Life after council cuts: Inside England’s community run libraries

HOME 5 Podcasts 5 Life after council cuts: Inside England’s community run libraries 5 Life after council cuts: Inside England’s community run libraries
With councils struggling to keep libraries open, communities across the country are stepping in to save and manage them. In our latest episode, we visit some of these community-managed libraries, like Corbett Community Library in London, to understand the impact a community can make when they take them over and tips on how you can […]

With councils struggling to keep libraries open, communities across the country are stepping in to save and manage them. In our latest episode, we visit some of these community-managed libraries, like Corbett Community Library in London, to understand the impact a community can make when they take them over and tips on how you can do the same.

Listen on iTunes, Stitcher, Acast, Google Play or Soundcloud

Read the transcript

Jill Jenkins (JJ): We usually start with some sort of puzzle.  They all grown and moan about it.

Neil Roberts (NR): Torridon Writers, named after the library they started meeting in 14 years ago, gather each week in Catford, South East London, under the watchful eye of former teacher Jill Jenkins.

JJ: It is reading and listening to all this amazing stuff that comes out of these people’s heads and brains and mouths.

NR: Maybe it is an obvious place to begin, but we are in a library and libraries need books and books need writers.  In this episode, we are looking at how a building opened over a century ago with the express purpose of lending books has found a new lease of life, reflected in its new name: The Archibald Corbett Community Library Arts and Heritage Centre.

Vox Pop: Since the council gave up the ghost on it and handed it over to the community to run, it has become much more community-oriented.  This group is just part of that. I just feel that the whole thing of a library is that it should bring the community together.

NR: Archibald Corbett was a Scottish philanthropist.  He inherited his father’s property business in 1880 and spent the next few years building high-quality houses for skilled working class and middle class tenants in South East London.  He was a liberal, keen to promote healthy living, but he also wanted to create an environment with a thriving community. And, in 1907, he donated a library to the people of the area, just like the famous Scottish philanthropist Carnegie did around the world.

Just over a century later, in this new age of austerity, libraries are now closing at the rate of around 100 a year, and Archibald Corbett’s was set to become one of them.  But library users are a determined breed. In 2010, there were around 10 libraries in the hands of communities. By 2017, that figure was an astonishing 500. Communities and organisations like Power to Change step in when all else fails.

My name is Neil Roberts and this is the Community Business Fix, brought to you by Power to Change.  In this episode we are visiting one of those community-run libraries to find out how it is done.

If you are thinking of setting up a community business or just want to get involved with one in your area, in this episode you will find inspiration and hear advice from those who have done it.  People like Alice Sage, chair of the Corbett Library Trustees, and Peter Ranken. It was his involvement with the Archibald Corbett Society, a group that aims to bring the life and ideals of Corbett to a wider audience, that led to an interest in saving the local library.

Peter Ranken (PR): It became known that the council were considering putting the library out for tender because they could no longer afford to manage it because of government cuts, etc.

Alice Sage (AS): There was already only one librarian running the entire building.  If she had to take a lunch break or if she was sick, then the library had to be shut.  So, that was already not the service anyone would have wanted to be able to provide.

PR: We became aware that nobody eventually tendered for the library.  So, it became very vulnerable and it looked like it would close down.

AS: Everything that has been cut is useful stuff that is still needed.  So, if there is not somebody taking over that, it is not a deficit you can afford to have.  You can’t afford to have those services just not exist. Somebody has to do them.

NR: Those who use libraries regularly won’t need to be told this, but nowadays the loaning of books is only one of the services they provide.  People use them for advice, companionship and internet access. Others for warmth, sanctuary, a place to wash after a night on the streets, NHS baby support, careers and benefits help, somewhere to read the newspapers, a venue for art groups, homework clubs, exhibitions, craft workshops.  The list of things a library does for a community is endless.

Jackie Bury has been there, a long-serving librarian who has loyally staffed the desk as the demands on the service and those who work in it have intensified, whilst the resources to do it have been cut away over the years.

Jackie Berry (JB): Libraries get asked the most amazing array of questions, but more and more now, because council services are dwindling, there is no Citizens Advice Bureau left in Catford, you are getting a lot of customers in asking detailed questions of, ‘My housing benefit has gone pear-shaped,’ ‘How does universal credit work?’ ‘I’ve got to log on to a computer because I’ve got to log on to the Job Seekers site.’  There are a lot of community social activities that you have to get involved in as well, and also advising some of the customers that come in about how to use the computer – some of our customers are really unsure of how to use a mouse even, or, ‘I’m trying to find this website. How do I find that?’

NR: Community-minded Peter Ranken wasn’t alone in those early days.  He was joined by Pat Merry and Julia Burke. Together they formed the core operations team that brought together the Archibald Corbett Society and the Corbett’s Residence Association.  Julia Burke.

