On 20th March 2018 the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network held it’s first national conference, themed Changing Landscape: Building Our Capacity. Hosted in Sheffield Central Library it was an opportunity for community managed libraries (CMLs) from around the country to get together, share learning and ideas and forge new relationships through which they can support each other going forward.

This blog post has been written by Leigh Ogden from Upper Norwood Library Trust in London and reflects her thoughts and experiences from the day.

Sheffield Central Library is a beautiful listed building which dwarfs our local community library in South London. It was a pleasure to visit a building that retains lots of original art deco features and has such lovely spaces, including a large local history room, children’s library and generous suite of public access computers.

The first order of the day (after tea and biscuits of course) was a welcome by Nick Partridge of Sheffield Libraries and Cllr Mary Lea, Sheffield Cabinet Member for Libraries. This was followed by a welcome from the co-Directors of Upper Norwood Library Hub, Margaret Adjaye and Emily Jewell. The library is a partner of the peer network and Margaret and Emily talked a bit about the network’s journey in the past 18 months, growing by over 200 members and the success of the learning and development events that the network has hosted and continues to host (more details on the blog Events page).

Following this was an address from the Libraries Minister, Micheal Ellis MP, which can be viewed here.

Next Sophie Macken from Power to Change (funders of the CML peer network) introduced the work that Power to Change does and shared with us how the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network project fits into the wider context of Power to Change’s work supporting community businesses. Sophie highlighted two opportunities for community businesses to get support from Power to Change: Community Business Fund (which is opening shortly) and the Community Shares Booster Programme.

Last but not least of the day’s early speeches was the conference’s keynote speech by Steve Wyler, an independent consultant and writer in the social sector. Steve talked about some of the changes taking place in the libraries sector and some of the challenges facing community managed libraries but also the achievements, strengths and opportunities open to CMLs.

The next part of the day was our first chance to get interactive by attending workshops. I found this a great opportunity to begin talking to other CMLs and learn from their experiences. There were four workshops on offer:

  • Building Impact and Influence facilitated by Kate White, Superhighways;
  • Trading, Enterprise and Income Generation facilitated by mick McGrath and John Dawson, Locality;
  • Regenerating Ourselves and Volunteering facilitated by Peter Rankin, Archibald Corbett Library and Emily Jewell, Upper Norwood Library Hub;
  • Skills Acquisition & Succession Planning facilitated by Christine Healey.

More information about each of these workshops, links to presentations and resources, and an insight into what was shared and learned from them will be the subject of the next blog post as there is just too much to share here. From my perspective I was keen to discover how we could more confidently show the value of the work we do and so I attended the Building Impact and Influence workshop. Kate introduced us to a number of digital tools to monitor and capture information and then to communicate our impact. I’m just working on developing an impact framework for our library and the tools Kate introduced made the process seem a little less daunting and should cut down on the amount of work I’ll need to do.

Over lunchtime there was an opportunity to chat to other conference delegates, as well as attend drop-in surgeries and an information session from an Arts Council representative and head out on a visit to a local community managed library.

The surgeries covered:

  • Trustees, Legal and Governance;
  • Volunteering;
  • Developing your Business Plan;
  • Good financial management.

I hovered between the surgery tables and it was interesting to see which of these drop-in sessions attracted the most interest. Whilst the volunteering discussion (led by Marcus Ramtohul from London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Library Service) was very popular, clearly a lunchtime discussion around financial management wasn’t high on the list of priorities for many of the delegates. These observations and notes taken during the session are being used to help inform the future training and development opportunities offered by the network.

The Arts Council session, run by Clancy Mason, was a chance to find out about Arts Council funding opportunities. I heard this was a valuable session for those that attended and that people would have liked an entire workshop session dedicated to this.

