One quarter of all library staff, or 14.4 full time equivalent jobs, are to be axed as Salford Council looks to make cuts of £549,000 over four years to the service. The staff losses have been described as "collateral damage" in a councillors' consultation.
Rather than shutting libraries, which were two of the options considered, the Council is to move towards unstaffed, self service libraries, where users have swipe cards and codes for entry. It's a growing trend for councils around the country and, in Greater Manchester, Trafford, Stockport, Bury and Tameside have already brought in the scheme.
The Council will spend £260,000 with company, Bibliotheca, on the Open Plus, or Open+, system, to be installed at 'neighbourhood' libraries in Boothstown, the Height, Irlam, Ordsall, Hope, Worsley, Cadishead, Little Hulton, Clifton, Lower Kersal and Winton.
At these locations, there will be longer opening hours but the number of staffed hours will, on average, be halved compared to the present service.
Boothstown Library will see its opening hours increase from the current 28 hours per week to 48 hours but only 15 hours will be staffed. Clifton Library will see its opening hours extended from 11 per week to 18 but will only be staffed for three hours. Little Hulton Library will see its opening hours extended from 40.5 to 57 but only 24 hours will be staffed.
Worsley Library will see just four hours staffed out of twenty; Cadishead Library will see 24 out of 57 hours staffed; Ordsall will see 15 hours staffed out of 43; the Height Library will see 24 staffed hours out of 57; Lower Kersal 24 out of 79 hours; Winton Library, 24 hours staffed out of 44; Irlam Library 24 hours out of 57 hours and Hope Library, just three hours staffed out of ten hours opening.
The Council report on libraries states that it wants to "Reach a point where there does not need to be 'library' staff present in the building at all opening times. Library staff would be present for specific activities e.g. storytime, reading groups etc. and possibly specific times (if required)"...
It will, instead, "install self issue machines for books, computer access and printing", use the 'Open Plus' access system and "Use volunteers/community to provide support".
While the report states that councillors have been "impressed" with a similar system in Trafford, the Open Plus system has been criticised by campaigners and researchers.
In most places that have installed the Open Plus system, young people under 16 years old can't access the service unless accompanied by an adult, while the Northern Voices blog cites a report from Tameside which notes that "older people may have difficulty using self-issue technology such as swipe cards" and "People with disabilities may also have difficulty with access".
The blog adds that "At some unstaffed libraries in Stockport, library users are already being warned that they use the library at their own risk."
In Barnet, the Save Barnet Libraries campaign carried out an experiment to see if Open Plus would work. Local paper, The Times, reported that campaigners "pretended to smoke cigarettes inside and put all the books to the floor to see whether their destruction would be caught...Two people also collapsed to the ground as though they were unwell and needed urgent medical assistance.
"But although there are CCTV cameras and a nearby security guard, nobody came to break the commotion up or check whether they were okay" the paper added.
It also quoted a member of the group saying "It is not safe in any way. It is almost like putting a target on the building. That is so dangerous. They may as well stock it with weapons and tell people where to hit the bullseye. People say they don't want to go there at night because it is creepy when nobody works there."
During the consultation in Salford for the new library regime, which will be operated by Salford Community Leisure, ward councillors asked questions like 'How do you work a system if someone wants particular information and no access to staff?'... 'What happens with potential loss of stock?'; and noted 'There are sensitivities around the staffing message ie being taken over by machines'... 'Consideration of security ie lone females using the building'
The Council report, which goes to Cabinet next week, states that "Community libraries are key in preventing social isolation and loneliness".
Meanwhile, there will be 'click and collect' for books and self access computers at new locations - Helly Hansen Watersports Centre, Beesley Green Community Centre, The Valley Community Centre, Wardley Community Centre - and an 'exploration of suitable locations in Lower Broughton, Brookhouse and Langworthy Cornerstone'.
What Salford Council calls its 'main hubs' - Broughton Hub, Eccles Gateway, Pendleton Gateway, Swinton Gateway and Walkden Gateway – will be unaffected, with the same opening hours...although the report to Cabinet notes that at "Eccles, Walkden and Pendleton there is the opportunity to reconfigure the existing library space to ensure a more efficient use of space and reflect the changing and more flexible usage by customers.
"This reconfiguration would result in staffing savings of £75k and also a saving for the City Council of £74k if the space would be utilised by health partners" it adds. During this year, the children's library at Walkden Gateway is to be moved into the main library.
In total the Council will be spending £490,000 over the next four years to bring in the new system and enhance current facilities. As well as the £260,000 for the Open+ system, £80,000 will be spent on e-books, £135,000 on refurbishment and 'refreshment provision', and £15,000 replacing the Books at Home vehicle. A further £100,000 has already been budgeted to upgrade IT and provide charging points for equipment...
Council figures show that by introducing these measures it will save £549,000 over the next four years (although it claims a £1.26million saving in its press release).
"Last year nationally over 350 libraries closed and over 300 more faced closure or were being transferred to communities to run them" says Salford City Mayor Paul Dennett, putting a positive spin on the job cuts "To be able to announce the complete opposite of that – expanding and upgrading library services – is amazing and such a bonus for the people of Salford. We cannot put a price on the return this investment will generate in terms of supporting local people to learn, grow and achieve."