Industry figures have voiced hopes for the latest government-commissioned review into the library service, but there has been strong scepticism from campaigners.
The report, commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport alongside the Department for Communities & Local Government, will look at core principles, delivery models and the role of volunteers, with a panel made up of many who also sat on the well-received review into library e-book lending, including Faber’s Stephen Page (pictured left), PFD’s Caroline Michel (centre) and William Sieghart (right).
But The Library Campaign chair Laura Swaffield was unimpressed. “I don’t know what the panel can say that will be of much use. Everything is happening too fast, happening without any analysis, and happening without any control. Whatever is said might be too late,” Swaffield commented.
Campaigner Desmond Clarke said: “The public library service does not need yet another review or report. What it does need is a well-developed strategic framework with a vision for a modern public library service that serves the diverse needs of the millions of people who rely on and need libraries.”
Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman was also doubtful, saying: “While I have actively encouraged those who follow me on Facebook and Twitter to submit evidence to this new review before the deadline of 21st March, I can’t help wondering if this isn’t an attempt to kick the whole issue of delivering a meaningful nationwide public library service into the long grass, especially as this report will not be delivered until the end of the year with little chance of implementation before the next general election.”
However, Barbara Band, president of the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals, welcomed the move. “I know some people have said we don’t need another review, but you don’t get action without these reviews. What we really need is a comprehensive statement of what constitutes a public library service. There is no definition, and councils are providing very different levels of service.”
The Reading Agency’s c.e.o. Sue Wilkinson agreed: “Previous reviews may not have had the immediate results that campaigners want, but look at how libraries have changed in the past 10 years—I think it is, at least in part, because these reviews have happened and influenced what we all do.”
Richard Mollet, c.e.o. of the Publishers Association, added: “Perhaps the most significant aspect of this inquiry is that it is being jointly run by DCMS and DCLG, combining the department with the policy lead with the department holding the purse strings. The PA has long maintained that it is incomplete to talk only about what services libraries provide unless you can also talk about how they will be funded . . . Hopefully the review’s report will find a way to capture these all-important financial questions.” But of the review’s remit to look at the role of volunteer libraries, he warned: “We should all be wary of any moves which would reduce the level of professional delivery.”
Although Booksellers Association c.e.o. Tim Godfray said it was disappointing that no booksellers were on the panel, Waterstones m.d. James Daunt called the re-employment of the Sieghart team “refreshingly sensible”, while Bilbary founder Tim Coates noted: “Stephen Page, Caroline Michel, William Sieghart—they all understand the importance of books and their central importance to libraries.”
Anna Bond, UK sales director for Pan Macmillan, commented on the team’s “track record of reaching steps for a diverse group of stakeholders.” She added: “I am hopeful they will give us something we can focus on. There is an urgency around all of this because libraries are struggling to continue. I think as publishers we need to be told what to do to help.”
Libraries facing 'emergency'
One hundred more libraries could close in 2014–15, with a further 200–300 turned over to volunteers, according to Public Libraries News, the website that monitors closures in the public library network.
Local authorities set their budgets for the year ahead in February and March and England’s councils this year are facing an average spending cut of 2.9%, on top of previous savings.
Ian Anstice, Public Libraries News founder, said: “Four hundred and seventy-one service points have at some point been threatened with closure or loss of all paid staff since April 2013, and I only see the number increasing next year. Many of those will be saved [by local campaigners] but I would hazard a guess at three-quarters of those not saved going to volunteers.”
Earlier this month, Liverpool City Council announced it would be slashing £1.5m from its library budget over the next three years. In January, Birmingham City Council, which opened the £183m Library of Birmingham to much fanfare last September, announced a £2m cut to its library budget, with some branches closed outright.
In Lincolnshire, campaigners have started legal proceedings against the council, following a decision to keep only 15 of its 47 libraries open, with the rest being shut or passed to volunteers. Herefordshire’s plans to close all but one of its libraries were modified after protests from campaigners, but eight of the county’s 11 libraries remain at risk. In the past 12 months, Newcastle City Council stopped funding 10 out of 18 libraries, while Sunderland cut cash for nine of 20, and Sheffield made plans to keep open just 12 of 28. Rhondda Cynon Taf has approved plans to close 14 of its 26 libraries.
Annual statistics from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy showed 272 library points closed between 2010 and 2013, bringing the total number of libraries nationwide down from 4,466 to 4,194. This figure does not include many libraries handed over to volunteers: CIPFA recorded that paid staff numbers dropped 6.8% year on year to 20,302 in 2012-13, while the number of volunteers soared 44.5%, to 33,808.
The ultimate fate of libraries handed over to volunteer control is as yet unclear. Anstice said that it was too early to know, adding: “The whole thing is a tremendous guess. Perhaps by the time we find out, it’ll be too late.”
Laura Swaffield, chair of The Library Campaign, said: “We really are in a state of emergency now. There is a profound impact on the library network. We could reach a tipping point before the end of the year where we have lost a level of service that we will never be able to get back.