Is the future for Norfolk's libraries an all-singing and dancing one?
PUBLISHED: 17:36 12 March 2011 | UPDATED: 17:41 12 March 2011
A US firm hopes to reinvent 15pc of Britain's libraries as multifunctional venues, hosting murder mystery evenings and open-mic poetry sessions. But does the service really need an overhaul?
If you plucked a dictionary from the shelf of your local library, it would describe the building you were standing in, more or less, as follows:
“A room or building where books are kept; a collection of books or records for consultation or borrowing.”
But an American firm aims to tear up that traditional definition as it pursues its goal of running 15pc of Britain’s public libraries within the next five years.
Maryland-based Library Systems and Services (LSSI) is planning a revolution in the way the service could be run, promising slick professional outlets with a programme of entertainment and cultural events to keep the profits rolling in.
The company has already discussed its ideas with Suffolk County Council, which has decided it can no longer afford to run 29 of its 44 libraries and is seeking interest from other groups interested in saving them from closure.
Although the idea of outsourcing the management of threatened libraries has sparked indignant outrage among campaigners, it remains one of a number of options being considered by Suffolk’s cash-strapped councillors.
But is it necessary in Norfolk, where the library service was saved following the Big Conversation spending debate?
The answer, according to cultural custodians north of the border, is a resounding no – at least, not for the moment.
They argue that the service, hailed as too important to be lost in £155m of spending cuts, is already a successful, popular and valued facility, which doesn’t need States-style razzmatazz to thrive.
The month-long Join up January campaign earlier this year succeeded in enticing more than 9,300 new members – almost doubling the target of 5,000.
And the landmark Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library at the Forum in Norwich has been voted the UK’s favourite for four years running, welcoming more visitors and lending more books than any other.
James Carswell, cabinet member for cultural services at Norfolk County Council, said no approaches had been made to the authority by LSSI or similar firms.
And he said there was no urgent need for an overhaul of libraries which are, and must continue to be, community hubs for information, cultural awareness and learning.
“It is all about what councils see as their priority and here in Norfolk we put libraries right up there as one of our core services,” he said.
“It works with vulnerable people, with the community, with young and old, it has large amounts of information that people need and when you talk about communities being in difficulty over the next few years you think of a library as a valuable community hub where people get together. We felt it was something really important and something we needed to protect.
“It would be interesting to see how other councils could integrate a company like that into their libraries and if it works, we could look at it in the future but, to be clear, we want to keep hold of our libraries and manage them ourselves at this time.
“The success of the Join up January campaign was a real statement of intent in this county that people want to use their library and are pleaseed with what their library is.”
Mr Carswell also questioned whether a profit-led approach could deprive communities of services like mobile libraries.
He said: “There is dangerous ground if a private company could come in and start charging for services which are currently being provided for free. We must protect the very nature of the community library and what it tries to do.
“Would a private company run a mobile library? I don’t think they would, unless there was a way to make it pay. I doubt whether a business could sustain 13 buses going into villages just to make sure that isolated people could read a book.”
Mr Carswell agreed that the stuffy stereotype of a library ruled by a bespectacled killjoy angrily hushing anyone bold enough to raise their voice above a whisper was already decades out of date.
He said anyone could discuss ideas for modern events such as open-mic poetry nights or murder mystery evenings with their community librarian – but they had to be appropriate to their surroundings.
“If you wanted to hold something like a murder mystery event, it would depend on the people who wanted to get involved,” he said.
“Some might like it, but others might find that too disruptive, so it has to be appropriate for the size of the building. At the Forum, where there is lots of capacity, we have had lots of big events, while other libraries are doing work around engagement with young kids and teaching people to read. It is about the wellbeing of the whole community.”
The Millennium Library, according to figures compiled by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, attracted 1,502,449 visitors in 2009/10 and lent more than one million items, including books, DVDs and console games.
It also hosts multimedia projects and art exhibitions, offers free internet on 100 computers and is a base for business, heritage and local government information.
There are 47 libraries in Norfolk, with about 247,000 members making more than five million visits across the county in 2009/10. There are 13 public mobile libraries plus one which visits residential homes.
Although the county council has resolved to keep all libraries open in its recent cost-cutting budget, there will be some compromises including a reduction in opening hours and changes to the frequency of mobile library visits.
Earlier this month, the EDP reported that LSSI had met officials from Suffolk on four occasions to explore whether it could have a role in running Suffolk’s libraries.
James Hargrave, spokesman for the Save Stradbroke Library group, summed up the concerns of many opponents to the idea by saying: “They are purely here to make a financial profit. That means money would be going out of the local community and going somewhere else.”
In reponse, Stuart Fitzgerald, a founding vice-president of LSSI UK, said outsourcing to the private sector was nothing new and that his company had a wealth of expertise.
Mr Fitzgerald said: “Because of the additional scrutiny we are exposed to, because we are part of the private sector, we have to make sure that every branch we run is absolutely perfect for what the community is looking for – that guarantees we run a great service.”
“We obviously try to make a profit by using our economies of scale and buying power to buy things and services we need more cost-effectively and run services more efficiently.”
A spokesman for Suffolk County Council said LSSI is one of many organisations who have expressed an informal interest in the county’s libraries, but that no decisions has been made.