Libraries in Wales: balancing the books in times of public sector cuts

12 February 2014

Article by Robin Wilkinson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service.

Over the last ten years visits to public libraries in Wales have risen by approximately 21 per cent (see the Welsh Government’s Programme for Government update), whilst those in the UK as a whole have experienced a general decline. This figure alone could seem to indicate the good health of the public library sector in Wales. But as public libraries will have to compete with other local authority services for a decreasing pot of funding in the forthcoming years, this good health is far from guaranteed. The Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee has started work on an inquiry into public libraries in Wales, where it will discuss issues like these with people involved in the sector including local government library staff, the Minister for Culture and Sport and library-users themselves.

Image from Flickr by German Po Camano Licenced under the Creative Commons

Image from Flickr by German Po Camano Licensed under the Creative Commons

This increase in visitor numbers comes during a period where, among other things, e-books and the internet have impacted upon libraries’ traditional role as a place for people to borrow books. The Committee conducted a survey and a number of focus groups before starting the inquiry, and heard from people in Wales about the contemporary role of local libraries in their lives. This showed that, though the provision of books and e-books is still central to what people value about their local library, they provide far more than just that. As one focus group participant said:

The local library service isn’t just a repository of books; it’s a safe place I can go where I’m always greeted by friendly, helpful, professional staff. Losing the building would be a detriment to our high street but losing that environment would be even worse.

It seems a modern library is a community hub: a place to borrow books, but also to meet friends, learn languages, access the internet and receive help with completing CVs and application forms from friendly and knowledgeable staff. In fact, people who responded to the Committee’s consultation stated that libraries contributed across all of the Welsh Government’s main policy areas, from education and literacy to health and wellbeing and jobs and growth.

According to the Carnegie UK Trust and Older People’s Commissioner’s responses to the Committee’s consultation, many of the ways in which libraries contribute to the communities in which they are based are most needed in places and times of economic hardship. However, current levels of funding are under threat as local authorities, which fund public libraries, look across the range of services they offer to make savings wherever they can.

On average, Welsh local authorities will see a 3.5 per cent reduction in Revenue Support Grant funding from the Welsh Government in 2014-15, compared with the 2013-14 allocation. The Welsh Local Government Association responded to this news by saying that, among other things, councils may have to close libraries to make savings. Although the provision of “comprehensive and efficient” library services is a statutory duty for local authorities (under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964), funding for libraries is not ring-fenced. Libraries therefore have to compete with other services provided by authorities, statutory and non-statutory, for shrinking resources.

One way that local authorities in England have sought to maintain library services despite public sector cuts is through using volunteers to work in, or even run, libraries. So far, in its consultation the Committee has heard from Welsh local government, library professionals’ bodies (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and the Society of Chief Librarians) and library-goers themselves that volunteers should not replace the valuable role of trained professional staff in Welsh libraries.

Throughout the inquiry, the first public meeting of which takes place on 12 February 2013, the Committee will discuss the role of volunteers in Welsh libraries. They will also seek to explore other new and innovative ways councils can save money whilst protecting – and possibly enhancing – the role that libraries play in modern Wales. The Committee will assess the work of the Minister for Culture and Sport, who has a statutory duty to oversee and promote library services in Wales, and has commissioned a Welsh Government review of public libraries, which is currently underway.