A crowded Baptist Church Hall in South Street, Wellington, was the venue for a debate on the future of Somerset’s libraries.
Twenty-two of the county’s libraries – including Wellington’s – could close or be affected by cost-cutting measures.
The debate, which took place during a consultation period on what happens to the libraries, was hosted by Wellington Library Friends Group and is reported here.
Ollie Woodhams, Somerset County Council’s head of community and traded services, who is being asked to find £1/2 million of savings in the libraries budget over the next three years, outlined the three options for Wellington Library’s future.
They are: make no changes; form a community partnership to run the library with help from the county council; and meet the statutory requirements through use of mobile library visits twice a month and outreach activity, such as access to computers, in various locations.
Mr Woodhams gave the impression the county’s favoured option was the second of the three but he pointed out that no decision would be made until all responses had been scrutinised by the strategy team to produce final recommendations. The county council’s cabinet would consider these in October.
Members of the audience queried why Wellington was in the ‘at risk’ group given the county had recently spent several thousand pounds revamping the building, it was one of the 12 busiest libraries chosen to have self-service machines, and had recently been described to the town council by a county council official as ‘a good, busy library, which was good value for money’.
Mr Woodhams pointed out that a number of criteria had been used to determine the ‘at risk’ libraries, including access to other libraries and deprivation in the area.
It was pointed out in answer to one query that there were about 500 community libraries in the country, including one in Somerset at Porlock. This is run by volunteers, with county support, and has been able to extend its opening hours.
While most community libraries are in rural areas there are some in towns and London suburbs. The idea of turning the library service into a charity, as has been done in some counties, had been rejected for Somerset.
The council’s offer of £5,000 to groups prepared to run a library was felt by many to be unrealistic, certainly in the case of a busy library like Wellington.
Friends members gave some of their views, which favoured retention of the current building but with greater use, and possibly with it acting as a hub building for other organisations. The uncertainty regarding Taunton Deane’s offices could be resolved by sharing the building and use of the former music library space and the five offices upstairs could bring in income.
While it was agreed that 16 Fore Street needed some work being carried out, it was felt that doing this would be cheaper than the legal and logistical problems in finding another suitable building, moving all the equipment and selling the old site.
It currently costs £20,000 a year to run the library building and the friends had approached the town council when looking at the community partnership option. They were told that for the town council to pick up these costs would require a 5p in the pound increase in the town council’s community charge precept, and this did not cover any major repair costs like a new heating system or re-roofing. The town council did not feel able to support this level of expenditure given that it was trying to pick up some of the costs of items dropped by Taunton Deane.
The friends did gain the opinion that the council would be happy to consider a one-off grant for helping with capital costs of improving 16 Fore Street.
The friends also felt that the library service did not do enough to highlight what services it had to offer and which can be made available in all libraries. Examples of items little known about included support for small and new businesses and demonstrating 3D
One factor which would impact on Wellington is the fate of Wiveliscombe’s library. This is supervised from Wellington and its closure would reduce staffing needs and costs at Wellington. Currently Wellington has 94 hours of staff time and is open 37 hours each week. The idea of volunteer staff working alongside the professionals was one which the friends felt could be explored.
One message the friends wanted to get across was that as a small group they would welcome help to support the library whatever the outcome. Echoing the comments made by Mr Woodhams, Judith Smith for the friends pointed out that everyone could help by returning the consultation questionnaire, and it was also important for organisations to send in their comments regarding the value of a library to the town. The closing date for receipt of the forms is June 13 – an online version is also available.
Friends chairman Hilda Thornton thanked Mr Woodhams for his input and everyone else for attending. She felt the meeting had been beneficial on both sides, and again stressed that everyone could play their part in keeping the library serving the town and improving what it offered.
During the meeting it was mentioned that Wellington has had a library since 1822, and although it has moved around, it had usually been within 100 yards of the town hall. All being well, the friends look forward to celebrating 50 years of using 16 Fore Street next year.
Lots of information on the consultation can be found on the county council website, www.somerset.gov/librariesconsultation This includes details of all the proposed changes, the rationale behind them, methodology and associated facts. The rationale for Wellington and Wiveliscombe is also available in the library. To date some 4,500 replies have been received and the county council was hoping this total would get towards the 10,000 they received for the last consultation.
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