer and how it might in some instances be better, more engagingly achieved. Doing things differently does not mean resigning ourselves to doing things badly.

There is a history of sharing within the public library service particularly around book selection and professional development.

Can it go further – local identity with an individual Council will surely not be compromised if behind the scenes the computer system is joined up, or the buildings are managed through a consortium. If these and many more ideas are taken forward particularly where geographical proximity is an advantage, savings could be made and services improve.

I have been struck particularly around the sharing of buildings where the public library is seen as the focal point for local communities – other public services sometimes only need reminding about this regular contact with the general public to see the huge advantage of sharing space. If space why not staff and professional expertise -including possible links with the voluntary community sector. In two tier areas of the country, increasingly District and County Councils are joining up to share best practice, and good ideas.

I’m not suggesting that a solution which works on the Isle of Wight can be magically exported to Isleworth. There is no one-size-fits-all, but there are innovative examples at work in the sector which I would encourage you all to look at, if you don’t know about them already:

Library Plus – Northamptonshire Libraries – a major countywide scheme to transform the service with a strong library core – to grow it to include other County and District services – 7 already house Children Centres – others offering joint operations to health, Police, adult learning and local businesses –the latter has been particularly well received by in the main SMEs.

The Hive, Worcester - Last year, as we all know [and I am aware some of you benefited from a workshop on new operating models this morning] the Hive in Worcester became the first combined public and academic library, home to the Worcestershire Hub – a partnership between the CC and 6 district councils; and using a mixed business model to both fund and generate income.

Ashford Library – Kent CC and Ashford District Council –“Ashford Gateway –Plus” – Full Library Facilities, Civil Ceremonies–including weddings, civil partnerships, etc., Housing advice, Benefits advice, Pay Council tax Bills, Tourist information, Adult Education courses, free internet for voluntary/community groups, CAB, Café.

Bolton Central Library – the central Library & Museum building also hosts the Aquarium and the tourist information centre. Following the Authorities Library Service review the opening hours of the facility were increased including opening on Sundays and 5 bank holidays. These extra hours have enabled more people to enjoy all of the services offered from this flagship building.

Whitchurch Library in Basingstoke – a lovely small library in a community centre – built by the local District Council - with a river running through it – run by Hampshire County Council but linked into a host of other activities both taking place within the building and outside.

And of course, the oft-quoted and frequently feted Tri-borough – I am sure David Ruse is growing increasingly embarrassed with his authorities being used as an exemplar. But where’s the next example going to come from? It would be wrong of me not to shine the spotlight on David, not only because of the work of his authority, but because he retires in September and this is my last chance to name check him in public.

You won’t be surprised that with a localism agenda, I am genuinely interested to hear more from authorities who have both considered a range of options for service delivery, which includes the library service, and from those who have considered and decided against a plan of action.

And I fully recognise the challenge of how libraries – being part of the solution not part of the problem – really generate a level of service which is comprehensive and sustainable, whilst also achieving ever sought-for efficiencies.

So, I am interested to hear your own experiences of shared service. And if there’s more could be done, what might that be - and what would it need in terms of support or influence to make it happen?

I look forward to the conversation. Thank you.