Local government reform in Scotland has posed severe financial problems for new unitary councils, with harsh effects on their services. While politicians propound policies for life-long learning and the importance of public access to the information superhighway, those running our libraries, both in the community and in schools, face cuts on what they can spend on books.
Glasgow has had its book fund cut by Pounds 245,000 this year. Further savings of Pounds 500,000 are required. Next year, Pounds 700,000, 6 per cent, has to be trimmed from the department's Pounds 13 million budget.
"We have two basic pressures on us," says Mr Bell. "On the one hand, we have the drive to get public expenditure down, which affects us the same way as everyone else. On the other hand, this has been exacerbated by the effects of re-organisation, where the net effect of the allocation of funds from the Government is that the new city council has got less money than was available to the previous two authorities covering the city population by a very considerable margin.
"The overall effect is that we are facing substantial cuts in our budget, which can only be met by reducing the level of service." Staff cuts, a reduction in opening hours and even public library closures are all possibilities.
Although Glasgow's educational resources centre is run by the city's education department, Glasgow libraries, previously the responsibility of the district, have long been involved in providing resources for primary schools. One idea is to pool resources.
Mr Bell says that exploratory talks have been held: "We now have responsibility for the archives section and for the library for elected members and council officials in the City Chambers. It would seem from our point of view that any central support service for schools could be run by the council's library service.
"We already provide a range of services for children, and we could probably do it more efficiently across the board. Though I don't think that's the view of our school library colleagues. They don't seem keen on the idea."
It's an approach that has already been adopted by Moray, where the school and community library services have been integrated, in the hope of both bringing together skills and experience and making savings.
The idea is to set up an educational service through public libraries. By creating an effective partnership, the council aims to benefit schools, youngsters and the wider community. A main schools information and learning centre has been established at the new council library in Elgin and support for other schools set up in four libraries and in schools.
Other authorities have had to take more drastic steps. In Dumfries and Galloway, the service has lost Pounds 40,000 of its book fund this year and could be facing cuts of around 8 per cent in its Pounds 2 million budget. Small branch libraries in rural areas could close and big libraries could be shut for one day a week. The school library service will cease next March, although project elements for primary schools will remain.
Meanwhile, schools library resources once held centrally by the former regions have often been split between two or three new councils. This process of "disaggregation" is much lamented by Bob Craig, director of the Scottish Library Association, who compares it to splitting up a set of encyclopedias. "In Central and Lothian regions the schools library collections were split up, with the result that you lose the value of the critical mass of the collection," he says.
He warns that it's easy for councillors to cut book funds. "You are talking sizeable cuts but you don't notice them right away. What you will see in time is that the range of material is not so great and you are having to wait longer for books you request. There's a knock-on effect into schools and provision for children."
Mr Craig predicts that cutting back on new books will set up a vicious circle at a time when literacy and investigative skills are being emphasised in schools: "You are not providing the resources to do it."
The news, however, is not all doom and gloom. While library services are feeling the pinch, some, like South Ayrshire, are adopting quite innovative approaches to tackle the problems. It has combined with North and East Ayrshire councils to provide a schools library service, and has opened Scotland's first Cyber Centre at the Carnegie Library in Ayr, the first of its scale in Britain, with 15 Internet terminals. With a wealth of educational and business material, the Cyber Centre has hugely expanded the reference material available at the library.
Children under 16 and leisure card holders can hire a PC program for Pounds 1 a session and use the Internet for Pounds 2 a session. Charges for adults are Pounds 2 and Pounds 3 respectively. Income generated is being ploughed into other library services.