Is this the future of libraries?

Posted on 25/01/2011 by

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Carmondean's telly talk system allows people to speak to a council advisor by web-cam

The future of libraries is a hot topic at the moment. Not only are they being asked to do more things than ever before, but the looming threat of budget cuts and library closures is generating both online and offline resistance.

Just over a week ago a lecturer in Shropshire created the twitter hashtag #savelibraries, which rapidly spread through the UK and then the rest of the world. In some areas they’ve taken direct action – the Save Stony Stratford Library campaign used Facebook to encourage locals to take out the libraries entire collection, emptying it in just a couple of days.

This Guardian map shows how many libraries across the UK are being threatened with closure or mergers, as local authorities face large cuts to their budgets and seek to make savings.

Dismal though the picture may be, my recent visit to a hybrid library for Radio Scotland’s The Book Café show gave me some small cause for optimism – and reminded me that libraries are likely to remain important community hubs.

Carmondean Connected occupies a fairly small building in North Livingston, opposite the car-park of a Morrison’s supermarket. Modest though the building may be, the open plan interior manages to pack in an almost bewildering array of different services and facilities; you can pay your rent or council tax at a self service kiosk; there’s a telly-talk video link to a council advisor in Livingston (see the picture above); there are computers for adults and children, laptops, and wifi. Anne Fleming, one of the library assistants, tells me that people even park outside to check their emails when the library is closed.

There’s a section of “books on prescription” which your GP might recommend, on subjects like stress, insomnia and depression. There’s a Marie Curie room with regular visits by a nurse who offers advice about cancer, and an interview room.

When I visited, the library was busy and upbeat . People were reading books, newspapers, checking their emails, and taking out films and DVDs. You could even get a coffee or a tea in the soft seating area (there were beanbags for the kids.)

The library assistants were cheerful and enthusiastic about their work, which they described as varied and interesting. They considered themselves more as information providers than librarians, working out what people needed, and problem solving when they need to.

The centre’s manager, Cathy MacIntyre, told me that combining all of these different services actually saves money. “And do people still read the books” I asked. She assured me that the number of books being borrowed was steadily going up.

Of course, Carmondean Connected was set up more than two years ago, before the budget cuts loomed. It’s clearly been well resourced, both in terms of staff and in equipment and technology, and was a carefully chosen site for the new hybrid approach. Merging facilities elsewhere to save costs, without investing in staff training, good design, and good facilities, obviously won’t produce the same result.

But Carmondean Connected does give some hope that mergers do not automatically have to be bad news for every community – if they are done in the right way.

You can hear my radio piece about Carmondean Connected, and hear The Book Café’s special feature on library cuts, by following this link to BBC Iplayer – it will be available until the 31st of January.

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