Libraries must adapt to the realities facing them in a "complex" landscape, Brian Ashley, who takes on the role of Arts Council England's (ACE) libraries director from today (1st July), has said.
Addressing a panel of library campaigners at a meeting of The Library Campaign in London on Saturday (29th June), Ashley said that closures, cuts in funding, and a lack of central libraries body were facts that have to be addressed. He said: "Libraries are closing. Some are opening too, but not in the same numbers. I won't be one of those people who says there is nothing going wrong, but not everything is extremes. Not everything is in crisis."
Ashley added: "Between 2010 and 2016 most library services will lose 30% to 40% of their budget. The extent varies, but few organisations can take a hit in their budget of that size and carry on unchanged . . . We have to admit that there will be nothing like the return to the level of funding we have seen in previous years, for many years to come. All the political parties will back cuts to some extent.
"Also, there will not be a libraries development agency under the current government. They have made it clear with their 'bonfire of the quangos' that it is not on their agenda, and we should not expect one."
The panel included Public Library News founder and librarian Ian Anstice; campaigner Desmond Clarke; Trevor Craig, who runs library blog Question Everything; and Alan Wylie, who writes for the Voices for the Library website.
Ashley, who takes over the role from Nicky Morgan, said that he hoped the Envisioning the Library of the Future report issued by ACE earlier this year could help define where libraries are and how they can thrive, despite the difficulties they face. However, campaigners questioned the usefulness of the report, with Laura Swaffield calling it: "The Pippa Middleton guide to public libraries—it states the obvious."
Other campaigners asked if there were ways to encourage library services to share best practice, founded on evidence-based findings about what tactics best saved money and protected services. Many asked about establishing a better support for people looking to create community-managed libraries. Jim Brooks of Little Chalfont Library, which has been volunteer-run for six years, said: "We have been inundated with people requesting information about how to do it. It should not have to come down to us."
Ashley said: "ACE should share best practice, and that is what we try and do. I have put service managers from different authorities in a room and made them speak to each other, knowing that one was going down the same route the other had gone nine months before. The Future Libraries projects have evolved into the Libraries Development Initiative, and the Culture Hive website is spreading best practice on all of the arts areas."
When asked about the budget ACE had for libraries development, Ashley said he could not give an authoritative figure, but estimated it was a maximum of £500,000, with some of that money already involved in funding certain projects.
He concluded by saying: "What I will take back from today is how to bring in the voice of the user." Campaigners urged Ashley to use campaign groups such as Voices for the Library and The Library Campaign as sounding boards for further discussions.