Public Libraries are a “statutory service”; Local Authorities are required under the law to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service. But, unlike Schools and some Social Services NO direct cash comes from Government to support Public Libraries. Local Councils have to fund them through the Council Tax along with everything else. Also as many Councillors will tell you, the basic grant from Government has been reducing over many years; hence many “statutory services” have to compete for whatever the Council can afford. Also, Public Libraries fall into this strange world, they are locally funded but have a Government Minister taking final responsibility as to how they perform. Over many years the exact definition of what makes a Public Library service “comprehensive and efficient” has been the subject of extensive debate with only a very few Local Authorities being “investigated” . The outcomes of these long, complex legal exercises often result in the Council having to review the most important issue for local government and that is, how local people were consulted on whatever plans they had for the service.
Add to this the Governments budget plans to “reduce the nations deficit” linked to the “voluntary cap” on Council Tax and there we have the current difficult mix that local Councillors are trying to cope with.
So what of Public Libraries, the core book lending service has been in decline, the costs of running numerous Branches continues to rise, some on wonderful town centre sites which are much coveted by property developers. The pressure on Councils particularly around the rising costs of care for a growing elderly population mean that everything is up for grabs. So it is not surprising that in some Local Authorities the local Public Library is under threat.
What with our son getting married, the Olympic Games and a holiday in lovely Cornwall – there I was minding my own business when I received an e mail. It was from the Government Department responsible for Public libraries – the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It was from a senior civil servant who I had met on one occasion when he interviewed me for a role on a now abolished “quango”. The message asked me if I would be interested in applying for the job of being the Departments specialist Advisor on Public Libraries – thereby being the person who worked with Ministers and local Councils as they tried to grapple with the hot issue of cuts in Public Libraries. So I applied, went for an interview, something I have not done for some years, and was offered this part-time role!
“It’s a job for a brightly costumed super hero” said a close friend. Not for a semi-retired ex-local authority bureaucrat who has done with the tortuous struggle of managing a variety of local authority services, including Public Libraries. But, it’s been more than personal vanity that has prompted me to go back to work! Public Libraries are really important local services. They provide a vital link into the world of reading, information and community. However, they must be affordable, relevant and innovative if they are to invite the many who just “walk by” to get involved.
So, I may be taking on a hugely frustrating task, but how can anyone just stand by and watch! I will keep you posted on how I get on…….
Yinnon Ezra MBE, DCMS Advisor for Libraries & Retired cCLOA Member