LIBRARY users across Northamptonshire last year breathed a sigh of relief when plans to close eight of the county’s 36 libraries were called off.
But this was not the end of the story.
Northamptonshire County Council has admitted it cannot afford to fund the library service on its own and costs must be massively reduced by 2015.
So long taken for granted by so many, libraries are being forced to evolve, to ensure their future survival.
Customer and library service manager Grace Kempster spoke to the Chron this week to explain how libraries were adapting to respond to a constrained budget and changing expectations.
The library service currently costs £5.6 million, although it generates its own annual income of £1 million. Some cost reductions have already been put in place, but the goal is that, in the next three years, another £1.08 million in annual savings must be made, cutting the overall price for the taxpayer.
So the challenge is on to keep the libraries open, within a strict set of financial targets. But how is this being done?
Grace said: “When we consulted last year we had made no changes, no cuts, but we still have to contribute to that bigger picture of public services needing to make savings over the next three years.”
More responsibility is already being shifted onto the shoulders of local volunteers who want to protect their libraries and the aim is that, by 2015, there will be 1,600 volunteers in place to help support the running of the service.
Currently about 450 volunteers contribute their time to local libraries and, by March next year, it is hoped this figure will have almost doubled. Grace said: “Since 2008 we have been looking for people to be more involved in the service. We now have 26 Friends groups and also there are individuals who have become a ‘Friend.’
“The Friends groups have been inspirational, not only the ones which were threatened with closure. We have asked for further support from them.”
The libraries have also been drawing in younger volunteers between the ages of 14 and 16 to take part in the Summer Reading Challenge, helping about 10,000 children in reading activities. But it is also expected that further cuts will have to be made, including staff costs.
Grace explained that £300,000 needed to be saved in staffing costs within the next two years, cutting the current workforce of 128 people by up to 17. It is hoped that those who lost their jobs in the library service would be redeployed elsewhere in the council.
She said: “We will do it with a great deal of care. We know it is a tough but realistic fight. We know there are staff savings to be made but we need to be able to carry on our journey of volunteering.
“Our volunteer role profiles cover all areas of library work from being an IT person to going out traditionally and taking books into people’s homes.”
Each library has now taken on the title of LibraryPlus, a title which suggests the many different services which can now be accessed from libraries.
And it is this element of joining forces under the same roof with other services which could help libraries survive into the future, it is hoped.
The aim is that another £250,000 will be saved through sharing premises with other services, something which is already in place at Danesholme Library.
By 2014, Grace said, libraries in Daventry and Towcester would have moved to newly-built premises which they will share with other facilities. In Daventry’s case, the building also looks set to house the council’s registrar service.
But generating more income is another priority, according to Grace.
The library service wants to create more income by providing services to other library authorities and there is also a real focus on attracting sponsorship through online “packages” for specific projects through the Northamptonshire County Council website.
Grace said: “We are the first in the country to have online giving. There are 10 packages called Making A Difference and they include things like the sponsorship of homework clubs or Rhyme Times.”
More changes are in the offing for opening hours as, from April this year, every library will open its doors on Sunday afternoon, moving hours from other times in the week.
Grace said: “It is an easier time for people to use the library.”
One thing seems to be clear, footfall does not seem to be the problem, although book loan figures in themselves are falling. But nowadays books are not the only attractions modern libraries have to offer.
Grace tells me that 6,000 people a week come through library doors to use the computers alone and other attractions include job clubs, homework clubs and the opportunity to take out the latest Blu-rays and DVDs.
In total, more than three million people visit the county’s libraries each year. And, at the Central Library alone, between 1,200 and 1,500 walk through the doors each day.
Grace said: “We are bucking a national trend as our visitors are going up and up, by four per cent year on year. That is because we give people what they want, we don’t cut the book and media funds and we really focus on children and families.
“This half term there are a huge number of events on for children and families.”
She added: “In 2006, 73 per cent came in and borrowed a book and in 2009 it was 67 per cent borrowing a book, we are about to do another count for this year. What we are noticing is that people come in for books and so much more. Some come in for work and business support, looking online for job opportunities.
“People even come in to find out what is going on locally, 25 per cent come in looking for information. One unusual query we had was ‘where can I sell my hair?’ But we found out.”
WHEN so many Northamptonshire libraries were threatened with closure last year, members of local communities came out in support of these social hubs that no one wanted to lose.
The Friends of Moulton Library is one group which has become actively involved in supporting its local book lending service, raising £8,000 through various activities in the last year.
Andy Tresias, who leads the group, said: “We have reintroduced the village quiz, we have held a number of events at the library as well for the Royal Wedding last year and Remembrance Day and we even had events during the summer holidays.”
The group has even linked up with local estate agents Jackson Grundy, which has been giving a percentage of certain sales commissions towards the local library.
It has even joined forces with the local church, where volunteers are helping keep the library grounds in order to save the council money.
Andy said: “We are looking to support the library service financially with some of our money by sponsoring some activities that happen there.
“We do the village quiz and have 20 teams with each team paying a tenner. We had a Christmas fair too. We have done a number of fund-raising activities. Also a number of people have signed up to be friends of the library.”
He continued: “Longer term we are hoping to get a new library, working with the parish council in Moulton, but we have to demonstrate there is a desire or need for one.
“We are hoping to show them we are a viable proposition and hopefully, eventually, we will have a bigger library, working with the parish council.
“The library is more than just a book lending service, there are a lot of other activities going on and we need to make sure it is a hub for other activities. It can’t stand still.”
Another group which has been vocal about ensuring the future of its local library is the St James Residents’ Association. Vice-chairman Ian Whippey said: “St James Library is too small to do anything with and we are trying to get it moved into a larger building where other things can go on as well.”
He continued: “We are hoping to work in league with The University of Northampton as they have an enterprise project going on. We are also looking to have a meeting with the borough council leader.
“The building is too small to do anything with, we can’t put very much on there but if we had a larger building we could perhaps rent out rooms as well and have other things going on.
“We would like to do a one stop shop alongside it and we are talking about different museum ideas as well.”