DORSET residents will play a key role in deciding the future of the county’s library service in the wake of public spending cuts.

The service will be consulting on its future as it prepares for cuts in its budget.

The library service, which has an annual budget of £5.3million and employs 158 staff, initially unveiled plans to save around £468,000 as part of Dorset County Council’s Meeting Future Challenges programme.

Further possible savings identified to save £27million in the next financial year, include withdrawing funding from as many as 20 of the 34 counties to save £417,300 and a further £143,000 reduction in expenditure on books and materials.

These measures will go before the council next week but exactly which libraries are affected has not yet been determined.

Dorset County Council library service manager Tracy Long said how that money is saved will very much be shaped by the feedback from the consultation that will be carried out over coming weeks.

She said: “As an initial step we have set up a panel involving county councillors who look at what we know about the library service and what we need to know.

“We will be consulting with library users and non-users to best understand what the expectations are for the library service.

“We are looking to deliver the best library service for the communities in Dorset with the resources available and that the best possible service will be informed by the consultation.

“It’s an opportunity to shape the future of library services in Dorset.”

There are currently 34 libraries across the county, with four mobile libraries also visiting over 280 locations including residential homes and sheltered accommodation.

Visitor numbers across the libraries has been declining year on year, with the total number of visits. There were 2,028,027 last year, compared to 2,575,240 in 2004/5.

Mrs Long said the trend reflects the overall national picture and the county’s libraries are continuing to provide a valuable service to a significant number of residents.

She said: “On the whole, the number of visitors is declining, use of libraries is declining and there are lot of different reasons for that.

“People can buy books and DVDs much cheaper than they used to be able to and the internet is more readily available. We are still very proud of the fact that over two million people use the service every year.”

The library service has faced significant challenges in the recent past.

In 2007, 13 of its 34 libraries were faced with the prospect of closure, but the plans were dropped following a review of the service.

One of the ways savings were made was the use of community volunteers to support the existing services and extend opening hours.

Volunteers currently run extended sessions in Beaminster, Burton Bradstock and Puddletown and a volunteer scheme is expected to be introduced at Crossways Library in the new year.

However, Mrs Long said the volunteer approach was not necessarily the answer for all communities.

She said: “It is very dependent on the local community make up and other facilities in the area, it’s not a one size fits all model.

“It seems to work very well in small rural communities but we have not tested it in larger communities.”