Librarians have said they are “angry and depressed" at the wave of library cutbacks announced since the comprehensive spending review in October but feel “powerless" because they cannot speak openly about them. The Reading Agency director Miranda McKearney has called the scale of library job losses involved “scary".
At least 25 local authorities have announced new proposals for cost-cutting to their library services since the October review, with fresh details emerging almost every day. Because many of the proposals are provisional and involve different options, it is unclear what the exact number of individual libraries and librarian posts already at risk.
Last year the statistical body CIPFA, which measures library book lending, found that almost 1,000 librarians lost their jobs, with 24,765 left in their posts at the end of March 2010. But this year the downsizing could escalate, with some councils proposing a worst-case scenario loss of up to half their libraries, and recent proposals including the axing of 20 smaller libraries in Leeds, and up to 23 out of 42 libraries set to go in North Yorkshire. Further closures in Dumfries and Galloway and in Barnsley are among the latest announcements.
In Wiltshire some accounts suggest that just 10 librarians are intended to remain in place across the entire county, which has 34 libraries. A spokesperson for Wiltshire Council denied this was the case, but said that the council was “looking to get 240 managers out of about 550 across the council to apply for voluntary redundancy", and that library workers with management experience were among those receiving letters to that effect.
Some local authorities are following a trend called “management delayering", involving fewer lines of management between the chief executive and the front line, while others are employing “channel shift", automating as much of the council's contact with the public as possible, through the internet or call centres. It is believed that in some areas the entire library workforce has been told it is at risk.
Many library workers say they are unable to speak out because of fear they will lose redundancy payments if they breach confidentiality clauses in their contracts. One member of staff, who would only speak anonymously, said: “As angry and depressed as people are, when I raise the issue of why so many people in the profession are not talking to customers or the press about the dismantling of our services, people admit fear and powerlessness. There is great frustration that no one is taking the lead. I very much get the feeling that everyone is too fearful to stick their necks out as it would be professional suicide."
At The Reading Agency Miranda McKearney said: “What's clear is, lots of staff are going. One risk is that it is the specialist staff, the staff who push the reader development movement. In some authorities they are definitely being targeted." She added: “The worst I've heard of is that 60% of specialist staff [in one library service] are going. It's really scary."
A spokesperson for the Local Government Association (LGA) said: “Library services are a non-statutory service in that councils are not legally obliged to provide a library in every town. They have to provide a service, but there doesn't need to be a library—you could provide a mobile library, for example. Councils are legally obliged to provide other services, such as protecting vulnerable children and adults, and they are very expensive. We have a 28% reduction in funding over four years, so popular non-statutory services like libraries and leisure centres are being reduced. But it is very much a local decision and all councils will consult with local residents." The spokesperson added: “We have to be honest with people. We can't pretend we will be able to provide the same level of service in future."
Confidentiality agreements were part of the terms and conditions set by each individual council as an employer in its own right, the LGA spokesperson added.