Shining a light on community libraries

What stood out for me was the sheer diversity of what's out there

Ailbhe McNabola

Head of Research and Policy

In recent years, the numbers of community libraries around England has grown steadily, fuelled by local authority budget cuts and the resulting reviews and rationalisations of library service provision. There have been plenty of high-profile cases where communities protested against the closure of individual libraries, or against reductions in the service offer. There have also been many quiet examples of communities taking on these closing library buildings, and continuing to offer a library service (and often more) from that space. There’s been a lot of rhetoric, but there’s been very little data. That is finally beginning to change.

Last week, the Libraries Taskforce and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published an excellent and thorough piece of research undertaken for them by the SERIO applied research unit at Plymouth University. The research has given us the most comprehensive picture I’ve yet seen of community libraries in England today, covering their operations, structures, governance, performance, service offering, finances, sustainability and more. The approach was robust: data was generated via online surveys, detailed case studies, a library user survey, and interviews with local authority stakeholders across 9 regions of England, and financial data relating to the operation of the case study libraries was examined.

What stood out for me was the sheer diversity of what’s out there. The researchers didn’t find a single model of operation. They found that community libraries can be loosely grouped into three categories, but within that there is a lot of variation. Innovation is always messy, and can bring challenges for those trying to work with or support these libraries. The researchers described three overarching types of community library model:  independent libraries (run fully independently of the local authority library service), community managed libraries (community led and largely community delivered, rarely with paid staff, but often with professional support and some form of ongoing local authority support) and community supported libraries (council-led and funded, usually with paid professional staff, but given significant support by volunteers). And they found situations where more than one model is used within one council area, recognising that even within one area, as they said, “one size does not fit all”.

The other stand-out finding was around the “enterprising” side of the community library. There is a lot in the report about income generation, with there being a general recognition that income generation was a normal part of operations for community libraries. The research found a “significant gap” between the levels of income and expenditure reported by the different kinds of community libraries, with the more independent libraries reporting significantly greater income and expenditure levels on an annual basis.

Because the researchers only managed to gather data from a small number of independent libraries, it’s hard to draw wider conclusions from this finding but it is certainly interesting and would merit further research. The analysis of the type and number of services offered by the different library models found that independent libraries offer more income generating services than any other kind of community library. (If you are reading this and are interested in doing further research into income generation and service diversification among the different community library models, do get in touch – I think this is worth exploring).

Here’s a brief summary of the report findings – and I recommend reading the researchers’ blog and the full report.

Communication and recognition: The researchers found that there is a need for greater communication, understanding, and strengthening of links between local authorities and community libraries. The latter are treated differently by local authorities across England with some being part of the statutory service, others not, and others again not aware of what their statutory status is.

Shared learning: Community libraries are keen for a nationwide peer support group to help build cohesion and learning. This would perhaps build on the existing network, which Power to Change has supported.

Sustainability: The likelihood of success for sustainably financed and resourced community libraries is dependent on a broad set of internal factors, such as drive, determination, volunteer availability and expertise, and external factors, such as the impact of local authority policy and resource availability. Current models demonstrate a high dependency on volunteer performance and availability, and a high level of sensitivity to additional financial burden, such as increasing overhead costs.

Support: Income generation activities are critical to community libraries’ long-term sustainability, allied with ongoing support from local authorities, for example, through contributions to core funding (especially in the early years), free/discounted access to library management systems and IT, and reduced business rates and preferential lease rates. A regular theme identified by community libraries is the value of ongoing support from local authorities other than direct funding, for example, informal advice, support with accessing local volunteer networks, and combined training sessions.