First broadcast  11am Wednesday 4th September 2013

Sounds of Watford Central Library

Michael Rosen (MR) :  I think I’ve forgotten the way, I used to sit in the reference library

Denise Ellis (DE) Group Library Supervisor, Watford, : The reference library is straight in front of you, if you go through the wooden doors

MR: Oh right

DE: And it’s probably changed an awful lot since you were here because the wooden shelving is gone and all the big wooden tables have gone

MR: The tables? Oh no!

Narrator

MR: Fifty years ago, I used to come here, to Watford Central Library, to write my Sixth Form essays

Library sounds again

MR; Yes, it’s lighter than I remember as well.

Narrator

MR: Then, when I became an author, children’s librarians started inviting me to libraries like this one and I sat here downstairs with thirty children rummaging through pop-up books and for the parents it was all for free.  Well, paid for by the ratepayers as we used to call them. But now, the library system is in turmoil, facing upheaval of a kind we haven’t seen since the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850. Here in Watford we had to come in through the back door.  It’s a weekday morning but the main five libraries in Hertfordshire are all shut two mornings a week now to save money.

“the library system is in turmoil, facing upheaval of a kind we haven’t seen since the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850″ Michael Rosen

On one level, of course, it’s all about funding.  Local authorities, which pay for libraries, are getting much less money.  But it’s also about technology, about how we search for and use knowledge, about communities and the role of government. It’s also about the future of the printed book.

Watford Library

MR:  The main reason why I came here was for the Cambridge European History.  It was the Cambridge University Press had this really good…

DE: Do you want to see if it is still on the shelves?

MR: Yes I do, it’s ludicrously sentimental.

Narrator

MR: In this programme and the one that follows it next week will talk about the themes that are emerging as libraries face up to the funding crisis.  We’ll look back at the ancient and modern history of libraries and we’ll gaze into the crystal ball and try to see the library of the future.

Watford Library

MR: It enabled me to write about Henry IV

Narrator

MR: But let’s start on the other side of England from here – drop a T for an E – and go from Hertfordshire to Herefordshire.  Coincidentally, another place from my childhood, it’s where we had family holidays.

Watford Library

MR: Now you’ve chucked it out.  There’s no getting away from it.  It’s gone.

DE: It’s not there, I’m afraid.

MR: Denise Ellis from Hertfordshire Libraries, thank’s very much indeed.

DE: It’s very nice to meet you as well.

Hereford Library

MR: So I’m standing in the street now outside Hereford Library and I’m with …?

Anne-Marie Dossett (AD): Anne-Marie Dossett.  I’m Reader Development Librarian here in Herefordshire.

MR: Now this is an amazing building, it looks like a small version of London’s Natural History Museum.  Very grand and very Victorian.  Even the kind of murals, the beasts over the arch … I can see a duck-billed playtypus, monkey, crocodile …

AD: Lots of animals to represent all the different continents of the world.  If you look higher up, the carvings are of zodiac symbols as well which are unusual.

MR: Tell us a bit about how this library was founded and why.

AD: It was in 1874.  It was given to the people of Herefordshire by the Rankin family.  I think when it was first opened there was a huge street party and pounds and pounds of cake were baked and all the children of Hereford were invited and all given a special medal for the opening of Hereford City Library.

MR: So let’s go in.  This was an act of philanthropy then? Just one thought about the Rankin family, just to go back to that, what do you think they thought they were doing when they gave a library to Hereford?

AD: I think it was a huge gift for the people of Hereford and as I said there was a huge celebration and it’s something that seems very obvious now, to have a library for everybody that’s free, for people of all ages and classes.

MR: OK, let’s go upstairs and as we go, we’ll go past the Roman mosaic floor from Magnus which seems to be in Kilchester.  So a classic Victorian library, with a museum and grand reference section upstairs. Municipal libraries mushroomed in the second half of the Nineteenth Century after the passing of the Public Libraries Act in 1850 which allowed local authorities to charge a ha’penny rate to build a library.  Here’s Simon Eliot, Professor of the History of the Book at London University’s Institute of English Studies.

Simon Eliot [SE]:  It was in one way just a part of the great Victorian move towards public education and increasing the availability of knowledge and stimulating self-education and so on.  It was hailed as a great achievement.  In practice, the number of local authorities that set up libraries was very small.  One, it wasn’t a very generous rate and – Two – a lot of ratepayers weren’t tremendously keen on the idea. And it really only starts to have an impact in the 1870s and 1880’s, by which time it wasn’t a ha’penny but a penny rate so the resources were slightly larger and there were various other ways of funding library buildings which meant that, on occasion, a philanthropist would come in and say I’ll build you the library as long as you actually stock it with books, a librarian and keep it running and so by the 70s and 80s you’re starting to see scores of local authorities setting up smallish public libraries and from then on the floodgates opened.

