The following is a summary report from research that Mike Cavanagh, post graduate distance learning student and Library Head of Service, has undertaken. The report summarises the findings from a study between 2012 and 2014 exploring the effectiveness of community managed libraries in England and forms part of Mike’s master’s dissertation at Aberystwyth University.
I would like to thank Mike for sharing his research.
Are Community Managed Libraries Effective?
This paper summarises the findings from a research study undertaken between 2012 and 2014 exploring the effectiveness of community managed libraries in England. The abstract below has been taken from the full report:
This paper explores the effectiveness of community managed libraries in England. It traces the history of volunteer involvement in libraries and considers the evidence base in respect of their effectiveness. Through quantitative research (web surveys) with volunteers and Chief Librarians, the study establishes: the range of services being delivered; the perceived need for and extent of training given to volunteers; the criteria through which public library effectiveness can be measured, and the extent to which community managed libraries are able to deliver against these criteria.
The study found widespread variation in the range of services offered and the extent of training received, across the community library network. Further, it found significant differences of opinion and priorities between the two research groups in respect of the relative importance of various effectiveness criteria and the ability of community managed libraries to deliver against these criteria.
The evidence from this study points to a fragmented and inconsistent network of volunteer delivered libraries. A key reason is the variation in approach and level of support from local authorities. Some libraries have benefitted from financial support and ongoing professional advice and training, whilst others have had no financial assistance and limited support.
The paper argues that the lack of national library standards is a contributory factor to this variation in service offerings and quality. As such, it advocates for the reintroduction of a standards framework and for more consistent provision of professional advice.
These findings have important implications for policy makers at a national level, in respect of the case made for the reintroduction of a standard/quality framework to reduce service variability. The findings will also be of value to local authorities that are considering implementing a community managed library model, and who wish to give community groups the best chance of succeeding over the long term.
Chapter 1: Introduction………………………………………………………………………….1
Chapter 2: Summary of the Literature…………………………………………………….3
Chapter 3: Methods……………………………………………………………………………….9
Chapter 4: Summary of Results……………………………………………………………10
Chapter 5: Discussion and Conclusions……………………………………………….15
Appendix 1 – Ranked order………………………………………………………………….28
Appendix 2 – Free text participant responses………………………………………..30
In recent years, following significant cutbacks in public spending, a growing number of local authorities in England have sought to outsource the delivery of some branch libraries to the third sector.
These ‘Community Managed Libraries’ (CMLs) are delivered by volunteers rather than paid staff, though most benefit from varying levels of professional support from their local County Library Service.
The concept is somewhat emotive as it is seen by some members of the profession as challenging the very necessity of librarianship in a way that is rarely seen in other professions. Moreover, replacing paid staff with volunteers is widely considered in the literature to be bad practice as it can be seen as an exploitation of the volunteer and a deprival of someone’s livelihood (J Williams, 2012).
Arguments have been made on both sides about the efficacy of this approach. KPMG (Downey, Kirby, & Sherlock, 2010, p. 16) stated in 2010 that libraries could be better run by volunteers, which would ‘…create huge social value…whilst also saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff…’ A counter argument, made by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) stated that volunteers ‘…should form part of a professionally managed public library service that has at its core sufficient paid staff to ensure the direction, development and quality of the service provided’ (“Use of volunteers in public libraries”, 2010). It went on to state that ‘volunteers are not ‘free’ and need proper management, training and development.’
Regardless of which viewpoint the reader may take, this paper contests that the arguments cited on both sides are not sound foundations for the setting of policy. There is a need for objective research that examines the effectiveness of CMLs, and this study aims to contribute to that process.
History of Community Managed Libraries
Community Managed Libraries are not new. In the 1950s much of the public library service to rural Britain was delivered through a network of devoted volunteers (Smith, 1999, p. 2). It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the tradition of using volunteers to keep small rural libraries open, largely disappeared.
