People in Northumberland will have say on the future of library services

Northumberland residents will be encouraged to share their priorities for libraries during a public consultation that is set to begin shortly.

Friday, 22nd November 2019, 4:45 pm
Updated Monday, 25th November 2019, 2:44 pm
Alnwick Library is moving to the new community hub at the Alnwick Playhouse. Picture by Ben O’Connell

In September, the local authority’s cabinet agreed that a 12-week consultation should take place to gather people’s opinions on the future of the service.

Addressing a meeting of the Cramlington, Bedlington and Seaton Valley Local Area Council on Wednesday, November 20, Alison Peaden, the county council’s library service manager, said: “We need to redesign the service.

“From time to time, we are struggling to keep sites open or put the right staff in and we are not able to deliver the range and number of events we would like to.”

She explained that an independent company is being used to carry out the consultation, as ‘it has to be a very robust exercise, because DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) will scrutinise the process and the proposals we make’.

This outside company will ensure that there’s a representative sample of people in Northumberland, while children and young people will be involved ‘in a variety of ways, because they are the customers of the future’.

The consultation, for which the details will be announced soon, will run for 12 weeks with the final recommendations to go before the cabinet in the spring.

The report to the September cabinet meeting set out a proposal to establish a stronger ‘digital core’ with designated hub libraries in each main area.

These hub libraries would coordinate provision and support a network of satellite facilities ‘which may be Northumberland County Council-operated, community-supported, community-led or independent’.

The document explains that community-supported libraries are council-led and funded, but with significant support by volunteers, while community-led facilities are delivered by the community, usually without paid staff but with some form of council support – as exist already in Haydon Bridge and Heddon.

Between 2015 and 2017, visitors to the county’s libraries decreased by 11.5%, the number of books issued was down by 31.4% and membership declined by 12%.

Plus, in 2015-16, more than one-third of the staff were made redundant, including most of the professionally qualified librarians, but the service’s staff have since transferred back to the council from Active Northumberland.

The cabinet has already agreed to spend up to £100,000 from reserves ‘to support the accelerated transformation of the service over the next 12 months’, by buying additional books and enhancing the range of digital resources.

However, the report also noted that the service is required to make savings of £100,000 in 2020-21 and the same again the following year, as agreed in the medium-term financial plan back in February.

This ‘will be achieved through a consolidated, more sustainable, network of buildings, increased collaborative provision and a wider digital offer’.