Public Libraries Conference

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to come and speak to you about the important issue of Britain’s library service.

I know that all of you will agree with me when I say that governments occasionally make mistakes though it is funny how this truth always seems more evident to Opposition politicians such as myself. Sometimes the errors are so serious that the electorate does not forgive the government when the next general election occurs and turfs it out. In most cases though the mistakes become part of history and are never corrected.

During the early 1960s a Conservative Government encouraged a man called Dr Beeching to carry out a research and rationalisation programme into Britain’s rail service. The result was a massive programme of station and branch line closures which hit economic development in much of rural Britain. Four decades on very few of those much lamented rural and suburban lines and village stations have ever been re-opened.

The reasons I suggest that such dramatic measures were taken were twofold: one was the intransigence of the railway workforce to accept new practices, reduced staffing and thus the imperative for lower costs; the other was a lack of vision, innovation and flair about the potential for this country’s future and the importance of fostering community spirit.

However today I believe we face a similar problem with Britain’s public book lending library service. Let no one be in any doubt that many libraries are likely to close in this country in the next few years and that many others are on the way to becoming glorified community centres with names such as Ideas Stores or Discovery Centres.

At this point it is important to stress that whilst all in the literary garden nationwide may not be so rosy, there are many examples of excellent work on the part of local councils and their library professionals; examples of flair and innovation; examples of community libraries being highly responsive to their locality; instinctively appreciative of trends and tastes and responsive to consumer demand. And yes I have seen the work of some of these libraries with my own eyes; there are some wonderfully community-based libraries, not necessarily in modern state-of-the-art buildings but innovative and forward looking none the less.

However from the government, its civil servants and many others in the library service we hear that books should no longer be the backbone of the nation’s public library service. The public, on the other hand, has shown that it is strongly committed to maintaining and improving our libraries. In an increasingly consumerist world, our fellow Britons want to see a plentiful supply of up-to-date bestsellers. At the same time they recognise the importance of promoting new developments such as Internet research and other materials such as DVDs and CDs.

In my role as Shadow Minister for Culture, what has surprised me above all has been the amount of sheer hard work, innovation and inspiration shown by so many involved in the arts and culture world.

I regard culture as an integral part of a vision for a better quality of life for all our people. In an age of a more consumerist outlook, with a new demand for ever more choice and better quality in our public services, we all need to recognise that the provision of arts and culture needs to move with the times and surely this does also apply to libraries.

As communities become ever more disparate and fragmented, there is an increasing importance to be attached to the power of culture and the arts as a unifying force to bring people together. The library has a historic local role in the community which will be lost if we rationalise our libraries into large population centres.

I know it is somewhat unfashionable in this highly commercialised, target-driven world, but I have always believed in ‘art for art’s sake.’ In an increasingly target-driven environment, the world of arts and heritage will inevitably suffer if public spending in this area is justified only on the grounds of extraneous benefits, such as to lower crime rates or to improve educational standards. I take the same view with libraries.

Whilst recognising the tremendous value that libraries can and should play in developing reading at a time when the country’s educational standards are clearly falling, it should not be the only argument to maintain their presence in as many corners of Britain as possible.

Libraries are used and are there to be used by everybody. The service has been a tremendous achievement for 150 years and there is simply no reason why it should be rationalised at this time. Inevitably during times of financial constraint, if the case for spending on the arts and culture is only on the basis of strict utilitarian benefit to society, then I recognise that budgets are most vulnerable to swingeing reduction. However library costs represent a very small part of council budgets and I do not see that the financial case can be so strong.

There is an enormous amount of enthusiasm for libraries from librarians yet they seem to have lost touch with their customers. No one would dispute that attendances have fallen across the country in recent years. There may be many reasons for this but few would argue that many library layouts have become unappealing and the book offerings have also failed to attract new readers whilst turning off the long time library user. That cannot be surprising when there has been such a marked reduction in expenditure on books over recent years. The result, as we know, is that many councils are closing libraries and many others are threatened to be closed.

From a parliamentary perspective the problem has become exacerbated because David Lammy, the Government Minister with responsibility for our Libraries, has gone to great lengths this year to suggest that fundamentally all in the library garden is lovely. We are all aware that the administration of our libraries is handled entirely by local authorities but it should be the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport who give the leadership on this vital part of Britain’s cultural heritage. Make no mistake I believe that the current trend could leave our nation’s library service severely mauled with substantial closures up and down the country. And like the railways these will never come back.

Nearly four years ago Framework for the Future was created by the Government as its map of opportunity for libraries. In 2004 the Parliamentary Select Committee produced a cross-party report with many recommendations. Both of these seem to have been lost and forgotten in the short mists of time. My office has seen a blizzard of paperwork produced by consultants for this government during the recent months, let alone years. It is estimated that £4 million has been spent by the government’s advisory body the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council on consultants in recent years and the results can only suggest a waste of money.

The Government and its advisory bodies do not stop producing brochures, initiatives and campaigns which affect libraries yet the results are entirely negative. The MLA partnership (a group encompassing nine regional agencies along with the MLA itself) produced an initial corporate plan recently. It announces a shared vision and strategic aims which no one could argue with. I’ve read it. In no part of the plan do the words book or reading occur.

