US firm seeks to take over Suffolk libraries
08:02 01 March 2011
AN AMERICAN-based company is hoping to take over the running of libraries in Suffolk, the EADT can reveal.
LSSI runs municipal libraries across the US and has already been in talks with Oxfordshire County Council about possibly taking over some of its libraries.
Now it is hoping to have talks with council leaders in Suffolk which could ultimately lead to it taking over some, or all, of the county’s libraries.
In Britain LSSI is headed by two former members of the Government’s Audit Commission who specialised in studying local authorities’ cultural and leisure departments.
One of these vice-presidents, Stuart Fitzgerald, said his company was ready to take over Suffolk’s libraries and run them more efficiently than the county council.
He said his company would be keen to harness community support for the libraries – especially by using volunteers to help keep some of the smaller libraries running.
He said: “We are not interested in taking ownership of the library buildings or the library stock, the books and other stock.
“What we would do is manage the libraries much more efficiently than the county council is able to do which would push down costs.
“That does not mean libraries would be open for shorter hours – if anything we would like to extend the hours many of the libraries open to ensure they are open when people want to use them.”
Mr Fitzgerald had specific proposals for smaller libraries which are more vulnerable.
He said: “We would work with the communities these libraries serve. We would have a qualified manager in the library who would be responsible for opening hours, for managing the stock and arranging events.
“The manager would be supported by the community that uses the library to help to staff it.
“We want to ensure that the libraries become real community hubs – some of the smaller libraries only open about 20 hours a week. We would ensure they are open when people want to use them and can be used for meetings or other community events.”
County councillor Judy Terry, who is leading the consultation process, said officials were hoping to hold meetings with representatives from LSSI.
However, the county was still hoping to involve local people directly in running library services when they were divested from the county council.
She said the authority hoped some libraries would be divested by April 2012, with all transferred by April the following year.
She said: “LSSI have come to us and would like to have a meeting. There is also another organisation that has been in touch.”
A total of 29 libraries across Suffolk are currently facing closure as part of the county council’s decision to slash 30pc from its books budget. The libraries at Southwold, Oulton Broad, Kessingland and Bungay are among those that could shut unless community groups step forward to run them.
Mrs Terry met campaigners seeking to save libraries across Suffolk last week.
During the talks, the campaigners got the impression that only three libraries in Suffolk were safe from the prospect of closure – those in Ipswich, Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds.
But Mrs Terry later denied there was any threat that the county would be left with just three libraries. She said: “We are looking to divest, and change the way all our libraries are run – but we cannot see a situation where there are only three libraries in Suffolk.
“That would not be providing the level of service that the Government says is needed.”
The provision of library services is governed by the 1964 Libraries Act which says: “It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof.”
Councils in Somerset and Gloucestershire are currently facing a judicial review of decisions to close libraries in their areas – and the judgment is being watched by campaigners and councils across the country.
Mrs Terry said: “I think the campaigners may have picked up on the three libraries because we said they may be used as ‘hubs’ to support other libraries nearby”.
Steve Smedley, who is campaigning to save Leiston library, was not prepared to give the bid from LSSI his blessing.
He said: “Our preferred option would be for the county council to continue providing the service which is highly-valued although I have to accept that might not be possible.
“From what we have found researching LSSI in the US, they have squeezed efficiencies out of libraries which has led to a loss of jobs and we don’t really want to see that happening here. We shall reserve judgement until we know a bit more about what they have to offer.”