Voices for the Library are delighted to hear that Surrey campaigners successfully challenged the decision of Surrey County Council to remove all paid staff from 10 community libraries at the High Court. Mr Justice Wilkie judged that the council had fallen “substantially short” in giving due regard to the “obvious equality issue” that was apparent in handing over libraries to untrained volunteers. As a result, the council’s decision of 27th September 2011 was ruled unlawful.
This judgement, following that of the Gloucestershire case in November last year, demonstrates the inequality created by so-called community libraries. They are simply unable to meet the needs of local communities to the same extent as a service managed and delivered by paid, suitably trained staff supported by professionals. Replacing professional services and replacing them with a service delivered by unwitting volunteers does a great disservice to the communities in which they operate, effectively creating a two tier system of service delivery. Whilst one community has access to a fully funded service delivered by fully trained staff, others receive a lesser service, with less support available, at the same cost.
Whilst the Society of Chief Librarians appeared to be happy to endorse community libraries on the Today programme this morning, at Voices for the Library we argue that this is an unacceptable alternative to paid staff supported by professionals. No community should be forced to accept a second class service on the premise that it is better than no service at all. Community libraries are not a sustainable alternative and those that do see them as a solution need to be aware that it is not a long-term answer and will simply result in a slower, more painful death of the service in the community.
Councils across the country should see this, and the ruling in Gloucestershire, as a stark warning. Volunteer run libraries do not meet equalities obligations. They are not a suitable replacement for a library service delivered by trained (and remunerated) library staff supported by professionals. And library campaigners everywhere should fight their local authorities to protect their services against such erosion.