St George Library, which sits at the top corner of one of Bristol’s most well-known neighbourhood parks, is uncharacteristically loud with voices when the Cable visits just before Christmas.
The small library, just off Church Road, is full of parents and toddlers singing familiar nursery rhymes. These sessions, which the council puts on across the city, are typically very popular – but despite the friendly atmosphere of the group, staff are reluctant to chat.
In November the Cable received a message from a Bristol library worker informing us that casual library staff, and people on zero-hour contracts, were having their shifts cut as a result of financial pressures with almost immediate effect.
These workers cover both short- and long-term staffing gaps, ensuring libraries can stay open. Their absence, sources from within the service say, is not only causing hardship for those who have lost shifts but is removing spaces where people can get warm and socialise, during the bleakest time of the year.
According to the government’s annual libraries report for 2022/23, 3,583 libraries remain across the country. In 2019, the Guardian reported that more 800 had closed down during the era of austerity since 2010 – a number that will certainly have grown in the meantime.
Bristol has so far kept the vast majority of its libraries open – 27 across the city – although back in 2017, 17 were under threat before council finances were adjusted. But only days into 2024, Bristol Libraries’ social media channels have announced more than 40 instances of libraries being temporarily unable to open, following on from dozens more in December.
Almost all its branch libraries, including St George, have been affected – leading to accusations of “stealth closures” in an opposition motion submitted to a council meeting on 9 January. During another recent visit, this time to Wick Road library in Brislington, the Cable was met with a sign advising service users to call ahead if they were planning to use it.
‘No place for people to go’
*Sarah, one of the many casual staff whose shifts have been terminated, says people who use libraries regularly are having to rely on social media to find out if their local library is likely to be open. “Lists go out on Instagram and Twitter most days, but they are just getting longer and longer because there are so many libraries needing to close,” she says.
Speaking of when she was told her shifts were being cancelled Sarah says: “We got the email on 13 November and were told our shifts would be honoured until the 18th [less than a week].
“Since then we’ve had no update,” adds Sarah, who has worked casually for Bristol’s library service for more than five years. She says she had already been booked in for shifts over the Christmas period, which were cut.
The knock-on effects of the cuts are not being considered, says Sarah. “Libraries are one of the only spaces left people can use where they don’t have to spend money,” she goes on. “Staff are being left in financial difficulty as a result of their shifts being cut, and library users – including those most vulnerable – are finding they have no place to go [where they can] shelter from the elements or use the loo.”
Over the past few years, Sarah recalls noticing an increase in people who use libraries to carry out essential life admin. “Those who have no digital skills, no fixed address, and parents, are among the many people relying on their local library being open,” she says.
And for casual library staff like her, some of whom are also parents working around their childcare arrangements, being laid off just before the festive period has been a blow.
Despite having other sources of income, Sarah says she has already had to make financial sacrifices to weather the loss of earnings. With no idea if and when they may be able to pick up shifts again, people like her will have had no choice but to try to find other work.
Feeling under threat
*James, a permanent libraries employee, feels the cuts provide evidence that there’s a threat to the future of libraries. In late 2022, the council proposed moving the central library from its historic building by College Green before making a U-turn, but refused to rule out doing so in future. Over the past 12 months, the local authority’s financial position has only become bleaker.
“There have been closures happening for some time because of Bristol City Council’s recruitment freeze,” James says. “Now this current cut has meant even more closures.”
James says getting rid of casual staff has not only made it difficult to keep libraries open but has put extra pressure on permanent employees. “Some casual staff have been working with us for years, so they are experienced workers and have assisted in keeping libraries open,” he says.
His points echo comments by Sarah that many casual staff fill in for people who are on long-term sick leave, meaning the vacancies they cover are not recruitable to. “After the pandemic we need these services more than ever,” says James.
Ahead of this week’s full council meeting, Tim Kent, a Lib Dem councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park, has submitted a silver motion calling on the mayor, Marvin Rees, to bring the council’s recruitment freeze to an end.
“The saving [as a result of cutting library workers] is minor, but the impact is significant,” Kent says. He adds that the public were not initially made aware of the freeze on covering vacancies in libraries, and that the policy has resulted in “stealth closures” of almost one-third of branches across Bristol.
Kent’s motion notes that while libraries are not formally part of the network of ‘welcoming spaces’ Bristol has developed over the last couple of years, for many people they play the same role – somewhere to keep warm and find the company of others. He says he hopes his motion will be reviewed in a matter of weeks so “this devastating policy can be reversed”.
A spokesperson for Bristol City Council said the decision to temporarily pause the deployment of casual library staff would “support the council to deliver a balanced budget, in a difficult financial climate for councils across the country”.
Bristol’s Labour administration is “proud to have invested in and protected libraries from national austerity since 2016”, the spokesperson added.
But with so many staff now without shifts, and closures continuing across the city, it remains to be seen whether such protection will extend to keeping Bristol’s libraries open in the long term.
*names have been changed
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