As I know to my cost, the very mention of ‘libraries’ is politically sensitive, and provokes often aggressive, emotional, debate, even from those who haven’t read a book or stepped inside a library since their childhood – if, indeed, they patronised these institutions then.

Although some people will even argue that libraries are superfluous, they are wrong. Books are essential to civilisation, and not everyone can afford a weekly trip to Waterstones to stock up. As a teenager, I haunted the second hand book shops in Charing Cross Road (long gone I fear) and came across gems which were no longer in print. This is also what libraries offer – real treats to which well trained staff can introduce you.

So, I’m passionate about libraries, but discovered during a year-long review of how the service operated in Suffolk that a fresh look was long overdue. In a nutshell, it was overstaffed, carried huge central overheads, and had no idea who it served or why. There was no comprehensive strategy, with managers left to do what they wanted – which meant that some did nothing to attract visitors or to promote their library, whilst others were full of great ideas which were never shared. Little or no effort was ever made to recover fines on overdue books, running into many thousands of pounds, and procurement was wasteful.

This, I’m sure is what councils are discovering right across the country, but slashing the service is not the answer. Instead, taking time to examine its structure is worth the effort. But it requires strong leadership by councillors, a very thick skin, and a lot of hard work to evaluate all aspects, including the location and condition of buildings, and whether they are leasehold or freehold, as well as site visits and public meetings where uninhibited residents can be quite abusive!

In Suffolk, we eventually put all 44 libraries into a social enterprise, employing professional staff with a board made up of members of the public, deliberately excluding councillors in order to avoid ‘politics’ interfering in future decision-making.

Initial savings were £2m, from a £9m annual budget, with further savings factored into the new operating model. The council still provides funding, but the service also generates income through various activities attracting modest fees, and adding tourism and post office services in some areas. Opening hours were also adjusted to suit local residents, and computer systems for downloading books introduced, so, two years on from the changes, the enterprise is going from strength to strength, with no closures.

The libraries have become hubs for community engagement, with people from across the generations proactively helping each other, whether to learn computer skills, with homework or business advice for small and medium sized businesses. This social enterprise model also has Government approval. Quite an achievement.

However, if I were in the driving seat again today, I’d be looking at something a great deal more radical, with broader partnerships, including with the private sector. Potentially this could release freehold sites for redevelopment. To be honest, given changes to some local conurbations, I was keen to relocate some libraries at the time of the initial review, but I’d have been lynched. So it’s up to the current board if they want to be more progressive.

For example, we all complain about our High Streets, so why shouldn’t libraries be used to reinvigorate them, increasing activity by perhaps sharing space with Costa Coffee or Pizza Hut? Or the Jobs Centre? Boots originally offered library services – so perhaps it’s time to reintroduce the idea?

I’ve long thought that libraries could be pick-up points for internet orders, too.

Having libraries near reception in council offices, especially housing departments, would encourage greater access/awareness and, hopefully, use. Public records offices would also fit nicely into a library portfolio.

Supermarkets are suffering their own crisis, so devoting space to a library alongside the café could increase footfall whilst utilising spare capacity. Under-pressure DIY stores may also be open to a similar proposal. Retirement schemes, which are usually close to public transport routes, could house libraries, and instead of closing, pubs could be revitalised if they re-focused their businesses, adding libraries and branded cafes. Redundant churches and empty warehouse could also find a new lease of life. Activity triggers more investment and more activity.

Hospitals, universities, museums, schools, sports centres – where books are often on sale – could all embrace library services for the general public, encouraging more people to read, especially children. When time is at a premium for most of us, if access is made easy, more people will be engaged, and there’s no logical reason why books should be separated from the facilities we use every day. Even a head teacher told me the other day that he had rediscovered reading, and was loving it as a way to relax and escape daily worries for a while.

The public sector has too many individual buildings designated for one use or another, and should take a long hard look at what opportunities there are for rationalising their property estate to support a broader range of shared services, working more closely with the private sector to reduce costs, whilst tailoring its offer to suit the customer!

11 comments for: Judy Terry: Suffolk shows how libraries can thrive as social enterprises

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