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What next for libraries as scores are shut and out-sourced

By Lucy Ballinger
BBC News

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One in three of Wales' libraries has closed or changed hands in the last seven years due to budget cuts. So why is the rest of the UK looking to Wales for inspiration as libraries seek to reinvent themselves in order to survive?

In the last seven years one in six of all Wales' libraries have closed.

A further 62 have changed hands and are now run either by outside organisations or with support from volunteers.

Campaigners warn services have "been savaged" by local authority budgetary cuts as almost one in 10 libraries in Wales are run solely by volunteers in the communities they serve.

Research by BBC Wales has found:

  • 215 of Wales' libraries are run by councils, while 30 are run by community groups and 24 have been out-sourced to other providers
  • 11 libraries are open for fewer than 10 hours a week, with one - Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire - opened for four hours a week by volunteers
  • 17 more libraries are due to change hands this year, taking them out of full council control
  • Four library services in Gwynedd are earmarked for closure

Alan Wylie, from Speak up for Libraries, said: "We are coming to the crisis point for libraries. They have been savaged. There are libraries closing every day and being handed to volunteers.

"There really needs to be some action, they are a statutory service and they have to be protected."

But local authorities say they are doing their best to keep a comprehensive service in the face of cuts.

Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance (CIPFA), said: "The cuts in funding levels for libraries in Wales come at a time when councils are facing significant budgetary pressures.

"Local authorities are having to make tough decisions on services and unfortunately libraries are often bearing the brunt.

"Despite the challenges, though, many libraries in Wales are continuing to innovate and adapt to changing visitor habits."

Cardiff council has moved some of its libraries into "hubs" along with housing and benefit advice.

Cabinet member for community development, co-operatives and social enterprise, councillor Peter Bradbury, said: "We now have 11 facilities offering extended and improved services, with more in the pipeline for development.

"In many areas and as a result of the co-location of services, the additional footfall in our hubs - up by 32% so far this year - has had a positive impact on the uptake of library services."

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In Denbighshire, seven of the nine libraries have been turned into one-stop shops where council services such as housing benefit and bin collection information can be accessed, council tax paid and parking permits issued.

Meanwhile, Flintshire council is establishing an employee-led mutual to deliver run its library and leisure services, with two libraries moved into leisure centres already.

Ian Bancroft, chief executive officer at Flintshire council said: "To survive in the modern world, a library has to be either on the high street, so someone can go shopping and also go to the library, or it has to be co-located with another building. So the logic with libraries is, you've got to be part of a visit, you can't be a one-off place to go."

He said the new library at Deeside leisure centre, which merged three smaller libraries, has seen a huge increase in footfall, as has the newly-merged library and leisure centre in Holywell.

image copyrightCarmarthenshire Council

More cafe than library

Llanelli library was recently named as lending the third highest amount of books and other items in the UK by CIPFA.

The top three libraries over the last year were:

  • Norfolk & Norwich Millennium, Norfolk: 984,445
  • The Hive Worcester, Worcestershire: 827,061
  • Llanelli, Carmarthenshire: 555,712

Llanelli library's building was completely renovated in 2012 and reinvented as "more of a coffee shop" than an austere library.

Carmarthenshire county library services manager, Mark Jewel said: "Where it was perceived as 'shhh' and 'quiet please' there is now a juke box, occasional guest choirs singing, background music, coffee corners and sounds from children's chatter.

"Yet we are still able to maintain a quiet area for serious study in the reference department."

image copyrightCarmarthenshire Council

But the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Nick Poole, said he was concerned that merging services was not sustainable.

"If you have got evidence of need, people who need health information and council services alongside library services, we think it can be a positive thing.

"But where it is of concern is where it is a cost-cutting measure and other services are just moved in with the library services to reduce the number of buildings that are paid for.

"I think this is just not sustainable. The library is doing lots of things and it confuses library users when they walk in as to what that place is."

Three local authorities - Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent and Bridgend - have outsourced their library services to charitable trusts run outside the council.

Mr Poole said: "It is very early days for a lot of these models. The only thing that we do know is changing the governance like this could effectively remove the statutory responsibility from councils.

"We are concerned this is a method by stealth of moving libraries outside of the statutory service.

"None of this makes any long-term sense."

But he added that across Wales a number of initiatives had been introduced to try to keep the service sustainable.

"A lot of the country are looking to Wales as they are doing brilliant work" said Mr Poole. "They have started a joined-up library system so it is easy to find and get books from across the country.

"There is electronic magazine access which is proving really popular and means you are really introducing services properly out of hours."

image captionWelsh Libraries website which gives all library users in Wales access to magazines, books and audio books online

The new library system involves every branch having the same IT system installed so they have access to information about books across the country.

There are also plans to give users one card which could be used in any library in Wales after 2018.

The Welsh Government, which has partly subsidised access to e-books and electronic magazines, confirmed the funding was currently only allocated until March 2018.

Economy and Infrastructure Secretary, Ken Skates, said: "This concerted effort to maintain public libraries and promote reading and engagement with digital learning opportunities has resulted in Wales seeing the largest increase of all UK regions in the number of digital and audio-visual downloads and issues - up by five percent on the previous year.

"This is very encouraging and shows our investment in a national digital library and new and innovative ways of encouraging more people to explore their local libraries is paying off."

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  • One in 10 Welsh libraries run by volunteers