Decisions being taken now will have a huge impact on the library service of 2022. Our tale of two libraries exposes the huge dangers that we want councils to be aware of when they make their challenging decisions on library funding in the coming months.
One council, let’s call it council A, took the time to understand its library service, and the huge role that is played in the local community. A cabinet member who used the service realised that over the years it had been neglected. The council surveyed local people, spent time understanding who used the libraries most, why certain groups wouldn’t, and what would get people coming through the doors. They boosted online access as demand for it increased through the recession. To plough money back into books and better services the council invested in green energy, installing solar panels on the roofs of several library buildings in the borough. The council also took the difficult decision to close one branch library. In an old building that was not fit for purpose, the aim was to rationalise provision and ensure the remaining libraries were sustainable into the future. Initially it wasn’t a popular decision, but the council were careful to ensure that staff, the UNISON branch and users were all involved in planning the closure. An equality impact assessment was completed which looked at the impact closure would have on the local community. Steps were taken to minimise this, through the transfer of services to the nearest library and advertisement of the changes to users and the community.
Not far away, council B struggled when libraries became a hot topic in the local elections. The leader of the council made promises he could not keep and pledged not to close any down. After the elections, the council put the library service out to tender, certain that this would keep costs low and quality high. An intense bidding war ensued, with private companies each vying to show how they could deliver a cheaper service. The council went with the lowest bidder, a large private company. After signing the contract, the company ran a short online consultation, targeted at non-users of the service. As a result, cafes were installed in all libraries, reducing the amount of shelf-space but turning a profit for the company. Thinking the future must be digital, the company cut back on book stock. Looking at the budget, all this expenditure had to be balanced elsewhere. The solution was to cut back on staff and bring in volunteers.
Cast forward to 2022, what did each service look like? In the first authority, library usage went up due to the effects of the recession and the councils efforts to engage with the local community which brought about service improvements. As children’s centres closed, rhymetime sessions grew in popularity. Book groups for older people benefited from a programme of outreach with isolated individuals in the community, especially as many traditional lunch clubs had also been closed down. And partnership working with a number of high schools meant that young people’s library use went up, as the library became known as a safe space where school children could meet to do homework and social networking.
Council B’s fifteen year contract with a private company proved hugely problematic. Although no libraries had closed, councillors received numerous complaints from life-long users that the service no longer met their needs. Once charging was introduced, visitor numbers started a sharp decline. Remaining staff became disillusioned with the service, with many leaving, replaced by lower paid and untrained staff. Many were not replaced at all. The goodwill of volunteers was stretched to breaking point with many responsible for opening and closing the building, as well as being expected to cover staff-shortages in the café. Councillors felt powerless to intervene to ask for improvements, finding the contract had been hastily drawn up and was poorly monitored. The company continued to make a profit from the café however, with many visitors unaware that they were visiting the library at all.
Come 2022, think of your local community and what you want to see in it? The first scenario is far from impossible, it just takes time, commitment and the political will to listen to the many people from all walks of life that use libraries, and the dedicated staff who keep them running. Our public library service has opened so many doors in the last 100 years. UNISON is committed to keeping the service public for the next 100 and beyond.Hannah Bailey is Assistant National Officer for the Local Government, Police and Justice Section at UNISON, the public service trade union