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The libraries service provided by Northumberland CC is fair but has uncertain prospects for improvement, according ...
The libraries service provided by Northumberland CC is fair but has uncertain prospects for improvement, according to an independent report released today by the Audit Commission.

The Audit Commission inspection team gave the one star rating a broad range of services are offered. Staff are friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and committed, however customer satisfaction levels are low compared to other councils and the service is not pro-active, particularly in promoting itself to minority groups.

Mick Hannon, commissioning inspector, Northern Region, said:

'The impact good library services can have on people's lives is immense. Their quality and how they are promoted can lead to better exam results, higher levels of employment and also assist in tackling disadvantage. The council is committed to improving the service and has allocated extra funding over the next three years to meet national standards in key areas. However, in consultation with all stakeholders, it must assess what contribution it wants its libraries to make to its ambitious wider agenda.'

The inspection report highlights a number of key strengths:

* Some library buildings are attractive and user-friendly, and physical access in some libraries has been improved.

* Staff are friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and committed, and have done some good work to make libraries welcoming, especially to children. There are a number of activities aimed at children and young people.

* In some areas of the service, customer satisfaction levels are high, and

some key projects have been delivered in priority areas.

However, inspectors also found weaknesses:

* The service does not know enough about who its customers are. It does not consult widely with users or non-users, and does not know what impact the service is having on the people of Northumberland.

* The charging policy does not target socially excluded people and the service does not systematically market or promote itself to high priority groups.

* Customer satisfaction levels are generally below average compared to other counties, and the service pays little attention to the need to retain and value existing customers.

To help the service improve, inspectors made a number of recommendations, including that the council should:

* develop a set of clear, challenging, and measurable aims for the library service. These should be supported by action plans that are resourced, measurable and prioritised;

* plan how the council will consult with both users and non-users to enable the service to identify local people's priorities and areas for improvement;

* develop a robust action plan to ensure all library buildings meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act by December 2004.

The library service includes:

* 35 libraries

* five mobile libraries

* library services to HMP Acklington and HMYOI Castington

* the schools library service

* the housebound library service

This report covers all aspects of the library service including lending, reference, and children's services; music and audio services; local studies; and the use of IT. There are 108 (full-time equivalent) staff and the service's budget is£3.04m.

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