Case study

Community libraries in Dorset

An overview of community libraries, from the perspective of the library service

One of Dorset's community libraries: Colehill

One of Dorset's community libraries: Colehill. Photo credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce


The library service strategy sets out how Dorset County Council (DCC) meets its statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient service under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. It includes a network of 25 core libraries, supported by a resources fund, mobile library provision, access to a range of online resources and services and work with partners.

The county council also uses its wellbeing powers to enable and support 8 communities to manage their own library. This has meant that the county council is no longer providing a core library for these communities but has provided a support package, worth approximately £5,000 per year, to enable local communities to continue and expand the use of their library and make better use of the building as a community asset. The 8 community managed libraries have been operational in Dorset for over 3 years.

This partnership approach has resulted in a better local service offer, given the previous limited resources of the county council-provided library service. Many of the communities have a skilled pool of volunteers who can extend the range of services and maximise use of the building as a community asset.

There has been a fairly long-term context around community transfer in Dorset. In 2006, the county council undertook an efficiency review linked to the available budget and this led to a proposal to close 13 small libraries from a network of 34. After considerable consultation and resistance, the decision was made to save money in other ways (eg reducing opening hours, bookfund, etc) to avoid closing libraries. In 2010, Dorset began a modernisation programme to refresh its service offer following the publication of a policy statement on public libraries together with expected efficiencies likely to be required. The library service was keen to avoid undermining the soundness of the overall service by further reductions. In order to meet the higher than anticipated budget savings, it was proposed that funding was ceased for 20 libraries.

Following an extensive and extended period of community consultation, the proposal was re-shaped to transfer 9 libraries to community management with a defined package of resources. It was clear from the consultation that the communities required some staffing support, access to the Library Management System (LMS) and book replenishment. Providing this package of support impacted on the ability to make the efficiencies required. However, the county council recognised the importance of listening to communities and responding to needs.

DCC is very committed to supporting the community managed libraries. Part of the success with this new means of service delivery has been the commitment of the local communities. It should be noted that these communities are small, rural and, on the whole, in affluent areas. There was one community with no interest or capacity to develop a community managed library and this area is one of socio-economic deprivation.

In Dorset, the role of community managed libraries is supplementary to the core service. In Dorset, for these libraries to succeed, the level of support provided by the county council is crucial. Having this package of support, enhanced with volunteer skills and enthusiasm, has resulted in the provision of a local facility offering convenient access to the library service and, in some community managed libraries, a wider range of other services.

Local authority support

The local authority provides:

  • premises offered as a leasehold or freehold according to community need where DCC owned the building
  • a one-off grant of £2,000 to help the organisation to establish a community managed library
  • book shelving and library furniture
  • stock collection of fiction and non-fiction for adults and children and large print books which will be at least 95% of the size of the existing collection
  • 300 new books per year for adults and children through the local authorities procurement contract, and in the case of the community library where the issues were higher, 500 books per year
  • fully serviced books stock which is shelf ready with Radio-Frequency IDentification (RFID) tags, protective jackets and delivered to the library
  • continuation of stock circulation
  • library service stock which can be reserved online for collection at the community library or any other library in the local authority
  • reservations free of charge, the same as in DCC libraries
  • full access to the inter library loan system on a charged for basis
  • reading group sets, audiobooks and DVDs available through the reservation system
  • access to e-magazines and all online resources (but not newspapers and magazines)
  • donated stock which meets the Collection Development Policy standard and added to the system by the community library liaison officer
  • ongoing support for volunteers from a library service member of staff (community libraries liaison officer) according to an agreed timetable of no less than 3 hours per week
  • broadband provision for the LMS and the public computers
  • provision and maintenance of the computer systems and RFID self service unit and the RFID staff pad for use with the LMS
  • print consumables to cover library use based on known average use
  • a printer / scanner and Voice over IP (VOIP) phone (no phone line rental charges but calls will be recharged)
  • an upgrade of the computer systems in line with the county council library service network
  • regular van deliveries
  • the use and support of People’s Network PCs in the community library to provide users with access to the internet and DCC’s virtual library
  • WiFi installation but the community pay the ongoing costs
  • initial and ongoing training
  • monthly issue figures for stock
  • resources for the Summer Reading Challenge
  • a meeting with senior officers and the lead cabinet member once a year

