by Natasha Harding
A consultation into plans to cut the opening hours of many of Kent's libraries concludes later this month - with council bosses needing to save £1 million.
Under the strategy, libraries will be grouped according to an assessment of how well used they are throughout the day with their opening hours being adjusted based on the number of people coming through the doors.
Ashford library could see its hours cut from 55 a week to 42, Dartford could be reduced to 42 from 57 and Maidstone to 42 from 55.
Some, primarily smaller outlets, however, will see an increase.
In a statement, the county council said it had to respond to changes in the way people used libraries, coupled with financial pressures.
The authority has been forced to slash millions from its budgets over recent years as a result of cuts to central government funding.
It said: “Kent is a changing county and how people use services is changing. We cannot ignore the financial pressure on all county council services.”
It comes after a prolonged drop in the use of libraries over the last decade, fuelled by discounted best-sellers, online resources and e-readers.
However, reading charity Beanstalk believes youngsters in particular will be affected by the proposed changes.
It explained: “We believe strongly in the concept of libraries and the important role they play in getting more books in the hands of children.
“Research shows one in eight disadvantaged children in the UK don’t own a single book.
“Libraries help give these children the opportunity to access a world of books and stories for free, helping them thrive in reading and their education.
“That’s why Beanstalk has recently partnered with ASCEL (Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians) to make sure we can work closely with libraries and their staff in the community and ensure our volunteers are bringing the magical world of books to more children.”
And they are far from alone in voicing their anxieties.
David Grant, sales and marketing director at Tunbridge Wells-based book publisher, Search Press, said: “The constant erosion of public libraries is one of great concern to all publishers.
"Since 2010, 478 libraries have closed in Scotland, England and Wales.
"The number of books held in that period has dropped by 14 million and librarian numbers have been cut by 8,000.
"A good library should be at the hub of any community... it's a common misconception they're just places to borrow books from" - David Grant
“So, you could say that public libraries as a sector have taken more than their share of pain during the period of austerity.
“While we have to be grateful that KCC aren’t talking about further closures, we should all be worried about these proposed reductions in opening hours.
“A good library should be at the hub of any community. It’s a common misconception they’re just places to borrow books from.
"Libraries play a vibrant role in the development of culture, they promote wider literacy, and motivate readers and learners for life.
“They provide a place for learning and creativity, and for developing important skills such as IT - invaluable to the sometimes techno-phobic older people.
"And especially in some rural areas of Kent, libraries play a vital role in supporting many of the older population providing them with a place to meet others.
“Rather than constant hacking at libraries trying to save yet more money, I’d urge some more creative thinking goes in to the sector.
“We hear of some enterprising libraries, mainly in the USA but increasingly in the UK too, who extend the range of extra-curricular activity to include things like knitting and sewing clubs.
“It helps with social cohesion and inclusivity and it gives people the chance to learn valuable new skills within their community.
"And it can be cost neutral if local businesses support such activities.
“So, with some imagination I believe the decline in public library services can be stopped, if not necessarily reversed.
"But it is dependent on all of us in the community to use, visit and support our local libraries.”
Whitstable based TV drama writer and author Julie Wassmer, 65, is convinced the county should fight against any proposed changes to opening hours.
She explained: “If it wasn’t for having access to a public library I doubt I would ever have become a writer.
“As a child growing up in the 1960s in a rundown part of the East End of London, my horizons were limited, but a wider world was opened up to me by spending time in a local library and borrowing books that my family would never have been able to afford.
“At 18 years old, and while trying to support myself until I could get to university, I took a job at Whitechapel Library in London – an impressive building dubbed ‘the university of the ghetto’ because it was situated in a deprived area widely populated at that time by members of the Jewish community - many of whom had escaped the horrors of the concentration camps.
“Books may be more affordable these days - and accessible from online sources - but that doesn’t diminish the importance of public libraries to our communities.
"Why? Because libraries have always offered more than just the lending of books; they are a gateway to learning itself, which is why their specially trained staff have as much of an important role to play as any teacher.
“I am therefore dismayed that Kent County Council should be proposing cuts to the county’s library opening hours.
“Why should we be concerned if a major Kent library loses 13 of its weekly opening hours?
"Because to many who care about libraries, these proposed reductions represent the thin end of the wedge - and once applied, further budgetary demands will only result in more cuts.
“As a Kent-based author I have regular contact with libraries across the county - including the smaller branches whose services are just as important - though threatened with erosion. “Our public libraries provide safe community spaces for our children, and to anyone seeking help with literary skills, or in using computer services that they may not otherwise be able to access.
“My late friend, Richard Stainton, a former teacher and committed library campaigner wrote: ‘Public libraries are a marker of a healthy and civilised community.’
He also reminded me that the provision of public library services is not discretionary, but a statutory obligation.
These are probably the most widely supported facilities run by local authorities.
"Cutting services or casting them into an uncertain future is not what our county councillors were elected to do.
“All too often, the future of our valued public services is determined by those who appear to know the cost of everything and the value of little, but the public consultation is running until January 29 by which you can have your say on these proposed cuts.”