ONCE upon a time, there were 56 libraries in Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset attracting around four million visitors a year.

It’s a success story – but will it have a happy ending? That chapter has yet to be written but with council funding about to be slashed by 28 per cent over the next four years, it would be naive to think that local library services will escape unscathed.

Dorset County Council has already outlined proposals to save more than £300,000 from its annual libraries budget, which this year is £5.3 million.

The money would be saved by reducing the amount spent on books, “reconfiguring” the service which could involve closures or reducing opening hours, and using the library management system more efficiently.

Bournemouth council is looking to save £160,000 from this year’s budget of £3.8m while Poole was waiting for more information before reassessing its £2.5m libraries budget.

“Nothing can be ruled in or out,” said Tracy Long, Dorset’s library services manager. “We need to consult with communities to better understand what they want from the library service.

“Once we’ve got all that information we’ll know what people want and can look at what we can afford.”

Libraries are ripe for cuts because the law is vague on what councils must provide – requiring only a “comprehensive and efficient library service”.

Dorset, which has 34 static public libraries, four mobile libraries and a home delivery service, Bournemouth, which has 12 libraries and a home library service and Poole, which has 10 static libraries and one mobile library, could all argue they go above and beyond.

Closures would be the easiest option but also be the most controversial, as Dorset County Council found out when it suggested closing 13 libraries.

Alternatives include reduced opening hours, lower book budgets and a greater reliance on volunteers to man libraries. Dorset already does this but Bournemouth and Poole only use volunteers to deliver books or assist in specific projects.

Councils are not allowed to charge for library membership but may seek income from DVD rentals, internet access and fines.

Derek Henderson, of the Friends of Colehill Library, said reducing opening hours, while unwelcome, would be better than closing libraries altogether.

“Libraries have formed a central role in the oldest societies,” he said. “Where they have been lost or destroyed you see a decline in culture. They are fundamental and you don’t really feel you should have to keep justifying them – it ought to be in our blood and genes.”

His suggestion to councils is to “keep it simple” and concentrate on providing a basic book lending service. Together, our three local councils have spent £1.87m on installing self-service technology and just over £27,000 on downloadable e-books – things some residents view as an unnecessary extravagance.

Tracy Long says councils need to find the right balance. “We do need to keep pace with what customers and potential customers want, with new technology and the demands of society,” she said.

“We were able to take advantage of a good deal on e-books and to date they have been enormously successful. It’s different things for different needs – there are some people that want to handle a book, others that are happy to read it on a screen.”

Longer-term, there is the possibility local library authorities could be merged. Ed Vaizey, the new minister responsible for public libraries, has already stated: “151 separate library authorities and 151 library management teams is too many.”

Mr Henderson agrees the idea is worth considering: “There would be benefits to combining Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole – you’d treble the book stock and buying computers and other equipment would be cheaper because you’d be buying in bulk.”

But while councils across the south west are considering new ways of working together, Tracy Long warns: “We have three different computer systems so it’s not as easy as saying let’s create one big library authority.”

Whatever route councils opt for, the big task will be persuading residents the cuts are necessary. In Dorset, there are many people who are well used to fighting for their library – and are prepared to do so again.”

Want to know more? We've bookmarked background reading on everything from the world's most beautiful libraries to the government's outline plans and how the Americans are tackling the issue. Go to delicious.com/bournemouthecho/libraries