Chalfont St Giles Community Library recently received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service which is the highest award given to volunteer groups in the UK. Here Mike Bedford, Treasurer of Chalfont St Giles Community Library, describes the library’s journey.

A Community Library success story in Buckinghamshire

Chalfont St Giles Community Library is a small public library in the centre of the village. The library is run and staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers. There are 26,000 visits to the library annually. The library is a registered charity (a CIO).

Some history

The library was built by Buckinghamshire County Council in 1966. It ran as a county library for forty years. In November 2006 the County controversially closed the library along with seven other small Bucks libraries. The County provided the village with an alternative mobile library service. The village was strongly against the library’s closure. At the time the County would only allow the library to continue if it was run at ‘no cost to the County’.

We [the Friends of the Library] consulted the community, including the Parish Council, and with their support we decided to take up the challenge. We opened as a self-managed Community Library in January 2007.

In 2010 the County revised its policy agreeing to work in partnership with the village and provide some support to the Community Library. The mobile library was redeployed. Also in 2010, Chalfont St Giles Parish Council purchased the freehold of the library building from the County.

What has contributed to the library’s success?

Our volunteers are crucial to our success. We have around 50 volunteers, a good proportion of whom have been with us since we opened in 2007. Many, but by no means all, are retirees. There is a good team spirit and as local residents and library users themselves they help ensure that we provide the best possible service for our village. Volunteering at the library is also quite a sociable activity and new contacts and friendships are made through volunteering.

Our strong volunteer support has enabled us to increase the library’s opening hours by 70% to 34.5 hours a week. Broadly we follow the opening hours of the village shops. We have two volunteers on-duty, previously the library was single staffed.

Village residents are very supportive of the library. They continue to use the library in good numbers. Comparing the library now to the County library back in 2006, library visits are well up and children’s book lending has increased. Adult book lending is lower than in 2006 but the decline has been significantly less than the national trend.

We work hard on the book stock to make sure it is up to date and balanced. We have increased the stock by 60%, particularly improving the children’s section.

An important ingredient in our success is that we are able offer a full library service in exactly the same way as in the County’s libraries. We use the County’s library management system, we can join new users, stock can be borrowed and returned across the County and Community Library network, we can reserve any County stock item for local pick up, we manage and update our stock locally and we can order stock via the County and have it delivered to us shelf ready.

We work in partnership with the County Library Service and our library is part of the Bucks statutory service. The County provide us with an annual grant, IT and systems support, library training and some book stock. The aim is to provide users with a high quality local service as part of an integrated county wide library system.

Although we are space constrained we use the library as much as possible for events. We have ‘Bounce and Rhyme’ every week and we run craft sessions for the children. We have class visits from the village school. Other events, for example, MP and Councillor surgeries or computer taster sessions, are organised as required.

Communicating what’s on at the library and keeping our service in front of residents is also important. As well as the usual posters we use our village’s excellent weekly email newsletter which is received by over half the households in the village. At a more mundane level one of our first actions was to put a ‘Community Library’ sign on the building and put an A-board sign prominently outside to show that the library is open. Previously it wasn’t clear that the building was a library or whether it was open!

When we started back in January 2007 the village’s visitor information point was moved into the library. This improved the service and enhanced our pool of volunteers.

The library has been completely refurbished over the last few years. This year we’ve changed the layout with a new reception desk in a new position and we’ve bought some modern mobile shelving units. The library is now a much more welcoming and flexible space. Funding for the refurbishments has come from the Parish Council, the County Council and local residents who are Friends of the Library.

Some concluding thoughts

Overall our Community Library is a success and I’m delighted that our volunteers have received the Queen’s Award in recognition of their work over many years.

Whilst a well-funded traditional paid staff library is likely to be the best option for any community, our experience indicates that it is possible to do things differently and be successful.

The model that works in Chalfont St Giles may not work everywhere. Our library is small with light to moderate use. Buckinghamshire is a relatively prosperous County with a sufficient pool of people with the time and skills to operate the local library. Trying to follow the same model in a busy town library in a deprived area would be much more challenging.

The public library service remains a wonderful thing. Libraries are important community builders. Libraries are particularly important in smaller communities where there are few other public facilities. We all know that times are challenging for councils and public libraries, thus it is more important than ever that councillors and library service managers work closely with their communities to ensure that access to library services is maintained and that communities are not damaged by closing libraries.

Further information

Community managed libraries: good practice toolkit

Buckinghamshire Library Service’s view of Community Libraries

Chalfont St Giles’ checklist for communities considering setting up a Community Library

Many thanks to Chalfont St Giles Community Library and Mike Bedford for such an interesting post. If any other community managed libraries would like to tell their story or showcase their work on our blog then please contact us.