October 13, 2006
Mark Field's speech to the annual library conference
This morning Mark Field is to speak to the same conference of librarians to which David Lammy spoke on Wednesday. Mr Lammy is the minister responsible for libraries, Mr Field is his "shadow" in the House of Commons from the opposition.
It is very good to see that concerns about the health of our public library service have raised it up the agenda to the point that two senior politicians have spent the thought and time to make these major addresses.
Mr Field's speech is printed below. Mr Grimsdyke is sad that he was not invited to listen, but times are hard in Bloggington, the bus fare to Southampton would also have been an obstacle.
The speech will be given in the session 10.30-11.10. It will last for 15-20 mins with a similar time left for questions. David Lammy will be the keynote speaker on the first morning of the conference (Wednesday) so there should be some reference to his message during this speech.
Speech for the Public Libraries Conference 13 October Southampton
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to come and speak to you about the important issue of Britain’s library service.
I know that all of you will agree with me when I say that governments occasionally make mistakes though it is funny how this truth always seems more evident to Opposition politicians such as myself. Sometimes the errors are so serious that the electorate does not forgive the government when the next general election occurs and turfs it out. In most cases though the mistakes become part of history and are never corrected.
During the early 1960s a Conservative Government encouraged a man called Dr Beeching to carry out a research and rationalisation programme into Britain’s rail service. The result was a massive programme of station and branch line closures which hit economic development in much of rural Britain. Four decades on very few of those much lamented rural and suburban lines and village stations have ever been re-opened.
The reasons I suggest that such dramatic measures were taken were twofold – one was the intransigence of the railway workforce to accept new practices, reduced staffing and thus the imperative for lower costs; the other was a lack of vision, innovation and flair about the potential for this country’s future and the importance of fostering community spirit.
Today I believe we face a similar problem with Britain’s public book lending library service. Let no one be in any doubt that many libraries are likely to close in this country in the next few years and that many others are on the way to becoming glorified community centres with names such as Ideas Stores or Discovery Centres.
From the government, its civil servants and many others in the library service we hear that books should no longer be the backbone of the nation’s public library service. The public, on the other hand, has shown that it is strongly committed to maintaining and improving our libraries. In an increasingly consumerist world, our fellow Britons want to see a plentiful supply of up-to-date bestsellers. At the same time they recognise the importance of promoting new developments such as Internet research and other materials such as DVDs and CDs.
In my role as Shadow Minister for Culture, what has surprised me above all has been the amount of sheer hard work, innovation and inspiration shown by so many involved in the arts and culture world.
I regard culture as an integral part of a vision for a better quality of life for all our people. In an age of a more consumerist outlook, with a new demand for ever more choice and better quality in our public services, we all need to recognise that the provision of arts and culture needs to move with the times and surely this does also apply to libraries.
As communities become ever more disparate and fragmented, there is an increasing importance to be attached to the power of culture and the arts as a unifying force to bring people together. The library has a historic local role in the community which will be lost if we rationalise our libraries into large population centres.
I know it is somewhat unfashionable in this highly commercialised, target-driven world, but I have always believed in ‘art for art’s sake.’ In an increasingly target-driven environment, the world of arts and heritage will inevitably suffer if public spending in this area is justified only on the grounds of extraneous benefits, such as to lower crime rates or to improve educational standards. I take the same view with libraries. Whilst recognising the tremendous value that libraries can and should play in developing reading at a time when the country’s educational standards are clearly falling, it should not be the only argument to maintain their presence in as many corners of Britain as possible.
Libraries are used and are there to be used by everybody. The service has been a tremendous achievement for 150 years and there is simply no reason why it should be rationalised at this time. Inevitably during times of financial constraint, if the case for spending on the arts and culture is only on the basis of strict utilitarian benefit to society, then I recognise that budgets are most vulnerable to swingeing reduction. However library costs represent a very small part of council budgets and I do not see that the financial case can be so strong.
There is an enormous amount of enthusiasm for libraries from librarians yet they seem to have lost touch with their customers. No one would dispute that attendances have fallen across the country in recent years. There may be many reasons for this but few would argue that many library layouts have become unappealing and the book offerings have also failed to attract new readers whilst turning off the long time library user. That cannot be surprising when there has been such a marked reduction in expenditure on books over recent years. The result, as we know, is that many councils are closing libraries and many others are threatened to be closed.
