Devon libraries

#lovelibraries ‘A seven and a half per cent annual reduction in book issues – if we carry on like this, libraries won’t be dusty, they’ll be gone’, Devon Scrutiny Chair tells library chiefs and @LibrariesUnLtd

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Libraries Unlimited logoIn a far-reaching discussion of the state of Devon’s libraries on 25 September (minute and webcast at item 83), the County Council’s Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee – which looks at services like libraries which have been outsourced, in this case to the mutual Libraries Unlimited – considered a continuing decline of book issues which, as this comment of our chair, Cllr Alastair Dewhirst, suggests, could soon threaten the very existence of many of the county’s 50 libraries.

I was unable to attend, but had played a part in preparing the discussion. In this post I try to take stock of where we are now. Cllr Dewhirst’s comments referred to a remark by Cllr Roger Croad, Cabinet member for libraries, at the previous meeting in June, when he talked about the image of libraries as places full of dusty books. Cllr Croad, Ciara Eastell (LU chief executive) and other officers had lauded the work LU had done in making libraries more attractive places through refurbishments, ‘fab labs’ in major libraries, arts activities, friends groups, and functioning as local community centres in towns and villages.

LU also emphasised the increasing numbers of e-book issues, but the modest rise in these has been tiny compared to the loss of book issues. Nationally and internationally, the traditional book remains strong, with rising sales. The idea that it would be replaced by e-books has proved misleading. We need libraries to be full of the many great new books for adults and children alike which are appearing every year.

The relentless decline of book issues

The Committee clearly appreciated LU’s efforts to expand Devon libraries’ impact, and the commitment of the Council, guided by Cllr Croad, to maintain the service despite its diminishing funds (not one library has been closed). Nevertheless the Committee had to address the relentless decline of issues (halved over the last decade), the underlying weakening of the quality and quantity of the book stock, and the diminishing role of librarians.

On present trends, it seems almost certain that some time in the next few years, libraries in some Devon towns and villages will face a moment of truth. ‘The concern is‘, Cllr Jackie Hook said, ‘that the library is losing what makes it a library and not having the the quality of books and professional staff.

The Committee recognised these issues by recommending that LU add two new Key Performance Indicators for its work: Stock issues to children [since children’s reading is clearly at the heart of a library service], and Professional hours worked by library staff. The Committee will receive a further report in 12 months time.

A major challenge – and a radical reorientation needed

Ciara Eastell told the Committee: ‘Books and reading are absolutely at the heart of our mission’, and I think the discussion is a real step forward in acknowledging the major challenge which Devon’s library service faces to its core role. However it often sounds as though LU and County Council chiefs believe that expanding other activities can compensate for the failure to address the service’s central decline, which began before LU was established but which LU’s current policies are failing to stem.

Now that the issue has been brought so clearly to their and the Council’s attention, I hope they will address it head-on. Let us see a real reorientation of policies and funding priorities to address it. Let us hope that in 12 months time, they will be able to report a different picture.

The task is especially urgent because of the unremittingly gloomy outlook for public services and local government. Although Theresa May says that ‘austerity is over’, county councils like Somerset and Northamptonshire are going bust, Brexit is leaving a big hole in the government’s tax base, and Devon faces a further big withdrawal of government funding next year. To defend the level of library funding, we need to show that it is being used to maintain a well-stocked library system which can attract and keep new readers.