Who can be surprised at that when today the expenditure on books has fallen from around 14% of the library budget to eight and a half per cent over the last decade? The book collection in libraries has been reduced in the same time by 20m books. It is currently estimated that 30% of libraries are unfit for use and there are more than 100 libraries already threatened with closure this year, mostly on the grounds of falling admissions. That number of closures I am reliably informed is expected to grow substantially when the next spending government spending rounds are taken into account and I admit that many of these are from local councils run by Conservative authorities.

In discussions that I have had with these authorities there is a sense that our libraries, as they are currently constituted, are no longer wanted by the general public. Is it any wonder when the offering, especially in terms of the library interiors and the books have been so downgraded?

The recent costly Love Libraries operation has been wound up as a separate organisation but their work will continue through The Reading Agency and others. The Love Libraries campaign, commenced to loud fanfare last March with the refurbishing of three libraries in Coldharbour, Newquay and Richmond. But this was only three out of 4,000 and clearly the value of the operation did not repay the high investment costs involved.

Having talked to many council heads I cannot understand why the costs of some basic internal improvements in libraries are estimated at such high levels. All that is needed in most libraries is better lighting, improved shelving and up-to date books but many of them can only see the need for massive refurbishment involving architects and the costs are enormous. Here again one only has to look at the £80 million being given through the National Lottery to help with the modernising of some of the nation’s library buildings to realise that many simple improvements could be made to large numbers of libraries rather than virtually rebuilding huge town centre flagship libraries.

The Head of Cultural Service within councils and Librarians have got to take their share of the blame. It is estimated that £90 million is spent annually on purchasing books while the cost of administering that selection process is a hefty £45m.

The recent report from Price Waterhouse has been looking at streamlining the process which is very welcome but like much of this government’s efforts I expect it to end up gathering dust on Whitehall’s shelves.

The MLA Partnership Plan is another one of those expensive glossy brochures which is there specifically to show the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that something is being done or at least there is a plan for something to be done. Well if something is being done the public book lending library service is not gaining any benefits. I believe that if the library service does not return to fundamentals and concentrate on winning its customers back then, just like the railways, I foresee a savage rationalisation of public libraries, unprecedented library closures and countless librarians made redundant.

The service needs management change. It needs logistical change. It needs marketing expertise. It needs councils and librarians to recognise that longer opening hours are a critical part of the library offering. And we in the Conservative Party believe that it needs a National Task Force to give guidance and help to councils on making sure our nation’s public library service does not wither on the vine.

This is why we are in the process of trying to set up a Conservative Library Task Force for England with the express intention of helping councils review potential closures and gain some critical help in rebuilding its library attendances.

I have been deeply heartened by the number of people who have given us help and advice as we develop this strategy. And believe me it is not just from the book industry that we have gained such wholehearted support. We are in talks with IT companies and other organisations to help with some blue sky thinking about modernising the library service without in any way reducing the core function of a library which we see as lending books and providing reference and other materials.

For instance why is it that today that we cannot sit at home and find the whereabouts of a book in our local or national library service? I believe libraries and their operation must change. But I also believe the librarians working within them must be prepared to change. And let me set your minds to rest that I am in anyway a Luddite, although please do not ask the views of my youthful researchers – eschewing any thoughts towards technology and modernity. In five years it will be possible to have books printed on demand.

Sometime in the future, a resident may be able to go into the local library and ask for any book from any era. If it is not available then one could be printed in 24 hours. When it is returned it can go on the shelf for other borrowers. I am not saying that such possibilities should dictate our considerations at this time but let us all recognise that reading of books is only possible if there is somewhere to get them? The library must remain that place.We cannot talk in terms of bookshops such as Waterstone or cheap offers from supermarkets such as Tesco as satisfying the entire nation’s reading needs. The library must remain the place where parents take their children; where young people can do research, where adults can borrow books for their holiday and the retired can enjoy all those books that they never had time to read when they were working.

And I do realise that libraries are not just about books and other materials such as DVDs and CDs but a library without well-stocked reading materials is not a library. What is wrong with a library being full of books and a place of quiet? I read constantly. In the House of Commons our libraries are huge and quite wonderful places to use. No one expects to see Members of Parliament having mobile phone conversations in such places and I see no reason why the public cannot expect such considerations in libraries.

In my discussions with so many people connected to the library service or simply enthused about reading as a valuable part of our social fabric one thing that has struck me is the fact that the silence in libraries is now seen as creating a frightening environment, especially to young people. The Ideas Stores and Discovery Centres may attract a different audience than hitherto have found their way to libraries but it has been at the price of the loss of previous users. I believe those previous readers will not come back to those centres and the levels of book borrowing will never go back to previous levels without a move back to fundamentals.

The government, its civil servants and its associated advisory bodies continue to enthuse about the current situation in the library service. We see this as pretence and a great mistake on their behalf. Action is needed now by all those who care about the long tradition of Britain’s public book lending library service.

The Conservative Party is preparing valuable steps in making that action a possibility in councils up and down the country. If not then I fear that in ten years time we may see a very different library service than we have been used to and one that most people in the country will regret. The Government has not yet given the task to a Dr Beeching so I hope that we still have a chance to protect the service for our children and grandchildren.

Thank you for listening to me