Time to consolidate?

Unfortunately, the old adage that may you live in interesting times is certainly true for libraries at the moment. This innocuous saying hides a dark meaning, insinuating, as it does, chaotic and insecure periods. No wonder it is regarded by many as a curse.

Along with other public services, libraries enjoyed quite a settled period of expansion and investment until relatively recently. However, given the current austerity programme, the drive towards a smaller state, and the continuing strain on the public purse, the downwards pressure on resources is set to continue well into the future. Rapid and profound changes are taking place and this will ultimately change the nature and set the tone of library provision for decades to come. Therefore, those that manage services need to seek the best possible models of provision in order to ensure public libraries survive, remain relevant, and continue to serve their communities.

Despite the desire by some to write off public library services as being outdated and an anachronism in the digital age, use of libraries remain robust. However, it would be wrong not to recognise that there has been a contraction of traditional services and usage.

Typically during a period of contraction the commercial sector can respond in various ways: lowering or increasing prices, creating additional revenue streams with new products, or consolidating (merging) with another company.

Public services are somewhat more limited in the response they can take. Nevertheless, libraries have risen to the challenge with excellent examples of innovation, changes in service delivery, new builds that allow for multiple functions, and a greater focus on delivering initiatives that are relevant to users – driven in no small part by the SCL Universal Offers. Likewise, libraries are now more adept at partnership working, bidding for funds, and creating additional revenue, albeit on a small scale. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

However, this is not to present too overoptimistic a picture. Library services throughout the country have also seen reductions in staff, opening hours and stock budgets – the hollowing out effect – closures, and the widespread introduction of volunteers. Equally, the core funding from local authorities has been, and will continue to be, substantially reduced as councils struggle to provide burgeoning essential services.

As librarians we have to manage this change to ensure a future for our profession and the communities we serve. To do so requires a long hard look not only at models of provision but also the extent to which we can honestly offer a ‘comprehensive and efficient service.’

One solution is to run services as not for profit social enterprises, which is now a growing area. Equally, we should also allow contraction to lead to consolidation, and by that I mean enabling library services to merge, or even take over others. It is still very early days for this approach but examples such as the Tri-borough initiative in London and GLL are worth looking at. The Tri-borough has kept the services under council control, whereas GLL, as a not for profit enterprise, could (as it does for its leisure arm) run libraries anywhere in the country.

Regional trusts are more familiar within services such as the NHS. For example I live in Wiltshire which is covered by the Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Trust that also covers Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Swindon. A similar cross boundary approach could work equally well for libraries.

There is no universal model that offers the perfect solution for public libraries. Nevertheless, strategic alliances and collaborative service models could offer not only savings but a more secure future and heads of service would be remiss not to consider them. The harsh fact is we have, and will continue to have, far less resources than previously. The challenge is to transform services to mitigate against this.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a lack of willingness and a dearth of vision shown by councils over the issue.

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