In the October issue of Words with Jam, I have written about a number of community groups either fighting for the survival of their libraries or now actively involved in running them. Here is another story to go with those: York Gardens Library in Wandsworth who, in one of the poorest wards in London, face an eye-watering target for fundraising to keep their library going.
Thea Sherer from The Friends of York Gardens Library, tells me:
"In 2010 York Gardens Library and Community Centre was threatened with closure, as a result of local government cuts. Nearby residents and civic groups came together to campaign against the decision and support came from across the borough, including from many people who had never visited this library but recognised its value to the local community. As a result of a concerted campaign, a compromise was reached to allow the library to remain open with support from community stakeholders and volunteers.
“The library and associated community centre remains open as a Direct Service Organisation (DSO) pilot project, with a reduced staff supported by volunteers. The local community will contribute to the management and day-to-day running of the library, thus reducing the cost burden on Wandsworth Borough Council.
“Part of the role of the volunteer group is to raise a significant amount of funds (more than £70K per annum) to contribute to the operational costs of the building and services. Wandsworth still provides around £100K per year of funding, including (reduced) staffing costs. Volunteers support work in the library. They also develop and run community projects which run in the community rooms and promote the library and centre."
£70k might sound like an extraordinary amount for any community to have to raise, but the scale of the challenge facing the Friends of York Gardens is made even more apparent if you consider that 60% of residents on the neighbouring estate are unemployed and more than 40% do not have English as their first language. Incidents of hidden homelessness and overcrowding are five times more likely in this ward than the national average. The area is associated with issues of crime and antisocial behaviour.
Of course what this means is that the need for library services is greater than ever, and it is this awareness that is driving the Friends . Access to books and IT at home are both significantly lower than average and the library is especially important to children and minority groups.
“The need for library services here is unquestionable,” Sherer says, “but the way these services are used may be unconventional. Several volunteer run projects are bringing more and more children into the library in a number of innovative ways. The drama club, capoeira group and craft club are all well attended. A volunteer-run GCSE tutoring course, run for free for local teenagers, has been really successful. These activities provide great things to do for local children but also increase footfall in the library itself.”
The £70k per annum fundraising challenge will be met in part by charitable fundraising and in part through letting of community rooms.
“Staff and volunteers are working very hard to increase room bookings which will help a lot. The volunteers in the Friends group are all rather stretched and so committing a lot of time to fundraising activities is a real challenge,” says Sherer. “Major library functions are all still completed by council library staff. And some very dedicated individual volunteers have been tremendously supportive, particularly when it comes to running community projects. But getting enough volunteers with sufficient commitment to assist in the library on an ongoing basis has proved a challenge.”
The group has also has to manage its partnership with Wandsworth Borough Council.
“The first twelve months were difficult while we found the best ways of working together,” Sherer says. “There were many operational aspects related to the library and the building where it was unclear, or where there was disagreement, on whether the council had decision making power or the volunteer/Friends group.
“For example, the setting of the charges for the community to hire out rooms within the building has always been set by the council and were uncompetitive and too high for community groups. Some flexibility has now been added, which has eased the situation and allowed more community organisations to use the rooms. However, the Friends group believe that more power to set these charges needs to be given to the volunteer organisation. It also took significantly longer than originally planned for the council to employ a new library manager. The project has been given significant impetus since the manager was appointed. “
In spite of everything, Sherer remains upbeat. And the dedication of determination of the Friends of York Gardens Library is unquestionable. But it is hard not to conclude that this is a community that has been forced into an impossible position. As Sherer says, “It will remain to be seen whether the fundraising target is really achievable and how the council will respond if it is not met.”
In the main article in the magazine, I interview Jim Brooks of the Friends of Little Chalfont Library , who has advised so many community groups around the country . Brooks suspects that some Councils may be setting community libraries up to fail. “They’ve worked out that closing libraries will lose them votes,” he says. “So they set a bunch of volunteers up with a building that’s falling apart, starve them of key resources and then when the libraries fail, they will be able to say – well, we tried the volunteer route but it didn’t work.”
Let’s hope Wandsworth and York Gardens don’t fall into this trap.
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