A new nationwide library campaign will hold the government to account over its legal responsibilities towards libraries following accusations of "neglect", "short-term thinking" and "failure to carry out its legal duty to the public". The campaign also calls on local authorities to put all changes to library services on hold or risk breaching the law.
The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) has launched the My Library By Right campaign which will both "champion the public's right to libraries" and "hold the government accountable for carrying out their duties under the 1964 Public Libraries Act".
According to figures from CIPFA, public libraries received more than 265m visits in the financial year to 2015, but despite this "many library services are being put at risk" due to the government's disregard of the statutory nature of these services, CILIP said.
"Under English law, everyone has a right to quality public library services provided by local authorities using guidance that the secretary of state for culture, media and sport (DCMS) is obliged to provide," CILIP added. "However, these rights are not widely understood and for too long the statutory nature of library services has been ignored."
My Library By Right aims to build on legal advice received pro bono from human rights barrister Eric Metcalfe of Monckton Chambers, which highlights the legal duty of the DCMS secretary of state John Whittingdale to provide clear statutory guidance on the definition of a "comprehensive and efficient" service.
The campaign will call for the public’s rights to libraries to be recognised and respected, public libraries to be treated as the statutory services they are and for DCMS to carry out its legal duties under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. The campaign will also strive for statutory guidance for local authorities on their duties under the act from the DCMS, with support from CILIP and the library and information profession.
Nick Poole, CILIP chief executive, said: “Public libraries are not a luxury. Their provision is not discretionary – local councils have a statutory duty. For millions of people every year library services are a lifeline. That is why the statutory right to a quality library service was established under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.
“Through My Library By Right we will hold the government to account for these legal duties, including working with the secretary of state to provide a clear and meaningful statement of the characteristics of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service for local authorities to follow."
He added the he urged all authorities currently considering or implementing changes to their library services without statutory guidance to "put these plans on hold" pending the outcome of the discussions with the DCMS, because the moves may breach the law.
Key campaign activities include a petition calling on the government to fulfil its statutory obligations, engagement with the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce to develop "robust" proposals for the improvement of public libraries and the publication of a Public Libraries White Paper in early 2016 setting out “realistic and achievable options for investing in the public library network”.
CILIP will also champion National Libraries Day on 6th February to celebrate libraries and encourage the public to "Join It, Use It, Love it!", and will support a parliamentary lobby organised by the Speak up for Libraries coalition.
Martyn Wade, chair of CILIP Board, said that "for too long", the statutory nature of England’s public library network had been "neglected".
"We need to remind the public of their rights, and work with the DCMS and local authorites to ensure that these rights are respected," he said.
“Our investigations and the legal advice we have received have highlighted a disturbing lack of legally-compliant guidance, in the absence of which many local authorities have taken discretionary decisions about their services which risk flouting the law."
A spokesperson for the DCMS said: “Libraries are cornerstones of their communities and continue to be a fundamental part of society. Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service and we have powers to ensure they comply with the law. Where individual authorities have failed to meet this duty we will – and have – intervened.”
Veteran library campaigner Desmond Clarke highlighted the necessity of leadership in managing issues concerning library services. He said: "While all this advice and legal opinion further clarifies the statutory duty of government and local government, the essential need is for effective and imaginative leadership to address the complex issues faced by the sector."
He said the analysis of CIPFA data highlights some very worrying trends, notably the marked decline in library usage and borrowing over the past decade. "This is the challenge faced by the Taskforce, the DCMS and its agencies, the LGA, the professional bodies and all of us," Clarke said.
Recent figures from CIPFA revealed that a total of 106 libraries have closed in the UK this year, while library funding has been cut by £50m.
The number of libraries in the UK fell by 2.6% in the year to April 2015 to 3,917. At the same time, visits to libraries were down by 3.9% from 276m to 265m, while £50m worth of funding was stripped from library’s budgets, down from £0.99bn to £0.94bn.
Library services throughout the UK have been under threat this year, with Fife council deciding to close 16 libraries, Croydon council considering closing all but one of its libraries and workers in Lambeth striking over plans to turn libraries into gyms in order to cut costs, among other developments.