Since 2011, Buckinghamshire library service has generated efficiencies and achieved savings of over £2 million reducing the total library budget from £7 million to £5 million. The service has been bold in reducing costs through a combination of methods including reviewing the staffing structure, lean systems, self-service technology and remodelling service delivery through a range of community library partnerships.
After extensive public library consultation in 2011, Buckinghamshire library service moved to a “county and community model”, with 10 large county libraries and 17 smaller community partnership libraries, plus 2 further libraries that had been part of a lottery funded project.
There are 2 models for the community run libraries:
In this model, the council manages the building with a reduced level of staffing and the community provides volunteers and fundraises in order to ensure that the identified savings can be achieved. Development of the library is through a local partnership committee.
These are run by community groups created and constituted as not-for-profit organisations with charitable status. The funding agreement and community library responsibilities are defined through a Resource Grant Agreement and buildings are leased to the local community organisation at a nominal rent.
All community partnership libraries are part of the local authority statutory provision.
Local authority support
Buckinghamshire County Council set up a 5 year Resource Grant Agreement with the self-managed libraries which includes:
- offering the library premises on a long lease at a peppercorn rent
- the local authority being responsible for the external maintenance and decoration of the building
- a resource grant
- provision of book stock and online reference resources
- connection to the Library Management System
- People’s Network public computers with internet access
- training by library staff
The level of staff support and fund raising in the community supported models is designed to achieve equivalent levels of saving to the council.
In the Resource Grant Agreement, the community partnership libraries have agreed to:
- provide a core library service for free public access
- maintain a minimum number of opening hours
- operate in accordance with certain policies, eg fines and reservation charges
- provide access to inter-library loans
- be responsible for all income and expenditure apart from that set out in the Resource Grant Agreement
Development of working practices
An immediate difficulty was that the volunteers running the new libraries would not be permitted to use the council’s internal computer drive in the same way staff are.
This meant they couldn’t share certain information even though they were still meant to be part of the main library network. Equally worrying, was the realisation that some voluntary groups found it difficult to create and maintain their own website and were unable as a result to share basic information among themselves.
A low-cost low-maintenance solution soon emerged thanks to the IT team which chose to use password-protected Google sites over the internet to set up new shared web sites for the volunteers.
Training and development
Several networking events have taken place and bespoke training delivered around customer care, equalities, Summer Reading Challenge, gadget days, and Learn My Way.
To manage volunteers, Farnham Common Library started using Three Rings, an online volunteer management system. Three Rings can be used on PCs (including Macs), tablets and mobile phones. In addition to showing volunteers shifts there is a password protected file store which can be used to store documents that volunteers can access. This learning was shared across the network of community libraries and is now used by many other groups.
It is a requirement of the Resource Grant Agreement that an annual review take place to assess the performance of the community library in terms of:
- community engagement
- encouraging literacy and the enjoyment of reading
- enabling life-long learning
- access to digital information
- library spaces as focal points for the community
Data on issues, visits, active borrowers and reservations placed are kept and monitored. The Resource Grant Agreement also enables BCC to audit the accounts of all self managed community libraries.
- building trust given the initial acrimony and anger generated through the proposals
- developing awareness of the different community library models amongst BCC staff and encouraging effective partnership working
- developing appropriate methods of communication between staff and volunteers
- seeking a balance between ‘supporting’ and ‘directing’ and between ‘involving’ and ‘imposing’
Lessons learnt included:
- the need to present the financial situation to the communities and request help from them
- that it’s important to have one person as a contact for community groups who need more information about taking on the running of a community library
- the opportunity to have on-going dialogue with the communities to reach an agreement
- the time taken to negotiate the legal issues concerned with transferring a service out of the council and into the community, if possible, it would be better to simplify the process before beginning the transfer programme
Library service officers are working on a business case for a library ‘spin out’, ie setting up an independent not-for-profit organisation to deliver the library service. Community library partners are engaged with this work and the scope exists to develop an innovative new model that involves community library partners in governance.
The community partnership libraries account for nearly 25% of total library visits and provide a cost effective means of maintaining a very local library service offer. The majority of community libraries have increased their opening hours and their visitor figures compare favourably with the service as a whole. The model is an excellent example of libraries as the heart of the community but the effort and time to enable these partnerships along with the demand on staff time and culture to effectively support them should not be underestimated