Ed Vaizey, the Libraries Minister, made his most important speech on the subject for two years todat at the “The Future of Library Services” conference.  He then went on the Front Row radio programme and said several more interesting things.  The full text of the radio programme can be found at the end of this post and I would recommend everyone with an interest should read it.
For the meantime, though, let’s examine his conference speech. I have put Ed’s statements as bullet points and viewpoints – either mine or those of others – in quotes below to avoid confusion.
  • Ed begun by welcoming the new libraries that have been built like Canada Water and the ones being built like Birmingham.  He welcomed also the excellent news that library usage is not decline due to the Taking Part Survey released today.
” Library visits are not falling, he says. It depends where you look. Certainly, in areas such as Brent and Lewisham the figures are grim and Mr Vaizey refused to intervene. The save our libraries movement has actually told Mr Vaizey that library use has been surprisingly robust in spite of his less than adequate stewardship. Some refurbishment has indeed occurred, but nowhere near enough and community libraries continue to close or are in danger of being turned into volunteer institutions with a precarious future.” Alan Gibbons

” according to the latest quarterly figures it’s dropped from 39.7% to 38.8%” Alan Wylie

  • He then announced a £6 million Arts Council England (ACE) fund over two years to help libraries work with arts and cultural organisations and local communities. Ed aims for ACE to be the “development agency” for Libraries, providing them with funds and support.
It’s worth pointing out that £3m each year represents one third of one percent of the total expenditure on libraries in England each year of £900m.  However, that is a very large amount for an area of libraries – events and promotion  that is necessarily facing the most pressure at the moment and it is to be welcomed. [Ian]

“At last libraries will benefit from the kind of national investment that museums have had. It’s brilliant to see this long overdue announcement. Libraries are essential in giving everyone an equal chance to become a reader.” Miranda McKearney, The Reading Agency

  • a series of pilots to test automatic library membership for primary school children, run in partnership with ACE and the Department for Education.
“Automatic enrolment of all primary school children as members of their local library is a major step in getting more children to benefit from the life changing experiences libraries offer. Research shows that children who use libraries are twice as likely to be above average readers.” Miranda McKearney, The Reading Agency
This is wonderful news and Michael Rosen, who has been pushing for this for years, should be delighted.  The only worry is that it is only a pilot with no guarantee of an extension to a national level. [Ian]
  • new ‘comparative profile reports’ produced by CIPFA showing how library authorities’ services compare across England.  Reports will be public in December.  The aim is for poorly performing authorities to be identified and helped to improve.  Mr Vaizey was very clear that it as not a return to Standards.

“It could be useful to promote good practice. It could equally be an exercise in divide and rule to pass responsibility for problems in the public library from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to local councils. Leadership has been absent for some years. Strategic planning has been as rare as an bank boss with honour. This part of the speech suggests that is not likely to change any time soon.” Alan Gibbons

The tone suggests that it will be to ensure maximum efficiency and return from money invested. This is a move in the right direction, may not be enough. One alsowonders what the DCMS has been doing with previous CIPFA data reports.  Just filing them? In addition, there is no mention of staffing in the examples used. [Ian.]

  • “ambition” for all public libraries to be Wifi by 2015. Aim for cross-departmental solution to this.

Great news, and one that Ed comes back to in the Radio Four interview below where he says “I am amazed by how few libraries have Wifi”.  However, there is no announcement of funding – it’s just an “ambition”.  Also, 2015 is three years away.  This relatively cheap provision is something that could have be done this year if the political will was there [Ian.].

  • Emphasis that other Government departments have part to play e.g. Dept Education for primary school library membership, “Cabinet Office has recently awarded £127,000 from the Social Action Fund to the Reading Agency to support teenage volunteers in libraries”, Cabinet Office Race Online 2012.

This is reassuring as the announcement on the £6m from ACE suggests a worrying Arts bias.  Libraries are so much more than the Arts in roles such as Education, Health, Social Welfare and Employment. It is also great that there is a recognition that funding could be obtained from other Departments. [Ian.]

  • Volunteers.  3000 volunteers were involved in Summer Reading Challenge 2011. “Volunteers are crucial to the library service.  But let me state again, as I have so often, they are not a substitute for expertise of professional librarians, as well as other people trained in specific aspects of the library service. I am also pleased to see community supported libraries coming into play, particularly where a local authority is planning to close a building.”  There will also be a ” new information resource for authorities considering establishing community supported or community managed libraries in their areas” currently being worked on by DCMS, Arts Council, LGA, Defra, and DCLG.