More recently, a small number of CMLs, such as those in Chalfont St Giles, Little Chalfont and Old Town Eastbourne, have been delivering library services with apparent success for several years. In recent years, some of these libraries have been inundated with queries from groups interested in emulating them.
The ‘Effectiveness’ Question
As authorities seek to replicate this model, a key question becomes apparent – are Community Managed Libraries effective? There is abundant evidence that demonstrates that the model is significantly cheaper than staffed service points (Chalfont St Giles for example, cost less than a third of the cost of the Old County managed Library), (“Running a small public library with volunteers”, 2011, p. 2), but it is much less clear as to whether CMLs are delivering a consistently broad range of high quality services.
In order to answer the effectiveness question, four research questions were set, which sought to establish:
- What services were being offered in existing CMLs?
- What kind of training participants considered to be important for library volunteers, and to what extent volunteers had received such training?
- What participants considered were the key criteria for determining public library effectiveness?
- To what extent participants believed that CMLs could deliver against these criteria?
Summary of the literature
A 2007 study (Low, Butt, Paine, & Smith, p. 16) estimated that the value of volunteering (across all aspects of society) to the UK economy was £38.9 billion. Within the cultural sector, volunteering plays a huge role. An earlier study (Howlett, Machin & Malmersjo, 2005, p. 3) found that 83% of organisations (museums, libraries and archives) involved volunteers, though the figure was somewhat lower within libraries, at 67%.
The same study, alongside a number of others, suggested that most library volunteers tended to come from a particular demographic group – white females, aged 55 or over (Capital Planning Information Ltd, 2000, p. 8; Driggers & Dumas, 2011, p. 122; Reed, 1994, p. 27).
The literature is particularly thin with respect of Community Managed Libraries but somewhat more expansive in terms of library volunteers engaged to provide ‘added value’ working alongside paid staff. A wide range of publications have provided practical guidance on how to develop and manage successful volunteer programmes. Many of the key publications are from the United States, and cover areas such as recruitment and selection, training, evaluation, recognition/retention and problem resolution (Kuras, 1975; Karp, 1993; Reed, 1994; McCune & Nelson, 1995; and Driggers & Dumas, 2002; 2011).
In a study examining the extent of engagement with volunteers across museums, libraries and archives, a common factor for non engagement was staff and union objections (Hewlett, 2002, p. 24). These tended to centre on the ‘replacement’ issue, which is not a modern phenomenon. For example, in Canada, the recession of the 1990s led to volunteers being treated with suspicion and opposition (Curry, 1996, p. 144), while in 1984, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (cited by Curry, 1996, p. 150) stated that ‘…employers are looking for ways to reduce staff while still appearing to provide the same level of service. They do this by…replacing paid workers with volunteer labour’. In the UK, Unison found that even before the current wave of CMLs, some authorities were replacing library staff with volunteers, in an attempt to cut costs (Davies, 2008, p. 5).
Despite these concerns, there were other voices that were pro replacement. As far back as 1971, Nyren (cited by Carvalho, 1984, pp. 35-36) commented that ‘lower level’ professional librarians could be replaced with volunteers. However, in the same year, the American Library Association issued volunteer guidelines, stating that ‘volunteers should not supplant or displace established staff position spaces’ (1971, p. 407).
Five years later, Savage (1976, p. 586) writing about how the economic crisis of the time was leading to budget pressures in libraries, found that volunteers were being increasingly relied upon to deliver circulation duties and more professional tasks. It seems that the economic pressures in 1970s America, were leading to a blurring of volunteer and staff roles in a way not dissimilar to the phenomena currently being experienced in England. As Park (cited by Nicol & Johnson, 2008, p. 157) states, ‘one of the unfortunate reasons volunteer programs often get a bad name is that they are started in times of financial difficulty’.
