Checking out

The DCMS, Arts Council England and the Society of Chief Librarians need to take their heads out of the sand and confront the crisis facing the public library service.

The public library sector is desperately in need of leadership, effective advocacy and imaginative solutions. The only bright spot at the moment is the government's Sieghart Review which is seeking a solution to enable people, whatever their postcode, to borrow e-books from their library. But the fundamental problem is considerably reduced funding. That demands solutions that allow councils to better utilise and manage their resources. So what can be done?

Top of the list is to reduce the number of library authorities. We do not need 151 separate authorities in England, each with its own management structure, systems and different ways of operating the service. If we can have a single police authority for London, why do we need 30 separate authorities to deliver a library service in London?

There is now real evidence that the merging of library authorities can deliver significant savings without affecting frontline services. The triborough service for Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham has already delivered £1.2m in annual savings. Reducing the number of authorities in England by a third would deliver annual savings of at least £50m.

But the most obvious area to seek savings is from the corporate service charges imposed on library authorities by councils, which can equate to about 15% of a library authority's income. No one disputes that some allocation of these costs is necessary but there is no explanation why such costs should have escalated as a proportion of gross revenue by 70% in just a decade.

All this and more suggests that the public library service could deliver annual savings in excess of £100m without closing a single library. However, the scale of cuts being demanded is much greater and it is inevitable that public libraries will have to rely increasingly on volunteers in order to help keep community libraries open. But such
libraries must not be cast off without resources, professional support and a blueprint for a sustainable model. To do so is irresponsible.

It has long been obvious that the public library service is facing a crisis and urgently needs leadership and imaginative solutions to be able to deliver a "comprehensive and efficient" service for all who want to use it as prescribed in the 1964 Act.

However, that requires the minister and his officials, Arts Council England and the Society of Chief Librarians to face up to the problems. What we want to know is what they are doing to ensure that the residents of towns and villages from Kirklees and Cumbria to the Isle of Wight and Somerset retain access to a public library service without having to
take long and expensive bus trips to the central library.

The public library service is in real danger of falling off the cliff unless we all confront the crisis and put in place the effective leadership and imaginative solutions that are so badly needed. What really worries many in local government is that the situation is likely to get much worse from 2015 onwards as the funding crisis deepens.


Desmond Clarke retired as president and c.e.o. of International Thomson Publishing Services Group and is a former director of Faber and Faber. He is a library campaigner.