The recently appointed children's laureate Julia Donaldson has condemned the "Future Libraries" report as a "cost-cutting exercise" containing among its recommendations some likely to lead to a deterioration of the service.
The report, "Future Libraries: Change, Options and How to Get There", draws on the first year of the Future Libraries programme set up by culture minister Ed Vaizey, and has been issued by the Local Government Association and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. Vaizey said the scheme "has shone a spotlight on excellent examples of innovation and creative partnership working" and called the report "a hugely useful resource, inspiring local authorities to emulate the best ideas to provide a first rate library service."
However, Donaldson told The Bookseller the minister's claims read like "empty rhetoric". She said: "I find it hard to see why Ed Vaizey professes to find this cost-cutting exercise so innovative and creative. Some ideas, such as partnerships between adjacent borough councils, seem sensible enough and probably would be happening anyway, but others—such as replacing trained librarians with volunteers—would be more likely to lead to a deterioration of the service."
She added: "Above all, I resent the underlying assumption that libraries should be underfunded by local government and should have to seek alternative ways to survive in the 21st century."
Donaldson said she would be much more interested in hearing Vaizey and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt speaking out about authorities such as Gloucestershire, the Isle of Wight, Brent and Lewisham, which are currently drastically cutting their libraries. She said: "It is the legal responsibility of the government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport to superintend public libraries. Why, therefore, have we still not been told when they intend to announce a decision on exactly which local authorities will be subject to an official inquiry? The Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries were told in April that such a decision would be forthcoming but nothing has been heard."
Donaldson made reference to the speech Vaizey made at her own inauguration ceremony on 7th June. She said: "He told us that we mustn't believe all the doom and gloom about libraries which we read in the papers. There were good things going on behind closed doors, he said. At the time I wondered if this meant that friends of Gloucestershire Libraries and the other bodies which have called for inquiries would soon be given some news. Now I am afraid that he was merely referring to the disappointing 'Future Libraries' document."
The Waterstone's children's laureate joins other outspoken critics of the report, including CILIP chief executive Annie Mauger, campaigner Desmond Clarke, librarian body Voices for the Library, trade union Unison and the Women's Institute, which has adopted libraries as a campaigning issue. Heath Wakefield, head of local government at Unison, said: "Community groups should not be forced into taking over services, as many will not have the capacity, or numbers to keep them going. This will lead to private companies getting their teeth into libraries in the long run, which could lead to charging."
Wakefield said more than 30,000 children were leaving primary school with a reading age of seven or below and that libraries were key to improving literacy, especially in deprived areas. She added: "The government must act to stop local authorities rushing through changes to services with no consultation. An investment in libraries is an investment in the future generation."
However, the report has found a fan in Barnet council, which says "Future Libraries" is "along the same lines" as its own policy. Barnet library campaigners have been given until 31st October to come up alternative ways of running the service in order to keep the three libraries, in Friern Barnet, Hampstead Garden Suburb and North Finchley, threatened with closure. The authority plans to raise around £3m by selling off the buildings.
Councillor Robert Rams, speaking to the Barnet & Potters Bar Times, said: “All the way through our review we have been looking at how we can enhance our service and how we can focus on improving literacy of young people in the borough. I am delighted that the MLA is running along the same lines and recognizes that the proposals we are making show how we can improve the service at a time of austerity.”