A Favourable Outcome?

It was heartening to see that a legal fund set up by the Save Lincolnshire Libraries group has received a donation of £1000 from the Library Campaign towards the cost of the judicial review, which is set to take place at the High Court in London on July 8th & 9th. A resident has challenged Lincolnshire Council’s proposals to cut the library service by £2 million and the outcome of the case is likely to have wide ranging implications nationally, producing either jubilation or despair depending which side of the argument you are on.

Like many, I am hoping for a judgment that favours the plaintiff and gives pause to other councils thinking of making deep and damaging cuts to library services. If there is a victory then the credit must go to the tenacity of all those involved in the Save Lincolnshire Libraries campaign.

Although the challenge has been allowed on four grounds the area most of us will be watching closely is:

‘That if the cuts go ahead Lincolnshire’s Library Service will no longer be comprehensive and efficient and therefore will breach the national requirements’

However – and unfortunately there is always a ‘however’ – defining what those national requirements are will be a tricky business indeed. Even if the review is successful I suspect it will be beyond the Court’s ability (or remit) to define what a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service should be and the outcome is likely to depend on the Court interpreting that the extent of the cuts undermines the principle of comprehensiveness and therefore the Council will fail in its obligation under the 1964 act.

Equally, a successful outcome, like previous reviews elsewhere, could be won on the grounds of a flawed technical process such as a poor equalities assessment (one of the grounds of the challenge). Unfortunately, this would be a lesser victory as it could potentially allow the Council to rectify the process and then still carry out its plans.

Regrettably, even a victory doesn’t necessarily mean that no reductions will take place and I suspect the judgement will only require the Council scale back on the proposed cuts and closures. Perhaps the real argument will centre on not that the Council is cutting library services at all, just that they are cutting too much!

The one strand in the challenge that has the capacity to put a twist in the tale is:

‘That the Council failed to properly consider the proposal by Greenwich Leisure Limited (a not for profit agency who had bid to run the library service). As a result the Council had failed in its duties under the Localism Act (1)’

Potentially this could mean that GLL will be given the opportunity to bid to run library services in Lincolnshire once again. The big question will be are they able to do it without implementing reductions and closures themselves? It would be a bold assertion to say they could until the Council actually commits to a figure that it’s willing to pay for the operation of the library service.

It would be rather ironic if Lincolnshire campaigners later found themselves at odds over one of the grounds of the judicial review that they campaigned so hard for!

Obviously, the Court could go the other way and rule in favour of Lincolnshire Council, in which case it really will be open season on library services the length and breadth of the country.

Response to Challenge Accepted

In a recent post, Challenge Accepted, I asked if there were any practical solutions, other than closures or handing libraries over to volunteers, that have not been considered. Many campaigners were kind enough to leave suggestions in the comments section but only one, Trevor Craig, put forward a number of alternatives (below).

Trevor writes his own blog Question Everything and I would like to thank him for offering another viewpoint and adding to the debate around volunteer managed libraries.

If anyone else would like to offer other suitable alternatives I would be happy to add as a post.

Alternatives to Volunteer Libraries

Trevor Craig

The rush to volunteer libraries, instigated by the feckless politicians and cheered on in some sections of the librarian profession still shocks and saddens me. From what I can gather over the years there has been a decline in the profession of librarian and while most people won’t know it the majority of branches outside the central ones, the libraries are ran by library managers and assistants. These library managers and assistants, the ones I’ve encountered anyway, do an amazing job. They keep the library running, organise all the other activities (rhyme time etc) and do the very vital outreach work into schools, playgroups and old peoples homes that get new young readers and help keep existing ones. Not to mention helping ensure that the very valuable space in the library can be used for other things when they library may not necessarily be open. They can and should be supported by value added volunteers. Contrary to what the authorities would have us believe, the library service is all about the buildings and the staff, a library needs both that can be accessible by all that desire to use it, not just those in the city centres. If a small library isn’t getting the book issues or the visiter numbers, then it shouldn’t become first in line for the cuts, it should be first in line for extra support and resource.

The library managers and assistants are not hugely paid, they don’t have charterships or funny letters after their names or go to all the endless courses and seminars to learn about the supposedly amazing exciting things happening in library world. The hacker spaces, 3D printers and all the other guff that the small branch and rural libraries haven’t got the space for and users like me couldn’t care less about.

I think a back to basics approach is what is required, and the SCL’s universal offers is a good framework for this but it cannot be delivered by volunteers and self service machines, both of which the users don’t like and arguably doesn’t actually save much money. When a library building is closed, if people have further to travel, inevitably you’re excluding people from the service as there are travel time and costs involved, or the user is simply to old and frail to make the journey.

So if we accept the premise that the library service has to be cut (which I don’t incidentally, but reality being what it is) then where should local authorities look to make savings?

The Hillingdon example was and has been ignored by the profession as a whole, as has the Tri-Borough arrangement in London that has saved money but maintained staffing in the libraries.

The future libraries report, another expensive bit of work said up to 25% savings could be made by service mergers. But there seems to be a stubborn refusal for common sense to break out.

There seems to be an endless list of reports researching into the public library service, mostly rubbish that has taken up lots of time and money and seems to only exist to kick the political can further down the road and give those at the top something to occupy their time. Some from special interest groups like Locality who are getting huge public funds to further an agenda, others also funded by taxpayers like the LGA who want the 1964 act abolished.  If they had there way we’d end up with just the PFI super libraries and very little else.

The obvious answer to anyone that looks at the CIPFA returns is the huge gigantic elephant in the room of the service support costs. Obviously I’m more on top of the detail for the Oxfordshire data but most I’ve looked at it costs councils millions to support the library services. Its too much and the administrative burden could and should be shared with other authorities.

The 151 library authorities should be abolished and replaced with a smaller number of authorities along a similar line to police authorities, each having its regional support hub that provides the management and service support to a number of council library services. Millions and millions would be saved and they could stop sacking the people at the bottom of the profession who are in the market towns and villages at the coalface where the library is vitally important as for some its their only lifeline to the rest of world.

Of course there are huge obstacles to the above, an incompetent and uninterested minister, a profession that seems oblivious to its own impending demise with its upper echelons refusing to speak out about the reality of the crisis the library service is facing, whether its cowardice or the rise up the greasy pole that prevents this I don’t know. But their silence is deafening. I cannot see the above happening. Libraries are not considered sexy enough to gather the political will required. There’s always money around for shiny new things but for the library managers and the amazing libraries they run, it seems the money or the political will to change a hugely inefficient provision of service isn’t there.

The only way it could really happen is if there was some proper reform of local government, getting rid of the unnecessary middle tier and making all counties unitary authorities, then the service support hubs could be for all council services not just for libraries.

If the profession cannot get its will behind a radical and bold reorganisation and have less library authorities then all that will happen over time is the services will be outsources as most others in councils have and the big outsourcing providers will be the ones realising these back office savings not the taxpayer. The service will become even more distant and unaccountable that it is now. Sadly, as I’ve stated,  nothing will be done, we’ll just drift along like we are now in decline, the councils will continue us with their sham consultations and the senior profession will continue to ignore the wishes of the users which they are supposed to serve.

Are Community Managed Libraries Effective?

The following is a summary report from research that Mike Cavanagh, post graduate distance learning student and Library Head of Service, has undertaken. The report summarises the findings from a study between 2012 and 2014 exploring the effectiveness of community managed libraries in England and forms part of Mike’s master’s dissertation at Aberystwyth University.

I would like to thank Mike for sharing his research.

Are Community Managed Libraries Effective?

Mike Cavanagh

 Summary Report

2014

 Abstract

This paper summarises the findings from a research study undertaken between 2012 and 2014 exploring the effectiveness of community managed libraries in England.  The abstract below has been taken from the full report:

This paper explores the effectiveness of community managed libraries in England.  It traces the history of volunteer involvement in libraries and considers the evidence base in respect of their effectiveness.  Through quantitative research (web surveys) with volunteers and Chief Librarians, the study establishes: the range of services being delivered; the perceived need for and extent of training given to volunteers; the criteria through which public library effectiveness can be measured, and the extent to which community managed libraries are able to deliver against these criteria.

