Case study

Community managed libraries: Castle Vale library, Birmingham, West Midlands

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

Craft session in Castle Vale library
Craft session in Castle Vale library. Photo credit: Castle Vale library

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.

Background

Located between Erdington, Minworth and Castle Bromwich, Castle Vale is part of Erdington District within the city of Birmingham. In January 2013, Birmingham City Council (BCC) announced a round of budget cuts at both a city- and local-level within districts. A number of services were earmarked for closure, including Castle Vale library.

In light of this, Ray Goodwin, CEO of Castle Vale Tenants and Residents Association (CVTRA: a resident led not-for-profit organisation) commented that “libraries aren’t just libraries; they’re places where people meet, learn and socialise”, and requested that they take over the running of the library. After a period of negotiations, in February 2014, BCC fully transferred the running of the library to CVTRA.

Finances

BCC advised that CVTRA seek £10,000 of government funding through Social Investment Business to undertake a pre-feasibility study to look at the viability of the opportunity. After acknowledging they needed an impartial assessment, CVTRA engaged with Development in Social Enterprise to formulate a robust business plan which showed that it was possible to run the library without a grant.

Consequently, BCC were keen to support the venture and, after negotiations, provided CVTRA with a grant of £50,000 a year for both the 2014/15 and 2015/16 periods. As a result, the council has not only saved £230,000 across the 2 year period, but has also helped develop the sustainability of the library. Since financial backing from BCC ceased in February 2016, Castle Vale Library, the only community-managed library in Birmingham, has saved the council around another £160,000 and has continued to thrive without any funding from BCC.

Other support

Castle Vale Library remains part of BCC’s statutory library service, maintaining access to the BCC Library Management System, and receiving in-kind support including access to book stock, inter-library loans and a van service. Indeed, BCC provided the library with the existing book stock when it first transferred to CVTRA, however, the library notes that new book stock mainly comes from community donations now rather than the council. The library also receives advice and assistance from its partner, Erdington library, which provides general support on day-to-day library issues. The library has agreed a peppercorn rent for its site with the Education Funding Agency which owns the building; and due to the library’s charitable status, it also receives a reduction on business rates.

Relationships with stakeholders

Castle Vale Library maintains that it has a strong working relationship with BCC, which recognises the success CVTRA have made.

After 4 years of running the library as successfully, if not better than the city council could, the most senior person in the city for libraries said in some areas we’re doing the same, but in others we are actually performing better than 4 years ago.

(Castle Vale library representative)

Indeed, the library has been asked to speak with BCC’s library taskforce to tell their journey and support them with helping further libraries.

However, Castle Vale’s relationship with the existing library staff’s trade union has been somewhat tense. When CVTRA initially took over the running of the library, the trade union highlighted how jobs were being lost due to the involvement of volunteers, and questioned their ability to run the library without paid library staff.

With the only other option being closure, which would also result in staff job loss, Castle Vale responded by offering secondment opportunities to existing staff members at a cost to the library, which would be taken from the grant. Ultimately, however, existing staff were redeployed to other library services within the city so no job losses were incurred.

User profile

Castle Vale Library has around 1000 users, a number which has increased over the last year, which the library believes is due to the expanding services and activities which it runs, alongside more traditional services such as book loans.

[The number of users has increased} … because we’re doing things differently. We put on lots of events like Mad Hatter’s Tea Parties and fancy dress, arts and crafts mornings, and Halloween days. This is all to get people to walk through the doors and to engage. I was invited to a library and I walked in and it was all like shhhh – and my first words were “where’s the radio?” It’s got to have some vibe to the place, got to give it some energy. Because that’s where the problem is. It’s allowed to be loud, allowed to be messy and allowed to be fun.

(Castle Vale library representative)

The library considers itself to have a wide variety of users of all ages; and the gender mix is around 60% female and 40% male. It attributes user satisfaction to the library’s unique environment which is tailored to their needs and wants; something which they feel is much easier to do when run independently.

We do our own thing – that’s the value of independence, doing lots of things that others don’t. It’s about the person who walks through the door. If you like the brand or atmosphere or something about that place you prefer. If you create an environment that people want, they will come through the door and what we’re doing is creating an environment people find welcoming and open.

(Castle Vale library representative)

Library volunteers

There are currently 15 volunteers based in Castle Vale library, a number which has steadily increased since opening in February 2014. The library predicts this number will increase again over the coming year due to a growing interest in volunteering opportunities and a general desire from the public to help. The library also plans to increase the number of paid staff over the next few years as and when enterprise activity within the library develops, as both volunteers and paid staff underpin the success of those services. It currently has 2 paid members of staff which it funds itself. Although these staff members have been trained by the library, they are not professional librarians, but more customer service oriented.

To maintain volunteer satisfaction, Castle Vale library believes that valuing all volunteers for the support they give is essential and this enables a good retention rate. Yet due to the flexible nature of volunteering, timekeeping and commitment can pose issues when managing volunteers, as they are able to come and go as they please.

Volunteers like to get involved and do things, and for them that’s the great satisfaction. We make them feel special and love them very dearly – we give them uniforms, thank them, give them food, and make them feel valued. They’re part and parcel of all this, not just a volunteer. We have a very good retention rate.

(Castle Vale library representative)

Castle Vale library provides a range of in-house volunteer training opportunities from basic IT, database control and use of internet resources, to health and safety, safeguarding, and data protection and copyright. However, the library feels it would benefit from a more formal arrangement with an education institution which could perhaps provide an NVQ in customer service for volunteers. This idea has been explored by the library, but it feels that local colleges are reluctant to provide such training outside of the classroom; which the library needs in order to maintain its service level.

