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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."
 

ISC 16. The Social Value of the Local Neighbourhood Library

By Jonathan Rutherford

Introduction

On 7 March 2002,the Liberal Democrat controlled Education and Libraries Committee of the London Borough of Islington made a decision to close the Arthur Simpson Library (ASL). This decision was subsequently ratified in a full Council meeting. In July the Campaign to Save the Arthur Simpson Library began proceedings to take the Council before a judicial review over its failure to consult the public. The response of the Council was to claim that no final decision to close the Arthur Simpson Library had been taken and that a consultation exercise would begin. A final decision would be taken by the Council's Executive Committee on 28 November. This document is the Campaign¹s submission to that exercise.

The aim of the Campaign is to keep open a publicly owned, accessible to all, neighbourhood library in Tollington, staffed and resourced by the LBI. The campaign has undertaken research to back up its assertion that small neighbourhood libraries have a vital role to play in today's information society. Based on this evidence it opposes the Council's plan to link the building and resourcing of the new public library (which will be a part of City and Islington College's new Lifelong Learning Centre in Blackstock Road) with the closure of the ASL. It argues that the Council should separate the two issues. If a decision about the future of the ASL is to have longer term strategic meaning, the Council should engage in a proper public consultation exercise (see below), undertake a social impact assessment of its closure, and explore alternative sources of financing. The Campaign argues that if the decline in library use (which is a national problem) is to be reversed, the Council needs to rethink its service from the user¹s point of view.

The Campaign has significant local support. It stood a candidate in the Local Council elections in May 2002 and won over 400 votes, coming in fourth behind the three elected Labour candidates who directly benefited from the Campaign. 4500 people have signed a petition calling on the Council to save the ASL. Local schools, nurseries and community centres have sent letters of support. A public meeting in the ASL of over 130 people, part of the consultation exercise, unanimously rejected the Council's plans to close the library. The Campaign has the active support of the local MP, Jeremy Corbyn. On a wider level the Campaign has attracted considerable sympathy and interest from the local press (including an article in the Big Issue ) with editorial support from the Islington Gazette. Authors of national and international repute such as Nick Hornby, Anne Fine, Sue Gee, Terry Pratchet, Michael Morpurgo, Brian Patten, Doris Lessing and Clare Rayner have written to give their support. Over the last seven months the Council has failed to respond to this widespread and heartfelt concern with a convincing and reasoned argument for closing down the ASL.

The Consultation Exercise

The Campaign wishes to draw attention to the flawed nature of the Council's consultation exercise. A letter drawn up by the Campaign's solicitors Allen & Overy, setting out best practice for public consultation exercises, was ignored by the Council. The Council's exercise has involved a minimum effort to solicit local opinion, and has fallen far short of acceptable standards.

The over reliance on a single questionnaire delivered to each house in an area with one of the highest levels of multiple occupation in London, has resulted in large numbers of residents failing to receive a copy. This practice contradicts the Council's own declared intention to deliver a consultation leaflet to Islington residents who live within 3/4 of a mile of either the existing or proposed library.

The cover of the questionnaire is misleading and fails to alert the reader that it concerns the future of the Arthur Simpson Library. The wording of the questionnaire and the choices offered to people have aroused widespread indignation. There is a general perception that the questionnaire is biased in favour of the Council's original plan to close down the ASL and that completing it will merely affirm this intention.

The Council has conceded that there have been serious problems, but have only been willing to extend the deadline from Monday 6 October to Friday 10 October. On the 6 October the Council reported that returns of the questionnaire were approximately 220. This small number contrasts sharply with the high level of public interest over the future of the ASL and suggests that the Council's consultation has completely failed to engage with people's concerns.

LBI's intention to close down the ASL

The Arthur Simpson Library is situated in Tollington Ward in the London Borough of Islington. The Government's 2000 index of multiple deprivation places the ward in the top 6% of the most deprived wards in England. It has one of the lowest levels of secondary level educational attainment and an unemployment rate of 9.2%. It is part of the Finsbury Park regeneration scheme and there are two Sure Start schemes in the area. The library is a significant cultural and educational resource in the neighbourhood.

