Friday 18 April 2014

My submission to the Sieghart Advisory Panel on Public Libraries.

Written submission by Alan Wylie to the William Sieghart Advisory Panel on Public Libraries.

Alan Wylie is a Reference Librarian with over 20 years’ experience working in public libraries. He is a library campaigner and blogs at
He is also a Unison member, a member of Voices for the Library (VFTL), sits on the organising committee of Speak up for Libraries (SUFL) and is a member of The Library Campaign (TLC) but wishes to submit evidence to this panel in his own personal capacity.


According to Public Libraries News 470+ public libraries have closed, or at risk of closure, or have been taken out of council control since 2009/10.

CIPFA estimates that 3000-4000+ library jobs have been cut since 2007/8.

23,000+ volunteers working in or running libraries, 425+ libraries managed, or partially managed, or in the process of being handed over to volunteer groups, equates to approx. 12% of all public libraries.

Data taken from CIPFA estimates that in real terms investment in English public libraries fell by 16% in the first two years of the current government.

For more information on the cuts to the public library service see ‘The public library service under attack’ by Steve Davies, University of Cardiff:

Furthermore library users are now called ‘customers’, libraries ‘re-branded’ as 'Idea Stores', ‘Discovery Centres’, ‘The Hive’, ‘The Lounge’, library staff are now ‘customer service assistants’, self-serve is rife (often linked to cuts in staffing budgets) and the whole vision is for a more market led service with choice as the new mantra. But the concept of ‘choice’ is often delusionary and is linked to class and access to services and resources.

Library services are also being over-diversified to the point where they are barely recognisable as libraries, turned into ‘hubs’ that offer a whole host of services not organically or traditionally linked with libraries. This has led, for example, to proposals for children’s advisory services in Northamptonshire to be collocated with libraries, a situation that has raised concerns regarding privacy and dignity. There are more proposals to collocate libraries with post offices, police services, birth & death registration, health services and a whole host of other services being ravaged by cuts.
Communities have been fighting back against these proposals with, for example, the Save Wolverhampton Libraries campaign publishing their 'hubs mythbuster', see:

Four library services in the UK, Ealing, Harrow, Hounslow and Croydon, are now run by the construction firm Carillion. Two more, Wandsworth and Greenwich, are run by Greenwich Leisure Ltd. (GLL), a charitable social enterprise. Carillion have recently served redundancy notices to staff in the four services they manage and GLL allegedly use zero-hours contracts. There is no mandate for this, in every consultation in every authority that has chosen to privatise their library service the public and users have said NO (74% inHarrow) but have been ignored.
For more information on the privatisation and outsourcing of public libraries see my blog

The Arts Council England, the body given the developmental remit for public libraries in England, has had its funding cut and serious concerns have been raised by many about its ability and 
effectiveness in fulfilling its remit and by its focus on funding partnerships between the arts and 
public libraries. See my written evidence to the The Culture, Media and Sport Committee;

We also have a Secretary of State who not only refuses to intervene when councils slash library services but publicly states that the service is in rude health!

What are the core principles of a public library service into the future?

Public libraries need to adapt to technological, demographic and socio-economic changes within the communities they serve and in wider society but at their core there should always be a set of basic guiding principles.
In 2013 Voices for the Library, in consultation with thousands of library supporters drew up the following manifesto which outlines what I believe a public library should be and provide:

A wide-ranging, quality book stock available to borrow without charge.

Up-to-date ICT that is available to access free of charge and without restrictions, supplemented by support from trained staff.

Access to ebooks remotely and without charge.

A wide-range of quality online services at no charge.

A space free from commercial influence.

Dedicated services for teens.

A service managed by professionals that allows for greater freedom for staff to enhance the service.

Volunteer opportunities but only as a support to paid staff, not as a substitute.

Library buildings that provide a modern, welcoming space.

A service owned by the public, not private companies or a sub-section of the community.

I would also add to this my belief that libraries should provide access to and foster the following; a joy of reading, literacy (including digital), lifelong learning, freely accessible information & knowledge, social equity, democratic involvement and community empowerment/resilience.

Is the current delivery of the public library service the most comprehensive and efficient?

I believe that the responsibility for public library services should remain within the control of each local authority and that each authority should plan and deliver a service that it is responsive and accountable to its local communities. Library authorities should however share good practice but I’m not convinced by the shared services model, Unison Scotland also share my concerns, see;

Community consultation and partnership are key to this process but not the kind of sham consultations that we've witnessed recently in Herefordshire andLincolnshire where the voices, signatures and concerns of many thousands have been totally ignored.
Each public library service should have as its backbone a network of local libraries, run by paid and trained library staff.

