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.

2 thoughts on “Community Libraries (part three): less is more

  1. At best I think your policy is tough sell. Your suggestion of concentrating a library service on fewer l libraries with longer hours and closing the smaller libraries is hardly new – this used to be the standard professional librarian strategic approach for coping with a budget shortfall. I agree it is less so now.

    It is obviously easier for management if there are fewer libraries and to concentrate on providing a better service for say the 75% of the population who live in or who regularly visit the larger towns. Increasing opening hours in the bigger libraries will no doubt increase usage amongst the same 75% of the population.

    But what of the remaining 25% of the population who live miles away and are not able or willing to use the bigger ‘quality’ town libraries. Developing digital resources is fine but as you know digital library stock has limited availability. There is no way that a digital only library service can be considered to be comprehensive.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who notices the inconsistency of you saying that community-run libraries with council support are unviable [evidence?] and in the next breadth proposing a policy of immediately closing down the smaller libraries and telling the communities that what they really need is a community space. A closed library is the ultimate unviable library. Good luck with your policy when you consult the residents of the smaller communities.

    Isn’t it a key part of a library manager’s job to ensure that all residents have reasonable access to the library service? Your suggested policy just makes library access significantly inequitable – an unreasonable policy I would have thought.

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  2. I have offered the opportunity in my most recent post, Challenge Accepted, for others to write a guest blog and outline a view of alternative library provision. Please feel free to contribute.

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