The Sieghart review has once again highlighted the ongoing debate as to what constitutes a ‘community library’ and the value and effectiveness of such entities.
And herein lies the problem: there is no accepted definition of a community library and it means different things to different people. Until the current austerity programme the term usually referred to a library that was part of a particular community or denoted size/level to distinguish it from larger counterparts.
However, this view has been undermined and now tends to denote one that is ‘community managed’, an approach that is strongly promoted by the DCMS and by extension ACE. So to begin with we need a clear explanation of the term to ensure a shared understanding and frame of reference to enable an informed debate around the topic.
Community libraries tend to fall into two main categories: Community Managed and Community Led. That is, a library which is either run by a voluntary group outside of local authority control or one that is operated by volunteers with a lesser or greater degree of support from the local authority.
Many individual campaigners and library bodies have already highlighted the inherent weakness in both approaches not least the growth of a two-tier library service and lack of quality assurance in terms of standards and provision.
My own view is that even the term community library is a misnomer and as a concept has no place in a modern library service. Like others I believe that there is little evidence that such libraries are financially viable outside of local authority control, have robust governance frameworks, will attract the necessary long-term community support, or are credible in delivering a library service, not just comparable to paid staff, but also to justify them being part of a comprehensive and efficient service.
In response to this it is often argued that community libraries should not be compared to those with paid staff, often by local authorities themselves, which seems to suggest that councillors are happy to foist a second class service onto their own communities. Personally I think communities deserve better.
My main criticism of such libraries is that they displace funding from the parent library authority, often having the detrimental effect of hollowing out services. That is, in order to fund and maintain them resources are taken from elsewhere through the reduction of paid staff, stock budgets, opening hours, and the de-professionalisation of the service. This hollowing out effect is far more damaging to the principle of comprehensiveness and efficiency than any strategic, assessment based library closures.
Equally, the amount of staff time and resources devoted to developing and maintaining community libraries, training volunteers, and providing ongoing support far outweigh the benefits and generates hidden costs that are very rarely acknowledged by local authorities.
This is not to exclude community groups or volunteers. Libraries have a long history of community engagement and volunteer involvement. However, the best models reflect a genuine partnership of community focused, not community managed or led, libraries, with volunteers operating in value added or complementary roles.
Community libraries are based on a flawed ideological notion (the big society), reflect poor business practice, and are driven by austerity measures rather than a strategic vision for the genuine improvement of library services. This leads to many councils retaining assets such as poor quality buildings and providing a second-rate service for reasons of political expediency while inflicting damaging reductions elsewhere within the professional service.
Ultimately, community libraries are a distraction, taking up valuable time and resources, when more creative long-term solutions exist.