A third of Essex's libraries could close within the next five years, according to a report released by the county's council.
In a bid to slash costs by £3.7m, 25 of the county's 74 libraries have been earmarked for closure by 2024, across areas including Chelmsford, Harlow and Basildon, "on the basis that because of relatively low demand, the availability of other services and considering the community served, a library service is not required in these locations". It said it would, however, "consider viable offers from community groups".
The "Essex Future Library Services Strategy" report naming the libraries was released this week following a meeting on Tuesday (13th November). They are: Fryerns and Vange in Basildon; Hatfield Peverel, Kelvedon, Sible Hedingham and Silver End in Braintree; Broomfield, Danbury, Galleywood, Stock and Writtle in Chelmsford; Prettygate in Colchester; Buckhurst Hill, Chigwell, Debden and North Weald in Epping Forest; Mark Hall and Tye Green in Harlow; Southminster and Wickham Bishops in Maldon; Great Wakering and Hullbridge in Rochford; Holland in Tendring; and Stansted and Thaxted in Uttlesford.
The council has argued that, while use of its e-library service has more than doubled in the last five years, traditional library use in Essex has "collapsed" over the past 10. It cited statistics that measuring between 2008 and now there are 31% fewer people using Essex libraries (or 100,000+) and loans are down 52%. Measuring between 2012/13 and 2017/18, meanwhile, loans from Essex library services fell 43% from over 7.1m a year to fewer than 4.1m. The county currently has the second-highest number of libraries in the UK.
As well as proposing "fewer but better" library spaces in order to "focus resources on the libraries with the greatest need" and "be more effective on meeting the needs of communities", the council's draft strategy for "a 21st century library service" prioritises an enhanced 'eLibrary' service, outreach, and greater community involvement with the use of volunteers.
Cllr Susan Barker said it wanted to create "a library service with a wider appeal", one which is "online 24-7, is faster, and offers users more choice". As well as taking into account the way society has changed, including as a result of new technologies available, she said it must "offer value for money" and this "may mean some libraries are not viable".
"Technology has transformed how people read books and access information and entertainment, which is why we must look critically at our current library locations and respond to these changes," she said. "We want to introduce better library spaces where we do have them - smart, modern and comfortable - and where, for instance, you might be able to swipe in using a smart card, pick up parcels or bring your toddlers for rhyme time.
"We also have to make sure that we continue to offer value for money. That may mean some libraries are not viable. But if that is the case, we want to talk to communities about how they can become involved and run a library service with our support. The consultation is the opportunity to feedback on our plans and make sure that views are heard and considered."
A 12-week long consultation on the future of Essex libraries will take place between 29th November 2018 and 20th February 2019. The findings from the consultation will be published and any changes proposed considered in June 2019.
A petition to ringfence government funding for public libraries, backed by campaigners and authors including JK Rowling, is still currently circulating. Despite the Government's response last week, asserting its position such funding should be non-ringfenced, the petition has now surpassed 30,000 signatures and counting.