THE BLOG

Libraries in Dire Straits - Time for New Thinking

30/03/2016 12:18 | Updated 30 March 2016

It's not going to be a huge surprise to many people that traditional council library services are in dire straits. As funding has been squeezed, services like children's and adults' social care are naturally being prioritised over non-essential services.

However, libraries have always been a political hot potato and create huge headaches for local politicians. The public get very protective of their libraries, even people who rarely use them will find a strong voice if a local politician suggests closing a beloved local library. So instead of creating a fuss, the approach is often to do what can be done with limited resources to "ease the passing" of the local library.

This week, the BBC have looked into the situation in some detail and have reported that since 2010 nearly 350 libraries and closed resulting in the loss of nearly 8,000 jobs. This represents about a quarter of the library workforce. Many volunteers have stepped up to help out but they can only do so much and are rarely in a position of sufficient authority to do anything radical enough to save the service.

It doesn't have to be this way. I live in Greenwich and the main council library in Woolwich is a hive of activity. When I went in recently there were lots of people making use of the computers, various groups using the open spaces to meet and (believe it or not) some people were even sitting reading books! Admittedly this is not a typical council library - it is run in partnership with GLL one of the UK largest social enterprises. You can certainly feel the entrepreneurial buzz when you enter the building.

Finding a partner to help run your local service is one way to go - but there are an increasing number of library staff who are interested in taking on the running of the service themselves.

York Libraries and Archives service was the first in the country to take the radical step to move from council-owned to a community and staff owned mutual (York Explore). They faced a similar situation to many council library services with severe budget cuts (nearly 20% in a single year).

This entrepreneurial group chose to take action and through some impressive entrepreneurial activity (like partnering with adult education services, making better commercial use of their space and improving their café) they managed to plug the funding gap.

It's a move that has support from the Government. The Conservative manifesto clearly states: "We have supported the growth of public service mutuals - organisations that are owned by their staff and deliver public services...this will free up the entrepreneurial spirit of public servants and yield better value for money for taxpayers."

Other services are doing it too. As public services (also adult social care, support services for schools and even building regulation services) face the twin challenges of reducing budgets and ever increasing service user expectations. Most services have now squeezed all they can through traditional efficiency drives and now need to think much more radically about how they can sustain their service - possibly by going it alone.

A well-run library which has evolved to provide facilities and services that the local people really value is an incredible community asset. We need more entrepreneurial librarians to take action now before it's too late. Once a library is gone, it's extremely hard to get it back.

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