Literature on libraries staffed only by volunteers is very limited. The seminal ‘how to’ guide on the methods and processes by which a community can set up and deliver a volunteer library was published in 1999 (Fox). The study covers a range of issues from setting up a core group, establishing its role and mission, and the practical aspects of delivering a service on a shoestring. Of particular interest is Fox’s view on ensuring the core group are fully representative of the community and the need to avoid becoming a ‘cosy little group’.
In the UK, significantly less material has been published on library volunteerism, but some does exist. In a seminar looking at the use of library volunteers, Brown (1999, p. 12) of the then Library Association stated that ‘…the use of volunteers as a sticking plaster for cuts is unacceptable’, and challenged the notion that volunteering helps social inclusion, since it tends to occur in more affluent areas, potentially widening the divide. She went on to question whether service provision in rural areas by volunteers was as acceptable as long standing volunteer roles such as delivery services to the housebound. However, at the same seminar, at least one delegate thought that volunteers could replace staff (George, 1999, p. 33).
While libraries run solely by volunteers have a long history, the ‘birth’ of the community managed library model in UK policy appears to have occurred more recently. In a report to the DCLG, PricewaterhouseCoopers (2007, p. 27) suggested that a possible new delivery model for libraries could be around ‘increasing the opportunities for local communities to take over the management and/or ownership of branch and village libraries’. This stemmed from an earlier report (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister & Home Office, 2005, p. 26), which stated that ‘community ownership and management of assets such as…libraries…can lead to improved service delivery’.
Baseline information on the extent of UK CMLs is in a state of dynamic flux. In a survey covering 2011/12, CILIP (2012, p. 5) found that 13% of responding authorities had set up 38 CMLs with a further 10 planned for later that year. In March 2012, Anstice (n.d.) had recorded 80 libraries being managed in this way, while around 9 months earlier, a report from the MLA (Woolley, 2011) found that the evidence base was small, with only 29 CMLs, representing 1% of libraries in England.
The scope of the MLA report covered both the longer standing CMLs as well as new developing models in authorities that were seeking to undertake large scale rollouts. It suggested a range of benefits, including bringing economic and social benefits, and reducing costs. However, it balanced this by outlining a number of risks around sustainability and reduced access to professional advice. A key benefit cited was that the alternative for some libraries would be closure.
Unison, even before this current wave of change, has described this concept for library users as a ‘…Hobson’s choice of a library branch run by volunteers…or seeing another branch closure’ (Davies, 2008, p. 43). Some communities faced exactly that choice, and their approach to how they took on their local libraries is documented. For example, both Little Chalfont library (Brooks, 2012) and Chalfont St Giles library community groups (“Running a small public library with volunteers”, 2011) have published case studies on their history. These libraries represent impressive success stories when considered in the context of the local authorities’ negative attitude to them at the time of their birth (Brooks, 2012, p. 1). Indeed, a mobile library service continued to be delivered to these localities by Buckinghamshire County Council for some years, with the authority seeing this as the legitimate public library provision (Jones, 2011, p. 1). Despite this, and the authorities’ initial requirement for the libraries to be delivered at no cost to the council, they have survived and thrived to an extent where they are now seen as welcome partners by the authority.
In 2013 research on Community Libraries was published by Locality (2013a). The report focused on existing and emerging models of service delivery that involved community groups, and outlined five models. The study found 170 community libraries in operation, and anticipated this rising to 425 or more (Locality, 2013a, p. 8). It was framed as a toolkit for local authorities, guiding them through the considerations and lessons learnt from other authorities that had already implemented CMLs. Issues such as whether provision should be classified as statutory, and the need for community libraries to remain as part of a larger network were outlined.
The scope of the report was focused on the local authority perspective, with no voice given to the volunteers involved in delivering CMLs and no consideration given to the challenges that they face.
