Interesting news has reached me of a drive to make savings in council library budgets. Before you throw up your hands in horror, or accuse me of advocating the mass closure of libraries, give me a moment to
It has become a tired cliché used by critics of public spending cuts to conjure up images of closed down, boarded up and abandoned public libraries. But what I was to tell you that if you took the right approach you could reduce the cost of libraries by up to 20% whilst increasing public uptake and usage of the service? This is what library interest group Libraries for Life for Londoners (LLL) claim their charter for libraries can deliver. It’s not simply pie in the sky, either – according to LLL, Hillingdon Council managed to cut library costs by 20% whilst tripling usage of the service.
So what is it that they propose? The Charter itself lays out the general principles LLL espouse.
As well as cultural changes to the way libraries work, the crucial change is in the way libraries should be managed. Instead of a one-size-fits-all model, where centralised bureaucrats decide how every library in the whole area will operate, librarians themselves should be freed to make their service suitable to the local population.
“Librarians” is the crucial word. We’re not talking about functionaries, whose job is simply to stamp the books as they are handed out or stack them back on the shelves when they are returned. A librarian should be someone who actually runs the library.
It sounds stupid, but sadly it does need saying. Librarians should be given the power to choose which books are bought for their library.
Similarly, they should be deciding how to run the library based on the needs and demands of their customer base. It is no longer acceptable to have libraries closing for lunch and only opening during office hours on the assumption that the public will go out of their way to go in. There should be a shift towards evening and weekend opening.
In these tough times, no council department should be allowed to sit back and put its feet up. Libraries are rightly a service that are close to the hearts of many people – but that does not mean they shouldn’t change at all. Indeed if they were to focus on actually providing a service people want, they could get an awful lot better.
If, as is claimed, Hillingdon managed to make savings of 20% and make their libraries more popular, then they must be doing something right. As LLL point out, every area is different but if those savings were to be replicated across the country then we would be talking about a reduction in costs of over £200m.
Councils always talk about how they are “just like businesses”. All too often, that has not been the case in reality. This, though, is an opportunity to show business how to do something most of them would die for – radically reduce costs and boost the number of customers at the same time.