Will Lancashire’s libraries turn over a new leaf?
With visitor numbers in sharp decline, plans voted through to shut 40, as yet unnamed, libraries and more volunteers helping to keep the service afloat, the once much loved library service is under threat as never before.
The closures are aimed at saving the cuts-hit county council £7m, but now it has been revealed there could be a new chapter for some parts of the service.
County Coun Marcus Johnstone, the council’s cabinet member for environment, planning and cultural services, has revealed there may be some library provision in the county’s planned new Neighbourhood Centres when local libraries shut.
It is also predicted volunteers could play key roles in helping to maintain services in areas where libraries are earmarked for closure.
A 12-week consultation on the shut downs will run from May to August, with a final decision in September.
The council stresses this is a changing service and any decisions will not be based on footfall alone, but also on local needs, the size and suitability of accommodation and the services delivered.
Go round the county and you will find libraries now opening their doors to choirs, healthy living, stop smoking, weight management and dementia groups, Baby Bounce, crafter and IT learners, to name but a few of the groups that use the library. Silence, it seems, is no longer golden.
Contrast this with library useage figures – predicted to drop by many thousands this year alone.There have been 27 e-petitions and some high profile local campaigns, including a visit by comedian Dave Spikey who joined a Readathon at Coppull library, pleading for libraries to be retained.
But the council still expects some 34 libraries will remain open in their current homes after the cutbacks and the mobile library service will stay on the road. The close-down candidates have not yet been identified.
Coun Johnstone said: “We are very keen to talk to any community groups, or other organisations, who feel they may be in a position to take over the running of libraries.”
He acknowledged: “Numbers have fallen. It’s been happening for many, many years but it’s not a good reason to close libraries.
“These closures have been imposed on us by a Government which has made unprecedented spending cuts.
“Libraries have an important social role to play.”
He added: “The way that people use libraries is changing. We’re looking to build on the growing popularity of new formats like e-books and e-audio books, which are now easier for people to access than ever before. Written books are also still very popular. Libraries also play a vital role in improving people’s health and wellbeing.”
In Lancashire staffing has dropped from 551 full-time equivalent staff in 2011 to 437 in 2014.
Volunteers are not allowed to issue books or order them because of data protection issues but they boost the service considerably.
The council has 662 volunteers working across its Cultural Services which includes archives and museums as well as libraries. Last year 320 young people volunteered as ‘Reading Hacks’ at county libraries to encourage other young people to read as part of national programme The Reading Agency.
Another 230 volunteers support the home delivery service to more than 1,100 housebound people.
But volunteers or not seems many more libraries are set to suffer the fate of the Eaves Lane branch library in Chorley which closed several years ago and is now home to a financial advice company.
For many of Lancashire’s libraries it will be just months before the final page in their story is written.