It was timely therefore that at around the same time that this report was published, another report, which focused on the volunteer perspective, was launched by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI, 2013). The report found that each CML had significantly different experiences in levels of support that they had received from their local authority (NFWI, 2013, p. 7). Financial assistance varied for example, with some CMLs given considerable funding whilst others were in a much less fortunate position (NFWI, 2013, p. 9). The report argued that this would result in a variation in service standards and offer at each library, which could result in a two-tier library system (NFWI, 2013, p. 10). However, many of the volunteers who took part in the research believed that the core library services were now better than when they were directly managed by the local authority (NFWI, 2013, p. 17).
One of the key difficulties in evidencing whether CMLs are providing effective services is the lack of National performance frameworks and standards in the English public library sector. Aside from some limited benchmarking data provided by CIPFA (2013), which assesses whole library services rather than individual libraries, there are no quality/ standards frameworks in place.
Around a decade ago, various frameworks existed including the Public Library Standards, which were an attempt (largely through the measurement of inputs/outputs) to create a clear and widely accepted definition of authority’s statutory duties to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ (Department for Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS], 2008, p. 3). Together with the Public Library Impact Measures (MLA, 2008), which as their name implies, focused more on outcomes and impact, a clear framework existed to guide library services in the provision of consistently high quality services.
However, even if these frameworks still exited today, it is questionable whether they would have a material impact on standards of service in Community Managed Libraries, since they were focused on judging library services as a whole. It is at the individual site level that CMLs operate, as by their very nature, they are local services delivered by local people.
For a method of evaluating the effectiveness of services at an individual site level, we can learn much from the museum sector. Museums have a long history and culture of engagement with volunteers (Smithies, 2011, p. 34). In a 2005 survey undertaken by the Institute for Volunteering Research, nearly a third of responding museums were entirely volunteer run (Howlett, Machin & Malmersjo, 2005, p. 17).
Museum effectiveness has for many years been measured through the Accreditation scheme (MLA, n.d.). It sets nationally agreed standards and has been an important means of maintaining standards, and creating a level of consistent service quality, particularly in volunteer managed museums (Capital Planning Information Ltd, 2000, p. 13). The scheme is process focused, setting minimum standards in activity such as collections care and user experiences, as opposed to setting targets for inputs, outputs or outcomes (Arts Council, 2011).
Accreditation has done much to raise standards, though some of this success has been due to the support given by a network of Museum Development Officers, which were funded through the Renaissance programme (Arts Council, n.d.). Their role has been to provide professional advice and support to independent museums and to assist with funding applications, advocacy and the creation of partnerships with other stakeholders (Renaissance Review Advisory Group, 2009, pp. 79-80).
Even so, challenges still remain. Not all volunteer museums are Accredited, with many not engaging with the standards and being unaware of reasons why they should do so (Groninger, 2011, p. 25). Yet despite these concerns, Accreditation, and the museum development framework that has built up around it, remains a valuable method of raising standards in volunteer museums.
In an emerging library landscape with a large number of CMLs operating in relative isolation from larger surviving local authority library services, consistent service quality could be a challenge. To address this, a similar support framework could be created to guide newly formed volunteer-led libraries. Indeed, in 2010, DCMS (pp. 18-19) published plans proposing the creation of a voluntary Accreditation and peer review scheme, based on the museum model and other similar schemes in tourism and sport. It also proposed that every library authority would have to provide a ‘core offer’ of services, such as free internet access, supplemented by a discretionary ‘local offer’ (DCMS, 2010, pp. 5-6). This was partly a response to calls to ‘level up’ the quality of library services, so that users would benefit from a consistent quality service across the country (DCMS, 2009. p. 38). However, these proposals were not taken forward as they coincided with a change in government administration.
A quantitative study, using web surveys, was selected on the basis that a key phenomenon of research interest was in the potential variability of service offerings that CMLs were delivering in different parts of the country. The web survey method provided the means through which a wide geographical spread of data from many libraries could be acquired.
A qualitative study (such as a focus group approach) of just one or two libraries could fail to pick up on such differences, if they exist. However, a limited number of ‘free text’ questions in the web surveys allowed for some qualitative data to be collected and analysed, which proved extremely useful and enlightening in a number of areas. The full transcripts from these free text questions are included as an appendix to this summary report (appendix 2).
