Enterprising Community Libraries - The Story So Far...

Enterprising Community Libraries - The Story So Far...

Posted by Annemarie Naylor  |  7th Mar 2013
Earlier this week, Locality convened an event for councils and community libraries to reflect on the future of community involvement of the management of library assets and delivery of library services.

Locality has campaigned for a number of years to raise the profile of communities delivering library services, so we were delighted to convene the largest ever gathering of community libraries at the Whitechapel Idea Store earlier this week.

Back in 2010-11, we supported the first high level mapping exercise of such activities. Incredibly, the MLA was only able to identify 29 community libraries operating in England – equivalent to just 1% of libraries at the time. Our research for Arts Council England last summer indicated that that figure had grown to more than 170 or 5% by the end of July 2012 – and, it is expected to top 425 (12%) over the course of the coming year. Clearly, the growth in community libraries is considered both welcome and unwelcome news – subject to one’s perspective – and the tension between those proactively seeking to manage library services and those campaigning to #savelibraries in public hands remains a significant feature of the community library landscape.

With that in mind, we organised a national networking event to inform and inspire as well as offer challenge to key policy makers and stakeholders, and we were very pleased to introduce more than 130 delegates from 35 library authorities, 40 community libraries as well as a host of established social and community enterprises (including, the excellent catering team!) on the day.

Don Foster MP kick-started proceedings and warmly welcomed the growth in community libraries right across the country. In particular, he drew attention to the Government’s efforts to support communities through implementation of the Community Right to Bid and Right to Challenge, together with related support and funding programmes.

Locality’s Chief Executive, Steve Wyler, emphasised that community enterprise is not about replacing the state with volunteers, but about partnership working between councils and communities, and the commissioning of library services from not-for-private-profit organisations. He pointed to the innovative work of the team at Belsize Community Library in Camden; Fresh Horizons and its proactive call for the management of the library at The Chestnut Centre in Huddersfield; as well as the established learning and library hub that is the Alt Valley Community Trust’s ‘communiversity’. But, he also cautioned that there is an urgent need to identify appropriate business models for community libraries to render them sustainable in the medium to long term – in particular, where councils have not seen fit to commission services from communities, which is the welcome approach adopted by Buckinghamshire. And, he underlined the needs for dedicated resources and support in the most deprived areas - where the resources are scarcest, the challenges are most acute, but where the value of libraries is potentially greatest.

Graham Fisher of Toynbee Hall talked about Canon Samuel Augustus Barnett and the role of the local community in establishing the original Whitechapel Library and Art Gallery – reminding attendees of the long history of community involvement in establishing such facilities. He also looked to the future, to the increasingly important role of technology in the provision of library services, and pointed to the work underway to equip community enterprises to deliver high quality services fit for the 21st century.

Miranda McKearney of The Reading Agency proceeded to introduce attendees to the new national offer and its programme of work – emphasising that the new ‘mixed library economy’ will challenge her charitable organisation’s efforts to promote improvements in literacy rates. Then, Nicky Morgan (Director, Libraries – Arts Council England) spoke about the Library Development Initiative and Envisioning the Libraries of the Future work, before introducing the findings of the Arts Council’s report about community libraries.

Numerous workshops after lunch explored tried and tested approaches to income generation that community libraries might adapt or adopt in taking their first entrepreneurial steps. Amongst them, attendees learned about IT recycling from ECO Computers in Lewisham, the co-location of community cinemas with library services, Ecomodo’s Good for Libraries offer, as well as ambitious efforts underway in Colchester to establish libraries alongside hacker and maker spaces. So far, so inspired…

Then, towards the end of the day, attendees regrouped to hear from Ed Vaizey MP, the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries. We’ll be posting short films from the event in due course, so I’m not going to attempt to summarise here what proved a constructive yet frank exchange.

Except - there were calls from communities for help to re-engage councils in a constructive dialogue about community library services, in particular, where independent community libraries and London Boroughs are concerned; I would point to the efforts of communities in Friern Barnet and Kensal Rise in this regard, and reiterate the importance of partnership working. And, crucially, there were calls from around the country for an enterprise scheme to help render community libraries viable and capable of high quality service delivery both now and in the future.

Now, I’m not sure whether our speaker really grasped the desire amongst many community libraries in the room to behave entrepreneurially, to operate as community enterprises engaging paid and professional staff, to move beyond campaigning, saving and preserving a much loved and vitally important local service – to proactively contributing to its evolution. So, there is certainly more work to be done…

Nonetheless, attendees appeared to welcome an opportunity to meet one another – to discover others ‘like them’, to share their experiences and forge formative relationships that might be of mutual benefit over the months and years ahead. If you’d also like to meet them, follow @ckhlibraries on twitter and/or sign-up to the Libraries Community Knowledge Hub.