On Monday and Tuesday of this week, SLAM’s Mike Alsop and Lee Godfrey conducted a tour of as many of the affected libraries as possible, and also some libraries that may be in the second tranche of CPLs. The object was to consult with as many of the Friends Groups as possible, listening and learning, and also to ask for help with fund-raising. We got around to 9 libraries in total but, to save embarrassment and prejudice, we will not mention them by name. The groups will know who they are.
We feel that we received a very broad perspective of what is happening at the potential CPLs, having spoken to local Mayors and Councillors, Chairmen of Parish Councils, library users, librarians, library volunteers and volunteering steering groups, local businesses and residents, members of the local clergy plus many more.
Here’s what we learned:
1. It’s always the same people who volunteer and get involved! We found, almost universally, that those that are involved in the libraries campaign/volunteering effort also seem to be involved in other community and/or volunteering activities. We, very unscientifically, concluded that there must be a “community spirit gene”: people coming to the aid of their local library are not “new” to community involvement but are drawn from existing ranks of volunteers in other areas. There are exceptions, of course…
2. All of the libraries are unique, and all of the communities they serve are demonstrably different in character, with varying needs and requirements of their local library. Each of the groups we talked to raised separate concerns and issues specifically related to their community and their library. To make a point here, we do still feel that, had SCC consulted over their library plans, they would have found all this out and could have worked with each of the communities to find a model that suited each of the communities’ circumstances. There is nothing stopping SCC carrying out a consultation even now, and we would encourage them to do so.
3. All volunteering groups came forward because they were led to believe by the Council that if they didn’t, then their library would most likely be closed by the Council.
4. All groups and individuals believe that the service would be better if volunteers worked alongside permanent paid staff rather than in their place. All further understood that volunteering to help the library is very different from taking over the Council’s statutory duty for library service provision in their community.
5. There was a broad agreement amongst groups, based on their own scheduling analysis (which has apparently been confirmed with SCC), that it will take a consistent body of 60-100 volunteers per library for each of the libraries to take over current provision.
6. No communities were consulted over the library changes – and all of the groups, volunteers, local residents and businesses had a lot to say! Our two-day “consultation” was unscientific but it did reveal, if nothing else, that a full consultation by SCC would have been highly appropriate.
7. The self-service machines, which will be solely responsible for book issues and returns, break down frequently (and on one occasion, took down all of the electronics in one library). One library we visited said that the machine had already broken down twice on the day we visited. And there is not a satisfactory substitute process in place when the break-downs happen, due to staff terminals being removed.
8. The manual process replacing the staff terminals is unacceptable. The process for searching for a book and reserving it from another library, for instance, used to be done directly on a staff terminal. The new process involves a series of phone calls and faxes to “buddy” libraries, asking them to use their staff terminals. Busy times in the CPLs are, of course, the same as busy times in larger libraries, and volunteers and staff have been subject to long waits on the end of a phone; and, we were told, one of the “buddy” libraries had all but stopped taking CPL calls because they were receiving so many of them that it was distracting the” buddy” library from serving its own users. “The process is a throw-back to the 80s,” was a common complaint, “and a significant diminishing of the service the library provides.” And CPLs haven’t even launched properly yet.
There was much more discussed, of course, and a lot of issues raised that were specific to particular communities and libraries, but the themes above did crop up again and again and we believe they do fairly represent what we were told.
On a final point, I love all public libraries but the one at Lingfield has to be the most beautiful public library I have ever had the pleasure to visit. It was built in 1474 and has its original features, both inside and out, including its stained-glass windows. It is an inspiring place to visit and read a book in. If you’re in the area, it is well worth a visit.