Thursday, February 04, 2010

Greater Belfast Library Review - proposals to close half of Belfast's libraries

I heard about the Greater Belfast Library Review in the middle of January. At that stage, the Libraries NI website had only uploaded a couple of documents to detail their consultation and explain their rationale. They’ve subsequently released more information. The proposals involve closing around half the libraries in Belfast and refurbishing/rebuilding a quarter of them.

Illustration showing the Greater Belfast libraries that are proposed for closure and renovation

About four or five years ago I remember living in East Belfast and hearing about a previous set of library cuts. At that stage, smaller libraries like Braniel and Gilnahirk suffered large cuts to their opening hours.

I remember a local family who weren’t able to install broadband at home explaining the effect the cuts would have on their teenage children who relied on being able to walk around to the local library after school to look up reference books and search online to do their homework.

Local libraries have a role to play in literacy – reading and writing – as well as digital media literacy too. They’re centres of knowledge, whether through reference books, local newspapers (with job listings) or the erudite staff. Libraries are also part of the social fabric of society: places for people of all ages to meet – whether kids after school, retired people – and somewhere for parents with young children to escape to when they’re going stare crazy at home.

The branch-specific pack of information about Braniel doesn’t explain that the opening hours are currently only Monday 13:00-20:00 and Wednesday 10:00-17:00 – a total of 14 hours a week – which may go some way to explain the number of active borrowers has dropped by a third between 2006 and 2009.

About a mile and a half away in this densely populated area of East Belfast, the Gilnahirk library branch (strangely) has identical opening hours and a similar profile of active users.

Much healthier is the library in Tullycarnet – a recognised area deprivation where just over half of households have access to a car – which has a much larger number of active borrowers, many more hours of internet usage, and is open six days a week.

The review suggests that all three of these libraries should shut.

It goes further and recommends the closure of the Ballyhackamore library too. Living in the area for three years, Littl’un’s first experience of the joys of a library involved going up the spiral stairs to enter the magical bookish paradise that is the Ballyhackamore branch. It only took a few minutes to walk to it and it was a source of leaflets and brochures as well as children’s books.

Strangely, Ballyhackamore has the third highest “suitability score” of the 33 Greater Belfast libraries covered by this consultation, and has a minimal capital maintenance backlog, but is still recommended for closure. It also has more active users and a much higher suitability score than the recently build Holywood Arches branch that would replace it.

Libraries NI have defined four evaluation criteria (section 9.1) for their strategic review of library services (noting that services are not exclusively delivered in actual library buildings):

  1. Fit for purpose;
  2. Capable of delivering on the vision of Libraries NI;
  3. In the right location;
  4. Sustainable.

I sought clarification from Libraries NI on a number of issues. Some were addressed through the publication of the 33 Libraries Consultation Summary (which originally wasn’t there and the figures were only available for the branches earmarked for closure). They explained that “PAT Use” was the number of up-to-hour-long sessions on Public Access Terminals (internet-connected PCs) in the library branches. And they also documented the algorithm behind the calculation of the crucial suitability score for each library.

Q4. As part of the assessment of libraries in Greater Belfast, can you confirm (i) whether the following factors were taken into account in forming an opinion on which library branches to recommend for keeping, clustering, developing and rationalisation (closure); and (ii) whether the factors were found to be significant in deciding the recommendations made in the report:

  • ease of access to car parking for visitors?
  • ease of access by foot for visitors?
  • ease of access by public transport for visitors?
  • ease of access to library facilities by library customers with accessibility needs (wheelchairs, walking frames, visually impaired, hearing impaired?
  • digital literacy and provision of internet access – for children and adults – in areas with low household internet access?

Q5. What assessment has been made of the value that the Greater Belfast libraries recommended for clustering and rationalisation inject into their local community (their natural catchment)? What assessment has been made of the value that will be lost to those communities if each of the recommended library facilities are withdrawn?

Q6. Have you figures (for each branch) that estimate the average distance potential customers live from their nearest (or most convenient) library in the Greater Belfast region? And do you have revised figures that show how these figures will change if the recommendations in the report are enacted? If the figures exist, please supply them.

