Ayub Khan, the Head of Library and Information Services (Strategy) for Warwickshire County Council in the UK, came to Moscow in 2013 to talk about the British library system and how it continues to provide the service despite budget cuts. Post Great Recession, public spending has been slashed in many countries, including the UK. As a result, at the end of 2012 there were 4265 public library services in the UK, 347 fewer than in 2008.
The UK doesn’t have a national library system: each local government is responsible for its own library services. However, there’s a statuary duty of what library authorities are required by law to provide. Libraries must be accessible, and books must be lent for free, even if the budget is cut.
Warwickshire County Council, where Ayub Khan works, implemented several measures to keep the library service running properly: the main ones were volunteer engagement, digitalization, and collaboration with other county services.
Sixty percent of people in Britain still have a library card, and although the number of people borrowing physical books has fallen, where the services are modernized the number of library visits increases. Technology is affecting the library system in a variety of ways. British libraries are now lending e-books, audiobooks, e-newspapers and e-magazines. You can join, research the catalogue from your own city, reserve books, listen to music, research your family history and even practice for your driving test, all online. All the libraries in Warwickshire are self-service, which means the staff can focus on engaging with patrons, organizing activities, and working with children.
To make borrowing books more accessible, the Warwickshire library system moved some services outside of the library buildings. For example, they’ve installed a drop box for library returns in a local supermarket. One of the perks of the program is that the supermarket opening hours are nearly double of those of the local library. Another such scheme is a book-lending machine in a very busy Warwickshire hospital. The book machine is free for anyone with a library card, and you can return books to any library in the county.
To offset the cost of providing the library service, Warwickshire libraries are now collaborating with other council services. Libraries share premises with the police, children centers, music and art galleries, job centers, which is cost-effective for council and more convenient for the patrons. Some of the staff have been trained to deal with disabled driving passes, concessionary travel for older people, and benefit inquiries, among other services.
Many library services are run with funding from other council departments. For example, the “Books on Prescription” program is funded by the adult social services department. This is an approved collection of self-help books for people with mild mental health problems. Local GPs prescribe self-help books to their patients, who then come to a library and borrow the books.
Ayub Khan credited volunteer engagement as one of the things that had helped maintain the library service at the time of budget cuts. Volunteers are involved in a variety of ways. For example, volunteers work at the housebound reader service, delivering books to patrons who are unable to visit the library. Volunteers send books to blind and partially sighted patrons and teach seniors how to use computers. It is important that the volunteers work in a professional manner with a certain degree of accountability: along with the library staff, a volunteer coordinator monitors their work and runs a recruitment campaign.
Due to budget cuts, thirteen libraries in Warwickshire County are now community-managed and run by local volunteers. The library service provides training and a manual for volunteers, they have access to the library management system, and professional staff supports them. Although it is preferable that the libraries are run by professional staff, it’s better to have this option rather than to close a library altogether. After the budget cuts were announced, three libraries in the Warwickshire county had to be closed and replaced with a half-day mobile library service.
By some estimates, one in six people in the UK has poor literacy. It means that even in a time of austerity, literacy programs continue to be very important. Ayub Khan talked about several programs run by libraries, non-profits, and the national government. Public libraries in the UK regularly collaborate with local schools on book weeks which include author visits, children’s library visits, and group readings.
Another program, the Summer Reading Challenge, is run by the charity The Reading Agency, which works to promote reading and champions the cause of public libraries. The program takes a different theme every year: for example, in 2013 it was Creepy House, and in 2017 Animal Agents. Children ages four through twelve can take part in the challenge by reading any type of book: joke books, picture books, audiobooks, etc. For every book they read they get stickers, cards, toys, and for completing six books they receive certificates and medals.
One of the main literacy programs funded by the national government is “Bookstart.” Through this program, every baby born in the UK is given a book and a library card. Perhaps this can be one of the ways to raise a nation of readers.
Cover image: warwickshire.gov.uk
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