As Moray Council announces that seven of its 15 libraries are to close, Caroline Lindsay asks: is the future of libraries in Courier Country safe?
In a bid to save £30 million in the next three years Moray Council has announced the closure of almost half its libraries and a mobile library at the end of the month. The hugely unpopular closures will save the council around £375,000 a year. However, campaigners say the closures would have a devastating effect on communities and that the “only road remaining” is to fight them in court.
Save our Libraries Moray’s chairman Alistair Jeffs said: “It is a sad day when we are forced to make a legal challenge against the council administration that should be representing and protecting us.
“The libraries are a lifeline to users across the community from pre-school groups, adult learning groups and the elderly. They help with education, give access to reading material and allow development of free thought. Claiming the direct savings from the closures would amount to as little as £70,000, he said the legal challenge would be a “test case for the whole of Scotland”.
He added: “We strongly believe that the administration has systematically and blatantly ignored its own legal experts, equality officers, library staff, its public consultation and its Equality Impact Assessment. We strongly believe the administration has broken the law.
“We are now united in the belief that there remains only one road available to us and that is to take our case to the Court of Session. This decision is based on a sure belief that our case is a compelling one; it is supported by legal advice from the Advocates Library in Edinburgh that advice outlines several grounds under which the Moray Council decision can and should be challenged.
“These grounds include a breach of the public sector equality duty Moray Council has under section 149 of the Equalities Act 2010, a failure by Moray Council to take into account material considerations and a failure by them to consult in breach of legitimate expectations. If it takes £100,000 and 100,000 signatures, we will not allow our libraries to be closed.
“Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, the administration will be subject to the law and the democratic will of the people of Moray.”
Alistair Campbell, libraries and museums manager, said that the closures would have an adverse effect on the elderly, children and people with disabilities: “The overall impact is that access to libraries will be noticeably restricted both by distance and cost. This has a knock-on effect on access to book lending for elderly and families with young children and people with a disability.”
According to www.publiclibrariesnews.com, 368 libraries (317 buildings and 51 mobiles) are currently under threat or have been closed/left council control since April this year, out of more than 4000 in the UK. So could this be a sign of things to come for libraries across Courier Country?
Amina Shah, information services section leader at Dundee’s Central Library, just one of 14 across the area, believes the future of libraries is secure even in the face of the digital revolution: “In the last year we have had almost 600,000 borrowed books compared to under 7,000 ebook downloads, so ebooks are still a small percentage of borrowing. While digital books offer another option, coming to the library is a social experience for many, who enjoy browsing and the serendipity of finding the right book.”
Perth and Kinross Council has 14 libraries and three mobile libraries. A recent report sets out proposals to improve libraries and cultural venues to address the changing needs of customers and the lifelong learning convener, councillor Bob Band, said: “We have very carefully assessed our library and cultural venue provision and as a result the recommendations before the committee are aimed at ensuring we can keep delivering an effective, high-quality service to customers while making best use of staff and other resources and achieving required savings to council budgets.
“While there are some changes being proposed to the services we provide, the wider picture is positive in particular as it opens up access to mobile library provision in rural areas. Consolidating library opening hours will also make it easier for customers to know when they can access their local library.”
However, Perth and Kinross Council has just announced that in a bid to save £281,000, libraries will close and up to 13 jobs could be lost.
Over in Angus, the council has seven libraries and two mobile libraries but declined to give The Courier a quote on the services in the area.
Fife, one of the largest council areas in Scotland, has 51 libraries, three mobile libraries and a housebound service. The library service is now run by Fife Cultural Trust, whose mission is “to protect the future of cultural provision and build on the strong cultural heritage that already exists in the Kingdom.”
Again, no-one from the council was available for comment at the time of going to press.
Moira Methven of the Scottish Library and Information Council, said: “Libraries make a huge contribution to our communities, providing a hub where people can access a range of resources and services for information, reading and learning. “Library borrowing is a regular habit for one-fifth of the population. Each year there are 28.5 million visits to libraries in Scotland and visitors use 8.5 million hours of free internet access underlining how valuable they are.
“We will continue to work with our partners to ensure that Scotland has a quality public library service that it can continue to be proud of and which serves the community, in particular those in most need.”