“Mr Vaizey must know that in Surrey a court case has blocked this path. After all, the Surrey Tory leader was a keynote speaker at the conference. Mr Vaizey must also know that a Surrey cabinet member has admitted that no money would be saved by volunteer libraries being introduced, clear evidence that this is an ideologically driven policy, not one directed reluctantly by cost.” – Alan Gibbons

It’s hard to square the two statements.  Ed seems to be saying that councils should use paid staff rather than volunteer staff until they can no longer afford to do so and then they should give the library to volunteers.  Even if this is logically consistent, in his own constituency his own local authority Oxfordshire are imposing a system where volunteers will partly staff libraries.  He seems to be trying to hold two diametrically opposed positions while at the same time not mentioning a third. [Ian.]

  • “I have made it clear from the moment I became a Minister that no library authority should contemplate closing libraries unless they have conducted a proper review of their library service.
    While some local authorities have put forward controversial proposals since 2010, all of them have conducted a library review, as I made clear to them they would have to do when I took office. I have no doubt that the efforts of library campaigners have also brought about welcome changes in some of the more extreme proposals put forward … “A figure of 600 library closures is regularly quoted in the media – but it is very wide of the mark.  A truer picture of building closures would be about a tenth of that.””

    He attacks us for over-egging the danger to the service, but the librarians’ professional body CILIP estimated in 2011 that 600 libraries were under threat (inc. 20% of English libraries). The reason this nightmarish scenario has not occurred has been because local communities have mounted commendable resistance, reducing councils’ room to manoeuvre. This has included legal actions, pickets, protests, Read Ins and a lobby of Parliament. None of this agitation is reflected in this blandest of speeches.”  Alan Gibbons.

There seems to be a strange disconnect between Ed’s phrases and what is happening on the ground.  Even the LGA, this week, has warned libraries could end  by 2020 due to Government cuts.  There was no mention of this. It seems from his Radio Four interview below that he thinks that closures have always been with us and the current almost universally held view (by library staff, by users and by the media) that libraries are facing the worst crisis in their history is the result of some kind of mass hysterical episode.  Moving on to figures, Mr Vaizey is correct that around 60 library have closed – as long as one only takes into account buildings actually boarded up.  If one includes mobiles and libraries forced on to volunteers then the figure is 154 and here are the names and links to prove it[Ian.]

“Ed Vaizey in his Front Row interview and his talk today continues the line that there is no real issue about closures or tansfers, and that nothing unusual is happening compared to routine closures and openings. Yes, the SCL is reporting that 39 refurbished or new libraries will open this year, But the reports from individual authorities and through the media suggest that many, many libraries are threatened with closure or transfer. And CILIP’s forecast of 600 over the next couple of years was based on feedback from individual authorities. Why then is Ed being fed with a very different story by his officials or is he just like an ostrich with his head in the sand?And why did the CMS Parliamentary Select Committee set up an inquiry into library closures when, according to Ed Vaizey and his officials, there is not even an issue. It seems that campaigners are simply fighting imaginary battles!”  Desmond Clarke.


This is the most that Ed has promised since he came to office, marking an end to two years of inaction.
So why now?  Maybe because of Inquiry into Library Closures and taking wind out of sails of forthcoming Labour report on libraries.  It may also garner a few positive headlines at a time when the Coalition desperately needs some.  It may also be because that, faced with massive criticism, he simply had no choice.  It is perhaps the least he could do but at least he has done it and, for that, at least, he deserves some credit.
“there is nothing new or progressive in this speech. Invisible man Vaizey continues to evade his responsibilities and the public library service is anything but safe in his hands. Around the country communities know what the picture is in their area. They will not be fooled by Mr Vaizey’s latest blandishments. Already, we are planning a conference to prepare for any new challenges. Watch this space.”  Alan Gibbons.

The Minister who has done nothing has the temerity to praise campaigners for trying to halt the destruction and divestment of the Public Library service that he by his inaction has renounced responsibility for! If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny – Alan Wylie

Ed Vaizey on Radio Four
Front Row, 28/6/12 – BBC Radio Four (15:26 to 21:25)

Mark Lawson: “”The idea of a lending library is to give temporary ownership of books but numerous activists and community groups across Britain are discovering to their surprise that they only had temporary ownership of the libraries.  Many have been closed by local councils trying to cut costs.  Today, the Libraries Minister Ed Vaizey made a speech to the National Libraries Services Conference  in London announcing greater scrutiny of libraries by Government and Arts Council England.  We talked afterwards.  In his speech he posted that he never in Opposition or Government has claimed that libraries are in crisis but if so then many protest groups think he has misread the situation.  They believe there is a crisis….

Ed Vaizey: “Of course there will be in certain liocal authorities there will be people campaigning and saying they don’t want their libraries to close. that’s perfectly legitimate, but its doesn’t mean the library service is about to fall over”.

