In times of austerity, with local authorities struggling with ever decreasing budgets, are libraries worth funding? Whilst Barnsley is maintaining all of its libraries, in Sheffield the future doesn’t look promising. The Council is proposing to close 11 out of 27 local libraries, with another five only being partially funded for a two-year period. A […]

In times of austerity, with local authorities struggling with ever decreasing budgets, are libraries worth funding? Whilst Barnsley is maintaining all of its libraries, in Sheffield the future doesn’t look promising. The Council is proposing to close 11 out of 27 local libraries, with another five only being partially funded for a two-year period. A consultation on these proposals finished on 10 January, with a final decision planned for mid-February.

Across the city, local community groups have been formed to protest against the closures, with the campaign highlighting a number of flaws in the Council’s rationale for a reduced library service. A key point arising from an earlier consultation was the importance users attached to their library being within walking distance. This has been ignored in the Council’s proposals, which talk about providing “hub” libraries accessible via a “frequent public transport service” with up to 30 minutes journey time each way. Whether this constitutes ‘reasonable access’, particularly for younger families and older people, is a moot point.

Neither of Sheffield’s two main political parties come out of this well. The Liberal Democrats have been out in force, asking people to sign a petition against library closures. Strangely enough the petition doesn’t mention the Party at all. This touching display of bashfulness can only be explained by the not unreasonable assumption that, as the Liberal Democrats are complicit in the savage cuts to Sheffield’s funding, it might be considered hypocritical for them to campaign against them. To complete this tale of high ethical standards, those signing the petition unwittingly find themselves on the Lib Dems mailing list.

Whilst the implementation of austerity policies has created genuine difficulties for the Council, the Labour Party’s response is lacking in vision or imagination. With less money available the Council has fallen back on traditional models. ‘Proper’ libraries will continue to be run by the Council. Less money means considerably fewer libraries. The Council’s support for working with community groups seems to lack any real conviction or understanding of the sort of third sector partnerships required to provide a viable and sustainable service.

The five community-led libraries will have funding guaranteed for two years only and will be run solely by volunteers. Running a library requires professional training and skills. The idea that volunteers can be trained to offer a comparable service is wishful thinking. A similar mindset is evident in the Council’s suggestion that community groups take over libraries threatened with closure without any Council support. This proposal has been put forward even though the Council’s own report states that it is “not a long-term sustainable option”. The Council’s approach to community involvement feels more like a convenient fig leaf to obscure the level of cuts proposed, rather than a genuine attempt to find new and innovative ways of delivering more with less.

Does it all have to end in tears? The Council is focused on saving money in the short term but the closure of large numbers of libraries will have an impact for generations to come. Once libraries are closed they are likely to stay closed. It’s not hard to foresee an outcome whereby the Council antagonises a significant number of local communities by cutting library services across Sheffield. The Broomhill Library Action Group is already actively pursuing the potential for a judicial review of the Council’s actions.

But there is another scenario. The current proposals relegate the role of community groups and organisations to the margins. The alternative is to develop new forms of public and community partnerships which see community groups and third sector organisations as intrinsic partners in developing a local library service across Sheffield. Given that there is a reduced level of funding available for libraries, this budget could be allocated across all of the existing libraries in Sheffield, with paid and trained staff alongside volunteers, local groups and relevant third sector organisations.

In a rapidly changing world, these libraries would have the potential to not only offer access to books and e-books, but to be developed to act as community learning hubs, supporting education and training for all ages and fulfilling a number of wider Council objectives around learning, employment and community cohesion.

A final decision will be made in the next few weeks. There is considerable scepticism as to whether the current consultation with local communities will just be used to rubberstamp existing proposals. The Council has said it believes in “the creativity of Sheffield people”. The real question is whether the Council has the creativity to commit to a more equal and meaningful partnership with groups and organisations in the city in order to secure and develop a 21st century library service which Sheffield can be proud of, now and for the future.

Sheffield Against Library Cuts

David Edwards.