Monday, 16 January 2017

Tameside libraries to go unstaffed! Are library users at risk?

A report that recommends the introduction of ‘self-service’ libraries in Tameside, (Open+), was considered by the Executive Cabinet of Tameside Council on Wednesday 14 December 2016.

The report incorporates the findings of a library survey that took place over a six- week period during July and August and which received 807 responses on-line, but only 794 valid responses, after invalid responses were removed. The report says that the views of elected members were sought along with MPs and council staff, as well as young people and members of the Bengali community, in Hyde.

As part of ‘Vision Tameside’, the report authored by ‘Emma Varnam’, Interim Assistant Executive Director for Stronger Communities, says that £496,200 is to be invested in a range of technologies that will allow customers to use libraries when unstaffed.

As part of their ‘Vision’, the report says that it is intend to increase the number of volunteers to “support paid staff delivering the service.” Although the report says that it is not the intention to run any library using just volunteers, annual savings of £185,000, are to come from reduced expenditure on library staff, brought about by using volunteers and self-service libraries, which will include ‘self-issue’, ‘self-booking’ on PC’s and unstaffed hours. In June, a “Library Service Brief”, informed staff:

“The implementation of new technology will necessitate reconsideration of staffing levels i.e. a service review. This will again present opportunities for staff to apply for voluntary severance.”

In November, Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Labour controlled Manchester City Council, told a meeting of voluntary organisations that it was the role of voluntary organisations to “fill in the holes” left by public service cuts.

The report says that the introduction of self-service technology will increase library opening hours and allow Tameside Libraries to be retained in an affordable way. The law, the “Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964”, requires Tameside Council to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all individuals who live, work, or study, in the Borough and who are desirous of using the service. Usually following a complaint, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has powers to intervene when a library authority fails (or is suspected of failing) to provide the required service.

Despite having “usable reserves” of nearly £205m as of 31 March 2015, Tameside Council closed five libraries in September 2012 and opening hours, were cut at the other eight remaining libraries. There are currently eight libraries in Tameside out of 22 libraries, a reduction of almost 64%. Most of these were axed well before the austerity Tory government of David Cameron, or the banking crises in 2008. Not only have Tameside library opening hours been reduced, but publications such as magazines and books have also been massively cut over the years.

The report stresses that there has been a downward trend both nationally and locally in both visits to libraries and issues. It is felt that the internet, smart phones, tablets, gaming and e-books, have all played a part in this downward trend. However, while there may be some truth in this, the report fails to recognise that fewer libraries, opening for fewer hours, with much reduced stock, might also explain the reduction in library visits and issues. Curiously, whereas library book loans, according to Nielsen Libscan, are reckoned to have slumped by almost 16m in the last two years, book sales for adults and children’s books have continued to climb. Library campaigners, such as Tim Coates, blame the reduction in cuts to book stocks and opening hours, which he believes undermine libraries.

The Tameside library survey indicates that most people use the library service to borrow books, to access PC’s, read magazines and newspapers, and to ask for advice and information. The report also indicates that library users greatly value the work that library staff do and don’t want to see staff axed. Many people indicated that the number of Tameside councillors should be cut along with their expenses in order to fund services and staff.

The responses given in the Tameside library survey of 747 people, are extremely interesting and perhaps not what Tameside Council were expecting. When asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the proposition that self-issue technology in libraries and longer opening hours with reduced library staff, was preferable to closing more libraries, 63.15% agreed and 36.85 disagreed. Some 65.88% of people said that they used self-service technology regularly, occasionally, or had done so one or twice. A quarter of responders (25.72%), indicated that they would not use self-issue technology under any circumstances. The survey of young people (106 people responded), indicates that 50.94% agree with the ‘vision’ but 49.06% disagreed. Interestingly, most young people surveyed, said they would not use self-service technology. When asked about voluntary work with Tameside library service, most people surveyed (86.13%), said they would not be interested in volunteering. No doubt, many people object to doing a job (unpaid), that someone was previously paid to do. There also seems to be some evidence that females are reluctant to use an unstaffed library because they feel unsafe in the presence of men, whereas, men are more likely to use an unstaffed library. One female respondent, indicated that she had observed a library user watching pornography on his library computer.

Although it is proposed to install CCTV in libraries and that only people given ‘VIP user status’ - a trusted member of the library service - will be given access to unstaffed libraries, it is felt that this is not sufficient to mitigate any risk. In “Open+” mode, children under 16-years-old, must be accompanied by an adult. At some unstaffed libraries in Stockport, library users are already being warned that they use the library at their own risk. This of course, does not indemnify any council, who have a duty of care, to members of the public using their premises.  Those who are given access to unstaffed libraries also have ensure there is no “tailgating”. The report also recognises that older people may have difficulty using self-issue technology such as swipe cards. People with disabilities may also have difficulty with access.

The report makes clear that there are currently 45.2 full-time equivalent staff required to operate the library service, whereas, only 38.6 would be required under the new operating model. In addition, a further 6.6 jobs are to be axed, around 15 jobs in total. However, in the Tameside Library service, there are more chiefs than Indians (59 library officers to 45.2 library staff). The report isn’t clear where the axe will fall on library bosses, if at all. 

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