Campaigners and librarians' representatives have told an independent review of the state of the public library service in England that the service is becoming a “postcode lottery”, with volunteer-run libraries "akin to food banks", inadequately meeting a need that "should never have been created."
The deadline for submissions to the review panel, chaired by William Sieghart [pictured] and commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government, fell today (Friday 21st March).
The panel, which will address questions including the core principles of the library service and the role of community libraries, will report by the end of the year.
Campaigners have highlighted the "emergency" currently facing the service, with an estimate that 100 more will close in 2014-15, and a further 2-300 given over to volunteers.
The Library Campaign said that communities are “blackmailed” into or “forced to attempt to run their own libraries by local authorities that refuse to offer any alternative to wholesale closures”. It said volunteer-run libraries were a “burden to carry” and their “chances of survival are very poor”.
“Above all - and we cannot stress this too highly - promoting them is the worst conceivable way to attempt to make savings,” the campaign body said. “Their role is akin of that of food banks - they meet, inadequately, a need that should never have been created.”
In its submission CILIP (The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) said community libraries have problems “a lack of connectivity in terms of legal duties, breadth of services, professional expertise and quality that risks impacting on the public”, the submission also said.
Graham Lee, chairman of Ad Lib, an organisation which represents friends of libraries groups throughout Dorset, wrote about Ad Lib’s experiences of the county’s eight volunteer-run libraries. Lee said that while the community-run libraries had done well, “enthusiastic amateurs are never an adequate replacement for professional library staff who have dedicated their lives to their craft”.
Consequences of volunteer-run libraries included not stocking recorded material, and volunteers being less able to help those wanting to use public access computers and not being as adept as professional librarians at “getting the best out of the county’s computerised library management system”.
Lee also said that county council “has not been sufficiently active in seeking to create a fruitful relationship between our volunteers and its paid staff” and that the “pursuit of economic efficiency comes at the cost of comprehensibility”.
Shirley Burnham, a library user and campaigner from Swindon who formed what is now known as the Save Old Town Library Campaign, wrote that “governments are temporary custodians of the national library service and do not have the right either to dismantle it or to interfere with the structures established to safeguard it”.
CILIP also said “the closure of public libraries and withdrawal of mobile library services across England has created a postcode lottery of provision”, and argued that the “lack of a clear definition of what is a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service has led to local interpretation of what can be delivered”.
Martyn Wade, chair of CILIP council, said: “The government must identify a roadmap for the future of public libraries in England. Library services are needed as much as ever, but their purpose is changing. Library practitioners are passionate about what they do and understand that the world is changing. We need to establish the role of libraries in society afresh through meaningful national debate.
“The growth of community managed libraries risks a two tier service being developed. We believe there should be an honest discussion about what is happening with the use of volunteers in the delivery of library services and research into the impact on communities.”
Among its recommendations, CILIP called for research into the current and potential social and economic role of libraries and a national debate with leading thinkers and economists sharing views to inform the future.
The Library Campaign’s recommendations include a national campaign to publicise libraries, and “an expert panel to develop a coherent policy, guidelines on common issues and a day-to-day practical advice service for councils trying to understand what library services could do, and how to make cuts with minimal damage to the service”.
The library review panel consists of Faber c.e.o. Stephen Page; Peters, Fraser and Dunlop chief executive Caroline Michel; author Joanna Trollope; British Library chief executive Roly Keating; Society of Chief Librarians president Janene Cox; public policy consultant Sue Charteris; and former Channel 4 Chairman Luke Johnson. It is chaired by William Sieghart.
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