Book Reviews

The public library conundrum

libraryI was hoping this year wouldn’t turn out to be another black one for the public library service in the UK but the signs are not looking good.

In the last few days the BBC has reported that two local libraries in North Wales are threatened with closure unless public-minded citizens step forward with funding before April. In mid Wales another library may be saved if a deal can be reached whereby it is run by community volunteers. And here in South Wales a ‘strategic review’ is underway. It’s meant apparently to help determine the future direction of this service but in the opinion of many local citizens, that really means one thing — opening hours will be reduced and some branches may close.  Replacing them with a mobile van that gets to your neighbourhood once a month doesn’t give anywhere near the same experience as popping into your warm, friendly local library whenever you feel like.)

What’s happening in Wales is happening elsewhere across the UK. According to the Library Campaign, the number of libraries has fallen by almost a quarter since 2009. They predict the trend will continue with the closure of a further 400 branches by 2016 with services in rural and deprived urban areas most at risk.

How serious things will be this year we will find out over the next few weeks. Local politicians up and down the UK are currently wrestling with the annual challenge of setting their budgets and trying to get them finalised by the end of February. As always, those discussions involve tough decisions since there’s never enough money for everything that politicians, administrators and Joe Public believe needs to be funded.  Do they put your money into improving schools or improving transport so people find work more easily? Do they recruit more social workers to care and protect vulnerable people or more environmental health officers to prevent pollution and waste? Difficult choices to face  when you know the consequences of your decisions will materially impact people’s lives.

Which is one reason why libraries, along with museums, theatres and art centers are relatively easy targets. Closing a facility of that nature reduces quality of life but it doesn’t put people at risk or cause them pain and suffering. That doesn’t mean local councils in the UK can do whatever they want with libraries; they actually have a legal duty under the Public Libraries & Museums Act of 1964 to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons in the area that want to make use of it.”

The meaning of those words is open to interpretation — efficiency you can measure but what I think constitutes comprehensive might be different to your version. It clearly doesn’t extend to saying that every town or every village should have a library or that the building should be open 7 days a week. Does it mean each householder has the right to a library within a specific distance from their home? Or that there should be one library per x thousand of residents. The act doesn’t provide the library service with immunity from closure — the council simply has to demonstrate they conducted a full evaluation of the impact and held public consultation before reaching a decision. There was in fact a landmark ruling last year when the High Court found in favour of local citizens because Gloucester and Somerset councils didn’t do enough in the judge’s opinion to consider the disproportionately severe impact their closure plans would have on the poor, elderly and disabled.

So to some extent, you can see how politicians are caught between the rock and the hard place. They have to find a solution but cutting their way through the problem isn’t the answer. In my area, the nature of the questions asked in the public consultation suggested the idea is to make libraries more of a cash-generation service rather than a cash-draining venture.

Not one question asked about opening hours. Not one question about selection and range of books/DVDs etc. Not one question about the ease of finding or selecting books or of booking computers for homework, course work or finding a job.

Instead many of the questions asked about changing services currently provided free, into ones for which fees would be charged. Or introducing new services but with a fee. And some ideas about ‘services’ which have absolutely nothing to do with a library.

So I was asked would I  use the library more if:

  • it sold postage stamps
  • it included a cafe
  • it offered a home delivery service for reserved books
  • it provided tourist information
  • it sold souvenirs and local craft products

I can see the attractiveness of an on-site cafe not only as a place readers can socialise but maybe as a place to host reading clubs or other related activities. But it could only be achieved by taking up space currently used for other activities like the children’s library or the magazine reading area which is much frequented. Hence you reduce the overall value of the service provided and remove part of the reason people go to the library in the first place.

Even more of a cause for concern is that this type of venture will bring a public service directly into competition with local businesses.  There are at least five coffee shops and cafes within a 5 minute walk of the County Library plus another three that sell postage stamps (not including the actual Post Office). At a time when small businesses are struggling to keep their heads above water, is it really such a good idea for a public-funded body to go into competition with them?

What our public library service deserves is some fresh thinking rather than half baked notions like these. You’d have thought with the wealth of business talent upon which the UK Government can draw, they could find someone who can provide a Big Idea that would both save our library system for future generations at a sustainable cost.

