Library services are on the brink of disaster and can only be saved if they become more like coffee shops with wi-fi, sofas and hot drinks, a report will recommend on Thursday.
A combination of funding cuts and declining attendance threatens the viability of the library network unless urgent action is taken, according to the Independent Library Report for England, which was commissioned by the Government.
“We’re at a critical moment for the libraries and if we’re not careful we could lose so many,” William Sieghart, who wrote the report, told The Independent. “I and a lot of people think it would be an absolute disaster.”
His report – which has been hailed as the last chance to halt a decline in which 324 libraries have closed since 2011 – recommends a complete “reinvigoration of the library network” for the 21st century, with every library in the country fitted with wi-fi to attract people who would otherwise spend time in cafés. A drive to make libraries truly digital could also lead to the creation of single national library card and catalogue, allowing readers to withdraw books across the country.
The report also recommends the establishment of a library task force – led by councils but supported by groups including the BBC, Arts Council England and the British Library – to improve national standards. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government commissioned Mr Sieghart, an entrepreneur and publisher, to produce an independent report into the future of the library service in February.
His seven-strong advisory panel included Roly Keating, chief executive of the British Library, the library expert Sue Charteris, the entrepreneur Luke Johnson and the author Joanna Trollope. But the timing of the report’s publication – on the day before Parliament rises for Christmas – has fuelled suspicions that the Government may be trying to bury recommendations that would require increased spending.
The library campaigner Desmond Clarke hailed the report, saying: “At last we have a blueprint for a national public library service.”
He welcomed the creation of the library task force, saying it would “fill the leadership void and allow libraries to rediscover their purpose”. He added: “This report must not be kicked into the long grass; it is almost the last chance to rebuild a public library service with real value.”
Tim Coates, the former managing director of Waterstones and a longtime library campaigner, said: “Use of libraries is half what it was in 1997. If nothing is done and you follow the line down, there will be only a handful of libraries left in the country in 2022. There’s a very serious crisis.
“It won’t collapse next week because it’s a public service but the whole thing is totally bankrupt. It keeps operating because everybody wishes it wasn’t bankrupt.” The report comes just a week after the Library of Birmingham, which was supposed to provide a blueprint for the library of the future, was told its funding would be cut a year after opening, forcing 100 layoffs and reduced opening hours.
Salvaging the library network “starts with a marked increase and improvement in digital technology, rolling wi-fi out to every library in the country,” the report says. “The wi-fi connection should be delivered in a comfortable, retail-standard environment, with the usual amenities of coffee, sofas and toilets.”
Mr Sieghart pointed to the “astonishing” statistic that a third of libraries do not have wi-fi. “So they’re slated for closure while everyone’s in the Costa opposite, where there’s a loo, hot drinks and internet access,” he said. The report called on the Government to provide funding for local authorities to introduce wi-fi throughout the country.
The report took seven months, in which the group visited libraries around the country and received 200 submissions of written evidence. These include setting up an “emergency library task force to get a new digital network across the country, wi-fi in every library, a universal library card and catalogue and get a consistency of service,” Mr Sieghart said.
There are 4,145 libraries in the UK, according to Public Library News, down from 4,622 a decade ago. At least 324 libraries have closed since 2011, and about 400 are now run by volunteers with varying levels of support, if any, from local authorities.
Library campaigners claimed last year that more than 1,000 libraries could be closed by 2016, describing the industry as facing “slaughter”. Mr Sieghart said: “Not enough decision-makers at national or local level appear sufficiently aware of the remarkable and vital value that a good library service can offer modern communities.”
He pointed out that across England 35 per cent of people use a library regularly, “and among the poorest it’s closer to 50 per cent. It’s a vital lifeline for a lot of people.”
The Government is to back the emergency task force, provisionally called Leadership for Libraries. It will be led by councils and chaired by Paul Blantern, head of Northamptonshire County Council.
Another key recommendation is bringing members of the community into the management of libraries, which the report’s author compared with bringing parents on to school boards.
“This does not mean just handing libraries over to volunteers,” Mr Sieghart said. “It would continue with all the statutory responsibility but add the community’s resources. Locals will not put up with council management overcharging or poor opening hours; they demand higher standards.”
He said in September that the libraries faced a “Beeching moment”, referencing the huge closure of railway branch lines in the 1960s.
Those protesting against the cuts in service believe that rural and deprived areas will be hugely affected by further closures, saying they were a “lifeline” to those without internet access, those in education and older people.
A statement released by DCMS called the report “comprehensive” adding it “identifies a range of opportunities to improve the library service for the future”. It confirmed the establishment of the taskforce and said Government “is committed to taking forward the report’s key recommendations”.
Library report: Key recommendations
Digital library network Mr Sieghart’s report says it is “essential” that all public libraries in England offer the public free access to wi-fi, computer facilities and sufficient workforce training. That and improved computer facilities would also pave the way for a national digital network for libraries.
Library taskforce One of the key recommendations is the creation of a library taskforce to offer “the necessary leadership” and ensure the report is implemented. The group will report jointly to local and national Government. The group, provisionally called Leadership for Libraries, will lobby for libraries and will be supported by organisations including Arts Council England, the BBC and the British Library.
Professional development The taskforce will be given the job of recruiting new staff as well as encouraging and developing current staff. The report pointed to the TeachFirst programme which “has helped raise the profile of the teaching profession”. It added that new recruits would need different training saying the “21st century librarian will need... digital and commercial expertise”.
E-lending The Government should secure changes in European and UK copyright law to enable library users to borrow ebooks remotely in the next legislative term, the report recommended.
Case study: Kensal Rise Library
The plight of Kensal Rise Library in north London is representative of the challenges faced by libraries across the country – but unlike many threatened branches it attracted huge public support.
Angry crowds took to the streets to defend the library after the local council announced plans to close it in 2010.
Leading figures from the literary world, including Zadie Smith, Alan Bennett and Philip Pullman, joined the campaign to save the library, which was opened in 1900 by Mark Twain.
Bennett, speaking at a public meeting, warned that “once a library goes, it doesn’t come back”.
A legal fund enabled the campaigners to take Brent council to court, but in October 2011 a judge refused to allow a judicial review into their claim that closure of six libraries was a “fundamentally flawed and unlawful” move. All Souls College, Oxford, had originally given the building to the local authority to become a library, but when it stopped being used for that purpose it reverted to the college’s ownership.
It was then sold to a developer with the condition that part of the building is leased back to the college for a peppercorn rent. All Souls has pledged to sublet the rooms to the Friends of Kensal Rise so they can establish a community-run library.