Sadly last weekend, Hertfordshire County Council decided from 31st Oct 2015 they will cease running its mobile library service currently operating in and around its many towns and rural areas. Having previously blogged about how libraries are struggling with funding now (Never Judge a Book by its Cover) I can appreciate that paying for the upkeep and running costs of mobile vans is pricey for a non-profit council run organisation. However, I can’t help thinking what a loss it will be for the community. As a mum, I use it for my children for its convenience. We don’t have to drive. We can walk to it after school. It’s a small activity but always very much looked forward to. So for us it’s not a necessity as I have a car and am able to drive to our local town library but for many others who use it, this is not the case. The elderly or those who can’t drive for example rely on this service, many playgroups, childminders or nurseries use the facilities for under 5’s as an alternative to the risk and costs involved with using transport. So once again it appears the decision boiled down to funding priorities because even if many more people had signed up to use the service, unless everybody kept forgetting their books and paid huge fines every time, this free service closure was probably an unfortunate inevitability. So what is the answer?
The council are working on introducing two initiatives which they believe to be far more cost effective and beneficial for the current mobile library users. These are the home library service scheme and increased support for community book swaps. Any money savings made from the mobile service cuts, it is said will be put towards keeping the static libraries open and updating their image, services and facilities.
As a free book delivery service for any resident (who fits the criteria of “mobile difficulties, disabilities or caring responsibilities”), I can see the home library service could be invaluable for many who are unable to get out, but what about those who can but cannot drive? For some this service could be taking away a reason for them to get out and a chance to socialise. There are talks of free transport for under 5’s and the elderly which all sounds better in terms of meeting others but its use is still limited to a small part of the community.
Currently there is less information available regarding the proposed community book swap schemes but it is an idea which has cropped up in various guises over the last few years. One of the more popular schemes in some rural areas of the UK involve the residents using a red phone box as a place to donate and store books to exchange. It is a scheme based on trust and has proved to be a positive step for many communities – although dangerous shelving has caused BT to step in before now! Other big ones are the London Children’s Book Swap which takes place annually at various venues across London and Books for London in Stratford station since 2012. There is also a growing trend towards the use of book swap websites which are proving to be another easy alternative to libraries. So with libraries no longer bringing their service to the customer but expecting the customer to go to the library instead, has the council merely made it harder for this already dwindling community activity to be revived or is it just another sign that the digital age is changing the way we interact and socialise?
Until we hear more about the new library initiatives being proposed, we cannot judge as all is still to be revealed to the public but it is looking like it’s going to be the memberships of the parents and children of school age that the libraries are in danger of losing. It will be those who are able to travel, those who are not high on the priority list and those who can order a second hand book from Amazon for less than the cost of driving to their nearest town library. It’s going to have to be an impressive library for us to make the effort, with more on offer than just a bigger selection of books to make the trip worth it. Remember change can be a good thing though and who knows maybe my dream of an interactive library is just around the corner?