The library service needed to consider how to accelerate its approach of delivering services in partnership with other providers in order to maintain, and wherever possible enhance, services whilst at the same time achieving the required savings of £1.7m over a three-year period.
From the outset, one of the County Council’s objectives, as well as making the necessary reductions in budget, was to continue to deliver on its published strategic vision for its library services set out in ‘New Look, No Shush!’ which includes as its aims:
• libraries are centres of excellence for books and opportunities for reading, learning and access to information technology;
• libraries are the venue of choice for information;
• libraries are relevant and responsive and at the heart of local communities;
• libraries have a workforce that is committed to these aims.
The importance of the library service to local residents was illustrated by the response levels to the consultation on the future delivery carried out in early 2011. That consultation elicited over 6,000 written responses, 10,000 signatures on petitions and 2,000 individuals attending 20 public meetings.
The Council recognised that solutions would need to be found in collaboration with local communities and partnership organisations. That process included establishing shared goals, developing capacity, and ensuring that groups would operate with the broad support of their communities (particularly in instances when this involved the raising of the parish council precept).
Bespoke solutions to the various communities’ needs included:
• enabling community led libraries to evolve into multi-purpose ‘hubs’ serving a number of different community uses;
• providing support to community groups to assist them in establishing themselves as ‘legal’ entities in order to enter into formal arrangements with the County Council;
• assisting groups in establishing and managing volunteer networks as well as operating library management systems;
• ensuring that groups and individuals involved in the delivery of community-led library services received consistent levels of professional contact and support.
The Council’s analysis of the pre-change service categorised its 42 libraries into 3 groups. Libraries were categorised as “1”(19) or “2”(15) in terms of their strategic locations as either key service centres or in smaller market towns/areas of significant residential population or social deprivation. Eight libraries within close proximity to a main library or in inaccessible premises were identified as “3” with potential for community ownership or closure (one of these libraries was already operated by the local community).
Intensive work with communities and partners was required to identify community run solutions so that they could continue to offer a full range of services albeit with fewer staff. Opening hours of each of those libraries was dependent upon an increased involvement by volunteers and by partners widening the use of the library as a base/outlet for their own activities.
22 communities had their capacity assessed by local voluntary sector bodies and a considerable number of these were supported in consulting on, and developing, their plans. This work was led by North Yorkshire and York Forum for Voluntary Organisations through its ‘Active Communities’ programme, which was funded by the Council. The Development Needs Diagnostic tool used worked on similar principles to the NCVO’s ‘Valuing Infrastructure’ programme. Staff funded through ‘Active Communities’ provided expert help to support groups on a range of issues including developing business plans, the formal establishment of groups and managing volunteers. The Council also produced guidance on a number of key areas, including a Community Library Volunteer Handbook.
At the end of January 2012, the Council launched a campaign to raise awareness of the volunteering opportunities available through the Library service. The campaign set out to attract volunteers to assist in a variety of roles in order to gain valuable work experience and new skills whilst, at the same time, making a positive difference in their local community.
Benefits and outcomes
The campaign to attract volunteers received extensive media coverage and, at the end of July 2012, over 500 volunteers had been trained by library staff, giving over 130,000 volunteer hours to the library service. Many of those volunteers are over 50s, but the Council has noticed that more recently young people are also becoming involved.
As a direct result of the positive involvement of volunteers all but one of the fixed location libraries has been retained. Although 23 libraries have reduced their hours of opening, 8 have maintained them and 9 have even increased.
In addition to the above, a number of successful partnerships with other statutory organisations are now being delivered. These include Leyburn where Richmondshire District Council has relocated its customer services to the library, and volunteers recruited by the Town Council are now working alongside District Council staff. As a result, opening hours have increased by over 50% from 19 to 40 hours per week. In a similar way, the service has partnered with Ryedale Council’s Tourist Information Centre with the result that opening hours at Malton have increased to 46 hours per week.
The former mobile library service was discontinued and a single supermobile unit was introduced providing a fortnightly service to selected locations. In addition, a number of communities have chosen to set up library collections in pubs/village halls and community centres.
The Council continues to invest time and resources to ensure the success of the community led libraries all of which have agreements with the Council which set out the obligations on behalf of both parties on an individualised basis.
The community led libraries continue to operate with professional support and offer quality books and other materials. At the same time the Council is continuing to meet the cost of broadband connectivity and has provided new ‘self-issue’ technology in all but one of the Category 3 libraries.
The professional library team continues to work closely alongside volunteers in order to build their confidence and expertise. Each “Category 3” has a dedicated Service Development Officer who acts as first point of contact for any queries and “behind the scenes” support. Officers visit the library monthly to deal with any problems or queries, sharing performance information and working with the group on ways to improve the service, including training in new projects/promotions the library service is running. This support will continue, particularly in ensuring the delivery of national library initiatives such as the Summer Reading Challenge.
Difference/innovation gained from the project
This project has created a very challenging environment for the service and for the communities taking responsibility for its future delivery and sustainability. This has been achieved against a timescale which required groups to be formed and projects delivered/savings made over an 18 month period.
For most of the groups, this was the first time that they had worked with a statutory provider to deliver public services.
Libraries run by local groups
As of May 2012, nine libraries at Ayton, Barlby, Bilton, Embsay, Gargrave, Grassington, Great Ayton, Hawes and Masham were run by local groups, some of whom have set themselves up as companies limited by guarantee.
One example of this is Great Ayton where the Parish Council has been very supportive of the group seeking to secure the future of the library as a community resource for the village. They have called this Great Ayton Discovery Centre. From the start, the group had ambitious plans which are now coming to fruition with the financial help of the Parish Council and an able and committed group of volunteers. Council officers have met with the group over the last few months to provide support and guidance, together with training to build the knowledge and confidence necessary to run the library element of the service.
Partnership working has also delivered successes in more remote areas where a further 20 smaller villages and settlements have set up library ‘outlets’ and collection points in pubs, village halls and community centres. In most instances, groups have been established with the endorsement of the local Town or Parish Council.
Lessons for others
By offering communities the opportunity to develop library services, the project has enabled the use of hitherto “stand alone” libraries to become multi-purpose “hubs”. In turn, the service has been able to gain wider community support and partnership, thereby improving the overall offer as well as serving a number of community uses. Buildings are now being used more fully and often for longer hours. In one case this has involved a District Council co-locating with the (County) library service.
A particularly interesting and unusual facet of this case study is the work undertaken by voluntary sector bodies to both assess the capacity of communities to take on library services and to provide appropriate support. Both the Council and the community groups found the approach helpful. As one Council officer commented:
“The Council found it useful to have an independent perspective on the different groups and the community groups welcomed the support they received from Active Communities.”