Creating co-operative libraries

Sally Prentice, Steve Reed MP

Lambeth Council is taking a radically different approach to transforming our library service.  Despite losing a third of our available budget from the government we will not be closing any libraries, outsourcing the service to private companies or handing over library buildings to volunteers. Instead we have opened the first new library in Lambeth for over 40 years in a landmark building in Clapham High Street, and are protecting each of our existing library services. In a move that will hand local communities more control over their local libraries we will give each of our 10 libraries an individual budget so that community and library-user representatives can decide how it should be spent in running their local service. Some library buildings will be transferred to new trusts, with the council as a partner, while others will move to new buildings. Our vision is to develop the first co-operative library service in the country in partnership with the people who use our libraries as an integral part of Lambeth becoming a co-operative council.

Lambeth will have three libraries open seven days a week in Brixton, Streatham and Clapham, and six libraries offering a full library service alongside other services to residents living in Waterloo, Kennington, South Lambeth, Camberwell, Herne Hill and West Norwood.  We have taken a very tough line with Tory-run Croydon Council who are trying to close the Upper Norwood Joint Library in Crystal Palace, jointly funded by Lambeth and Croydon and the only independent library in the country. Instead of Croydon’s closure plans, we want to work with the local community to transfer the ownership of the building to a new trust with funding guarantees.

Our plans for developing co-operative libraries are the result of the largest consultation programme that Lambeth Council has ever undertaken. The consultation process ran from 27 January to 27 April 2012 and involved 26 public meetings, over 700 questionnaires, 600 one-to-one interviews with service users and 200 one-to-one interviews with people who don’t use the library service. One proposal involves managing a library alongside its neighbouring park and community hall in a new trust, with ownership of the library moved to the community. One library has significantly underused space and a garden which could be used for events with rooms rented out to charities and local businesses to generate funding. In one town centre we are very excited at the possibility of a deal that could involve a cinema taking space in a community hall next to the library and the creation of a visitors centre for the local cemetery to create a community arts complex.

Our consultation told us that people hugely value libraries as safe spaces that welcome everyone. There are fewer and fewer such spaces in our neighbourhoods that are as welcoming, particularly for people who can’t afford to spend several pounds buying a cappuccino and a newspaper. Demand for study space and access to the internet is incredibly important for people living in overcrowded flats and is a major reason younger people use libraries. People also were very clear that they wanted a professional service, not a de-professionalised one run exclusively by volunteers. In some parts of Lambeth, local groups are very keen to take on the responsibility for running their local library, in others they are quite happy for the council to continue to be responsible but they would like a greater level of involvement. The days of a monolithic public library service are over. People want services that are flexible and responsive, and designed to meet different needs which change over time.

For the first time each library will have its own budget to cover staffing and running costs and the central library services costs have been published as part of our move towards fully open data. Exposing these costs to public scrutiny led to a further £350,000 of savings which have been reallocated to the budgets of our six smaller libraries. All Lambeth libraries will have wireless internet access and self service technology for checking books in and out.

Lambeth’s Library Service has not had a happy history in recent decades. Our library buildings and the services provided have been significantly under invested in for decades, resulting in an old fashioned, expensive service with very limited IT access. Until very recently only one of our libraries, Brixton, had wireless internet access. Our levels of library usage are significantly lower than for other London boroughs. In one library, the cost of issuing a book was £8 – it would have been cheaper to have stood outside the building and given everyone a new paperback book, and the choice would have been better too! Our library buildings, whilst being much loved by the local community and having an illustrious history (benefactors include Henry Tate and Andrew Carnegie), require considerable investment. A previous attempt over a decade ago to create ‘centres of excellence’ and rationalise library buildings was hugely unpopular and never implemented.

We believe it’s the close involvement of the community in taking decisions about the future of their libraries that has helped us find such a positive way forward. For other Labour councils considering a similar engagement process there are some important features of our journey worth highlighting. First, consultation needs to be properly planned and resourced, and councils need to ensure that their best officers are an integral part of the consultation team.

Second, it’s critical to value the expertise and insight of user groups, even if they are representative of some sections of the community and not others. Our library ’friends’ groups are overwhelmingly white, middle aged and middle class, and predominantly female, and many are retired. They are the post-war generation of people born and brought up in the heyday of the welfare state, have a strong sense of civic duty and give a considerable amount of time and expertise to running community groups in their neighbourhood, many of which would collapse without them. To make sure we listened to voices from the whole community, our consultation team talked to many younger people, students and families on a one-to-one basis in libraries and there were specific activities for young children to tell us what they liked and didn’t like about their local library.

Third, be prepared to adapt and listen to feedback during the consultation process. Our team simplified the questionnaire after feedback from residents. Fourth, be as open and transparent as possible. For the first time, the council published all the data on need and a detailed explanation of the funding methodology and the central costs of running the library service. All the responses to the consultation have been published. Finally, don’t make things too complicated! The libraries team devised four different funding formulae for our six smaller libraries using indicators such as visitor numbers and book issues but in the end there was a consensus that needs based formula applied to catchment areas was one that people understood and accepted.

There is an enormous amount of work still to do during the ‘co-production’ phase to decide how to use the library budgets, which will require creative thinking as there is less money available. There will be further modernisation of the library service to improve quality and reduce costs; library staff will need to develop new skills for working with local residents and the unions will need to address the need to change out–of-date working practices. The council has identified capital funding for investing in our library buildings through rationalising the authority’s property portfolio, but the disposal of assets is never straightforward.

In 1889 the libraries were open from 10am to 10pm Monday to Friday – no early closing or half days for the industrious Victorians. We should be aiming to have all our libraries open in the evenings for people to study and enjoy reading a good book, whether in hardback, paperback or on a Kindle. In 1891, writing the history of the library movement following the Libraries Acts of 1850 and 1855, Thomas Greenwood wrote: “Every one of the other parishes, which has since adopted the Acts owes something of its successful movement to the noble example set by Lambeth.” Lambeth Council, together with our communities, in creating co-operative libraries, are seeking to set such an example in the twenty first century.

Lambeth’s Co-operative Libraries Cabinet report can be downloaded here.

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