I congratulate James Dornan on securing the debate. The motion highlights the long history of libraries in Scotland and the almost immeasurable impact that they have on our lives as an opportunity to see wonderful buildings, as an opportunity to experience works of art and, perhaps most importantly, in providing access for all to a timeless treasury of great literature. For those reasons and many more, it is important to debate the issue in the Parliament.
As the MSP for Langside, James Dornan referred to the battle of Langside—the last battle of Mary, Queen of Scots. I reply as the cabinet secretary, but I am the MSP for Linlithgow, where she was born, so I bookend the debate rather suitably.
I wish Langside library a happy 100th birthday. It is wonderful that, after a centenary, the library is still going strong and bringing new services and sessions to its community that range from practical support from Macmillan Cancer Support and Citizens Advice Scotland, through local political engagements via surgeries with councillors and MSPs, to more leisurely pursuits such as storytelling sessions, coffee mornings and a knitting group.
The ethos of libraries has always been equality of opportunity, and that is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. Libraries offer crucial support to help people to help themselves. They support literacy, digital participation, learning, employability, health, culture and leisure. They improve the quality of people’s lives and support them to engage in the democratic process.
Only yesterday, at the sports, arts and culture working group that I co-chair with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, councillors from throughout Scotland—Glasgow City Council is not currently participating, so there were no councillors from there—talked with passion about not only their belief in libraries and their transformational role but the transformation that libraries are undertaking for the 21st century to maintain their role at the heart of the community. We discussed how local and national Government can best work together to support libraries. I caution members that, as easy as it is to reminisce about libraries, it is really important that we refer to libraries of the 21st century.
The Scottish Government supports the Scottish Library and Information Council to offer leadership to the sector. We recognise that libraries have a role in providing wider services, but the responsibility for them lies with local authorities. We have supported SLIC as it works with partners to develop a strategy for public libraries in Scotland. The strategy group is chaired by the chief executive officer of the Carnegie UK Trust, Martyn Evans, and is an opportunity for local authorities and other partners to agree a clear vision for the future of public library services. That is what we were discussing only yesterday.
Libraries play a key role in supporting Scottish Government policy in many areas; I would like to highlight two of those.
On the digital agenda, we are committed to increasing digital participation. Libraries play an important role in that, providing equipment and internet access for those who do not have it and supporting training to ensure that those who need to get online can get online.
The Scottish Government has provided SLIC with £300,000, which is supporting 138 libraries to install or improve wi-fi in their building. That is in addition to the £500,000 annual public library improvement fund that we provide to SLIC to support various projects in public libraries across Scotland, ranging from world war 1 projects to Lego reading clubs for young readers.
The second area where libraries make a significant impact is in the development of good literacy skills. The Scottish Government recognises that we need those skills. Our literacy action plan highlights the importance of reading as a valued activity from an early age and the benefits of reading in the home. A lot of the associated issues concern the issues of equality and opportunity that have been a theme of many of the speeches today. We aim to tackle the areas with the lowest levels of literacy and break the well-evidenced link between poverty and deprivation and poor literacy skills. The plan’s delivery and impact are being overseen by the standing literacy commission, which met for the final time in December and will produce a final report on the literacy action plan in the spring.
Libraries will have a key role to play in the new literacy and numeracy campaign for primaries 1 to 3—read, write, count—which will build on the success of the play, talk, read campaign and, of course, bookbug, in the early years.
Book week Scotland also promotes reading to all ages across Scotland, and libraries deliver much of the activity during the week. In 2014, book week Scotland saw approximately 481 events in libraries across all local authority areas, which were attended by 17,000 people. There is a real vibrancy to the activity in libraries, and we must recognise that.
During book week Scotland, the Scottish Book Trust invited everyone to send a love letter to their library, and the message was one of love and appreciation. As one young reader put it:
“Thank you for helping my brain to grow; for opening up my imagination and giving me dreams; helping me to learn to read and find out new things.”
Where better to encourage reading than in public libraries, which remain one of the free universal services that operate at the heart of communities across Scotland? Some 30 per cent of adults in Scotland use their library, and libraries remain the most frequently attended cultural venue, with almost seven out of 10 people visiting their library more than once a month.
Perhaps one thing that libraries could do better is to market themselves and remind people of all that they have to offer and do for people all over the country. Saturday 7 February is national libraries day across the country, and I think that we should all look for opportunities on that day to promote the work of libraries and to demonstrate how much those services are valued within our communities.
As James Dornan’s motion recognises, our libraries are part of our history and remain a vital part of our communities. Their offer is universal and democratic. Free access to books, reading, internet, public space, information and cultural, historical and learning opportunities are all vital in building a fairer, smarter, healthier and wealthier Scotland.
I will bring my remarks to a close by quoting Andrew Carnegie, who said:
“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”
As a child, my local library was my personal republic, where I first felt empowered and independent as an individual, and I see the light of liberation in my 10-year-old son’s eyes when he talks about his experience of a library.
Libraries are not just about history. They are about the present, and they are certainly about the future. Although libraries are about physical buildings and books, they are also, to a great degree, about the people who continue to serve in them. I salute all the people who have worked in Langside library over the past 100 years, and those who still work there.
Meeting closed at 17:34.