To celebrate Libraries Week from 8-13 October, we asked the Libraries Minister and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Arts, Heritage and Tourism for his views on the present and future of public libraries in the UK.

Did you use your local library as a child? If so, what impact did it have on your reading habits?

Yes I did. I visited regularly and it helped to spark my passion for reading which continues today. I also remember using the microfiche to look at historic newspapers.

Do you or your family use your local library now?

I have always been a keen supporter and regular user of local libraries. And of course I get to see a number of excellent libraries across the country as Libraries Minister.

Libraries are a vital hub for communities across the country. They are often the place that children first experience arts and culture, and collective reading.

There are an array of innovative initiatives that foster a love of learning. Every year hundreds of thousands of children take part in the Summer Reading Challenge, for example, and I was thrilled to visit the Beano studios to launch the challenge. This project increases levels of reading, learning, wellbeing and community engagement and is a huge force for good in promoting the important work our libraries do in our communities.

I was very grateful to be given one of the commemorative editions of The Beano for the event and this is now safely stored in the House of Commons library where I hope it will remind my fellow MPs of the joy of childhood reading.

With your background as a lawyer and your role now as a government minister, do you agree with the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act that local government have a statutory duty to provide a library service to the public?

Our public library network not only provides free access to books but also helps people of all ages build literacy skills, digital skills and safe spaces for local people.

This Act means that local authorities have a statutory duty to provide comprehensive and efficient library services. We are very clear that libraries should not be seen as an easy target for cuts by local authorities, and that is why the Libraries Taskforce is helping local authorities make the best use of these important spaces.

We should also celebrate and praise those councils that are investing in services that local people deserve. Earlier this year I visited Storyhouse in Chester which is an impressive example of a library diversifying its offer to help meet the needs of the public. It is not only a library, but has an auditorium, theatre, cinema, restaurant and two bars. In its opening weekend in May last year, 10,000 people visited, 300 new library cards were issued and 2,000 books were loaned. This shows the value and importance the people of Chester have placed on their local library. This is also being reflected in many other parts of the country.

Whilst practicing law you’ve been a recognised expert for the international media. According to the National Literacy Trust, only 2% of children have the critical literacy skills they need to tell if a news story is real or not, and half of teachers (53.5%) believe that the national curriculum does not equip children with the literacy skills they need to identify fake news. Is fake news a concern of yours? What can the Government do to address these issues and do public libraries have a role in this process?

Our public libraries offer their visitors a source of trusted information both online and offline and have an important role to play in educating younger members about disinformation and how to identify it.

Fake news is a concern for me, and the UK Government takes the issue of disinformation and ‘fake news’, very seriously. Tackling disinformation is a key pillar of our Digital Charter. Although robust mechanisms are in place to address disinformation in the broadcast and press industries, it is clear more work is needed, especially in the online space, to address its spread.

This is where our libraries can make a real difference. Libraries have been a trusted source of information for as long as they have existed and now they play an important role in making sure younger generations are best equipped to understand the information they are given by news outlets.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading work across Government to tackle disinformation to ensure we have a news environment where accurate content can prevail and high quality news online has a sustainable future. The UK is actively engaging with international partners, industry and civil society to tackle the threat of disinformation and propaganda.

What changes would you like to see in the current public library system and what particular things are you interested in developing?

The work of the Libraries Taskforce and its member organisations is helping to future-proof our libraries. They work closely with libraries to diversify what they offer, including digital skills training, access to computers, and health and wellbeing services.

I have visited many excellent examples of public libraries that make a real difference in their community. By tailoring their offer to the needs of the local population, libraries like Selly Oak Library in Birmingham and Coventry Central Library are thriving. I’d like to see more approaches like this.

Our libraries need to diversify and modernise so that they can not only stay relevant but also help tackle issues like fake news, online safety and loneliness. By doing this, libraries will remain at the centre of their local communities and be places people want to visit and spend time.

Austerity measures that resulted in the loss of professional librarians and libraries themselves have been a big concern among communities like Northampton and many others around the UK. Do you have any reassurance to give those communities?

Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service and we work with local authorities across the country to help them fulfil this role. It is important that library services plan in a sustainable way to best meet the needs of the local population.

Our Libraries Taskforce is providing examples of good practice and guidance on how libraries can adapt and thrive in the modern environment. Local authorities should think about how they can use library spaces to deliver a range of community services. I am committed to working with the sector and with local and central government to ensure that we find innovative ways to create a sustainable library service in England.

US news media company Forbes has removed a controversial article suggesting that Amazon bookshops should replace local libraries. The piece was written by Forbes contributor Professor Panos Mourdoukoutas, who said: “At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.” This is a pretty radical idea but as we know radical ideas can develop into the norm in this day and age. What would your thoughts be on something like this?

I disagree with the article. Free access to books is hugely important and most library services also offer a free-to-borrow range of ebooks and e-magazines.

Libraries are precious spaces at the heart of communities. They offer children and adults the chance to learn about the world we live in and, through fiction, escape into new ones. They provide opportunities for learning and skills development. And they bring people together.

We have a statutory duty in this country to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. They are not going to be replaced by a retailer. Libraries are important community spaces that need to be protected.

To fend off the cuts, many libraries have innovated by diversifying their offering which has seen some interesting developments. For instance, Storyhouse in Cheshire is a library, as well as a theatre and cinema. What does the future for libraries look like in the UK and does the future excite you? How can we ensure that books remain a significant part of the service?

I was delighted to be able to visit Storyhouse in Chester and see this successful project. The combination is clearly working there and is an excellent example of how libraries can build powerful local partnerships. Books are the core of the library service and this does not change with diversification. Indeed diversification is often an enriching opportunity for libraries.

Public Lending Right has been extended to fully cover e-lending, although loans from volunteer libraries are not yet counted. With the delivery of library service changing in recent years, how will the Government react to support PLR?

I want to help public libraries embrace the digital age and the extension of the Public Lending Right last year to include e-books and audiobooks is a very important step. It put e-book authors on the same footing as writers whose books are borrowed as physical copies. In 2015 we confirmed that PLR funding would remain the same until 2020 and I am committed to working with the British Library – which manages PLR for the government – to ensure that it continues to benefit authors.

The UK often prides itself on the culture we create, how do you see future generations continuing this?

The UK is renowned the world over for our culture and heritage. This industry creates jobs, promotes inward investment and economic growth and attracts millions of tourists to the country each year.

Culture transcends international borders and helps us build friendships based on our shared human experiences. The UK is currently ranked first in the world in ‘Soft Power’ and I am in no doubt that future generations will continue to see the value in arts, culture and heritage.

Are there any public library systems around the world that you think the UK could learn from?

Library services across the world are all different and we can learn a lot from them about how they each engage with their local communities. There will never be a ‘one size fits all’ model for libraries; however I am keen to encourage people to seek out and replicate good practice wherever in the world it comes from.

What’s the last or most memorable book you borrowed from the library?

The most memorable book I have borrowed from a library was one that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I borrowed a book by Charles McMoran Wilson, 1st Baron Moran and the personal physician to Sir Winston Churchill from 1940 until Churchill’s death in 1965. I am fascinated by Churchill as a figure and this book revealed a huge amount about his physical and psychological state during the Second World War. At the time of publication the book was apparently quite controversial – the Northampton Central Library was the only place I could find it!

Photograph © DCMS