It is worrying to see that libraries are in steady decline in this country. Five years ago, 48% of adults visited libraries compared with 39.4% now. Significantly, this fall has occurred against a backdrop of increased reading, particularly among children. It is worrying that many libraries are just not providing a service that is attracting readers. One therefore asks, if readership is increasing does it matter whether libraries decline?
I believe it is vital that libraries are preserved for future generations. They provide a unique environment in which anyone is welcome to read, learn or access the internet. They provide a place where one can relax and reflect in a quiet and open setting, as well as providing an opportunity for children to be entertained by stories and encouraged to explore their imaginations while learning. Libraries are a focal point for communities and provide an important source of information for all to utilise and enjoy.
When facing demanding budgets and the need to make efficiency savings or cuts, local authorities unfortunately often see libraries as a relatively soft target, as the funding of library services is not a statutory requirement for local authorities. However, it is essential that councils do not sleepwalk into a situation where our much-loved libraries experience a steady and continual deterioration. It is important to recognise that libraries must modernise and adapt to the needs of their local areas in order to secure their future survival and relevance. Local authorities under financial pressure can still deliver better value for money in both capital, in relation to refurbishing and building new libraries, and revenue terms, by improving running costs to help protect and enhance the services provided.
Significantly, libraries must address the fact that they are only spending 7.5% of their budget on book stock. We would not see a commercial bookshop spending such a small part of its budget on books. Local library managers, who understand their own individual communities, should be given the opportunity to spend money on books to get people back in. We should also allow residents to have a greater say on the books that are stocked. I believe we must do more to empower local library managers and volunteers. Libraries should be looking beyond their traditional facilities and urging their staff to go out into their local communities to encourage people, particularly young children, to embrace the wonderful services and facilities available. Part of that process involves trusting local librarians to understand their communities so that they can tailor services to suit local demands.
Furthermore, a community library should always match the footfall of the local area. All too often, they are open for limited hours. Authorities must review opening hours and embrace the mentality of the retail sector. Volunteers provide an opportunity to ensure that that facility is open for longer as an addition to the service. Nevertheless, users who rely and appreciate the expertise and skills of the traditional core staff can still go to the library in the hours that already exist. Furthermore, self-service equipment inside new facilities that are not traditional libraries provide a good way to improve services.
Libraries must also provide a pleasant environment. Too many libraries are not meeting customer expectations as they have not been refurbished or redecorated for many years. Making libraries an environment people want to be in includes ensuring it is clean and relaxing. Staff should look professional. The environment should also be child-friendly, as children are more likely to have visited a public library than adults. The costs of improving library spaces can be met by ensuring that libraries are considered seriously where Section 106 money is available.
Finally, we need to review current spending on corporate structure and the bureaucracy of categorising and labelling books, in relation to the purpose and needs of the service. As part of this, we should also look for opportunities to combine facilities. In Swindon, we had a relatively new and refurbished arts centre, called the Old Town arts centre, with a 200-seat theatre in wonderful condition. So we moved the Old Town library into the arts centre. We transferred the core 18 hours of service that already existed in the old library, but also, because the arts centre was manned for 40 hours a week with box office staff, the self-service library machines could be left on and if anybody had a problem using them the box office staff could assist.
Accordingly, the usage of the library increased by 24% and membership increased by 193%. This also enhanced cultural events, such as readings by authors and poets, and meetings involving different groups. It has proved to be an absolute win-win move, and in these times of challenging costs, the council has saved itself quite a lot of money, because it is paying for one building rather than two. Of course, this would not work in all cases, but we need to be innovative as well as looking at overall services that can be provided and community needs.
We need to have a modern and more flexible library service in order for it to survive at a time of tightened budgets, competing interests and technological developments. This must be led by the needs of the community through looking at choice, opening times, environment, and innovation. Improving the library service as a whole by reviewing spending according to these local needs will ensure that they remain relevant and utilised for future generations.