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Community managed libraries research - what we’ll do next

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Lee Richards of SERIO, an applied research unit at the University of Plymouth, recently blogged about the research work on community managed libraries that his team was commissioned to do by the Taskforce and DCMS.

Why did we commission the research?

In our blog last December, we explained that we were concerned about the long-term sustainability of community managed libraries and their ability to maintain a wide ranging, high quality service offer.

We believe that the involvement of volunteers in supporting paid staff in running public libraries can be valuable - in augmenting services available and ensuring close collaboration and engagement between public libraries and the community. We don't, however, endorse the model of community managed libraries operating with no support from the local council.

However, we recognise that some local authorities are, for various reasons, considering considering establishing community managed libraries - and many already have done so. If they decide to do this, we want to ensure that all parties involved make informed decisions: understanding the pros and cons and learning from others who have gone before, so that a high quality service is provided to local people.

As councils plan their library service strategy, based on local community needs, they need to carefully consider what, if any, role community managed libraries might play within it. They need to understand what a community managed library can or cannot provide, and the extent to which community managed libraries' success may be dependent on formal of informal support from staff and resources in the statutory library service.

We set  number of these issues out in more detail in our Community managed libraries toolkit published in March 2016 - but we wanted to improve and develop this guidance in the light of the additional knowledge gained through longer-term experience and deeper understanding of community managed library operations.

To help us do this, we committed, through Action 11 in our Libraries Deliver: Ambition document to:

  • undertake research into community managed libraries, and
  • work with partners to create a new peer support network to make it easier for community managed libraries to share good practice and to learn from each other

What actions will we take based on the research findings?

Lee’s blog spoke about some of the insights gained from the research:

  • the wide variation in the operational structures and services offered by community managed libraries across England
  • things that would support community managed libraries’ longer-term sustainability, such as building income generation skills and opportunities
  • the sorts of issues that community managed libraries identified as potential issues of concern, such as limited sources of funding, building restrictions, volunteer performance and availability, and sensitivity to increases in things like overhead costs
  • community managed libraries’ wish for greater communication, understanding, and strengthening of links with local authorities, including ongoing ad-hoc or targeted support that does not necessarily relate to direct funding; for example, informal advice, support with accessing local volunteer networks, and combined training sessions
  • the value of increased cohesion and learning between community managed libraries developed through a nationwide peer support group

The report contained a number of recommendations that we’ll be taking action on. These action areas include:

Clarifying the guidance on whether a community library is providing a statutory service, and providing templates for establishing service delivery levels between councils and community managed libraries

DCMS will develop additional national guidance on this issue and we’ll revise our Community managed libraries toolkit to reflect this. We’ll also point councils towards examples of Service Level Agreements or Memoranda of Understanding.

Encouraging more engagement between local authorities and community managed libraries in their areas. This includes non-financial support, such as sharing expertise, as well as things like free or discounted access to library management systems and discounted lease rates. And boosting the public profile of existing community library network arrangements to stakeholders including councils and potential partners as well as to community managed libraries themselves

We’ll be continuing to promote this approach to local authorities through our programme of events, and through strengthening relevant sections of our toolkits. The Local Government Association is also incorporating this within the Handbook for Councillors they'll shortly be publishing. We're also working through SCL (which is a partner in setting up the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network) to build closer links between statutory and community managed libraries in each region.

Providing more information about local and national funding sources, and support to help community managed libraries to apply for money from them

We regularly blog about national funding streams open to individual libraries and library services, and the Arts Council provides information about funding opportunities on its website, as does Locality. However, we’ll use the new Community Managed Libraries Peer Network to explore how we can better target this information to that audience. We’ll also encourage councils to let community managed libraries know about local funding streams that are available.

We already made places available to community managed libraries on our Taskforce Masterclasses, for example, ones we ran recently on income generation where attendees learnt about things like commissioning, and alternative funding sources and techniques. We’ll continue to ensure that we publicise any future Masterclasses to community managed libraries. This will include making available places on Masterclasses we’re planning to run later this year on bid-writing. We’ll also encourage councils to let community managed libraries participate in training they may be running for their own library staff.

We’ll continue to strengthen relevant parts of our toolkits and make information and learning available through the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network and Locality’s Community Libraries Knowledge Hub.

Providing additional information and support on volunteer recruitment, training and succession planning

We’ll use the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network to share experiences on this topic, as well as working with DCMS colleagues in the Office for Civil Society, and with partners such as Locality and Power to Change, to learn from other sectors. Based on what we learn from them, and from community managed libraries that have been successful in this area, we’ll share information and good practice with community managed libraries - through helping to set up workshops or masterclasses, and by strengthening the information and guidance available through our toolkits.

Is there other research that might be useful?

The report also highlighted 3 areas that might benefit from further research, either because SERIO felt that more information could be valuable or because the detailed issues fell outside the scope of this piece of work. They suggested we could benefit from understanding more about:

  • the main drivers and barriers in attracting, training, developing and retaining volunteers
  • the wider breadth of income generation activity undertaken in independent libraries, to see what further information could be learned about and shared on their operational models and methods of revenue generation

They also felt that we could undertake deeper desk research on certain aspects of community managed libraries, building on the findings in this report.

We’ve included these in our future research programme, and are actively discussing with partners how this work can be taken forward and by whom. Once we’ve gathered this additional learning, we’ll use it to improve the advice and guidance that we make available through our toolkits, and through events that we run ourselves or support through the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network.

What are the next steps?

We’ll promote the findings of the research to councillors and senior officers in library authorities. If community management is one of the delivery models they’re considering, we'll try to ensure that they make any decisions to go down this route armed with the best possible evidence of their pros and cons. And if they then decide to follow that path, we want them to understand what the continuing investment they need to make in the way of practical support and better communications so community libraries in their area run as successfully as possible for the communities they serve.

We’re already working in partnership with SCL and Locality to support a new Community Managed Libraries Peer Network. This is being led by the Upper Norwood Library Trust, which is currently developing a programme of learning events and setting up ways to share information and support between community libraries. We’ll be helping to promote the network more widely, and hoping to build closer links between community libraries and council-run library services through some of the activities the network runs. If you’re associated with a community managed library and you’re interested in benefitting from the peer network, it’s free to join and you can sign up here (by subscribing to the blog).

We’ll be ensuring that we publicise any events that we run through the network and beyond, so that community libraries are aware that they are welcome to come along and learn at these - we’ve been seeing more attending recent masterclasses and are looking forward to that growing. And we’ll use the information that SERIO pulled out from their research about the support needs of community libraries to pinpoint ways to improve and strengthen the advice and guidance we provide through our toolkits.

By doing these things, we’ll clarify and promote the support available to help volunteers and staff within community managed libraries who want to keep good quality library services available for their local communities.

The full report is available to download here.

To keep up to date with news about our progress with this programme of work, subscribe to this blog or follow us on Twitter.

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