East Antrim politicians have been warned they need to lobby for more cash for libraries - or risk seeing branches close.
The stark crisis caution comes from NIPSA spokesman John McKeegan, who said a recent £1.4 million budget could be the beginning of the end for some smaller libraries.
“Since it was formed in 2009, Libraries NI have already had to oversee restructuring of the service, there has been a round of voluntary redundancies and a review which resulted in the closure of some libraries,” Mr McKeegan said.
“More recently there was a revision of opening hours which inevitably meant some branches are not open for as long as they used to be.”
He was aware that in one of the bigger East Antrim libraries it meant a loss of 78 working hours in total.
Mr McKeegan added: “There is a potential impact on opening hours because, for example, there has to sufficient staff to meet fire audit requirements and if the required staffing level is not there, it will result in ad hoc closures.
“It is particularly worrying for smaller libraries. If they have to close for whatever reason, footfall goes down, which in turn skews the figures but that will not be taken into account at the next review.”
The union representative claimed: “This is a critical time for our libraries and for the very future of the library service.
“I think library users need to be aware of that and, more importantly, the politicians need to know it and act now to save the service.”
In response to Mr McKeegan’s comments, a Libraries NI spokeswoman said: “As a result of budget cuts, Libraries NI is required to save 4.4 per cent of its budget (£1.4 million) in-year by March 2015. A number of savings measures have been implemented throughout Libraries NI and this includes cuts to the staffing budget. Library services across Northern Ireland will be affected as vacancies may not be filled and agency cover has been released or is being reviewed for possible release. This is a regrettable course of action as agency staff have provided a valuable service.”
While the spokeswoman said Libraries NI “does not foresee any permanent library closures this year”, she added that further measures would “regrettably have to include a review of branch opening hours”.
She continued: “This process will take place during October and it is anticipated that planned temporary changes will be implemented from November onwards. In the interim there may be temporary ad hoc reductions in opening hours in many areas. The aim will be to minimise disruption, protect core library services and prevent permanent library closures.
“We will make every effort to inform customers of changes to opening hours in advance.”