On Thursday 7th April, I was invited to attend the Gloucestershire Federation of the WI’s debate day, to speak in favour of the resolution:
“This meeting urges Her Majesty’s government to maintain support for local libraries, as an essential education and information resource”
The resolution is one of six shortlisted by WI members nationwide to be taken forward as a national campaign and presented to central government. It has reached the final two of the shortlist, and will go up against a resolution on mega-farming at the national AGM in June. The day’s programme also included speakers for and against the mega-farms motion, and a talk by Oxfam on the Millennium Development Goals.
As mentioned here, Gloucestershire County Council leader Mark Hawthorne was, rather extraordinarily, scheduled to speak against the libraries resolution, but he cancelled the engagement, instead sending a written statement which was read out by the Chair. This statement was simply an outline of the council’s plans, and did not address the motion under discussion in any way. Many of the almost 100 WI members in attendance were very disappointed by Councillor Hawthorne’s absence as they had prepared questions they wanted to ask him. They plan to email him their questions instead, and I hope they will get a better response then the:
‘Thank you for your email. I do not intend to reply in detail’
which I recently received!
Here is the statement I made in support of the libraries motion:
My name is Demelza and I’m a member of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, a group set up in August 2010 to represent the views of county library users. I’m here today to speak in favour of the motion:
“This meeting urges Her Majesty’s government to maintain support for local libraries, as an essential education and information resource”
This morning we’ve heard a very interesting presentation about the Millennium Development Goals, one of which, of course, is concerned with education. Very few people would disagree that education is vital to a healthy, fair and successful society in any country or region of the world.
In the UK we are of course fortunate that our children have universal access to primary and secondary education, but still inequalities and barriers remain, along with concerns over educational standards. A study recently conducted by the Organisation for Economic Development, showed that the UK had fallen to 25th place out of 64 participating countries in a measure of teenagers’ reading skills, below Germany, France and Japan. A 2006 report by the same organisation shows that over 20% of adults in the UK have low literacy skills. Numerous studies have shown that people with poor literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed or to live in workless households, and are more likely to be reliant on state benefits. Those who do work earn less, and are less likely to receive a promotion than their more literate colleagues – poor literacy is a barrier to social mobility. A 2006 report entitled ‘The long term costs of literacy difficulties’, estimated the annual cost of poor literacy as £1.73bn; made up of costs relating to crime, health, special needs support, behavioural issues, and unemployment.
Local public libraries are on the frontline in the fight for literacy, and through the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries campaign against the severe cuts currently planned for our library service, I have met many people for whom libraries are indeed an essential educational resource. At my local library I met Abbie and Cerys, both aged 11, who don’t have access to a computer or many books at home – they are in the library every afternoon after school. I also met Bob, who due to undiagnosed learning difficulties left school with few qualifications. Bob has educated himself entirely through public libraries, to the point where he has been able to complete his qualifications and embark on his chosen career.
Reading for pleasure is key to developing literacy skills, especially in children. Research collated by the National Literacy Trust shows that children who ‘read more, read better’, and that reading promotes improved grammar, comprehension, and vocabulary, and sparks interest in a range of topics across the curriculum. Education secretary Michael Gove has recently announced that children should be reading 50 books a year, or roughly one per week. For many families, but in particular those on lower incomes, their local public library is the only means by which they will be able to fulfil this ambition. Even without these goals, for many lower income parents, the public library is essential in meeting a child’s, sometimes vociferous, reading requirements, which would be otherwise unaffordable. Ten-year old Mily, who uses the mobile library van when it calls at her village is distraught at the imminent loss of this service, as ‘I won’t be able to get the books to keep my eyes as busy as I would like’.
This link between public libraries and child literacy is highlighted by recent research by the National Literacy Trust, which found that children who use public libraries are twice as likely to be above average readers as those who don’t. Last year 34% of the 3 million library visits in Gloucestershire were made by children, and over 1 million children’s books were loaned out. 71% of Gloucestershire children took part in the Summer Reading Challenge, led by the library service to encourage children to continue reading over the summer holidays, thus avoiding a dip in their reading level following the long break from school. It is difficult to see how these kinds of impressive figures will be sustained within a public library service with its budget reduced by over a third, and with closures or severe reductions to 17 branches plus the five mobiles – as planned in Gloucestershire.
The argument is often heard, and had indeed been made by our own county council, that children’s reading needs are served by school libraries. While some schools do have excellent libraries this is by no means typical as schools are not required to have a library at all. Many do not, or have libraries which are under-stocked, staffed and resourced. Schools within Gloucestershire are able to ‘buy in’ library services from the Council, but 40% of schools do not at present, and as school budgets are squeezed, take-up is likely to fall further. We have received letters from teachers and parents, deeply concerned at the impact the loss of their local public library will have on their children’s or pupil’s educational attainment.
