Case study

Community managed libraries: Delph library, Oldham, North West

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

Delph library
Delph library. Photo credit: Delph 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

Situated on the outskirts of Greater Manchester in the North West, Delph is a village in the civil parish of Saddleworth, which has a population of just over 25,500. In 2004, Oldham Council (OC) put forward plans to close Delph library in light of a budget saving scheme. However, OC agreed that if volunteers were to run the library, it would provide book stock and pay the overheads for another year to allow the library time to research other sources of income.

Finance

The library closed in March 2005, but following the implementation of a service level agreement, the library re-opened as a community managed library in May 2005 for 9 hours a week. After the first year, OC withdrew funding for overheads. However Delph Community Association (DCA), a charity which aims to maintain and improve life in the village, raised enough money to cover the costs and the library continued to run as a community managed library until 2011, when a new service level agreement with OC was put in place. This agreement was between OC and DCA; it set out terms whereby OC would provide Delph library with a yearly grant and a library assistant to cover all opening hours.

Other support

Delph library is currently housed in a building owned by OC, which has been leased to the Millgate Arts Centre Ltd on a 30 year lease with peppercorn rent. This organisation also owns a theatre based in the same building. Although the library does not pay rent, it is responsible for the internal maintenance of the building and general running costs and overheads as well as volunteer insurance. However, as mentioned, the council do offer additional in kind support to the grant funding and paid staff; providing public computers, a self-service machine, a printer, bookshelves, and book stock.

Relationship with stakeholders

The library has a particularly close relationship with OC due to the amount of funding and support it receives from them, and it sees this continuing in the future. It feels this is a successful partnership, especially given the current budget pressures OC is under. It also feels that the council does not want to make any further cuts to library services in the area, but wants to reassess the ways in which they are run.

We have meetings with the head of libraries and community librarian for Saddleworth about every 6 weeks to 2 months. It’s a good relationship, I think the head of libraries wants Delph to continue and we want Delph to continue and although I think Oldham are strapped for cash, there is a general feeling they don’t want to close any more libraries, but they might want to look at the ways they’re run. I think at the moment [our relationship] will continue.

(Delph library representative)

User profile

Delph library considers the majority of its users are local to the area, with some users potentially coming from further afield if they work in the village or nearby. With a relatively even gender split, most are retired - although the library does also attract young parents with their children who are often below school age. Although the library cannot comment on the exact number of registered users at the library as it remains part of the county’s network, the number of visitors has remained approximately the same over the last year. The library is, however, considering ways to increase numbers, such as starting a regular craft session. It currently has ad-hoc craft sessions, but it would like a more permanent fixture in order to attract more visitors, bring the community together, and tackle isolation.

What we’re hoping to do shortly is to start a regular craft session on a Tuesday afternoon which we hope the older people who are perhaps retired will come to. We’ve someone who runs sessions every now and then and they’re very popular so we want to try and tap into that. The person who runs them is very creative and has the philosophy that everybody can do something, and that it’s a fulfilling thing to make something, and a good place for those who may not have many friends or relatives.

(Delph library representative)

Delph library believes that having volunteers and staff who are helpful, provide good customer service, and who work well with children are the most important factors in maintaining user satisfaction. When time permits, the library is also keen for volunteers and staff to chat to individual users and recommend books. Moreover, the library feels that recent improvements to the physical appearance of the library have encouraged more visitors.

[The library assistant] is very good with customer service and she’s very good with children and children like coming. She’s got to know a lot of people and is good at remembering people’s names. I think it makes users feel they’ve had a good experience at the library. If there are not too many people in, there’s a possibility of talking about what books they’re reading and recommending other books and generally having a chat.

(Delph library representative)

Library volunteers and staff

Currently, Delph library has around 30 volunteers in addition to the library assistant who is funded by OC. The majority of volunteers are over the age of 60, however the library has also engaged with five 25-59 year olds, and two 16-24 year olds. Each shift requires one volunteer and the library assistant. Over the last year volunteers at the library have increased, however in general, over the last 3 years numbers have fluctuated. The library feels that this could be due to the introduction of the paid library assistant, as some volunteers were unhappy because they would no longer have the social aspect of working with other volunteers.

Looking to the future, the library aims to maintain the number of volunteers it currently has, which is enough to cover all of the opening hours. Furthermore, although Delph library does not feel it needs any more paid staff help, it recognises that running the library without any professional support would be particularly difficult.

I don’t think you could justify having more than one paid member of staff. We’re very lucky to have one. We would fight against reducing this. If we lost our paid staff, we really would be in difficulty.

(Delph library representative)

The library reports that the greatest challenge in managing volunteers is ensuring that paid staff and volunteers work well together. Moreover, the library acknowledges that some volunteers are not as proactive as others, so it is important to find tasks each can do. However, in terms of maintaining volunteer satisfaction, the library always makes sure that volunteers feel their contribution is worthwhile.

I think they feel they’re doing a useful job, that it’s a friendly place appreciated by users and that because it’s a village [volunteers] know people who come in, and I think they feel they’re providing a service people appreciate. Because I do the rota I do try to see them and have chat, and we have a Christmas get-together, and I suppose if people want to have a moan about something they can do. I always thank them when they finish their shift and think they feel what they’re doing is worthwhile.

(Delph library representative)

Although Delph library offers volunteers an informal induction to the building, duties and policies, it does not feel that volunteers require any further training. The paid library assistant has undertaken a comprehensive training package with OC and as such has taken the lead role in the delivery of library services. Therefore, as the library assistant is present for all opening hours, there are very few gaps in expertise. Volunteers currently do not have access to the Library Management System. This is partly because of confidentiality of user information and partly because of the time lag between volunteer shifts making it difficult to provide training.

