John Holland writes
If you look at the GCC Cabinet report on the new library strategy (page 20), or in more detail at pages 65-69 of GCC’s Context and User Needs Assessment, you can read what GCC wants you to know about its mobile library service i.e. principally that it is an expensive service to run.
However, the facts are a little different.
There are currently 3 community mobile libraries in Gloucestershire which mainly support rural communities over 2 miles from a library building. They currently make nearly 250 stops throughout the county.
Every other rural shire county in the country has a mobile library service but none can be as inefficiently managed as Gloucestershire’s. To sum up the situation, the intention should be to try to maximise use of the mobile libraries and minimise costs. In Gloucestershire’s case, use has been deliberately minimised and costs maximised.
Let’s look at each mobile library in turn.
The Central Mobile based at Stroud Library is on the road for 17 days out of every 20 (based on a 5 days week), meaning it is operating at 85% of capacity.
The East Mobile based at Moreton-in-Marsh Library is on the road 13.5 days out of every 20, meaning it is operating at 67.5% of capacity
And the West mobile based at Lydney Library is on the road for 8 days out of 20 meaning it is operating at 40% of capacity.
Every librarian knows that the way to maximise mobile library use is to operate them as regularly as possible i.e. on a weekly schedule of visits so that customers grow used to a same time-same place approach. Traditionally the service has been operated fortnightly which is probably acceptable. However, every librarian knows too that monthly stops do not work as the gap between visits is too long and customers forget which week the vehicles are arriving. Thus levels of use drop. In the case of the East Mobile 4 routes are now only maintained on a monthly basis and in the case of the West Mobile every single route i.e. all 8 is now operated monthly. This cannot be efficient, and is not acceptable service.
Overall the 3 mobiles together are operating at only 64% of their capacity based on a 5 days week. If one considers having mobiles operating at weekends when people in rural areas are more likely to be at home, then based on a 7 day week, the current mobiles are operating at 46% of their capacity. No wonder that use is low and costs are high.
But that’s not all.
Costs of some of the mobiles libraries are currently high partly because of the inefficient staffing policies. It is generally acknowledged that one driver trained as a library assistant, or, alternatively, a library assistant trained as a driver is perfectly able to operate the mobile library service alone. So what do we find on the Central (Stroud) Mobile Library? For the last 18 months GCC has employed an agency driver accompanied by a library assistant on every route for every stop. Reason – it has no trained driver/assistant, so instead pays exorbitant charges to an agency to provide a driver who is not allowed by the agency to help customers or undertake any library assistant duties. Thus the vehicle is double staffed by a library assistant. When the vehicle is being driven the assistant sits and watches the countryside go by, and when the vehicle is open to customers the driver sits and reads his paper. And the county council has the nerve to tell us the service is too expensive to operate!!
So, how is this new mobile library service with monthly stops doing? Levels of use (measured by loans) dropped by 25% in one year! i.e. from 81,943 loans in 2009-10 to 61,190 in 2010-11. That’s a huge unprecedented drop.
Partly, this will also be because the stock (book) fund was cut be 60% in 2009-10, so new books are really hard to come by in the 250 isolated communities currently served. Partly too, because when the vehicles cannot go out because of mechanical problems or staff shortages (there have been a lot of staff shortages over the last 3 years) the routes are just cancelled.
It is the responsibility of the county council under the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act to “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof…” That includes people in rurally isolated communities and in significant communities like Chalford and Northleach of 4,000-6,000 people with no library building
The county council’s information about mobile libraries is disingenuous at best. But watch out for more of the same. With next to no stock (book) fund, inadequate opening hours and volunteers instead of trained staff, this spells a reduced service and reducing levels of use. Now, for GCC, that’s more opportunities to cut services.
Note that in the GCC new Library strategy there has been no proposal yet this time to axe all the “community” mobiles (unlike Home Link and Share a Book which will be axed). It’s up to you to let GCC know what you think. “Consultation” officially starts on 30 January and lasts 6 weeks.