….

MR: We’re looking at classic Victorian storage, these wonderful glass-fronted cabinets that go right up to the ceiling so there’s a real sense of treasuring libraries but also the sense that everyone must have access. So now leap forward to this year, 2013, do you think that it’s still the same as it once was when the family gave this to Hereford?

AD: We think it’s the same.  In fact, I was looking at the figures for new members and you’d think it would be mostly small children and old people but our biggest group of new borrowers are people who are 19 to 29.

MR: So how would you describe the current situation as regards funding or – the word that is used – the delivery of service?

AD: Well, it’s been a shock to us a few weeks ago.  We knew what the budget was we working to and we’d made lots of savings and reductions and then all of a sudden it was announced that the budget for the whole council wasn’t correct and the decision was possibly to cut the library service, which would have meant closing all of the libraries except for the City Library and not having very many staff and goodness knows how we were supposed to buy books.  There was a huge uproar in Herefordshire.  Over 9,000 people signed an online petition and there’s been lots of public meetings and there’s lots of discussion now as to what is really going to happen.

“it was announced that the budget for the whole council wasn’t correct and the decision was possibly to cut the library service, which would have meant closing all of the libraries except for the City Library” Anne-Marie Dossett, Herefordshire Libraries

Jan Nesaratnam: The problem is local councils all across the country are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and that is the unfortunate reality and many of them will be rural counties and none of them wants to be the first to tip over into bankruptcy and they are scrabbling around to find money that they can save and unfortunately libraries and other cultural services like Museums and Arts are all seen as an easy target.

MR: This is Jan Nesaratnam, the librarian at Herefordshire Council.  I met her at the public library in Ross on Wye, a very different library to all those animals and signs of the zodiac.  This library is just 25 years old, refurbished two years ago when the council brought in other services into the building to work alongside the library. What’s going on here is one possible solution to the library crisis; libraries sharing spaces with other council services.

JNS: This is one of the major benefits, housing advice, planning

MR: So if I have a problem with paying my council tax?

JNS: Yep, you’d come here.  If you want advice about planning, or benefits or anything to do with that then you’d come here.  It’s also used by the local Registrars who do births, marriages and deaths and it’s also used by people doing literacy workshops or tutoring pupils from our local high school.

MR: I don’t think I have ever been in a library where someone over there is getting help with maybe their housing? I see here a “housing solutions surgery” so if she has some problem with, you know, the damp in her flat or something.  In a library?

JNS: We’ve had teenagers coming saying “I’ve been thrown out of the house, I’m homeless. where do I sleep tonight?”.  But that in a way is what libraries have always been.

“We’ve had teenagers coming saying “I’ve been thrown out of the house, I’m homeless. where do I sleep tonight?”.  But that in a way is what libraries have always been.” Jan Nesaratnam, Herefordshire Libraries

MR: Everyone in the library world has been aware of tough decisions being made around them but it was a shock for Jan and her colleagues when they heard the plan earlier this year to cut the library budget in Herefordshire by 75% as the council scrambled to overcome a £8.5 million shortfall.  The idea was that the council would pay for just one of Herefordshire’s eleven public libraries – the one in Hereford.  As we’re recording this programme, that plan is on hold and other options are being considered.  The councillor with responsibility for cultural services in the County is Roger Phillips.

Roger Phillips [RP]: Two years ago we moved on our mobile libraries and we took out all our mobile library service but at the same time ensuring we had a core service to support community libraries because while I think in some respects while I think people liked the mobile library to some extent it had its day.  The best example I can give is while I was on the mobile library one day with the team we arrived somewhere a little bit late only to be told by the lady “well, where on Earth have you been? I’ve got to go to Tesco’s” and you start thinking to yourself, well, what are we providing the service for?  If you can go to Tesco’s you can go to the market town library and help that and hopefully you know the local sustainability and hopefully the jobs as well. The problem we have of course is many of our older libraries are old Victorian municipal buildings costing a fortune to run and sometimes even if you move them out into more modern facilities such is the appeal of the old building that a lot of people don’t want that.  I think you have to be realistic and libraries have to adapt.