Any ideas for who this saviour might be?


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

19 thoughts on “The public library conundrum

  • The Literarium

    We have this same problem in the States; libraries are closing and free access to books and community programs for literacy, education, children and the elderly are thinning out. Every time I hear governments say they can’t afford to fund public programs like education and libraries, it just sounds to me like they are putting the money elsewhere, inflating other areas. I thought (or maybe hoped) the UK was better at that than we are (in terms of valuing libraries).

    I, too, have wished our libraries in my city would include cafes, because I think they could charge a small price for consumables and put proceeds toward funding the library. We have a grand new library near my house and it has the space and is attractive for its selection and modern look.

    This was a wonderful article. Thanks for putting it out there.

    • I went to one library in michigan where the cafe was run by Friends of the Library who also ran a book sale. All the proceeds went to fund visits by authors and children’s events. Keep pushing for that in your city.

  • This is such a good balanced post about this issue. I work as a senior manager in a UK library service and am often frustrated by the knee jerk reaction to closures and the difficult decisions being taken. You have really taken into account the budget pressures vs the passion of people who work for libraries and needs ofthe people who use them and that’s exactly what we need to be talking about.

    The budget pressures are very very real. We have had our budget cut by 25% in the last few years, and libraries have very little that they can cut from in the first place. Basically the things that cost money in a library service are staff, buildings and books (and book budgets are really nothing in comparison with the cost of staff). If you need to make cuts your choices are few – cut staff, which means opening hours, or cut buildings, which means closures. And year on year visitor figures are dropping, especially in smaller libraries where opening hours are already restricted and often only used by older people and young families. Book issues are also falling exponentially every year. It gets more and more difficult for libraries to justify themselves to their local authorities – it looks like we’re not relevant any more, like we’re not fit for purpose. And in many cases libraries are not, because there has been so little money available especially for branch libraries. Many of them look exactly the same as they did when they were opened in the 1960s or 1970s. Birmingham Central is a heartening story but the investment necessary for that sort of return is difficult to come by. And because libraries are statutory services their ability to draw down funds from the bigger agencies, like the Heritage Lottery Fund, is limited.

    Many services turn to income generation to try and fill the gaps in their funding. I don’t think this is the way either (though cafés can work, we have three, two in libraries and one independent in a local park and they all make money and increase visitors). What we need are big ideas, like you say, transformations of approach. We can’t have those without change though, and that is often a sticking point with libraries.

    In York our big idea is quite controversial. We are leaving the Council and becoming a mutual, owned by staff and our members with a Board of Directors elected to govern us. Our core funding will still come from local government, because of the statutory status under the 1964 Act, but we will be free to spend that money as members decide. The Council has agreed to give us a 5 year contract with a fixed budget – which is security we could never dream of inside the Council with cuts expected year on year. We will be able to keep all the income we generate (not the case at present, it often goes to fill deficits elsewhere) and as a registered charity we will be eligible for more grants and be able to accept donations. We also hope that it will make us more flexible and responsive to what our customers want, because we will be all about libraries and archives and not part of some giant organisation juggling dozens of competing priorities. It’s exciting, and a bit scary, but we need to take a big step. Selling postage stamps is not going to save the day. If it works for us, then maybe other parts of the country will follow suit.

    Sorry for such a long comment – this is something I feel incredibly passionate about. I might try and write a post of my own about it. 🙂

    • I used to work in local government so sat through endless budget discussions which were always heated ones though only once came to actual blows. I know it’s easy to criticise local councillors (they do deserve it often) but they also have an impossible task. It sounds like the approach in York is something that could well take off. I suppose it is a risk because the funding could still be reduced but at least you will feel that you have rather more control over your destiny. Hope it goes well for you – do keep posting about it on your blog to let everyone know the success story.

  • But, the big question in Birmingham, however magnificent the new central library is, is how many branch libraries are going to have to close as a result to pay for it. My local library has had its hours cut and that has made a tremendous difference to young families who really don’t want to have to take a thirty minute bus journey with young children to visit a tourist attraction.

    Our other local tragedy has been the closure this week of our Oxfam Bookshop because the lease was up and the new rents are just too much for them to afford. There is talk that they will be going into new premises but they will be very much smaller.

