Buckinghamshire Council’s planned cuts to its library service are ‘madness’, a retired librarian has said.

Kari Dorme, aged in her late seventies, warned that new cost-cutting measures, including the roll-out of self-service technology, would further erode the vital function the county’s libraries play in society.

The former branch and area librarian for Beaconsfield and High Wycombe said: “These cuts will, in time, kill off the whole ethos and character of what library work is about.”

Dorme, who served the county’s libraries for 30 years, hailed their provision of ‘free access to everyone to pursue knowledge and culture’ and their importance for children’s development.

However, the former librarian warned that such benefits were under threat after the cabinet approved a raft of planned cuts to Buckinghamshire’s libraries last month in a bid to save the council £555,000 a year.

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The plan, dubbed ‘Library Flex’, is to introduce new self-service kiosks for borrowing books, as well as other user-operated technology, while also reducing staffed hours by 25-30 per cent and relying more on volunteers and community groups to run libraries when there are no staff on site.

Council documents do not use the word ‘cuts’ but say that that the ‘savings potential’ lies in staffing costs and that there may be a ‘headcount reduction’ of 18-20 people under the plan, which could ‘trigger redundancy and pension strain costs’.

Of the 10 county libraries, ‘Library Flex’ is to be introduced in Amersham, Aylesbury, Beaconsfield, Buckingham, Chesham, Hazlemere, Marlow and Princes Risborough.

Site visits have also been undertaken to estimate the costs of building alterations at the remaining two county libraries, High Wycombe and Burnham.

The council said services at High Wycombe Library may be cut to one floor only and said it was in talks with Buckinghamshire Healthcare Trust to explore the creation of a ‘health on the high street’ space on the ground floor.

Dorme, who worked as a librarian in Wycombe for five years and Beaconsfield for 20 years, said the council’s move towards ‘self-service’ libraries to save money was a ‘terrible’ idea.

She told the Bucks Free Press: “These machines are going to be installed when the libraries are shut, and no staff are there.

“I don’t see the point of it. Not many people will use those machines. I am worried about the security of the building. We are going to get vandals in. That is madness.

“We have self-service machines now. A lot of elderly people don’t want to use them. They would rather talk to a human being. I think these things are happening behind closed doors.”

The safety of unstaffed libraries was one of the main issues raised by councillors as they discussed the planned cuts at last month’s cabinet meeting.

However, the blueprints for ‘Library Flex’ detail a range of security measures, including that lockable doors will be accessed via a membership number and pin and connected to the ‘self-operated library controller’.

Door sensors will also be installed to reduce tailgating, while there will also be 360-degree CCTV coverage and a burglar alarm system that can detect movement and signal a responder.

The council said that it would hold a public consultation on ‘Library Flex’, involving library staff and volunteers, partners, library users, residents and non-library members.

This will be undertaken between now and October before a ‘staff restructure’ takes place in January 2025 and ‘Library Flex’ is implemented in April.

Dorme, who is originally from Durham, said the council still had several questions to answer, including about how many redundancies there might be as part of the library cuts.

The former librarian, who began her career as a graduate trainee at Slough Library, claimed that she had witnessed the slow demise of Buckinghamshire’s libraries over the last few decades and that she had become a ‘bit of an activist’ in her retirement to highlight how the service has been stripped back.

In 1997, like many other senior librarians, including the county librarian at the time, Dorme accepted voluntary redundancy and early retirement.

She said: “I loved my job, and in hindsight, I realised that I had the most fulfilling years working for a library service that was one of the best in the country, well-staffed and well-funded.”

But the retiree says she was ‘fortunate’ to leave before ‘very significant changes’ in the organisation made it ‘much weaker and more vulnerable to cuts’.

She explained that after 1997, the libraries lost their own library committee within the council and the protection of the education department of which they were a part.

Dorme said: “My appointment letter stated that the chief education officer was my boss; thus, all funding came from the education department’s budget.

“This ceased, and libraries were on their own and expected to fight for their own money without a committee of councillors and without solid leadership supporting their cause. Hence, there began a downward spiral of cuts to staffing, book funds, and opening hours.”

Buckinghamshire Council’s corporate director for communities, Richard Barker said: “The traditional and much-loved library service has really changed and evolved over time; while book-lending remains the core focus of our libraries, the way people use their local library has evolved and developed over the years.

“As well as borrowing books, residents now go to their local library to get online, to meet people, and to access other council services and support. A large number of library users now use our e-library services, accessing e-books remotely and instantly without visiting a library in person. 

“We need a modern library service that reflects these changes and continues to provide face to face contact for the people who still value this in their local library. Library-flex allows us to do this; we thank long-serving librarians for their work and dedication, and these staff will know that what we offer today is very different from ten or twenty years ago.

“It’s crucial we continue to provide a library service that is relevant, value for money for all users and for our residents, whose council tax ultimately pays for the service. This is about introducing a more flexible service while making the savings that we have to deliver. We are consulting on these plans in the coming weeks which will provide a great opportunity for people to give us their feedback on the proposals.”

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