“the best example I can give is while I was on the mobile library one day with the team we arrived somewhere a little bit late only to be told by the lady “well, where on Earth have you been? I’ve got to go to Tesco’s” and you start thinking to yourself, well, what are we providing the service for? ” Cllr Roger Phillips, Herefordshire

MR: So let’s get some figures, how much does it cost?

RP: It’s approximately about £1 million plus for us because we’re quite a small authority but everything’s relative and of course the big issue with a rural area like Herefordshire is our geography.  Now if were to just go down to just one single library in Hereford City that means some people travelling 45 miles, that’s nearly a 100 miles round trip to just go to the library.  Well that, to me, is just not on.

MR: So who was suggesting that come down to just one library?

RP: Well, when you’re under pressure to make the funding, the accountants quite rightly say “look, we have to balance the books” and I think that’s right. The challenge in local government is that you can’t keep taking these reductions and if you look at the Barnet Graph of Doom

MR: What is that?

RP: Well, the Borough of Barnet in London drew up a graph that has now been adopted by the Local Government Association which clearly shows that if you watch the banding of funding for services, the demand for social care in local government is so strong over the next ten years as we get older that, actually, together with the squeeze in Government reductions, what you end up with is that of course the other services are absolutely squeezed in their budgets.

MR: So are you saying that social care is gobbling up libraries?

“social care is gobbling up libraries” Michael Rosen

RP: Well, ultimately, if you look at the Graph of Doom of Barnet that’s true but the alternative is where do you go with the abused child.  Do you say “I’m sorry you can’t go into foster care”? Where do you go to the adult with dementia.  Do you say “I’m sorry you have to stay with your family a bit longer”? Those are the difficult dilemmas which everyone is hiding away from particularly when you have reduced public funding.

MR: The main opposition group on Herefordshire Council is led by Mark Hubbard.  He lives in a house that he describes as what is left of Hereford’s castle.  Which is somewhat appropriate as he styles himself as the defender of the county against marauding national parties. His party is called “It’s Our County” and it was set up to fight the 2011 local elections.  Mark’s solution to the library crisis is to take them out of council control.

Mark Hubbard [MH]H: I look at the local Tories and I think they’re incompetent.  I look at national Tory party policy and I think that that’s scary.  Let’s protect our services because if they get cut we won’t get them back.  We want to find a new delivery system for all sorts of council services that are easy to cut in times of crisis.  What I’m saying is actually I think it’s safer to run those services through bodies that don’t have anything to do with the council because at least that provides them with some sort of protection.

“I look at the local Tories and I think they’re incompetent.  I look at national Tory party policy and I think that that’s scary.  Let’s protect our services because if they get cut we won’t get them back. ” Mark Hubbard, It’s Our County, Herefordshire

RF: I remember when Jeremy Hunt was the Culture Minister we had a charming letter sent out to all the cabinet members right across the country reminding us of our statutory duty to protect library services and that we mustn’t cut them, I was very tempted to write back and say what a charming letter, may I remind you that we need sufficient funding in order to do that?

MR: So what does he and other library services have to provide by law? In England and Wales, the answer is set out in the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. In Scotland there’s the 1974 Local Government Act.  In both the answer is much the same. Local authorities have the duty to maintain public libraries.  The 64 Act is quite demanding.  It says councils have to provide a quote comprehensive and efficient library service.  That word “comprehensive” is open to interpretation but it does surely means that cuts can only go so far. In England, it’s the Arts Council that advices the Government on library policy. I asked its Director for Libraries, Brian Ashley, how worried he was about local government funding.

BA; The kind of spending reductions that are going on are of a measure that we haven’t had to cope with for a long time.  Following on from the passing of the 1964 Act – that was the first time that we had the impetus since the days of Andrew Carnegie to build public libraries for the needs of local communities and in the years that followed there were spurts of activity to build new libraries then over the next 20 or 30 years things bobbled along much the same with some libraries being built and some being closed so in the past if we talked in terms of reductions in spending of 1 or 2% people would scratch their heads and worry about how that was going to happen. In the last three years, local authority library services have been faced with reductions of between 25 to 40%.  It’s a huge increase in scale. Perversely, what that actually does is make people think entirely differently.  It makes people consider what kind of library service we’re able to have.

“In the last three years, local authority library services have been faced with reductions of between 25 to 40%.  It’s a huge increase in scale. Perversely, what that actually does is make people think entirely differently.  It makes people consider what kind of library service we’re able to have.” Brian Ashley, Libraries Director, Arts Council England

MR: So if a library closes, what actually happens? Doesn’t that community lose access to books and everything else that a library provides in that five square miles, ten square miles or whatever.  They’ve lost that forever, haven’t they?