The objectives of the research were to establish:
- What services were being offered in existing CMLs.
- What kind of training participants considered to be important for library volunteers, and the extent to which volunteers had had such training.
- What participants considered to be the key criteria for determining public library effectiveness.
- To what extent participants believed that CMLs could deliver against these criteria.
Research participants came from two backgrounds, in order to provide different perspectives on the topic area. One group was Community Managed library leaders, involved in delivering a CML. The other group were Chief Librarians, which were further subdivided into two groups – those with experience of implementing CMLs (CL1s) and those without (CL2s). CL2s were not asked to complete the survey in respect of research questions 1 and 2 for obvious reasons.
The surveys were undertaken in the autumn of 2012.
Summary of Results
34 Chief Librarians responded to the survey, and volunteers representing 36 different Community Managed Libraries also took part. This provided a good spread of data from a large proportion of CMLs and library professionals across England.
There was significant variation in responses between libraries in respect of services offered. In addition, one could speculate that a narrowing of service offer was evidenced. For example: two thirds of libraries were not open in the evening; over half did not provide newspapers; nearly two thirds did not provide magazines; 41% were not offering inter library loans services, and close to two thirds did not offer e-books.
However, the scope of this research did not include gathering evidence on the extent to which these services were in place before the libraries became managed by volunteers. It is therefore possible that the level of service provision did not change, or perhaps even improved, as a result of the move to community management. Indeed, the free text responses indicated that in some cases, the service offer was diversifying, with reference made to cafes and film nights for example.
Despite this limitation in the findings, the data does provide a valid baseline position of the services that were being offered by CMLs at the point in time when the research was carried out. Future research studies could compare this baseline with new data, which would provide evidence of change over time.
Free text responses – services offered
Respondents were given the opportunity to state any services that their library offered, that had not been asked in the closed question set.
Community events and various classes and workshops were referred to by several respondents, as was the availability of drinks, be it through a forthcoming cafe, coffee machine, coffee mornings, or serving light refreshments.
Other responses included: a homework club; photocopying, fax, printing and laminating services; baby bounce/rhyme times; school visits; film club and film nights; deposit collections to residential homes; playgroups and nurseries, and online newspapers/magazines.
There was variation of opinion in respect of the perceived importance of some areas of training. For example: Equality and Diversity; Data Protection, Freedom of Information and Customer Care were seen as essential by Chief Librarians. Volunteers, on the other hand, placed less importance on these areas.
Further variation was evident between the perceived importance of training and the extent of formal training that had taken place in CMLs. For example, 29% of volunteers and 43% of Chief Librarians stated that their volunteers had received formal Customer Care training, against 46% of volunteers and 100% of Chief Librarians who perceived that Customer Care training was essential. In other words, less training was taking place than was needed.
The majority of training that had taken place was informal, which the research defined as ‘on the job training, mentoring or similar’. However, in some cases, no training of any kind had taken place. This was most prevalent with Professional Ethics but was also the case to a lesser degree in areas that one might expect universal training coverage to have occurred, such as Data Protection.
Respondents were asked to consider the importance of 30 different criteria as determinants of public library effectiveness (see appendix 1). In some cases, such as customer satisfaction and services suited to customer’s needs, there was synergy across the three research groups, with the majority of participants considering these criteria to be essential. This was also the case at the opposite end of the spectrum, where all three groups were in agreement of the relative unimportance of parking provision and staff/volunteer demographics reflecting the communities served.
However, as with previous findings, while there was some synergy, there were also areas of variance. Library usages and the quality of staff/volunteers featured in both groups of Chief Librarian’s top 5 essential criteria, yet volunteer respondents ranked these criteria 17th and 14th respectively. Conversely volunteers considered staff/volunteer morale to be the most essential determinant of library effectiveness, while Chief Librarians placed it highly (CL1s 8th and CL2s 10th) but not in their top five. Cooperation between libraries and the range of stock, were also considered to be essential to volunteers, but less so to both groups of Chief Librarians.
