Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Who Do We Want Running Our Libraries?

The Reality of Running a Community Library

With libraries all over the country threatened with closure, and councils promoting the idea of volunteer-run community libraries as the best alternative, what does running a community library really mean?

Last week, I talked to Jim Brooks, Chairman of the Friends of Little Chalfont Community Library, in Buckinghamshire.

Four years ago, Buckinghamshire County Council closed eight of its libraries. Two of these, including Little Chalfont, have kept going as volunteer-run community libraries, offering a comprehensive library service. Last November, a further 14 were told that they must become community libraries or face closure, leaving only 9 council-run libraries in the county.

Now LCCL is being held up around the country as the model of the future of our libraries, which places Brooks at the eye of the storm. Librarians from all over the country are beating a path to his door, wanting to know how this small community managed to save their library.

And there is no doubt that their achievement is very impressive. They took a small village library that was under threat of closure and turned it into a vibrant community service, providing everything that the public library previously did, and more.

But be under no illusion. This was not simply a matter of a few volunteers taking over the jobs previously done by professional library staff. The original terms from Bucks County Council were that the library had to be provided at NO COST to the Council. The community had to raise enough money to pay for the rent of the existing building, charges for IT equipment, supplies such as bar codes, and a management fee to the Council. They also had to choose whether to pay the council an annual fee (£7k to rent existing stock, or to create their own stock from scratch through donations. (They chose the latter path.)

In all, their running costs amount to some £20k pa – money which is raised from a mixture of public donations, grants, library revenues (i.e. fines), and letting out the building to other community groups.

The volunteer staff, between them, have to provide not only basic librarian skills but Financial Management, Health and Safety, Staff Management, Stock Procurement, Building Maintenance, Data Protection, and a host of other managerial functions.

Bucks has learnt something from these pioneering Community Libraries. The new terms being offered are somewhat more favourable and the council is promising a more cooperative approach. But some other councils, keen to rush through the concept, appear to be ignoring these lessons. Like Bucks four years ago, they expect Community Libraries to be able to go it alone, ignoring the fact that these two communities happened to have what were probably the ideal conditions for this experiment to succeed.

Both Little Chalfont and Bucks’ other community library in Chalfont St Giles are in highly prosperous areas at the edge of the London commuter belt. The surrounding communities are both willing and comparatively able to raise the cash for a service it wishes to maintain. What’s more, there is a large pool of people (retired, at home with children etc) who have the professional, managerial and business experience to carry out all the functions necessary to run a library. The same thing simply could not work on, say, a sink estate where many of the residents are second generation unemployed, or a scattered farming community where a majority are working 18 hours a day just to survive.

Yet in Somerset and Gloucestershire, for example, the areas targeted for community libraries are among the poorest and most rural in the country.

Jim Brooks is angry that Councils are holding LCCL up as the blueprint to be used, willy nilly, elsewhere. He strongly believes that a check list of key criteria must be met in order for a community library such as theirs to be viable.

“Where communities meet these criteria, we are happy to give them all the help we can. But where they don’t, councils must understand, it’s a non-starter.”

Libraries as Social Enterprise

Another model for a community library is that being proposed in Lewisham – a very different environment to Little Chalfont. There, businessman Darren Taylor has put in a bid to take over up to four libraries the council intends to close. He spoke to me on the phone from the offices of his business, Eco Computer Systems.

Several years ago, Taylor left an IT job in the city to set up a not-for-profit social enterprise dedicated to computer recycling and the provision of IT training for those without computer access. When the company moved into the Pepys Resource Centre in Deptford and Taylor discovered that the building was a former library, he decided to restore its former function. Starting with a stock of one thousand books donated by Lewisham council, and another fifteen hundred donated by the local community, he set up a small library and computer resource centre.

Taylor’s aunt was a librarian in Lewisham. He’s dyslexic and taught himself to read in libraries. He is clearly passionate about providing universal access to books, ebooks and IT – particularly to those with learning difficulties. The Pepys Resource Centre provides specialised hardware and software for the disabled and those with learning difficulties, something he hopes to replicate in other libraries.

He plans to set up a charity, Ecolibraries, to run four much larger libraries. Lewisham council currently opens these libraries three and a half days a week. He intends to keep them open them six days a week. As at the Resource Centre, he hopes to work with other groups to provide a café, IT training, after-school coaching in Maths and English and other services. The libraries would be fully linked to Lewisham Council Library Systems and the Council would provide some services free of charge, including installing self-service tills and employing a full-time community liaison librarian whose job it is to support to the community libraries.

Taylor’s ‘multi-function’ approach means that he can obtain financial support from a variety of different sources. The provision of IT training attracts grants from the local Housing Association, and by turning the libraries into Heritage Centres for the local community, he hopes to get Lottery funding that will help to pay for the restoration of the library buildings.

But not every community has a social benefactor like Darren Taylor.

On one point both Darren Taylor and Jim Brooks are clear: they are not doing this because they think they are better placed to run libraries than the Councils. Faced with losing the libraries in their local communities, they found themselves in a position to bring together the skills and resources to rescue the service, and they acted. But neither believes they have found a panacea.

Read the full article in the next edition of Words with Jam

Jim Brooks is due to be interviewed for BBC Breakfast on 19th January.


  1. This article needs as wide a circulation as possible.

  2. This is a very interesting and timely article. Writing as a professional librarian, I naturally find the whole idea of volunteer-run libraries problematic. Why bother having teachers, solicitors or plumbers when you can put any random person off the streets into a classroom, a courtroom or a kitchen full of burst pipes and leave them to it?
    I was therefore much heartened to read the account of the complexities involved in setting up community libraries. Jim Brooks and his fellow volunteers have done an impressive job, but as the article points out, Little Chalfont is hardly a typical community, and neither the level of free time, commitment and expertise in the skills required, nor the financial backup are likely to be readily found in most of the communities across the UK that are being hardest hit.
    Finding volunteers who are prepared to turn up for one afternoon a week and stamp out a few books is simply not enough.

  3. I watched the coverage on BBC Breakfast this morning. They made some good points, but I was disappointed to hear the journalist say that Buckinghamshire Council 'gave' the library back to the community to run. As the interview above makes clear, nothing was 'given' to the volunteers at all.

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