From a parliamentary perspective the problem has become exacerbated because David Lammy, the Government Minister with responsibility for our Libraries, has gone to great lengths this year to suggest that fundamentally all in the library garden is lovely.
We are all aware that the administration of our libraries is handled entirely by local authorities but it should be the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport who give the leadership on this vital part of Britain’s cultural heritage. Make no mistake I believe that the current trend could leave our nation’s library service severely mauled with substantial closures up and down the country. And like the railways these will never come back.
Nearly four years ago Framework for the Future was created by the Government as its map of opportunity for libraries. In 2004 the Parliamentary Select Committee produced a cross-party report with many recommendations. Both of these seem to have been lost and forgotten in the short mists of time. My office has seen a blizzard of paperwork produced by consultants for this government during the recent months, let alone years. It is estimated that £4 million has been spent by the government’s advisory body the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council on consultants in recent years and the results can only suggest a waste of money.
The Government and its advisory bodies do not stop producing brochures, initiatives and campaigns which affect libraries yet the results are entirely negative. The MLA partnership (a group encompassing nine regional agencies along with the MLA itself) produced an initial corporate plan recently. It announces a shared vision and strategic aims which no one could argue with. I’ve read it. In no part of the plan do the words book or reading occur.
Who can be surprised at that when today the expenditure on books has fallen from around 14% of the library budget to eight and a half per cent over the last decade? The book collection in libraries has been reduced in the same time by 20m books. It is currently estimated that 30% of libraries are unfit for use and there are more than 100 libraries already threatened with closure this year, mostly on the grounds of falling admissions. That number of closures I am reliably informed is expected to grow substantially when the next spending government spending rounds are taken into account and I admit that many of these are from local councils run by Conservative authorities.
In discussions that I have had with these authorities there is a sense that our libraries, as they are currently constituted, are no longer wanted by the general public. Is it any wonder when the offering, especially in terms of the library interiors and the books have been so downgraded? The recent costly Love Libraries operation has been wound up as a separate organisation but their work will continue through The Reading Agency and others. The Love Libraries campaign, commenced to loud fanfare last March with the refurbishing of three libraries in Coldharbour, Newquay and Richmond. But this was only three out of 4,000 and clearly the value of the operation did not repay the high investment costs involved.
Having talked to many council heads I cannot understand why the costs of some basic internal improvements in libraries are estimated at such high levels. All that is needed in most libraries is better lighting, improved shelving and up-to date books but many of them can only see the need for massive refurbishment involving architects and the costs are enormous. Here again one only has to look at the £80 million being given through the National Lottery to help with the modernising of some of the nation’s library buildings to realise that many simple improvements could be made to large numbers of libraries rather than virtually rebuilding huge town centre flagship libraries.
The Head of Cultural Service within councils and Librarians have got to take their share of the blame. It is estimated that £90 million is spent annually on purchasing books while the cost of administering that selection process is a hefty £45m. The recent report from Price Waterhouse has been looking at streamlining the process which is very welcome but like much of this government’s efforts I expect it to end up gathering dust on Whitehall’s shelves.
The MLA Partnership Plan is another one of those expensive glossy brochures which is there specifically to show the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that something is being done or at least there is a plan for something to be done. Well if something is being done the public book lending library service is not gaining any benefits. I believe that if the library service does not return to fundamentals and concentrate on winning its customers back then, just like the railways, I foresee a savage rationalisation of public libraries, unprecedented library closures and countless librarians made redundant.
The service needs management change. It needs logistical change. It needs marketing expertise. It needs councils and librarians to recognise that longer opening hours are a critical part of the library offering. And we in the Conservative Party believe that it needs a National Task Force to give guidance and help to councils on making sure our nation’s public library service does not wither on the vine.
This is why we are in the process of trying to set up a Conservative Library Task Force for England with the express intention of helping councils review potential closures and gain some critical help in rebuilding its library attendances.
I have been deeply heartened by the number of people who have given us help and advice as we develop this strategy. And believe me it is not just from the book industry that we have gained such wholehearted support. We are in talks with IT companies and other organisations to help with some blue sky thinking about modernising the library service without in any way reducing the core function of a library which we see as lending books and providing reference and other materials.
For instance why is it that today that we cannot sit at home and find the whereabouts of a book in our local or national library service? I believe libraries and their operation must change. But I also believe the librarians working within them must be prepared to change.
