Under current proposals, Gloucestershire County Council plan to withdraw the public library service from eleven communities across the county. In these areas, libraries will only remain open if they are run and funded by volunteers.
When faced with criticism of these plans, GCC cabinet member with responsibility for libraries, Councillor Antonia Noble, has referred to existing volunteer-run libraries in Buckinghamshire as evidence that the scheme will work. This comparison has been made at public meetings, in correspondence with concerned members of the electorate, and in the media – for instance; “Community-run libraries work. At the ones already up and running in Buckinghamshire, visitor numbers have increased, and opening hours have been extended” (Cllr. Noble, ‘Cotswold News and Journal’, 3rd December 2010).
Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries have been in contact with Jim Brooks, the Chair of one such volunteer-run library in Buckinghamshire, and he has been kind enough to provide detailed information about the circumstances surrounding volunteer-run libraries there.
He emphasises that he and other volunteers believe that “libraries should be run by the Council” and that a volunteer-run service should only be pursued when it is “the only option available”. This differs somewhat from Cllr. Noble’s assertion that the model proposed by GCC “is the library service we would design for Gloucestershire if we were starting from scratch”.
Mr. Brooks describes how Buckinghamshire’s volunteer-run libraries are located in affluent areas. He describes running the library as “very similar to running a business”, and lists responsibilities of the library’s management committee as including;
“health and safety, data protection, financial management, charity commission requirements, volunteer and rota management, fund-raising, event management, policy and procedures, stock selection and procurement, website management, building maintenance, liaison with Local Authorities and organisations, plus a host of other activities that arise from time to time such as managing projects and dealing with specific issues as they arise”.
In order to effectively fulfil these responsibilities, “a good population of well-educated, retired or semi-retired volunteers, many with business skills” is “vital”. Additionally, “financial support from the community will be needed”.
Mr. Brooks states;
“It is easy to conclude that our model is unlikely to work in other communities unless they can duplicate the specific resources described above in terms of affluence and a pool of educated and skilled persons prepared to invest a lot of time working for the library”.
In contrast to the circumstances described by Mr. Brooks in Buckinghamshire, several of the eleven Gloucestershire libraries proposed by GCC for ‘community ownership’ are located in some of our county’s least affluent and most disadvantaged areas (Hesters Way, Matson, Tuffley and Cinderford).
Mr. Brooks also describes how for volunteer-run libraries, “being part of the Council’s library management computer system” is a “key issue”, and “without this facility it is only possible to provide a service that will be inferior to Council run libraries”. This challenges Council Leader Mark Hawthorne’s assertion, made at public meetings, that the library service will somehow be ‘better’ when run by volunteers, as volunteer access to the central library management system will not be allowed under GCC’s proposals.
It has transpired that Cllrs. Noble and Hawthorne based their original comparison of their plans for Gloucestershire with Buckinghamshire’s volunteer-run libraries on nothing more than correspondence with the Conservative Leader of Buckinghamshire County Council. When challenged on this, Cllr. Hawthorne said, “I’m not going to waste taxpayers’ money driving around the country to obtain information I can get by picking up the phone or reading a report” (Cllr. Hawthorne, ‘Gloucestershire Echo’, 30th November 2010).
It seems he has now changed his mind about this, as Cllr. Noble and senior library management staff visited Buckinghamshire on Friday, including a visit to the volunteer-run library Chaired by Mr. Brooks.
We await with interest the conclusions drawn by GCC from this visit.