We tried to get volunteers trained on the Library Management System but it didn’t work; most volunteers come fortnightly and by the time you’ve not done it for a fortnight you’ve forgotten all about it, so that really didn’t work very well.

(Delph library representative)

The library assistant is willing to provide volunteers with IT training but take up has been minimal to date.

Service delivery

Delph library offer the following range of core services:

  • book loans
  • newspapers / magazines available in library
  • library service for schools including hosting class visits
  • national programmes for example the Summer Reading Challenge, Quick Reads and Books on Prescription
  • photocopying / printing
  • wifi
  • computer access

Additionally, the library offer the following enhanced services:

  • digital skills classes or training
  • reading groups
  • parent and baby groups, such as rhyme time
  • community events

The library considers the most successful aspects of the services it delivers to be those related to children, such as rhyme time and school visits. Historically, the library has had a good working relationship with the local primary school, and staff from the local day nursery also visit the library to take out and exchange books for the children.

Delph library feels that it is an “asset to the village”, being a central, friendly place where people can have meetings and bring the community together. Indeed, the library believes that when users see volunteers who they know are involved in running the library, it makes it a more friendly place. However, the library believes that accessibility issues with their building limit what they can provide and to whom.

One of our big problems is that [the library] isn’t really accessible. It sits between 2 roads and there are steps down on both sides. I think one of the reasons the local authority wanted to get rid of the library was because they could not see a way of making it accessible without spending fantastic amounts of money. But to be fair, those people who have mobility problems and people with prams still manage to get in.

(Delph library representative)

Nevertheless, the library wishes to engage older people, for example, through the introduction of craft groups as mentioned above.

Sustainability

Over the last 3 years, funding and in kind support from OC has remained the same and the library hopes that both forms of support will be sustained. However, it believes that support is unlikely to increase, but that it would be warned if it were to decrease. One of the library’s main concerns is if the council were to take away the provision of the library assistant.

I think they’ll try very hard to keep it the same, but the danger is perhaps with the library assistant as they might want her to do different things as well as it’s only half of her job anyway.

(Delph library representative)

Income generation and fundraising is currently organised by DCA who undertake a number of different projects, with the library being one of them. Over the previous 3 years this has remained approximately the same, with the library receiving around £2,500 a year from donations and fundraising by DCA. However, a local retailer has recently chosen DCA as a beneficiary of its charitable giving, specifically to help improve Delph’s Chapel Garden. Therefore, any money raised by DCA from other events could go towards the library. In addition to this income, OC also organise an annual literary event in the theatre above the library, with any profit going directly to it; this raises round £100 a night.

The library perceives parent and baby groups to be the greatest contributors to future sustainability, as not only are they well attended and encourage young children to read but they also lead to other groups being formed.

I think rhyme time, although it’s variable, it is well attended. An offshoot of that is one of the mothers with 2 young babies who is a keen reader, has started a reading group for young mums. It’s great because children are our users of the future aren’t they? If you can get them young and interest them then they will come when they’re older or bring their children and it will instil a love of libraries.

(Delph library representative)

Although Delph library is “confident” that income from DCA will continue, it believes it has enough support from local people who want the library to remain open to ensure that the library will continue to thrive. However, it does recognise potential barriers, such as DCA ceasing, or less income from fundraising because of the economic climate. However, it does not envisage this happening in the near future. Delph library is neutral with regards to the importance of alternative sources of income and support, other than what is provided by OC and DCA. Although it can never be completely sure that OC will continue to support it, if support was withdrawn, it is confident that it would be fore-warned and would make plans to deal with the situation.

Furthermore, the library feels somewhat uncomfortable with commercial income raising activity as it does not perceive library services to be commercial activities. It also feels restricted by the amount of physical space it has available to run income generating events.

I don’t see libraries as a commercial place. The library is small and that’s one of the constraining things; if we had more room we could do more, but I feel one more stream of activity might be beyond us really.

(Delph library representative)

Future direction and support

The library sees the current amount of space available at the library as a barrier to its growth. It does recognise, however, that there is potential to expand within the building, providing more room to offer additional activities alongside core services. However, any expansion would require funding.

The fact we’re within another building means there is potential for expanding the floor space. There was a big application for quite a lot of funding for a scheme where we could open up into the green room of the theatre, but we didn’t get it. If we could have another room we could do other things whilst the library was running. At the moment we do rhyme time whilst library is running, but we could do things like the craft sessions, but as it is we’ll have to do it in a small space.

(Delph library representative)

The library acknowledges that the library assistant has already improved the layout of the space it has, but there is potentially more it could do without funding to make it easier to run additional activities.

Delph library maintain that it is well supported by the local authority and is kept up-to-date with any new developments. Therefore, it does not feel any further local or national support is urgently needed. From looking at literature published by the Libraries Taskforce, Delph Library feel that it is doing well in terms of the support it receives and feels privileged to be able to have a library assistant paid for by the local authority as other community libraries have to share library assistants.

If [transitioning to a community library] was happening now to a library, the model which we’ve managed to negotiate is a good one; having the library assistant there permanently.

(Delph Library representative)

Overall, the library is reasonably confident in its sustainability for the future.

I think we’re as confident as one can be. The model is fine. Of course it does depend on the individual people including the volunteers, the library assistant and the head of libraries – they all move and change. I think it’s important to have a proper service level agreement between, in our case, the community association and Oldham libraries.

(Delph library representative)

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