Julia Burke (JB2): The Archibald Corbett Society and the Corbett Residence came together to get the library going and formed a board or a committee.   I was one of the three main people who got together initially and decided we could make the Corbett Community Library work. Peter was the brain behind it all or the coordinator and I was volunteer coordinator.  Pat dealt with cash, banking, premises. She had worked in the council; she had invaluable experience generally. So, yes, it was a good team.

NR: The council offered the group an asset transfer deal which, as we have heard in previous episodes, is one way of handing over a building to the community.  But what was on the table was, in Peter Ranken’s eyes, unviable because of the financial burden it would have put on them.

PR: They insisted that, as far as they were concerned, long-term asset transfers were 25-year leases; they weren’t freehold transfers.  So, looking at it, we said to Lewisham, ‘Look, if you transfer this to us on a 25-year fully-repairing lease, you are asking us to be responsible for all the external costs, and that is a very heavy burden to bear.’  If we had a freehold, we would be able to go to banks, to whoever, to borrow money to safeguard the long-term interests of the building. But you can’t do that on a 25-year leasehold. Nobody is interested in that. Because of the situation that they were in, they said, ‘OK, fine.  What do you want?’

NR: They ended up with a deal that left the council responsible for the upkeep of the external parts of the Grade II listed building and the rest was down to the community group to look after.  For Julia Burke, getting the keys was a dream come true.

JB2: Oh well, just amazing.  I mean, completely amazing.  I used to walk around saying, ‘I love this place,’ and I still do.  It is a huge responsibility, but I was very proud to be doing what we were doing.

NR: So, they had a building and a decent enough deal with the council to make it financially viable, but there was never going to be enough if the coffers to pay for staff.  So, the first job for Julia, Pat and Peter was to find enough people to give up their free time to help run it.

PR: The three of us, at that stage, put out feelers to the community, saying, ‘We are taking over this library.  We now need volunteers to run it.’

JB2: We leafletted the whole estate, about 3,000 homes, 10,000 residents, and just were amazed by the response, really – all cultures, different backgrounds, not all retired people, some younger people.

PR: Between September to the end of October we were able to recruit over 20 volunteers that allowed us to have a rota of volunteers working on three-hourly shifts.  And we extended the opening hours of the library from what the council were running it, and it allowed us to get the library up and running.

JB2: I can only say that volunteers can save the world, because they were all, and still are, amazing people.

NR: Between the council withdrawing and the community taking over, the building closed for only two weeks, which is an amazing achievement.  It opened its doors as a community library on 24th October 2016. The first group of volunteers were trained by Lewisham librarians, who continued to offer support when the library was up and running again.

If you are involved in a group interested in taking over a closing library, there is more help out there.  The government, in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund, are investing more than a million pounds to improve access to training, support and advice.  The Community Managed Libraries Network has over 400 members. It is known as a peer network. In other words, the people in it have done it themselves and are willing to share their advice.  Here is Emily Jewell who is involved with the Upper Norwood Library Hub, also in London.

Emily Jewell (EJ): The Upper Norwood Library Trust took over the running of the Upper Norwood Library Hub in 2016.  Shortly afterwards, there was some funding from Power to Change to encourage peer networks, and we were lucky enough to be one of the beneficiaries of that funding.  And we started working on the Community Managed Library Peer Network.

The membership is made up of organisations that are thinking about becoming community-managed libraries, those that are community-managed libraries and some Local Authority and other charity who might have an interest in community-managed libraries or working with them.

So, we designed a whole package of learning opportunities for the members, which included webinars, face-to-faces and an annual conference.

We would really like to encourage community-managed libraries to look at themselves as community businesses as well, because, actually, they tick all the five different areas that are the definition of a community business, but have a reluctance, sometimes, to actually think of themselves in that way because they are volunteers doing volunteer work.  But, if they are renting space, if they are selling books, if they are charging for courses or for yoga sessions or whatever it may be, then, actually, they are trading. And that, in the long term, will make them more sustainable.

PR: So, what advice does Emily have for those considering taking on the running of a closing library?

EJ: Well, first of all, come and join us, because you will find you will have advice from your peers, some of whom will have been through the process themselves.  There is so much power in shared knowledge or learning from someone else because it can be quite a complex thing to do. The other really key piece of advice is to do the research; to really understand what you are taking on, what the condition of the library is in particular, because, as I said, the old buildings which libraries can tend to be can just be money pits.  But, if you are going to do an asset transfer, you have got to get legal advice and always think about yourself as taking on a business.

PR: You can find out more about the Community Managed Libraries Network in our show notes.  Along with support from organisations like CML, people who might never have considered themselves in roles like chair of local library are able to do so.  There is no question that those who volunteer in any role get something back from the time they give. Here is chair of trustees, Alice Sage, again.