Role of the community

The community must:

  • operate and manage the community managed library for the benefit of the local community
  • encourage adults and children within the community to use the library and participate in local and national reading and other library initiatives eg the Summer Reading Challenge and reading groups
  • ensure that the community managed library is open to the public for at least 6 hours per week
  • ensure that fees and charges are consistent with DCC charges
  • be responsible for all operating costs
  • comply with necessary licences and legislation relating to the premises and their use and with legislation regarding employees and volunteers
  • be responsible for the recruitment, management and ongoing training of volunteers to ensure they have the necessary skills to be undertaking their role
  • comply with Equal Opportunities policy, the Equality Act 2010, safeguarding, data protection, health and safety regulations and legislation, building security and the Data Protection Act 1998
  • be responsible for the development and management of a community managed library website which may be linked to the council’s library service webpages

Development of working practices

The community managed libraries now have access to:

  • regular information bulletins from Dorset library service
  • opportunity to participate in the majority of DCC service delivery developments, eg Books on Prescription

Community library service monitoring by the local authority

The decision was taken that the only performance indicator to be included in the agreement would be a minimum number of opening hours per week. However, the library service provides the community managed libraries with monthly issue statistics and quarterly / yearly figures for the community library to be aware of service take-up.


The community managed libraries have a 4 year rolling agreement which provides infrastructure support and stability. There are no known plans to amend or end this service agreement.

The amount of resilience required by lead managers in consulting and setting up community managed libraries cannot be underestimated. The work will require personal resilience as well as take a significant amount of time to manage.

The work involves building relationships which can be challenging where there is resistance. Maintaining open, honest and direct lines of communication was part of the reason for Dorset’s success. However, there will be times where both parties need to recognise that there are some issues that cannot be agreed without losing the ability to progress the agreed principles.

Lessons learnt

Originally it was planned that all community run library representatives would meet with the portfolio holder for libraries and library service representatives once a year. However, this meeting now occurs twice a year. It is a very constructive process as the community library stakeholders have made the step change from campaigning to keep libraries open, to developing a framework that enables community managed libraries to be an essential part of their community.

Political support is crucial in enabling engagement and consultation with community representatives. Elected members can broker discussions with town and parish councils and look for possible options for sustaining a local library.

Volunteer Centre and Dorset Community Action were commissioned to provide support and training to communities to set up management committees in order to develop the community library business case and to develop a volunteer workforce.

It was helpful to agree a framework of principles for the agreement and to work with 2 community leads who negotiated on behalf of the 8 communities.

In addition to the community library liaison officer posts it has proved beneficial to have a library service manager designated to build a relationship with all the community libraries. This role also ensures that the community libraries receive a 6 weekly bulletin with updates on universal library offers and key library related activities.

Learning from the experience, we would approach the consultation and engagement for any future proposals in a different way. We would not start with proposing closing or ceasing funding but with a need to explore how communities and the county council can work together to deliver services.

Future plans

Dorset library service has joined the Libraries West consortium and is currently implementing a shared LMS with the 6 other authorities who are part of the consortium. As the community managed libraries in Dorset have access to the LMS, their users should enjoy the benefits of being able to borrow and reserve stock across member authorities in the south west.


The 8 community libraries are now established as part of DCC’s library service offer and provide:

  • access to books and reading
  • participation in the Summer Reading Challenge, Books on Prescription, south west reading activities and events tailored to local needs
  • a space for people to work or study, with free WiFi
  • a safe, social space including wider community use of the building
  • a sustainable library or a community hub in small communities

For further information: Dorset County Council libraries website

Published 23 March 2016