More to libraries than just buildings

The following letter was published in today’s edition of The Barnet Press:

 

I agree with much of the sentiment of your editorial of October 27, “we cannot allow our libraries to go easily” but disagree with a central tenet of your piece – that the only way of measuring the success of a library service is by the number of buildings.

We have been clear that the heart of our library service has to be promoting reading and literacy, even if the means by which we promote these has changed.

With this in mind our library service review has invested in more adult literacy support, has committed the council to providing every primary school pupil in the borough with library membership and has increased the book-buying budget.

With less money available for public service, if we simply provide less of the same we will be dooming services like libraries to a general spiral of decline.

All of the public sector faces the unavoidable challenge of working with less money, library services will have to deal with a reduced budget. But the approach we have taken in this borough leaves the service well prepared to meet its priorities over the coming decade. While reducing the library service budget by more than 20 per cent, in line with other council budgets, we have avoided the wholesale building closures seen in other boroughs.

In Barnet we see the need to provide a range of buildings to meet local needs. Some of these will be major landmark libraries, others will be smaller link libraries specialising in outreach and adult literacy.

And as our newly published budget proposal shows, we are also hoping that positive community proposals also come forward.

The council’s new library strategy shows that by being clear about what we are trying to achieve, we can produce a service that is better for the great majority of its users, meets the changing needs of residents and is fit to prosper in the coming decades.

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Barnet budget infographic

The council has released an infographic to illustrate how money will be spent over the coming year. The image will help people to visualise how the budget is allocated to the different areas of the council.

Of course, the council has also released more detailed spending data, but the infographic has been created to make this complex set of figures easier to digest.

Barnet has made a commitment to be more transparent and providing information in a more visual form is just one way that we can follow through on this promise.

I’m keen to find out what you think of the infographic and to find out what other ways you would like to see information presented.

View the Barnet budget infographic

Barnet’s library review is published

After 1,600 responses to our consultation and over 50 public events I am proud that we have published the findings of our library service review. You can read the report on the Barnet Council website. It is available a little earlier in the evening than I wanted – and there are a few minor changes to the final version, like a graph out of place, but these will be updated in the morning.

Like much of the council, the library service is facing significant budget cuts – a £1.4m reduction to a budget of £6m. To take account of this, we need to reduce back-office costs, make efficiency savings, and find new ways of working to deliver a modernised library service for Barnet.

Our consultation has guided us in our strategy going forward. Respondents made clear we should increase reading, literacy and learning opportunities for children, and should promote reading and learning opportunities for adults. Respondents told us to engage with communities and offer improved community spaces, access and resources and to provide easy access to a wider world of knowledge and information. 

Our approach has been praised by the Museums Libraries and Archives council who said that our strategic review is ‘impressive’ and will help to set future library strategy.

Across London, councils are shutting libraries left, right and centre. Brent and Lewisham will close almost half of their libraries (6 of 13 in Brent and 5 of 11 in Lewisham) and Hounslow plan to shut almost three quarters of theirs (8 of 11). Those who campaigned against our library consultation were campaigning, I believe, in wrongful anticipation that there was going to be likewise en masse closure of Barnet’s libraries.

In contrast to other councils’ wholesale cuts to library services, Barnet is planning more positive changes.  We will:

  • spend an extra £10k to buy more books;
  • increase library opening hours by opening at 9.30am;
  • provide better access for children by making all primary school pupils library members;
  • ensure that the mobile and housebound library services are targeted effectively at those with the greatest needs.
  • use technology to reduce costs and improve service by offering more WIFI services;
  • improve online services (including e-books);
  • increase self-service and self-issue;
  • provide better library-based access to council services;
  • provide IT training and support to volunteers to run sessions at libraries;
  • explore a paid-for book delivery scheme;
  • and, most importantly in respect of efficiency savings, we plan to share back office systems with a neighbouring borough.

Under our proposals, Barnet will have three ‘Landmark Libraries’ in Hendon, Chipping Barnet, and at a new site in Finchley, nine ‘Leading Libraries’, and two ‘Link Libraries’ in Grahame Park and Child’s Hill, which will be integrated within other public services. These link libraries will have the same level of investment and same level of books but will bring other services into them. I have been describing them to others as a mini-Burnt Oak Library.

The North Finchley and Friern Barnet Libraries will merge and move to one site. We have had very good initial talks with the Artsdepot about this new Landmark library sharing their site, and I look forward to these talks going forward. We are looking to redevelop Finchley Church End Library, which has a huge maintenance back log.  This redevelopment will potentially be on the same site, though we will have to sale off some of the land. The Institute in Hampstead Garden Suburbs has shown interest in re-providing stock from the Hampstead Garden Suburb Library at its East Finchley site as we propose to remove this site. We will provide them with a self-service terminal to run the library – a fine example of a big society library in action!

In Barnet, we are modernising our libraries and keeping them relevant and popular. We’ve listened to the ideas put forward in the consultation with library users, and this is the result. These plans will now go forward to a second consultation if approved by Cabinet on the 29th March.