David Lammy’s Speech to Parliament in the Adjournment Debate on Libraries

Friday, 10 February 2006
I am grateful to the Honourable Member for introducing to the House a subject that I am very passionate about, our public libraries. Birth of Public Libraries When William Ewart introduced the Public Libraries Bill 157years ago, it was the Hon Gentleman’s party that tried to strangle it at birth. Neither of us were around then of course. It was argued that the rate paying middle classes would be subsidising a service that would be used by the working classes to better themselves. In the face of Tory opposition, and after a hard fight, the Public Libraries Act became law in 1850 but it only applied to boroughs with over 10,000 people. Even then two-thirds of local rate-payers had to agree to the funding of libraries with a limit of a halfpenny on the rate to pay for them. And the money raised could not be used to purchase books. I am sure that the Hon Gentleman would not subscribe to the views of his political forbears and, like me, he is glad that common sense prevailed so that by 1855 the libraries rate was raised to a penny and that the boroughs were allowed to buy books. Even so, we owe a massive debt to Victorian library philanthropists like Henry Tate, John Passmore Edwards and, of course, Andrew Carnegie, whose generosity enabled the building of nearly 400 libraries across the country. Victorian Vision of Public Libraries The words Carnegie library still resonate today of course. The Hon Gentleman will also surely join me in celebrating the work of these visionaries in establishing public libraries as the university of the street corner. In an age of Empire building, the undeserving poor and hard knocks they saw public libraries as a way to further education for the many, to build closer and fairer communities and to encourage a fairer society with opportunities for all. But these were also hard-headed men of commerce, not people given to seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses. And they saw the business case for public libraries too. Modern Business Case for Libraries: In 2006, there is still a strong business case for libraries. Literacy: When we still have a quarter of our 11 years olds with literacy or maths skills below an acceptable standard - we need libraries; When we have nearly 12m adults with a reading age of a 13 year old or younger – we need libraries; When 5% of our people are unemployed – we need libraries; When we have tensions within some of our communities – we need our libraries to continue to provide the kind of open, neutral spaces where people from all social, economic backgrounds can come together and mix. If, like me, you think those things are important, then you will support the work our libraries do to make things better. Delivering the £9m Government funded Bookstart scheme that provides a gift of books to babies and young children three times before they reach school age. The homework clubs that 60% of library authorities run to help ensure that out of hours school work gets done. Participating in the Summer Reading Challenge that sustains the reading ability of 600,000 children while they’re away from school during the long summer break. Hosting formal and informal sessions for adult learners. Giving second chances to people who feel that their school failed them and who would not want to return to a formal educational institution. And working with high profile, quality, bodies like the BBC and major publishers in these areas who all value public libraries as partners. Running a range of events to draw in all sections of local communities including those who are sometimes hard to reach. Information Provision: Providing mediated or self-help information facilities either from the printed page or from digital sources turning the information poor into the information rich. These things go on in libraries all over our country almost every day of every week. And that is why the Government thinks that they are so important. We live in an information economy of course where those with the knowledge lead the way and those without lag behind. But let’s bring this closer to home. We, here in Westminster live a privileged life of course. Our slightest information need is met by our own excellent library containing the best resources this House can afford. Those precise resources may not be capable of replication across our 4,500 plus libraries nationwide. But why shouldn’t our citizens expect, as near as can be managed, the kind of service that we take for granted. Books V Computers Which brings me to another issue that is regularly kicked around in library circles. What are libraries for? The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes a library as a “collection of books for use by the public …….or a similar collection of films, records, computer routines {sic}, etc”. That’s a dry definition of course. What I really think libraries are about are people; both as individuals and as members of communities. And libraries are there to serve a multiplicity of people’s needs. So I get heartily tired of self-appointed, un-elected, un-representative groups who dogmatically say that libraries are for this and not for that. I love reading. Coming from a household where you could count the number of books on the figures of two hands, I celebrate libraries central mission of the promotion of the enjoyment of reading. Bookstart – great! Summer Reading Challenge – fantastic! Adult reading groups in public libraries – absolutely wonderful! But libraries are not just about books. They never have been. And the digital resources at our disposal today have broadened immeasurably the kind of public services that they can provide. Again, let’s look at this in a “House” context. The last time you wanted to check a reference in Hansard, did you wade through a 6 inch pile of paper copies? What you probably did is to search on a database capable of bringing up a series of matches in seconds. I repeat, why should the public want anything less efficient for their information needs. Library Buildings And why shouldn’t people be entitled to be able to access the full range of library services in nice, bright new, buildings? In the last 9 months, I have seen some fantastic new library buildings in places as wide apart as Peckham, Brighton, Weston-Super-Mare and rural Leicestershire. I was also delighted to hear about the refurbishment at New Ash Green Library in the Honourable members own constituency and, similarly, the Sevenoaks Kaleidoscope project that will bring the town’s museums, library and archive resources together in an exciting new way. But as the members of the former Culture Select Committee pointed out in its report last year, not all of our libraries are new and gleaming. Many need at least some additional tender loving care. So I find it hard to understand why the Big Lottery Fund’s announcement of an £80m community library programme strand is criticised because none of the money will be spent on books! Bookstocks: We are being told constantly how bad our libraries’ book stocks are. Any yet, the Honourable Member’s own library authority, Kent, has increased its Book Fund by 60% in recent years and in 2004-05 the library authorities in England combined were adding new lending stock by a figure approaching one million more than in 2001-02. Libraries Popularity: I don’t want libraries to be populist, I want them to be popular…..and they are. There were very nearly 340m visits to our libraries last year, over 21m more than visited 3 years ago. -Very nearly 50% of all adults make at least one visit to a public library each year; most of those visit more often; and the proportion of people who visit from our ethnic minorities is higher. All told, libraries are a success story, one that I am happy to share with the House this evening. Library Closures: I think it’s incontrovertible that our libraries are a power for immense good. Nevertheless, I know at this time of year that local authorities are having to make hard financial decisions and choices. I accept that locally elected representatives are the ones best placed to judge the, sometimes competing, needs and priorities of the communities they serve. But I do not want local decision makers to make those calls without considering carefully what might to their communities by library closures. That is why I have written to the Leaders of all the 149 library authorities in England. Conclusion: I think the case for libraries is as strong today as it was in the days of William Ewart and Andrew Carnegie and the other great Victorian philanthropists. In our public libraries, they have left us a great and vital legacy. We owe it to them and ourselves to maintain an institution that has served use so well for over 150 years. We neglect it at our peril.

[ Back ]

Email this page to a friend  

© Copyright 2012 David LammyWebsite design by Toolkit Websites