When the new Southsea Library and Customer Service Centre opened in Portsmouth back in the summer, eyebrows were raised.
The facility, in a former Woolworths building in Palmerston Road, Southsea, was not an addition to the city’s nine libraries as it replaced the nearby Elm Grove library.
But at a time when cuts were being made to libraries and book budgets, spending £1.5m, plus £100,000 per year rent, on a new library seemed to fly in the face of national policy.
Across the country, library visits and book issues have tumbled – almost to the level of collapse.
And local councils, forced to save cash because of government cuts, have slashed library budgets.
Portsmouth City Council, which had to save £15m this year, cut 22 jobs to save around £650,000.
And between 2004-2010, library visits in the city dropped by just below 220,000, while items issued dropped by almost 300,000.
But the authority’s library services manager, Lindy Elliott, believes the Southsea centre shows how libraries can continue to serve their communities.
She says: ‘Some people said the old library at Elm Grove could stay open, but it couldn’t provide what we wanted. Libraries are just as important as they ever were. But the way they’re being used has changed.
‘Visits are down and the number of books taken out has dropped to less than one per person, per visit. Most people aren’t coming in to borrow books.’
Lindy thinks many people who use libraries in the city do so without even entering the buildings.
She explains: ‘Our internet systems allow people to perform tasks including downloading e-books and accessing our reference materials. So there’s a drop in the number of visitors, but not necessarily the number of people using libraries.’
And the city’s Central Library is also showing signs of how the facilities may be used more in future.
Lindy says: ‘We have introduced the Conan Doyle centre, and there is a great deal of work ongoing on the Dickens Archive. Lots of people come in to visit. They don’t take out books, but they’re using the library.
‘We’ve also installed a MacMillan Cancer Care information point. They have one at QA Hospital, but the one at the library is so that people in the wider community can find out more about their general health.’
And at Southsea, the council has already installed its own information points, plus space has been set aside for art and drama exhibitions.
Discussions, at an early stage, are also underway about whether the police could use space within the library as a Southsea base.
And across the city, IT systems are in place, which allow people to learn to use computers.
Lindy says: ‘Libraries are vital to our communities. It’s just the way they are being used which is changing.’
In Hampshire, a similar process has taken place.
The county council’s library service was forced to cut 75 full-time equivalent posts as part of a drive to save £1.2m from its £15m annual budget.
And it also reduced its 1,200 mobile library stops to 365, to save £50,000 per year.
Consultations are underway until the end of December over plans to cut 20.5 full time-equivalent librarian posts and shut all but four public libraries in our area one day per week, to save £450,000 next year.
Nicola Horsey, the council’s head of library services, says: ‘Libraries and their staff are important to us. But we had to cut eight per cent this year and next. We hope these steps will deliver that.
‘Our libraries have seen falling visitor numbers, but what we have seen are our Discovery Centres, the first of which was introduced in Gosport, keep high numbers.
She adds: ‘Lending figures have fallen, but people come for information, to use the computers and to meet with friends. It’s vital to us to make sure they can continue to do that, with at least one library open near to every Hampshire resident.’
Hampshire County Council’s first Discovery Centre opened in Gosport in 2005. The centre cost £2m, and has seen visitor numbers stay at around 200,000-250,000 per year.
In 2009, Winchester’s Discovery Centre opened and saw numbers jump from 161,034 to 508,950 in 2009-10. The centres offer a variety of facilities, including learning suites, internet access, a cafe and areas for children and younger people to meet.
Hampshire’s head of library services, Nicola Horsey, says: ‘They offer people more than the libraries did, but with library services still in place.’
Portsmouth City Council has created the ‘People’s Network’, a 104 computer system open to every member of the city’s libraries.
The network enables users to access e-mail and the internet, and a further 20 ‘closed access’ PCs, enable them to browse the service’s library catalogue and reference resources.
It can be accessed from people’s home PCs, allowing access to archive and research material.
Ms Elliott said: ‘It’s a way for people to drop in and catch up. It also means we can offer computer courses.’
Portsmouth library use figures (nine libraries)
Total issues 1,135,737
Total visits 1,153,286.
2009/10 (in 2010-11, Central Library was closed for five months)
Total issues 854,967
Total visits 933,406
Hampshire library use figures (Bridgemary, Elson, Fareham, Gosport Discovery Centre, Havant, Portchester and Winchester Discovery Centre)
Total issues 1,288,277
Total visits 1,097,012,
Total issues 1,050,982
Total visits 1,352,484
Portsmouth - Reference works: £30,000, down from £50,000 last year.
Large print books: £15,000, down from £16,000.
Spoken word books: £15,000, down from £20,000
CDs: £5,000, down from £12,000
DVDs: £15,000, down from £22,000
Newspapers and journals: £14,000, down from £20,000
Adult fiction: £95,000, up from £75,000 last year.
Adult non-fiction: £80,000, up from £76,000
Children’s books: £62,000, up from £41,000
Audio-book downloads: £8,000 – a new expenditure.
E-books: £15,000 – a new expenditure.
Hampshire - Re-binding: £11,000, up from £10,000
Book servicing: £31,000, up from £30,000
Bibliographical services: £47,000, up from £36,000
Inter-library loans: £21,000, up from £20,000
Newspapers and periodicals: £83,000, down from £92,000
E-resources: £128,000, up from £126,000
Music CDs: £38,000, down from £43,000
Audio books, and audio-visual: £975,000, up from £796,000
Specialist services: £354,000, up from £314,000
Community services: £16,000, down from £17,000
Children’s fiction books: £309,000, up from £242,000
Children’s non fiction books: £58,000, up from £31,000
Music scores: £4,000, up from £2,000
Reference books: £74,000, down from £99,000