Huge rise in volunteers as author says libraries facing ‘biggest crisis in history’

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HAMPSHIRE’S libraries have seen the biggest rise in volunteers in the country, according to a new analysis.

Figures show there were 567 unpaid volunteers manning the county’s libraries in 2010.

This has soared to 1,498 volunteers today.

Statistics reveal there were 760 paid staff in 2010 - compared to 525 now.

The figures, obtained by the BBC English Regions data journalism team, showed that 343 libraries have shut nationally since 2010 and another 111 closures are planned this year.

Hampshire County Council, which runs all libraries outside Portsmouth and Southampton, has already seen the closure of some mobile libraries and

a recently held consultation asked the public for their views on the closure of all of its mobile libraries.

Officials have confirmed that there are no current plans at this stage to close any libraries and the number of Hampshire library buildings – 53 – remains the same as in 2010.

Under the plan, Stubbington, Lee, Bridgemary, Elson, Leigh Park, and Horndean libraries would be managed by the council with community support and be open at least three days a week from 9am to 5pm.

Mobile libraries, such as at Denmead, would close under the plan.

The proposals include moving Havant library out of the Meridian Centre to a new location.

Emsworth library, currently in St Peter’s Square, is also set to move to a new site.

The busiest libraries – including Fareham, Gosport, Waterlooville and Petersfield – could be upgraded to Discovery Centres as part of the county council’s plan.

Fareham is being lined up as a top priority for refurbishment.

The News reported last year that 74 library employees - mainly frontline library assistants - took voluntary redundancy, saving the county council £947,000 from its wage bill.

Meanwhile, in West Sussex, no libraries and/or mobile libraries have closed since 2010.

In 2010 there were 283.7 paid staff in libraries, compared with 231.2 today.

The council had 274 unpaid volunteers in 2010 and has 994 volunteers today.

Responding to the national report, children’s author Alan Gibbons warned the public library service faced the ‘greatest crisis in its history’.

Gibbons, who wrote Shadow Of The Minotaur, told the BBC: ‘Opening hours are slashed, book stocks reduced.

‘Volunteers are no longer people who supplement full time staff but their replacements. This constitutes the hollowing out of the service. We are in dangerous territory.’

Librarian Ian Anstice, who runs the Public Libraries News website, said the cuts were ‘without precedent’.

He said: ‘Councils learnt early on how unpopular simply closing libraries is, so they have had to cut the vital service in other, less obvious ways.

‘It can come across in many forms – reduced opening hours, reduced book fund, reduced maintenance and reduced staffing.

‘In all its incarnations, it is harmful to the service, creating the risk that once-loyal users of libraries will come away disappointed and stop using them.

‘Our public library system used to be envy of the world. Now it is used as a cautionary tale that librarians use worldwide to scare their colleagues.’

A spokesman for the Department for Media, Culture and Sport said: ‘Libraries are cornerstones of their communities and are part of the fabric of our society, so it’s vital they continue to innovate in order to meet the changing demands of those they serve.

‘Government is helping libraries to modernise by funding a wifi roll-out across England that has benefited more than 1,000 libraries and increasing access to digital services and e-lending.’

Officials at Hampshire County Council said their volunteers were ‘enthusiastic and knowledgeable’ and have helped to increase opening hours.

The consultation about Hampshire’s libraries ended in January and final decisions will be made on April 18.