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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Brent Libraries Compared to Elsewhere in London

Brent has had an outstandingly successful library service over the last several years, with visits and loans up in the context of a sector in decline across almost all the UK.  While users appear to be happy, there is still a political impression that the service is not a success.  This was generated during the period when all the difficult decisions were being pushed through and has been prolonged by a failure by Brent Council to promote its success story subsequently.  I have pointed out before that it doesn't seem to have translated into failure at the ballot box, but among a small number of activists that appears to be what they tell themselves.

I just I would go through some of the experiences in other areas to look at what alternative strategies might have been pursued.

The most common are handing over to volunteer run libraries.  Often, volunteers just aren't available so it just means straight forward closure.  Where the volunteer libraries stagger on, them seem less active as libraries, but are still there as community spaces of some kind.  The main danger I see with this kind of thing is that they may continue to drain the libraries budget either directly or indirectly by demanding "advice" and "support" that the statutory services has no resources to cater to.  The result can be disappointment on both sides.

A second possibility is a cut in opening hours, which was pursued in Islington at the same time as the Libraries Transformation Project in Brent.  This led to libraries being open a limited number of days a week in Islington.  From 2010/11 to 2014/15, Islington saw a fall in visits of 33.5%.

Other authorities had a mix of reduced numbers of libraries, cuts in staffed opening hours and general reductions in spending.  For example, Camden handed some outlets to volunteers, cut book stock and now maintains reduced staffed hours.  Between 2010/2011 and 2014/15 visits fell by 32.2%.

Lambeth, which initially boasted of its no closure policy has now combined a high use of volunteers in Council facilities with an engagement with Greenwich Leisure Ltd to open "gym/libraries" (still a work in progress as far as I can see).  In the 2010/11 to 2014/15 period it saw a slight rise in visits, by 0.8%.

The contrast with the massive rise in Brent visits is stark in every case. 

Various different authorities, struggling to limit the damage from central government cuts, and coming from very different starting points and with different strategies can at best tread water.  Brent is the only one to have seen a significant rise.

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