Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A bunch of AMs walk into a library....

....and asked where the crap punchlines were.
They were pointed to the correct section.
(Pic : National Assembly via Flickr)

Just before the summer recess, the National Assembly's Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee reported back on their wide-ranging inquiry into local libraries in Wales, which was launched at the new Caerphilly library (pdf).

With local government budgets under strain, libraries are coming under increasing financial pressure. The inquiry's aims were to determine : whether the Welsh Government were living up to their promises, the financial state of library services and what role they play in the community.


The Committee made 10 recommendations, in broad terms being :
  • The Welsh Government should publish an annual report on libraries and make available data on library use based on demographics.
  • A modern definition of "comprehensive and efficient library services" as a statutory obligation on local authorities, which should include free-of-charge internet access.
  • More Welsh Government support and guidance for : library service collaboration, voluntary accreditation for libraries, general promotion of library services, and to ensure libraries "pursue all available funding opportunities".
  • Core library services should remain free of charge, but alternative revenue-raising methods should be explored by local authorities.
  • There should be more financial support from the UK Government for libraries in light of the increasing use of online-only welfare administration.

Welsh Government Commitments

Library visits have risen considerably in Wales over the
last ten years, while there's been a decline in England.
(Pic : National Assembly via Flickr)
The Welsh Government's Programme for Government made specific commitments to widen access to local libraries and museums, and ensure local authorities meet statutory requirements with regard library service provision.

The initial findings were good. Library visits are up 11% on 2002-03, rising from 13.25million to 14.72million in 2011-12. England saw a 5.3% decline over the same period. Direct Welsh Government grant funding to modernise libraries was also praised (I'll return to that in more detail later).

However, some local authorities – Swansea, Conwy and Powys – as well as the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) said libraries don't feature as prominently in the Programme of Government as they should. The SCL said, "the role public libraries have to play in relation to key national policy areas (education, health, Welsh language, digital inclusion) should be more widely recognised and acknowledged."

The Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964's provisions mean local authorities have a statutory duty to provide "comprehensive and efficient" library services to the public whether they like it or not. There was no support for replacing this Act, though some local authorities and the WLGA believed the definition of "comprehensive and efficient" needed updating and greater clarity.

Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), acts as a library superintendent by setting down national library standards via the Welsh Public Library Standards and Assessment Framework, which was introduced in 2002.

These standards were considered helpful by respondents, with the WLGA saying they ensured, "a more consistent and better quality of library service across Wales". The WLGA (and local authorities) did, however, add that there needed to be a "change of focus" towards what libraries actually do so local authorities have a better idea what sort of services people like to use and where they can innovate.

The main concern here was, unsurprisingly, about budget cuts. Pembrokeshire Council described the current environment as "challenging" while Powys Council said the long-term future of libraries will be dependent upon "levels of community support and alternative delivery models".

The Culture Minister said he launched an expert review of library services in 2013 (which was supposed to report back last month). He added that he saw the 1964 Act as being "fit for purpose". A new set of library standards came into force from April this year, and was based more on outcomes (as many organisations giving evidence wanted).

The Minister said he was willing to publish an all-Wales report on library standards (local authorities already have to publish their own separate annual reports).

Finances & The Future of Local Library Services

With budgets under pressure, one option for the future of libraries
is "co-location" - as has happened with Bridgend Library.
(Pic : welshlibraries.org)

Funding for libraries isn't ring-fenced despite it being a statutory duty. It was widely-accepted that local authorities will need to come up with new ways to provide library services in light of budget cuts – though the WLGA say that due to collaborative efforts through the likes of CyMAL, those cuts haven't hit as hard as they could've.

Some of the options put on the table by councils include : collaboration, community-managed libraries, relocation/adaption of libraries and revamped mobile libraries.

Some local authorities – like Flintshire and Carmarthenshire – are already collaborating across the "information sector" (further & higher education, health) to provide training, marketing and inter-library loans.

Newport Council were, however, sceptical of the savings made through collaboration. They prefer co-location (English : libraries and other services [i.e. leisure] under the same roof) to save money and attract new visitors. Bridgend library has relocated to the Recreation Centre (now dubbed "Bridgend Life Centre"), and Bridgend Council say it's resulted in 3,000 extra visits per month.

