The fierce public opposition to the "disproportionate" cuts in library services has a new edge, with legal challenges started against the culture secretary and individual authorities. Alas, many campaigners see the "legal option" as the only way to get their voice heard and to ensure proper scrutiny of alternatives to closures and deep cuts to frontline services.
There is a strong feeling that the millions of library users have been badly let down by the Government, the strategic agency, the MLA, and by the leaders of the profession. Many authorities have simply taken the axe to frontline services with little consideration of the alternatives. Some of the consultation exercises have been seriously flawed and vital information about how funds are being spent has had to be dragged into the public arena.
The "professionalism" of librarians is being degraded and some communities are being pushed into taking responsibility for their local library without proper funding and professional support.
In the background is a debate about how library funds are spent, the need to "streamline" the service and improve efficiency by reducing back-office costs. Private suppliers are now targeting public libraries as they recognise a commercial opportunity to deliver services at less cost.
All this can be avoided if those responsible for public libraries in national and local government, and in the profession, start to provide real leadership. Ministers, with the active support of the professional bodies, must communicate a powerful vision for public libraries in the 21st century. What do they expect public libraries to do and how will they be relevant in 10 years' time? Specifically, there needs to be a greater focus on the role libraries play in encouraging literacy through reading, in education and in bridging the "digital divide", as well as their crucial role as a community hub for activities from homework clubs to home delivery. The reasons why we should all strive to support the vision must be clear to everyone, especially to local politicians.
Councils must be reminded that where the service needs to be re-engineered, any potential closures must be equitable, part of a development plan and subject to a detailed review of need, and not a knee jerk reaction to budget cuts. The plan must ensure quality of access for all (which means that small branches in rural areas with no public transport may have to be kept open) and be subject to meaningful consultation.
There must be a wide recognition that the service needs to be "streamlined" to optimise its efficiency and effectiveness. There are far too many authorities (the number increased from 97 in 1998 to 151 today), each with its own management and support structure. The current structure is indefensible and wasteful, and should be addressed with urgency.
Related to this is the need to reduce significantly administrative costs given that about 20-25% of the budget for most library services (and in some cases, up to 50%) is committed to council charges for central services and library support costs. If those responsible lack the expertise to drive down these costs, there are others who can help.
The public must be given a real voice, through regular consultation and Friends' groups, to determine a local agenda for their local library, to encourage suitable involvement by volunteers and to raise funds for what otherwise it can't afford.
At the national level, the transfer of the strategic role to the Arts Council provides a new opportunity to establish effective leadership by providing a clear strategic plan to implement the vision for libraries in the 21st century, based on broad policy goals implemented locally by individual authorities and their communities. However, that requires people with the vision, a real grasp of the issues and the determination to deliver.
For far too long I have heard officials say that they will get around to resolving these issues but they never do. Well, time has now run out and those paying the cost for past failures are real people living in real communities where their library is being closed or its service drastically reduced. If there is any spark of leadership in the offices of government and the professional bodies, such a programme should be put into immediate effect and local politicians shown how they can retain a viable service to the benefit of their communities.