Gaskarth Glyn Gaskarth says more councils should follow Surrey's example in offering books that can be downloaded at home

Local authorities are closing public libraries. 250 of the 4,500 public libraries in the UK are estimated to be earmarked for closure in the current public spending cuts. We are doing this to save money. The impact is often a reduction in service. Instead of simply dismantling the existing public libraries network through attrition we need to reform libraries to make them work for all citizens. One option is for us to divert part of the savings we achieve to build local e library networks.

Building an e library network may require the closure of additional public libraries to release the funds to pay for developing this new service. Local politicians need to be willing to show courage and argue for this. E books are not that revolutionary an idea. Kindle is one of Amazons best selling products. Hundreds of thousands of books are available at the click of a button. Local citizens should be able to order books online and have them delivered to their home, place of work or electronic devices such as their home computer or e readers like the kindle.

An e library collection could provide citizens with access to a wider range of books at a time convenient for them. We could develop this in cooperation with a private company such as amazon. A number of councils could group together to share the costs. Access to the platform could be provided to other councils for a charge to allow the initial members to recoup costs. Advertising on the site could be sold to private providers to subsidise the operation costs. Members could order books for purchase from the site to earn revenue to subsidise the service.

So who is doing this at the moment? Surrey County Council is doing something similar. They have begun to develop a virtual library of eBooks that users can download at home; these books cannot be accessed after the rental period ends. This means no more fines for library users, no more opening hours that restrict access and a wider selection of books available to customers. Other councils could adapt this model. Library users could view the books on their home computer or rent or purchase an e reader from the library service. Poorer citizens or those that had performed civic duties could be provided with free electronic reader devices (similar to a Kindle) on request.

Some library users may prefer to have a physical book. They could order library books online and have them delivered to their house. Deals could be agreed with postal providers to allow transportation of books to citizen’s address or place of work as requested. This could be more cost effective than operating a public library. Designated library points could be provided in shopping centres, banks, community halls, main public libraries and other public centres to allow people to order books.  E libraries would be open online to all citizens at all times.

An e library model would lack some important benefits of the existing library setup. Physical libraries enable you to browse; an older collection of books allow you to stumble across a book you were not looking for that is out of print. Skilled and helpful library staff can direct users to books they may like. Some of these features could be recreated through Amazons capacity to suggest books for users based on their past search preferences, but I admit some benefits of physical libraries would be lost. I think this is worthwhile because citizens would be able to search a broader selection of books at the click of button. Local libraries simply cannot replicate the range of books that can be ordered online.

With an e library we would lose much of the 14 per cent of income libraries currently derive from fines. However, we wouldn’t have the same overheads to meet. We would not need to store a huge inventory of books in multiple locations, with the attendant costs to clean, catalogue and house them. Library collections housed in multiple branch libraries could be stored in a central depot and distributed direct to people’s homes. Some library sites could be sold off or converted for other public uses. This would release significant capital sums and the sites could be used to meet other public policy objectives such as freeing up brownfield sites for residential development.

The existing legislation does not allow for a purely electronic library collection. I am not suggesting we do that. I think where libraries receive few visitors and are costly to maintain we should close them. We could divert resources to provide services that reach citizens more effectively. The 151 separate public library authorities that currently manage the library service could be reduced. An e library network will better serve the young working population that currently are less likely to use our library service. I think e libraries should be part of the public library offering. Next week I will explore how we can keep public libraries open by collaborating with other library providers.

The views expressed above are my personal views and not those of my employer or any other organisation with which I am associated.

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