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Community-run libraries – past, present, and future

peopleslibraryThere is a little room over the south porch of St Wulfram’s church in Grantham in Lincolnshire, where England’s first public library was founded in 1598. Books in those days were immensely expensive, and each book was secured to the shelves by strong iron links.

Two hundred years later, groups of tradesmen and working people began to form their own libraries, setting up corresponding societies, trade unions, and working men’s clubs, and using their common purchasing power to buy what none of them could individually afford: access to learning.

In 1850 the Public Libraries Act gave all municipalities with a population of more than 10,000 people the power to raise taxes to fund public libraries, and 300 were established by 1900. Today the provision of libraries is a statutory duty for local authorities, with a requirement to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’.

But this was never exclusively a function of the state. Between 1883 and 1929 some 660 libraries were endowed by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. And the library service has always been supported by volunteers, ‘friends’ of their local library.

It is not hard to understand why the wave of library closures afflicting our communities has aroused such deep feelings. 200 were closed in 2012, and many more closures are expected in the coming years.

One response has been to say ‘So what? – libraries are a thing of the past, and no longer relevant in the digital age’. Lord Nat Wei, at the time the champion of Big Society, once told me that the best thing might be to close down libraries and give the poor an iPad. Certainly there has been a gradual decline in usage: down from 390m to 320m visits in the last twenty years. But it seems to me that, given the extraordinarily rapid rise of the internet, the wonder is that such huge numbers of people – 40% of the population – are still finding them so useful.

And that’s because many libraries have tried to move with the times, embracing digital communications, providing on-line access to many of their resources. But it’s not only about digital. The Society of Chief Librarians points out that users of libraries have become ever more varied: people researching their family genealogy, children hungry to read, local history enthusiasts, unemployed people preparing CVs and hunting for jobs, and ‘friend finders’ for whom the local library is above all an escape from isolation.

Clearly, there is, and always has been, a community dimension, and in the drive to localism, and attempts to achieve better integration of service and opportunity, perhaps this is becoming even more important. So are community-run libraries the answer?

The truth is, we don’t yet know. There has certainly been a very rapid rise in community libraries and Locality’s recent research for the Arts Council discovered 425 community libraries in operation or in the pipeline, and a 70% growth in library volunteers in just four years. But is it very wrong to think that this has simply pushed the state out of the picture: in fact 95% of community libraries retain a partnership with the local authority, including access to funding, local authority buildings, staff, expertise, book stock.

What is certainly a cause for celebration is that community-run libraries appear to be achieving longer opening hours and increased usage. That’s in part because many are combining the library function with all sorts of other activities: skills training, cafes and restaurants, meeting rooms, arts activities, co-location with children’s centres and other services.

Looking ahead, there are big challenges. Most community libraries to date are in relatively prosperous areas. But the greatest need is in the poorest neighbourhoods, where community-run libraries represent a much tougher challenge, and as yet there is no dedicated support to get behind the willing and the brave in those communities who want to give it a go.  And we shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of sustainability, once the first flush of community enthusiasm has worn off; we are still at the very early stage of discovering how community libraries can operate as viable community enterprises for the long term.

So Locality is supporting a community libraries network, to share experience and ideas. We’ve come a long way from the little chained library in Grantham, but what a disaster it would be to discover one day that these precious community resources had disappeared altogether, and we were back in the days when learning was only for the privileged, and knowledge a purely private matter.

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