Campaigning for libraries is making the news, especially across England, in response to proposals for library closures in many local authorities. Voices for the Library has been joined by the Bookseller’s Fight for Libraries campaign, while many more local pressure groups are active as well. All are making their voices heard, not least on Twitter where the #savelibraries tag has been listed as a popular trend.
This post was inspired by a thoughtful piece from Carl Clayton on the Sinto Blog which made the point very effectively that libraries are not just about the buildings and that library services need to be re-engineered to face current and future challenges. This brings me to the situation here in Northern Ireland, where Libraries NI is currently consulting on the second stage of its strategic review of services, proposing the closure of ten libraries and the ‘clustering’ of two more. While this sounds depressing, the strategic review is not all about bad news and there are concrete proposals for capital improvements or new libraries at other locations. The expiry of the current Electronic Libraries contract, which delivers the network services, and the imperative to negotiate a new contract for the next ten years also presents opportunities for real service improvement.
At the same time, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is consulting on its draft departmental budget for 2011-2015. Both the budget and an accompanying document , “Savings Delivery Plans and High Level Impact Assessment” are available on its website. The Libraries section obviously looks at the impact of the proposed closures but, in my view, it is the impact of the other proposed savings – a 15-20% reduction in opening hours, a recruitment freeze, and, critically, a reduction in the stock budget from the already low level of £1.60 per capita to a projected £1.01 in 2014/15 – that make much more worrying reading. (In Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries, published in 2006, DCAL recommended an initial target for stock budgets of £2.00 per capita.)
Libraries NI was born in 2009 with a commitment to achieve savings. A new and slimmer management structure has come into place, so far without the need for compulsory redundancies, but with a significant loss of experienced and expert staff and the aforementioned strategic review is another aspect of the drive to live within budget. But there is no doubt that the additional savings, now demanded in the 2011-2015 draft budget, will pile on the difficulties which the authority faces in meeting its statutory responsibility to maintain an acceptable level of service cover, while also trying to modernise the service as a whole.
We have a generation increasingly dependent on mobile technology and social media for accessing services and information. NI Libraries holds a wealth of unique resources crying out for digitisation. Successful libraries today are as much about virtual access as physical space and this trend can only accelerate.
If Libraries NI is to develop the service in a way that will ensure its ongoing relevance when technological change is happening at such breath-taking speed, then investment in the future needs to accompany rationalisation of the status quo. That being the case, a campaign, however well-intentioned, which focuses on keeping every library building open runs the risk of endangering the long-term sustainability of the service itself.
So when you’re thinking about how you should respond to these consultations – and it’s important that you do respond – don’t just focus on defending your local library. It’s the long-term future of the wider service that is at stake.