The study found widespread variation in the range of services offered and the extent of training received, across the community library network.  Further, it found significant differences of opinion and priorities between the two research groups in respect of the relative importance of various effectiveness criteria and the ability of community managed libraries to deliver against these criteria. 

The evidence from this study points to a fragmented and inconsistent network of volunteer delivered libraries.  A key reason is the variation in approach and level of support from local authorities.  Some libraries have benefitted from financial support and ongoing professional advice and training, whilst others have had no financial assistance and limited support. 

The paper argues that the lack of national library standards is a contributory factor to this variation in service offerings and quality.  As such, it advocates for the reintroduction of a standards framework and for more consistent provision of professional advice.

These findings have important implications for policy makers at a national level, in respect of the case made for the reintroduction of a standard/quality framework to reduce service variability.  The findings will also be of value to local authorities that are considering implementing a community managed library model, and who wish to give community groups the best chance of succeeding over the long term.

Contents

Abstract…………………………………………………………………………………………………i

Contents……………………………………………………………………………………………….ii

Chapter 1: Introduction………………………………………………………………………….1

Chapter 2: Summary of the Literature…………………………………………………….3

Chapter 3: Methods……………………………………………………………………………….9

Chapter 4: Summary of Results……………………………………………………………10

Chapter 5: Discussion and Conclusions……………………………………………….15

Bibliography………………………………………………………………………………………..21

Appendix 1 – Ranked order………………………………………………………………….28

Appendix 2 – Free text participant responses………………………………………..30

Introduction

In recent years, following significant cutbacks in public spending, a growing number of local authorities in England have sought to outsource the delivery of some branch libraries to the third sector.

These ‘Community Managed Libraries’ (CMLs) are delivered by volunteers rather than paid staff, though most benefit from varying levels of professional support from their local County Library Service.

The concept is somewhat emotive as it is seen by some members of the profession as challenging the very necessity of librarianship in a way that is rarely seen in other professions.  Moreover, replacing paid staff with volunteers is widely considered in the literature to be bad practice as it can be seen as an exploitation of the volunteer and a deprival of someone’s livelihood (J Williams, 2012).

Arguments have been made on both sides about the efficacy of this approach.  KPMG (Downey, Kirby, & Sherlock, 2010, p. 16) stated in 2010 that libraries could be better run by volunteers, which would ‘…create huge social value…whilst also saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff…’  A counter argument, made by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) stated that volunteers ‘…should form part of a professionally managed public library service that has at its core sufficient paid staff to ensure the direction, development and quality of the service provided’ (“Use of volunteers in public libraries”, 2010).  It went on to state that ‘volunteers are not ‘free’ and need proper management, training and development.’

Regardless of which viewpoint the reader may take, this paper contests that the arguments cited on both sides are not sound foundations for the setting of policy.  There is a need for objective research that examines the effectiveness of CMLs, and this study aims to contribute to that process.

History of Community Managed Libraries

Community Managed Libraries are not new.  In the 1950s much of the public library service to rural Britain was delivered through a network of devoted volunteers (Smith, 1999, p. 2).  It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the tradition of using volunteers to keep small rural libraries open, largely disappeared.

More recently, a small number of CMLs, such as those in Chalfont St Giles, Little Chalfont and Old Town Eastbourne, have been delivering library services with apparent success for several years.  In recent years, some of these libraries have been inundated with queries from groups interested in emulating them.

The ‘Effectiveness’ Question

As authorities seek to replicate this model, a key question becomes apparent – are Community Managed Libraries effective?  There is abundant evidence that demonstrates that the model is significantly cheaper than staffed service points (Chalfont St Giles for example, cost less than a third of the cost of the Old County managed Library), (“Running a small public library with volunteers”, 2011, p. 2), but it is much less clear as to whether CMLs are delivering a consistently broad range of high quality services.

In order to answer the effectiveness question, four research questions were set, which sought to establish:

  1. What services were being offered in existing CMLs?
  1. What kind of training participants considered to be important for library volunteers, and to what extent volunteers had received such training?
  1. What participants considered were the key criteria for determining public library effectiveness?
  1. To what extent participants believed that CMLs could deliver against these criteria?

Summary of the literature

A 2007 study (Low, Butt, Paine, & Smith, p. 16) estimated that the value of volunteering (across all aspects of society) to the UK economy was £38.9 billion.  Within the cultural sector, volunteering plays a huge role.  An earlier study (Howlett, Machin & Malmersjo, 2005, p. 3) found that 83% of organisations (museums, libraries and archives) involved volunteers, though the figure was somewhat lower within libraries, at 67%.

The same study, alongside a number of others, suggested that most library volunteers tended to come from a particular demographic group – white females, aged 55 or over (Capital Planning Information Ltd, 2000, p. 8; Driggers & Dumas, 2011, p. 122; Reed, 1994, p. 27).

The literature is particularly thin with respect of Community Managed Libraries but somewhat more expansive in terms of library volunteers engaged to provide ‘added value’ working alongside paid staff.  A wide range of publications have provided practical guidance on how to develop and manage successful volunteer programmes.  Many of the key publications are from the United States, and cover areas such as recruitment and selection, training, evaluation, recognition/retention and problem resolution (Kuras, 1975; Karp, 1993; Reed, 1994; McCune & Nelson, 1995; and Driggers & Dumas, 2002; 2011).

In a study examining the extent of engagement with volunteers across museums, libraries and archives, a common factor for non engagement was staff and union objections (Hewlett, 2002, p. 24).  These tended to centre on the ‘replacement’ issue, which is not a modern phenomenon.  For example, in Canada, the recession of the 1990s led to volunteers being treated with suspicion and opposition (Curry, 1996, p. 144), while in 1984, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (cited by Curry, 1996, p. 150) stated that ‘…employers are looking for ways to reduce staff while still appearing to provide the same level of service.  They do this by…replacing paid workers with volunteer labour’.  In the UK, Unison found that even before the current wave of CMLs, some authorities were replacing library staff with volunteers, in an attempt to cut costs (Davies, 2008, p. 5).

Despite these concerns, there were other voices that were pro replacement.  As far back as 1971, Nyren (cited by Carvalho, 1984, pp. 35-36) commented that ‘lower level’ professional librarians could be replaced with volunteers.  However, in the same year, the American Library Association issued volunteer guidelines, stating that ‘volunteers should not supplant or displace established staff position spaces’ (1971, p. 407).

Five years later, Savage (1976, p. 586) writing about how the economic crisis of the time was leading to budget pressures in libraries, found that volunteers were being increasingly relied upon to deliver circulation duties and more professional tasks.  It seems that the economic pressures in 1970s America, were leading to a blurring of volunteer and staff roles in a way not dissimilar to the phenomena currently being experienced in England.  As Park (cited by Nicol & Johnson, 2008, p. 157) states, ‘one of the unfortunate reasons volunteer programs often get a bad name is that they are started in times of financial difficulty’.

Literature on libraries staffed only by volunteers is very limited.  The seminal ‘how to’ guide on the methods and processes by which a community can set up and deliver a volunteer library was published in 1999 (Fox).  The study covers a range of issues from setting up a core group, establishing its role and mission, and the practical aspects of delivering a service on a shoestring.  Of particular interest is Fox’s view on ensuring the core group are fully representative of the community and the need to avoid becoming a ‘cosy little group’.

In the UK, significantly less material has been published on library volunteerism, but some does exist.  In a seminar looking at the use of library volunteers, Brown (1999, p. 12)  of the then Library Association stated that ‘…the use of volunteers as a sticking plaster for cuts is unacceptable’, and challenged the notion that volunteering helps social inclusion, since it tends to occur in more affluent areas, potentially widening the divide.  She went on to question whether service provision in rural areas by volunteers was as acceptable as long standing volunteer roles such as delivery services to the housebound.  However, at the same seminar, at least one delegate thought that volunteers could replace staff (George, 1999, p. 33).

While libraries run solely by volunteers have a long history, the ‘birth’ of the community managed library model in UK policy appears to have occurred more recently.  In a report to the DCLG, PricewaterhouseCoopers (2007, p. 27) suggested that a possible new delivery model for libraries could be around ‘increasing the opportunities for local communities to take over the management and/or ownership of branch and village libraries’.  This stemmed from an earlier report (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister & Home Office, 2005, p. 26), which stated that ‘community ownership and management of assets such as…libraries…can lead to improved service delivery’.