BA: There are many different circumstances in which a library closes. I think it’s important to understand that there are times when it is the right and appropriate thing.  There are undoubtedly circumstance where what you describe is the case, that a community does lose its library.  There’s a sense of loss, of grief, of bereavement about that that arouses strong feelings.  But there are other circumstances where communities move on.  So a library could have been built somewhere fifty years ago, perhaps in a local shopping precinct or what was the heart of a community but since then those shops have perhaps closed and it’s no longer the heart of the community in the same way.  I can think of one circumstance in my home town of Nottingham where there were two libraries, both of which were in that kind of situation, not quite in the right place.  In between them there was an emerging campus of services, where there was a leisure centre, a housing office, a children’s centre and a school nearby.  What we did was to close those two libraries and to open one in that new campus so I would advocate that in that I think that was a good solution. That library is busier than the other two.  So there are going to be times when it’s a difficult decision to take and there are other times when it is absolutely the right thing to do and it’s important to understand that when we hear that word “closure” which is quite an emotional word.

“it’s a difficult decision to take and there are other times when it is absolutely the right thing to do and it’s important to understand that when we hear that word “closure” which is quite an emotional word.” Brian Ashley, Libraries Director for Arts Council England

MR: The main association for libraries is CILIP, the Chartered Institute for Librarians and Information Professionals .  As the title suggests, it represents the idea of professionalism in the library services.  Here, the library story takes another twist.  According to figures produced at the end of last year, the number of volunteers working in libraries had for the first time overtaken the number of professional staff, reaching nearly 23,500 up from just 15,000 four years earlier. The volunteer library force is increasing rapidly and the concept of the community library is spreading.  So are we losing the role of the professional librarian? Here’s Phil Bradley, the president of CILIP,

PB: A place full of books and no librarians is a place full of books and not a library.

MR: Right.  I know you’re saying that and that’s fine from where you’re coming from.  Would Iin government or indeed a lawyer looking at the original Act, would I find the word librarian and does it say that a librarian has to be provided?

PB: What we are generally seeing happening now is that if a council wants to reduce its spending on libraries, it’s trying to get the community involved. To have a community-run library.  And that will be maybe a place that has lots of books with no professionally qualified staff and it is run and served by volunteers.

MR: And does that fulfil the statutory requirement?

PB: I would say that it doesn’t.  Books are to libraries what beds are to hospitals.  They are an absolute requirement but they do not define what it is that we do. So one of the issues that is facing the country at the moment is really trying to define what libraries are and what role that they have and one of the large issues that we have I think is that the councils are looking at libraries really just as glorified bookswap.

“Books are to libraries what beds are to hospitals.  They are an absolute requirement but they do not define what it is that we do. ” Phil Bradley, President of CILIP

MR: You could argue that the solution for libraries is just for everyone to have a computer or alternatively just to have small private libraries which is where the whole system started in the 1800s anyway.  So in an Adam Smith sort of a way, let’s do away with the public library service, let’s privatise it and have other people to provide books at cost and helping them with their computers that buy privately. We don’t need all this wast of public money.

PB: Yes, it’s a good thing that you’re playing devil’s advocate at that point because otherwise I’d get quite angry. The libraries exist to help an entire community. There is a huge number of people who don’t have access to computers, who don’t understand computers, who don’t have access to e-readers, who cannot afford to go in and use private libraries. A publicly funded library service is essential for the well-being of the entire country and, more importantly than that, the better funded the library service is, the more it is able to do, the more it is able decrease levels of illiteracy, the more it can do to help that person get a new job, the more it can help somebody to find the benefits they’re entitled to, the better society is.

“A publicly funded library service is essential for the well-being of the entire country” Phil Bradley, president of CILIP

MR: As the library situation evolves, a number of questions are being asked at the same time.  One is about the book and technology, which we’ll look at more closely next week, another is about local government and what it is for. We’ve heard from local councillors and staff caught up in that. And then there is the question of volunteers and the Big Society. To what extent can communities be left to run their own libraries?  In Herefordshire, having seen the libraries in Ross and Hereford, Jan Nay-Sirandnam took me to see the smallest library, completely volunteer run and in a church.

