Devon libraries

Is there a future for Devon’s libraries? My article for the new Devonshire Magazine

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My article in the Summer issue of Devonshire Magazine:

After a decade of austerity, libraries are one of the success stories that our County Council likes to tell. As another shire county, Derbyshire, hands over all its libraries to local communities, Devon still has fifty branches across the county. The Council handed over the service in 2017 to the mutual Libraries Unlimited, but still provides the bulk of the funding. However Libraries Unlimited’s charitable status has enabled it to win funding from other bodies and – if we are to believe the publicity – do more for less. 

Libraries Unlimited’s vision is to ‘reach beyond libraries’ traditional book lending role’ to look at broader ‘ways in which libraries support individuals and communities’. Highlights include ‘fab labs’ in Exeter and Barnstaple – which allow users to ‘print t-shirts, design and produce 3D prints, make beautiful embroidered designs’, etc. – and an Exeter business information centre where workshops, one-to-one advice sessions and ‘inspiring’ talks take place. Of course libraries in smaller towns and villages don’t have these things, but the aim is to turn them into community centres, hosting local events and increasingly run by local community volunteers. 

Win-win?

We’re told this is a win-win situation. Library users keep their core service and exciting new developments take place, while financial pressure is lifted from the hard-pressed council. However when we look beneath the surface, there are troubling areas in Devon’s library service and big uncertainties about the future. 

Libraries Unlimited has a new chair, Professor William Harvey of Exeter University; a new chief executive, Alex Kittow, takes over on 1st June 2019. So I offer a critical perspective in the hope that the new team will recognise the seriousness of the challenge they face. At its heart is not just a different vision of the library of the future, but whether Devon’s libraries have a longer-term future at all. 

The question is how far ‘beyond’ their traditional book-centred role our libraries can go before – especially in smaller communities – they are no are longer viable libraries. The new developments would be fine to supplement well-resourced book-lending libraries. But what happens when managers are putting their energies into raising grants for innovation, while funding for books declines? 

The evidence, as measured by the library service itself, is sobering. When the figures for book (and other) loans in 2018/19 are released, it’s likely that they will have fallen by 50 per cent over the last decade: only half the number of books that were being taken out of Devon libraries ten years ago are being taken out today. And that’s the average; in many smaller libraries the downturn is far greater. Particularly alarming, children’s book issues, which were holding much steadier, have fallen drastically in the last couple of years (see graph below)

Devon Libraries children's loansDevon’s libraries have seen a modest rise in issues of e-books, but small in numbers compared to the drop in issues of ‘real’ books. People like the convenience of e-readers when they go on holiday, but despite the enthusiasm for digital a decade back, the traditional paper version still dominates. In the USA and Australia, libraries haven’t seen the crippling cuts we’ve had under austerity in the UK, and they are thriving.

Tipping point?

The danger is that we may have reached a tipping point at which the failure to renew the library stock is seriously driving away readers. A constituent told me, ‘I’m an avid reader and I used to go to the library every week. But I’ve read everything they’ve got and they just don’t get the new releases.’ Some libraries are taking donations of books from local people; while the gifts are laudable, they’re no substitute for a professionally curated, up-to-date library stock.

If these trends continue, it would be rash to bet against a Derbyshire-style clearout in the not-too-distant future. I’m sure that neither the County libraries team nor Libraries Unlimited wish that, but the time has come for everyone to recognise where the crisis in the book stock could lead. Communities should demand proper local provision, and the Council should halt its inexorable funding cuts.

Instead of going to the library, my constituent was looking for bargains on Amazon. But that’s no substitute for a proper local library, especially for our children. What if the next generation never get the reading bug which their parents and grandparents got from their local community library? We will all be the poorer.

#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.