Library campaigners have called on a council to promise it will uphold its “statutory duty” to run services.

 Essex County Council has moved away from its original 2019 draft plan for volunteer community groups to run libraries, and now commits to keeping all 74 libraries open with paid Essex County Council staff.

But campaign group Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) has called for reassurance the council will not revert to its original plan.   

Librarian and SOLE member Andrew Coburn told the Epping Forest Guardian: “We recognise the new plan does not propose to set up a network of so-called community libraries’, which had been central to the previous plan.   

“But this is why, however, we still want a public statement from the council that they will not abandon their statutory duty to run libraries and entertain offers from community and other groups to takeover and run libraries in the way that the old plan envisaged.”

In response to a drop in the number of people using library services, plans outlined in Essex County Council’s 2019 strategy suggested a community-led effort to run libraries.

The plan was supported by figures that showed book borrowing had slumped by 8.4 million to 3.9 million over 10 years to 2018/19, demand for computers had fallen by 38 per cent and the number of active members had fallen by 33 per cent.

Committing to keep libraries open with paid staff, the 2022 plan aims to enhance “the opportunities that the library service can offer.”   

It includes support for different groups from toddlers to school children, outreach programmes aimed at people with disabilities and hard-to-reach communities, and support for older library users with digital technologies.

Efforts to help adults improve literacy and prepare children for school are also featured in the new draft along with plans to work with community organisations to improve employment skills. 

An Essex Libraries Spokesperson said: “We have seen a great response so far to the survey, and we thank everyone who has taken part.

“We love our libraries as much as our residents do, and we want to give them a Library service that everyone can be proud of and one that will enhance lives and help communities to thrive. The draft library plan sets out how we aim to achieve this.

“We already have one of the best and wide reaching library services in the country and we want to build on this to create a service that is even more modern, vibrant and sustainable, with improved access, better facilities and more opportunities for local people.”