Community libraries (part two): creating space

This is the second of three postings discussing the issue of Community Managed Libraries (CMLs). In the first I discussed why such libraries are not the solution for the long-term future of library services. In this post I explore what I think we should aspire to instead, and in the third how professional library services can engage and develop a relationship between the two.

Unfortunately, the debate around libraries usually starts with the TINA approach (there is no alternative), is driven solely by financial pressures, and tends to offer only two solutions: closure or handing over libraries to volunteers.

There is however a very simple, third alternative and one that builds on existing knowledge and good practice. My own view is that what communities need are community spaces and not CMLs. It is the resource not the provision that should lie at the heart of the consultation. Such spaces, be it a village hall or community centre, are already run by groups and organisations throughout the country in both urban and rural areas. But this simple idea is lost in the battle over closures.

As part of the debate we need to reimagine buildings as genuine community spaces. This is in direct contrast to the current model of establishing CMLs and trying to fit community needs around the limitations. Many small, community based libraries have limited capacity and do not lend themselves easily to the widest range of social activities and services while operating as a library.  As a model it benefits few, except perhaps for councillors who can claim that they have kept the library ‘open’.

Some consider there to be little difference between the two models but I would argue that there are distinct practical differences that affects the approach taken with and by communities, and which make a material difference to how services are delivered and financed.

The conventional argument for creating CMLs is that the alternative would be closure but this ‘better than nothing’ attitude does more damage in the long-term to both communities and library services (see part one). The situation arises because consultations regarding the continuation – or discontinuation – of services are premised by the flawed assumption that it is the library element of provision that is paramount. Given the often confrontational nature of the debate that follows this view is further entrenched as each side seeks to impose their view on the other. However, between these polarised view points community space offers a different and positive alternative to consider.

A recent BBC article highlighted the types of social activities that take place in libraries and how popular they are. This included breastfeeding groups, yoga classes, knitting groups, a laughter workshop, and health walks, amongst many other examples.

Dr Louise Cook makes the point that “…it has become abundantly clear just how pivotal to some people’s existence libraries are. For the lonely in society, the library is somewhere they can go and sit and just be amongst people.”

In the same article a volunteer at the Derwent Valley Bridge Library and Resource Centre, states “We are definitely open to new ideas, we just want to be important in terms of the local community, we want to be a meeting place.” The fact that the building is regarded as a resource and meeting place is very much the salient point.

The article perfectly illustrates an expectation that libraries increasingly function as social space. What it also signals is that it is the space and not necessarily the library that is most important element.

Increasingly the indications are that the most successful and sustainable CMLs are those that have diversified into functional spaces and provide social and community activities such as film nights, skills training, cafes, meeting rooms, art activities, room hire, IT access and training, local history events etc.

But we should seek to go even further than this. A genuine community space  should be multi-purpose, able to deliver a wide range of services and activities, is easily accessed, responsive to local needs, and most importantly is the focal point of the community. From this space the community can develop strong relationships with other groups and bodies, be the base for outreach, and signpost to local services, including council services (for an excellent description of community hubs see the Octopus communities website).

And it is this model; the continuation of the building as a resource rather than as a library, that should be offered as an option to communities. The real debate should not be about closing libraries but rather about opening community hubs. Only then can a rational debate be had regarding the continuation or form of library provision.

For some communities the creation of a self-sustaining book swap might enough, for others links with library outreach events and/or training might be more appropriate. In some circumstances the level of library provision could be negotiated on a commissioned basis. Lastly, in order to ensure the quality of service to the wider community at county or borough level, some strategic assessment based closures might be necessary.

Financially, there is also a strong argument that funding for such community projects should come from those departments that are responsible for developing resilient communities and delivering the localism agenda – rather than using ever decreasing library funding – until hubs are financially self-sustaining and or run as a social business. This approach would also alleviate the hollowing out effect.