MR: So we’ve come to the parish church at St Peterchurch and as you can hear we have six campanologists practising their bell ringing.  Beautiful sound. Behind me is the tower and I think we’re going to go up there in a minute. Oh my goodness, I’ve never been in a library like this.  So we’re in the first floor of the tower and coming down from the ceiling are the ropes of the bells and it’s a library at the same time.  I am surrounded by the shelves on all four walls. So you’re a volunteer here?

Volunteer: Yes

MR: So how many hours a week do you do?

Volunteer:  Not many.  We have 17 volunteers in the hope that we only do it twice a month and that’s two hours each time, each session.

MR: Do you think it’s sustainable?

Volunteer: Yes I do because I’ve been on it three years and I think we’ve only had four or five people having to pull out and we’ve managed to replace that so it seems to be quite sustainable.

MR: Now, I’m not in Government – as you may have noticed – but I am going to put a Government hat on and say “well, this is perfect, this is wonderful, it works for Peterchurch, it could work for the whole library service.  We could run the whole library service at risk with volunteers.  What have I said wrong?

JNS; This is our smallest library,  You have about one thousand books here.  You will shelve a thousand books a day in somewhere the likes of Ross on Wye so the scale is very small.  It works very well here because of this particular community and this particular set of volunteers but there are 17/18 volunteers here to keep the library open ten hours per week plus the support that they get from the core library service.  You try to make that work in a much bigger library and you will have problems.

MR: Highly qualified professional librarians may, it seems, become part of a supportive hub at the centre of the volunteer network, not the person you meet at the front desk of your local library. The librarian’s tale has involved quite a journey from the emergence of the job in the Victorian libraries as a kind of gatekeeper come moral guardian.

“Highly qualified professional librarians may, it seems, become part of a supportive hub at the centre of the volunteer network” Michael Rosen

SE: Essentially most libraries were closed until 1914.  If you were a user, you couldn’t browse the books. What you had is an elaborate shelving system tucked away behind a serving counter behind which are various library assistants and you have to order the books you want.  After the First World War, it’s quite clear that many libraries quickly became open access though you still had cases – I think it was in Punch – of a cartoon which showed the dangers of an open library system.  There was a lady up a ladder, pulling a book off the top shelf and a number of books tumbling down on a reader below.  There were two gentlemen fighting over a particular volume and there was some Artful Dodger figure tucking a book into his coat pocket.  Libraries do inspire all those sorts of fears.  Fears of corruption, fears of raised expectations, fears of theft.  Also, fears of disease.  If you look at some library books in the Twentieth Century, there are dire warnings pasted in a sheet saying “do not return this book” if you are suffering from sort of infectious disease: scarlet fever or something like that.  But there was a moral parallel to that.  There was a feeling that books might physically transmit disease but of course could morally transmit one sort of disease or another so there’s a sense of edginess, a sense of worry, that always goes along with making knowledge more accessible.  This was physically dramatised in public libraries at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

MR; So if we’ve got as we start of with, the librarian is a bit like a shopkeeper so you can’t get at the liquor …

SE: Definitely a gatekeeper

MR:  .,, Yes, as a gatekeeper then – in my day – you could go to the librarian and say I would like another Rosemary Sutcliffe novel please and she would say yes I have a new one coming in, I can remember that as a child, and she would tell me how to go and get it.  Now, you know, talking to a representative of the library service, he seemed to be saying, well, almost that a librarian was like someone from a Citizen’s Advice Bureau, that a librarian could help you read what benefits you were entitled to … which is such a far cry from the person saying that they don’t stock novels but they can give you the book on thermodynamics.

“Now, you know, talking to a representative of the library service, he seemed to be saying, well, almost that a librarian was like someone from a Citizen’s Advice Bureau” Michael Rosen

SE: They’re almost being obliged to become some sort of social workers.  They’re an information centre, they’re an advice centre.

“They’re almost being obliged to become some sort of social workers” Professor Simon Eliot

MR: Let’s end the first of the two library programmes back in Hereford county library.  Here’s the librarian there, Ann-Marie Dossit

AD: What I love so much about libraries, and librarians, is that they’re letting people decide for themselves what they want to read and just giving them access to it.  All that information, all that knowledge and learning.  So many writers have talked about books and becoming writers and it always starts in a public library where they have access to so much for free. I think there’s such value in that. I don’t know [deep sigh] Mmmm.

MR: Next week we’ll visit the brand new Library of Birmingham, the biggest public lending library in Britain, we’ll examine the legacy of the great classical libraries and we’ll look at America’s first bookless library in San Antonio, Texas.  Is that the future?