The forthcoming Parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry into library closures is perhaps our last chance to save the public library service for many communities. At least 600 libraries are threatened with closure or transfer to volunteer groups, and one in five librarians are expected to face redundancy. Access to a comprehensive and efficient service as prescribed by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is fast becoming a postcode lottery.
Many communities have risen in protest across the country. These protests reflect not only concern about the loss of neighbourhood libraries, but also worries about the degradation of the library profession. On 13th March, hundreds of library users, authors and librarians will descend upon Parliament to lobby their MPs.
Increasingly, public anger is being directed at the minister and his officials at the DCMS and Arts Council England. They seem unable to provide leadership or effective advocacy but sit on the fence, writing reports and acting as facilitators for sharing practice. The Society of Chief Librarians has tried to deflect attention by trumpeting that 40 refurbished or newly-built libraries are due to be opened this year. However, the presence of a few shiny libraries does not disguise a hinterland laid waste by the
loss of another 600.
Whilst there is a general acceptance that cuts are necessary, it is wrong for council chiefs to see libraries as an “easy target”. Simply to close branches or transfer them to volunteer groups, without any blueprint for a sustainable model, is utterly irresponsible. So what are the alternatives to wearing a blindfold and wielding the axe?
We need to ask why it is necessary to have 151 separately managed library authorities in England, almost four times the number of police authorities. Westminster Council will merge its library services with those of two neighbouring authorities in April, saving £1.1m per annum and cutting the number of senior managers from 10 to four. Northern Ireland has recently moved to a single library authority. Across the country, at least £50m could be saved by reducing the number of authorities by a third.
At the same time, a further £50m could be saved by making better use of technology, standardising processes, sharing back offices and improving operational efficiency. However, progress will be painfully slow if we have to wait for all 151 management teams to take the initiative. All councillors responsible for library services should be fully briefed about how the best can be emulated. The minister, with the full backing of the professional bodies, should make it very clear that he expects action today to realise
Councillors and library chiefs must be encouraged to question the basis for and scale of central services charges imposed by councils on library authorities. These charges, which can equate to 10-25% of library expenditure, are often the “elephant in the room” when library budgets are scrutinised.
There is an urgent need for the DCMS, with the help of the professional bodies, to develop viable models for volunteer-supported libraries. Councils must be told that the decision to simply transfer a local library to a volunteer group does not fulfil their statutory duty. A minimum level of support by trained librarians and access to stocks and resources must be prescribed to ensure that an adequate service is provided to communities.
The Select Committee will receive many proposals for improving our public library services and is likely to instruct the DCMS, as it did in its previous report, ”to up its game”. All this will, however, achieve nothing unless ministers set up some form of library development agency to fill the leadership void. That body must be made up of people with the vision and imagination to inspire every authority to provide an improving service. And it must be willing to challenge existing practice and ask the hard questions.
That is not a job for those who have brought us to the current crisis.