The government this week announced the allocation of a fund announced in September as part of its Programme for Government, with the largest grant of £448,000 to Glasgow to reopen five of its shuttered libraries – Maryhill, Whiteinch, GoMA, Couper Institute and Barmulloch – and extend opening hours at other city libraries. Councils across Scotland were asked to apply for specific projects or help in relation to libraries, which remained closed for much of the pandemic.
However, it is understood the government funding will have to be spent by the end of this financial year – 31 March – and no other funding has as yet been allocated to keep the libraries open, despite money coming with the stipulation councils must make “every effort” to continue to fund the reopening libraries in the long-term.
According to new data from the Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC), 36 of Scotland’s 444 libraries have still not reopened since the pandemic. 21 of those - including the five earmarked for re-opening in Glasgow – are due to reopen, albeit some without specified dates – however, 16 remain indefinitely closed, many due to access problems relating to Covid restrictions. Some, particularly in rural areas, are located in schools, which are unable to allow public visitors on site.
Sean McNamara, head of CILIP in Scotland – the industry body for library professionals – welcomed the financing, but said the issues for libraries were “long-term”.
He said: “As we've seen from the campaigns and people missing out on services, people have been crying out for all they offer and in areas where there's deprivation to not be able to access the vital services in the libraries has been really, really unfortunate for them.
"However, the issue may be longer term, both for Glasgow and for other local authorities who will need to consistently fund these libraries and keep them open in future budget rounds as pressures increase. The importance will be that a funding source can be found locally and nationally that allows the libraries to stay open long-term.”
He added: “But what we found in the last ten years is that through the sources that levies are funded by ultimately, year-on-year, things become harder for a lot of public services like libraries. That suggests that the overall model does need looked at – whether that be through UK, Scottish or local funding, but something needs to be done, because to lose these services would have a real detrimental effect on the communities they serve.”
Including the funding for Glasgow libraries - which have remained closed due to an estimated £40m drop in income during the pandemic at Glasgow Life, a not-for-profit spin off organisation which delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities for the local council – there are a total of 23 projects around Scotland which will be funded to “re-connect communities” with their libraries. However, none of the others – which include £34,178 of funding for East Dunbartonshire to run an electric mobile library and a number of STEM-related schemes run in community libraries around Scotland - relate to reopening library facilities.
In Edinburgh, seven libraries are not currently open, however the closures are not believed to be linked to funding and are instead due to four of the buildings being used as Covid test centres and another three undergoing refurbishment and building works.
In Glasgow, all five remaining shuttered libraries are believed to have the funds to re-open, although it is expected this will not take place until the end of January. It was previously estimated the cost of fully re-opening the libraries would be around £1.25m a year. Earlier this year, the council guaranteed Glasgow Life – which is part funded through council grants and partly through generated income from leisure centres and other services – a minimum of £100m a year indefinitely, due to the pandemic.
The remainder of the closed libraries are scattered across 12 other local authorities.
For Glasgow’s libraries to remain open long-term, the local authority will need to fund the deficit, which will not be decided until the council’s Budget is approved.
Glasgow City Council Labour leader Malcolm Cunning, who has campaigned with residents outside the Couper Institute almost every weekend for the past 30 weeks, warned there was no guarantee the council would approve ongoing funding of enough to keep all of the libraries open long-term.
He said: “They have won a victory, but we still have to guarantee the future of these libraries. Even with financial guarantees and assistance in place there was insufficient funds within Glasgow Life to reopen all libraries, community centres and sports facilities that are not yet open.
“We haven’t started the budget process yet properly. The first meeting was last week. So how are they going to raise the bottom line of £1.25 million additional funding to Glasgow Life in order to guarantee that for the next year? That has to be has to be answered.”
He added: “I wait to see if it is going to be written in to the financial assumptions we’re presented with in Budget setting? Obviously, we'd be supportive of trying to find that money. But at the same time there's a presumption going on that a minority administration do this on behalf of an entire council that actually have to make these decisions come the Budget setting time.”
Louisa Maddison, a campaigner to re-open the Couper Institute, said: “They've always said the Couper and some of the others haven't been able to reopen because Glasgow Life have a funding deficit due to Covid. As more venues come open and get used again, does that mean that that balances out and enables the libraries to stay open indefinitely? We don’t know.”
She added: “It’s a short-term fix for what might be a long-term problem. We're certainly looking forward to that opening date and having something to celebrate after all this time. We're excited, but we're not we're not holding back yet.”
The Save Whiteinch Library campaign said on Twitter: “Given previous obfuscation by the city’s leadership, we remain sceptical that they will return a full library service to our community or the other affected.
“We need to see swift positive action now, not more spin.”
Earlier this week, local authorities’ umbrella body, COSLA warned Scotland’s councils need an extra £1 billion in December’s Scottish budget if they were to “survive”. The organisation said it was important to enable people to “live well locally”.
Pamela Tulloch, chief executive of the Scottish Libraries Information Council (SLIC), said libraries were key to post-pandemic recovery.
She said: “Whether this is enough money is the 64 million dollar question. It's very much up to councils to fund their book and library services. So we're obviously going to be watching what happens as the budgets get set for next year.
"Libraries are very much the centre of communities. So it comes back to whether councils want to invest in that. I think libraries are part of the recovery process for communities, as they come out of lockdown, I think they're really important for community cohesion, for giving people a sense of place and belonging and also to help them reconnect with their locality. Everything comes at a price, if the library is not doing that, then what pressure is that going to put on other services that need to provide it?”
A COSLA spokesperson said: “We know that councils have had to make tough choices recently due to real terms cuts in funding. So core funding that was previously used for services like libraries, youth work, and leisure, has had to be redirected to meet pressures in other areas and Scottish government policy priorities, with reduced flexibility for local choice. In addition to the overall funding cuts Local Government have suffered over the years.
“This central direction towards their priorities limits our flexibility and local choice. This was a large part of our thinking around our Live Well Locally Budget Lobbying Campaign which we launched this week – with an aspiration towards the sort of communities we would like to see.”
Glasgow Council leader Susan Aitken said: “We have always been clear that we would reopen libraries when funding allowed. This funding allows us to reopen these libraries earlier than would otherwise have been the case.
“We still have to set the council’s budget for next year and we are still making Glasgow’s case to the Scottish Government, but it is our intention to find the resources to keep these libraries open in the new financial year.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Public Library Covid Relief Fund is part of the Scottish Government’s wider aspiration to drive a cultural recovery for our communities, and we look forward both to seeing how libraries use this support to benefit their local area and to working with the library sector on our future recovery plans.
“In order to access funding to directly support reopening of libraries, local authorities were required to provide reassurances that they would make every effort to continue to fund the reopening libraries in the long-term.”