And let me set your minds to rest that I am in anyway a Luddite – although please do not ask the views of my youthful researchers - eschewing any thoughts towards technology and modernity. In five years it will be possible to have books printed on demand. Sometime in the future, a resident may be able to go into the local library and ask for any book from any era. If it is not available then one could be printed in 24 hours. When it is returned it can go on the shelf for other borrowers. I am not saying that such possibilities should dictate our considerations at this time but let us all recognise that reading of books is only possible if there is somewhere to get them? The library must remain that place.
We cannot talk in terms of bookshops such as Waterstone or cheap offers from supermarkets such as Tesco as satisfying the entire nation’s reading needs. The library must remain the place where parents take their children; where young people can do research, where adults can borrow books for their holiday and the retired can enjoy all those books that they never had time to read when they were working.
And I do realise that libraries are not just about books and other materials such as DVDs and CDs but a library without well-stocked reading materials is not a library. What is wrong with a library being full of books and a place of quiet? I read constantly. In the House of Commons our libraries are huge and quite wonderful places to use. No one expects to see Members of Parliament having mobile phone conversations in such places and I see no reason why the public cannot expect such considerations in libraries.
In my discussions with so many people connected to the library service or simply enthused about reading as a valuable part of our social fabric one thing that has struck me is the fact that the silence in libraries is now seen as creating a frightening environment, especially to young people. The Ideas Stores and Discovery Centres may attract a different audience than hitherto have found their way to libraries but it has been at the price of the loss of previous users. I believe those previous readers will not come back to those centres and the levels of book borrowing will never go back to previous levels without a move back to fundamentals.
The government, its civil servants and its associated advisory bodies continue to enthuse about the current situation in the library service. We see this as pretence and a great mistake on their behalf. Action is needed now by all those who care about the long tradition of Britain’s public book lending library service.
The Conservative Party is preparing valuable steps in making that action a possibility in councils up and down the country. If not then I fear that in ten years time we may see a very different library service than we have been used to and one that most people in the country will regret. The Government has not yet given the task to a Dr Beeching so I hope that we still have a chance to protect the service for our children and grandchildren.
Thank you for listening to me.
Posted by Perkins at October 13, 2006 8:34 AM
Plenty of fluff and little substance.
I would love to know where there is positive proof that Ideas Stores have been opened at the cost of traditional library usage. The Ideas Stores have received international recognition as a positive development.
Libraries have to move into the 21st century, and still work within the local neighbourhood.
It will be interesting to see what comes from Conservative Library Task Force for England.
We need action not more waffle and spin.
Posted by: Clive Keeble at October 13, 2006 11:30 AM
When we get this year's figures for Tower Hamlets we will be able to get more evidence for the change of library use since the Ideas Stores were first opened (5 years ago). So far the story has been very mixed and the figures unconvincing (apart from the expenditure on buildings and PR which was enormous), but more may become clear with the next data. I said on Richard Charkin's blog the other week that the great plus from Ideas Stores has actually been the endeavour and enterprise of the people involved. Initially they inclined away from books, but reverted to the books very quickly in response to the public. Ideas Stores are intended to be not just libraries but also adult education centres and I gather it is that part that has caused more problems, the teachers are not so keen on the new buildings; which also, incidentally, but importantly, are a lot more expensive to run than the old libraries. It will be interesting to see if Tower Hamlets open more Idea Stores.
However in the case of "Discovery Centres" we have been able to follow the performance much more closely. In its first year, the first one in Hampshire, in Gosport, book lending was down over 14%, while actual numbers of visits were up. That and much correspondence to the local paper supports the view that traditional library users have stopped using it. The previous Discovery centres in Kent (where the same 2 managers worked before they came to Hampshire), have now mostly been closed or reverted to public libraries. Public Libraries have a strong brand name- it would be difficult in the long term to supplant it and sustain a new name and hope to gain an equivalent reputation with the public, in my view. Tim
Posted by: tim at October 13, 2006 2:52 PM
Very much agree about the word Library.
It is resonant. People only have to see the word in the rubric of a petition and they sign straightaway.
Ideas Store is so contrived, so patronizing, redolent of a wrong turning in a brainstorming session.