Q7. Where a Greater Belfast library branch has been proposed for clustering or rationalisation, has your analysis taken into account the likely transport methods (including public transport) and associated costs for existing and potential customers in the natural catchment area of the old library to travel to their new local library branch? (For users without access to cars, public transport comes at a financial and a time cost. For example, potential customers living in Gilnahirk or Braniel will no longer be able to walk to their nearest library, but will instead have to travel to Dundonald [or] to Holywood Arches? There may – or may not – be convenient bus routes that make these journeys possible. If access becomes inconvenient, library usage may further decline.)

Libraries NI’s response?

Qs4, 5, 6 & 7. The data in which you are interested will be captured as part of the public consultation which is underway (details available on the website); part of our responsibility under Section 75 of the NI Act 1998 is to consult with groups including those representing people with disabilities.

So as part of Libraries NI’s initial assessment and report, they haven’t taken into account ease of accessibility, internet access/digital divide, the value that libraries provide to their communities, the potential change to the average distance between library customers homes and their local library, and no account of the (offputting) transport logistics that customers might face if their local library shuts.

That’s a lot of information to expect to capture as part of the public consultation, and not to have prepared up front. Who’s going to do it? Libraries NI? Or stakeholder groups?

Over the last couple of days, several friends have emailed me about the consultation and the proposed closures. Are Alan in Belfast post topics that predictable?! One commented that the consultation document was anything but user-friendly, not conducive to work through if you have literacy issues.

The third evaluation criterion – in the right location – throws up complex issues. Libraries NI’s review suggests:

“The geographic boundaries of the Education and Library Boards coupled with the historical political context means that libraries have not been developed in a regional way - resulting in the current uneven pattern of library provision across Northern Ireland.”

It’s undeniable that community segregation has created a duplication of services in some areas.

Another friend pointed out that current customers of Ballyhackamore would be expected to divert to Holywood Arches or Dundonald whenever it closed. Some of these library users are school children who walk to the library and meet up after school.

They’re going to be neither allowed nor able to walk Dundonald. And if they’re wearing the uniform of St. Joseph’s Primary School uniform or Our Lady and St Patrick’s, they may not feel safe or comfortable making the trip to either Dundonald or Holywood Arches.

The times may be a-changin’ in Northern Ireland, but perceptions (and realities) of safety will only improve slowly. This leads to fairly obvious problems for Libraries NI with their responsibility under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Unlike the review of Northern Ireland Post Offices a couple of years back where the Royal Mail didn’t make many changes as a result of their consultation, I suspect that Libraries NI have been deliberately heavy handed with their recommendations for closure so that the euphoria of a limited number of reprieves will offset the axe falling on the remainder.

Maybe it’s not quite so intentional, but I’ll be surprised if Ballyhackamore doesn’t stay open at the expense of Braniel, Gilnahirk, Tullycarnet, Woodstock and Ballymacarrett libraries.

The bottom line is that Libraries NI are in an impossible situation with rising costs, shrinking budgets and they need to make big savings. Or DCAL need to recognise their value to society and increase their budget. Closing libraries may save money, but communities will be poorer.

The inevitable result of the proposed cull of Greater Belfast libraries will be fewer people living within convenient reach of libraries, so fewer people using libraries and fewer children being transformed by the potential that reading offers.

Maybe those in charge of Libraries NI should start closer to home and ask why they need the Chief Executive to work in a unit in Lisburn’s Sidings Office Park when there’s an enormous new Lisburn library less than half a mile away. Not enough space for a couple of offices?

I’ve only talked about East Belfast in this post – the proposed closures and renovations effect the other parts of Belfast too. Many political representatives are lobbying Libraries NI at the moment.

They want to hear your views as part of their consultation, either by responding to their questions around or by participating in the public meetings set up around Belfast.

