Case study

Community managed libraries: a library, Surrey, South East

Case study to support the research report: Exploring the service effectiveness and sustainability of community managed libraries in England

A noticeboard in a community library
A noticeboard in a community library. Photo credit: Libraries Taskforce

This case study is one of nine created by SERIO as part of their research into the service effectiveness and sustainability of community managed libraries in England. SERIO is an applied research unit at Plymouth University. Libraries were given the option of keeping their identity anonymous. This one chose to do so.

Background

Case Study Library 4 is situated in a village in the south east of Surrey. In around January 2012, Surrey County Council (SCC) put forward a proposal to turn 13 of its smaller local authority run libraries into community supported or community managed libraries, which would be run by volunteers. Case Study Library 4 was one of these.

Negotiations with local residents were pursued for around four and a half years until the library was officially launched as a community managed library in June 2016. A steering committee is now responsible for running the library, supported by a member of staff from SCC who also attends the steering group.

Finances

SCC currently owns the library building, which was originally donated to them in the 1950s for use as a library and museum. SCC is responsible for the maintenance of the building and all utilities bills, and as it owns the building, Case Study Library 4 does not need to pay any rent on the premises. However, the council is now looking into transferring the responsibilities for the building to a group of independent trustees and plans to lease 3 rooms for use by the library from those trustees. Case Study Library 4 hopes that this will come to fruition at some point this year, but report that negotiations have been ongoing for some considerable time.

Other support

In addition to providing the building, SCC also provides the book stock, IT hardware and software, PR materials, website support, access to county council services, and a limited amount of staff input for one day a week.

Relationships with stakeholders

Case Study Library 4 has a positive relationship with both SCC and 2 local parish councils. With regards to the latter in particular, the library reports that both parish councils have provided funding towards the running of the library over the last financial year, and they have encouraged the library to apply for funding in the future. One member from each of the parish councils sits on the steering committee, and have both been particularly supportive to date. Case Study Library 4 hopes it can work closely with the parish councils in the future as it looks to providing a more extensive service to local residents than what was possible when it was originally a local authority run library.

The library has a close working relationship with SCC, particularly through a member of staff who visits the library at least once a week, who sits on the steering committee and plays an advisory role. The library feels that this is mostly beneficial for the volunteers who come in less frequently, as they find it reassuring to have a specialist paid member of staff around since they are not as confident as those who volunteer on a regular basis once or twice a week.

User profile

As of June 2016, Case Study Library 4 had 1040 registered users, a number which has since increased over the 5 months the library has been in operation. The library has a lot of younger users up to the age of around 12, and many older users over the age of 55, but not so many in between. It serves a mixed community, including a number of people who live in social housing, and also those who are more affluent. The library believes that when moving to a community supported model, user numbers and borrowing went down, which the library felt could be due to some resistance from local residents who were not keen on attending a library which was not staffed by specialist paid staff members. However, since this initial drop in numbers, registered users have increased, which the library has attributed to word of mouth from the numerous volunteers they engage with, and an appreciation of a wider range of quality services than was offered when originally run by SCC.

I think [users have increased] because we’ve got 50 volunteers and by the time you add to them the people they know, and the people they know, it’s been quite good in terms of getting people to come into the library and support the library… we’ve had positive feedback; the feeling is that the service hasn’t deteriorated and we’re offering a wider menu than we did before and that’s partly about the fact there are more people involved.

(Case Study Library representative)

Case Study Library 4 believes that simply providing users with what they want is fundamental to maintaining user satisfaction. However as the library is particularly small in terms of available space, this can pose as barrier, and the library feels limited by the facilities they are able to offer.

I think there are barriers as it’s a small library, we have limited stock, we have limited facilities. We can’t offer the sophisticated IT options you’ll get elsewhere. It would be nice if we had more control, we have no control over the book stock at all and it would be good if we [did].

(Case Study Library representative)

Library volunteers

Case Study Library 4 has a total of 50 volunteers, a number which the library has maintained since it opened in June 2016, and which it anticipates will remain the same over the next 3 years, based on a low turnover. The majority of volunteers are over the age of 60, however there is also a large proportion of volunteers aged between 25 and 59. Furthermore, there are a small number of volunteers aged between 16 and 24. The library not only uses a formal agency to recruit volunteers, but also encourages visitors to join their team.

