Library service in peril

A survey of nearly 2000 library staff by UNISON, the UK’s largest union, reveals a service in jeopardy, with the public paying the price as they lose their local library or face increasing charges, dwindling opening hours and shrinking staffing levels in those that remain.
Library staff are working harder than ever to keep services running and report escalating stress levels as a result – one in four are stressed at work ‘most of the time’. This is hardly surprising given that 60% have seen full time job losses, and more than half (54%) have seen a reduction in part time posts.
79% say they are working harder to try to maintain the same level of service, whilst 57% say it is impossible to maintain the same level of service as existed before the coalition’s drastic cuts.   
One third report that libraries have reduced their opening hours, and a third have introduced charges for services previously provided for free. Libraries are also placing limits on services, such as internet use, which is problematic for people who can’t afford a home computer and rely on library access to search and apply for jobs and benefits.
Amongst the hardest hit of library services, in terms of cuts, are outreach with local schools (20%), home library services (13.5%) and school holiday activities (18%). Some libraries are managing to expand the services they provide, however, it is not clear whether this has been accompanied by a decrease in the quality and the time allocated to each activity.  
More than 40% say their library now has an income generation target, prompting the same percentage (40%) to say that their library is now run more like a business than a public service.
More than half (55%) report that their library relies on volunteers, which 73% say has grown since 2010, revealing the steady de-professionalisation of the service under the Tory-led coalition. Whilst some library staff say cuts meant the service couldn’t run without volunteers, others say their use is problematic because they are not as reliable, or as well trained, as paid staff. They are also not routinely CRB checked.
51% of all respondents said they had been working in the library service for more than 15 years, highlighting the wealth of experience and expertise within the service and a sense of the skills that have been lost due to the cuts.
A total of 439 libraries have closed since 2010, with another 280 (245 buildings and 35 mobiles) now under threat. Nearly 4000 full time equivalent (FTE) jobs have been lost from the sector.
Heather Wakefield, UNISON head of local government, said:
“The government says that it values local libraries, but this is pure fiction – the facts speak for themselves. Hundreds of libraries have been closed, and those that remain are cutting their opening hours, their staffing levels, and some of the services they provide. Volunteers cannot be relied on to replace trained skilled library staff – the library service is being run into the ground.
“For more than 100 years libraries have been at the heart of our communities. They’ve inspired people to learn, helped parents on low incomes get their children interested in books, made it possible for people without a home computer to apply for work, and reached out to give elderly people a sense of community. But all this is now at risk. Libraries are being turned into businesses and UNISON is calling for urgent action to protect them as a vital public service for communities now and in the future.”
A copy of the report is available from the UNISON press office.