Community hubs keep libraries in the heart of local users
It is no secret that public libraries have been hit hard by austerity. Local Authorities across the country are having to deal with huge reductions in their spending power as central government puts the brakes on public spending. Library Authorities have had to find their own way through, making difficult decisions that affect staff and customers. Reading Council is no exception to this – its library service has lost staff and been forced to reduce opening hours. However, Library Manager Simon Smith says efforts to keep all of Reading’s seven libraries open is helping ensure communities stay connected.
Simon Smith began his career at Reading Libraries, working as a children’s librarian, before moving into management roles in other areas – Harrow, followed by Slough. He returned to Reading in 2016 to take up the role of Library Manager and is forging new partnerships to help keep libraries at the heart of local communities.
Despite working away from Reading, Simon had continued to live in the town and had kept an eye on the service. The summer before he joined Reading held a consultation on savings of £600,000, from a budget of around £1.6m – that consultation ran throughout its recruitment process and reported back after he was in post. Local opposition to the reduction and a recognition that such drastic cuts would severely hamper the service, meant that the planned budget reduction was cut in half to around £300,000. Simon had already identified some areas where efficiencies could be made – such as introducing RFID, but says he also made the case “to preserve the library service and do more, to expand services so that it is not all about contracting. I wanted to make a service structure that was more fit for the future.”
Part of that future was about looking at the council’s overall estate and seeing where there was overlap and where savings could be made. It was apparent that the library service could be more sustainable if it looked for opportunities to share resources. To that end, the council has invested £2 million in creating community hubs. Two libraries moved from their existing homes into new hubs – sharing space with nurseries, a community café, children’s centre and other facilities. The two new hubs – Whitley and Southcote – have a different approach to how they share space. With Whitley, each service has its own entrance, while at Southcote there is a shared entrance. A further library, Battle in west Reading, has recently been extended and remodelled to facilitate the community using the building outside of library hours. But the notion of sharing resources is not just about a shared building. Simon says that there is a real commitment to deliver joined-up services. “We are moving on from the building work, and now we are talking about how we develop services. So there has been a strategic shift in what we are looking at. For the library service, that means talking to others in the council about how we get messages out to people. We are making sure that tenants know about the libraries moving by including information in their newsletters.” Both of the new hubs are just a few hundred metres from the old libraries, but Simon says it was still important to make sure people were aware of the changes.
Not stepping on toes
In practical terms, the libraries moved into existing buildings that had been refurbished to create community hubs. Simon says he and his team were aware of the fact that they were new tenants who would be joining existing services in their home. “We were very sensitive to that,” he says. “But once we got into the partnership it was clear that we could work together to make it successful. There was always a political priority to see this work, and once we were in place there was no issue.”
That internal commitment to make things work has meant that the user experience is the best it can be. “People have been very positive about it. There are a lot of people who come in who like the fact that there are other things going on. Many have been quite attached to the old buildings, but the hubs are in better places, they are brighter and more appealing so people do have the feeling that this is a community space.”
Both of the libraries in the new hubs are showing increased attendance – a clear sign that things are working. Simon is clear that libraries are part of the community, and that goes beyond being housed in the community hub. It is about working with local community groups, identifying partnerships that benefit Reading and the people who live there, and providing services that are tailored to local needs.
One of those partnerships is a scheme with the local FE college, which runs an award-winning project to help students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) to gain real-world work experience.
“We have a good relationship with Reading College. They run a model where they get students with additional needs into businesses for experience. After conversations with the college they agreed that the library could be one of those businesses. We provide the library space and one of our members of staff is joined by students and a college tutor, who is trained as a library assistant.
“There are between two and four students there working and learning, and as they become more confident they join in more with the activities that we are running, like Rhyme Time. It’s a brilliant thing for us, because it actually helps us to keep the library open. And the public are seeing more people who can help them, rather than fewer.”
An odd mix?
Another project, this time funded by Arts Council England, sees the library service working with Reading Rep theatre group.
"They approached us, and I think they realised that we have great reach across Reading – not just in terms of the number of children we see, but also in terms of diversity. We have always been quite open to organisations coming in to our activities if they have got messages they need to get out. That could be health visitors joining our Rhyme Time groups or just being around at the end.
“It seems odd initially that we would be working with Reading Rep, because the bid is for them to put on a production. When you look at what else was going on in the library service that does seem strange, but it works really well. So, they are not just doing this play, but they have come in and taken some of our Rhyme Time sessions, they have put on songs and brought aspects of the show into the library. We are really keen to have these theatrical experiences in the library.”
Simon adds that the partnerships have not just been beneficial to users, saying: “It has been good to have positive experiences happening in the libraries. For staff it shows them that we can still deliver things that make a difference. It also helps to show that the library service is a place where things happen.”
The next steps for the library service will be reliant on how public funding changes over the next couple of years. The fact that Reading has kept its network of libraries open – albeit with reduced staff and opening hours, means it has kept a foothold in the local communities. That, according to Simon, will make it easier to build up services should funding come available. He said: “My job is to make the case, so that if funding changes, we can show we are ready. We have kept the network because we hope that one day things will pick up, and it means we don’t have to get a library back into a neighbourhood. If and when things do pick up, I want libraries to be at the front of the queue. The more we can tell people about the work we are doing, the partnerships we have and the outcomes we are bringing to Reading the better.” IP