Councils should adopt a more flexible and creative approach to the provision of library services and need to understand their obligations better, MPs said today.
Cost pressures were making it difficult for local authorities to meet their statutory duty to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service in a way that satisfied residents, the Commons culture select committee concluded. Plans to close libraries and restrict services had been successfully challenged in court by residents in some areas, with judges ruling that the councils had failed to take proper account of local needs.
The committee’s Library closures report calls for a ‘broader and more permissive’ interpretation of the duty, under which councils can close down library buildings but retain professional staff and maintain opening hours. It notes that much can be achieved if councils co-operate with neighbouring authorities or share accommodation with other public services, such as health and education.
Committee chair John Whittingdale said: ‘Library services are about much more than buildings and the most important issue is finding creative ways to preserve – and, if possible, enhance – library service. Reductions in opening hours and the loss of professional staff may damage the service more than the closure of particular buildings.’
He added that the current fiscal climate presented an opportunity to reassess what the role of public libraries should be and how they are organised.
‘At the moment councils appear to be somewhat in the dark about what is expected of them and are making decisions which are being overturned by judicial review,’ Whittingdale said.
‘This is an expensive and generally unsatisfactory way of making policy. Councils need to be given the support and advice they need to consult locally and develop a service that meets the needs of the local community and complies with their obligations.’
The report recommends that the government, with the help of the Local Government Association and the Arts Council, spread guidance and information about how councils can continue meeting demand for library services.
Responding to the report, Flick Rea, chair of the LGA’s culture, tourism and sport board, said it was ‘pleasing’ that the MPs had not taken a narrow view of library services, focused exclusively on buildings.
‘A library in the twenty-first century can be a whole range of things, from a small e-book borrowing point in a shop to part of a large cultural hub,’ she said.
‘As this report shows, across the country there’s been a fantastic amount of creativity and ambition to modernise libraries in ways which engage young people, don’t alienate existing users and make the most of diminished budgets.
‘In the past few years we have seen huge strides in that direction, with libraries opening up in village halls, pubs, shops, churches, phone boxes, day care centres and tourist information centres, as well as linking with health, social care, benefits and job search providers.’
Rea added that the LGA would continue to work with its members to support innovation and improvement in library services.