We have been asked to post this on our site and are happy to do so in order to highlight the issues raised by the submission of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to the Swindon Council budget consultation, with specific reference to libraries.

Many of the points relate to libraries in general, not just those in Swindon.

Cuts to library services and closures have a disproportionate impact on blind and partially sighted people. There is also concern that volunteers or community groups may not understand the needs of minority groups such as blind and partially sighted people, therefore having an unfair impact on their access and use of the service.

Submission from Royal National Institute of Blind People to Swindon Council budget consultation – libraries

1. Summary

1.1        RNIB represents the interests of almost two million people living with sight loss in the UK.

1.2        There are an estimated 5,300 people living with sight loss in Swindon. Of this total, 620 are living with severe sight loss (blindness).

1.3        By 2020 the number of people living with sight loss in Swindon is projected to have increased to 6,950; and the number of people with severe sight loss will have increased to 840.

1.4        The essential elements for a comprehensive and efficient library service are described in CILIP’s guidelines “What makes a good library service?”

1.5        The qualities of being comprehensive and efficient must be considered in conjunction with the purpose and values of the library service.

1.6        Public libraries have an obligation to provide services to blind and partially sighted people as members of the community.

1.7        Libraries need to make appropriate adjustments to remove the barriers which prevent blind and partially sighted people making use of services.

1.8        Management of libraries by community groups and volunteers could have an unfair impact on minority groups whose needs are not understood or addressed.

1.9        Library closures have a disproportionate impact on blind and partially sighted people.

1.10    Apart from library closures, other library budget cuts are having an adverse impact on blind and partially sighted people.


2. Background

2.1 RNIB is the leading organization in the field of sight loss in the UK and represents the interests of almost two million people living with sight loss. Two of our priorities are to create an inclusive society and support independent living for blind and partially sighted people.

2.2 Like sighted people, blind and partially sighted people need to be able to read and write in order to work, learn, enjoy leisure activities, shop, travel and play a part in society.   However, only 7% of written materials are made available in accessible formats that can be read by blind and partially sighted people (LISU, 2011) and many barriers are put in the way of accessible reading and library services.

2.3 Therefore a major part of our work, as a leading member of the Right to Read Alliance, is to influence libraries, publishers, bookshops, reading agencies and other stakeholders to deliver more accessible services. We also provide library services, where there is market failure, to blind and partially sighted people with the most specialized needs.

2.4 We have a successful track record of working with public libraries, CILIP, the Society of Chief Librarians and other library organizations on strategic and practical initiatives such as Share the Vision, Reading Sight website, Six Steps, Make a Noise in Libraries, Summer Reading Challenge, World Book Day, North East Accessible Library & Information Services, provision of Talking Books, Giant Print and Braille etc. We are a leading member of IFLA’s Section for Persons with Print Disabilities.


3. What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century?

3.1 Our views on this question are influenced by CILIP’s useful guidelines “What makes a good library service?”, revised 2010.

3.2 In order to decide what makes a library comprehensive and efficient, some consideration must first be given to its purpose. We believe that a library service should provide opportunities for everyone to develop their potential through access to information, reading and cultural activity and help to deliver key policy objectives that strengthen the community, such as economic regeneration, community cohesion, success for children and young people, a fulfilling life for older people, health and well being, and equality and social justice. With a presence throughout the local authority, the public library service is in a strong position to have a positive influence on community development.

3.3 An effective library service does not stand still, but anticipates and adapts to change. Notable developments since 1964 are the emergence of new digital media and methods of communication and the changing demographics and needs of society.

3.4 The values of public libraries have been much discussed and in our view include the important elements of democratic engagement, equal opportunities and social justice.

3.5 In order to deliver an efficient library service that fulfils the purpose and deliver the values described above, we would expect to see clear roles and responsibilities at national and local level.

3.7 At local level we would expect to see organisational leadership, strategic planning and innovation. Each library service should identify and meet local needs by engaging with the local community and by participating in a national library network and national offers.

3.8 It is valuable for libraries to explore new delivery models, such as shared services and outsourcing, that could realise efficiencies. There are many examples, not only those that are currently being developed via the Future Libraries Programme/Libraries Development Initiative.

3.9 We would also like to see innovative partnerships put in place, not only between the public and private sectors but also with the third sector.

3.10 A comprehensive service must address the needs of all members of the community and be available to everyone. The Equality Act clearly states that reasonable adjustments must be made to ensure that people do not experience any barriers to accessing information or services.

3.11 It has long been our concern that the library needs of blind and partially sighted people are not adequately or consistently met by all library authorities. In lieu of any legislation or standards, Share the Vision developed the Six Steps benchmark, setting out the basic requirements of an accessible library service. During 2011, Six Steps was adopted in principle by 180 library authorities throughout the UK.