  • Wednesday 3 February, 4:30pm - 6.00pm // Finaghy Library, 38B Finaghy Road South, Belfast, BT10 0DR - Libraries NI's notes from event
  • Wednesday 3 February, 7:15pm - 8:45pm // Cregagh Library, 409-413 Cregagh Road, Belfast, BT6 0LF - Libraries NI's notes from event
  • Monday 8 February, 7:15pm - 8:45pm // Mount Conference Centre, Woodstock Link, Belfast, BT6 8DD - Libraries NI's notes from event
  • Thursday 18 February, 4:30pm - 6:00pm // Rathcoole Library, 2 Rosslea Way, Newtownabbey, BT37 9BJ - Library NI's notes from event
  • Thursday 18 February, 7:15pm - 8:45pm // Chichester Library, Salisbury Avenue, Belfast, BT15 5EB - Library NI's notes from event
  • Tuesday 23 February, 4:30pm - 6:00pm // Andersonstown Leisure Centre, Andersonstown Road, Belfast, BT11 9BY - Library NI's notes from event
  • Tuesday 23 February, 7:15pm - 8:45pm // Grosvenor House, 5 Glengall Street, Belfast, BT12 5AD - Library NI's notes from event (only 5 people attended)

If I was in charge of libraries - or perhaps on the Libraries NI board - I'd be keen to see an objective that boosted the number of people coming into contact with library services - whether library buildings, vans, online or other activities.

I wouldn't just measure active borrowers. Instead I'd want to include lots of factual contacts too: eg, reading groups, community groups using library premises and space. I'd expect to see smaller libraries becoming part of the hub of communities, perhaps alongside coffee shops, newsagents, post offices, part-time bank facilities. Improving literacy, widening Northern Ireland's world view and perspective, as well as adding and creating value in communities.


Unknown said...

The closure of Woodstock is a particularly relevant one for me... presumably the alternative is Cregagh library, which is a good couple of miles away, and is, in fact, much less used.

While it's nearly always possible to use a computer in Cregagh Library, the ones in Woodstock are almost constantly in use. Woodstock has a much greater need for library provision than Cregagh, but they seem to be ignoring that.

If I was in charge of libraries, they would all have nice coffee shops (or at least a good reading area, with tea and coffee available to buy), WiFi access for those bringing their own laptops, and they'd be integrated to leisure centres, shopping centres, or community centres.

Jonny said...

Thanks for this overview. I'm also a member of Woodstock library.

There must be more innovative alternatives to consider so that library provision remains in these areas eg. Tullycarnet library is close to a school and community centre. If the building has to go surely these can be considered...

JW said...

I was at the meeting in Cregagh library and there wasn't a single person in support of LibrariesNI's vision - yes, all-singing, all-dancing libraries would be great, but NOT at the expense of access.

Ballyhackamore doesn't just have the 3rd highest suitability score of the 33 Greater Belfast libraries, it also has
the 3rd highest number of loans
the 3rd highest computer use
the 3rd lowest maintenance backlog
the 4th highest % of library business
the 5th highest number of visitors
the 10th highest % of active borrowers against population of area ......

..... and they propose closure?!?

I too would be very sceptical of the reasoning behind this bizarre decision.

6 out of the 14 proposed closures are in East Belfast, and your map, Alan, makes the landscape look bleak.

If Ballhackamore, Ballymacarrett and Woodstock all close and transfer to Holywood Arches, numbers there would more than treble! Could they cope? Not at all - they already have queues at times for facilities.

If only a quarter of visitors transferred, Holywood Arches' numbers would still rise by 56% and there would be a loss of over 132,000 library visits - yes, that's more than 2,500 opportunities lost to the community every week.

We cannot afford that. We need to be supporting literacy and access to literature much more positively.

It beggars belief that LibrariesNI has not studied in detail the possible effects of their 'vision' on the community. Where did this 'vision' originate? Was anyone consulted apart from the Board?

Certainly, if it goes ahead as planned, the Board will gain great kudos from their flagship libraries. And the thousands who will be thereby denied an adequate local service will be entirely forgotten.

You can probably tell I'm incanescent about this - let's keep fighting!

Niall Ó Donnghaile said...

Will be interesting to hear what has to be said at tonight's meeting in the mount