Case study

Explore York Libraries and Archives

A mutual commissioned to run a library service.

York central library
York central library. Photo credit: Julia Chandler / Libraries Taskforce

Explore is an Industrial and Provident Society that is one third owned by staff and two thirds by community members. Community membership is open to everyone over the age of 16. Members “buy” one share with a limited liability of £1 (although Explore don’t collect the £1s). Children and young people are involved through an advisory group, giving them direct access to the Board and the development of the service.

The Board is made up of:

  • three non executive directors
  • one staff director
  • two community directors
  • the chief executive.

The AGM allows all members, community and staff to vote on the strategic direction of services and to ask questions of the Board.

This legal form allows staff and local people to have a real stake in the service. As owners they can stand for election to the Board, sit on specialist advisory groups and vote at the AGM. This forms a basis for building a much stronger, more sustainable organisation that is closely tied to local communities. Regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, they have set up a trading subsidiary: Explore Enterprises Ltd and are applying for charitable status from HM Revenue and Customs.

Description of the service provided

Explore York Libraries and Archives has a five year City of York Council contract with a five year financial settlement to deliver public library services and archives. Part of the contract includes the development of community hubs and to help other council departments realise cashable savings. They work in strong partnership with the council and elected members. They used the Society of Chief Librarians Universal Offers as the basis to describe the statutory library service. There is a separate collections and loan management agreement that covers the city archive.

The contract was written to focus on outcomes rather than quantitative measures, although these are also a part of it. They report into the council’s scrutiny process six monthly and also submit management accounts every month and performance figures every quarter to the council.

As a public service independent of the council, Explore has a clear voice and purpose and is able to generate greater involvement of local people in all aspects of the service, encouraging flexibility, innovation and partnership building with the community. In addition to keeping all the libraries open, the ambition is to use libraries as community hubs, such as a health and wellbeing centre in partnership with local GP practices.

They are committed to keeping all their libraries open with paid staff in every one. This vision drives all that they do. Their strapline: knowledge and ideas for everyone, reminds them that the core library and archive service is paramount.

Outcomes achieved

The freedom of being an Industrial and Provident Society has allowed them to explore different funding possibilities as well as realising savings from expenditure. The success of the future will be a combination of both. They have absolute control of their budget and so can examine how every penny is spent. They have reviewed all of their contracts to identify where savings can be made and they challenge everything. Explore can spend their money flexibly and make savings through buying online etc. They cancelled their grounds maintenance contract and now volunteers do their gardening with caretakers mowing the lawns. Explore’s business model is based on a range of income generating activities:

Reading cafes

These are run directly. There are four of these with plans for a fifth in 2017. These have become integral parts of the Explore vision and they are run at a profit.


This is a cultural discount card that Explore run. It gives free or discounted entry to York residents to some of the city’s biggest attractions. It costs £5 (free for children and people on benefits) and is renewed annually.

Community learning

Explore is a provider of community learning, mainly in the local history area.


They are developing library shops in their larger buildings selling book related items and local books, maps etc.

Archive material

They have the intellectual property rights to the city archive and are developing a model to exploit this. For example Explore have a large collection of photos of old York and can use these images.


Once they gain charitable status they will be launching their philanthropy strategy.

They have recently surveyed staff on how well Explore is meeting its values and the results are encouraging as:

  • 93% of staff are confident that they understand Explore’s core values
  • 85% feel that the core values are well communicated
  • 78% feel that Explore meets its core values well

A skills audit has identified those skills that staff want to develop and they reflect the different nature of the business, for example, fundraising, entrepreneurship, and business acumen.

Explore is also working alongside Be Independent, York’s adult social care public service mutual to help 3,500 elderly housebound residents to become more digitally active. Tablets and face-to-face training have been provided so that these residents can access the internet through portable WiFi devices. These are being used for activities such as talking via Skype to family and friends, online banking, food shopping and choosing library books. The hope is that this will support digital inclusion of the elderly within York, take library services directly to the housebound and, more broadly, help residents to win back some independence.

Lessons learnt

The work involved in becoming a mutual cannot be underestimated. It is challenging, but ultimately rewarding. The difference in working in an independent organisation is huge and offers many opportunities. There is a need for a business focus, which requires different skill sets. Above all, there is a need to have clarity of purpose, strong vision and leadership, resilience and the willingness to take risks.

Working with a board is different, but has enabled them to bring in a range of new skills and knowledge.

There are challenges from a local authority perspective which include: the relationship that the council wants to have with the new body, and the allocation of time to support the spinning out process particularly from human resources, finance and legal services.

Future plans

Libraries are changing to reflect the different needs of the 21st century. As well as providing access to content, they will increasingly be facilitating the development of it, in spaces where people can come together sharing ideas and knowledge. As they come to the end of year two outside the council they are refreshing their strategy. They have developed new skills and knowledge of how to operate in a very different world. There is a need to ensure that Explore continues to develop and grow and they are looking at a number of different funding options and broadening their contract base. As members of Cooperatives UK and York CVS, they are are entering a whole new world which offers us expertise and development opportunities and encourages different way of thinking. Other developments are:

  • York Explore, their flagship, which is developing as a key cultural and learning hub in the city centre
  • cataloguing and preserving archive collections, making more available to the public and improving accessibility
  • workforce development work resulting in staff being more entrepreneurial
  • a focus on community members to make this a truly member led organisation

Additional material

Explore York

Published 16 December 2015
Last updated 14 January 2016 + show all updates
  1. Updated with substantial new information from the ExploreYork team
  2. First published.