The Select Committee into Library Closures made public its report today.  Has the wait since the inquiry ended in February been worth the wait?  No, not really.  To sum up its entirety in one sentence: people are told to work harder, share good practice and not to close libraries wholesale without a decent plan.  That’s it.  Oh, you want more?  Oh, OK then:

  •   “a number of councils have drawn up plans that fail to comply with the requirement to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service.“:  Crucially, though, there is no indication as to which ones these are, if they implemented their plans or if anyone should do anything about it.  It’s just a statement left hanging.  Which is incredible, considering that this statement means that the Secretary of State has potentially failed in his legal duties to superintend the public library service, under the terms of the 1964 Act.
  • DCMS need to do more to spread guidance on how to access local needs.  This is a repeated theme of the report.  It is the main role of government to spread good practice and that’s it.
  • Standards are bad because only those standards that are mentioned are adhered to.  It’s clear the Inquiry thinks that no standards are better, presumably because then no standards need to be adhered to.
  • Volunteers should be given “necessary support” or it’s “closure by stealth”.  Which sounds good but comes down to stating the obvious.
  • Ed Vaizey should produce a report on the effect of cuts on libraries in 2014.  Yes, in 2014.  Clearly, the Committee that took nine months to publish this report feels that the same white-hot urgency is necessary in the minister.
  • There’s some interesting statistical stuff. Adult visits from 2005 to 2010 fell from 48% to 40% but children’s visits (a very high 75%)  have not changed in the same period.   The total number of books issued has fallen from 650m p.a. in the 1980s to fewer than half that number now.  “Spending has varied little year-on-year over the last 35 years. After around a decade of stable expenditure, there were real increases in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but expenditure fell back in the mid 1990s. Increases in spending from 1997–98 have been only partially reversed in recent years.” … “the total number of public libraries has remained fairly constant from the late 1970s to the present day, at between 3,300 and 3,400.”  Opening hours have increased over this period.  Staffing has decreased from 25,000 in late 1970s to 21,000 two years ago.  Yes, the most I have to say about this Inquiry is it has some useful stats.
  • Funding for libraries is not ring-fenced and so the sector needs to fight it out with everyone else.  I think we knew that.
  • DCMS needs to give guidance on what “comprehensive and efficient” actually means.  But there’s going to be no standards so it basically comes down to having given reasonable consideration to how much money the authority has and what the needs of the area are.  Do that and no worries.
  • The Secretary of State needs to send an email out about the Charteris Report and a link to recent ACE research.  Because councils don’t know how to use the internet.
  • “wholesale closures are unlikely to facilitate an appropriate level of service”. Really? The Inquiry felt that needed saying?
  • Councils need to “retain enough experienced and/or professionally qualified staff to develop the services on offer to the public to reflect changing needs “.  But there’ll be no standards so this means nothing.
  • “It is short-sighted to reduce co-operation at this time of financial constraint.” The Inquiry for Stating the Bleeding Obvious strikes again.
  • “We urge the DCMS, Arts Council and Local Government Association to evaluate the effectiveness of the different models being developed round the country and to produce an analysis for councils by the end of 2013.” By my count this means Ed has to send one email each year: the first now with a useful couple of links, the next in 2013 with a look at how councils are facing the worst cuts in history and one in 2014 showing the impact of what they did.  Sock it to ’em, Committee members!
  • “The current situation, however, where the Secretary of State has considerable reserve powers but is unwilling at present to use them, satisfies no one”. It’s stating the obvious time again, folks … but, wait, perhaps they want him to do something?
  • Quite the opposite. You see, the current method of doing inquiries is “too adversarial“. So, even if the Government does do an Inquiry ever – which it won’t – that Inquiry should make the offending Council feel good about itself.
  • Promote “best practice and supporting the service through intervention at a national level in areas where there are potential efficiencies of scale“. So, it’s about being a glorified information service at a local level and a suggestion for some good national stuff, although that would be presumably up to the whim of local authorities whether they join it or not.
  • Cuts to national funding give “an impression that the library service in general is being afforded a lower priority“.  An impression?
  • Everyone needs to “work harder”.  This is what it says.  The DCMS needs to work harder.  ACE need to work harder.  This is going to be challenging for ACE who just lost a fifth of their staff.  What it appears to mean for the Government is they need to make more speeches and send more emails.

And that’s it.

It’s going to be surprising if this gets any national publicity at all.  It doesn’t say anything.  It’s recommendations are obvious. The entire report is about the triumph of Localism.  Central Government should not and will not intervene directly in local matters.  Because local authorities know best.  And, if they don’t, they should be emailed.

Now, you know (what little) I think of the report, let’s see what other people think…

Light blue touch-paper and retire (until 2014)’  should be embossed on the cover of this Report. Alas, there’s no need to cover your ears :  it does not go off with a bang. No traitorous Guy Fawkes, nor co-conspirators are identified – let alone stuffed and consigned to the fire.   Nothing explosive is contained therein. No urgency is acknowledged.   No recommendations are made as to how the rapid demise of this valued statutory service can be reversed.   It is only a rather patronising damp squib that goes “phut”. How appropriate it is that those who rely on Public Libraries should receive the Committee’s feeble offering on November 5th !” Shirley Burnham

Worryingly, Dan Jarvis MP, thinks it’s “a damning report”…

 ““This is a damning report for the Government as section after section refers to a lack of action or guidance from the Secretary of State. Both on the subject of libraries under threat or being closed, or on what a “comprehensive and efficient” service should look like.The report correctly identifies some of the major problems facing this key service but it also exposes a Government that has no sense of the scale of the problem and has shown no leadership in forging a coherent vision for the future of the library service.

