Scotland's libraries are part of the network of social care and should be professionally staffed like any other council services, according to a leading academic.

At a time when local authorities across the country are considering cuts to vital services, including library services, Professor Peter Reid says free access to books remains fundamentally important in a civilised society.

The professor of librarianship at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University added that while it might be a time of crisis for local government finances, libraries can and do evolve.

Read more: Budget cuts: Fears the axe could fall on Scots library services

Professor Reid said: “The place libraries find themselves in, it is a complete myth that libraries were always like this. They have constantly evolved through the entire time there has been a public library service in Scotland or indeed anywhere. They will continue to change and the models of delivery will evolve, they are however buffeted by serious, financial climate.

“All the research shows, that the physical space is highly valued. There was a perception that we can do all of this digitally, we can give ebooks or content online and we don’t need these expensive spaces and we don’t need professional staff. I strongly disagree with both of those theories.

"There is also the fundamental importance in a civilised society of free access to books."

The Herald previously reported how Midlothian Council was considering cuts to library services to tackle a £14m budget deficit. Proposals included not replacing books with self-serve or community run facilities.

Mr Reid believes the physical space of a library is so important to many communities.

“Some of us are very fortunate as middle class professionals, that we can afford to go out and buy the equipment and resources we need. There are large proportions of our fellow citizens who are not in that position and they are the people for whom libraries are really important such as the ability to log on to free wifi, have trained staff to support them through a benefits claim online.

“Ebooks are fabulous but there is still a whole swathe of the population actually want a physical book. Studies have been done about the value of books to mental health. There are even studies of the psychological benefits of holding a book in your hand and your right thumb being aware of how many pages are left.

“It might seem trivial, but the joy of books physical and or digital plays into so many agendas, health and wellbeing, education and attainment. You look at public libraries and how they work with sectors like schools. You wouldn’t run any other council service without professionally trained staff. You wouldn’t run social work without social workers, or housing without trained housing professionals.

“Librarians go to inordinate lengths to do reader development and stock selection. Books are not magically stuck on to an online portal, if you do no one will find them.”

He added there are also librarians’ public-facing roles and how they support their community, how they encourage a reader development attitude.

“They form part of a much broader network of social care – that is not just going into houses to look after frail vulnerable individuals, the library is part of that really important social care network,” he added.

“We saw that in lockdown, some libraries knew, individually, their vulnerable customers in lockdown. Staff were phoning these people out of genuine concern for their wellbeing.

“Libraries supporting individuals and its communities is part of its primary function.”

While figures show lending numbers have decreased, Mr Reid said this doesn’t reflect usage. He said the Scottish Book Trust initiative, Book Bug, for young children was a great example of bringing in different generations to libraries.

He added: “There has been a trend for many years of lending declining, but also in many places a trend in visits increasing. There is a preoccupation about lending statistics. In my own library, I can be found in the local history section rather than lending. It always strikes me there are kids from school or college using computers. This idea that we view what libraries are doing through the prism of issues and issue numbers is a narrow one.

“Across Scotland, in terms of our physical book stock the services are roughly in the same place. If you need to find a copy of Who’s Who you’ll find it in the same way if it's Lerwick or Johnstone, where we have less equity is in terms of the digital provision.

“Ebooks across Scotland vary hugely according to authority in terms of quantity and the range available. Recently,  the highest total of ebook stock of any single local authority library service was about 17,000 or 18,000 titles, compared to physical book stock that is a very small proportion. The majority of libraries' ebook service is around 8,000 or 9,000, where as a library may have many more times that of physical books."

He said while there are benefits with ebook provision there might be an ease at which multiple copies can be read, but it is not an even picture.

Mr Reid said: “No one should imagine that you can wave this magic wand, you have to invest in ebook services.

“In some smaller communities, libraries maybe part-time and have almost by necessity done themselves out of a job. Their opening hours were so limited that they don’t actually meet the needs of the community, their stock might be relatively small.

“It is a difficult decision and I never want to see a library close, but there are other models of delivery whether that’s through mobile or online provision or through bigger, better hubs. That’s not without a problem because people have to travel – that’s maybe ok in central Glasgow, but problematic if you are in the West Highlands. I think we have to be realistic and not overly precious about every last branch library even though individual communities will rightly fight for them.

“We really have to understand the balance between physical space and digital space. They are both equally important and equally valid. We can see that in the way that libraries have supported people in the cost of living crisis, the space is also really important in delivering education and attainment.

"People who might just be under the radar as being vulnerable and are not necessarily flagged up with services, that's where front line staff in public libraries are really good.”