AS: When I started, I had no business experience and no idea what it was like being on a board.  After a few months of being chair, I was still working out why we go through the minutes at the beginning of the meeting, just picking things up from other people.  So, with a lot of what we are doing, there is no procedure. We are working it out as we go along. We are constantly working out what we need to be better at and we are lucky that we have got people that can help us do that; that we can work together and find ways of doing things.

NR: There is lots of support out there and you can find links to it in our show notes.  The Community Business Fund, for example, which offers grants between £50 and £300,000 – serious money.  It opens for applications on 24th April. Check out the Power to Change website for guidance. Hundreds of community businesses, including libraries, will be taking part in the Community Business Weekend, from 16th to 19th May.  This is a great opportunity to go and meet people who are already running community businesses and get inspiration and advice. You can find out all about the community businesses taking part in that event in our show notes.

Meanwhile, back in Catford, it is about time we had a tour of the building we have heard so much about.  Here is chair of trustees, Alice, to take us round.

AS: We are on a busy main road in Catford and we are looking up at our beautiful building.  It looks like a little church – that is what everybody always says – with the Lewisham crest and everything, and our beautiful stained-glass windows.  Then you come into the big foyer with our amazing dome. We have got all the mouldings and everything, which apparently would have been all painted beautiful colours.  I mean, it would be a big project to get it restored back to that, but it is very beautiful, white and light in here.

NR: Archibald Corbett’s grand old building is still pulling them in, despite its stern face, softened a little by a blue crest over the entrance doors.  But around 6,000 people walk beneath that crest every month, a figure that would put many council-run libraries to shame. It highlights how community-led organisations can offer a wider range of services, sometimes with longer opening hours, and can react quickly to the needs of the community because it is run by the community.  You don’t need to sell it to Maureen and the children she minds, or Angela, one of the regulars here, who we met chatting with a friend under the sunlit glass dome.

M: I use the library mostly, like every day.  I come for relaxation, sitting down having a conversation with my friend.  I am happy that the library is here because I work a split shift. It is friendly.  Friendly people come here. There is a service here as well that you could get assistance with your council tax or any advice that you need.  It is quite good for the community.

Vox Pop: [To children] So, Billy bought butter, jam and three mugs.  So, knives and…

A: So, I have always used this library, when it was run by the Local Authority.  Now, as you can see, it is voluntary-run, but thank goodness it is still here because it is a service I use quite a lot.

Vox Pop: [To children] His tummy kept saying how hungry he was.

A: They have closed so many of the services that we used to be able to go to.  They are no longer there. So, really and truly, it is just a library left apart from a few things being held in the schools as well, like Bouncy Beats and that sort of thing.

So, yes, if this library wasn’t here, you might as well say this community is a closed community with very little contact at all, really.

NR: Many of the things that happen here are community-led.

AS: People have come in and offered to do things for free, so we have a huge activities calendar of all free things that people run from English as a second language, which is incredibly useful and always oversubscribed, lots of stuff for small children – we have got a lot of young parents, young families in the area – singing classes or after school clubs, educational things for little kids.  We try to have things that are healthy and good for the community. That is always in our aims, to be providing something useful and something the community needs.

Stephen Modell (SM): We take care of a lot of people’s problems.  If it is a photocopy or an email they need to reply to, it is important for them to have that done.  One aspect, I think, is the online stuff. So, the support, the services, the benefits, the claims, all that sort of stuff.

NR: Stephen is talking about the IT area in the library, where Alice takes us next.

AS: It is easily the most used bit of the library.  I mean, from whether you are a little kid doing homework or if you are trying to access your benefits or if you are trying to look for work, having free internet access and printing is so important.  So, it is constantly in use all through the day.

AS: As we have heard, the library has been set up and run by unpaid volunteers, which is all well and good but there came a point when the trustees felt they needed a paid staff member to ensure operational sustainability.  Although, as Peter Ranken recognised, this could have had an impact on the goodwill of those volunteering there.

PR: There is the fear there that the volunteers will say to themselves, ‘Well, hang on a mo, I’m volunteering.  Someone’s come in as paid staff. Why should I bother or why should I take instructions from them to be told what to do?

NR: Putting that concern aside, it was decided that a salaried staff member was needed.  That job fell to Stephen Modell. He joined as a volunteer after walking past on his way to the post office to sell goods on eBay.

SM: And I saw the foyer was selling books in there.  So, I just wandered in and overheard the conversation about them trying to sell books on Amazon, but, being an eBay seller, I thought differently, so put myself forward as someone who could help with that.  I ended up setting up the eBay for Charity and PayPal Giving Fund accounts for the charity.

NR: Stephen now manages over 50 unpaid volunteers.  It is a challenge most community businesses face as they transition from being run 100% by volunteers to a mix of volunteers and paid staff.  So, a mix of funding, short-term loans, sales of books and renting out the space has helped them get to the point where they are a financially-sustainable community business.  Here is Alice Sage again.

