The future of our library service

Thriving centres of the community, or a service in crisis with staff recruitment problems, book borrowing in free fall, and inadequate book stocks? Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the future of public libraries.

Thriving centres of the community, or a service in crisis with staff recruitment problems, book borrowing in free fall, and inadequate book stocks? Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the future of public libraries.

BRITAIN'S public libraries are under threat. Traditionally regarded as the Cinderella service of local government, their future is bleak if recent reports are to be believed.

Graduates and school leavers no longer think a career as a librarian is sexy, while the lending service is being undermined by the huge surge in the number of on-line terminals taking up the space previously allocated for books.

That's the picture being painted in recent reports on the state of our library service, which reveals that it costs the UK's local authorities £1billiion a year to provide libraries –54% of which is spent on staff.

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And those staff are predominantly older people. Nearly one third of them will retire within the next ten years, meaning 11,000 new recruits will be needed by 2010 in England alone.

The survey follows closely behind the findings of Tim Coates, a former managing director of Waterstones bookshops, for the libraries charity Libri, in which he says public libraries spend only 9% of their budget on books and book borrowing is in "free fall."

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Where visitor numbers have increased, it's mostly due to other services on offer, especially the attraction of free access to the internet.

People are no longer borrowing books – they're chatting on-line to their mates at the expense of council tax payers instead of paying the £1.50 for half an hour's access charged in commercial internet cafes.

Mr Coates, who discovered there's been a drop of 50% in the past 10 years in the number of people borrowing books, said: "Libraries say that doesn't matter because they are no longer about books – but the other services should be as well as, not instead of, books."

He paints an apocalyptic future – if the current decline in book borrowing is not reversed, it will cease in 15 years, leaving councils providing a reference service, on-line facilities, and the cheap hire of DVDs or whatever home entertainment systems which happens to be in vogue.

To try to overcome the threat to the service, the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) is launching a media campaign to attract young people to the profession.

MLA chairman Mark Wood hits back at the dire analysis of the former Waterstones boss. "Public libraries today are thriving centres of the community, attracting people of all ages, from toddlers picking up their first book, to grandparents learning to surf the web.

"The staff have to be lively, creative, outgoing types who can help users get the most out of their library visit."

The MLA surveyed library authorities across the country as part of Framework for the Future, a Government action plan to improve public library services.

Mr Wood said: "We took the initiative because no one had pinned down what was happening about library recruitment at a local level. It is clear there is going to be a huge problem if local authorities do not act now.

"We will help them address this problem through Framework for the Future, which includes workforce development activities as well as a media campaign alerting people to the great career opportunities in public libraries."

A House of Commons select committee investigation into libraries nationwide earlier in the year described as a "scandal" the "significant deterioration" of crumbing buildings, shabby interiors and patchy service.

However, that's certainly not to be found at the headquarters of the Essex county library service in Chelmsford, which is located in the ultra modern county hall complex. And Suffolk spent £1.8m upgrading its central lending and reference library in Ipswich, has opened a new building in Lavenham, and refurbished libraries in Lowestoft, Felixstowe, Clare, and Stowmarket.

Although 59% of local authorities have already reported difficulty filling vacancies, Suffolk remains upbeat. Guenever Pachent, the assistant director for libraries and heritage, said the county council had long recognised the need to have a workforce strategy to ensure that the service was not left with huge skill gaps as a result of qualified staff retiring.

"The current estimate of librarian-qualified staff in Suffolk due to retire within the next ten years is less than 25%. However, it's worth bearing in mind that many people now choose to work beyond conventional retirement age."

The council has adopted a robust approach to its libraries service, having pioneered Sunday opening as a way of attracting more – and, crucially, younger – people through the doors. Mrs Pachent said the council was making use of innovative techniques and e-technology – its books stock is on-line and customers had been able to reserve books over the internet since 1997.

Expenditure on print materials, including all books, papers, periodicals and magazines was 12% of the total budget, which she acknowledges has fallen compared with previous years because more people are getting information electronically rather than from books, including children doing homework.

But there is no apology for the less books approach adopted in Suffolk. "Libraries are busy, IT-active places with diverse, multi-cultural customer bases," says Mrs Pachent.

Suffolk is bucking the trend on recruitment. The percentage of staff with librarian qualifications in Suffolk is15%, but the those with degrees and management qualifications is high. And unlike many library services elsewhere in the country, Suffolk uses its qualified librarians for expert functions rather than using them for general duties.

"Many more people apply to join the Suffolk service than there are posts. As an example, there are two 12-month long trainee posts, which are available to graduates before they take up a post-graduate course in librarianship. There are always lots of applications for even these highly qualified positions."

"Staff in modern libraries need to be enthusiastic team players, keen to help people to learn which is why the Suffolk Library Service holds auditions for applicants, which allows them to demonstrate their skills and aptitudes far more effectively than a conventional application form and interview would allow."

So it's not all gloom and doom. Libraries are an integral part of leisure learning. But as more and more pressure is put on council spending, how much longer can cash strapped council afford to provide subsidised book borrowing, DVD rentals, and access for all to the Internet?

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