Baseline information on the extent of UK CMLs is in a state of dynamic flux.  In a survey covering 2011/12, CILIP (2012, p. 5) found that 13% of responding authorities had set up 38 CMLs with a further 10 planned for later that year.  In March 2012, Anstice (n.d.) had recorded 80 libraries being managed in this way, while around 9 months earlier, a report from the MLA (Woolley, 2011) found that the evidence base was small, with only 29 CMLs, representing 1% of libraries in England.

The scope of the MLA report covered both the longer standing CMLs as well as new developing models in authorities that were seeking to undertake large scale rollouts.  It suggested a range of benefits, including bringing economic and social benefits, and reducing costs.  However, it balanced this by outlining a number of risks around sustainability and reduced access to professional advice.  A key benefit cited was that the alternative for some libraries would be closure.

Unison, even before this current wave of change, has described this concept for library users as a ‘…Hobson’s choice of a library branch run by volunteers…or seeing another branch closure’ (Davies, 2008, p. 43).  Some communities faced exactly that choice, and their approach to how they took on their local libraries is documented.  For example, both Little Chalfont library (Brooks, 2012) and Chalfont St Giles library community groups (“Running a small public library with volunteers”, 2011) have published case studies on their history.  These libraries represent impressive success stories when considered in the context of the local authorities’ negative attitude to them at the time of their birth (Brooks, 2012, p. 1).  Indeed, a mobile library service continued to be delivered to these localities by Buckinghamshire County Council for some years, with the authority seeing this as the legitimate public library provision (Jones, 2011, p. 1).  Despite this, and the authorities’ initial requirement for the libraries to be delivered at no cost to the council, they have survived and thrived to an extent where they are now seen as welcome partners by the authority.

In 2013 research on Community Libraries was published by Locality (2013a).  The report focused on existing and emerging models of service delivery that involved community groups, and outlined five models.  The study found 170 community libraries in operation, and anticipated this rising to 425 or more (Locality, 2013a, p. 8).  It was framed as a toolkit for local authorities, guiding them through the considerations and lessons learnt from other authorities that had already implemented CMLs.  Issues such as whether provision should be classified as statutory, and the need for community libraries to remain as part of a larger network were outlined.

The scope of the report was focused on the local authority perspective, with no voice given to the volunteers involved in delivering CMLs and no consideration given to the challenges that they face.

It was timely therefore that at around the same time that this report was published, another report, which focused on the volunteer perspective, was launched by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI, 2013).   The report found that each CML had significantly different experiences in levels of support that they had received from their local authority (NFWI, 2013, p. 7).  Financial assistance varied for example, with some CMLs given considerable funding whilst others were in a much less fortunate position (NFWI, 2013, p. 9).  The report argued that this would result in a variation in service standards and offer at each library, which could result in a two-tier library system (NFWI, 2013, p. 10).  However, many of the volunteers who took part in the research believed that the core library services were now better than when they were directly managed by the local authority (NFWI, 2013, p. 17).

Standards

One of the key difficulties in evidencing whether CMLs are providing effective services is the lack of National performance frameworks and standards in the English public library sector.  Aside from some limited benchmarking data provided by CIPFA (2013), which assesses whole library services rather than individual libraries, there are no quality/ standards frameworks in place.

Around a decade ago, various frameworks existed including the Public Library Standards, which were an attempt (largely through the measurement of inputs/outputs) to create a clear and widely accepted definition of authority’s statutory duties to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ (Department for Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS], 2008, p. 3).  Together with the Public Library Impact Measures (MLA, 2008), which as their name implies, focused more on outcomes and impact, a clear framework existed to guide library services in the provision of consistently high quality services.

However, even if these frameworks still exited today, it is questionable whether they would have a material impact on standards of service in Community Managed Libraries, since they were focused on judging library services as a whole.  It is at the individual site level that CMLs operate, as by their very nature, they are local services delivered by local people.

For a method of evaluating the effectiveness of services at an individual site level, we can learn much from the museum sector.  Museums have a long history and culture of engagement with volunteers (Smithies, 2011, p. 34).  In a 2005 survey undertaken by the Institute for Volunteering Research, nearly a third of responding museums were entirely volunteer run (Howlett, Machin & Malmersjo, 2005, p. 17).

Museum effectiveness has for many years been measured through the Accreditation scheme (MLA, n.d.).  It sets nationally agreed standards and has been an important means of maintaining standards, and creating a level of consistent service quality, particularly in volunteer managed museums (Capital Planning Information Ltd, 2000, p. 13).  The scheme is process focused, setting minimum standards in activity such as collections care and user experiences, as opposed to setting targets for inputs, outputs or outcomes (Arts Council, 2011).

Accreditation has done much to raise standards, though some of this success has been due to the support given by a network of Museum Development Officers, which were funded through the Renaissance programme (Arts Council, n.d.).  Their role has been to provide professional advice and support to independent museums and to assist with funding applications, advocacy and the creation of partnerships with other stakeholders (Renaissance Review Advisory Group, 2009, pp. 79-80).

Even so, challenges still remain.  Not all volunteer museums are Accredited, with many not engaging with the standards and being unaware of reasons why they should do so (Groninger, 2011, p. 25).  Yet despite these concerns, Accreditation, and the museum development framework that has built up around it, remains a valuable method of raising standards in volunteer museums.

In an emerging library landscape with a large number of CMLs operating in relative isolation from larger surviving local authority library services, consistent service quality could be a challenge.  To address this, a similar support framework could be created to guide newly formed volunteer-led libraries.  Indeed, in 2010, DCMS (pp. 18-19) published plans proposing the creation of a voluntary Accreditation and peer review scheme, based on the museum model and other similar schemes in tourism and sport.  It also proposed that every library authority would have to provide a ‘core offer’ of services, such as free internet access, supplemented by a discretionary ‘local offer’ (DCMS, 2010, pp. 5-6).  This was partly a response to calls to ‘level up’ the quality of library services, so that users would benefit from a consistent quality service across the country (DCMS, 2009. p. 38).  However, these proposals were not taken forward as they coincided with a change in government administration.

Methods

A quantitative study, using web surveys, was selected on the basis that a key phenomenon of research interest was in the potential variability of service offerings that CMLs were delivering in different parts of the country.  The web survey method provided the means through which a wide geographical spread of data from many libraries could be acquired.

A qualitative study (such as a focus group approach) of just one or two libraries could fail to pick up on such differences, if they exist.  However, a limited number of ‘free text’ questions in the web surveys allowed for some qualitative data to be collected and analysed, which proved extremely useful and enlightening in a number of areas.  The full transcripts from these free text questions are included as an appendix to this summary report (appendix 2).

The objectives of the research were to establish:

  1. What services were being offered in existing CMLs.
  1. What kind of training participants considered to be important for library volunteers, and the extent to which volunteers had had such training.
  1. What participants considered to be the key criteria for determining public library effectiveness.
  1. To what extent participants believed that CMLs could deliver against these criteria.

Research participants came from two backgrounds, in order to provide different perspectives on the topic area.  One group was Community Managed library leaders, involved in delivering a CML.  The other group were Chief Librarians, which were further subdivided into two groups – those with experience of implementing CMLs (CL1s) and those without (CL2s).  CL2s were not asked to complete the survey in respect of research questions 1 and 2 for obvious reasons.

The surveys were undertaken in the autumn of 2012.

 Summary of Results

34 Chief Librarians responded to the survey, and volunteers representing 36 different Community Managed Libraries also took part.  This provided a good spread of data from a large proportion of CMLs and library professionals across England.

Services offered

There was significant variation in responses between libraries in respect of services offered.  In addition, one could speculate that a narrowing of service offer was evidenced.  For example: two thirds of libraries were not open in the evening; over half did not provide newspapers; nearly two thirds did not provide magazines; 41% were not offering inter library loans services, and close to two thirds did not offer e-books.

However, the scope of this research did not include gathering evidence on the extent to which these services were in place before the libraries became managed by volunteers.  It is therefore possible that the level of service provision did not change, or perhaps even improved, as a result of the move to community management.  Indeed, the free text responses indicated that in some cases, the service offer was diversifying, with reference made to cafes and film nights for example.