To my mind the notion of a community managed library (for the purpose of clarity I have added the word ‘managed’ to the term since the original post) is defunct and what we should aim for instead is the creation of genuine community spaces, ones that are not shackled by preconceived limitations or attitudes.

Clearly, this would lead to a natural contraction of library services. However, I believe there is an overwhelming argument that in order to ensure quality of provision and facilities we need to accept that a certain amount of contraction of physical assets is both necessary and desirable. This approach, which I shall discuss in my next post, is based on protecting the overall worth of the service for the widest customer base, and to me is very much preferable to the alternatives.


  1. I appreciate your blogs, but in this one …

    you state: “To my mind the notion of a community library is defunct and what we should aim for instead is the creation of genuine community spaces, ones that are not shackled by preconceived limitations or attitudes.”

    Which “we” are you speaking of when you say “what WE should aim for” – I presume you mean the “we” of the Library profession, back-room management, etc?

    The people for whom public libraries were created and exist to serve, i.e. the public (remember us?) do not Universally consider that “the notion of a community library is defunct”. Oh yes, and we also pay the salaries, the pensions and, actually, for the whole shebang – so can we have a look-in please?

    It has been said that humility is the dividing line between confidence and arrogance. Here, I think, and not only here (unfortunately), that line has been crossed.


    1. In the context of both postings where community libraries equate to volunteer managed or led libraries I do believe that this model is defunct and untenable in the long term. This is just an opinion and certainly not arrogance. Obviously, you appear to support volunteer managed/led libraries and I respect you hold the opposite viewpoint to mine.


      1. Please do not deliberately misunderstand the comment I wrote. You should be well aware that I am totally opposed to volunteer-managed or led libraries.


      2. I do not accept central government’s definition (and yours, in the context of these postings) of what a “community library” is. I was appalled at the crafty way in which Question 3 of the Sieghart Review was structured. Has everyone swallowed this Orwellian double-speak hook, line and sinker? Have you?

        An accessible, branch library that has paid frontline staff, is run by the local authority’s library professionals and is of a decent quality is a legitimate thing for local residents to require and fight for. In my town, Swindon, they have neither recently nor *suddenly* adopted the rhetoric that dismisses the value of smaller branches because of a need for Tory “austerity” – No, they have been eagerly pursuing these ideas for years: look no further than their confidential/secret document, Value for Money 2009/10. They are now pursuing them *again* and it makes residents furious.

        Leicestershire, Sheffield, Lincolnshire, Birmingham, Herefordshire and dozens of other areas are also now in the throes of having these ghastly policies foisted upon them. Dorset, which was the ‘model’ Swindon’s library service wanted people like me to embrace in 2009, has now lost several vital small libraries to being wholly volunteer-run and these are struggling to survive.

        No-one in the profession should be advocating foisting a handful of hollowed-out hubs and community spaces on a populace in lieu of a comprehensive, well-run, accessible public library service “for all those who want to use it”. By doing so they are, deliberately or inadvertently, allying themselves with the Orwellian double-speak merchants.


  2. 1. Most villages have a village hall and at least one church. Most of these buildings are severely underused and could easily be used in the ways you suggest. Their custodian bodies – mostly volunteers – would be delighted. I don’t see that there is a shortage of suitable meeting spaces.
    2. Such meeting places are not to be confused with a library service.
    3. Access to, and competence in the use of, information technology is not an end in itself but a means to the acquisition and construction of knowledge.
    4. There remains a great need for information professionals to give learners access and guidance. Online sources are so wide ranging as to be confusing for many users, yet they often only take you part way to your goal, before you have to find a printed book or a journal article or database to which you cannot get free access.
    5. Librarians then provide a cost effective route for sharing resources.


  3. P. S. When the church sells a vicarage/rectory, there is commonly a clause in the contract stipulating that the house shall no longer be called anything that suggests it is still in use by the clergy. It’s a pity the same can’t be done with former libraries, to prevent anyone thinking the new ‘community hub’ has anything to do with current, professionally run library services.


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