March 22, 2009

The severe pressures on local authority budgets that threaten the public library service could last a decade, delegates were warned at a library campaign conference on Wednesday.

The ground-breaking event was billed to bring council leaders and cabinet members from local authorities across the south of England together with senior librarians and campaigners, to discuss the future of the service.

Library campaigner Tim Coates urged the councillors, as the holders of local authority purse strings, to work together to champion the library service. He said: “We need the people here today to form a task force, a group the councillors in Swindon could have rung up to say: ‘We have a budget problem, what do we do?’. Solving supply and management issues, getting more books, opening longer hours, these issues are better handled when two or three councils work together. You are the only people who can change the library service.”

Shadow culture minister Ed Vaizey also attended. He said: “Without wishing to start a row with the MLA, it would be nice if once you were made a cabinet member, you got a call [from the MLA] saying ‘Come to our next training meeting.'”

Financial pressures were a dominant theme of the day, with Stephen MacLoughlin, the leader of Bournemouth Borough Council, warning delegates that the economic downturn meant a squeeze on public finances that could last for the next decade. MacLoughlin said that many of the assumptions previously made about the library service would have to be questioned in the light of the changing economic climate. It was previously thought that libraries would serve populations with increasing affluence, who would be prepared to pay for added value, such as coffee shops in libraries. Library closures, the need for central leadership in the sector and the need for research into what the population wants from its library service were also discussed on the day. Miranda McKearney, director of The Reading Agency, said she welcomed the shared dialogue which the conference had brought, adding: “I think it has been damaging for us to have been seen to be fighting each other.”

The Transforming Public Libraries conference was hosted by Hampshire County Council and j­ointly organised by council leader Ken Thornber with Coates. The conference was held at the Winchester Discovery Centre and came about after Coates and Hampshire council leader Thornber, previously on opposing sides of the library debate, met on a panel interview on BBC1’s “The Politics Show” late last year