Headlines: December 2nd, 2009

Councils have been told that public libraries need radical transformation and modernisation if they are to stay relevant and popular. The Culture Minister Margaret Hodge has launched a wide-ranging consultation looking at how libraries can reverse the drop in the number of people using them and survive spending cuts.

The Minister said: “Local authorities spend around a billion pounds a year on libraries and councils sometimes see them as a soft target for budget cuts. The secret of securing a bright future for the service lies in offering a modern, relevant and popular service they will defend.”

She said the challenges facing library services were about the changes that are needed to reverse the decline. The issues that need to be addressed include use of books, assessing the impact of digitization, responding to the 24/7 culture and the greater availability of cheap books for sale. The consultation will also consider how libraries survive the pressures on public spending. The consultation paper includes 30 essays from people including authors, publishers and business people.

Ms Hodge said free access to books and the written word had to be the cornerstone of the service but library customers were looking for something more than previous generations. There were more libraries than branches of either McDonalds or Boots. “The incredible rise of easy internet access and use, means that libraries simply have to compete and perform more effectively if they are to justify the public investment they need,” she added.

The Local Government Association has already called for the rules governing how libraries are run to be scrapped. It says the emphasis needs to shift from measuring what councils put into libraries to measuring what customers get out of them.