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Feb 26

Community-run libraries – past, present, and future

Assets, Community Rights, Enterprise, Innovation, Localism, Public sector cuts, Social action

There 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.


  1. Maggie Joan Haggas

    Posted 26/02/13 at 4:02 pm  |  Permalink

    Such a pity that so few British people seem to know about Carnegie’s generosity.

    Our local library in Llanfairfechan, Conwy, North Wales is earmarked for closure and, as I’m trying to figure out a way for our proposed social enterprise to become involved in extending its life, I would just like to say “Thank You” for setting-up the ‘community libraries network’.

    Kind Regards, Maggie

  2. Diane Block

    Posted 26/02/13 at 4:41 pm  |  Permalink

    40 years as a volunteer, I am impressed with our local library – the wonderful people living in a High Priority area use the library for mother and toddler groups reading help and much more – The characters who work in the Library visit our Community flat bringing old fashioned much loved crafts – When it was threatened by closure an incredible no of local people signed a petition ensuring that our Library is safe at the moment. Thank you for ensuring Community libraries network” Respect

  3. Trevor Craig

    Posted 26/02/13 at 8:30 pm  |  Permalink

    My big concern with all of this is there seems to be a ideological push by the Tories to get us all to sign up for the Big Society. It was their main policy at the 2010 election and it didn’t get them elected. Now we have the LGA, SCL, ACE and various other bodies that receive public funding pushing community run libraries which are a statutory service yet volunteers are being forced to provide this statutory service to themselves. One of this organisations slogans is “Communities ambitious for change” which seems to suggest we are all chomping at the bit to take over and run services we have already paid for, we aren’t I don’t know of a single friends group that would rather run the library itself than have the council do it. Councils are jumping on this “big society without a mandate” band wagon and are cutting the low paid front line library managers and assistants and keeping the bloated back office that is duplicated nearly every single one of the 151 library authorities in the UK, clearly the senior libraries are never going to recommend efficiencies that put them out of a job. I’m very saddened by it all, my local library is thriving and has lots of extra activities that are provided by volunteers. When the library has its staffing cut, these extra activities will be lost because we simply don’t have the numbers to provide a statutory service to ourselves and do all the extra activities that make our library a fantastic community resource. Yay Big Society! :-(

  4. B Iller

    Posted 26/02/13 at 10:43 pm  |  Permalink

    Haven’t used a library in years – they are outdated. If the community want to run them OK but public money in these harsh times should not be wasted on them. Its an expensive way to make information available – lets move on and find a new way of making culture available without all the Local authority bureaucracy

    • Trevor Craig

      Posted 27/02/13 at 8:01 pm  |  Permalink

      Just because you don’t use them anymore doesn’t mean they are outdated, just a couple of stats on libraries:

      34 million people a year visit public libraries in the UK.

      More people visit public libraries in the UK than go to football matches, theatres or cinemas, put together.

      And now the government is phasing in the digital by default for public services, how are people who don’t have the internet going to access this and who is going to show them how? There are millions of elderly and disabled in the UK who are going to be completely cut off and this government sits on its hands while councils decimate the library service all in the name of the big society ideology that Dave didn’t get a mandate for. The cost to the UK of libraries is roughly a billion pounds a year, which sounds a lot but when you consider the benefits they bring in increasing literacy rates in children and keeping the minds of the elderly active, helping unemployed apply for jobs online etc etc then its peanuts. And just for context the MOD wastes more every year on botched procurements and we have nothing to show for it.

  5. Peter Farrell

    Posted 27/02/13 at 9:52 pm  |  Permalink

    When are the General Public going to learn, many of the Local Authorities have closed numerous Libraries just to reduce their Budgets due to the Government reducing their monies to the Authorities. However the same Government talks about increasing MPs Salaries and giving them more time off.
    What the hell is happening to this Country, the Heads of nearly all Banks, Quango’s, and Government controlled functions are receiving way to much money. They have no respect for the normal everyday Worker who gives a hell of a lot more effort for his or her miniscule wages.

  6. Tom Northey

    Posted 28/02/13 at 8:05 pm  |  Permalink

    Excellent, nuanced article. In Manchester, the proposal is to close 6 libraries in more disadvantaged areas, and ‘improve’ those with more footfall, which are in the middle class areas, with high student populations and high numbers of retired local historians. (I’d welcome anyone who knows these areas to challenge this summary).

    And there is talk of ‘community run /volunteer run’ libraries in those areas which have had their library cut. It simply isn’t sustainable! As a professional fundraiser working with children’s charities on their next 3 year plans, a ‘community library’ is just not going to be a priority. What’s more, the local volunteers in our community are at full stretch doing things like supporting acutely vulnerable and isolated people. Not got time to run libraries…

    It’s a vital debate. And if Manchester can cut 6 libraries in deprived communities, you can see this is not a Tory-led Big Society agenda. It’s about values, and priorities. I agree with previous post, central government should prioritise local authorities over defence. But equally, during a recession, local councils should prioritise core services like libraries, over things like big name concerts, football museums, or extra spending on culture in areas of less need. Push your partners more, strike tougher deals with those who COULD contribute more.

    To make that comment, Nat Wei has clearly never spent a rainy Tuesday afternoon in a local library where ‘the poor’ live. You don’t need much social/emotional intelligence to understand the breadth of functions and human needs which libraries serve: if you actually visit them, and talk to the people who use them.

    I can only hope that should he find himself in a situation where he can’t draw on the benefits of an excellent education, significant social capital, powerful networks, loving family, and the confidence that his children will thrive….that in such a situation, his ipad will give him a hug. And advice. And find books which inspire his kids. And encourage him to search for new training opportunities. And talk to him everyday, if he’s experiencing depression.

    Surely there’s an app for that?

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