'Anxiety' over council library services as tough financial decisions lie ahead

Councils across Scotland have been urged to uphold their legal duty to maintain vital library services in the face of growing financial pressures at local government level.

Research carried out during the pandemic has highlighted “anxieties” among library managers over how local authorities view the issue of statutory provision, with some warning that it is seen to “mean nothing” or “doesn’t carry any weight” among council decision makers.

Under the Public Libraries Consolidation (Scotland) Act, as amended in schedule 21 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, local authorities have a statutory duty to provide “adequate library facilities” for all residents in their area.

Crucially, however, the question of what constitutes an adequate service is not specified. As a consequence, some councils and arms-length external organisations (ALEOs) have moved to impose their own interpretations.

Only last summer, Glasgow Life faced an angry backlash after suggesting the provision of an online service would “suffice”, and that there was no definition as to the “scale and range” of the library services it should provide.

While neither it nor any other local authority or cultural trust has proposed such drastic cuts, the financial reality of the Scottish Government’s spending review amounts to a real-terms cut for local government, meaning that difficult decisions lie ahead.

Alison Evison, the president of council umbrella body COSLA, told Scotland on Sunday last month that library provision could be among those services hit hardest if council finances are unsustainable going forward.

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There are concerns over how some local authorities regard their statutory duties around library services. Picture: Getty

As things stand, a total of 83 public libraries have closed in Scotland since 2009/10, with spending on libraries shrinking by 30 per cent over the same period, despite the fact that yearly visitor numbers - made up of in-person lenders and those using digital libraries - increased by over 40 per cent.

The fears of further cuts to come have been exacerbated by the impact of coronavirus. Even as Scotland continues its journey out of the pandemic, library service provision remains significantly down on what was offered prior to Covid-19.

An Audit Scotland report published last month found that across 27 of the country’s 32 local authorities areas, opening hours were down at the end of February 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The reduction in hours is particularly acute in some areas. In Dumfries and Galloway, for example, the decline stands at 58 per cent.

Peter Reid, professor of librarianship at Robert Gordon University. PIcture: Contributed

Since the requirement for councils to provide an “adequate” service came into law, it has been codified in different ways.

During the 1980s and 1990s, COSLA put general guidance in place to help councils interpret their duties, ranging from opening hours and staffing levels, through to stock additions. They were later superseded by what was known as the public library quality improvement matrix.

Nowadays, an agreed framework is in place which puts meat on the bones of the statute books. The How Good Is Our Library Service (HGIOPLS) framework notes that “an adequate service is delivered through a planned strategic network of public libraries reflecting core functions”.

Those functions include free, universal access to hardcopy and electronic resources, community involvement, and the promotion of social justice, civic engagement and democracy.

Peter Reid, professor of librarianship at Robert Gordon University, drew up the framework alongside his colleague, Caroline Whitehead.

He said that while the lack of an universal understanding of what is meant by adequate was difficult, a narrow definition would present problems of its own.

“It’s incredibly vague in the legislation, and in some respects, that’s often perceived outside of the sector as a handicap, but within the sector, you’ve got to remember there are 32 different local authorities running 32 different library services,” he told Scotland on Sunday.

“If you define ‘adequate’ prescriptively, what would pass in Glasgow or Dumfries is not necessarily what would pass in Shetland or Clackmannanshire.

“So on the one hand, ‘adequate’ seems very vague and unhelpful. On the other, it allows local authorities considerable latitude in terms of how they best serve their communities.”

How councils do that is often a source of unease and tension. Last year, Prof Reid co-authored a study into the response of councils when it came to library provision during the pandemic. The report, Libraries in Lockdown, highlighted “disturbing” views held by several local authority library managers about how the statutory designation of the service was perceived.

One interviewee said: “The statutory argument doesn’t carry any weight. Horrendous things have happened, and the fact it is a statutory service doesn’t seem to matter.”

Another said: “Statutory means nothing here. They say that we could have one library open for one hour a week, and we’d fulfil the statutory duty.”

Prof Reid said such viewpoints, albeit from a small minority, demonstrated the need to maintain advocacy and strong support of both the statutory requirement, and what “adequate provision” entails.

Sean McNamara, head of the the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland (CILIPS), said the way councils interpret the meaning of adequate “says a lot about how they value the communities they serve”.

He explained: “For us, adequate means a service that meets community needs - that means local, well resourced financially, and with stock, IT, and staff. These things allow libraries to provide access, improve wellbeing, and reduce social isolation.

“We will always make the case that what defines adequate can only be decided by communities themselves, and if there are any changes to be made, there has to be a detailed community consultation.”

While there have been threats of judicial reviews in the wake of some library cuts in recent years, no legal challenge of the statutory obligation has ever been brought to a Scottish court.

Mr McNamara believes that is testament to the “huge public pressure” brought about by communities.

“Whilst a clearer direction with the legislation would be wonderful, we realise that is very challenging,” he added. “We are content to continue advocating, and ensure local authorities realise the different libraries make to communities.”

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