An approach to making savings in Public Libraries

By Yinnon Ezra MBE MA FRSA, Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), Public Library Advisor (these are his personal views and not those of the DCMS), Graeme Mc Donald, Chief Executive Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Janene Cox, Commissioner for Tourism and the Cultural County Staffordshire CC & Chair of Society of Chief Librarians.


The Public Library Service is one of the most highly valued ‘choose to use’ public services in England.   It is frequented by millions of people, covering the whole age range, all ethnic backgrounds, and geographical spread – there is a Public Library or an access point to the service near you.

 Under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 local Councils are required to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ Public Library service. This responsibility is superintended by the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport who holds an ‘intervention/investigation power’. A local authority that has been deemed by their local communities to have failed in their ‘statutory duty’ could be investigated.  This process is guided by complex legal issues which involve lengthy argument, public hearings and evidence – sometimes taking many months to draw to a conclusion.

One of the main issues/findings  - reference John Sharland’s work – Library Closures –Learning the Lessons  -emerging from this for Local Councils is ‘communication’ – here both a poor consultation process and lack of feedback to citizens, linked sometimes to the lack of a coherent plan for these services, but still the requirement to find economies, which some would say was their motivation at the outset.   

Some cash for schools and Social Care come from Government through the annual grant to local authorities, linked to clear expectations on performance and accountability. The picture for Public Libraries is more complex, as for some Councils, most of the cash to fund the service is raised through the Council Tax – hence there are no immediate levers that can be pulled in Whitehall which deliver compliance to a particular standard of service. Over many years Governments through other Acts of Parliament or ‘direction’ have urged LA’s to devolve services to local people; encouraged new models of service delivery and more recently through the localism agenda are creating an environment that promotes greater community involvement in which the Public Library clearly has an important role.    

Many local authorities would argue that making savings particularly around Cultural Services, the label under which public libraries find themselves is NOT a new phenomenon. These services, which often include Arts, Archives, Heritage & Museums, Parks, Leisure, to mention a few, the latter having no ‘statutory duty’ attached to them, always struggle to attract recourses, but do better when Grant from Government for the other main services is steady or expanding. When this is reduced the impact is more direct, particularly when mixed into this is the regional variation in Grant distribution.

Even against this background there are outstanding examples of Local Authorities who have invested imaginatively in Public libraries. This has taken place across the country, in small and larger Councils making a decisive local impact. The pattern is around improved building stock, new libraries, tailored opening hours, adding new opportunities to improve the offer by providing access to other relevant services, providing free Wi-Fi, extensive digital resources, improving the links with learning and voluntary organisations – this is NOT an exhaustive list.

Many of these innovations have also addressed the decline in both book lending and visits. By designing these improvements in partnership with local people some of whom may not be regular library users some LA’s have been able to reverse or at least reduce this trend.


The Public Libraries service is local – hence very diverse. This is hugely positive as there is no ‘one size fits all’ as the communities they serve are all different. This diversity follows through into how ‘reductions’ are managed. One approach to savings is to look at a year on year percentage cut taking the salami-slicing approach – some LA’s have been open about the various savings options they wish to introduce with real effort being put into engaging communities. 

Others have developed robust plans to co-locate, re-locate, reducing the administration of the service by sharing with others including being proactive with either neighbouring Councils or with a County working with a Borough  – all producing new ways of making the best possible use of local resources.  Where this has been achieved local customers perceive little or no difference in service quality or that it is still being managed by their familiar accountable local Council. In future years this process will need to accelerate to deliver the growing scale of savings required – barriers between Councils both personal and political will need to be overcome. 

There is also the traditional approach to savings in some LAs which has not changed in many years; cut the book funds, reduce opening hours, reduce the building maintenance budget and potentially close libraries.  It is this approach that must be addressed as it leads to a gradual diminishing of service, not transformation, reduces access, content and eventually relevance.

Some LA’s having taken these decisions at the beginning of the budget discussions and have found themselves, because of public opposition unable to take them further; this has the effect of freezing the service in time, immune to change for the foreseeable future.


Vision and Consultation

The important first step for any LA should be a clearly expressed vision for the public library service. This must be informed by the views of local people, it is not about recycling the views of existing users, but ensuring that the vision embraces those who do not/will not/won’t use the service. This must also suggest how these aspirations  will be met – collecting this information can sometimes be a challenge – but many Councils have wide experience of testing the quality of services through regular citizen surveys using good inexpensive market research is also well worth doing.

Just what does the service cost?

Savings for public libraries, starting as they do with a set of fixed assets be they the number of buildings needing staff with quantifying support costs like IT, Human Resources, to corporate costs arising from being part of local democracy is complex. Getting to the bottom of what the services costs is crucial and difficult to disaggregate, but needs to be done accurately – given that it is fundamental to deciding on the financial targets being set. This may sound like an obvious step but many LA’s find this difficult often coming out with a set of figures which change during the heat of public scrutiny and debate.    


Communication is the key and has to be relentless – setting out possible options clearly and honestly with a transparent analysis about costs and possible savings should be encouraged.  Including how savings could be made through, for example,  possible reductions in tiers of staffing, shared services with others, partnerships with community groups to list only a few.  It is important that any analysis is done openly and shared with staff and local communities so everyone has the same data set.


It is after this process that decisions should be taken about the future with a clear timetable. On implementation it is well worth reviewing what has been done, checking that it meets the set objectives in the ‘vision’ including how it will attract new users and deliver the savings.  Then the task of setting out what success looks like with a set of possible ‘intelligent local indicators’ not ‘outputs’ that demonstrate whether the service is making progress may be worth considering.


These simple steps are not profound or new, but they are inclusive and involve local communities in a process which is transparent and creates the opportunity for genuine consensus. Where this is not possible, at least the issues would have been well debated with the Council seen to have listened making its decisions on the best analysis. The approach will require flexibility and openness from all concerned as a different service will emerge.