Turning now to information. In our modern world access to the internet is increasingly important. Numerous government services have moved online, utility companies offer better deals to their online customers, and online job applications are the norm. The growth of the online world has been used by some to argue that libraries are an irrelevance, and to justify cuts and closures – ‘aren’t children all at home using Google for their schoolwork, and surely we’re all reading e-books by now?’ But government research shows that 10 million people in the UK do not have access to the internet. These are proportionately more likely to be older people, and those on low incomes or the unemployed. According to the Citizens Advice Bureau, the figure in Gloucestershire is 4 in 10. So that’s 40% of people in the county who are not online. For many of these people, when they do need to use the internet, the public library is the place they go. All of Gloucestershire’s libraries have networked computers which are free to use, and library staff offer support and training for those who are less confident with online technology. Closing the ‘digital divide’ between those who are and are not online, is another central government aim, and the supported internet and computer use offered by local public libraries is an important step towards this goal.
At my local library, the row of computers is constantly in use, by people researching, communicating, and, yes, sometimes playing, online. Staff at Cheltenham Borough Homes send their clients across the road to the library to apply online for housing, while in the town centre, Job Centre staff send customers around the corner to the central library to search for and apply for jobs. No doubt this pattern is replicated across the county and country. Members of the public can also access a range of information through the library; from who their local Councillors and MP are and how to contact them, to events and groups in their area through the library’s community folder; indeed many such groups meet in local libraries.
So, I hope I’ve illustrated that local libraries are an important educational and information resource, with their work contributing directly to central government aims around educational attainment and access to information and digital resources.
But, as I’m sure you’ve heard in the local and national media, public libraries are under threat. More than 400 libraries are threatened with closure across the country as Council’s respond to smaller grants from central government. In Gloucestershire, the County Council originally planned to cut the library services budget by 43% – this on top of a 24% reduction in the previous year. This has now been reduced to around 36%, but will still result in the public library service being withdrawn completely from 10 areas, including some of the most deprived in our county where libraries are, arguably, more important then anywhere. In these areas, libraries will only remain open in any form if they are run and largely funded by volunteers, and will not be part of the county’s public library network. A further seven libraries will be reduced to pick up and drop off points in shared premises and with skeleton staff and opening hours, while another twelve will have their opening hours reduced. An estimated two thirds of library staff will be made redundant, and the 5 mobile libraries will be withdrawn completely, including the service for people in care homes.
We understand that Council’s need to save money, and can see an argument for some efficiency savings, streamlining of the service, or even temporary reductions in service until the coffers are looking healthier. But these plans represent the permanent dismantling of a widely beneficial and, above all, cost effective service. In Gloucestershire, the whole of the library service represents just 1.5% of the Council’s overall budget and costs each of us just 19p a week.
These cuts also take no account of the role that libraries play in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities; the frail or low income elderly for whom libraries are often a crucial means of avoiding social isolation, children from low income families who use the library to access books and school resources, and unemployed people who use library computers in their efforts to re-enter the workplace. The loss of these ‘soft’ services may simply result in the transferral of costs to other Council services, and the need for more costly later interventions.
It’s been suggested that Councils across the country viewed library services as a ‘soft target’ for cuts. They have been rudely shocked, as campaigns such as ours have sprung up nationwide, along with national campaigns like Voices for the Library. Libraries are relevant to people’s modern lives – more people visit public libraries than attend premiership football matches, and over 15,000 Gloucestershire residents, from across the county, of all political persuasions, and from all walks of life, have signed a petition opposing the Council’s plans for our libraries and calling for an independent review of the plans. Sadly, this has been ignored, along with a wealth of correspondence from ordinary library users, outraged by the plans and calling for a rethink.
It is for this reason that central government must step forward and show its support for local public libraries. Only central government can hold Councils to account, and persuade them to consider the needs and concerns of local residents by reconsidering their plans. As Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey MP has responsibility to superintend public library services across England. Whilst in opposition, Mr Vaizey was a passionate advocate for libraries. In 2009, when the Wirral Borough Council planned to close 11 libraries, Mr Vaizey called the decision ‘outrageous and offensive’, and called on his then-counterpart Andy Burnham to intervene, saying that a failure to do so would be to neglect his duties as Secretary of State.
For some months now, library campaigners have been calling on Mr Vaizey to practice what he preached in opposition, and intervene in the plans of Councils. We have been told that Mr Vaizey could not intervene until library plans were finalised through Council votes. This has now happened in Gloucestershire and in other authorities across the country. We are pleased to have been invited to meet with Mr Vaizey’s policy officials next week, to present our concerns about the Council’s plans and hope they will listen to our grave fears about the future of our public library service in Gloucestershire.
Public library services across the country face an unprecedented threat, and only a strong and clear message from central government about the value of public libraries can persuade local council’s to rethink their plans. Central government needs to show its support for local public libraries, and given their key, and cost-effective role in contributing to the realisation of government priorities around education – in particular literacy, and information access, it would seem short-sighted in the extreme not too.
A WI campaign around this issue would further raise the profile of the threat posed to public libraries and the essential services they provide, and gain the attention of Ministers, and Councils across the country. I hope I have convinced you to vote in favour of this motion, and I am very happy to take any questions.
The WI members were very supportive of libraries and some good discussion followed the statement. My slide show of Ian Anstice’s striking map of library cuts nationwide drew gasps of horror!
It was a great day, and I would like to thank the WI’s Gloucestershire Federation for their invitation to speak, and the opportunity to discuss these important issues with their members. It was a great shame that Councillor Hawthorne was unable to attend, as it would have been a great opportuntiy for the kind of open and transparent discussion of the issues which has been so sorely lacking so far.
Fingers crossed for the AGM vote in June!