10:40am Monday 31st January 2011
By Liam Sloan
Threatened libraries across Oxfordshire can be kept running with council cash if they are managed by a private company, an American outsourcing firm said.
Stuart Fitzgerald, vice president of Library Systems & Services UK, said his firm could keep open some or all of the 20 branches and save millions for Oxfordshire County Council.
The authority wants to remove all funding from 20 of its 43 libraries to save £2m over four years.
And the council said discussions with a similar firm had not been “promising”.
It has urged volunteers to run libraries and is setting aside £600,000 for this and other ‘Big Society’ projects.
LSSI, a 30-year-old family-run firm, manages 70 libraries across the US where it has installed self-issue technology, instant print machines, coffee shops and adult education initiatives.
Mr Fitzgerald said the firm would look at cutting staffing and management costs but could not be specific as it had not spoken with the council.
He said: “We would relish the opportunity to have a discussion. Some people perceive the involvement of the private sector means selling off the Crown Jewels. We would not own the libraries, the shelves or the books.
“We would simply manage the staff and service, under a five to 15-year contract.”
Mr Fitzgerald said talks with one South of England council looking to close 40 per cent of branches had led LSSI to propose keeping all open without cutting opening hours.
Only one of England’s 151 local authorities, the London Borough of Hounslow, has contracted out its libraries, to private firm John Laing.
But Mr Fitzgerald predicted up to 12 councils would follow by the end of this year and LSSI is looking to work with authorities including Somerset and Brent on future plans.
County council leader Keith Mitchell said: “We have had discussions with the single UK business with expertise in this area. Having assessed the characteristics of the county and our library network, they concluded they could not offer an outsourced library service that would yield cost savings.”
“I retain an open mind on the concept, but the advice is not promising at this time.”
Headington Library campaigner Sarah Eddie, who handed a 2,374-signature petition to County Hall on Tuesday, said: “It’s definitely someone we would like to meet and talk to. It seems everything has been rushed through at a breakneck pace.
“We would like the opportunity and time to look at other options.”
Meanwhile, Oxford Civic Society urged Mr Mitchell to make cost savings without closing popular branches.
Member Anne Routledge said costs could be reduced by 43 per cent at Summertown Library. She claimed cuts in staffing, new book stock and cleaning bills could cut costs from about £138,014 to £78,286 a year, allowing for inflation.
Mr Mitchell welcomed the analysis but said he was “very sceptical of drawing conclusions for all our network for a single and small piece of work on just one”.
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