3.12 To provide a comprehensive and efficient service, all the features described in the 1964 Act, recently amplified and updated in CILIP’s guidelines, need to take into consideration accessibility for people with print disabilities, for example

3.12.1 Employment of skilled and trained staff who understand the needs of blind and partially sighted people.

3.12.2 Convenient physical access to the service via accessible buildings, ICT equipment, websites and access technology. There should also be alternative means of access for people who cannot travel to the library building, such as delivery via mobile, housebound and online services.

3.12.3 Provision of sufficient quantity and range of accessible reading materials, such as large print and audio books, accessible ebooks, and referral to specialist sources of content and support that complement public library services, an example being RNIB’s Talking Books Service.

3.12.4 Accessible activities, such as inclusive reading groups.

3.12.5 Encouragement to blind and partially sighted adults and children to make full use of the service through local contacts with schools, societies and patient groups and participation in the annual Make a Noise in Libraries awareness campaign.

3.12.6 Provision of advice and tools, such as Reading Sight, Your Reading Choices and the appointment of a champion to facilitate such work.

3.12.7 Access to other services and organisations, through collaboration with local authority departments, the health sector, national agencies and local societies for visually impaired people.

3.13 In the interest of protecting the attributes of being comprehensive and fair, we do not wish to see responsibility for library services pass from the local authority to community groups or volunteers, because of the risk that the needs of minority groups with specialist requirements will not be understood or addressed.


4. The extent to which the planned closures are compatible with the requirements of the 1964 Act and the Charteris Report

4.1 We accept that, if a library service is to meet its purpose and remain efficient, the location of library buildings must be kept under review. There have been good examples of libraries being relocated to more convenient places, often co-located with other services, to meet the needs of communities that have changed shape or patterns of behaviour.

4.2 Nevertheless, the closure of local libraries is a great concern to blind and partially sighted people, amongst many others, because many of them are elderly, have additional health problems and find it difficult to use public transport. The same can be said for closure of mobile library and housebound services, specialist support units and redundancy of specialist posts. Blind and partially sighted people are less likely than sighted people to be able to travel further afield and have few, if any, alternative sources of supply and support.

4.3 It is encouraging that Charteris found that Wirral was in breach of its statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient service under the 1964 Act because it did not take account of the views and needs of local people. The report refers to the needs of disabled people and a major criticism of the Council was that it did not carry out an Equality Impact Assessment. The closure of libraries in Somerset and Gloucestershire was also overturned by the High Court on the grounds of equality impact.

4.4 The quality of library service for blind and partially sighted people is affected not only by library closures but also by other budget cuts, which may be less obvious to members of the public at present but are likely to have a significant effect on quality of service in the medium term. While we appreciate the current resource constraints, we believe that it is necessary, and indeed good value when times are tough, to invest in libraries to support the continuing wellbeing of the community.

4.5 Given that standards of service are already patchy, there is a risk that budget cuts are having a disproportionate impact on blind and partially sighted people. For example:

4.5.1 With materials budgets reduced, there is a risk that libraries cut disproportionately on purchases of large print and audio books, because they are more expensive than print books.

4.5.2 Most libraries have not yet invested in ebooks which could, for the first time, offer an equitable accessible reading experience to blind and partially sighted people.

4.5.3 There is increasing use of self issue systems that are inaccessible to blind and partially sighted people.

4.5.4 Despite the fact that over half of the people in the UK who do not yet use digital technologies are disabled people, there is still inadequate provision of access technology in libraries and insufficient personal learning support.

4.5.5 There are fewer trained and experienced staff available to help blind and partially sighted people, and suggestions that some libraries may be entirely unstaffed.

4.5.6 Libraries and social care teams do not necessarily work closely together and increasingly fail to refer blind and partially sighted people with specialised reading requirements to appropriate services, such as RNIB Talking Books. Our service is often described as a lifeline by people whose needs cannot be met by public libraries, so it is a serious concern that local authority funded subscriptions to the service fell by 8% in the year to November 2011.

4.5.7 There is little resource for libraries to collaborate with other organisations to develop and promote specialised services and this leads to high dependency on agencies such as RNIB. We support libraries throughout the UK free of charge by providing tools such as Make a Noise in Libraries and the Reading Sight website.


5. The impact library closures have on local communities

5.1 We accept that it is the responsibility of local politicians in consultation with local communities to determine the balance between competing needs for local services, community wellbeing and financial husbandry. However, the closure of a library space that is known and trusted by the community is a loss that may not be entirely and adequately replaced by an alternative or substitute service.

5.2 The loss of the community asset is most keenly felt by vulnerable members of the local community, namely, the young, the old, the unemployed, the disabled and the poorer members of society. They are least able to travel to a library service further away or to purchase what they would previously have borrowed from the library. This is particularly the case for blind and partially sighted people as many find it difficult to travel outside their local area and do not have the financial resources to purchase large print and audio books.

Mike Bell
Regional Campaigns Officer (South West)
10 Stillhouse Lane

4 January 2016

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