It is a part of this fatuous, consumerist notion of "branding"
Posted by: Christopher Hawtree at October 13, 2006 4:26 PM
Dr Beeching is a good analogy - did you think of that Tim? I hate saying this but the Tories have analysed the problem which is a great advance on the great triumvirate with some responsibility for running libraries:
David Lammy - hear no evil
DCMS - see no evil
MLA - speak no evil
Do any of them give a monkeys about books and libraries?
Just to show I care: I would recommend I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti. I started reading at 9:30 pm. When I went to bed at 3:30 am, the blurb, which claimed you couldn't put the book down, had turned out to be entirely correct. My son, Ben, says the film is pretty good as well.
Posted by: Philip Kerridge at October 13, 2006 7:16 PM
Well I just love the Ideas Stores name : it give the notion of somewhere more relaxed than the rather austere Library.
Books are friends, they are fun and olde worlde barriers should not be placed in their 21st century (free) public access areas.
Posted by: Clive Keeble at October 13, 2006 7:39 PM
And here is one Library whose speciality is not books !!
Posted by: Clive Keeble at October 14, 2006 8:38 AM
Interesting...never thought I'd hear common sense on public services from a Conservative, though my cynisim makes me think he's probably saying what he knows his audience wants to hear - politicians are politicians, whatever colour their ties might be.
It was particularly pleasant to read someone else bemoaning the lack of quiet in libraries besides the staff - it's not that we want some sort of hallowed silence, but people seem to enter a parallel world when using mobile phones in particular. To be honest though, I think the noise issue is a symptom of a far wider problem to do with declining levels of respect for other people in our society. Rude is the new polite, innit guv?
Also fascinating to hear someone confront the print-on-demand revolution realistically - this is something that I'm very gung-ho about. Libraries need to get on board with the publishers with this issue as soon as possible - if it's embraced, it'll be a real pillar for the service; if it's shunned, it'll be the final nail in the coffin lid. See some of my library-futurism posts for more of my thoughts on this (one, two).
Mr. Keeble, if you require first-hand substantive evidence that book borrowers are shunning 'Discovery Centers', look no further. Portsmouth has had a number of visitors defect from the Gosport service and take the ferry across the water to use ours instead, and I have heard a number of them say (without prompting or questioning) that the reason is that the Discovery Cenrtre doesn't supply the service they want (i.e. a decent selection of books), and comes over as a cross between an HMV with unusually overstocked book section and an over-funded yet under-attended youth club.
Posted by: Armchair Anarchist at October 14, 2006 8:24 PM
I agree so much about Print on Demand. If, say, a library supplier had a print on demand machine, it could accept orders for any title from any library, call for a file copy from the publisher (if it didn't already have one) and print the book complete with all its protective cover and Rfid tags or any other labels, especially for the library that ordered the copy-and deliver the next day. It's a wonderful opportunity. Tim
Posted by: Tim at October 14, 2006 8:37 PM
I would stress that I was referring to Ideas Stores - I know nothing about Discovery Centres and am in no position to speak on ths subject.
However, my paternal family came from Stepney ; very different days, but I feel sure that the Ideas Stores have considerably enhanced the educational prospects of many Tower Hamlets residents.
This is about the right of everybody to get a decent start in life, or to be able to enhance their employment prospects.
Independent booksellers like myself are often falsely accused of being elitist : I was fortunate via scholarships and scrimping and saving from my parents to get a decent education. I left school at the age of 16 as I felt that I could not longer be a drain on them. I had excellent libraries in which to study : sadly too much of the (donated) store stock in municipal libraries has either been thrown into skips or sold off - sometimes even for very high sums.
The world is changed : the milk and honey days of the 1950's have long done. It is no good yearning for the goode olde days, because for a large section of the working classes these were the days of few prospects when all bar the very privileged (I count myself amongst those) had to follow in their father's employment.
People's general expectations nowadays are too high : we have to compromise. However, we must rethink our "production methods" - both in manufacturing and in service industries.
Posted by: Clive Keeble at October 16, 2006 7:24 AM
Mark Field's analysis is correct except in the inference in his opening paragraph about the workforce being unwilling to accept new practices. Library staff have accepted wide-ranging changes to their working practices, although without the financial compensation that usually accompanies such changes in other industries. In fact the rates of renumeration have failed to keep up with the cost of living (except at senior levels). The real problem is a widespread decline in staff moral and motivation stemming from continual managerial change and "service restructuring" which in some counties is almost continual.
Posted by: Martyn at December 4, 2006 12:09 AM