The Culture, Media and Sport select committee report into library closures has recommended that all those involved in providing the service - including local authorities, Arts Council England and the culture secretary - "need to work harder" to demonstrate that the service is still valued. It has also warned that turning libraries over to community-running can be "closures by stealth" if the communities are not given local authority support.
The long-delayed report, which follows the CMS select committee inquiry conducted last spring, has received mixed reactions from library groups and campaigners.
The select committee found that a number of local authorities "appear insufficiently aware" of their statutory duties to provide a comprehensive and efficient service, recommending that the secretary of state provide them with guidance arising from ACE's library consultation "as swiftly as possible."
The report found that it was not "possible or even desirable to retain every existing library building" but said "wholesale closures are unlikely to facilitate an appropriate level of service" recommending the retention of a "distributed" service with flexibility over the use of dedicated library buildings or mobile or other services.
Library services need to "retain enough experienced and/or professionally qualified staff to develop the service provided to the public now and for the future", the report said, while local authorities "must ensure that they maintain and improved co-operation" to free up money for frontline services.
The report stated that it was unclear how sustainable some community libraries would be, and what impact the change to community libraries would have on outreach work. It also stated: "It is clear..that community libraries will fail unless given at least some support by the local authority in terms of access to stock (including new stock), retaining computer equipment and IT support, and access to the advice and assistance of professional library staff." Guidance from the DCMS on best practice in the level of support would be helpful, the report said.
The select committee also said it welcomed a commitment given by the library minister to produce a report by the end of 2014 on the cumulative effect on library services of the reduction in local authority provision and the growth of alternatives such as community libraries. "Enthusiasm over the scope for volunteer involvement, and for new models of provision, is fine, but - given the importance of library services - a systematic look at the impact of funding cuts and organisation changes is needed to assess the durability of new approaches over time," it stated.
It also warned: “Councils which have transferred the running of libraries to community volunteers must, however, continue to give them the necessary support, otherwise they may well wither on the vine and therefore be viewed as closures by stealth.”
The report also stated that there is an argument for keeping an element of national oversight for the library service, but stated: “The current situation, however, where the Secretary of State has considerable reserve powers but is unwilling at present to use them, satisfies no one.” Using the Arts Council's libraries team to advise on back practice may "enable the secretary of state to give a swifter and clearer response to any complaints or judicial referrals," the report said.
The select committee noted that the demise of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council contributed to the impression that libraries had a lower priority than in the past and “In the current climate, it is inevitable that library services will be asked to bear their share of local authority cuts and in some areas be rationalised, even though others have committed to keeping all libraries open. We believe, however, that all those involved in providing this service to the public—local authorities, Arts Council and the Secretary of State—need to work harder to demonstrate that it is still much-valued and has a promising future.”
Library campaign group Voices for the Library said they hoped the report would receive attention from the DCMS. A spokesperson said the group "believe that many of the committee’s recommendations place responsibilities firmly on the shoulders of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to act to prevent unnecessary and harmful cuts to library services. The committee state that it is ‘not cost-effective for policy to be made by judicial review and it undermines democratic accountability’.”
The group added:”VftL agree with a number of the recommendations made by the committee, including the suggestion that the Secretary of State provide appropriate guidance to local authorities regarding how to abide by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 which places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide a 'comprehensive and efficient' level of service. VftL believe that many of the cuts already made could and should have been avoided had the Secretary of State acted competently and provided the appropriate level of guidance and oversight to local authorities as they were forced to implement quick and drastic cuts to their services.”
Dan Jarvis, shadow culture minister, said: “This is a damning report for the Government as section after section refers to a lack of action or guidance from the Secretary of State. Both on the subject of libraries under threat or being closed, or on what a “comprehensive and efficient” service should look like. The report correctly identifies some of the major problems facing this key service but it also exposes a Government that has no sense of the scale of the problem and has shown no leadership in forging a coherent vision for the future of the library service.”
He added: “The only commitment the Minister has given is a report by the end of 2014 – two years from now – on the cumulative effect on library services of the reduction in local authority provision. This is very much a case of the Government closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. David Cameron and Ed Vaizey need to be working with local authorities now to ensure the continued existence of libraries as a valued, and much needed community resource.”
Library campaigner Desmond Clarke criticised the report for not taking a more solid position. He said: “The report leaves the impression that the Committee is sitting on the fence while the public library service continues to drift. The report will not stop councils closing libraries for the wrong reasons. Sadly, the report fails to provide clear guidance about how library authorities can cope with budget cuts while waiting until the end of 2014 for yet another report assessing the damage done.”
He added: “It would have been helpful if the Committee had at least recommended the setting up of some form of library task force within the Arts Council to fill the leadership void. It is not enough to say that all those involved in providing the service need to work much harder.”
However Flick Rea, chair of the Local Government Association’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, said: “It is pleasing the committee has not taken a narrow, bricks and mortar view of library services. A library in the 21st Century can be a whole range of things, from a small e-book borrowing point in a shop to part of a large cultural hub.”
She added: “As this report shows, across the country there’s been a fantastic amount of creativity and ambition to modernise libraries in ways which engage young people, don’t alienate existing users and make the most of diminished budgets. In the last few years we have seen huge strides in that direction with libraries opening up in village halls, pubs, shops, churches, phone boxes, day care centres and tourist information centres, as well as linking with health, social care, benefits and job search providers.”