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Could US-style management be the future for libraries?

PUBLISHED: 12:00 14 March 2011 | UPDATED: 12:08 14 March 2011

The Norfolk and Norwich Millenium Library in the Forum

The Norfolk and Norwich Millenium Library in the Forum

Libraries still have a stereotyped image of stuffy buildings, dusty books and shooshing, bespectacled librarians.

But an American firm aims to tear up that traditional definition as it pursues its goal of running 15pc of Britain’s public libraries within the next five years.

Maryland-based Library Systems and Services is planning a revolution in the way the service could be run, promising slick professional outlets with a programme of entertainment and cultural events to keep the profits rolling in. The company has already discussed its ideas with Suffolk County Council, which has decided it can no longer afford to run 29 of its libraries and is seeking interest from other groups interested in saving them from closure.

But is it necessary in Norfolk? The county council says no. The service hailed as too important to be lost in £155m of spending cuts is already a successful, popular and valued facility, which doesn’t need States-style razzmatazz to thrive.

The month-long Join Up January campaign earlier this year succeeded in enticing more than 9,300 new members – almost doubling the target of 5,000.

And the landmark Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library at the Forum in Norwich has been the UK’s busiest for four years running, welcoming more visitors and lending more books than any other. It attracted 1,502,449 visitors in 2009/10 and lent more than one million items, including books, DVDs and console games.

It also hosts multimedia projects and art exhibitions, offers free internet on 100 computers and is a base for business, heritage and local government information.

And it already holds lively events of the kind the American company is suggesting. For example, tomorrow you can get free soil testing in the Express section of the library with students from Sewell Park College to learn which plants should thrive in your garden. There is also a free interactive play about disease, also performed by students from Sewell Park College, at 11am.

On Wednesday evening, in a ticketed event, author Philippa Faulks will be talking about her new book, Henna Magic, and offering a demonstration of henna art.

There are sessions for children too. You can meet fiction’s Horrid Henr” on April 2 and 3, or meet Peter Rabbit on April 15-17. And it’s not all about sitting quietly and listening; on April 21, five to 12-year-olds can learn about wartime aviation with a short film, colouring activities and a treasure hunt.

Of course, Norwich’s libraries do not end with the Millennium library in the Forum. There are many smaller branch libraries, including Costessey, Earlham, Hellesdon. Mile Cross Plumstead Road, Sprowston, Taverham, Tuckswood, St William’s Way in Thorpe St Andrew and West Earlham. Others just outside Norwich include Blofield, Brundall, Hethersett and Poringland.

Most of them are in older buildings than the Forum and do not have such a modern feel, and because of their smaller size it is less easy to hold events.

But it would be wrong to assume that means they are stuck in the past. At Sprowston library for example, Saturdays are DS Zones where library users can bring along their Nintendo DS and try any games for free. There is a monthly reading group amd a weekly board games afternoon. Once a week there is Bounce and Rhyme Time for babies and pre-school children and their parents.

Altogether, there are 47 libraries in Norfolk, and 13 public mobile libraries plus one which visits residential homes.

Although the county council has resolved to keep all libraries open in its recent cost-cutting budget, there will be some compromises, including a reduction in opening hours and changes to the frequency of mobile library visits.

James Carswell, cabinet member for cultural services at Norfolk County Council, said there was no urgent need for an overhaul of libraries which are community hubs for information, cultural awareness and learning.

“It works with vulnerable people, with the community, with young and old. It has large amounts of information that people need and when you talk about communities being in difficulty over the next few years you think of a library as a valuable community hub where people get together. We felt it was something really important and something we needed to protect. We want to keep hold of our libraries and manage them ourselves at this time.”

Mr Carswell agreed that the stuffy stereotype of a library ruled by a bespectacled killjoy angrily hushing anyone bold enough to raise their voice above a whisper was already decades out of date.

He said anyone could discuss ideas for modern events such as open-mic poetry nights or murder mystery evenings with their community librarian, but they had to be appropriate to their surroundings.

“If you wanted to hold something like a murder mystery event, it would depend on the people who wanted to get involved,” he said.

“Some might like it, but others might find that too disruptive, so it has to be appropriate for the size of the building. At the Forum, where there is lots of capacity, we have had lots of big events, while other libraries are doing work around engagement with young kids and teaching people to read. It is about the wellbeing of the whole community.”

What do you think? Write to the Evening News at Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE, or email eveningnewsletters@archant.co.uk

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