Libraries in transition: are there creative alternatives?
“…I know that across the country there are literally thousands of front line employees who can see how things can be done better but at the moment, with the existing constraints, they just can’t get it done. Now this is going to change.”
Rt. Hon Francis Maude, MP, August 2010i
“Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.”
Phillip Pullman, author, January 2011ii
Context There is a need to reduce spending that places Britain’s public services under more pressure than at any time in the last thirty years. In identifying savings, councils across the country are scrutinising the services they provide and often coming up with similar answers. As a result, certain services have become national tension points, used by the media as a barometer to compare the approach to budget reduction taken across local authorities. Arguably no service area has generated more tension or been used as a higher profile indicator of a council’s approach to cutting spending than libraries.
This paper, developed by the 2020 Public Services Hub at the RSA and Social Enterprise London, is aimed at local government decision makers. It proposes an innovative, cost-effective approach to the creation of new structures to sustain and nourish Britain’s libraries. This combines 2020’s focus on how social value can best be delivered through improving the quality of the relationship between services and citizens with SEL’s expertise and commercial experience in helping to establish and support social enterprises.
Strong, sustainable libraries are vital to rebuilding confidence, supporting cohesion and contributing to economic and social prosperity in Britain’s communities. Yet in order to make this a reality, we must get beyond cuts versus the status quo and identify a creative new alternative. This paper outlines such an approach.
Exploring the alternatives
Evidence emerging from communities across the UK suggests that social enterprise delivery models present viable, cost effective options for the future of library services. They offer a solution to what is often characterised in public debate as two options: a traditional council-run facility or nothing at all. The argument supporting these options is broadly founded on the following principles: a library is an inherently non-commercial service that cannot generate sufficient revenue to sustain itself without core funding a library is a core and discrete council service, and should be delivered through the public sector if a council can or will no longer maintain the running of a library (for whatever reason) then there is little viable option other than for the library to close.
A social enterprise approach challenges this thinking, giving communities the power to develop sustainable library services, creating a new kind of community resource that can help rebuild confidence, encourage social cohesion and contribute to local growth and wellbeing. Too often in the past libraries have been perceived as being in communities but not of communities. For neighbourhood libraries to survive they must become much more central to the lives and needs of local people.