In terms of community management of libraries, it's a growing trend in England but received a mixed response here. The National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) said it's resulted in a lack of support for volunteers from local authorities who are dumped with complex responsibilities.

Pembrokeshire Council said community-managed libraries "don't work in all communities and....standards of service....are highly variable." They also say there's a lack of diversity amongst staff in volunteer-run libraries, who are overwhelmingly white elderly women.

The use of volunteers wasn't completely dismissed. Merthyr Tydfil Council said the use of volunteers, "adds value not only to our service but to the wider community". The consensus was that volunteers should be used to supplement the work of professional staff; a sentiment the Culture Minister agreed with.

Some of the respondents were worried that co-location and volunteerism won't meet the budget cut requirements, and it's inevitable that some libraries will close. However, because library services often make up a small percentage of local government expenditure (around 1%), many organisations believe libraries shouldn't be disproportionately hit with cuts as it wouldn't really save much money.

Grant funding from the Welsh Government (i.e. to improve or upgrade libraries) is said to be key. Many respondents said these grants had made a significant difference. However, some local authorities – like Conwy and Pembrokeshire – said they might struggle to meet the Welsh Government's match-funding requirements in future. The Culture Minister said there were many alternative sources of funding – like the Lottery and EU – and these would be explored further.

Understandably, alternative ways of raising an income have been considered, such as room hire. However, there was little to no support for charging for core library services, which is said would defeat the purpose of open access.

The Future Role of Local Libraries

One important role libraries play according to the
inquiry is widening access to the internet.
(Pic : thisiswiltshire.co.uk)
The feedback from the inquiry's focus groups and library organisations implied that libraries are more than book depositories and often act as mini-community centres. When well-run they can  also support other local services, in particular health (information) and further/higher education. Open University said libraries "offered informal learning opportunities" through free online courses, for example.

Therefore, libraries also play an important part in widening access to the internet and digital services – in particular for older people and the disabled. Disability Wales said libraries act as a "gateway" to enable people without home internet access to access online services for free, meaning local authorities can save money by providing services online.

There was one area picked out, and that's UK Government welfare reforms, which has meant many welfare services have moved to online-only management – in particular Universal Credit. The WLGA said libraries have taken on "a more direct role" as a result. Disability Wales said the changes could impact the disabled who will be expected to be "digital by default" - being offline will no longer be an option.

The Culture Minister said the Welsh Government told the Department of Work and Pensions that they would expect them (DWP) to provide funding for "digital by default" welfare to cover staff training and wider funding issues.

Another, perhaps overlooked, role of libraries is to prevent loneliness amongst older people and other vulnerable groups by providing social opportunities.

A neglected community friend?

Libraries are seen as an important part of a community's identity, so much
so that many are willing to take extreme steps to protect them - like Rhydyfelin.
(Pic : Wales Online)
It's clear libraries are highly-valued by those that use them regularly, and the Welsh Government deserve credit for some of their support and grant schemes - which have made a difference.

It's obvious from the evidence given that libraries are about much more than books. They are - in effect - mini centres of learning, widen access to local and national services and also double up as de facto community centres.

Deciding precisely what a "comprehensive and efficient" library services means in the 21st Century is a conundrum, but one obvious part of that is providing free internet access as more services move online.

In serendipitous timing, maintaining some sort of free internet access (with welfare reform in mind) is something being addressed as part of Bethan Jenkins AM's (Plaid, South Wales West) Financial Education and Inclusion Bill.

The future of smaller libraries is still in the balance, perhaps best illustrated by proposals in Rhondda Cynon Taf. Glyn over at National Left has mentioned plans to close Beddau Library; while back in June, protesters campaigning against library closures chained themselves to bookshelves at Rhydyfelin Library in Pontypridd – and managed to get the decision overturned.

Big, modern libraries (like those in Cardiff, Caerphilly and Bridgend) are fine; but like all things in Wales there's a sense of attachment to the local that – even if it's parochial – does seem very hard to replace once lost.

It's not as if these things are reopened once they're shut.


Post a Comment