Libraries are a vital part of our local communities

There was an article in The Guardian today called The battle of Britian's libraries, and as anyone who has read this blog knows I am a huge fan of libraries, and give talks in many of them.  Libraries are a critical part of our local communities but unfortunately in times of government cuts they are one of the first and the easiest targets.  There is some good news however.

Birmingham is about to have a new super- library currently under construction while Cardiff, Newcastle and Swindon already have new super-libraries.  I gave a talk and book-signing at Newcastle's new library last September and was incredibly impressed by it, the range of services on offer and the helpfulness and knowledge of the staff.

Liverpool and Manchester's central libraries are undergoing multimillion-pound renovations. I wish I could say the same for Portsmouth Central Library.

The author of the article spoke to Margaret Hodge. She said that running a successful public library in the 21st century is tough. Technological advances and higher expectations of service mean that libraries must, "move with the times to stay part of the times". "I do care passionately about libraries," she says, "but they have to change. The footfall is down and book issues are massively down. Only 14 of 151 local authorities have libraries that offer ebooks." So, e books in commercial terms are relatively new - what does she expect?

Hodge has spent the past six months in a consultation process and next week she will publish what is already a delayed response.  She didn't say what will be in the review, but among the changes we can expect is an opening up of libraries to volunteers – a move that will upset librarians, unions and campaigners.

"There's nothing that depresses me more," Hodge says, "than going into a library and being confronted by a computer and someone in authority who isn't going to deliver the citizen-focused services I think should be on offer. I won't have this."

Citizen-focused services! Yuck! I think her comment too is an insult to all the hard-working and dedicated librarians and staff I've met.  Magaret Hodge certainly hasn't been in the libraries I've frequented, where staff go out of their way to help people.

Opening hours must be liberalised, Hodge says. "I want to be able to go to libraries at 8pm or later."  Well, she can in many libraries except the smaller branch libraries and some of the larger libraries that are having their opening hours cut to save government money.

She adds, "I remember when Borders was open in Islington. You could go there and buy a paperback at 11pm after going to the cinema." Borders went bust, so opening at 11pm certainly didn't help them! Not a good idea to choose an example where a company failed. 

Hodge is also impressed by the ideas of Starbucks' UK MD Darcy Willson-Rymer, who argues that the best way to save libraries is to put coffee shops in them, (well he would say that wouldn't he?).  Hodge says, "I like the idea of browsing books in a library with a coffee."  Portsmouth Library has had a coffee shop for years... Coffee shops in libraries aren't new, Margaret.  They already exist. Even my small local library has a coffee machine. And where will they put these coffee shops?  Take out some book shelves, stock less books or provide everything as an e book???

Many libraries I know already provide a vast range of services from running workshops, readings, business meetings, seminars, discussion groups, specialist help groups, music sessions and so much more.  All I can wonder is that clearly no one from central government has ever visited the libraries I have.

Talking of which I am looking forward to my tour of the North East of England where I'll be visiting, Washington Town Centre Library, Ingleby Barwick Library, and Darlington Library and meeting the staff and readers of Hartlepool Library on board the PSS Wingfield at the Hartlepool Maritime Experience.

As for the Library Review and what will actually happen, I'll wait and see.


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