Book to the future

The Future Libraries Programme was intended to identify ways forward for the public library service within a context of deep public sector cuts. The hope was that 10 pilot schemes could share their learning and create the necessary savings nationwide. The scheme, badged as "support" to libraries by culture minister Ed Vaizey, suffered from the start from an ambitious timescale and limited financial resources. Four options for helping to ensure the survival of libraries in the 21st century were put forward.

1. Running libraries in partnership with the private sector, charities and other councils. While partnership working is generally a good idea, it is difficult to see how this can generate significant savings—particularly as over 80% of costs are spent on salaries.

2. Extending the reach and range of library services by integrating them with other community facilities like churches, shops and village halls, and providing public services such as health centres and the police surgeries in existing libraries. This is already common practice in many library authorities, and can help to defray and share costs—particularly those related to fixed assets such as buildings. But it still does not tackle the central issue of staffing costs.

3. Sharing services like back offices and mobile libraries with neighbouring local authorities to make stretched resources go further. The sharing of bibliographical and administrative functions and the merger of mobile routes can make some inroads into staffing costs, but these are only at the margins of the total salaries and wages bill.

4. Giving library users the ability to play a more active role in running library services themselves. This is the only real option for cutting staff costs and for achieving the level of savings required by local government over the coming years. But is it a price worth paying?

There is no doubt that the use of volunteers can add great value to a public library service. For example, they can make the workforce more diverse, bring in new skills and build a bridge between the library and its local community. But there are challenges around how to recruit, retain, train and manage volunteers, and Unison is implacably opposed to them being used as substitutes for paid workers. The trade union view is that volunteers should work alongside, but not replace, regular library staff. There is also the danger that a volunteer-run library could become a cosy private club, admitting those who it likes the look of and excluding the rest.

The Future Libraries report has been dismissed by many commentators as being both simplistic and limited, but I have a more sympathetic view. I know how difficult it is to try to square the demands of politicians, service users, local communities and staff. It is very hard—if not impossible—to please all of these stakeholders and build a library service that is fit for purpose, affordable and sustainable.