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Community libraries: threat or opportunity?

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Community libraries aren’t a new idea. Back in 2006 the Big Lottery Fund invited local authorities to apply for funding with the aim of helping libraries to consider new ways of working as well as to improve accessibility and service provision.

Their 2010 ‘Measuring Success’ event noted that using volunteer help “to deliver services, contribute to decision-making or provide support that enables staff to focus on other things, including evaluation, could make a big impact to libraries in a cost-cutting climate”.

Now libraries across the country are moving towards community library status, fuelled by the urgent drive to reduce costs, from Little Chalfont community library established in 2007 in Buckinghamshire, to Warwickshire’s 12 community library branches. Such is the increase in numbers of such libraries that the Community Knowledge Hub estimates that there are now over 100 in operation.

In Surrey, Byfleet is the first of 10 branches in the region to become a community-partnered library; under the partnership Surrey County Council will continue to provide the building, books, computers, free wifi and everything else associated with a library.

A similar model prevails in south east London with Lewisham’s five community libraries where a Service Level Agreement means the third party running the community library is responsible for the building and for promoting their core services. The council provides a library service based on self-service, visiting professional input, ongoing training and support to the anchor or host organisation staff. Success depends on everyone’s commitment to promoting books and reading in the buildings.

Spending cuts forced Lewisham LBC to find ways to cut £1 out of every £4 it spent and for the library service the community library route provided the most appropriate solution. The Crofton Park, Grove Park and Sydenham buildings are now run by a social enterprise computer recycling firm, Eco Computer Systems. Blackheath Village Library moved into the Reminiscence Centre, run by the charity Age Exchange. And New Cross Learning – an un-constituted group of residents – is now responsible for the library building with the support of the social enterprise Bold Vision.

The community libraries are proving an excellent complement to the library service branches and each has its own character and demographic. For example, Crofton Park community library is in a beautiful Victorian building situated close to the station, post office and busy local high street. The area buzzes with activity and local services including a café selling delicious homemade cupcakes, Spanish classes for under fives and healing arts classes. Grove Park is on a residential street and a typical visit will see volunteers reading to children, aiding visitors with book choices or dispensing advice on authors or computer use.

To function effectively, community libraries need access to professional library management software used by professional librarians in their sister branches. But how to overcome issues raised by deployment of volunteers as opposed to staff who operate under terms and conditions concerning issues such as confidentiality and data protection?

When Lewisham Libraries took the decision to avoid the closure of five of its library buildings and introduce the community library model, it was already a member of the London Libraries Consortium (LLC). All 17 London boroughs that are LLC members use common library management software, Axiell OpenGalaxy, to allow them to run a joint library catalogue and for their library users to borrow and return items from any of the 180 branches within the consortium area.

A new library management solution was developed, OpenGalaxy Touch, which hides sensitive information from volunteers whilst giving them access to the facilities needed to renew and issue items for customers. The system is particularly user friendly as volunteers were unlikely to be experienced in the use of library management software. The five community libraries have now been up and running for a year and offer library services and an increasing array of other facilities. From events to care homes, job fairs and schools, the way of accessing the LMS is ideally designed to run on portable tablet computers with wifi or 3G connections providing a live link.

The groups running the community libraries are now introducing further services. Darren Taylor is CEO of Eco Computers and his enthusiasm is infectious as he brims over with ideas, “My next project is a loyalty card for libraries. Children would get points for taking books out of the library and then they’d be able to redeem the points at local shops or towards face painting at one of our events.” He also plans cafés in the libraries which will be complemented by crèche facilities and opportunities to gain culinary qualifications.

Community libraries aren’t a panacea nor a solution that’s suitable for all areas. They have to be carefully managed with significant input from properly qualified staff to be successful but if the alternative is closure, then providing the technology, training and tools to operate them is surely preferably for the book loving and information-seeking public.

Catherine Dhanjal

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