Government minister Ed Vaizey has said "the library service is not in crisis”, whilst criticising the library closure figures claimed by campaigners and the BBC.
At a debate in the House of Commons last week (16th June) called by Conservative MP Paul Maynard, libraries minister Vaizey criticised library campaigners for their bleak outlook on the sector. He said: “Paradoxically, many of the people who claim to have libraries at their hearts and to see them as important spend their entire time doing down the library service and claiming that it is on the point of collapse and in crisis.” He added: “I for one think that the library service has an exciting future.”
“I do not believe now, that the library service is in crisis", Vaizey said. "It is having to modernise.”
Speaking about the number of libraries that have closed, Vaizey said: “We do take library closures as an indication of the health of the library service and I bat figures between myself, library campaigners and indeed, the BBC who haven’t been as accurate as they could be in terms of the number of library closures.”
He continued: “But as far as we’re aware in the department, (in England) just over 100 libraries have closed their doors and something like 200 libraries are now open, but managed by the local community and volunteers. But there are still 3,000 libraries in England that can count as part of the statutory service and they are spending some £700m a year in order to provide the great service that they do to my constituents, my honourable friend’s constituents and others.”
A recent BBC investigation found that a total of 343 libraries have closed in England since 2010, with a future 111 closures planned this year. This number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 closures. These closures have resulted in the loss of almost 8,000 jobs in the last six years, the report found.
However, campaigners have asserted the need to be realistic when discussing the library service and criticised Vaizey's refusal to acknowledge the problems with the service.
Former Waterstones boss and library campaigner, Tim Coates, told The Bookseller: “In the ten years during which Ed Vaizey has had responsibility for the library service use has declined by 40%. So long as he continues to assert, out of ignorant oblivion, that nothing is wrong, civil servants and local government officers see no need or urgency to seek any remedies. The service is near collapse and he must be replaced if it is to be saved. He is a charming man but not a suitable minister for a library service in desolation and fast becoming the laughing stock of the world. A new minister would give the opportunity for the actions that are urgently needed.”
Laura Swaffield, chair of The Library Campaign, said: “Ed Vaizey comes back with the 2016 version of his annual 'libraries are thriving' speech. He even defends his previous bonkers figures (only 100 libraries closed - really?) and his baffling assertion that he can't be expected to know what's going on, or define what a library is. 'New models of service' and 'modernisation' will apparently solve all problems - which we assume to mean more libraries closed, more run by volunteers or completely unstaffed. As always, it's us campaigners, local people and the odd MP who are left to point out that there's a real crisis. We are all castigated for not being more 'positive'."
She added: “What worries me most is that the Libraries Taskforce seems to be adopting the same message. Despite all the good work going on, national bodies must urgently acknowledge that things look different to people who are losing a precious local resource they can actually get to.”
Maynard called the debate to discuss Lancashire Councy Council's proposals to reduce the number of libraries in the region from 73 to 44 to make £200m worth of savings by 2021. Maynard described his "own intense frustration" and the "local anger" that has been generated by the plans.
“I do wonder why libraries always seem to be a soft target for councils of all persuasions to make rapid spending reductions," Maynard said. "I would argue that Lancashire County Council in particular has failed in its duties to provide a comprehensive library service for all residents.”
He urged the minister to make clear to the council that "what they are currently proposing is wholly unacceptable and that they are on the wrong path."
Vaizey responded by saying that visits to Lancashire's libraries declined by a fifth and active book borrowers by around a quarter. He added that as the proposals are still open for consultation "it is difficult for me to intervene while the consultation is still going on.” The 12-week consultation will close in mid-August.
“There is some debate about my capacity or rather my willingness to intervene," Vaizey said. "In fact, this is the first Administration that has routinely looked at every single proposal from every council to close libraries. My officials investigate every proposal before them and test it against the 1964 Act, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and the duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service before deciding whether to intervene. Again, it may sound paradoxical, but sometimes councils may decide to close a library in order to run a more efficient service.”
Vaizey concluded by joining Maynard in urging Lancashire County Council to think "imaginatively", during the consultation, to look at new models of delivery that have been implemented elsewhere, to listen carefully to what he has said about the more efficient use of existing resources, to understand the "passion and enthusiasm" that the local people feel for their library service and to engage with the leadership for libraries taskforce about what opportunities there might be to learn from best practice elsewhere.
He added: "As with every proposal to close libraries, we will keep this proposal under review, and if appropriate, we will act.”
The DCMS declined to comment further.