Despite this limitation in the findings, the data does provide a valid baseline position of the services that were being offered by CMLs at the point in time when the research was carried out.  Future research studies could compare this baseline with new data, which would provide evidence of change over time.

Free text responses – services offered

Respondents were given the opportunity to state any services that their library offered, that had not been asked in the closed question set.

Community events and various classes and workshops were referred to by several respondents, as was the availability of drinks, be it through a forthcoming cafe, coffee machine, coffee mornings, or serving light refreshments.

Other responses included: a homework club; photocopying, fax, printing and laminating services; baby bounce/rhyme times; school visits; film club and film nights; deposit collections to residential homes; playgroups and nurseries, and online newspapers/magazines.

Training

There was variation of opinion in respect of the perceived importance of some areas of training.  For example: Equality and DiversityData ProtectionFreedom of Information and Customer Care were seen as essential by Chief Librarians.  Volunteers, on the other hand, placed less importance on these areas.

Further variation was evident between the perceived importance of training and the extent of formal training that had taken place in CMLs.  For example, 29% of volunteers and 43% of Chief Librarians stated that their volunteers had received formal Customer Care training, against 46% of volunteers and 100% of Chief Librarians who perceived that Customer Care training was essential.  In other words, less training was taking place than was needed.

The majority of training that had taken place was informal, which the research defined as ‘on the job training, mentoring or similar’.  However, in some cases, no training of any kind had taken place.  This was most prevalent with Professional Ethics but was also the case to a lesser degree in areas that one might expect universal training coverage to have occurred, such as Data Protection.

Effectiveness criteria

Respondents were asked to consider the importance of 30 different criteria as determinants of public library effectiveness (see appendix 1).  In some cases, such as customer satisfaction and services suited to customer’s needs, there was synergy across the three research groups, with the majority of participants considering these criteria to be essential.  This was also the case at the opposite end of the spectrum, where all three groups were in agreement of the relative unimportance of parking provision and staff/volunteer demographics reflecting the communities served.

However, as with previous findings, while there was some synergy, there were also areas of variance.  Library usages and the quality of staff/volunteers featured in both groups of Chief Librarian’s top 5 essential criteria, yet volunteer respondents ranked these criteria 17th and 14th respectively.  Conversely volunteers considered staff/volunteer morale to be the most essential determinant of library effectiveness, while Chief Librarians placed it highly (CL1s 8th and CL2s 10th) but not in their top five.  Cooperation between libraries and the range of stock, were also considered to be essential to volunteers, but less so to both groups of Chief Librarians.

Free text responses – effectiveness criteria

Respondents were asked if there were any other criteria that they felt were important, that had not formed part of the closed question set.

A number of responses referenced the atmosphere of the library as being important – ‘A calm, welcoming and friendly atmosphere’, ‘cleanliness of interior, ambience, welcoming nature of volunteers…’.

Two Chief Librarians suggested that collocation of libraries was an effectiveness criteria because it increased the libraries relevance, while two others considered the impact that libraries can have on the community to be important, such as their contribution to improving literacy and wellbeing.

Ability to deliver

In respect of ability to deliver against the criteria, two sets of respondents – volunteers and CL1s – answered these questions based on real experience.  CL2s (Chief Librarians without experience of implementing a community library) responded based on their perception of CMLs likely ability to deliver.

Focusing on the top five criteria considered by participants to be the most essential, the results for CMLs ability to deliver against these criteria was mixed.  Apart from Community Awareness of Library Offerings, the most common response from CL2s was that Community Managed Libraries would do less well than when the library was staffed.  Conversely, volunteer respondent’s most common response to all the top five criteria was that they were doing better than when staffed.  CL1s in most cases took the middle ground, believing that their CML was doing about the same as when it was staffed.  This pattern of responses was broadly the case throughout the data set, and was not just confined to the top five criteria.

A significant proportion of respondents stated that they did not know if their library was doing better, the same or worse.  Part of this may be because some of the libraries had not been operating long enough for respondents to make a judgement.  It may also be reflective of a reduced amount of performance measurement taking place in CMLs with which to base a decision on, though this is un-evidenced through this research.

Free text responses – ability to deliver

A final open question was asked at the end of the survey, giving respondents the opportunity to comment on how the effectiveness of the library had changed since it was managed by paid staff (or in the case of CL2s, how they perceived it would be affected).

Volunteer responses varied widely with some stating that their library was not as effective now due to either: a lack of funding; difficulty of covering all the opening hours; a lack of training; a lack of support from their local authority; communication difficulties with lots of volunteers undertaking a small number of hours; reduced footfall; reduced access to some collections, or a combination of these factors.

Others felt that their library was now providing a much better service to the community, and was better able to tailor their service to local needs.  Respondents stated that their library: was much better able to acquire stock specific to readers needs; had greater ability to act as a community resource; was able to provide a wider range of services; was now a safer environment for children, and was a much more pleasant place now.

An interesting response was received from a volunteer who felt that very little training was needed and that it was easy to overdo it, which would put volunteers off.  This response contrasted with another who stated that the volunteers desperately needed more training and that their lack of training and expertise was compromising their effectiveness.

Financial viability was a concern to many, and a number stated that it was a better alternative to closure but not as good as a staffed library.

There was also variance in the level of support that CMLs were receiving from their local authority.  At one end of the spectrum, a volunteer stated that ‘the library is fully supported by our local county council library service,… [including] help from professional librarians whenever it is needed’.  At the other end, the local authority was perceived as ‘waiting in the wings’ to close them if they failed to increase footfall.

There were only two responses from CL1s, one of whom noted that their community libraries operated primarily through the medium of technology (self-service) as opposed to volunteers.  The respondent felt that this meant that there was a high level of reliance on people being able to use technology effectively.

The five responses from CL2s indicated a strong view that CMLs would be less effective.  Respondents felt that: standards would decline; libraries might be less safe such as child safeguarding measures not being put in place; there would be difficulties in recruitment and retention of volunteers, and that some sections of the community might be put off from visiting.

Discussion and Conclusions

These findings add to the small evidence base that currently exists in respect of Community Managed Libraries.  The methodology (quantitative web survey) compliments other recent studies which took qualitative approaches.  For example, the report by Locality (2013a) took a case study approach to build the evidence base to assist authorities planning to implement CMLs, while the NFWI (2013) undertook a focus group with volunteers to understand the issues that they faced.  These are amongst the key studies with which the findings from this study can be most usefully related to.

The findings, (summarized in the previous chapter), provide good evidence against the study’s research objectives.  A comprehensive picture has been built up of the services that were being offered in CMLs at the time the study was undertaken.  It is possible to use this data to highlight areas of service that should be monitored and that may reflect emerging gaps in provision or areas of concern.  For example, relatively high numbers of libraries do not provide access to stock that they don’t have in their own library.  This may be reflective of a network in which some libraries are becoming isolated.

Another example is the extent of CMLs that were charging for access to the internet, either after an initial free period or straight away (44%).  Over one in four CMLs were also not providing assistance to help people to get online.  There is a risk that the role of libraries in reducing the Digital Divide could be in jeopardy if this data is reflective of a growing trend.

The data can also be used to provide evidence of new and innovative services that may have occurred as a result of transfer to the third sector such as the introduction of film nights, cafés, etc.

The findings provide interesting information in respect of volunteer training and the perceived importance of various training modules to different respondent groups.  This data contributes to building a picture of the effectiveness of CMLs, as it can be used to identify potential gaps in training provision, which if left unaddressed, might lead to a reduction in service quality/effectiveness.  For example, the data illustrated a significant gap between volunteer respondent’s perceived need for training in equality and diversity, and the actual prevalence of formal training that had taken place.

The data also revealed large differences in responses between the two research groups.  For example, Chief Librarians stated that all their volunteers had received training in Data Protection, with the majority (71%) having received formal training.  However, volunteer responses painted a different picture, with only 34% having received formal training, and 14% having had no training.  This suggests a lack of consistently applied training across the CML network, with potential implications to service quality in some of these libraries.

The second part of the study examined criteria for determining library effectiveness and the ability of CMLs to deliver against these criteria.  It identified further variation of opinion between library professionals and volunteers, suggesting areas of service provision that might receive more, or less, attention under the community managed model of delivery, than it did when directly managed by the public sector.

