What is the next chapter for our libraries in a digital age?
PUBLISHED: 07:00 03 February 2019
What does the future hold for your local library in an age of digital and video - and what further changes are in store?
Libraries have seen major changes over recent years. Now there are fears for their future in Essex, where campaigners are fighting against proposed cuts worth £3.7million.
Meanwhile, in Suffolk, where there was a similar threat to close scores of libraries just a few years ago, all branches have stayed open, and friends groups are helping to bridge funding gaps. So what is the next chapter?
Chance to have your say on Essex library cuts before the deadline
Determined library campaigners are battling proposals to close down a third of Essex’s libraries, and urging people to respond to the consultation before it is too late.
SOLE (Save Our Libraries Essex) is preparing to hold a big Save Our Libraries demonstration in Chelmsford on Saturday, February 9 and asking people to take a library book along with them as a mark of support.
Campaigners are also staging “Book Raids” across the county - the idea being that as many users as possible should turn up at a library on a certain day and show their support, by each taking out their maximum number of books.
The controversial cuts, designed to save up to £3.7million, could mean closing down 25 libraries, including Prettygate in Colchester, Stansted and Sible Hedingham.
Another 19 libraries out of the 74 in Essex, including Manningtree, Walton-on-the-Naze and Frinton, are earmarked to be run by community groups. But there are fears these could also face closure if groups are not found to run them.
A major consultation on the reorganisation is running until February 20, and campaigners are urging supporters to have their say before the deadline.
Andrew Coburn, spokesperson for SOLE, said: “It’s not a fait accompli. We want to keep up the pressure, so they will scrap the plan, and try to improve the library service and invest in it.”
Campaigners warn that women and children will be particularly affected, with families losing vital access to broadband to make benefit claims.
Councillor Sue Lissimore has resigned from her role in the county cabinet to put her time into saving Prettygate Library in Colchester.
She commented: “The Prettygate Library is the only community building in the vicinity. It’s somewhere where people can congregate, it’s central, it has disabled access. If we could build on all of that, I think it could become a fantastic community asset.”
On top of the 25 libraries under threat of closure, the council wants 19 other library branches to be “run by a community or partner organisation with ECC support.”
However, Mr Coburn said: “Groups may well come forward, but it will be a postcode lottery. If you don’t or can’t volunteer, and nobody volunteers to run your local library, then that’s the end of it.”
Campaigners are also emphasising libraries are not just places to borrow books, but hubs for the community - where people can meet friends, use computers and take part in a range of activities, from Baby and Toddler Rhymetime to book groups and adult education sessions.
Essex County Council is describing its changes as a plan for “Libraries fit for the future and a fit with people’s lives.”
The consultation page on their website says that the service is “no longer viable in its current form.”
It comments: “Traditional library use in Essex has collapsed in the last ten years. There are 31% fewer people using Essex libraries now than there were in 2008 – over 100,000 fewer active users (people who have used their library card in the last year) – and loans of books and other items are down by 52%.
“At the same time, use of the e-library service, including e-book loans and online reservations, has more than doubled since 2013.”
To take part in the consultation, visit the Essex Libraries website.
Suffolk Libraries are fighting back - and looking to the future
While libraries in Essex and some other areas currently face a struggle to survive, in Suffolk they have been fighting back.
All 44 libraries in the county are still open, despite 29 having been threatened with closure back in 2011.
Visits for 2017-18 did show a small decline from 2016-17, of 1.4%, but this came at a time when nationally library visits have declined by 14% over the last five years.
The number of books borrowed actually went up in 2017/18, for the first time in several years, although this was largely the result of a rise in ebook loans and children’s book loans.
And plans are being made for a Suffolk Libraries Day in October, when celebrations will be held at libraries across the county.
It’s all a very different story from the situation in 2011, when only a determined campaign by nearly 40,000 library supporters prevented a raft of closures.
Suffolk County Council then decided that the libraries should be reorganised, and they are now run by an independent charitable organisation.
Chief executive of Suffolk Libraries Bruce Leeke said: “I think the model that Suffolk Libraries has established has been highly successful and supported by the community.”
The service does still face financial pressures, and county council funding is now 30% less than in 2010, following a £50,000 cut in 2018/19. However, the county has agreed to keep funding at the same level for the rest of the current contract, until 2022, with no further cuts.
New developments include free Wifi in all libraries and a growing eLibrary. A new Eye Library has just opened its doors, replacing the previous building, and new replacement libraries in Needham Market and Mildenhall are planned for the next two years.
While books are still crucial, libraries in the county are also concentrating on providing more experiences and activities, to appeal to people across the age range and emphasise their role as community hubs.
Activities have expanded over the last few years, from 155,876 attendances at 9,534 sessions in 2016-17 to 182,298 attendances at 12,659 sessions in 2018-19.
Mr Leeke said: “It’s a highly eclectic mixture. We have up to 2,000 different types of activity going on in the libraries, from fashion shows to clubs for older people to baby bounce!”
Many community initiatives are also based at libraries, such as Pride and Periods, a pilot scheme combating period poverty to provide free sanitary items, donated by supporting organisations, in eight libraries.
So what does the future hold? Community groups have helped to support and fund key improvements, but Suffolk’s libraries still need to increase income.
Increasing revenue from room hire in libraries is one possibility. Suffolk Libraries has also developed its own new self-service technology, which it is looking to sell to other library services.
“We may also make a coffee offer in more of our libraries,” Mr Leeke said - adding that coffee and books are a good fit.
Meanwhile, as examples of extending uses of buildings, Stradbroke Library has opened a post office and Ipswich County Library is licensed for weddings.
Friends give support to their local library
Friends or community groups have been set up for all Suffolk libraries, and have helped to support and fund key improvements such as refurbishments, new equipment and activities.
Thurston Library in west Suffolk might be relatively small, but it was the second group launched in the county and is highly active.
Chairman Richard Fawcett said: “We have got quite a lot of groups and activities in the library, from a manga group to an ancestry group, watercolour, sewing and Lego.”
Friends of Thurston Library have also organised a host of events and initiatives, such as Coronation and Italian themed meals, giant sales of donated books and a raffle for an iPad, often working together with other local groups and organisations.
They repainted the whole inside of the library and they have raised thousands of pounds to fund their next project, a revamp of the children’s library area.
Mr Fawcett said Thurston has been preparing its neighbourhood plan. “People were asked what was the most important building in the village, and people said the library, and that was tremendous. It shows how important the library is.”
In addition to the friends groups for individual libraries across Suffolk, another initiative designed to give “extra” support to libraries is Suffolk Libraries Extra.
This supporter scheme, launched in 2017, has so far attracted 135 members, with many having renewed for a second year, and has raised more than £9,500.
Members make an annual donation, currently standing at £20 for Silver membership, £50 for Gold and £150 for Platinum. Donations are put into a dedicated development fund.