Libraries must evolve or become works of fiction
Charlotte Rose, 15 February, 2011

Now, before I’m brought to book for uttering impieties against one of Britain’s cherished institutions, I must be clear that I come to praise our libraries, not to bury them; a publically accessible store of knowledge is the hallmark of a civilised society. But, this philanthropic legacy from our Victorian ancestors needs a bit of 2.0 treatment; after all we don’t run our schools or hospitals like our 19th Century counterparts so why should libraries be different?

In an age where two thirds of Britons have internet access and many texts can be read in full for free online, the demands of the population have shifted since the inception of municipal book-sharing. Some libraries have adapted; many now offer computer use and internet access and a range of additional services from book clubs, English and IT classes to study support sessions.

But as I write, 496 libraries (436 buildings and 60 mobiles) stand under threat of closure, as local authorities look to shave budgets in the wake of a harsh financial settlement from central government. With this financial backdrop, introducing self-service systems and reducing staff, decreasing opening hours and cutting book budgets, is not going far enough. We need some imaginative thinking.

Some councils are already being creative. Haringey Council will retain its nine libraries by conjoining them with other public facing council services and turning them into one-stop-shop ‘community hubs’. They’ll be staffed by customer care teams trained to provide access to a range of council services, offer advice and facilities to pay council bills and host lunch clubs for older people. Dundee City Council has plans to form a public arts trust, which would mean that they could seek funding from private individuals where a council owned service could not.

Oxfordshire County Council have set aside a one off £450k transition funding pot. Local people will have the chance to vote on which under-threat services should get the cash, which will be used to keep services running until sustainable plans are drawn up. They’ve also been in discussion with US outsourcing firm LSSI who will look at reducing central administrative costs and oversee plans for volunteer run services.

These plans won’t be welcomed by everyone. A blogger for campaign group Voices for the Library argues that professional librarians can’t simply be replaced by untrained volunteers without severely impacting on services and the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals has warned that closures could lead to between 4,000 and 6,000 redundancies. But to argue to retain the status quo is to argue for extinction over evolution.

I don’t see why adding commercially profitable services to existing library premises should diminish the quality of libraries. Many bookshops now have coffee shops or cafes attached; libraries should do the same. Hiring out meeting spaces for community groups or local businesses seems an obvious winner, or where there is not space to do that, moving libraries into existing community facilities will save on running costs and boost usage. There also has to be recognition that more people use the online world both for research and recreation, and libraries must embrace it. Creating a virtual catalogue, where people could download titles onto their chosen reading device would mean libraries could extend their reach to people who have perhaps not been into a library building for decades. Local people who decide to exercise the power of ‘Community Right to Bid’ set out in the Localism Bill will need to consider this if they are to be able to sustain the services they have taken over.

Ed Miliband told the Commons in PMQs this week that ‘only this Prime Minister could blame libraries themselves for closing’; it might have been a bit of political knock-about, but if library and information services don’t work to rewrite themselves then they will be consigned to the history books.