For example, both sets of Chief Librarians considered having ‘quality volunteers’ to be the most essential effectiveness criteria, while volunteers ranked it fourteenth.  This may reflect a perceived need on the part of CMLs to accept anybody who is willing to volunteer, given the overriding priority to keep the doors open.  Indeed, one of the free text responses adds weight to this theory: ‘Whilst we value all our volunteers, they are not all necessarily individuals one would ideally have selected for a staffed library’.  In such circumstances, we might speculate that there would be a risk of a diminution of service quality over time.

When taken as a whole, the overarching impression gleaned from the complete data set in this research suggests a number of challenges for CMLs in delivering effective services.  Most notably: variation and a potential narrowing of service offer; wide variation in the perceived need for and prevalence of training; significantly different views from volunteers and Chief Librarians in key areas with respect to what makes for an effective public library, and varying perceptions about the extent to which CMLs can deliver against these criteria.

In this sense, the evidence in this study largely relates to, and supports, the NFWI (2013, p. 3) study’s assertion that the drive towards CMLs is leading to a risk of a post code lottery occurring in the public libraries network.

The free text responses broadly mirrored many of the findings from the NFWI report in respect of the challenges faced by volunteers.  For example, some respondents were concerned about standards of service, skills and sustainability.  They wrote about a lack of funding, difficulties of covering the opening hours with volunteers, and wide variation in the amount of support in respect of training, advice and financial assistance received from their local authority.

However, at the same time, both the free text responses and the answers to some of the closed questions in this study, indicated that some volunteers felt that their library was now better in key areas than when it was staffed.  For example, one respondent stated that: ‘The library is much better able to obtain stock specific to the readers’ needs.’  This was again echoed in the NFWI report (2013, p. 17) with many volunteers believing that the basic service had improved following the move to community management.

It seems likely that without a single point of reference nationally, that outlines the service standards expected from public libraries, that growing variation in standards of service will occur over time.  Such variation is almost inevitable when we consider the evidence from this study of a divergence of opinions in respect of what makes for an effective library, and the increased importance some CMLs are placing upon commercial practices in efforts to remain sustainable.

While the findings of this research broadly support the position taken by the NFWI study (2013), it could be argued that it is the lack of national standards, and not the drive towards CMLs itself, that is the key reason for variation in service standards.  After all, it is almost inevitable that such a vacuum will be filled in a variety of different ways at a local level, at a time of radical change.

This assertion is un-evidenced and would make an interesting research study in itself.  For example, in Wales, Library Services benefit from both a National Library Strategy (Welsh Government, 2011) and a set of Public Library Standards monitored by Museums, Archives and Libraries Wales (CyMAL) (Welsh Assembly Government, 2011).  Despite opposition from the Society of Chief Librarians Wales (SCL Wales, 2013) to delivery models that involve the replacement of paid staff with volunteers, a number of CMLs have opened (some of which closed soon after) in Carmarthenshire (Anstice, n.d.).  At least one other authority in Wales, Conwy, were also in the process of transferring a library to the community at the time of writing (“Llyfrgell Cymuned Bae Penrhyn”, 2012).  Further research, comparing these libraries with community libraries in England could add value to this topic by assessing whether national standards makes a material difference to library effectiveness and consistency of service provision in CMLs.

As noted earlier in this study, the Museum Accreditation Scheme has had a huge impact on the museum community, helping to raise standards and to provide a level of consistency across a sector that might otherwise be heavily fragmented.  Regardless of the kind of museum and its governance arrangements, museum accreditation has been the glue that has bound a national network of museums through a set of common standards.  The development of Public Library Accreditation would be one way in which a set of common standards could be produced for all public libraries, regardless of their governance arrangements.

There is however, a counter argument, that one size does not fit all and that libraries need to be able to respond to local need.  While public libraries must operate within the context of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, in terms of delivery, library services are fundamentally local, and authorities have considerable freedom to design their services to meet local need (Locality, 2013a, p. 6).  At least one respondent in this study believed that their CML was now more able to do this when they stated that: ‘Local focus is better.  Ability to improve the library in line with local needs is better’.

If this argument is accepted, it would suggest that a set of standards that are too prescriptive could straightjacket a service and be a cause of inertia, holding them back from innovation and change to meet local needs.  However, this would not necessarily remove the need for some consistent guidance, but it would require an approach that has some flexibility within it to account for local need whilst also providing a set of common core standards.

A concept similar to the library ‘core offer’, that was under development in 2010 (DCMS, pp. 13-14), could be adapted to today’s more diverse public library sector to fill this standards vacuum.  Such an approach could form a balance between providing guidance on a core range of services that should be common to all libraries, whilst providing sufficient freedom to all and encouraging innovation around those requirements with discretionary ‘local offers’ (DCMS, 2010, pp. 14-15).

The natural lead organization for such a set of standards would be Arts Council England, working in close partnership with SCL, CILIP, and the CML community, to ensure that the resulting standards are fully embraced and adopted.

Whilst creating common standards would be a step in the right direction it should not be the only step.  As noted in the NFWI report (2013, p. 7), and some of the free text responses in this study, there is significant variation in the level of professional support being offered to CMLs.  In some cases, local authorities have created specific posts, such as Library Development Officers in Lincolnshire (Locality, 2013b, p. 45), whose role it is to provide advice, training and guidance to support volunteers to deliver library services.  At the opposite extreme, some volunteers have been left to deliver services with only minimal training and support – ‘The initial training we had was disorganized and inadequate’.

In such a diverse environment, a set of common standards would only go part way towards creating a level of consistency in service offerings.  Some CMLs would benefit from greater access to professional advice if standards are to be embraced and embedded.  It is useful again to consider the museum model in this context, and the network of Museum Development Officers, whose role it is to provide professional advice and training to museum volunteers (Renaissance Review Advisory Group, 2009, pp. 79-80).  Replicating this model to support CMLs could go a long way towards reducing the variation in service offer and service quality that has been evidenced in this study.

In summary, while the data from this study goes some way towards establishing the extent to which CMLs can deliver effective services, it falls short of providing compelling evidence to provide a yes or no answer to the research question.  Indeed, there almost certainly is no yes or no answer.

A key finding is the diversity of service offer, service quality and service sustainability across the CML network.  Some CMLs provide broadly the same range of services as professionally managed public libraries, whilst others appear to provide a narrower range of services, akin to a ‘book exchange’, and some have started to diversify and offer new services.  Similarly, volunteers in some CMLs have benefited from a wide range of formal training and enjoy access to professional advice while others have been given a limited amount of informal training and have been left to sink or swim.  Some CMLs appear to have enough willing volunteers to provide a level of consistent access to services, whilst others are struggling to attract enough to keep the doors open.  As such, some have flourished and have stood the test of time, such as Little Chalfont, whilst others, like Tumble, have closed soon after opening (Dalling, 2012).

This lack of consistency is compounded yet further by the lack of national library standards in England, which when mixed with the variation in local authority support for CMLs, has produced a potent cocktail of inconsistent practice.

The picture is therefore a mixed one, adding credence to the notion of a growing post code lottery across the public library network.  In short, some CMLs appear to be effective whilst others are not.

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Appendix One

Ranked order

The table below illustrates the relative importance that each participant group placed on the effectiveness criteria, where 1 was seen as the most essential determinant of library effectiveness, and 30 as the least.  The combined column takes an average weighting between the three groups to provide an overall ranking from the complete research population.

Customer satisfaction’ and ‘services suited to the needs of the community’ (marked in yellow) were in the top five criteria for all three research groups.  In addition to these two criteria, ‘community awareness of library offerings’, ‘staff/volunteer morale’ and ‘financial sustainability’ were within the top ten (marked in grey).

