Not surprisingly, many of the contributions to EIE said that library buildings should be improved. They should have longer and more flexible open hours which meet the needs of their local communities (combined with 24/7 access to on-line services). They should be welcoming and attractive community spaces - a third place, neither home or work, but one where people feel comfortable. They should provide "good coffee" (according to the managing Director of Starbucks (natch); a good range of books; access to the Internet, digital resources and a virtual learning environment; be "havens for debate and the simple, basic pleasures of social networking"; provide access to a range of information services from various agencies and enable "facetime" - interaction with trained library staff.
Some essayists suggested that improving the users' experience of libraries might require fewer but better libraries - but that goes against the strong desire of communities for local, easily accessible service points. The extreme of this position is the case of the library in a phone box.
The combination of financial cuts and the need to dramatically improve the users' experience may lead some library authorities to consider closing some branches. In that case they need to be aware of another recent report - the report of the Wirral enquiry. Bob McKee says of this report "Sue Charteris has produced the best in-depth case study I have ever read of the issues faced by Public Library Authorities in the present climate, trying to meet the needs of local communities and comply with legislation in hugely challenging circumstances"
The report was commissioned by the Secretary of State to investigate if the decision of Wirral MBC to close several branch libraries was consistent with their statutory responsibility under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Wirral reversed their decision on closure before the report was published and as a result the Secretary of State decided that no formal ruling was necessary. However the report does find that Wirral was in breach of its statutory duties. In brief the report says that Wirral was at fault not because they wanted to close branches per se, but because the Council failed to make an assessment of local needs (or alternatively to evidence knowledge of verifiable local needs) in respect of its Library Services.
The Council's plan was to set up 13 Neighbourhood Centres, each with a library at its heart, effectively replacing a service comprising 24 libraries. The Centres would house multiple Council functions and, wherever possible, be co-located with one or more of the Council’s key partners, including the Police, Fire Authority and Health Service. This would have allowed for improved opening hours and more than 99% of people would be within a two mile radius of a library. They argued that the plethora of small, outdated libraries would deter potential users. In many ways this is pattern suggested by the EIE report. However, Sue Charteris pointed out that:
"The Council took the decision to close 11 of its libraries in the absence of a strategic plan for or review of the Library Service. As such, I believe that the Council’s approach to re-visioning the service was fundamentally flawed, because their approach focused specifically on the issue of asset management and cost savings".
So "fewer but better" may be a way forward but only if this is part of a strategic plan based on an assesment of local needs which must include consultation with the community.