Public libraries providing free access to books and other sources of information are a vital and much-loved service. Recent campaigns against the closure of local libraries have highlighted the strong attachment that many people feel to this service. However, much of the focus of the campaigns has been on library branches rather than the broader question of the preservationand, if possible, enhancementof the library service. Reductions in opening hours and the loss of professional staff may damage the service more than the closure of particular buildings, even though premises are clearly key to comprehensive provision.
Local authorities are under considerable financial pressure at present and have to make budgetary decisions swiftly. The provision of a library service is a statutory duty, but a number of councils have drawn up plans that fail to comply with the requirement to provide a 'comprehensive and efficient' service. A good starting point is the consultation being carried out under the aegis of the Arts Council into exactly how people use the service at present. Making a full assessment of the needs of the local population for the services provided by libraries is key to developing plans for changes to the service. While guidance on how to assess local needs is available, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council (the body which now has responsibility for promoting good practice in the service) need to do more to disseminate it. The support of the Local Government Association and the professional librarians will be needed in this task.
Although the current crisis may appear to bode ill for the future of public libraries, it also presents an opportunity for a thorough reassessment of their role and of the way they are organised. We were given many examples of innovative thinking about what libraries can offer to the local population, and a number of models of how those services might be provided. Under the pressure of budget cuts, co-operation between library authorities, partnerships with other public and private bodies, development of new services and the greater sharing of good practice open the possibility of providing more flexible, imaginative and efficient library services in future.
Councils which have transferred the running of libraries to community volunteers must, however, continue to give them the necessary support, otherwise they may well wither on the vine and therefore be viewed as closures by stealth.
During our inquiry, the Minister gave us a commitment to produce a report by the end of 2014 on the cumulative effect on library services of the cuts in local authority provision and the promotion of alternatives such as transfers to community volunteers. We welcome that commitment and look forward to that report. Enthusiasm over the scope for volunteers, and for new models of provision, is fine, butgiven the importance of library servicesa systematic look at the impact of funding cuts and re-organisation is needed to assess the durability of such changes over time.