Ranking – essential

Combined

Volunteers

CL1s

CL2s

Usages

7

17

3

3

Visits

11

11

8

10

Issues

21

20

3

24

Active borrowers

23

17

12

25

New members

25

24

12

25

Expenditure

17

20

12

18

Financial sustainability

9

8

3

7

Morale

3

1

8

10

Volunteer/Staff quality

4

14

1

1

Understanding of Ethics

22

24

26

13

Community awareness

4

6

8

4

Customer satisfaction

1

3

3

2

Suited to community needs

1

2

2

5

Community support

6

5

12

6

Volunteer/Staff demographics

29

27

26

28

Cooperation between libraries

8

3

12

19

Speed – reservations

30

29

26

29

Speed – assistance

26

24

19

27

Extent free

16

11

19

15

Convenience of location

12

7

3

19

Parking provision

28

23

26

29

Building suitability

19

14

19

19

Range of stock

19

8

26

22

Range of e-resources

26

29

19

23

Stock quality

18

17

19

16

Stock newness

13

14

19

8

Range of services

24

27

19

16

Convenience of opening hours

10

8

8

12

Services to housebound

14

20

12

8

Services to disabled

14

11

12

14

 Appendix Two

Free text responses

Volunteer responses to the question:

‘Does your community managed library offer other services that this survey has not asked about’?

Response

1

No

2

Children’s story time bimonthly

3

No

4

Photocopying/laminating

Local History Archive

5

Homework club

6

Lots of community events e.g. Macmillan Coffee Mornings where library users are welcome to attend

7

Access to sessions provided by Children’s Services (County Council Managed)

Access to Craft Sales from local artists

Access to Film Club

Access to Information about Local Businesses via PowerPoint Monitor

Support/training sessions on a variety of subjects (Small charge levied)

Meeting rooms available for community groups

Meeting rooms available for rent

8

Serve light refreshments, knit and natter group

9

We are presently surveying customers to gauge level of interest in crafts workshops, (foreign) language practice, help with literacy in English, parenting skills, pet care, cultural offerings such as readings by authors, talks on literature, film, opera, etc

10

Access to photocopying, printing fax – all charged

11

Drinks, book sales, toy library in partnership with a children’s centre

12

Bounce & Rhyme for toddlers

13

School visits

14

Craft activities for children at every opening session (free); French classes for toddlers! (small charge); tea/coffee twice per week (small charge); intending to expand activities as a community centre when building upgraded

15

Baby Bounce; Street Dance; Poetry workshop; Acapella singing; Knitting group; Arts and Craft

16

Planning various classes i.e. baby massage, coffee mornings

17

Video link to District Council. CAB office twice monthly. Weekly Silver Surfers. School class visits (3 per week). Reading group meets in library. Coffee machine

18

Regular free Film Nights showing popular films and computer classes aimed at helping people access the internet and email

19

No

20

The­­­_______ Library is run under contract by __________, a local social enterprise.  In addition to the above services members can access low cost finance and savings through the Castle and Minster Credit Union, community cinema, adult learning, youth volunteering opportunities, health advice clinics, community police team, housing advice and advice on any Council front line service, access ______ Passport registration giving further discounts etc

 

Chief Librarian responses to the question:

‘Does the community managed library offer other services that this survey has not asked you about’?

Response

1

Deposit Collections to local residential homes and or playgroups and nurseries

Newspapers online as all other libraries

Future Service accessed via membership ticket online magazines

2

Forthcoming cafe

 

Volunteer responses to the question:

‘Are there any other criteria that you feel are important to determining public library effectiveness’?

Response

1

No

2

Local village libraries provide a service to the community, provide  a service to those less able to represent themselves – the young to encourage reading, the old who do not have the resources to buy new books & transport to distant libraries. The number using the library, the number of issues should only be of minor concern – you provide a much needed service to the community.  Volunteer are often hard to obtain – so pressurising them to undertake anything other than basic computer systems training and obtain knowledge of the services on offer can force them away – then again the feeling that I am wasting my time if only one or two customers appear is a fine balance that is often difficult to achieve when trying to maintain a healthy number of volunteers around which to spread duties

3

Satisfaction of customers

4

Friendly and welcoming to people of all ages including children, teenagers and the elderly

5

Consistency of funding so that the service can be relied upon

6

Anything which enables the community to feel welcome and valued.  Our coffee mornings are a hit as they are meeting points for people who don’t see each other normally and generate goodwill and as they are a platform at which to spread information and therefore they generate new members (joining the courses and groups)

7

Cleanliness of interior, ambience, welcoming nature of volunteers, provision of refreshments (i.e. coffee machine), access to professional librarian support

8

Perception by library users that they are getting value for money, since community managed libraries depend on local council grants which will not be forthcoming if granting funds is political suicide for the councillors

9

Engagement with schools and children

10

A calm, welcoming and friendly atmosphere

11

Libraries need to be local

 

Chief Librarians (who have implemented CMLs) responses to the question:

‘Are there any other criteria that you feel are important to determining public library effectiveness?’

Response

1

If it shares its location with another public service, co-located – wider relevance to the local community

2

Customer feedback on the quality of services offered and the state of the facilities – e.g. cleanliness, effectiveness of ICT, whether people feel safe and comfortable in the library environment

Chief Librarians (who have not implemented CMLs) responses to the question:

‘Are there any other criteria that you feel are important to determining public library effectiveness?’

Response

1

Customer satisfaction

Planning that supports development of services e.g. awareness of demographics and how service is responding

2

Impact on literacy; wellbeing; combating isolation

3

Identification of local need e.g. child poverty, worklessness, low adult literacy levels

4

1. Local authority understanding of role and its support

2. Impact library has on the community – the qualitative stuff

5

Co-location of services with the library. The local library as a public portal to wider range of services supplied by Council and other sectors

6

Effective and relevant consultation with users

Sustainability of the service

Volunteer responses to the question:

‘Are there any other points you wish to make about the effectiveness of your library compared against its effectiveness when it had paid staff’?

Response

1

Because of the lack of funding and resources, plus the large of amount of staff needed to cover all our opening hours is making it a lot less effective than when it had paid staff

2

We are a library that has been set up within a community shop as an alternative to the mobile library.  This made it difficult to answer some of the questions about replacement of previously paid staff.  What we have got is a very much better service to the community

3

Clearly much cheaper to run – no staff costs – whole system runs on the good will of the volunteers without which the whole system will collapse.  A must for links to the county library service – for IT services

4

Given the financial constraints it was felt that this “honesty” library was the best option to retain some library services in this area

5

Our library has been a volunteer run library for about ten years, and I am therefore unable to comment on its effectiveness compared to when it was fully run by paid staff. I (library supervisor) am paid by the local parish council and all our other staff are volunteers. As they are volunteers, and mostly only volunteer for a few hours a week, most are not keen on undertaking formal training, and are happier with on-the-job training. The library is fully supported by our local county council library services, allowing full access to books throughout the county, computerised stock control, and help from professional librarians whenever it is needed

6

The library is much better able to obtain stock specific to the readers’ needs

7

Our community library is in a very isolated rural area and only functions once a month at the village market in the village hall. It replaces a mobile library service. So many of the questions should be answered with N/A – a choice that is not there. When paid staff ran the mobile library, fewer people were signed up and it was less accessible because of the hilly nature of the terrain. The monthly library in the village hall has proved to be extremely popular because it coincides with the produce market – stallholders have reported an increase in sales since the library has been there. It provides a particularly important service to elderly people and pre-school children. There are two of us who man the library and we have had a small amount of training in how to issue and keep track of books. The informality and absence of lots of training is one of the factors that contributes to the library’s success. If I or my friend (both retired) had had to undergo lots of training etc we would probably not have volunteered. Our local library service is flexible and accommodating to our needs. I think this is why it works so well. Beware too much training!!!! – there is a balance to be struck

8

In our library we have 14 separate shifts of 2 or 3 hours and we have about 49 volunteers though of these 3 are cleaners, 2 are completely new and non-trained as yet, 2 are Duke of Edinburgh Award students aged 15yrs and one has disability of dyslexia & impaired vision, leaving us with the 42 we NEED to run the library if we try to have 3 people available for each shift to hopefully have someone on duty who is capable on the library software and to help public use on the public computers

Of course in practice this is not practical as those volunteers aren’t available in such a way that they spread evenly leaving us with shifts that have to be covered by willing volunteers who, though of retirement age, put in extremely long hours several times a week in a determination to keep the thing going to a good standard.  The management committee have no expertise at all in library work and see little point in some of the key aspects of the core service.  Non-fiction books which haven’t chalked up a loan in the last year or two are seen as ‘failing books’ which have to go, rather than a resource which is used within the library and returned to the shelf without being taken home.  ‘New’ books and ‘best-sellers’ are favoured over wideness of choice

