Libraries with a social enterprise partner

A branch library belonging to Shropshire Council has now been co-located with a social enterprise, bringing multiple benefits to both parties. As well as sharing a building, they make shared use of staff, which allows them to offer longer library opening hours.

The challenge
Cleobury Mortimer is a small market town with around 2,000 residents and located in the south of Shropshire. It had its own branch library, but this was housed in a building which was felt to be cramped and in poor condition. The opening hours, at two and a half days per week, were also seen as less than desirable. However, sufficient funding simply did not exist to move the service into a dedicated new library building.

The response
An opportunity to move the library into a more suitable building came about when Cleobury Country Limited, which is a social enterprise company, attracted funding that enabled it to build the Cleobury Country Centre in the town. This was primarily to be used to offer resources, advice and training services to local businesses. However, fruitful early discussions between the County and social enterprise meant that the building could be designed with library space in mind.
Since the opening of the building in July 2010 Shropshire Libraries Service has rented space within the building for its branch library. The library facilities are integrated into the public area in the building (rather than being in a separate room).
The relationship with Cleobury Country is more, though, than a simple transactional one. Under an agreement, employees of the social enterprise who are largely there to administer the business support, book people onto training sessions and the like, have been given basic training for the library. They are not fully trained librarians, but this enables them to deal with basic requests from library users, help users to borrow or return books and help them to make use of the public computer terminals. A member of the Council’s Libraries Service is present during Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, but at other opening times the facility is covered by staff from the social enterprise.

“The building is open anyway, so it makes sense that people should be able to use the library.”

– Library Area Manager, South West Shropshire

One enabling development was that self-service machines were installed in the new library, so that the staffing requirement could be simplified under this co-located arrangement.
Shropshire Libraries Service has retained the management role for this branch library. It supplies the books and other stock, it has fitted out the library and it continues to provide various back-office functions.
Across the twenty-two public libraries in the County, co-location is no longer unusual. At Church Stretton a library is co-located with a customer information point and visitor information centre, while at Craven Arms a library is co-located with (and run by) a visitor attraction and information centre, though in both these cases the partnership is with another Shropshire Council service. At Wem the library is co-located with Walford and North Shropshire College. Highley now has its library co-located with a leisure centre and the running of that is soon to be taken over by Leisure Centre staff. Yet Cleobury Mortimer remains the only example of co-location with a social enterprise.

Benefits and outcomes
The approach adopted in Cleobury Mortimer is considered to have worked well and to have brought about various benefits. Not the least of these is that users of the service now have a library which is housed in a much more attractive and spacious building. Indeed, the new building received a Civic Trust award in 2011.

“It’s a lovely new library and is not something we could have done on our own.”

– Library Area Manager, South West Shropshire

The library now lends around 21,000 items per year. Tellingly, during the first year that it operated out of the Cleobury Country Centre the number of active users (who borrow items) rose from 682 to 812.
The social enterprise equally benefits from this partnership arrangement. It receives a steady income from the rent paid to it by Shropshire Libraries Service, which it can see as a relatively secure tenant. This significantly boosts the financial viability of the Centre and social enterprise.
Co-locating the library in the Cleobury Country Centre has helped turn it into more of a public building, so that larger numbers of local people are aware of its existence and the facilities on offer. The experience of Shropshire Libraries Service is that co-location generally results in the different parties signposting each others’ services, so that all sides gain.

Resources used
As noted above there were some upfront costs associated with the move, such as installing self-service machines, fitting out the new library space and training front desk staff employed by the social enterprise. Running costs then include the £12,000 annual rental fee and a salaried part-time Branch Manager. However, this package represents good value for money.
Shropshire Libraries Service says that the new arrangement is actually slightly more expensive than that which existed at the previous building. But this is a false comparison, since – aside from having better premises – the new arrangement delivers much longer opening hours. As before, a member of library staff is present for two and a half days per week, but the self-service facilities at the library can now be used for six and a half days per week.

Lessons for others
Making cost savings is an obvious driver for co-location, but the experience from Cleobury Mortimer is that a wider range of (potential) benefits should be considered. As well as value for money issues, users gained from improvements in quality and access to their libraries service. Being in a shared premises can also steer new people into a library.
Another lesson is that any organisation thinking of sharing staffing, premises or other facilities should be ready to reach compromises. At Cleobury this has never proved impossible, but the County does recognise that it and the social enterprise have had to learn to work together and to understand each other’s ethos. For example, some of its processes (for property management and recruitment) may appear complex to the social enterprise.
The County also notes that partners for co-location should be carefully chosen, not least by considering whether the different parties’ planned uses for the building are compatible. While running a library and providing business support services may appear quite different, they have actually worked alongside each other rather well.
Shropshire Libraries Service is certainly not ruling out further co-location in the future and would like to test a model where other services come onto an existing library site.