The Minister has on numerous occasions shirked his statutory duty to superintend and promote the improvement of the library service. This has resulted in policy being made by court cases rather than the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and a failure to ensure that there is a fresh vision for a 21st library service.  The only commitment the Minister has given is a report by the end of 2014 – two years from now – on the cumulative effect on library services of the reduction in local authority provision. This is very much a case of the Government closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. David Cameron and Ed Vaizey need to be working with local authorities now to ensure the continued existence of libraries as a valued, and much needed community resource.”” Dan Jarvis MP, Shadow minister with responsibility for libraries.

That’s not a damning report, Dan.  It’s the least they could have done … and they did it.

I seem to have been a little kinder in tone than some other commentators. Maybe it is because I expected very little. By their nature, these reports are usually a balancing act between different political forces so it was never going to criticise Ed Vaizey or draw up a national strategy for libraries. What is positive? It sets out the importance of libraries in book borrowing and Internet use. It notes their importance to communities and dismisses the notion that it is a service in irrevocable decline. It recommends firm supervision by the Secretary of State and demands a report by the end of 2014. Where is it weak? Well, it is bland for the reasons I indicate above. It does not set out a strategy such as there is in New Zealand. It does not openly criticise the many failures of the DCMS. It loads false hopes on the shoulders of the Arts Council. It can give campaigners some ammunition, but it will do absolutely nothing to save libraries. That is what most of us expected. That is what we got. Our fight goes on. Alan Gibbons. See also his full response here.

“It would take a rocket to get any action from the official bodies responsible for libraries. And this isn’t it. Library users know public libraries are in crisis – not everywhere, but enough to threaten the whole concept of an accessible, expert service networked across the nation. The committee sees the need to assess the ‘cumulative effect’ of all this. But it’s happy to wait for the minister to tell it ‘by the end of 2014’. That’s too late. Irreversible damage has already been done. We dread to think how far things will have gone after two more years of vicious cuts. To its credit, the committee sees that a library that is seldom open, and has no trained staff, isn’t a proper library at all. We’ve long wanted the minister to admit the same thing. The committee sees the need – which we’ve seen for decades – for local councils to know something about about libraries, and the fantastic work that they are doing. We look forward to the culture department, the Arts Council and the professional librarian bodies getting that knowledge out. It’s high time local councils knew what they were doing. As the committee says, people are ‘strongly attached to their libraries’. This report contains many valuable insights. But we wish it had more urgency, and had clear recommendations that demanded immediate action.” The Library Campaign

“The group believe that many of the committee’s recommendations place responsibilities firmly on the shoulders of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to act to prevent unnecessary and harmful cuts to library services. The committee state that it is “not cost-effective for policy to be made by judicial review and it undermines democratic accountability”. VftL agree with a number of the recommendations made by the committee, including the suggestion that the Secretary of State provide appropriate guidance to local authorities regarding how to abide by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 which places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” level of service. VftL believe that many of the cuts already made could and should have been avoided had the Secretary of State acted competently and provided the appropriate level of guidance and oversight to local authorities as they were forced to implement quick and drastic cuts to their services.

VftL have grave concerns that this report will receive the proper attention it requires from DCMS, and that the organisations with responsibilities for public library provision and oversight lack the resources required to do so effectively. It is vital for the UK public library service for the government to not only acknowledge the importance of libraries to society, but to act upon the links they have identified between libraries and education, literacy, employment, community cohesion and social well-being. Library services cannot achieve anything without adequate funding, suitable and accessible buildings and paid, trained and qualified staff. Research must be conducted into the actual value added or damage done to library services through the use of volunteers before they can be accepted as a legitimate means of providing library support. Research must also be conducted into the broader impact of libraries on communities, which Arts Council England had planned to conduct but are now unlikely to be able to in the light of their own drastic budget cuts and restructuring. The committee suggested that the ACE libraries team should provide information about potential problems to the DCMS because they are ideally located around the country; this will no longer be the case.  The CMS Select Committee has “no doubt that the Arts Council will fulfil its duties in respect of libraries efficiently and with enthusiasm” – unfortunately VftL have plenty of doubts.” Voices for the Library

 “The report leaves the impression that the Committee is sitting on the fence while the public library service continues to drift. The report will not stop councils closing libraries for the wrong reasons. Sadly, the report fails to provide clear guidance about how library authorities can cope with budget cuts while waiting until the end of 2014 for yet another report assessing the damage done.  It would have been helpful if the Committee had at least recommended the setting up of some form of library task force within the Arts Council to fill the leadership void. It is not enough to say that all those involved in providing the service need to work much harder. “ Desmond Clarke