There is a ‘stack ’em high and squeeze ’em into as small a space as possible’ attitude so we can use the SPACE now vacated (previously children’s Fiction shelves) for art or other ventures which frankly don’t interest the customers and don’t increase footfall or usage of the library.  We are throwing out the baby with the bath water and the main reason for that is that we do not have a Manager of any kind to oversee and guide along library lines and so commercial measures are used

Is there any point in raising footfall if it is just for its own sake; to say it has risen, even if it doesn’t mean there is any increase in take up of the library service.  We have no knowledge of the initiatives such as Roald Dahl day until we receive information about such things, often ON THE DAY itself.  We haven’t the time to trawl the internet looking for such information.  Having 3 shifts per day instead of continuity of staff causes endless problems with continuity and information communication, try as we might to solve this.  The fact that many volunteers only do one shift per week means that they find it hard to remember from one week to the next how to do the duties (most being of retirement age contributes to this)

We are bobbing along at present but I have real fears that this is quite unsustainable and that our council are just waiting in the wings to close us anyway as we had a bitter fight to keep the library open in the first place and if we can’t increase footfall and usage we are likely to be closed down.  There seems to be little appreciation in the council or the management committee for how important good training is in the first place but without it we are constantly fighting fires and trying to find out what went wrong when customers are wrongly charged fines, books go astray, etc.  The initial training we had was disorganised and inadequate

Our mayor famously has said, “How hard can it be to stamp a book?”  He hasn’t given it a try by volunteering himself!  He hasn’t allowed the money our council found for libraries to be used to employ one paid member of staff in each volunteer-run library to manage and guide the volunteers on matters like managing the book stock, reader development, etc or to train the volunteers in these things.  Instead we face having a large proportion of our books removed in order to bring down the total books in the library so that the council’s obligation to refresh and renew a certain percentage of that stock will reduce accordingly when the total is reduced.  This is in an area with an appallingly low level of reading achievement and interest

I am very despondent about the whole scenario and feel that I will soon have to give up my contribution as putting in regular 15/16 hour days to manage the volunteer rota, train the volunteers, trouble-shoot on the counter problems and computer glitches, do my best to safeguard the book stock and computers from those who want to ‘rationalise’ them, all the while doing 2 shifts per day and often 3 to fill in the gaps that we can’t get volunteers for at present is having a drastically detrimental effect on my health and home life

I have largely a very good group of volunteers but to expect people to provide the same level of service as someone with experience, training and skill is an insult to the wonderful staff who used to be in our library. Though the public are very appreciative of the job we are doing we just do not have the skills at our fingertips that the staff trained over 10 years ago had; more recently they have been elbowed out by council customer service personnel who did no better in the library than we are doing, but even then they stood more chance because they were there several days a week all day so did not have the continuity problems we have

I sincerely hope that this survey highlights the problems facing community run libraries.  We mean well, we are doing our best, but councils who force this on their citizens are in dereliction of their duty to their education and leisure and are reducing the chances of those out of work to improve themselves and move into work.  Although the pensioners of today are willing to do this, in the tomorrow it appears that there won’t be so many ‘young’ pensioners available as people are forced to work later and later in life and fewer younger people are likely to be available for the same reason if ever the job market picks up.  What then for community libraries?

9

Ability to act as a community resource has improved

As an independent local charity, it is able to react and provide a wider range of services than as a County Council service

There is an ongoing concern about the financial viability that was not there when a County Council Service

10

Many of these questions are answered ‘unsure’ or ‘not as much/well’ because the community managed libraries in this county are only 7 months old.  All suffer from reduced footfall, reduced access to certain collections, and funding restrictions.  We are still in transition, so things like community awareness of services are in flux

11

There was only one member of paid staff here before. She set the standard to which we volunteers aspire

12

We now have a more attractive and safer environment for children than when it had paid staff

13

This is not applicable to our situation as we are a new volunteer run library so have filled in as unsure

14

We ran for 8 years without paid staff, but for the last year we have a paid member of staff working alongside a volunteer whenever the library is open to the public

15

I have not answered the last few questions as although the library we run staffed by volunteers works well and is successful, this is only compared to the alternative of a closed library not a library staffed by qualified paid staff. Community volunteer run libraries do not work unless at least one qualified experienced librarian is involved in the project. We would have preferred to have the library run by paid librarians, yet have had to settle with a volunteer run library as the alternative was closure, and library closures ARE NOT AN OPTION

16

We run a coffee shop which has meant that the library is very much the centre of the community here

17

We have saved the County Council lots of money – but is our model sustainable – can we manage to finance our cost base?? e.g. – expensive heating and electric bills

18

All stock is supplied by the County Library Service and we are very much a part of it. We remain in the same building. We have around 45 volunteers, creating enormous challenges for communication, continuity and effective training. Whilst we value all our volunteers, they are not all necessarily individuals one would ideally have selected for a staffed library

19

We have invested a significant amount of money upgrading the stock, the building and its environment. Our volunteers are eager to help and go the extra mile to please. The Library is now a much more pleasant place to be than when it was run by the Council

20

The _____________ Library is staffed by employees of the social enterprise ___________.  What I have tried to reflect in answers are the differences between libraries directly delivered by Council employees and ourselves.  Although we run the most cost effective library in the Borough, with the highest number of visitors for its cost, highest use of public access computers etc., we have the lowest book issues.  However, we and the Council believe this has more to do with the levels of deprivation in the area rather than the employment status of library staff

Currently our Cinema in Libraries project funded in part by the Arts Council England Libraries Development Initiative is starting to impact on our lending figures and we believe we will be mid-table for the Borough within a year.  This perhaps shows how our independence allows us to access funding and introduce innovation more freely than our public sector partners

21

Financial cost is lower but more resource (=full time equivalent) is going into the library due to availability of volunteers

Professional librarian skills are lower – but good enough for a small library branch

Local focus is better

Ability to improve the Library in line with local needs is better.  Funding issues remain however

 

Chief Librarians ((who have implemented CMLs) responses to the question:

‘Are there any other points you wish to make about the effectiveness of the community managed library compared against its effectiveness when it had paid staff?’

Response

1

These are all self service neighbourhood libraries with limited access to volunteers and a high level of reliance on people being able to use libraries and IT effectively

2

Community library has staff seconded to it from the library service

Chief Librarians (who have not implemented CMLs) responses to the question:

‘Are there any other points you wish to make about your perception of the likely effectiveness of community managed libraries compared against libraries with paid staff?’

Response

1

I think overall standards would drop but I have no evidence on which to base this other than the state of charity shops etc. on local high streets

2

I don’t want to decry what volunteers give to the Library Service.  I believe that where libraries have been turned over to community ownership, it has usually been as a last resort and for this reason the service changes in character.  I cannot believe that the range of volunteers available can replace the support of a professionally qualified experienced library worker

I think it’s true that you can continue to run a service, but often it will be lessened by the lack of understanding of the delivery of library and information services.  It could, at worst, be dangerous in that many of the health and safety and child safeguarding responsibilities, which are taken on by local authorities as a matter of course, libraries such as this may fail due to lack of knowledge and support

3

Experience from Local Authorities has shown difficulty in recruiting and retaining enough volunteers to keep a community managed library running over time. Financial and practical sustainability of this model is in doubt

4

Worried that some community groups may put others in community off participating

5

Parking will be easier because hardly anybody will want to use the service. These places are not “libraries” anyway.  To qualify as a library you have to have 3 essentials – a room, books and staff with expertise

What does Labour think?

I was struck by the news story as reported on the PLN website from Inside Croydon. Commenting on a visit to the Central Library, Timothy Godfrey, spokesman on arts and culture for the local Labour group, observed:

“An entire floor had no staff on it. The children’s library had no librarian on duty either. Carillion, the private company that now runs the libraries, has purposefully “de-skilled” the borough’s libraries, employing as few professional librarians as possible.”

And Clr Godfrey’s solution to this?:

“We want a library service that builds on them as cornerstones of their local communities. Staff would be employed by the council and work with local people to develop their service to suit local needs.”

Call me cynical (which I am) but such rhetoric usually translate as involving staff in handing over libraries to volunteers. But in this particular instance perhaps I do Clr Godfrey a disservice and someone in Croydon could clarify what he actually meant by the above statement.

