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Turning over a new leaf
Local Government Chronicle – 23 October 2008

The next chapter to be written for libraries could see them transformed from quiet, bookish places to multi-purpose facilities, says Mark Smulian

Monty Python fans will recall a sketch with John Cleese driven to paroxysms of fury by persistent enquiries for fictitious books, culminating in a demand for Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying.

Few council librarians will have fielded such obscure requests, but nowadays they must know not only their books, but also internet connections, skills training, local information and even how to drive a bus.

Closing a library is always politically contentious. And libraries have found it hard to make a case for survival while they have been seen as a service that sits there quietly issuing books, vaguely assumed by outsiders to be worthwhile but impinging little on their parent council.

Salvation may lie in libraries' ability to show how they can help councils to deliver on a range of policies.

Libraries are taking on a wider role in education and community cohesion, and that process is likely to be accelerated after a government review, launched in October, reports next spring.

Culture secretary Andy Burnham said at the review's launch: "Our public library service is a fantastic national asset that has been empowering people and changing lives for more than 150 years.

"We are absolutely committed to ensuring that a high-quality, free service, responsive to local needs is available to all."

Three cheers to that. But he went on to outline a vision of modernisation that will inevitably lead councils to wonder how it will be paid for. The idea is that libraries will morph into places where people can learn, and not just from books, find information, do homework, improve literacy. In some cases they could even visit the doctor, or take children to a nursery.

Chris White (Lib Dem), chair of the Local Government Association culture, tourism and sport board, says: "There is a continuing debate as to what libraries are for.

"Book stocks are going down, but over the last 10 years large book shops and things like Amazon have made it cheaper to buy books and although people expect to find all the latest hardback fiction in their library, I don't think that is a priority. I can't see the sense in spending public money on Dan Brown or Barbara Cartland."

Cllr White is critical of both the traditional way in which some libraries still operate and the lack of managerial clout they normally have. "Modernisers get frustrated by the typical library where you find someone with a degree stamping books, which is a hopeless waste of money," he says.

"It's a Cinderella service in most councils, no longer attached to education and without a seat at the top table either in cabinets or among officers."

Library services are advised by the Museums, Libraries & Archives Council, a quango that spreads good practice, gives advice and can make project grants of some 20,000.

The council also helps libraries put together business cases to councils to modernise the antiquated manual systems still sometimes used to manage stock. Chief executive Roy Clare says the People's Network project, which has put public internet access into every library, is "still in line with the objectives set when libraries began in 1851 to provide information.

"Digital services have brought in different users. It is great for adult education and a really strong base for addressing skills gaps."

Mr Clare also cites "a very strong correlation between providing health information in public libraries and health improvement".

He encourages libraries to co-locate with doctor's surgeries and with schools or further education colleges. This can benefit both services and generates increased traffic for libraries, he says.

One reason to move premises is that a lot of library buildings are old, and when not actually decaying may fail modern accessibility standards. "Our very clear advice is not to be afraid to close a library if you get a better service as a result," Mr Clare says.

"Ward councillors might not like it, but it can improve the use of the estate to close old buildings and build new ones that offer more than one service."

Tony Durcan, president of the Society of Chief Librarians, says his colleagues should think about how libraries need to change to help councils meet their wider objectives. "We have people who think libraries should be quiet places that just have books," he says.

"But consider what libraries can do. For example, for refugees and asylum seekers they are the only places they can come to that are free, warm, safe and where they can engage with the community and contact people back home.

"If teenagers do not have computers for their homework, libraries offer them a place to work."

Mr Durcan, also head of culture, libraries and lifelong learning at Newcastle City Council, says conflicts between different users can be avoided if libraries are divided into zones, or in small libraries divided by session times. "You are never going to introduce seven to eight-year-olds to books if you tell them they have to keep quiet while they read," he says. "We cannot be a silent service that only deals with people who use us anyway."

Libraries' best chance of securing the money they need to modernise perhaps lies in convincing councils that they can help to deliver local objectives in imaginative ways.

The days of hushed rooms, dusty volumes and 'silence' signs are on the way out.


Walsall's Bentley Library had to close in a hurry when the building was found to be splitting apart, exposing asbestos. It was not the first disaster to have a silver lining for the council's libraries.

Sue Grainger, head of libraries and heritage, explains: "Our library modernisation programme began when we found many libraries were in poor physical condition and we could use the capital receipts from the sale of land where a library had burned down.

"That kick-started the programme. Some libraries have been moved and the proceeds from selling their original sites reinvested, so the 2m programme is paying for itself."

When Bentley closed, the deprived but stable community that it served "was quite devastated", she says.

The library and regeneration services formed a community project group to plan afresh, and receipts from the original site's sale will be used to create a combined library and children's centre.

"The local community was very definite that was what it wanted," Ms Grainger says.

An international architectural competition for the building was won by London practice Fashion Architecture Taste, which is now working with the community group on planning the building's interior. It is due to open in 2011.


Suffolk CC covers a vast rural county whose roads are traversed by a fleet of six mobile libraries, whose drivers double up as library managers.

They serve 694 stops on 59 routes and most now have satellite links to enable users to access the internet just as they could in a library building, and to order books for collection on the library's next visit.

Service development librarian Elizabeth Harrison says: "Each vehicle carries between 2,000 and 3,000 books, many in large print since elderly people are one of our main user groups, and another is parents with young children so we have material for them too."

Suffolk also has 44 library buildings, some provided in partnerships with other bodies.

Mr Harrison says: "In Kesgrave, the town council finances a large part of the cost and in Wickham Market our library shares space with a doctor's surgery. They were both in old and unsuitable premises and were able to move to a new building together."


Sutton LBC has fitted radio frequency identification to all its library books. It works like 'swiping' products at a supermarket checkout and allows for self-service borrowings and returns.

This has enabled its staff to escape from their desks to work on public information, stock management, child and adult learning programmes, support for people with visual impairments and organise various arts events that form part of the library programme.

Facilities manager Jon Ward says radio frequency identification shows staff where books should be, "and we can have returned books back on the shelves within 30 minutes". Book issue rates have risen by 18%, and there is a perhaps unexpected health benefit to self-service. "If people want to borrow books that it might be embarrassing to be seen with at a library desk, such as on eating disorders or sexually transmitted diseases, they can now borrow it in privacy," Mr Ward says.

Angela Fletcher, head of libraries and heritage service, points to the success of self-service at Roundshaw, a deprived estate. The library shares premises with the Phoenix Youth Centre. Self-service has enabled it to open unstaffed in the evenings, extending the library's hours to 83 a week "one of the longest periods in the country, I think," Ms Harrison says.

"Everybody warned us there would be theft or vandalism, but in four years there has not been, there is a lot of respect from the community for its library," she adds.