British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:10 pm on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 12:10 pm, 13th March 2020

The answer is that some would be charged for and some would not. I repeat the example I gave a few minutes ago about membership. If there were a members’ area in the British Library—it has one at the St Pancras site but if it wanted to extend that model to one of the public libraries across the country—members would pay a subscription that enabled them to go to a certain part of the library. There would also probably be a café in that part of the library, which would obviously charge for food and drink: coffee, tea and the like. Again, the café would be making commercial revenue and the members would pay, but that would not prevent people from going to the library, using the computers, borrowing books, getting advice for their business and so on entirely for free. It is a mixture and it would really depend on the part of the country people are in.

One of the things we have thankfully moved away from in this country over the last 10 or 15 years is the idea that one centralised model works everywhere. I know that libraries operate in my constituency differently from how they operate in the constituency of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen. It is just different: the demographics are different, the ages of people wanting to do things are different; the atmosphere is different; the landscape is different; the sorts of companies people want to set up are different; and the types of books people borrow are different. This is about giving our institutions enough freedom that they can move forward and innovate in an entrepreneurial way, but do that locally in a way that is locally based and locally sourced.

It is time that we gave the British Library the same freedom to borrow, the same flexibility and the same opportunities that so many other cultural institutions have, because this country will benefit from that. The British Library overall will benefit, both in St Pancras and in west Yorkshire. The expanding network of public library hubs will benefit. Indeed, the British people, whom we were all elected to represent, will benefit.

In speaking to colleagues about this Bill, they have been generally supportive, but I was asked one question more than any other. Indeed, I touched on it when my hon. Friend Laura Trott made this point earlier. What happens if the British Library borrows money and cannot pay it back? Just to reiterate, should the British Library apply for and receive a Government loan, it would have to pay it back, and if it did not pay it back either in part or in full, the grant in aid would be reduced correspondingly, and the British Library would have to adjust to that reduction in revenue. Ultimately, it would have to make sure that the public purse—the taxpayer—did not lose out as a result of the Bill. It is very important that the House recognises that point.

Some people, although I definitely do not agree with them, have mentioned—[Interruption.] Yes, this sounds like a straw man, but it is actually true. Some people have said that what libraries actually need to do is to move entirely online and get rid of the physical books. [Interruption.] No one here—good—but some people do think that. Indeed, I know some people do because, when I was speaking to the Department about the Bill and thinking about the questions people had already been asking and what had come up, one of the main things that came up was, “Bim, you’re going to have to have an answer to this question”.

So I thought about an answer to the question. My view is that there has to be a mix. Yes, we have to have physical collections, but we also have to match them with digital collections, a good online presence and digitising things where we can so that we can share them across the world—for example, for a school kid doing a project. We all remember having to do projects at school, and we had to go to a library and do all these things. The worse one I had to do was something on the WWF. I spent lots of time working on it, until, the night before, I realised it was meant to be about the World Wildlife Fund, rather than the World Wrestling Federation, which meant I did not get a very good mark. I do not know why I have shared that with everybody, but I have been living with the shame for a long time.