Free text responses – effectiveness criteria
Respondents were asked if there were any other criteria that they felt were important, that had not formed part of the closed question set.
A number of responses referenced the atmosphere of the library as being important – ‘A calm, welcoming and friendly atmosphere’, ‘cleanliness of interior, ambience, welcoming nature of volunteers…’.
Two Chief Librarians suggested that collocation of libraries was an effectiveness criteria because it increased the libraries relevance, while two others considered the impact that libraries can have on the community to be important, such as their contribution to improving literacy and wellbeing.
Ability to deliver
In respect of ability to deliver against the criteria, two sets of respondents – volunteers and CL1s – answered these questions based on real experience. CL2s (Chief Librarians without experience of implementing a community library) responded based on their perception of CMLs likely ability to deliver.
Focusing on the top five criteria considered by participants to be the most essential, the results for CMLs ability to deliver against these criteria was mixed. Apart from Community Awareness of Library Offerings, the most common response from CL2s was that Community Managed Libraries would do less well than when the library was staffed. Conversely, volunteer respondent’s most common response to all the top five criteria was that they were doing better than when staffed. CL1s in most cases took the middle ground, believing that their CML was doing about the same as when it was staffed. This pattern of responses was broadly the case throughout the data set, and was not just confined to the top five criteria.
A significant proportion of respondents stated that they did not know if their library was doing better, the same or worse. Part of this may be because some of the libraries had not been operating long enough for respondents to make a judgement. It may also be reflective of a reduced amount of performance measurement taking place in CMLs with which to base a decision on, though this is un-evidenced through this research.
Free text responses – ability to deliver
A final open question was asked at the end of the survey, giving respondents the opportunity to comment on how the effectiveness of the library had changed since it was managed by paid staff (or in the case of CL2s, how they perceived it would be affected).
Volunteer responses varied widely with some stating that their library was not as effective now due to either: a lack of funding; difficulty of covering all the opening hours; a lack of training; a lack of support from their local authority; communication difficulties with lots of volunteers undertaking a small number of hours; reduced footfall; reduced access to some collections, or a combination of these factors.
Others felt that their library was now providing a much better service to the community, and was better able to tailor their service to local needs. Respondents stated that their library: was much better able to acquire stock specific to readers needs; had greater ability to act as a community resource; was able to provide a wider range of services; was now a safer environment for children, and was a much more pleasant place now.
An interesting response was received from a volunteer who felt that very little training was needed and that it was easy to overdo it, which would put volunteers off. This response contrasted with another who stated that the volunteers desperately needed more training and that their lack of training and expertise was compromising their effectiveness.
Financial viability was a concern to many, and a number stated that it was a better alternative to closure but not as good as a staffed library.
There was also variance in the level of support that CMLs were receiving from their local authority. At one end of the spectrum, a volunteer stated that ‘the library is fully supported by our local county council library service,… [including] help from professional librarians whenever it is needed’. At the other end, the local authority was perceived as ‘waiting in the wings’ to close them if they failed to increase footfall.
There were only two responses from CL1s, one of whom noted that their community libraries operated primarily through the medium of technology (self-service) as opposed to volunteers. The respondent felt that this meant that there was a high level of reliance on people being able to use technology effectively.
The five responses from CL2s indicated a strong view that CMLs would be less effective. Respondents felt that: standards would decline; libraries might be less safe such as child safeguarding measures not being put in place; there would be difficulties in recruitment and retention of volunteers, and that some sections of the community might be put off from visiting.
Discussion and Conclusions
These findings add to the small evidence base that currently exists in respect of Community Managed Libraries. The methodology (quantitative web survey) compliments other recent studies which took qualitative approaches. For example, the report by Locality (2013a) took a case study approach to build the evidence base to assist authorities planning to implement CMLs, while the NFWI (2013) undertook a focus group with volunteers to understand the issues that they faced. These are amongst the key studies with which the findings from this study can be most usefully related to.
