Rural communities in the Highlands have voiced concern about the uncertain future of the area’s mobile library service.
Six of the ageing fleet of seven vehicles are considered unfit for purpose and need to be replaced.
The situation has already led to disruptions with the vans being off the road. No relief vehicles are available.
High Life Highland operates the service and the fleet is maintained by Highland Council.
Council faces budget gap
The high cost of maintenance and replacing the mobile libraries is an issue for the council which in October reported a budget gap of £61.7 million for 2024-25.
This is predicted to rise to £108.3 million over three years.
The vehicles tour rural communities in Caithness and Sutherland, the Far north coast, Lochaber and Badenoch. They also cover Invergordon and the Black Isle, Dingwall and the Moray Firth, Wester Ross and Skye and Lochalsh.
Stops are made at primary schools, residential homes, community halls and at private homes for housebound people.
It is believed future options being considered include leasing smaller vehicles better suited to single-track roads.
But a streamlined service may also mean fewer vehicles and communities being visited less often.
In real terms, this could mean every four weeks instead of three.
The situation has been discussed by community councils in the region.
Anne Macrae is chair of Applecross Community Council. She said: “There has been a great deal of uncertainty over what future plans might be. It would be good to have some positive progress confirmed soon.”
“People feel it very important that a face-to-face service continues in Applecross, allowing folk of all ages to step into the library van to browse and touch the books before choosing.
“Members of the community of all ages look forward to the visits and have made it clear that they do not want to lose the service.”
An important and valued service
She said a streamlined service with fewer visits would be preferable to only being able to order online.
“We would find a four week visit, instead of the current three weeks, acceptable but would hope that if using fewer vehicles no one would be put out of a job.”
Caroline Hamilton is chair of Torridon and Kinlochewe Community Council. She said the mobile library is an important and valued service.
“There have been times when the community has been expecting the library and it hasn’t come.
“We were told that, because the vehicles are so old, if they break down they can’t come and they haven’t got any back-up.
Members of the community of all ages look forward to the visits
“It is very well used and valued by schools, older people, younger people – everyone in the community.
“It would be a tragedy if they stopped it or reduce it because of the value it brings to the community.”
A High Life Highland spokeswoman said: “Currently, six of the seven mobile libraries need replacement which has led to some disruptions of the service in recent times.
“Unfortunately, this challenge is not helped with the significant financial challenges both organisations are facing.
“High Life Highland and The Highland Council are currently working together to better understand how such services can be delivered including accessibility and customer needs.
“This will also help to inform future fleet requirements and to establish specifications and costs of replacement vehicles.”
Alternative service offered
She said an alternative service is offered when vehicles are off the road.
Customers can have books dropped off at their homes to ensure they have access to reading material.
“While this service is not a replacement for a full mobile library service, which includes regular visits to communities and schools, it may ease some of the difficulties for the most vulnerable and isolated service users.”