Sheffield Libraries are front page news again. In September, responsibility for 15 libraries will be handed over to community groups.
The council are pushing out upbeat press releases emphasising that “all our libraries are on track to remain open” , whilst the Lib Dems do their best to ensure that the Labour Party gets no credit for the outcome.
The groups taking over the five co-delivered and 10 associate libraries have done a great job pulling together volunteers and business plans to a tight timescale. However, no-one should under-estimate the task they have taken on. Running a library without paid, professional staff is going to be a real challenge. Key issues are still unresolved. Some library buildings need significant repairs, yet it is still unclear whether the council will do the work before handing over responsibility for the buildings. Several months ago a council report stated that expecting libraries to operate independently “is not a long-term sustainable option”. It’s hard to see how that could have changed, given the low levels of support offered, particularly to associate libraries.
Neither of our main political parties emerge with credit. Labour has taken an old-style local authority approach. ‘Proper’ libraries are run exclusively by the council. Voluntary groups can run other libraries, reducing the negative PR which would arise from closures, but with only limited support for a three-year period. An alternative option to this two-tier approach would be to share out available funding and staff across the city, with paid librarians working alongside community groups in all Sheffield’s libraries.
The Lib Dems have been busy ducking their complicity in the cuts to council funding, whilst using Save our Libraries petitions as a backdoor route to sign up signatories to Lib Dem newsletters (“…you have given the Liberal Democrats permission to contact you” – actually, no I hadn’t.)
Community groups have led in creative thinking and working together. It would be heartening if political parties could follow their example. Less dogma and a more flexible response will be needed if all Sheffield’s libraries are to have the best chance of a positive future.