Book borrowers at community-run libraries could be charged for the privilege in future, according to guidance issued by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).
The Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) asked the MLA in March to prepare guidance for local authorities looking to restructure their library services. Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote to council chiefs late last week to alert them to the finished document, "Community Managed Libraries", which has been uploaded onto the MLA’s website.
Hunt said that the government was "conscious of the current budgetary challenges we are all facing and would encourage you to be creative about how resources can be managed in an efficient way . . . One option may be to consider if a community supported library may assist a local area rather than closing a library."
However, while the MLA guidance praised the various benefits of community-run libraries, it noted there was "nationwide variance from area to area" in the model being used, with some operating within the local statutory library provision and others outside it. It warned that any community libraries operating outside the council’s statutory service would no longer be governed by it, leaving them them free to charge for books and services.
"This might be seen to undermine the fundamental principles and purpose of the library service, and would not reflect the library service as we know it," the MLA said.
The library body also said community management of libraries ran the risk of bringing about "wide varieties in the quality of provision" following the loss of trained staff, and the sustainability of community-managed libraries was "not assured".
It added that there had been limited evidence to work with in order to produce the guidelines because of the scarcity of existing community libraries to draw on.
The review used evidence from 29 existing community libraries—around 1% of England’s total library number. The issues raised in the MLA document follow questions over how volunteer-run libraries would handle child protection issues and criminal record checks, as well as data protection.
Campaigner Desmond Clarke said the latest guidance showed what a "mess" library strategy was in. "Some councils—and to a degree the DCMS—have grabbed on to the idea of community-managed libraries without thinking it through, and without understanding all the issues and the legal implications. The whole thing has been done on the hoof. To have such an ill-conceived and badly thought-out strategy is frankly an embarrassment. This is bad government."
Clarke added that the people who would be most affected by community-managed libraries would be those in the poorer, rural areas generally targeted for cutbacks: "Not only will they be getting a second-class service but potentially, in some areas, having to pay for it."
Meanwhile, libraries minister Ed Vaizey this week promised that he would not "shy away" from the responsibility to intervene over library closures that breached local authority statutory duties, but said he had not yet received advice that there was a "prima facie case" to do so.
Speaking at a London conference, "The Future of Library Services in the Big Society", Vaizey said he had not yet exercised his power to intervene because there was currently a "fluid situation" in which authorities announcing widespread closures were revising their proposals after local protests. He also argued it was "better to discuss with local authorities before we press the nuclear button".
Vaizey said: "I will call it in where there is a prima facie case that [the local authority] have breached their library duties. I haven’t been given that advice yet."
A spokesperson for the DCMS later declined to elucidate what a "prima facie case" would look like. He said: "All local authorities are different."