07.11.12 | Desmond Clarke
The setting up of a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Inquiry into library closures was welcomed as an opportunity for the forensic scrutiny of issues facing public libraries.
I suggest that the committee's somewhat anodyne report has failed to deliver on several counts.
Firstly, it has failed to set out the evidence describing the process of closure and other service cuts that it set out to enquire into. Secondly, it has failed to provide clear guidance to those responsible—in national and local government and the profession—to deliver an "improving", "comprehensive and efficient" service as required by the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.
The report simply concludes that all those responsible, including the Arts Council, need to "work harder".
It does not surprise that the committee reports that some library authorities may be breaking the law by failing to provide a "comprehensive and efficient" service. However, because it fails to name any authority that is in breach of its obligations and does not reprimand the Secretary of State for failing to "superintend" such authorities, as he is required to do under the 1964 Act, the report falls short once again.
It should be noted that an earlier Inquiry (2006) by a CMS Select Committee described public libraries as a "service in distress" and urged the DCMS to "raise its game". Six years on, this Inquiry does not provide any reassurance that officials have done anything to put in place this urgently needed strategic leadership. The recommendations of the All Party Parliamentary Library Group and statements made by the current Culture Minister and Shadow Minister that some form of library development agency should be established have, it seems, been ignored.
It is, therefore, my view that this report will not deter councils from closing libraries for no good reason, and the service will continue to drift despite the efforts of many librarians and library users.
It is astonishing that the committee seems happy to wait until the end of 2014 for the minister to assess the impact of library closures, the "hollowing" out of the service and the transfer of possibly hundreds of libraries out of council control to volunteer groups. Whilst it has acknowledged some of the issues faced by the service today, it cannot be acceptable to wait two years to assess foreseeable consequences, including the damage caused to literacy, reading and the acquisition of knowledge in many, many communities.
The millions of people who rely on libraries deserved a much stronger report which reflected their real concerns and needs. Most importantly, public libraries need leadership, rather than endless reports and studies which merely serve to kick the matter, once again, into the long grass.