Guest Column: Tough story with a happy ending for community libraries

Martin Phillips, Cabinet Member for Community Engagement
Martin Phillips, Cabinet Member for Community Engagement

Necessity, goes the old adage, is the mother of invention.

And three years ago, faced with government demands to make huge cost savings, we were looking for the mother of all creative ideas to keep our libraries open – and save money.

The idea was to invite 14 Bucks communities to take on running their libraries. It would enable them to be shaped to local needs, empower volunteers to take initiative and responsibility, and make the much-needed savings.

We were adamant we’d learn from experiences nearly 20 years ago: earmarking uneconomic libraries for closure, then relenting and letting residents manage them, but without any support.

This time it would be about partnership, not abandonment.

The ensuing consultation demanded our best in diplomacy, relationship-building, and communication. Unsurprisingly, memories of the past die hard, and our starting point was to counter the cynicism, be honest about previous mistakes, and build trust and credibility.

All this took time and patience.

Slowly, surely, Buckinghamshire rose to the challenge and volunteers came forward to take over library buildings, write their own business plans, plan their own local events programmes, select their own book and resource stock.

We ran training seminars, helped formulate business plans, arranged leases at nominal rents, paid for the ICT network and computers, supplied the book stock.

What I like about our one-size-doesn’t-fit-all partnership model is that our communities are genuinely empowered rather than merely providers of unpaid labour.

Volunteers feel they have ownership of their solution for the community, and pull together to make their library work.

All this pulling together is creating a positive by-product.

Volunteers make friends, and groups of friends find other common interests, which in turn enriches life in our communities. It’s a powerful selling point for getting people involved.

We had no shortage of interest from other councils wanting to explore our community library model, yet while it has halved the operating costs of our local libraries, no one considering this way forward should see it as an easy option.

Not a single community wanted it as a first choice and all of them saw it as a cut in service.

But in the face of the financial challenges we were grateful for the pragmatic way communities accepted the status quo wasn’t an option.

Now as the 13th partnership is ready to start its new chapter, we really do feel our network of unique community libraries are all on the same page.