The first meeting of the Friends of Cheltenham Library [FOCL] was held at 6.30pm on 29/09/2010 at the Chester Studio, Central Library, Cheltenham. Nine people, including Councillor Chris Pallet, attended. Anne Riley, Librarian at Cheltenham Library, was also present. She had been invited as a representative of the County Council and the library.
Johanna Anderson, organiser of the meeting, opened the discussion by explaining that she had decided to set up FOCL to give users a voice about their library services: this is a particularly important time to do this because library services are under threat. There has already been a forty per cent cut in this year’s book budget for the county and further cuts in services are expected once the outcome of the Government’s Spending Review is known. Libraries are likely to be seen as a soft target and the importance they play in the community to be minimised.
Johanna also told the group that recent County press releases had suggested that library usage is in decline. However, figures she had obtained from the Head of Gloucestershire’s library service about usage over the last five years only showed relatively minor fluctuations: these did not seem significant enough to justify sweeping cuts. There had been 2,901,444 visits to county libraries in 2009/10 [as opposed to 2,980,042 in 2005/06]. However these figures do not take account of online usage; there were 112,428 online visits from February 2010 to 31 August 2010. [Online figures before February 2010 are not available].
A full discussion about the issues Johanna had raised then took place; the group were in broad agreement that libraries:
- Provide an essential public service and are an invaluable community resource
- Need to be run by paid staff who have the necessary professional skills
- Play a vital educational role and are instrumental in raising literacy standards
- Provide a wide range of services to low income and vulnerable groups in society [e.g through free internet usage, delivery services for housebound people, resources for visually impaired people, books on prescription] and have an important “preventative” role in the community, particularly as their services are so broad based
- Are even more crucial during a time of recession
- The group were also in agreement that it would be detrimental to restructure library services [e.g by putting libraries in supermarkets as has been suggested recently in the national press]
Concern was expressed that focusing support on Cheltenham Library might prove detrimental to other libraries. Johanna explained that one of the purposes of FOCL would be to raise the profile of libraries in general and not to create a competitive environment. In fact, it was hoped that library users would be motivated to set up groups in support of other local libraries. It was agreed that the name of the group was open to change if it was decided appropriate by it’s members at a later stage.
Potential sources of funding for the group was discussed. The meeting room cost £14 to hire and any publicity and recruitment activity is going to cost us. Unison are running a “Love Your Libraries” campaign nationally and the idea of approaching them for funding was discussed.
The group then asked Anne Riley for clarification about Council funding. She explained that the Council’s overall budget currently stands at around £410 – 420 million. Fifty per cent of this comes from Council tax and fifty per cent from government grants allocated from seven different departments. There is expected to be a thirty per cent cut in government funding over four years although it as yet unclear as to exactly where the budget cuts will fall. The Council is expecting a sixty million pound rise in unavoidable costs [e.g waste management] and, as Council Tax is frozen for two years, this will add to the overall shortfall in budgets.
Group members were keen to follow through initiatives to promote library services and voice their concerns about the effect of cuts. It was agreed that:
- Publicity about FOCL and its aims needs to be made more widely [eg through local radio]
- A committee should be set up. [Johanna will make available the booklet she obtained from www.librarycampaign.com about how to do this]
- FOCL needs to decide on its general principles [a manifesto] and on how it will engage with council leaders in discussions about the cuts
- Funding needs to be raised
- A meeting with MPs and councillors needs to arranged
- Another meeting to be held early in November – date to be determined – in order to decide on a manifesto
- Letters for local MPs to be drafted
- Anne Riley to find out whether online statistics before February 2010 can be obtained
Report written by Jane (group member)