I think we have a very stable core of volunteers. I think inevitably people come and go because people move, people’s personal situations change. We’ve had about 5 people who have dropped off for various reasons out of 50, but I would hope we’d be able to recruit some new people as people’s personal situations change they retire, they start families, they’re around in the village more.

(Case Study Library 4 representative)

Each volunteer tends to have a specific role rather than having a catch-all role; for example, the library has a specific team of volunteers who focus on liaison with schools and arranging children’s activities, and it is also looking for a volunteer who could specialise in events, and another on income generating activity.

The library highlights that the greatest challenge in managing volunteers is the inherent flexibility that comes with being a volunteer. It is not possible to impose the same sanctions on a volunteer as it is on someone who is being paid, and it is important to accept what volunteers are able to offer, and incorporate that into the operation of the library. Furthermore, volunteers’ expectations of what it is like to work in a library sometimes differ from reality.

The fact they’re volunteers, it’s not like when you’re managing paid staff you always have the ultimate sanction… With volunteers… there isn’t a bottom line, I can’t say to somebody you were paid to come and do this and you do it or … you have to take what you can get and work out how you’re going to weave that into everything else.

I think that most of the volunteers have come with an idea of what working in a library would entail, and I think some of them are surprised at the level of detail and also the range of administrative activities. But it’s not just all looking at books and talking to people about books, there’s an awful lot of paddling that goes on underneath the water.

(Case Study Library 4 representative)

The library feels that listening to volunteers and providing them with a platform to voice their opinions is key to maintaining their satisfaction. SCC delivered a comprehensive training package to the first set of volunteers which included:

  • health and safety
  • customer care
  • information / database control
  • use of internet resources
  • data protection and copyright training
  • training on the Library Management System

However, the library reports that new volunteers will probably be trained by both SCC and existing volunteers in the future.

Service delivery

Case Study Library 4 offer mostly core services, but also a number of enhanced services:

  • book loans
  • newspapers / magazines available in the library
  • inter-library loan service
  • national programmes for example the Summer Reading Challenge, Quick Reads and Books on Prescription
  • DVD/CD loans
  • photocopying / printing
  • wifi
  • computer access
  • local history archive
  • library service for schools including providing book collections or hosting class visits
  • parent and baby groups
  • quiz events
  • Christmas readings

Case Study Library 4 considers the involvement of volunteers and members of the community the most successful aspect of the services they deliver. The library feels that since it became community-managed, it brings more cohesion to the community, encouraging people to be active rather than passive consumers of a service. The library also highlighted how people are now more aware of what facilities a library can offer.

I think it also makes people more aware about what a library can offer and what a library could offer. You know, rather than somewhere where you come in and get 3 Mills and Boon books a week, there are other facilities here.

(Case Study Library 4 representative)

Over the next year, the library intends to increase promotion activity and grow the number of events it puts on, and facilities it provides. For example, the library is considering visiting local care homes and providing a selection of books for the residents. However, this will be dependent on the commitment of the volunteers involved in the running of the library.

How far we get I think is going to be an issue about how much time and energy people have got to throw at it because I think that’s the other thing with volunteers, you fit in with the other things in their lives, you can’t say to them, you’re contracted to me for 35 hours a week and you’re going to do this within 35 hours, you know, you negotiate around other things.

(Case Study Library 4 representative)

Sustainability

Case Study Library 4 receives in kind support from SCC in the form of library premises, book stock, IT hardware and software, PR materials, website support, access to county council services, and a limited amount of staff input. Furthermore, when the library was first set up, SCC provided an initial grant of £2,389. The library has agreed a memorandum of understanding with SCC, but the licence will not be finalised until the building has passed over to the new group of trustees.

As well as the in kind and financial support received from SCC, the library also receives precepts from the 2 parish councils in the area, which have totalled £2,000 since the library opened. As the chairs of both parish councils sit on the steering group for the library, they were in a position to enable the library to receive those precepts, which were used to cover costs for a launch event. The library plans to put in further bids for funding from the parish councils in the future.

