Throughout the world, users of public libraries are suffering a vicious circle of decline in services. Free or near-free libraries are commonly provided by city or district governments. But local government budgets are always under pressure - because their services are labour-intensive, their costs rise faster than inflation and local taxpayers become less and less willing to pay for them.
What, then, can be done to stem the decline of public libraries today? One modest example from the United States might show the way.
Since July 1997, twenty-five public libraries in Riverside County, California have been run by Library Systems and Services Inc - a private-sector service supplier - working in partnership with the County. Under the $5 million contract, LSSI promised 25% increases in library hours and in the book purchasing budget. The results have been praised as showing that the library service can be managed very effectively by private concerns without compromising its ethos and integrity.
Before LSSI were brought in, Riverside had exactly the same problems that cause local authorities everywhere to cut back on service. Cash had been taken out of the libraries budget to meet the more electorally sensitive needs of local schools. Book purchases and opening hours were being cut in order to save money.
Now, complaints from users have virtually ceased. Circulation - the number of books and other items lent out - increased 10%. LSSI has expanded library hours by 34%, doubled book purchases, increased staff by nearly 50%, and maintained salary levels. And all within the same budget. Having seen the results, other US cities have been keen to sign contracts with LSSI.
It may be hard for local librarians to accept that, just possibly, someone else could run the service more cost-effectively than they. Or they worry that if libraries are no longer run by public servants, their social-service dimension will be lost or they will be easy prey to publishers who want to push their own wares.
Clearly, libraries must remain community-oriented, serving local needs, including the social-service dimension. But they do not have to be managed and run by public servants in order to do that. With care, the whole of that public-service function can be captured in an operating contract. Indeed, the fact that it has to be specified with precision may make us more aware of the wider community role of libraries.
It may not be easy to specify or measure such wider values; but if we can, it makes the case for the preservation of library services stronger. And if we can cut costs and raise service quality by contracting-out, then the future for local libraries becomes even brighter.