This is the second of two posts reflecting on the first national conference for community managed libraries. Links to presentations from the day are provided, whilst one conference delegate, Leigh Ogden from Upper Norwood Library Hub, shares her thoughts on the the day.

Links to the day’s presentations:

The Main Conference Presentation includes an introduction to Power to Change, Community Businesses and the Peer Network Programme (Presented by Sophie Macken), and the results from the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network Survey (presented by Margaret Adjaye from Upper Norwood Library Hub).

Building Impact & Influence (Kate White, Superhighways)

Trading, Enterprise and Income Generation (Mick McGrath & John Dawson, Locality)

Regenerating Ourselves & Volunteering (Peter Rankin, Archibald Corbett Library and Emily Jewell, Upper Norwood Library Hub)

Income Generation & Building a Successful Enterprise presentation (facilitated by Chris Brown, Greenhill Library)

Reflections on afternoon table discussions:

I attended four table discussions at the conference, and these for me were the most valuable part of the day, giving me the opportunity to discuss opportunities and challenges with other CMLs and make some valuable contacts. Below are my reflections on these sessions.

Session 1: Our journey to becoming a successful CML (Burngreave and Newfield Green Libraries)

This session provided a great opportunity to hear about different operating models and the successes and challenges these present for CMLs.

To get discussion going representatives from Burngreave and Newfield Green libraries talked a bit about their structures:

  • Paid manager alongside volunteers;
  • Co-delivered libraries with infrastructure provided by the LA;
  • There have been challenges. For example, taking on leases where buildings aren’t up to scratch;
  • Reach (community organisation) took over the running of these libraries in 2014. They are a lifeline in an area of high need. They offer services including a credit union.


Discussion among the group highlighted a number of different models even just around this small table of 8-10 libraries. Within the Sheffield libraries alone there are various staffing models with different levels of paid staff to volunteer ratios, although mostly volunteer staffed, and some pay their own utilities whilst others do not. Where facilities are provided this can present its own challenges as they have a challenge to get work done where there are competing demands on limited LA resources.

Geraldine O’Brien Mead (Derwent Valley Library) pointed out that fighting for your library and the chances of successfully challenging closure is different between urban and rural areas.

Tracey Beighton (Leicester County Council) explained their model. They have a tapering level of financial assistance from the county council and they provide some paid support.

The question was posed to the table: Is your library part of statutory provision in your library authority? There was a lot of uncertainty around the table with many library representatives being unsure.

This session highlighted more differences and brought up more questions than it answered, but was nonetheless valuable, giving us all food for thought in terms of considering the different structures, delivery models and staffing possibilities out there and the possibilities for the services our own libraries could deliver.

Session 2: Capturing & Using Data (Geoff Nichols, University of Sheffield)

Discussion was kick started by Geoff asking the question ‘how much data should we be capturing?’ He suggested that there are two options out there: The ‘All Singing All Dancing’ approach or the ‘Do It Yourself’ approach. There are pros and cons to each approach and the first may not be an option for many small organisations.

We discussed the 7 outcomes of Libraries Deliver as an all singing all dancing approach to capturing outcomes.

Geoff explained that this model can be paralleled when looking at sport and they have used a similar logic model to come up with a social return on investment measure for sport. We acknowledged that although we may not be able to do this for local level activity in libraries we should measure:

  • What is practical;
  • What is important to us.

And that we can create our own logic model.

What followed was a discussion around the table of what we as CMLs measure:

  • Pete Belsey (Denby Dale Library) – active borrowers, books issued, use of IT;
  • Other libraries also measure footfall;
  • Much of what we as a sector measure is about footfall and borrowing and is measured by the library authority;
  • Chris Plant (Staffordshire County Council) – they do measure outcome by stakeholder (e.g. staff, library user, Staffs Library Service, Arts Council). Measures such as hours volunteered (which they attached a monetary value to).

As someone currently looking at an impact framework for my library and interested in what outputs and outcomes we can measure this discussion was just getting interesting when the bell rang and I had to move onto the next table; however it was clear from the other delegates at my table that many libraries are very much at the start of their data capture journey and that there is real appetite for more information from within the sector and from data and information experts beyond.

Session 3: Diversification of Libraries Roles and Functions (Mick McGrath and John Dawson, Locality)

To get discussion going Mick and John shared some of the themes from discussions so far: There is a lot of variety in activity; getting tenants in has helped a lot of groups; constraints include space and having the people to get things going.

