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Painful listening towards a sustainable library service

David Jones
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The journey to create a successful community library network in Buckinghamshire proved a difficult but ultimately rewarding one. David Jones, Buckinghamshire CC’s library service delivery manager, explains why.

There are many village halls dotted across Buckinghamshire and I have been shouted at in most of them. Any presentation that involves the words ‘council’ and ‘consultation’ is bound to get off to a bad start, but as the herald of the message of Big Society, my preferred seating arrangement was one that gave me unrestricted access to the nearest Fire Exit.

That was Autumn 2010. Now, with the 13th new community library partnership ready to launch, I can reflect on the challenging and sometimes uncomfortable journey that has enabled the creation of a network of lower-cost and sustainable community libraries.

Our model is based on partnership not abandonment, and the strength of this partnership is rooted in a recognition of respective strengths and skills.

The county library service possesses the breadth, skill, expertise and capacity to deliver county-wide systems and services and to effectively support local library partnerships.

The community partnerships themselves are motivated and energised by their vision, as local residents, for  library services that are responsive, flexible, creative and dynamic.

Allowing local residents to manage libraries?

It wasn’t always like this. In the mid-1990s, we applied a narrow performance critique to identify libraries that were not cost effective. Trapped into a cycle of decline through salami slicing, reduced hours and resources but also disadvantaged through poor location, eight libraries were earmarked for closure. It was only after a protracted and bitter war of words that the council relented and ‘allowed’ local residents to manage local libraries.

The mistakes that we made then are still being made elsewhere now

The council offered no support to the first three ‘pioneer’ libraries and considered a mobile library service as representing a proper and professional service. The mistakes that we made then are still being made elsewhere now.

Libraries are funny things. They enjoy a degree of support completely out of proportion to their level of use. They help to define communities, to act as reference points and landmarks and are invested with such strong social and community values that the community itself feels under attack when the threat of closure is announced.

In 2010, with significant savings to find but no wish to revisit the pain of the past, we launched a consultation on a county and community model and I undertook a tour of village halls. Not surprisingly, memories of the past dominated proceedings and so the starting point was to try to counter the cynicism and distrust and get honest about past mistakes. My message was that  this time we wanted to keep libraries open and to  work with local residents to find a sustainable way of doing this.

Our approach was to enable new community libraries with an approach based on support and flexibility

In Buckinghamshire, we had the original three community libraries and they provided a valuable proof of concept as well as invaluable peer group support. This showed that it can be done and our approach was to enable new community libraries with an approach based on support and flexibility.

We organised seminars and events to offer advice and support, we worked with Locality to provide free advice, assisted with business plans and also put our money where our mouth was when it came to the agreements. We undertake to pay for the ICT network and computer costs, we continue to supply the book stock and involve the libraries in selection. We enter into leases at nominal rent and pay an annual grant guaranteed for five years. This model has still halved the operating costs of our local libraries

One size doesn’t fit all

‘One size doesn’t fit all’ is our mantra. We have recognised that different groups might seek different solutions and we have not been prescriptive and forced partnership models. In some community libraries, we retain premises management and in others the county still supplies paid staff.

There have been massive challenges and tensions and no council considering these models should see this as an easy option. Not one of the local communities  wanted to go down this road as a first choice and all of them considered the partnerships as a diminution of service.

However, given the financial challenges that we faced, local communities were pragmatic and accepted that the status quo could not prevail. Building trust and credibility took time and patience; and the model works when local communities are genuinely empowered rather than asked to merely act as the providers of unpaid labour.

We are certainly not resting on our laurels now but it’s nice to be able to report that I am rarely shouted at these days because, mostly, the public appears to accept the changes. The pain suffered (largely by my ear-drums) during the consultation period of 2010 has turned into considerable gain for our communities and our council.

David Jones, library services delivery manager, Buckinghamshire CC

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