The Arts Council's Director, Libraries talks about the recent community libraries research

We’ve received a lot of interest in our research published last week, Community libraries – Learning from experience: guiding principles for local authorities. I thought it would be useful for me to reiterate some of the key findings from the research, and discuss how these informed our guiding principles.

In early 2012, Alan Davey, our Chief executive, was called before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and answered a question about volunteers in libraries. He described how volunteers can make a useful contribution to the core services and activities of a library, but made very clear that they can never be a replacement for trained staff. The Arts Council hasn’t changed its position on this.

But what was clear was the need for an accurate picture of current community involvement in library services and, informed by that information, some guidelines for local authorities looking at how best to deliver their library services in the future.

Community libraries – Learning from experience: guiding principles for local authorities was commissioned so that we could understand exactly what the level and nature of community involvement in library services was up and down the country.

The research shows that community libraries are not just libraries run by volunteers – far from it. We found many different types of community library, some fully volunteer run, some with volunteers working alongside paid professionals, and others that are commissioned and fully funded by councils, but delivered by not-for-profit, mutual, or community organisations. Importantly, the research indicates that, in July 2012, 55 per cent of community libraries (commissioned and supported) had access to professional library staff expertise.

From the evidence that this mapping exercise has given us, we have been able to develop guiding principles to help ensure that local authorities take a strategic and long term view on what, if any, level of community involvement is appropriate for their area, and what shape it should take.

We anticipate that further research will be commissioned in Spring 2013, updating the picture of the level of community involvement in library service provision, and addressing challenges and opportunities.

Later this Spring, the Arts Council will also be publishing Envisioning the library of the future – the result of extensive research into what the library of the future could and should look like. This will help set the community libraries research in context, and will outline the Arts Council’s response to this and other new approaches to library service delivery.

This post was written by Nicky Morgan, Director, Libraries at Arts Council England.



The relentless diminution of service via cuts to opening-hours and, therefore, paid frontline library staff , renders what was once a *library* to a space that is little more than a room with books in it. Users deserve better. Paid, expert staff do a lot more for a library, and a community, than stamp out books. To suggest otherwise is a deception of the first order. Please, ACE and DCMS, compare and contrast today's: 'Northumberland libraries bucking the national trend of decline' (The Journal) for ideas with today's 'Lifeline library has lost its heart, say residents' (Cambridge News) and take a view.

It is perplexing that you have not, here, made any reference to the reaction to your Report from (a) the Camden User Group - Camden featured as a 'case study'; (b) CILIP and its President; and (c) a press release from the Women's Institute - these being only some small part of the feedback to which ACE must be privy.

Might you consider publishing an update to your Blog that acknowledges these matters ?

We will be meeting with the organisations you mentioned above to discuss the findings of the report.


So 45% of community libraries have NO "access to professional library staff expertise"? That is appalling. How can you call something a library when it does not have any librarians? Libraries should NOT be run by volunteers, they should be run by appropriately qualified, trained and remunerated professionals. That is how local authorities can best deliver library services. Moreover ALL libraries are community libraries - provided within and for their local community.

This is the attitude that caused public libraries so many problems.
Local authority provided services are not community libraries in any real sense of the word in far too many cases. How many of you can name your local councillor - let alone the ones making decisions on libraries?
Top-down provision of a fundamentally print-based service is no longer sustainable.
And for professional librarians to get all huffy - well, they only have themselves to blame. When you go into the library - who is the professional and who is the untrained assistant? You can't claim to be essential to the service and then hide behind a spurious 70s egalitarianism and moan about how no-one understands what you do.

In the report we recognise libraries are facing an enormous challenge and are learning to work differently to support their library services. Our mapping of the current picture of community involvement (pages nine to ten and pages 27 to 28 of the report) found that 95 per cent of community managed and supported libraries are partnerships between the community and the library authority.

Just to clarify, our figure of 55 per cent is the percentage of community supported and commissioned libraries that have paid local authority staffing. Our mapping shows that an additional 40 per cent of community managed libraries have some support from the local authority which can include professional advice and support from library staff.


First you say it's 55% that have "access to professional library staff expertise"; now you say it's the ones that have "paid local authority staffing". So originally you were talking about professionals but not necessarily paid to work in the libraries concerned; now you seem to be talking about people paid to work in the libraries concerned but not necessarily professional librarians. Your message "just to clarify" has therefore muddied the waters even further.

Let's be honest, what users really need is libraries staffed by paid professional librarians who are supported by volunteers, not the other way round.

I am sure many councils will find the clarity of your document useful if it is suggested that they go down the so-called "community library" route. However, it would be really good if ACE could also remind them of the skills and experience possessed by professional librarians so that councillors can focus on the services which could be endangered if any given library loses its professional staff. The councils will, after all, still have the legal obligation to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service to all clients who wish to use it, not just to those who can easily get to a central library.


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