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So what are libraries for then?

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Northamptonshire Libraries operate a Library Plus ethos, a major county wide scheme to transform the service with a strong library core but creatively combine services for the community’s convenience.

The service directly leads and manages eleven Children Centres some of which are fused with libraries to mutual benefit. The key agenda is simple: Families and Futures – to date they have proactively helped 575 individuals to set up in business and welcomed over 600 volunteers to benefit from the library experience as well as establishing job clubs and friends groups as the norm. Partners, including the local Enterprise Partnership, regard them as excellent to work with.

The focus on supporting individuals and communities to be enterprising during austere times places them at the heart of the delivery of community health and wellbeing.

This past week 55,000 people across Northamptonshire will choose to visit a library. The focus is not on borrowing, but about people feeling connected - to localities, to their potential and that of their families and to help needed at key times. 

Passion for libraries is the fruit of constancy. Libraries deliver help without strings attached and are cherished as part of daily life, cementing bonds in families and friendships.  Ask someone to describe a library and they will not say ‘nice to have’ but essential to have.

Tough times for everyone

As the tsunami of austerity relentlessly washes through, we forget the people we care about are experiencing tough times too. We faced the slow death of cuts in opening hours and slashed funds eight years ago and from that learning comes a truly customer-engrossed workforce.  Like anyone, they don’t particularly want to work on Sundays but they do because it matters.

We want to know the end of our customers’ stories; it’s the gold of outcomes we are interested in:

  • We helped you with your CV – did you get the job?
  • You volunteered with us – what did you do next? 

In Northamptonshire, we have three principles for our journey:

  1. From reactive to proactive
    We knew we could help those seeking to establish their own businesses. 575 people later and with 30 trading we proved it. We also offer job seeking, volunteering and work experience. The next stage is interesting - if 575 people want to establish a business and we know there is a social care need, we can connect and influence. 
  2. From Library to LibraryPlus
    This ethos is not just about co-location, it’s about why the council needs libraries. We explored trust status but our chief executive responded: why put at arms length my ace card? Why lose this insight? Why miss the opportunity to connect? In short, LibraryPlus is the solution, not the problem.
  3. From service delivery to service involvement
    Volunteers and Friends groups add so much; last year, our Friends Groups advocated the service, delivered improvements and generated £20,000 for their libraries. And 19 of our 600 volunteers now have jobs.

We will be at least 30% non-state sourced by 2016 and our frontline staff for LibraryPlus will spend more time with people than on processes.

The debate about community-run libraries continues but this detracts from our key agenda of what libraries are for – and evidencing it.

The impact

The LibraryPlus unique selling point is the long-term relationships developed with clients throughout their lives. The longitudinal tracking of outcomes leading to impact in lives shows how libraries are a touchstone for the well being of individuals and communities.

Are you up for it?

The need is for transformational leadership capability which involves the ability to re-imagine the future –and make it so! Consulting isn’t enough, you have to interpret and make an insightful response. 

The other requirement is forced connectedness - ensuring others fully exploit the LibraryPlus asset. 

What next?

An audit of the assets is essential – not just locations but intelligence and skills. If the audit of our library assets and the insight was aggregated nationally, it could be a game changer for libraries going forward.

If not, this extraordinarily ordinary service could disappear and someone in the future will wonder “is there a correlation between the worsening of wellbeing and the demise of libraries?”

The current uncertainty yields a window to transform – if you care about people and their freedom to dream.  Surely we want this for everyone.

Grace Kempster, customer & library services manager, Northamptonshire Library Services

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Readers' comments (1)

  • There are now no national standards for Public Libraries, nor any constraints on local authorities to inhibit the potential for their being changed into something quite 'other'. The DCMS ministers, with statutory responsibility for Libraries, have washed their hands of them. A postcode lottery of provision results. Does it matter?

    It is worth reading this report (published today) from Lancashire. It shows a quite different vision of what libraries are "for" :

    Lancashire Evening Post : 23rd September
    Campaign launched at Lancashire libraries for improved reading

    The merits of literacy, reading for pleasure and the exceptional service provided by paid library staff are, in the name of austerity, subsumed under the label of 'one-stop shop'. Your report demonstrates that in many places the core ethos of the service is rendered subordinate to asset-stripping and trendiness. This foreshadows a terrible loss to the nation of what is a wonderful public service that benefits the UK economy and is a cornerstone of a civilised society.

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