Walsall Council is to reduce its library service - which has been shortlisted for Library of the Year at the British Book Awards - by more than half, in what has been described as a "highly ironic" and "criminal" decision.
The nine libraries threatened with closure (out of a total 16) are Beechdale, Blakenall, New Invention, Pelsall, Pleck, Pheasey, Rushall, South Walsall and Walsall Wood. They are due to close this June, despite the service being nominated for Library of the Year at the British Book Awards last week.
According to the judges, Walsall Libraries were shortlisted for the award because they were a "fine example of how libraries can go on changing lives despite constant uncertainty over funding". The service has also been recognised for its "dedicated staff" who put on "an energetic programme of events, led by the 2016 ‘Walsall Year Of Reading’."
"Overall visits to the libraries increased year-on-year—no mean feat given the budget cuts inflicted on the service", the judges added.
Author and librarian Gemma Todd, who writes under the name G X Todd, told The Bookseller that the move to close the libraries just as they've been recognised by the British Book Awards is "criminal".
“I find it highly ironic that just as Walsall Libraries is shortlisted for the Library of the Year award, the service is due to be severely cut and the mobile library unit stripped of one of its vans", she said. "I understand there is pressure to save money, however, I find it criminal to see soft targets such as libraries being so drastically reduced when some leaders of local authorities are being paid upwards of £180,000 per annum."
Todd, who recently blogged about libraries for The Bookseller, continued: “If a library service is being shortlisted for a Library of the Year award, because of its trained staff’s exemplary work in supporting the local community (be it through offering numerous free services, holding myriad events, improving children’s literacy, aiding the unemployed find jobs, and on and on the list goes), then surely it warrants extra funding and not closure. By cutting libraries, the powers that be are essentially saying they don’t support the long-term welfare of their citizens."
Councillor Julie Fitzpatrick, portfolio holder for community, leisure and culture, told The Bookseller she was "delighted" that the library service had been shortlisted for Library of the Year, adding that although there will be fewer libraries in the borough, the libraries would be "fit for the future".
“I’m delighted that Walsall’s Library Service, or in other words the work of our library service staff, has been shortlisted for this prestigious award", she said. “In planning for the future, we have listened to what our residents said is really important to them and redesigned our library service to meet their needs with the reduced resources we have available.”
She continued: “The on-going service redesign will see fewer libraries in the borough but these libraries will be fit for the future. By investing in open access technology we will be able to significantly increase the number of hours our libraries are open and so increase access to books, ICT, training and skills – supporting key outcomes for the borough”.
Recently, in a bid to keep the libraries open, two Walsall Council scrutiny groups called on authority bosses to impose a 12-month stay of execution for threatened libraries, arguing that the closures will "adversely affect the health and wellbeing of Walsall residents" and that the consultation with minority groups, in particular the disabled, was "not sufficient to ensure that their views were represented", according to the Express and Star.
However, the council's cabinet committee has decided to press ahead with the proposals to close the libraries.
Councillor Sean Coughlan said: “There is no budget available to keep any of the nine libraries listed for closure open after June 30th and so these libraries will close on that date. However, we want to work with communities who are working hard on plans to keep their local facilities open. If their plans are not quite there on June 30th, they will have a short period of time to bring their plans to fruition. The cost of a short period of non-occupancy to manage this scenario has been budgeted for.”