A brave new world?

Suffolk’s public library service is to be handed over to an organisation run by volunteers. The Industrial and Provident Society will be created this spring and community groups will take over the management of branch libraries. The plan is to save £2.4m from the library budget, but it will cost £625,000 to set up the IPS. Volunteers will be expected to raise 5% of the library running costs, and 20 jobs (12.5% of the workforce) will be lost.

This is the first serious attempt to transfer an entire public library service from local authority control to a community run governance model, although Suffolk County Council will retain statutory responsibility for providing a comprehensive and efficient library service under the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act. Ed Vaizey, the minister for libraries, has announced that: "A community supported library can be used in addition to the public library service or, in a measured way, as part of it—but only in appropriate circumstances and after careful analysis."

So the coalition government has given the green light to local councils—which are struggling to balance their books in the face of the biggest public sector cuts in peacetime history—to hive off their public library services into the voluntary and community sectors. Many have already dipped their toes into these choppy waters. Buckinghamshire and Cambridgeshire were early adopters of this governance model, but others have followed in their footsteps—including Lewisham and Swindon, where usage and book loans have gone down dramatically since libraries were staffed by volunteers.

It is hard to think of any other profession where it would be seriously suggested that services run by trained and qualified staff should be handed over to local communities to be run like charity shops. Imagine the uproar if Michael Gove announced that primary and secondary schools were to be managed by community volunteers. Similarly, there would be a mass outcry if Andrew Lansley, shadow secretary of state for health, decided that doctor’s surgeries and hospitals were to be staffed by gifted amateurs.

Yet public librarianship, a degree profession requiring three years of serious study to gain library and information science skills, is regarded as fair game for community management. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and the Society of Chief Librarians are clearly sleepwalking to disaster.

No other profession would be treated in this way. Architects, surveyors and accountants would not accept that their jobs can just as easily be done by local citizens with a modicum of on-the-job training and a CRB check. Nor, for that matter, would the bankers, financial whizz-kids and captains of industry who got our economy into this mess in the first place.