Eight conference delegates went on the visit to Park Centre and Library. The library is situated in a disadvantaged and highly diverse area of Sheffield, and offers a wide range of services to the local community. Among other things, they offer computer access, wifi, a cafe, a youth club, mental health meetings, a pantry project and sports activities. In partnership with Manor and Castle Development Trust (located upstairs in the centre) they are able to provide personalised assistance, support and signposting in a welcoming and accessible environment.  I didn’t manage to get out on the library visit myself but feedback from those I spoke to suggested that the visit provided inspiration for their own libraries. One delegate said ‘the visit was really worth it. Park Centre is doing some exceptional work in the community, [I’m] totally inspired by the team’.

With everyone back together for the afternoon we embarked on a series of table discussions. This felt a bit like speed dating for CMLs, with each delegate able to attend discussions at four of the five tables. My only criticism of this part of the day would just be that there simply wasn’t enough time for each session and we had to move around just as the conversation got interesting.

The table discussion topics were:

  • Capturing & Using Data, led by Geoff Nichols from Sheffield University;
  • Identifying Your Needs and the Support You Need From Society of Chief Librarians, led by Sue Wills from SCL;
  • Our Journey to Becoming a Successful CML, led by Burngreave and Newfield Green Libraries);
  • Diversification of Libraries Roles & Functions, led by Mick McGrath & John Dawson from Locality;
  • Income Generation & Building a Successful Enterprise, led by Chris Brown from Greenhill Library.

I attended four of these sessions and have copious notes which I will share alongside any presentations and handouts in our next blog post. However, common themes I noticed were:

  • There is huge variety in the form that community managed libraries take, in terms of staffing models, library authority support, financial models and trading activity and the projects/programmes and trading activities that take place;
  • Community managed libraries are without a doubt valued and well-used by their communities, providing safe, free spaces and many are also providers of a range of health, wellbeing, welfare rights and financial services. They continue to be the place that many members of our communities go to for advice and information;
  • There is great desire amongst those involved in running community managed libraries to connect with other CMLs, share and learn from each other;
  • Many of us struggle to demonstrate the value of our libraries and the impact we make within our communities. This kind of monitoring is something that many people running community managed libraries have no experience or expertise in;
  • Community Managed Libraries would like to see more tailored advice and support from SCL (and being filtered down through their library authorities) that feels more appropriate for the scale they are working at. This would make the work of SCL feel more relevant to them.

The final part of the day was a chance for us to give feedback on the conference and provide ideas for the future development and sustainability of the network. Feedback centered around a number of themes including:

  • There is huge diversity in structure, size, geography and activity among the CMLs represented at the conference and delegates would like more time to understand and explore these differences and the opportunities and challenges these represent;
  • There is real expertise among those CMLs that are longer established and for others the conference represented a real opportunity to learn from them;
  • Park Library visitors found the library an inspiration and felt it illustrated the importance of the community library within it’s community;
  • The conference presented a great opportunity to share learning;
  • It is useful to understand the different local authority approaches and the support they do or don’t offer;
  • It’s reassuring just to meet other CMLs and realise you’re not alone in your experiences and challenges;
  • It was great to hear about how CMLs contribute to and create community.

As to the ideas for the network going forward, there were so many that we’ve collated them and I think that’s something for yet another blog post.  However, there was a wide range of ideas including what training and development opportunities people want, additional resources people would like access to (such as a CML toolkit and stock management & library management advice), the idea of creating regional networks, working together on joint funding bids and creating stock buying power through shared book buying. These are just a few of many ideas that I hastily noted down and will be shared alongside feedback from the conference evaluation forms handed out at the end of the day.

All in all, from my perspective this was both an enjoyable and valuable day and I’ll be very busy for the next few months trying to put even some of the learning I got from the day into practice. By far the most valuable aspect of the day for me was meeting other community managed library representatives and learning from their experiences.

90 people attended the conference, of which 75% were representatives of community managed libraries and 25% were from local authorities, universities or other independent interested parties. The conference was generously supported by Power to Change and Endsleigh Insurance. A full report from the conference will be available shortly on the blog as well as the presentations and resources from the day.