Nevertheless, the story does highlight a serious ongoing problem, which is the de-skilling and de-professionalization of public libraries.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much available evidence on the number of posts deleted or lost in individual authorities, including reductions in management. Cilip has collated some figures for 2012/13 but the response rate is so low that they don’t give a meaningful picture. Despite the perception that so called backroom and managerial staff are dispensable the reverse is true and professional staff are absolutely vital to providing a comprehensive and efficient library service.

Given the caustic effect of such hollowing out it would be interesting to note if FOI requests from the different campaigns have revealed how many individual professional staff and/or posts have been lost over the past five years in their local areas. Many campaigns highlight the wonderful work that professional staff do and how much they are appreciated so perhaps if campaigners are unaware of the numbers lost in their area now is the time to find out. If any one does have figures for their local area I would be grateful if they could let me know so they can be publicised.

Continuing the theme of labour politicians; four weeks and two emails later I am still waiting for an answer from Helen Goodman re: what constitutes a ‘core professional service’ for libraries.

Given the recent announcement by the LGA that many local authorities have reached a financial tipping point it is important for Labour to step forward and clarify its position on libraries. On the other hand, given that there are both local and European elections shortly maybe the shadow minister is deliberately remaining silent on the issue as perhaps we won’t like the answer. I’ve pointed out before that despite the criticism of current government policy Labour are just as happy to hand libraries over to volunteers and have yet to offer any meaningful alternative.

I am sure I am not the only one to contact Helen Goodman over this issue so if anyone has received an answer I would be very interested to know what the reply was.

Challenge accepted?

For fans of American sitcoms the title of the post will be recognisable from the series ‘How I Met Your Mother’ in which one of the characters, Barney, usually takes on a fairly ludicrous challenge to comic effect. This is a whimsical way of presenting a more prosaic challenge, or rather opportunity, in relation to my recent series of posts about community libraries.

The posts were, in the main, aimed at other library staff and professionals rather than the wider campaigning community. That said, many campaigners have kindly taken the opportunity to read and comment on them!

One thing the posts have highlighted is how few choices are actually being discussed and mostly seem to reflect the following options (with minor variations):

  • Library closure (not as prevalent as might first appear but often a tactic to compel volunteers to step forward and ‘save’ the library), which can lead to next option
  • Community group library: transferring the library over to a community group to be run outside of local authority control. The initial support to enable this, both financial and advisory, varies from council to council but can be quite substantial
  • Deleting staff posts and then using volunteers to keep the library open. All other services and support provided by the parent library service.
  • Using volunteers in complementary roles to maintain or extend services but making savings within other areas of the library budget e.g. stock fund
  • The library service being established as a trust either singularly or with one or more related services

There is another approach, or view rather, particularly among campaigners, which is that no reductions at all should be made. The potential consequence of this is that reductions will, by necessity, have to come from elsewhere within the council if the overall savings are to be achieved (this sentence has been reworded from the original post to provide clarity). However, to argue that cuts should not happen to libraries is unrealistic and ignores the financial situation that councils, and services, face. For instance library services have seen a 30% reduction since 2009/10 and are likely to see further reductions for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, there might be other approaches that have not been considered. With that in mind I would like to offer the opportunity to write a guest blog regarding different forms of alternative provision other than the above approaches.

I am genuinely interested, as I am sure are others, to hear if there are different solutions to closures or handing libraries over to volunteers that have not been considered. I am certain that many campaigners at both national and local level have given the issue some thought and would welcome the opportunity to promote their ideas/solutions.

So, challenge accepted…anyone?

 

Community Libraries (part three): less is more

In part one I discussed why volunteer run libraries are detrimental in the long run for both the wider community and the parent library service and in part two how such libraries could be transformed into genuine community space for the benefit of the whole locality rather than just a few library users.

Lastly, I argue how we can deliver a resilient, sustainable, but most of all, a professionally managed library service. I make no apologies for believing that a professional service, delivered by experienced, paid staff is not only the preferred but the superior model that ultimately benefits, and is more inclusive of, the whole community.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that as professional librarians we manage and deliver services in difficult circumstances, with reduced resources and limited budgets. Therefore, like it or not, our choices will be informed by financial constraints and how best to utilise and manage limited resources for the benefit of the service and the communities we serve.

Equally, we also face complex professional and political issues concerning community engagement and how far such involvement in service delivery should extend and in what form.

To date, handing libraries over to volunteers has been the mainstay of local authority responses, often hand-in-hand with hollowing out the remaining service. However, there is another way that, in my view, is far more effective, sustainable and which focusses instead on service quality. A quality driven model covers three main areas:

  • Focus on service
  • Diversity of delivery
  • Investment in outreach

Focus on service

Firstly, the focus should be on service not buildings. This point has been recognised by many within the profession but unfortunately not widely enacted (Brent being the possible exception). Sue Charteris noted that the term comprehensiveness did not have to mean a library on every corner and that cover depended on assessment matched against resources available. In addition library buildings needed to be evaluated to see if they were fit for purpose and in the right place to serve the needs of the community.

The sad fact is many smaller libraries are underused, badly located, in poor condition, and expensive to maintain in comparison to usage. Despite this, many campaigns focus on saving the building rather than taking a rounded view of the overall service. This is where the role of the professional librarian is essential, to take a wider, more strategic view.

Contraction of the library network and reducing the costs of the physical estate is not necessarily a bad thing if it ensures the overall quality of provision and delivery is improved and resources available to develop other areas of the service.

Service managers need to make difficult, and sometimes unpopular decisions in order to deliver the most efficient service with the resources available, which is why we need to move the focus away from library buildings and argue for a quality led approach and improved methods of delivery.

Diversity of delivery

An effective network does not require the retention of all library buildings. Services can be delivered and improved in many ways including diversifying delivery. For instance:

  • Increased opening hours in fewer access points (including longer weekend opening)
  • Increased services through a smaller network but with more modern and multifunctional buildings with meeting rooms, study space, performance areas etc.
  • Closer partnership working with education, health, heritage and arts organisations to deliver services through a distributed network of facilities

Likewise, embracing the digital:

  • Creating an effective virtual library to ensure services are available 24/7
  • Access to online resources, e-books, customer accounts, etc.
  • Improving Wifi coverage and internet access
  • A professional website that is easy to use and navigate
  • Making better use of social media to market services to the widest possible audience

Equally, services can be expanded, taken out into the community, and delivered through locations such as community centres (including ex-libraries converted into community hubs), developing access points, and expanding outreach work.

Investment in Outreach  

Outreach is about reaching out to the community and is one of the most important aspects of library work. However, most outreach is still too static and library based, in that it mainly concentrates on work done within the existing network (obviously, some of this is due to staff reductions and capacity issues).

However, a quality led approach seeks to integrate outreach into communities and make contact with current users and non-users alike. It represents an opportunity for proactive engagement in art centres, community centres, schools, village halls, museums, and the like. This approach adds far more social value to the way libraries operate and can also help reduce the costs of the physical estate.

Libraries have long sought to engage with vulnerable and excluded groups but more can be done in this area. Some excellent examples of ‘pop-up’ library projects already exist in other countries, which can be easily translated to the UK, such as scannable libraries, books on bikes, and taking over vacant space in shopping centres and the high street for limited periods. This would also provide positive opportunities for partnership working with local community groups, health, and education providers.

However, we need to acknowledge that investment in such projects and schemes would require suitably knowledgeable and qualified staff to ensure quality of experience and effective public engagement. For me, this is a strong argument for investing less in buildings and more in services.

Conclusion

A good library service should be available to the whole population not just the areas where current static libraries exist, this is an important aspect of the principle of comprehensiveness. The service should be for the good of the entire community and not just those who currently use libraries.

Libraries need to be led by experienced managers with professional expertise and knowledge to ensure the best possible service is developed and delivered. There should be a balance of qualified librarians, experienced staff, and volunteers in complementary roles.

Less can most definitely be more when developing services with limited resources if the focus is on quality rather than quantity. A professionally managed and delivered service with the emphasis on  high quality, well-resourced libraries, diversity of delivery, and expanded outreach can deliver a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service fit for the twenty first century, that is superior to the community managed/led model currently favoured.