The library has put on a number of fundraising events including a launch quiz, Christmas readings, and book sales, which have netted almost £1,000 for the library to date. However, although both the quiz and Christmas readings generated the most income for the library out of all the enhanced services they offer, the library feels that targeting events and facilities towards children and families will provide the most benefit in terms of supporting the future sustainability of the library. In particular, the library envisages holding a story time after school for school children, and perhaps arranging a children’s short story competition.

I think in terms of sustainability it’s about catering for children and families in a sense, to open the library up to people when they’re young and perhaps they’ve got young families and sort of to get people in the habit of using it.

(Case Study Library 4 representative)

The library expects events to form a significant income stream for the future. From experience, it recognises that there is an “enormous amount of goodwill” amongst volunteers and the wider community, and it is confident it will be able to generate funding from various occasions. Amongst other events, it is planning a day in the summer dedicated to children in the garden, a Halloween event, and further Christmas readings.

In addition, the library has also received a donation of £200 from a neighbourhood social networking organisation. The library would welcome income through further donations from charities; indeed, it has identified that there are certain charities who may be interested in funding specific projects such as the local care home venture. However, although there are volunteers who have experience in bidding for funding, the library feels that it currently lacks a strategic focus to be successful.

The library is very comfortable with the notion of income generating activity in general, provided that activity reflects the more traditional understanding of what a library does. Furthermore, the library is particularly conscious of not directly competing with other providers in the area.

I think if we’re going to raise money we have to do something that looks as if its related to what is generally understood of what libraries do, so, we wouldn’t perhaps offer a job club or something like that, partly because we’ve got nowhere to put one but and partly because I think we would feel that expertise exists elsewhere. There are also quite a lot of activities which are offered in the community centre and we have to be careful that we’re not going to compete with them.

(Case Study Library 4 representative)

Future direction and support

Case Study Library 4 envisages the in kind and financial support from SCC remaining the same, although appreciates that support could decrease amidst local authority resourcing changes.

Case Study Library 4 acknowledge that it will need to focus more on other income sources, noting that alternative sources of income are increasingly important to the library’s sustainability. Sourcing appropriate volunteers with the right skillset to bid for funding will be fundamental to this. However, the library believes that in order to maintain a steady stream of income from alternative sources, funding needs to be spent on things which are tangible, so that the benefit of that additional income can be seen.

If you’re going to generate income as a community library, you have to be able to demonstrate what you’re using the income for, you can’t just sort of lose it within your bank account and say, oh by the way, and we bought tea and coffee for the volunteers or something like that. You have to have a very clear idea how you’re going to spend it; otherwise it becomes very difficult to raise money.

(Case Study Library 4 representative)

In order to address this, the library plans to continue interacting with the wider community, demonstrating the range of services it is now able to offer, and which were previously unavailable. It has a regular column in the local community’s newsletter which reports on recent events at the library and it is also used to publicise future activity.

In terms of additional support, the library feels it would benefit from assistance in developing a more ambitious strategic view of what it wants the library to achieve. Some volunteers are very comfortable with this, however others see the library in a more traditional sense.

I think it’s just not something [all volunteers] would contemplate or really think about. They think of a library as somewhere where you go to get books, you might use a computer, you might get a DVD you might get an audio book but they don’t go any further than that and they perhaps don’t think about how libraries have to change because the context within which you’re working is changing.

(Case Study Library 4 representative)

In addition, Case Study library 4 feels that access to a network of community managed libraries would enable it to see how other libraries are generating income, and discuss common problems and issues. The library also feels there needs to be recognition and respect for volunteers who are taking on a role which was once done by paid/ specialist staff and that they may not necessarily have the same skills and expertise.

Finally, with regards to the sustainability of the library, Case Study Library 4 is confident it will be sustainable given that it has got a good foundation of volunteers and funds to continue providing the service.

The views and opinions expressed in these case studies are those of the community libraries and do not represent those of SERIO, the Libraries Taskforce or DCMS.

Published 5 September 2017