Research on Rural Library Services

Research on Rural Library Services

Posted by Anton Schultz  |  2nd Sep 2014
In Autumn 2013, OPM and Locality were commissioned to undertake research exploring recent changes and possible futures for rural library services in England. Our report has now been published by Defra and Arts Council England.

The research took place against a backdrop of continuing change across library services, and aims to help local communities and councils to better understand the issues, challenges and opportunities for rural areas taking place as a result of them. Following an initial review of the most recent evidence, we worked with a sample of eight local authority areas to explore the nature of library service changes in their areas, the impact of those changes and the learning their local experience has generated.

The marked increase in community involvement in the running of rural libraries is a headline change witnessed in the last three to four years, with around 300 community libraries known to exist in England by Spring this year. Whilst circa 5% of these are truly independent of their local authorities, with book stock and support systems entirely self-sourced, the vast majority are community-managed or community-supported, with access to varying degrees of ongoing council support.

In communities across our eight areas, we found examples of staff and volunteers working to expand the role of their local library in the community – in terms of the activities provided and hosted, and the social networks it was helping to support. As such, it was clear from our work that there is a major role for rural library services as places which utilise, unlock and build social capital – not least, with their outreach potential, providing access to a range of different services and activities otherwise missing in many rural areas. We conclude that to remain sustainable, rural libraries should be seeking to secure economies of scope rather than economies of scale. That will mean co-designing library services with other services, and recognising the value that libraries have as venues where a range of services and activities can be hosted, and where communities are able to come together.

It was also clear that if councils are to successfully rethink the role of their rural libraries, they will need to take more positive approaches to involving communities in that process. Beginning from the negative starting point that rural libraries are at risk, consultation processes have often opened up anger and mistrust in communities – precisely at the time when collaboration and creative thinking would have been so valuable.
To read the full report, click here.