The Council has sought to legitimise its intention to close the library by citing the trend in falling issues and visits. This fails to take into account the general national decline in library use and in particular, the cuts in the opening hours of the ASL. Research has proven that cuts in opening hours and varying opening times reduces the number of library visits. Figures from the Council's Public User Survey in 1998 show that the Arthur Simpson library has more users who are under 14 and 75+ than some other Islington libraries, is more highly regarded in terms of resources, has the best layout, and does not have the poorest use. Declining use of ASL amongst local schools has been partially caused by the loss of children's librarians over the years - a trend reinforced by the recent restructuring of staff which is consolidating dependence on part time and agency staff. LBI's Libraries 2001 Annual Plan notes that the National Curriculum has put pressure on schools, marking a general falling off of visits to Islington Libraries (p.57).

Attempts to justify the closure of the ASL by citing the decline in issue figures and visitor numbers fail to account for the social value of the library. This point is central to the argument put forward by the 2002 Audit Commission Report, Building Better Library Services (2002). The use of statistical arguments in isolation, to justify closure, is a narrow and instrumental assessment of how a library is used. Its intangible value as a source of social cohesion, neighbourhood identity and aspiration are discounted. Professor Robert Usherwood of Sheffield University's Centre for the Public Library and Information in Society has stated "it is our view that issue figures and visitor numbers do not always tell the whole story about the value and impact of the library service."

Effects of Closure

Closing a library is a difficult decision and requires forethought, and an assessment of the likely impact. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport's over-arching policy on library closures is that "service changes, including closures, are acceptable where they form part of an overall review of services that will result in an improved and modernised service". The Council took advantage of an opportunity offered by City and Islington College for the development of a new library without foresight and with no thought to the strategic development of the library service in the borough as a whole. No research has been undertaken on who is going to use the new library, nor on its impact on the Central Library, situated on the other side of Highbury Fields.

Closure of the ASL will leave the area and its users without access to a public library. The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Third Special Report (2000) recommends that: any standard for the location of libraries should be linked specifically to modes of transport and in particular to measures of the quality of public transport provision. We further recommend that the standards as finally issued should require authorities to assess the community value of individual libraries, a value which goes beyond internal definitions of user satisfaction, even if this community value is not readily susceptible to statistical analysis.

This reference reiterates the Campaign's argument about the problems of relying too heavily on statistical analysis to make social policy. The Campaign questioned 380 regular users. They go once, twice, five times a week. What would they miss most about the Arthur Simpson Library? 69% said the fact it was a local and accessible library resource. How do they feel about travelling to Blackstock Road? 20 said they would go. 294 (77%) would NOT go. The Council, in making its original decision to close the ASL, not only failed to undertake an appropriate consultation exercise, it made no attempt to seek independent expert advice, commission a social audit, or undertake an impact study on the effects of the ASL's closure on the local area. Nor did it make any attempt to explore other sources of finance or partnerships. It's argument about the new library being a replacement for the ASL demonstrated a lack of local knowledge and, more generally, a failure to understand the social geography and culture of library use which consistently point to the importance of local neighbourhood libraries.

The Campaign would draw to the attention of the Council a study by the Centre for the Public Library and Information in Society called Access to Public Libraries which examined the impact of library closures on local neighbourhoods.5 It found that : closure has a significant impact on library users. An average of one in five may be denied access to the service altogether after the closure of their local library; young children are likely to be worst affected. Up to six out of ten may be prevented from using a public library service by the closure of their local library; continued access to the service is facilitated if there is an alternative library in a centre to which people already go for other reasons; teachers, parents and library staff all agree that children are severely disadvantaged without access to a local library.

