Kaufman’s wisdom on libraries

In late 2004, Gerald Kaufman, who was the long-standing chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, called for a report on public libraries. It was published in February 2005.

This was his second report, as chair, during the term of the Labour Government. The first, in 2000, endorsed the recent creation of ‘The People’s Network’ of public computers in libraries. It also called for the setting up of a central body responsible for development and improvement.

The plea to him to support both these initiatives came from Matthew Evans, previously chair of Faber, but now a member of the Labour Government. Matthew recognised that the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport was ill-equipped to undertake change and Kaufman accepted his view.

The body that was created later became called the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). And in the course of time the MLA's responsibilities for the development of libraries were passed to the Arts Council. The argument for its existence has not changed.

In 2000 the Labour ministers were Chris Smith and Tessa Blackstone. By 2004 they had been replaced by Tessa Jowell and Andrew McIntosh and then replaced again in 2005 by Andy Burnham and David Lammy.

In our constitution select committees (unlike ad hoc and sponsored parliamentary groups) are the official, authoritative means of scrutiny of government departments by Parliament and the people.

The first select committee hearings had largely been confined to the immediate circuit of ‘the library sector’. For the second Kaufman requested evidence from all corners: charities, local councils, professionals, individuals and ministers from several departments including education.

By 2005 the earlier positive initiatives of five years before had turned to concerns, about which the cross-party committee were unanimous:

“We regard a situation in which core performance indicators (specifically: spending on books, loans of books and visitor numbers) are falling, but overall costs are rising, as a signal of a service in distress. This must be reversed.

“All libraries (whatever their location) should be set minimum standards focused on a core purpose of books, newspapers and journals and the internet in a safe welcoming environment at the hours people want. Reading for pleasure must be fundamental.

“The overall policy of granting ‘freedoms and flexibilities’ to local authorities may have been applied too liberally, not least to the 50% of library services that remain persistently below standard

“The improvement of quality and range of books should be made a priority. The current spend on books of 9% of total funding is very low; especially in comparison to the 1980’s when 17% to 18% was the norm.

“It is vital that the DCMS raises its game and acts more effectively; it must establish the means to secure improvements.

“A long hard look at efficiencies across the public library sector is well overdue. This should be coordinated at national level.

“The library profession must recognise its shortcomings in the area of leadership and advocacy and plan to train internally and recruit externally, people with appropriate experience. Library leaders need skills, crucially management skills, beyond those that come with a library qualification.”

His report was damning, but it was constructive.

However, in 2005 and ever since, the library sector, the DCMS, its ministers, local government and the library profession, have ignored almost all of Gerald Kaufman’s advice. Very few of the important recommendations of the report have been actioned.  It was as if those responsible felt he was somehow out of touch and had not said what they wanted to hear and be instructed to do.

Since the report, numbers of visits and book loans have fallen by a further 30%. The percentage of library spend which is on books, instead of rising above 9% has fallen below 5%. There are no standards. The DCMS and the other bodies, despite several lengthy inquiries, have made no improvements. They have not found a way to be effective. The decline has not ‘been reversed’.

The reality of public expense is that without significant numbers of users, libraries must be closed and the money saved for other things. That is what we are seeing take place.

It is a shame that his wisdom has been ignored.

Tim Coates, a one-time m.d. of Waterstones, is a library campaigner.