“We believe the huge social cost to the community would far outweigh the small financial gain to be made.” : Save Arbury Library Campaign

Today’s guest blog comes from Kirsty Marais, of Friends of Arbury Library

Save Arbury Library campaign

Background

Our campaign formed in summer 2010 to protect Cambridge’s Arbury Court Library, when Cambridgeshire County Council announced it was reviewing library services in a bid to slash £2.2m from its budget. Early proposals included:

  • reducing library staff, with more self-service machines and a ‘bigger role’ for  volunteers
  • cutting the frequency of Cambridgeshire’s mobile library
  • the possible closure of some of the county’s 25 community libraries (including Arbury Court)

Despite council officials claiming they had ‘no intention’ of closing libraries, they refused to rule it out, suggesting that if volunteers didn’t come forward to help run services, closures would be inevitable. Meanwhile, the council also cut the budget for Library Access Points – volunteer-run hubs originally set up to replace 10 libraries that closed in 2003.

These initial proposals were drawn up before the council was told to expect a 14% reduction in its government grant. Based on this, we fear the final proposals could be much worse than first thought.

Arbury Court Library serves a large district in the north of Cambridge with a catchment area of more than 65,000 people[1] – including some of the most highly populated wards and most deprived areas in the city, according to the county council’s own research[2]. The branch has knowledgeable, friendly staff and is successful and popular, with a particularly vibrant, busy children’s section. It had 40,391 visitors in 2009/10[3] (there are just 117,700 people estimated to be living in Cambridge as whole2). However, while our campaign is directed at saving the Arbury Court branch, we also wish to see the current service maintained across the county.

Our campaign so far

Campaigners gather at Arbury Court Library

Campaigners gather at Arbury Court Library

Shortly after the review was announced, a packed public meeting saw residents express their anger at the proposals. Since then, 1,340 people have signed a petition urging the council to preserve the existing service at Arbury Court, arguing: “We believe the huge social cost to the community would far outweigh the small financial gain to be made.” Stories in the local media have helped keep our campaign in the public eye. Other groups have also been fighting for their own local branches, and we wholeheartedly support their campaigns.

Our group has also set up an official Friends group, the Friends of Arbury Library, with the aim of supporting the branch in the long-term. This official status allowed us to invite council representatives to talk to us (and hear from us) in more depth about the review.

The council’s “consultation”

The county council held a series of public meetings and roadshows across the county. In Cambridge city, however, the council refused to hold meetings in the communities where branches are under threat – instead holding two meetings in the evening at the city’s Central Library. Residents pointed out that many elderly people and parents with young children rely on local branches, finding it much harder to reach city centre services. Fears were also raised that even if enough volunteers were found to help run branches, long-term reliance on volunteers would leave libraries vulnerable – what if existing volunteers could no longer commit their time, and couldn’t be replaced?

A questionnaire was circulated, but its wording – which offered a series of ‘scenarios’ for the future of the service – didn’t allow respondents to say they wanted to keep their service as it is. A second questionnaire on wider budget plans asked residents to say what they viewed as ‘acceptable’ cuts in each area. For libraries, it set out four options: to maintain all 25 community libraries, or to close six, 12 or 19 of them. We fear that these surveys were designed simply as tools to help the council ‘justify’ the areas they plan to cut.

The future

In September, the county council’s Cabinet members asked their officers to produce a business case for various options, including:

  • ‘externalisation’
  • an ‘alternative service delivery’ approach
  • assessment of libraries for possible closure or a Library Access Point (volunteer-run) model

Officers were also asked to review the role of Cambridge’s Central Library ‘with a view to integration of library services within Cambridge City’.

The Cabinet is due to discuss the issue again on January 25, but as we write, the relevant paper for the meeting is not yet available. We will be gearing up with our response as soon as we know what the latest recommendations are – and we invite anyone who wants to help to get in touch. You can keep up to date with our news on our website, http://friendsofarburylibrary.blogspot.com, follow us on Twitter (@ACLib_Friends) or email us at thefriendsofarburylibrary@gmail.com.


[1] Strategic Review of the Public Library Service for Cambridgeshire County Council, Kentwood Associates, November 2009 http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/33E11AF7-59F3-4348-8050-F97967977465/0/CambridgeshireLibraryReview.pdf (link no longer available)

[2] Cambridge City: Annual demographic and socio-economic information report Cambridgeshire County Council, March 2010 http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/73A9BCB7-AC61-401A-882A-3DC8AE4BBD66/0/CambridgeCityDistrictReport2010.pdf (link no longer available)

[3] Answer to FOI request from Cllr Andy Pellew, July 13, 2010 http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/usage_information_for_arbury_cou#incoming-105604

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

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