The research identified the value of a local library service: it provides a distinctive value to its users which goes well beyond its value as a source of books and information; it gives its users a sense of worth, makes them feel they belong to something important, and encourages a sense of community; it provides a therapeutic function, helping reduce the incidence of boredom, loneliness and depression; it is an irreplaceable resource for children to learn reading and information seeking skills which schools cannot replace; the contribution of the local library to community life and individual well being is far reaching, distinctive and irreplaceable. In the light of this evidence, users of the ASL, in particular school children, are unlikely to use the new library in Blackstock Road. The closure of the ASL will deprive the communities in the neighbourhood of a public library, and effectively disenfranchise thousands of Islington residents from the Council's library service. This fact the Council acknowledges. The impact on the immediate area will be a form of blight on local culture and learning which will add to social deprivation, undermine efforts to improve educational attainment and hinder the implementation of policies associated with life long learning and Sure Start.

Why would the Council create this state of affairs? The new library will require more money. The ASL is the cheaper option. Financially it makes no sense. The Council has failed to provide evidence that the new library in Blackstock Road would be more effective as a service, or would reverse the general decline in library use, or that it is part of any longer term thinking. No research has been undertaken. The decision is based on hazarding a guess and the promise of a prestigious flagship development. It is justified by a rather general idea about the relationship between the informal learning undertaken by individuals in libraries, their possible entry into formal education, and the contribution of this process to community development and regeneration.

Learning, Regeneration and Community Development

The Government¹s publication Libraries for All: Social Inclusion in Public Libraries , states that combating social exclusion is one of its highest priorities and that "few [organisations] are ... as well placed as public libraries to generate change". The Campaign recognises the diverse range of communities and needs in the local neighbourhood and beyond. It is committed to the idea of the strategic development of libraries in the Borough as part of the Council's broader policies of economic regeneration and facilitating learning and education. The Campaign argues that community development is best achieved by "bottom up" initiatives, local neighbourhood libraries, and building on existing provision. Neighbourhood libraries provide a vital role in fostering a neighbourhood's sense of cohesion and identity. Proctor, Lee and Reilly (1998) demonstrate that a local building-based library has a distinctive value to a community which cannot be replaced either by a replacement mobile library or an alternative branch in another neighbourhood.

The campaign believes that a significant element in creating greater levels of social inclusion will be people's ability to make connections with others in a variety of appropriate media. Deprived communities are characterised by close local ties, but relatively few links to society beyond their neighbourhoods. Deprived communities are information poor, and have a fragile connection to the political process and limited access to the employment market. The economic and social development of such communities is facilitated by their establishing wider links beyond their local neighbourhoods that integrate them into social networks. The development of these social networks is reliant upon individuals (particularly children and young people) achieving increasing levels of cultural and social capital (what you know and whom you know). These forms of capital are the prerequisites for new associations that enable participation in the democratic process and improved employment opportunities. Without them individuals have limited opportunities in the service and knowledge economies, and for social mobility in general. In this context, achieving appropriate levels of knowledge and understanding, and having the ability to find and evaluate information take on increasing significance. Any strategy for developing the Borough's library service must ask what is the most effective way of achieving this kind of social development.

Unlike other public services, local libraries are able to reach into and gain the loyalty of a diversity of communities within a neighbourhood. They are ideally placed to establish themselves as centres of information dissemination and informal learning. It is a myth that libraries are principally patronised by the educated middle classes. A study of Sheffield libraries undertaken by the CPLIS concluded there was a "very high value placed on the use of the library as a social resource, particularly in communities with a higher than average incidence of social and economic deprivation." The Select Committee's Sixth Report stated: "public libraries are one of the most accessible resources for the unemployed and those seeking a change of employment for information on skills training and educational and job opportunities."

