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HuffPost Meets Dan Jarvis, An MP Obsessed With Libraries

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DAN JARVIS LIBRARIES HUFFPOST INTERVIEW
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Fierce thunderstorms are rolling over Westminster on the afternoon I meet Dan Jarvis; so I arrive at his office late, and slightly wet. Jarvis says it's okay, but I can tell by the way he's looking at me that it's slightly poor form. They don't 'do' late in the parachute regiment, where he was a Major for many years before entering politics.

Even though Jarvis is extremely measured and polite, It's not that hard to imagine him yelling at some private whose boots weren't polished properly, just as it seems unlikely that a man who served in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan would be particularly troubled by anything politics could throw at him.

At the moment Jarvis is pre-occupied, because he's just become a father for the third time - "third and final, definitely" - and is about to go on paternity leave. During that time, he'll finish a major report on the future of libraries, a document which he promises will be a "non-partisan, non-knockabout vision for a 21st Century library."

He arrived at Westminster last year, representing Barnsley in South Yorkshire. He got his seat during a by-election, triggered by the Eric Illsley's resignation from the Commons. Illsley had made a series of false expenses claims for which he was imprisoned.

Illsley's replacement is seen as a rapidly rising-star within Labour, and is already a shadow culture minister.

He's very affable, but definitely no-nonsense, and extremely wholesome. During the interview I ask what his kids' favourite TV shows are? "I'm quite careful about what my kids watch. We're all big Harry Potter fans. I've a bit of a dilemma about whether it's appropriate for my son to watch The Lord of the Rings."

His son is nine, apparently. "It's a certificate PG. The kids do watch a bit of TV, I make sure it's sensible, responsible stuff. But I've always been interested in films, so I try and get to the cinema and watch films at home. We watched ET over Easter, and Ghostbusters, which they thought was great."

I ask whether his kids play Playstation or X-Box, and the answer is that video games are banned in his house.

"We don't do either." Is that a conscious decision? "It is, at the moment. I'm very keen that my kids spend quite a lot of time outdoors. We've got dogs, so the daily routine involves a dog-walk."

And how does that go down? "It's not gone down brilliantly well, but these are the kinds of tough choices that parents have to make.

"I'm not saying no forever, but I just think right now they're of an age where I would prefer them to be doing other things. Their mates have got it and they go around and play it, then they come back and moan that they haven't got it.

"I've done a lot of work around trying to persuade people to take their kids to libraries and read, but we don't have an X-Box or a Playstation in the house."

Jarvis could talk about libraries all day, it seems. "They're really important public spaces... but like everything they have got to move with the times. We're now living in an information age, the way people are accessing information is different from five or ten years ago, and it will be different in another five or ten years from now."

His pre-occupation seems to be that as we increasingly move from print to digital publishing, the case for a physical public space becomes precarious. Libraries are closing - around 600 are under threat in the current rounds of cuts, it's thought. But I ask Jarvis whether some would go anyway, even if times were less hard?

"Even if we weren't in a period of austerity, we'd need to look at the way information is disseminated to the public, and that may well mean that we wouldn't end up with the same lay-down of libraries that we would at the moment. But I believe passionately in the value of the library service, it matters to people from all different walks of life - from kids doing their homework to people out of work looking for job, or from older people who just want to meet their friends and keep warm. People understand that they are ladders for social mobility."

But I notice that there is a very new-looking iPad on Jarvis' desk (blue cover) - is he reading e-books now? "I can absolutely say, categorically, that I don't know how I've managed without it. They are wonderful devices, my kids are absolutely fascinated by it, I think it's brilliant. But let's face it, most people haven't got one, and that's why libraries are so important."

But they're getting cheaper, and lots of people covet them. So in the long run, will we see the day when people will take their tablets to libraries and download their e-books? Does there need to even be a building?

"I still think that for the next generation and for the foreseeable future, libraries should have books. But in a hundred years, they probably won't. The whole issue of e-publishing, e-lending, government need to be thinking about.

"I'm not even convinced that [the Tory culture minister] Ed Vaizey believes he's been a champion for libraries. The minister for libraries should be out there making the case for why it's important for local authorities to protect libraries. He hasn't done that."

So how does he find shadowing Ed Vaizey - one of the coalition's more controversial ministers? "He's changed a bit. When I first took over the job he seemed incredibly relaxed and happy-go-lucky. He seems to have gone a bit grumpy recently. I think I know why that is, I think the government are seriously considering looking at closing the DCMS as a department.

"I think despite the fact that I've had written assurances that there would be no significant structural reorganisation of government before 2015, I think they are seriously looking at doing this after the Olympics. Jeremy Hunt will move on to another department, but I am certain that they are considering hiving off the function of DCMS to other government departments."

It is not the first time the abolition of the DCMS has been mooted, only this week the Institute of Economic Affairs argued for this, claiming it would save the taxpayer £1.6bn a year. Jarvis is not enthused.

"You could well see how they might make a case for smaller government. You could justify putting the creative industries in BIS, you could take libraries and put them in local government, where the funding is. I'm not quite sure what you would do with sport.

"But we think that would be a mistake. We think it's really important that the creative industries, the arts, sport, has a voice at the Cabinet table."

To to be honest, though, there are still some big gaps in Jarvis' policy proposal, as with so many areas of Labour policy. At the moment physical books don't attract VAT, but e-books do, something the publishing industry's been up in arms about. Would Labour take the VAT off e-books?

"Clearly I would be naturally sympathetic to that argument, but I still need to have conversations with Ed Balls and his team about that. But a recurring theme throughout my brief is UK competitiveness, it is our ability to compete in a global market."

Some might argue, though, that the creative industry doesn't do enough to fight its own corner and lobby. Are they worried about looking like a bunch of luvvies while others - like military personnel, say - are being laid off?

"There has been a reticence," says Jarvis, "Based on the current economic climate, to come out and argue for it, not just among the creative industries, but also more widely among culture and the arts. I never talk about subsidy, I always talk about investment.

"But I think whilst most people think Labour had a pretty strong track record on this, things have not been great for a while. There has been a reticence to come forward and talk about the importance of the creative arts for our economy."

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