Community libraries have grown rapidly in number and are taking on a variety of roles in rural communities, finds Brian Wilson.
Research commissioned by Defra and Arts Council England has been published in a report entitled Rural Library Services in England: exploring recent changes and possible futures. The research, which was undertaken by OPM and Locality, builds upon an earlier report (Envisioning the Library of the Future and Community Libraries), only this time with a particular rural focus.
Indeed, most trends affecting library services – such as declining patronage – can be seen as national trends, but which raise some specific rural challenges and opportunities. Rural libraries inevitably serve smaller populations and so have less potential to generate footfall. They have often attracted less investment to modernise. At the risk of generalising, other rural considerations arise from the rapidly ageing population, the scarcity of other service facilities, the availability of broadband and the extent of civic participation.
The impact on library services has included a rationalisation of mobile provision, a reduction in (paid) staffing, alterations to opening hours and co-location with other services. However, according to this research the big headline from the last three or four years is the marked increase in community involvement.
Around 300 community libraries are known to exist across England, most of them in rural areas. Some 130 of these have been established since 2012 and at least another 50 are in the pipeline. Most, though not all, still operate as a part of the local authority library service.
A majority of the examples studied came about following a threat of closure. The key driver for change has been the unprecedented budget reductions faced by local authorities, whose spending on library services has fallen by 12.3% over the three years to 2012/13.
In the eight areas studied, there had been no problem in finding sufficient numbers of volunteers. Unsurprisingly, most of these were retired people. However, elsewhere there were libraries destined for transfer to a community group where things had not worked out. Some of these remain in local authority operation whilst efforts are made to find a solution, whilst others have simply closed.
Four models of community library can broadly speaking be identified, one of these being 'independent community libraries'. At the start of 2014 five of these were established in rural parts of Wakefield. Their communities received a one-off grant payment and they now run, using volunteers and their own book stock, as entirely stand-alone entities with no local authority support.
'Community managed libraries' are operated and staffed by a community organisation, but ultimately remain a part of the local authority's library network linked to its management systems. They use its book stock and still receive some professional support. Fourteen libraries adopting this model have been established in Buckinghamshire since 2010.
In 'community supported libraries' the local authority retains management responsibility for the building and has a reduced staff presence, but this is supplemented by a group of friends or volunteers who typically enable longer opening hours and fundraise. Several examples were noted in North Yorkshire.
Finally, there are 'commissioned community libraries' where the local authority buys in or contracts the whole of its library services from a community-owned mutual. This is the model adopted in Suffolk, where an Industrial Provident Society (Suffolk Libraries IPS) manages and delivers the service, whilst the county council maintains the buildings, the IT and book stock.
The research report believes that in rural areas reviews of library services should seek to secure "economies of scope", rather than economies of scale, since libraries have potential to serve a varying range of functions in their communities. This may include co-location with other services.
One way to widen the offer and sustain community libraries could be to provide information services for local businesses and entrepreneurs, and perhaps act as a conduit for other business support. In Devon, under the Enterprising Libraries initiative, meeting space is offered for business collaboration.
Another way to help sustain community libraries is to engage a wider cross-section of the community, including young people. Suggested opportunities cover things such as providing free Wi-Fi access, hosting youth service events and organising regular creative activity sessions. Libraries in North Yorkshire have held music themed evenings for young people.
Library services – whether they are community run or otherwise – have been adapting rapidly and expanding their role. One conclusion from the research is that the range of outcomes needs to be better captured and recognised. The value of libraries to their communities may be underestimated if we rely on traditional measures such as book issues.