The public library service instead of being ‘comprehensive and efficient’ as stated in the 1964 Act is now fragmented with each local authority looking to see what they can get away with before a legal challenge lands on their desks. A postcode lottery has emerged in respect of which level and model of service you are lucky or in most cases unlucky to have in your local area. It could be council run, a collocated ‘hub’, a trust, a mutual, a volunteer-led service or a private firm.

The formation and development of volunteer-led ‘community libraries’, which although was originally put forward by Labour and has been taken up as a desperate option by many communities who have had a gun put to their heads and told “run your library or we’ll close it”, is now being administered by ‘Locality’ and advertised on '' as a viable alternative to statutory public libraries.
This fragmentation is further execrated by the issue of class; middle/upper class communities often have more time and resources to fight cuts and to run and develop services themselves which often means that working class communities lose out. As a recent report appears to show, the Big Society works better in more affluent areas.

Having fewer paid staff (4000+ cut since 2007/8) poses major problems; outreach programmes are reduced, staff are put under severe stress and strain, specialist knowledge is lost, morale and motivation levels plummet and ‘ethos’ is eroded. Slowly but surely the service is ‘hollowed out’ leading to a less accountable, responsive, professional and user-focussed service. The introduction of self-serve into libraries can also lead to staff cuts and can erode the personal relationship between users and staff.

Having fewer static local libraries and mobile library stops, or none at all, often means that some of the poorestmost vulnerable and less mobile members of the community may have to travel further to use the service and if they haven’t got enough money for petrol or a bus or train fare then they are denied access. This is often worse in rural areas as this article I wrote for Age UK clearly outlines

Many library users can access e-books and online resources but there are still many, an estimated 7 million, caught up in the digital divide without internet access or the skills needed to utilise these resources.

New libraries are being built but they are often large, based in town centres and are often manacled to costly PFI contracts.

What is the role of community libraries in the delivery of a library offer?

I assume in this context ‘community libraries’ means volunteer-led libraries, or partially volunteer-led libraries with some professional input, and not local council operated libraries run by paid and trained staff.
Communities all over the UK have had a gun put to their and told “run your library or we’ll close it”, this has got nothing to do with choice, empowerment or innovation it’s purely cuts based. If you live in an affluent area where people are more likely to have the time and wherewithal to volunteer and the knowledge to fight for resources then you might end up with a relatively nice book exchange/internet cafĂ© masquerading as a public library but those in poorer areas will struggle.
Volunteers come and go and aren’t under contract to come into ‘work’, they are also not contracted to adhere to the laws, procedures, guidelines, frameworks and the code of conduct that public library workers have to, including;

Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964
Race Relations Act 1976
Obscene Publications Act 1959, amended 1964
Sex Discrimination Act 1975
Video Recordings Act 1984
Public Order Act 1986
Local Government Act 1988
Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988
The Children's Act 1989
Disability Discrimination Act 1995
Data Protection Act 1998
Human Rights Act 1998
Terrorism Acts 2001 & 2006
Racial & Religious Hatred Act 2006
Local Government & Public Involvement in Health Act 2007

“We suppose the only way we’ll ever find out about the extent to which volunteer-led libraries meet their obligations under the Data Protection Act is if something goes wrong or someone blows the whistle.  Until then, many library users will just have put their trust in a fragmented and unregulated service.”
Volunteers can add great value to the service by assisting library staff in delivering specific programmes relating to literacy (including digital) etc. but they should never replace staff.
This ideological experiment masquerading as ‘Localism’ is untested, unsustainable, unaccountable and undemocratic.
“To put it simply, what is being proposed regarding community ownership of public libraries goes again everything the public library movement has achieved since the mid-Victorian era.”

Public Libraries play a crucial part in the socio-economic wellbeing of many, they offer free, although many now charge for IT use, access to lifelong learning opportunities and information which can lead to an increase in community empowerment, resilience and social equity, a recent article I wrote for the Guardian clearly outlines their impact and value:

I would recommend that the panel consider the following;


The setting up of an independent advisory body for public libraries made up of users, staff, academics, campaigners, unions and policy holders.

The ring fencing of public funds for libraries.

Central and local government and library senior management adopting a back to basics approach where funds and resources are concentrated on books (e-books), local libraries, staff & ICT. This should also include a total restructuring and rethinking of staff recruitment, induction, training and management where ethos and community involvement is encouraged and fostered.
More joined up thinking in central and local government linking public libraries with policies and strategies on literacy, education, poverty reduction etc.
The reintroduction of Public Library Standards for England in line with the Welsh Standards and the Scottish Public Library Quality Improvement Matrix (PLQIM).


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