The findings, (summarized in the previous chapter), provide good evidence against the study’s research objectives. A comprehensive picture has been built up of the services that were being offered in CMLs at the time the study was undertaken. It is possible to use this data to highlight areas of service that should be monitored and that may reflect emerging gaps in provision or areas of concern. For example, relatively high numbers of libraries do not provide access to stock that they don’t have in their own library. This may be reflective of a network in which some libraries are becoming isolated.
Another example is the extent of CMLs that were charging for access to the internet, either after an initial free period or straight away (44%). Over one in four CMLs were also not providing assistance to help people to get online. There is a risk that the role of libraries in reducing the Digital Divide could be in jeopardy if this data is reflective of a growing trend.
The data can also be used to provide evidence of new and innovative services that may have occurred as a result of transfer to the third sector such as the introduction of film nights, cafés, etc.
The findings provide interesting information in respect of volunteer training and the perceived importance of various training modules to different respondent groups. This data contributes to building a picture of the effectiveness of CMLs, as it can be used to identify potential gaps in training provision, which if left unaddressed, might lead to a reduction in service quality/effectiveness. For example, the data illustrated a significant gap between volunteer respondent’s perceived need for training in equality and diversity, and the actual prevalence of formal training that had taken place.
The data also revealed large differences in responses between the two research groups. For example, Chief Librarians stated that all their volunteers had received training in Data Protection, with the majority (71%) having received formal training. However, volunteer responses painted a different picture, with only 34% having received formal training, and 14% having had no training. This suggests a lack of consistently applied training across the CML network, with potential implications to service quality in some of these libraries.
The second part of the study examined criteria for determining library effectiveness and the ability of CMLs to deliver against these criteria. It identified further variation of opinion between library professionals and volunteers, suggesting areas of service provision that might receive more, or less, attention under the community managed model of delivery, than it did when directly managed by the public sector.
For example, both sets of Chief Librarians considered having ‘quality volunteers’ to be the most essential effectiveness criteria, while volunteers ranked it fourteenth. This may reflect a perceived need on the part of CMLs to accept anybody who is willing to volunteer, given the overriding priority to keep the doors open. Indeed, one of the free text responses adds weight to this theory: ‘Whilst we value all our volunteers, they are not all necessarily individuals one would ideally have selected for a staffed library’. In such circumstances, we might speculate that there would be a risk of a diminution of service quality over time.
When taken as a whole, the overarching impression gleaned from the complete data set in this research suggests a number of challenges for CMLs in delivering effective services. Most notably: variation and a potential narrowing of service offer; wide variation in the perceived need for and prevalence of training; significantly different views from volunteers and Chief Librarians in key areas with respect to what makes for an effective public library, and varying perceptions about the extent to which CMLs can deliver against these criteria.
In this sense, the evidence in this study largely relates to, and supports, the NFWI (2013, p. 3) study’s assertion that the drive towards CMLs is leading to a risk of a post code lottery occurring in the public libraries network.
The free text responses broadly mirrored many of the findings from the NFWI report in respect of the challenges faced by volunteers. For example, some respondents were concerned about standards of service, skills and sustainability. They wrote about a lack of funding, difficulties of covering the opening hours with volunteers, and wide variation in the amount of support in respect of training, advice and financial assistance received from their local authority.
However, at the same time, both the free text responses and the answers to some of the closed questions in this study, indicated that some volunteers felt that their library was now better in key areas than when it was staffed. For example, one respondent stated that: ‘The library is much better able to obtain stock specific to the readers’ needs.’ This was again echoed in the NFWI report (2013, p. 17) with many volunteers believing that the basic service had improved following the move to community management.
