March 23, 2009

MLA Chief Executive Roy Clare and Engagement Director (West) Jon Finch visited Swindon’s new Central Library and the Old Town Library today to meet staff and customers. The government agency has offered its professional advice in discussions with officials in Swindon Council over the past month. The authority has decided that Old Town Library should close as part of its management of their budget for the forthcoming year.

Roy Clare commented: “The people of Swindon can be very proud of their new Central Library, which is already proving a popular enhancement to the town centre. It is clear that a great deal of thought has been given to providing a modern, efficient library service in an attractively designed, light and airy new building. I was struck by the friendly staff, ready availability of books and other resources, and by the positive comments of users, including those exploring local history materials and those using the internet and other digital facilities. Library membership has risen steadily since the new library opened last autumn.
“I also visited Old Town Library, which is now scheduled to be closed. I heard the concerns of local users, many of them elderly, who did not feel that their voice has been heard clearly enough in the consultation process led by the Council. The point made by many people is that they have valued Old Town Library as a place that the community can use. They have enjoyed a personalised service in Old Town Library and they claim that there has been too little understanding of the premium they have placed on that resource, which is in convenient, level walking distance of their homes and neighborhood shops.

“The decision to close has been justified on the grounds that Old Town Library is very small, relatively under-used and has a presence and a style that are out of date; these appear to be reasonable grounds in purely economic terms. However, in principle, changes to library services should be accompanied by full engagement with local opinion. In this case it seems that the process of consultation may have been rather swift. Some people are evidently frustrated as much by the loss of a meeting place and a risk to the heart of their community as by the loss of library services. At the human level the decision to close has been an understandable disappointment to a number of local users and this is now a matter for local councillors to consider.

“In discussions with officials, MLA has offered its ‘best practice’ consultancy support, which could help to ensure that the future vision for Swindon’s libraries is placed on a more robust footing in relation to the needs of local people. For example, alignment with health provision has been successful elsewhere, as has co-location with one stop council services and a range of options for integration with colleges, children’s centres, post offices and other local facilities. Better social outcomes may be feasible (and efficiency savings may be found) from these and similar measures, and there may also be scope for further mobile services to make it easier for older people and those with limited mobility to access books and other resources.”