AS: It is a lovely building, so people want to do interesting things here.  We hire out spaces as offices, but we also hire out space for kids’ parties or whatever people want to use the space for.

PR: We have revenue of around about £15-16,000 a year from renting out the activity room in the Children’s Centre to a group of mums who live on the estate, who have set up their own business and run a breakfast club and an after school club.  The great thing about that is that is giving us revenue, that has helped them to run their business and, also, they have employed about three to four additional local people.

AS: And now we are at a point where we are two years into running this and we want to be as sustainable as possible.  So, it is wonderful to be able to get big funding for specific things, but we would love to be able to just make money with what we do, and then just keep on running and not have to rely on other people.

NR: Two-and-a-half years into the project things are looking good for the reincarnated library.  In the first year, over £16,000 was generated from photocopying, printing, bookshop sales, room hire, donations and some Gift Aid.  In Year 2, trading income rose to over £40,000, which included a hefty £15,000 from a breakfast and after school club set up by local residents.  But what is next on the agenda? Alice Sage again.

AS: Well, what we are doing at the moment, in making everything in the library mobile, putting everything on wheels, which is our big, exciting project at the moment, the aim is to have the arts and performance and the cultural stuff that we haven’t had a chance to really get our teeth into, that is the plan for the next 12 months.  Everything has to come back to what is needed in the community. So, as a board, that is our big push for this year, is to be more involved in what is happening, everyone to take on a bit more responsibility and a bit more of an overseeing of everything.

NR: As we do in every episode, it is time for some advice and tips.  This time Stephanie Schonfield shares some practical tips, some obvious, some less so, after spending almost a decade working with the Friends of Kensal Rise Library.

SS: If you hear that your library is going to close and you want to do something about it, the very first thing you need to do is organise: organise a public meeting to test the strength of community feelings.  And that will also be useful evidence to include in fundraising applications as well.

When we came to marketing and promotion, we steered them to still continue to do all sorts of things, really widespread of activities and partnerships.

We ran a competition with local high schools to design our new library cards, and we had that sponsored by the local bookstore, which is an independent bookstore itself.  And we had it judged by local residents who just happened to have a gallery representing the likes of Damien Hirst. But it doesn’t have to be a famous gallery; you can have anyone judging it.  But the mere fact that we were using different elements in our local community for something that would benefit the library and its users, and linking all those people up. Hand-in-hand with that, attend council meetings, attend ward surgeries of your local councillors, of your MP, link in with other library campaigns, other library networks.  There are other community libraries, obviously, and we found some of them absolutely invaluable because they have been there before you have been there.

We didn’t even realise that builders don’t put VAT on quotes.  So, when calculating, when you are writing funding applications, how much you might need for something, we lost 20% there and then.  But we are wise to that now.

NR: Thanks, Stephanie.  There is no question that places like the Archibald Corbett Community Library, Arts and Heritage Centre are becoming more and more important as high streets are dying: banks, pubs and post offices close.  We have said it before on this podcast, and make no apologies for saying it again, for communities to thrive they need places to meet, and where better than a building designed for that very purpose.

AS: I think an actual physical space that is a community accessible space is just monumentally important, and it is something that, with more and more things being accessible online or maybe only existing online, especially public services, just being able to walk into a space and talk to somebody and ask questions and have somewhere to sit down, we are losing that in so many different ways.  Just having a free accessible space, whatever it is used for, it will be used for other things as well. That is what we are seeing more and more here: people come in and say, ‘Oh, would it be alright if I did this?’ and the need just appears, and the people to fill that need just appear.

NR: We wish Alice, Peter and the team all the best for the future.

If your local library is facing closure, take heart from their experience – form a group, take the advice and funding that is available, and perhaps you will be able to keep those doors open and the books available to the next generation of children.  As we have learnt from this and previous episodes, the community can often run services on a more sustainable basis than the council.

If this story has inspired you to set up a community business, delve into the rest of our shows and check out powertochange.org.uk, where you can find the latest news on events, other grants and support.

We will be adding links and other useful information on the show notes for this episode, and you can also connect with us by following on Twitter @thecbfix.  We would love to hear your thoughts and about your experiences that connect with the show. We would like to get these stories to as many people as possible, so we would love it if you could share the show with at least one person that you know that might benefit from hearing these stories.  Please don’t forget to subscribe to the Community Business Fix in your favourite podcast app. The benefits of subscribing is that you won’t miss our next episode, where we will be finding out about community football projects.

Thanks for listening to this Fieldwork production, commissioned by Power to Change.  It was presented by me, Neil Roberts; with research and production by Curtis James; coproduction, sound and music by Simon James; writing and executive production by Chris Paling.