Libraries: the real task

Public library authorities face cuts of up to 40% in their funding by 2020 and most are already struggling to provide an adequate service to their communities. Some such as Herefordshire are considering closing or transferring to volunteer groups all their libraries except the central library. CIPFA reports that 286 libraries have closed just in England during the past four years and Public Libraries News estimates that over 300 libraries are now run by volunteers.

The minister for culture Ed Vaizey MP is hoping that the new library taskforce will help authorities to create a modern library service that reverses the decline in usage over many years. Alas, the task force has been set surprisingly unambitious targets, such as sharing best practice, work force development and installing wifi in every library, and has been given a large bureaucratic committee under the joint DCMS and LGA umbrellas to support its work. There is little evidence as yet of any innovative thinking and radical solutions emanating from this body.

So what should the taskforce be addressing?

The main function of libraries is to support literacy, reading, education and the acquisition of information and knowledge. That requires all libraries to provide access to books in all formats and online services but the annual investment in new stock is at a record low, just 6 pence in every £1 spent on library services. Our libraries are being starved of resources  and borrowing is in steep decline. The investment in materials must be urgently addressed.

For far too long, there has been disagreement about what is really happening within the sector, both in terms of closures and transfers, but more importantly in terms of actual usage. The annual CIPFA statistics, collected from returns made by most authorities, and the DCMS' Taking Part Surveys suggest that library usage and especially, borrowing is in marked decline. The taskforce have promised better information on library numbers and usage but the real issue is to understand why the public are apparently voting with their feet.

The most obvious need is to drastically reduce the 151 separately managed library authorities just in England - a number that was arbitrarily increased by 50% after the last local government re-organisation. The experience in Northern Ireland, from the Tri Borough initiative in London, and from consultancy studies is that significant savings in management costs, in back-offices, in procurement and in operational efficiency can be achieved to help protect front line services. Structural change is essential if the service is to survive other in large towns and cities.

A particular area of frustration has been the failure of many authorities to make optimum use of technology and to share management systems which support a national catalogue, can interface with other systems, provide prompt management information and support elending. As is happenng in Ireland and Wales, we should be looking to develop comprehensive systems that can support at least regional authorities.

We must look for new and effective ways to deliver services, whether at local level by sharing facilities with other services, or at authority level, through mergers and the use of dedicated trusts.  Making optimum use of reduced resources requires innovative thinking and close scrutiny of expenditure to best serve communities.

We must recognise that the general acceptance by politicians and the public that libraries are an essential part of our society has become eroded, and as a result they have become a soft option for cuts. There is much good will towards libraries and librarians but too little understanding as to their importance in supporting a literate, informed and educated society. There is a urgent need to convince those in national and local government as to the continuing value of public libraries.

We must come to accept that libraries require radical and structural change to survive. That will only happen if the taskforce and the strategic agencies responsible for improving and developing the service are innovative and are prepared to address the major issues. Above all, they must develop a service that people need and want to use.

Desmond Clarke is a former president and c.e.o. of Thomson Publishing Services Group and a director of Faber, and a veteran campaigner for public libraries.