Saturday, 5 February 2011

Libraries matter but need reform

Today has been a day of protest. First the deluded fools of the EDL unfortunately chimed with David Cameron's anti multicultural speech (more about that later). More important to me was the nationwide protests of people whose libraries are at risk of the cuts.

Hopefully there wasn't much protest in Northumberland. The council remains committed to our libraries. Personally the library growing up was very important to me. I devoured books as a child and remember the excitement when I was allowed an adult ticket. It filled me with a love of reading.  When I go to other peoples houses thought I often notice the lack of books in peoples houses. Councils need to preserve the facility for people to read and learn independently.

In Northumberland, we are cutting out Audio visual lending, as demand for CDs and DVDs has collapsed. This saves around £40,000. We are cutting one mobile Library facility, which covers areas with very low demand and where we think the remaining mobile vans can cover the work. All told the library service has escaped rather unscathed compared to the big cuts and efficiency savings we are making across the council.

The council has already been working on making our small libraries more cost effective. In places like Haddon, Corbridge, Heddon and Kielder we have been putting our libraries in the same building as other community facilities. Some of our libraries are now community run. In Haltwhistle we have a brand new library. Mopeth library was renewed after the floods in that town.

Most exciting, in my biased view, is the new multi million pound library and info point being built in Prudhoe now. This embraces all the positive changes in Libraries in the county. The building will be community owned by the Prudhoe Community Partnership, and the library will be part of a much more varied range of council and other public services. Our library staff continue to deliver brilliant inclusion programmes on very tight budgets. For the past 3 years, I have handed out medals at Prudhoes summer reading challenge, which is aimed at younger children. Last September, the award ceremony had to be held over 4 evenings as record numbers of kids took up the challenge.

We need to continue to invest in libraries to keep them relevant. The public demand higher and higher    customer service. and in an age of instant downloads and cheap books from Amazon and others, they demand an almost infinite range of books available at a time of their choosing. I am keen that the county looks over the next few years at the growing ebook revolution. Other councils are trialling ebook lending, where you can download a book for free for a month long period. This can of course be done at any time and from anywhere. As the technology becomes ever cheaper, there may be merit in giving ebooks to people in areas of the county where Libraries are hard to access and where young people might live in a household with a lack of books.

Unless libraries improve they wither away until they are prime candidates for cuts. It is important that we do not let that happen in Northumberland.

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