Discussion among the group identified some of the following challenges from those of us around the table:

  • How do we manage the conflict of renting rooms/spaces out and still offering free library activities?
  • Managing opening and shutting for all those activities that happen outside library hours. We need to have more flexibility but this puts extra pressure on volunteers and can be costly. It’s also not the most satisfying volunteer role:
    • Suggestion: Charge increased hire rates for out of hours hire to cover the cost of staffing for opening and closing;
    • Jane Gregory (Upper Norwood Library Trust): We have people on zero hours contracts that want flexible working/few hours and they open and close for us for out of hours activities. We also build it into the hire cost;
    • Suggestion: Key safes;
    • The community should expect to be able to use their library (and the more it’s available for use the more it encourages further use) but we have to balance this against volunteer time;
    • Question for the table: Should we charge more for out of hours use? Or can we have different levels of charging dependent on whether the hirer is a business, community group or charity?
  • Another question for the table, where you have a council run library service, how do you provide additional services and activities without ‘treading on toes’. Also, how do you provide a seamless service as library users do not know the difference between paid library authority staff, Trust staff and volunteers and should have a positive experience whomever they approach?

Some ideas from CMLs around the table regarding how they are diversifying:

  • Selling donated items and second-hand books – for one library they have been surprised by the level of income generated by this trading activity and it has been more profitable than they’d have envisaged;
  • A Library of Things is now open up in Upper Norwood Library Hub;
  • Bakery collection – a local bakery delivers to the library and customers collect their goods from the library. One library is looking into this and currently examining the repercussions and potential challenges of undertaking this activity.

There was a real buzz around this session as people heard what activity other libraries were undertaking and immediately started to examine the possibilities for their own libraries. It is clear that with varying scales, resources and locations (rural versus urban) activities that work for one library may not be able to be duplicated everywhere, but the discussion was enough to get everyone to step back and take a fresh look at the possibilities for their own library (along with some insight into the challenges that libraries have had to overcome in undertaking these activities).

Session 4: Identifying your Needs and the Support You Need from SCL (Sue Wills, Society for Chief Librarians)

Sue Wills from the Society of Chief Librarians started with examples of ways that SCL could offer support to community managed libraries. For example, governance, funding, staffing, stock, ICT. She asked for suggestions from around the table as to how we felt we could be better supported by SCL:

  • Mike Bedford (Chalfont St Giles Library) asked if there is a need for a small libraries group within SCL? For example, when it comes to some of the big national campaigns such as Fun Palaces and Summer Reading Challenge, they feel difficult to scale down to a size that is suitable, affordable and manageable for a small community managed library. The libraries Universal Offers also feel difficult to apply to small libraries
    • Response – Sue Wills took these comments on board and as well as taking this back to SCL she suggested that:
  • Mike Bedford suggested asking the dozen or so library authorities that have 10 or more CMLs what they would like to see from the SCL?
  • Frank Hindle (Low Fell Library) would like to see SCL provide guidance as to how library authorities can and cannot support CMLs and what CMLs can have access to. There is a lot of variation across library authorities and he’d like to see consistency among Chief Librarians.
    • Response – We exist in a climate of worry about data security and protection. A lack of confidence and library systems being upgraded for GDPR compliance compounds the issue. System upgrades need to be effectively communicated.
    • Geraldine O’Brien Mead (Derwent Valley Library) stated that they have been asking their library authority, who are currently working on it, for information but they don’t appear ready to share with the CMLs yet.
    • Sue Wills recognises that SCL also need to take responsibility for sharing the big issues that affect libraries more broadly.

This session was a valuable opportunity to engage with SCL, understand better their relevance to CMLs and have our voices heard.

Concluding thoughts

The reflections shared above are based on my experience and as each table discussion was held four times there will be many ideas shared that I’ve not been able to capture. However, reflecting on what I heard in these sessions and through conversation with other delegates throughout the day, some of the key themes I took away are:

  • 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.

Overall, these sessions and the day more generally was valuable to me both in terms of the wealth of knowledge present (among facilitators and other CMLs) and in giving me the time and space to step outside my own library and take a fresh look at what we’re doing, our achievements and challenges, and how we might plan for a sustainable future. I learned a great deal from the other libraries present at the event but most of all I left the building at the end of the day feeling excited and positive about future possibilities, our sustainability and the value of our library to the community we serve.