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Despite closures, libraries shifting from councils to volunteers

More than 100 council-run libraries closed down in 2014-15, the result of a £50m drop in funding, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) revealed.

Its annual library survey showed that the number of libraries nationwide fell by almost 3% in one year, with visits dropping by nearly 4%. These have been on a downward trend since 2010, with gross spend on library services crashing by 16% over the course of the last Parliament.

When the chancellor announced his Spending Review in November, the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) also said cuts created a perfect storm where the demand for public libraries would outstrip their capacity, staffing levels and funding.

But the survey provided more evidence of the previously suspected trend of libraries shifting from council-run to volunteer-based. Full time employed paid library staff dropped by almost 4%, but the number of volunteers working in these services grew by almost 19%.

Rob Whiteman, CIPFA’s chief executive, said: “Cost-cutting measures continue to hit unprotected services hard and fewer people are using public libraries. Yet there is some hope.

“Volunteer numbers have nearly doubled over the past five years. Tens of Thousands of people are now giving their time to make sure these precious resources survive.”

Last month, for example, PSE revealed that Devon County Council approved the creation of a new private organisation to run its libraries – but one entirely owned by council staff.

The company is a public services mutual, for which the county council is still responsible, but services are commissioned independently. The system managed to dodge council cuts while still ensuring original library staff and the wider community owned the company running it, including within managerial leadership and a board of trustees.

Many councils say they are having to look to third party providers to run cash-hungry non-statutory services. Other local authorities are considering bringing different services under the same building to avoid the impact of spending cuts.


Shirley Burnham   09/12/2015 at 13:58

Rob Whiteman, chief executive of CIPFA says: "Yet there is some hope. Volunteer numbers have nearly doubled over the past five years." To my knowledge, libraries divested by local authorities to be wholly 'run' by volunteers do not have their performance recorded in CIPFA statistics nor, even, does their footfall etc continue to be recorded by the local council. Freedom of Information requests are rendered redundant, as no data can be elicited. Likewise, the Secretary of State, responsible for the statutory service under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, has no jurisdiction over these DIY libraries. His intervention, if they are failing, cannot be sought. Authors are excluded from PLR when the library is not affiliated to a local authority. In Swindon, where I live, it is proposed to transfer some libraries to parish councils and communities in order to help achieve a reduction of a whopping 75% in council spend on the service by 2020. But parish councils and community groups are not library authorities for the purpose of the 1964 Act. Evidence suggests that reliance on volunteers will not in many cases be a sustainable way forward - Visitor numbers have plummeted in many of these libraries and, due to some scarcity of volunteers, opening-hours have often been much reduced. Although volunteers are highly motivated, they often have little choice when their library is under threat other than to shoulder the obligations, costs and risks. Yes, they are a valued resource, but their role should be a complementary one, or more closures may well result. All the above illustrates how citizens who will be served by libraries 'run' by volunteers are not only denied access to the democratic process, but also to the quality of library service that is enjoyed by others in the same council area. It is discriminatory and, therefore, unethical. A proportion of the population will have no ability to call their elected members to account. So, it is my belief that "Yet there is some hope", due to the increasing use of volunteers, may not be the best way to describe the situation. Our splendid library service is paddling like mad to keep its head above water, but its feet are in the process of being amputed. The duck will have no means propulsion; it will starve to death - and we shall all be the poorer for that.

Robert Harrison   10/12/2015 at 21:16

Rob Whiteman, chief executive of CIPFA says: "Yet there is some hope. Volunteer numbers have nearly doubled over the past five years." What hope does he refer to? Volunteer numbers have nearly doubled because the public has been told either run your local library or lose it. That's what has happened here in Lincolnshire. Thirty libraries closed and re-opened as “Community hubs,” no longer called libraries to avoid legal problems and no longer under statutory control. The loss of 160 library staff and their skills is not an improvement in library provision. Lincolnshire CC had already greatly reduced the book stock, (including reference material) in libraries that it intended to become “Community hubs” and prior to these plans had severely reduced opening hours in many libraries making usage decline. Some of the Community hubs that have recently opened are so short of volunteers that they are only able to open for 3 hours on two days a week. Some have failed to open at all and have lost their library, which may now be replaced by a mobile for 2 hours a week or less. Although the council is giving some limited support to these “Community” ventures, what will happen when this stops in four years time? In truth we have lost thirty libraries from the comprehensive statutory provision we once had and what has replaced them may not survive in any numbers. Nationally the Task force is too slow, has no teeth and is only prepared to tinker round the edges of library provision and Ed Vaisey is in denial and refuses to intervene by protecting the statutory service he has responsibility for. I do not see volunteers as the answer to, or the future of libraries unless in support of a well run national library service employing qualified library staff.

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