    • Many councils seem desperate to have what they class as iconic or landmark projects just because every other city has them. Look what happened with the Millenium funding – lots of new museums that can’t afford to stay open now the funds have gone.

  • I am lucky to live in a county that has recently invested in building up its libraries. Over the past two years, the five branches in our county have consolidated some services, but they have also made great efforts to become more user-friendly. The opening hours have been expanded, and two branches now have a separate meeting room that is used several times during the day, every day, for different activities. While computers and movies take up the central area of the buildings, more people borrow books now than two years ago. Still, I wish people would take the time to explore all the wonderful things our library has to offer. Above all, you always find people eager to talk about books there. 🙂

  • Public libraries all over are having troubles and it is heartbreaking. I am fortunate to live in a city where voters agreed to add a special small extra tax to our property taxes to help keep libraries funded. So far it is working. I hope things get sorted out in your area and your libraries are saved!

    • Somehow I doubt the good people of our county would cough up like that Stefanie. It has many parts of high unemployment (over 30%) and social deprivation.

  • I feel very lucky to live in a community where the local branch of our public library is very well used. I don’t know what makes it unique other than the people – both the people who work there and the people who use it. There seem to be informal groups meeting there all the time, as well as what you’d expect – groups for toddlers, reading groups and a homework club.

    • It could be a combination of factors – location, welcoming atmosphere, friendly staff. Whatever they are doing it seems to be right for your community.

  • Hearing about these closures is so heartbreaking. And the wrong answer to these problems. When I wasn’t working and looking for a job, I went to the library. To job search, to look for books that might help me, to keep myself from going crazy. Libraries are so incredibly important for citizens’ wellbeing and a community’s spirit. As per Toby Forward: “Civilized nations build libraries; lands that have lost their soul close them down.”

    • A good quote though I admit to ignorance in knowing who Toby Forward is.

  • Nordie

    I also find it can be a self fulfilling prophecy – reducing hours (e.g. to between 9 & 12, 3 days a week, no weekend opening) ensures that only a certain number of people can and will attend, many with very specific requirements. The reduced attendance is then used to prove a lack of need or desire to make use of, and therefore to justify closure.

    I cant attend my library during working hours – because I work! I have attended the new library more often since it opened than I attended the old library, even though the latter was closer and easier to get to – in theory!

    I’ve finished work and gone round to attend evening author events.
    I’ve been in a weekend to attend a guild meeting in one of the cafes.
    I’m following them on twitter to keep up to date as to what’s happening.
    I have sat outside on the 3rd floor balcony and admired the view – both in the daylight and the dark.

    I have yet to register or borrow a book!

    • I suppose this is an illustration of how the question about ‘Using a library’ that was in our survey can mean different things. You were using it for one purpose where others might use it for different reasons. Some people use our library as somewhere warm to sit and wait for the bus. Much better than waiting in the cold shelter directly outside.

  • Nordie

    Meanwhile, here in Birmingham, our new Central Library ( opened last September. I was in there last Saturday, and it was still heaving with people – I hope it’s still like that in a year, or 10 years time.

    As perhaps can only be done in a space so big, services include: open 7 days a week (8 – 8 most days), an auditorium that can show films and plays, cafes (1 doing hot food, the other takeaway tea and cake), computers, books, lots and lots of seating areas (not a seat to be found last Saturday), free wifi, audio and video rental (with video streaming terminals), free author events, free space for usage (Clarins had a therapy space there on the weekend, where people could chat and get freebies). And that’s the stuff I know about!

    Here is an example of the things that are coming up in the immediate future:

    • It’s so good to hear about investments rather than cuts Nordie. What I liked about the approach in Birmingham is the way they are making it into a hub for many activities without sacrificing their main purpose.

  • Excellent post. I nearly volunteered to be a library service helper, taking books out to the elderly in their homes. Instead, I signed up for an Mphil and a PhD and went down that career route. But it is something I’d definitely consider in the future. If we have to volunteer to help with the library, then let’s at least get the books out to the people who really need them.

    • Absolutely. If our branch is facing the axe I’ll be stepping in as a volunteer


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