Libraries news tends to be bad news. Closures mainly, accompanied by the snarling of those who think that in the Internet age all books should be burned, as useless relics of a barbarous past. Little thought is given to the social role of libraries as places to meet and share, especially for the elderly and vulnerable, or their educational role in actively promoting literacy.
Some good news comes from the LibrariesWest consortium, which links Somerset and the four unitary authorities in what used to be Avon. The public library services of Dorset and Poole will be joining the consortium in June. As a result, users will be able to access over 150 libraries ‘coast to coast’, from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel, using a single library card. Items can be reserved, borrowed, renewed and returned at any LibrariesWest library regardless of where borrowed from. LibrariesWest is also introducing a shared computer system to manage loans and stock, offering online searches of a unified catalogue of 2.5 million items.
The London regime’s expectation is that councils will increasingly work together to reduce costs, including through pooling their buying power. Financial pressures and technical changes mean that it’s happening across a wide range of services, from police and fire to archives and museums to smaller councils pooling back-office functions like audit, payroll, procurement and IT.
Costs could be reduced and effectiveness improved much more rapidly, and with much less pain, if Wessex had an elected assembly to co-ordinate all these ad hoc efforts. For example, the Welsh Government’s National Procurement Service has led the commissioning of a single library management system for all 22 public library authorities in Wales. This is but one of its many initiatives, designed to empower local economies as well as cut costs across the whole public sector. An assembly in Wessex would have its own ‘invest-to-save’ budget to spend on driving forward regional priorities, which could be very different from those that London thinks best for us. Wessex needs to be free of interference from Whitehall departments that, by imposing ideological solutions through institutional silos, only gets in the way of sensible answers to challenging questions.