Service delivery

Castle Vale library offers a wide range of core services including:

  • book loans
  • library service for schools (including providing book collections/hosting class visits)
  • inter-library loan service
  • national programmes for example the Summer Reading Challenge, Quick Reads and Books on Prescription
  • photocopying/printing
  • wifi
  • computer access

In addition, the library also provides these enhanced services:

  • laptop or tablet loan
  • laminating
  • book sales
  • CD/ DVD sales
  • reading groups
  • parent and baby groups such as rhyme time
  • local history archive
  • community events
  • café
  • database research (for example genealogy databases)
  • document laminating
  • meeting room hire
  • study area

Castle Vale also offers a variety of different community groups and events such as knitting groups, arts and crafts sessions and coffee mornings, and it considers these events to be most successful aspects of the library services they deliver.

The events we put on are so well received. We’re talking about doing brave things, spreading out of the library and doing a food festival. We have lots of cookery books encouraging people to eat healthily, so we’d like to do a street food festival based outside the library.

(Castle Vale library representative)

Furthermore, the library feels that being run by the community allows it to “do things differently”, enabling them to be more than a book lending service and to be a focal point within the community.

Just think we can do things differently. We can open at 9am on a Sunday morning, we’re not just a library, and we don’t just give out books. There are huge cultural benefits…we’re a centre point of the community. All good libraries should be this, not just a man stood behind a desk stamping books.

(Castle Vale library representative)

Plans to expand the library’s repertoire of services include developing a community cinema and theatre. It currently has a space which it piloted as a cinema in November 2016, showing a couple of productions with around 40 attendees. Feedback was particularly positive, and the library is now considering how to run the cinema for around 80-100 people.

Sustainability

As mentioned, Castle Vale library initially received £50,000 a year for 2 years from BCC. This funding ended in February 2016, and the library has since relied on direct trading and retail, paid for services, and donations from charities, trusts and or foundations as alternative income sources. Over the last 2 years, the library has seen a slight increase in income from direct trading and retail. This is primarily due to it undertaking more trading activities such as setting up the community cinema and theatre, and it sees this as essential to the sustainability of the library.

The biggest cost when you go to see a film is the seat you sit in. The film itself is reasonably cheap. We looked at the cost [of hiring up-to-date films] as part of the test and you can hire for them for £80. So if we have a 60-80 seat cinema and charge £5 a head to see up-to-date films, we could generate probably a surplus of £20K a year. For a charity, small things like that that, doing interesting things, go towards the sustainability of library.

(Castle Vale library representative)

Paid for services have generated a steady income over the last 3 years, remaining around the same figure each year. However, the library highlighted that income from room hire actually provides the most benefit in terms of sustainability. Historically, a number of community organisations hired work space at a local school, however the school was demolished and the rebuild was much smaller than the original. As such, there is significant demand for room hire, and, due to the various spaces the library has available, such as the cinema and theatre areas, the library is able to capitalise on this.

Charitable trusts are really interested in what we do because we’re not a normal charity - we have USPs and do things very differently. We put our clients and users at the heart of what we do. They would rather donate money to an organisation who has 3 layered model, grants, enterprise and trust funds because you’ve got another string to your bow, rather than knowing that [with the trust fund] that’s all there is.

(Castle Vale library representative)

Income from charities, trusts and foundations has significantly increased over the last 3 years. This is not only due to a growing interest in the uniqueness of the library, as the only community-managed library in Birmingham, but also because of the three-tier model by which the library runs, consisting of enterprise, grants, and trust funds. Castle Vale library reports that it is very confident in securing funding from these alternative income streams, and that it sees these as very important to the future sustainability of the library. In particular, it envisages developing a strong enterprise culture with the library at the centre of the model.

Future direction and support

Castle Vale library acknowledges that in-kind support from BCC may reduce or cease altogether, but it hopes it will remain the same over the coming years. There is a possibility that the council could charge the library for access to book stock and the van service. However, the library feels that, if this were to happen, it could increase its book stock through crowdfunding supplemented with the multiple book donations it already receives.

Furthermore, the library recognises that it is still working towards becoming fully sustainable, and that, in the short- to medium-term, it will require some input financially other than income secured through enterprise alone. It does, however, have a “broad and robust business strategy” which focuses on enterprise in the medium term.

The library suggested that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) are best placed to provide ongoing support to pilot new ways of generating income as it is in a good position to influence and develop strategies. This could either be in the form of financial support or, somewhat more importantly, expert time and input to strengthen and develop the library’s enterprise model. Visiting the library to establish what a tailored package of support would look like, would be a welcome first step; the library feels that this would be essential in order to understand the whole ethos of the library and its goals. The library also commented on the expertise and contacts that central government may have that could support enterprising activity.

If DCMS were to offer a small grant for a few years, and alongside that, help to develop the library into a self-sustaining library and speed the process up, we wouldn’t say no. We want to get to point where we’re not reliant on grants. Self-sufficiency is the end-game in all of this. It’s where we’re going.

(Castle Vale library representative)

Castle Vale library believes that there are very few further barriers to their long term sustainability, but that there is some work which needs to be done to satisfy the trade unions so that they don’t see the library as an organisation which is leading to people losing their jobs. To overcome this, the library expressed the need for general recognition that the model they have adopted can coexist successfully alongside local authority run models.

Notwithstanding these barriers and areas for support, Castle Vale library is “hugely confident” that it will be sustainable for the future, provided it continues to build upon its enterprising model.

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