Controversy over ACE report on community libraries

Research into community libraries published by Arts Council England and the Local Government Association has confirmed that 5% of all libraries (254) have some level of volunteer support, with that figure set to rise to 12% “in the near future”.

The report, "Community Libraries – Learning from Experience: Guiding Principles for Local Authorities", analyses 10 case studies of community libraries as well as suggesting ways that councils can explore the option for themselves. It has the endorsement of communities secretary Eric Pickles. 

But library campaigners have criticised the report, claiming it is already out of date and fails to provide find any fault in community libraries. Laura Swaffield, chair of The Library Campaign, said the report could be summed up as: “Nobody has a clue how best to run a community library. It’s a gigantic experiment, on a vital public service, in the middle of a huge crisis.”

ACE admits the changes are “rapidly evolving”, with the number of community libraries currently at 254. It added that new research will be commissioned in spring 2013, alongside the release of its Envisioning the Library of the Future project.

Some of the guiding principles laid out by ACE include: “The importance of local authorities taking a strategic view across their whole library service; that there is no one model recommended for community involvement – locally appropriate solutions usually work best; and that community libraries are testing new approaches to library service delivery.”

Alan Davey, the chief executive of ACE, said: “Public libraries, throughout their history, have changed as the world around them has changed, and never has this been more true than in the early 21st century. Technological innovation, changes in society, a global recession, and diminishing public resources are just some of the challenges they have faced in recent years. What this research illustrates is that community involvement, when coupled with support from local authorities, does not mean a poorer library service. However, there is still work to do. Together with our research partners, we need to work to ensure that this professional support continues, for the benefit of library users today, and tomorrow.”

Cllr Flick Rea, chair of the LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, said: “Councils know people treasure their libraries and are working extremely hard to preserve services in the face of huge cuts to funding. This research illustrates the fantastic amount of creativity and ambition there is among library staff and their communities to make the most of our diminished resources. What’s emerging is a picture of great innovation and diversity as local libraries evolve to suit the needs of different communities. Learning best practice from each other will be increasingly important in the tough economic years ahead.”

The report claims that 95% of community managed libraries remain as part of local statutory provision.

Swaffield criticised the report for helping councils to transfer library services, but offering no help for those who wished to keep libraries open. She said: “'Community libraries' have mostly been created in haste and panic and conflict. They have mostly been created by communities desperate to do anything to avoid closing down their library completely. Their only choice was: 'Lose it or run it yourselves.' 

"The Library Campaign wishes these people luck - they will need it.Nobody knows what chance they have. And we note that there is advice for councils who want to offload their library services any way they can. But there is no advice for local people who don’t want their libraries to drift out of public service control, don’t want to pay their taxes but do all the work themselves and do want councils to listen to their views and suggestions.”

A spokesperson for Voices for the Library said the report was “poorly researched”, and that the group was “deeply troubled” by the report. The group said: “We have serious concerns that this report will pave the way for a two-tier library service. Those living in large towns and cities will have access to a professionally run, well-resourced library service. Those living in rural communities, unable to regularly commute to their nearest public library, will be left with a hollowed out service that is not fit for purpose... Overall, we are deeply disappointed in the Arts Council’s report and we are all too aware that library staff and users will be in despair at both their report and its endorsement by Eric Pickles.  We also strongly believe that this poorly researched report underlines that, in its present form, the Arts Council is not a fit and proper body to support the delivery of library services, not least because of the severe reduction in staff available to provide that dedicated support.”