Mark: “No … you mention in your speech the big one opening in Birmingham but, look, I travel around the country in pursuit of culture and football and I always buy a local newspaper and it’s astonishing – this is over the last year – five branch libraries closed in Bolton, anger over library closures in Weymouth, Henley on Thames villagers voice their anger over library closures threat, thousands lobby Culture Secretary over library closures in Brent, fury of Coventry residents … anger on the Isle of Man over library closures.  I mean this is pretty constant.  Why is all that anger and all those apparent closures and that isn’t a crisis?”

Ed:Well, I think you would probably be able to pull those headlines if you took a snapshot of local newspapers in 2005, in 1995, in 1985.  There have always been library closures.  There have always been library openings.  Some of the examples you cited, those libraries haven’t closed and occasionally local authorities will put forward a proposal and campaigners quite rightly beat them back.  There are others when libraries have closed where they’ve been talking about closing the library for five or six years. They, in their view – the authority – are taking much needed steps to rationalise their library service.  In the view of campaigners, they committed cultural vandalism.  There are some local authorities that are using to the current economic climate to say “well, this is now beyond our control, we’ve got to go ahead”.   But, actually, some of them, if you scratch below the surface, they’ve wanted to do it for ages because the libraries are in the wrong place, or it’s a very old building, or it’s very expensive to maintain and so on.  Of course, you won’t pick up in your local papers for some reason the libraries that are oepning.  We are estimating about 60 libraries have opened in the last year and we estimate a similar amount have closed so…

Mark: The reason many people get confused, and I think it’s worth laying this out, is the way it works which is that libraries are paid for by local ratepayers, community charge payers but because they are a statutory provision, you as the national government have oversight of them and you can, if you wish, descend and do terrible things to them if they fail under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.
Ed: Which I don’t use and in fact…
Mark: Why don’t you?
Ed: It’s only been used once in fifty years.  So far, I haven’t been given advice that any of the authorities in question have broken their comprehensive and efficient duty.  And I don’t use it because I think libraries are a local authority service and I haven’t come across a case where I thought it was appropiate to use it.  I’m not going to use it as a political weapon.  I will use it when I think there is a legitimate case to use it.  It was used recently by Andy Burnham when he was the Culture Secretary and what came out of that, as well, was first of all a realisation, a reminder to local authorities that that power was there, a reminder they had the statutory duty and also they got – as a result of the report that came out of that – a pretty good roadmap about the things you should be doing when you’re thinking about changing your library service.
Mark: There is an argument to which you allude in your speech – some people listening to this conversation will think that it’s mad – that the idea of the library that as we knew it when we were growing up as this red brick building or glass and steel now, where people go and get books is completely bonkers.  That as we go into the digital age you can run it out of a laptop and you don’t need one of those buildings.  Now you address this very strongly in your speech.  You seem to be, your are trying to preserve the classic library building and one of the ways you are doing that is making more of a kind of Arts centre.
Ed:  Yes, I think there are huge opportunities: libraries will work with Adult Education, they will work with Health so the district nurse can be in the library on a Wednesday morning and people can come in and talk to her and that kind of thing and get health advice and so on.  So there’s lots of things that libraries can do.  In the digital age of course a lot of people use their library to access the internet, that’s incredibly important.  I am amazed by how few libraries have Wifi.  And also the Arts link is very important so we put libraries in with the Arts Council and it’s, I think, creating a huge opportunity.  If you read the reports on the library service in the 1950s, it talked about libraries being effectively quasi galleries as well. Places where you could go to to hear lectures, places where the local museum might put some of its exhibits on show, where there would be travelling exhibitions … so there are ways which libraries can become cultural hubs and I think that is very important.
Mark: And finally, as you’d expect, are you a library user?  Do you have a library card?
Ed: Yes, I’ve got a library card and I’ll produce it.  I obviously use the library as the Libraries Minister because I get asked it at every interview whether or not I ever use it.
Mark:  I know, and that’s what I am getting at, did you use it before you became the Libraries Minister?
Ed:  I use the library as well because I have children and we go and borrow books from our local library. But I have my own criticisms of my local library and there are certain things I am sure it could do better to attract, dare I say it, people like me, middle aged people who tend to last remember using a library intensively when they were children who need to see if they can use the library more and for me it would be about borrowing CDs but it would also be about getting into the habit of borrowing books that are perhaps … I am a book lover so my default position is to buy a book that I would want but to borrow the books that I would perhaps want to read or dip into at home. But what is interesting of course is that my library service has never been in touch with me. I have never received a letter from them. I have never received any communication telling me what they offer, the library that is three or four hundred yards from where I live so I think that’s a very important example of libraries needing to reach out to communities and remind people of the kind of services they offer.
Mark: Do you want to name and shame the borough?
Ed: I would not dare do that. (laughs)
Interview ends