The Council has made much of the new library being "bigger and better" than the ASL which currently lacks access to the internet. In believing that hi tech is unproblematically better than low tech this perspective fails to understand the way people use the new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and their impact on social and economic relationships. The distribution and take up of new ICTs reflect existing patterns of deprivation and disadvantage. Simply introducing technology alone does not create greater fairness or the more equitable distribution of employment opportunities and life chances, nor does it necessarily increase levels of democratic participation. There are limitations to the use of new technologies. As Tina Poulon, senior manager for group training at PricewaterhouseCoopers has argued, "just putting materials on the web doesn¹t mean people are going to learn." The successful use of the new ICTs has to take into consideration the social relationships within which they are embedded and utilised.

Research by the CPLIS entitled Low Achievers Lifelong Learning found that around three quarters of those with recognised qualifications used a PC. Around three quarters of those without did not. The library is an important place for those without recognised qualifications to connect with the information society. However it requires the fostering of good relations and an environment which recognises the negative feelings and low self-esteem many without formal educational qualifications associate with learning. The emphasis on targets, statistics and performance indicators when formulating social policy obscures these basic human feelings and predicaments. It also fails to recognise that the pleasure in browsing through books in the intimacy and familiarity of a local library is highly significant in enabling people to gain confidence in learning. In this context, and with appropriate and available help and information, the new ICTs have a role to play in promoting wider social networks.

The Future of the ASL

The ASL with strong roots in the local communities of the neighbourhood is ideally placed to form part of a wider strategy of learning and cultural activities and information dissemination. Small, local neighbourhood libraries are not an anachronism left over from the past. They are the foundation on which to build inexpensive, locally driven, "bottom up" strategies for connecting individuals to the wider world of culture, formal education and the broader social networks which will facilitate social, cultural and economic opportunities. It is quite feasible for the LBI to initiate a genuinely radical approach to the library service in tune with its beliefs in neighbourhood democracy and empowerment.

The Campaign urges the Council to de-link its proposed new public library in Blackstock Road from the future of the ASL, and delay the decision about its future. Instead the Council could undertake a meaningful public consultation which includes a social audit of the library's use, an impact assessment of its closure, and research into the feasibility of finding additional funding and the possible multi-use of its building.

The ASL is in a regeneration area which makes it a suitable recipient of funds from a variety of sources: the Single Regeneration Budget, the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, Sure Start. The Council could investigate using a percentage of the revenue costs of the new library to keep open the ASL.

It could follow the lead of the London Borough of Lambeth and the London Borough of Croydon who jointly fund the Upper Norwood Library, and enter negotiations with Haringey Council to share the cost of the ASL. The ASL has a significant number of users who are Haringey residents.

To explore the full range of possibilities would require the employment of a consultant on a short term contract or the designation of an employee of the Library Service to draw up a report. The Campaign believes that the debate around the proposed closure of the ASL has created an opportunity for the Council to explore innovative approaches to the use of local, neighbourhood libraries. If the Council has the political will it can find a solution and keep open the Arthur Simpson Library.

Contact: Jonathan Rutherford; jonathanat symboljrutherford.demon.co.uk ;
0207 272 4756

Notes

1. Proctor, R, Lee, H, Reilly, R, (1998), Access to Public Libraries. The Impact of Opening Hours Reduction & Closures 1986-96, BLRIC Report 90, Sheffield University (British Library Research and Innovation Report), http://panizzi.shef.ac.uk/cplis/publications.htm

2. Building Better Library Services, www.audit-commission.gov.uk

3. The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Third Special Report (2000) www.parliament.uk

4. Libraries for All (Oct.1999); Centres for Social Change (May, 2000); Libraries, Museums, Galleries and Archives for All: Co-operating Across the Sectors to Tackle Social Exclusion (2001)

5. Proctor, R, What do people do when their public library service closes down, http://panizzi.shef.ac.uk/cplis/publications.htm

6. Tina Poulon quoted in Skills crisis 2001 - more questions than answers, www.silicon.com/skills_survey_2001

7. Low Achievers Lifelong Learners An Investigation into the Impact of the Public Library on Educational Disadvantage (CPLIS, 2002), http://panizzi.shef.ac.uk/cplis/publications.htm

 

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