Librarians and library suppliers have expressed concerns that changes to the Public Library Subsidy (PLS) could impact on the availability of government information in libraries.
The PLS was originally created in 1924 as a way of helping libraries to purchase government publications such as parliamentary records, statistical publications and gazettes.
However, the National Archives, which administers PLS, has now said that with the growing availability of those publications online, the need to provide a subsidy to help access print copies is no longer necessary, and the PLS will be altered from 20th September with a number of publications no longer covered by the scheme.
Malcolm Todd, head of information policy at the National Archives, said in a letter about the changes: "The National Archives has a responsibility to ensure that public money is spent responsibly, including money that is spent on the public library subsidy. In this context we have reviewed the scope of the PLS and concluded that there is no longer a justification for providing a subsidy for documents and publications that are freely available on-line to public libraries and the general public. It is difficult to justify a subsidy for print publishing at a time when the main thrust of government policy is to publish online."
Donna Ravenhill of specialist library suppliers Dandy Booksellers Limited said she felt it was "underhanded" that no consultation had been carried out by the National Archives, and said the changes would negatively impact public libraries.
"Public libraries are so financially strapped at the moment", Ravenhill said. "They rely on the PLS to make available all sorts of government publications that the public has an interest in seeing. The National Archives says that the information is all freely available online, but it is often in a very hard to access format. Instead of one PDF document, the data you want can be 90 different spreadsheets. Libraries don't necessarily have the staff or computer terminals to help people find this information."
A petition set up to protest the changes has drawn more than 50 signatures, with librarians commenting "Paper copies held in physical archives and libraries are an important resource for researchers. I know from experience how difficult it is to find official publications that are more then a few months old unless a paper copy can be traced", while another said: "It is a total myth that putting things online stops the need for paper copies… Please do not cut the subsidy, or public libraries will no longer be able to stock these items, or will have to cut down radically on what they buy."
Similar plans to change the PLS in 2009 went to consultation and were eventually dropped. However, the National Archives told The Bookseller that no consultation had been necessary this time as the changes "relate to conformity with wider government policy".
Asked about the accessibility of online documents compared to print versions, a spokesperson for the National Archives said digital was preferable: "Digital formats are more readily usable and re-usable in many circumstances owing to their machine-processability for both accessibility or adding value in new products."
John Dolan, chair of CILIP's policy committee said that it was vital that access to government publications remained available. He said: "This change is not a surprise as it is fully in line with the digital by default policy of the government. Public access to the information contained in these publications remains absolutely vital to a healthy democracy. If official information is published digitally by government without subsidies for libraries to supply print copies for users, it underlines the need for libraries to have good internet infrastructure and professional staff to support the public with their information needs. We must provide the support and technology for citizens to get online, get the information they need and fully participate in the digital environment."