It seems likely that without a single point of reference nationally, that outlines the service standards expected from public libraries, that growing variation in standards of service will occur over time. Such variation is almost inevitable when we consider the evidence from this study of a divergence of opinions in respect of what makes for an effective library, and the increased importance some CMLs are placing upon commercial practices in efforts to remain sustainable.
While the findings of this research broadly support the position taken by the NFWI study (2013), it could be argued that it is the lack of national standards, and not the drive towards CMLs itself, that is the key reason for variation in service standards. After all, it is almost inevitable that such a vacuum will be filled in a variety of different ways at a local level, at a time of radical change.
This assertion is un-evidenced and would make an interesting research study in itself. For example, in Wales, Library Services benefit from both a National Library Strategy (Welsh Government, 2011) and a set of Public Library Standards monitored by Museums, Archives and Libraries Wales (CyMAL) (Welsh Assembly Government, 2011). Despite opposition from the Society of Chief Librarians Wales (SCL Wales, 2013) to delivery models that involve the replacement of paid staff with volunteers, a number of CMLs have opened (some of which closed soon after) in Carmarthenshire (Anstice, n.d.). At least one other authority in Wales, Conwy, were also in the process of transferring a library to the community at the time of writing (“Llyfrgell Cymuned Bae Penrhyn”, 2012). Further research, comparing these libraries with community libraries in England could add value to this topic by assessing whether national standards makes a material difference to library effectiveness and consistency of service provision in CMLs.
As noted earlier in this study, the Museum Accreditation Scheme has had a huge impact on the museum community, helping to raise standards and to provide a level of consistency across a sector that might otherwise be heavily fragmented. Regardless of the kind of museum and its governance arrangements, museum accreditation has been the glue that has bound a national network of museums through a set of common standards. The development of Public Library Accreditation would be one way in which a set of common standards could be produced for all public libraries, regardless of their governance arrangements.
There is however, a counter argument, that one size does not fit all and that libraries need to be able to respond to local need. While public libraries must operate within the context of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, in terms of delivery, library services are fundamentally local, and authorities have considerable freedom to design their services to meet local need (Locality, 2013a, p. 6). At least one respondent in this study believed that their CML was now more able to do this when they stated that: ‘Local focus is better. Ability to improve the library in line with local needs is better’.
If this argument is accepted, it would suggest that a set of standards that are too prescriptive could straightjacket a service and be a cause of inertia, holding them back from innovation and change to meet local needs. However, this would not necessarily remove the need for some consistent guidance, but it would require an approach that has some flexibility within it to account for local need whilst also providing a set of common core standards.
A concept similar to the library ‘core offer’, that was under development in 2010 (DCMS, pp. 13-14), could be adapted to today’s more diverse public library sector to fill this standards vacuum. Such an approach could form a balance between providing guidance on a core range of services that should be common to all libraries, whilst providing sufficient freedom to all and encouraging innovation around those requirements with discretionary ‘local offers’ (DCMS, 2010, pp. 14-15).
The natural lead organization for such a set of standards would be Arts Council England, working in close partnership with SCL, CILIP, and the CML community, to ensure that the resulting standards are fully embraced and adopted.
Whilst creating common standards would be a step in the right direction it should not be the only step. As noted in the NFWI report (2013, p. 7), and some of the free text responses in this study, there is significant variation in the level of professional support being offered to CMLs. In some cases, local authorities have created specific posts, such as Library Development Officers in Lincolnshire (Locality, 2013b, p. 45), whose role it is to provide advice, training and guidance to support volunteers to deliver library services. At the opposite extreme, some volunteers have been left to deliver services with only minimal training and support – ‘The initial training we had was disorganized and inadequate’.
In such a diverse environment, a set of common standards would only go part way towards creating a level of consistency in service offerings. Some CMLs would benefit from greater access to professional advice if standards are to be embraced and embedded. It is useful again to consider the museum model in this context, and the network of Museum Development Officers, whose role it is to provide professional advice and training to museum volunteers (Renaissance Review Advisory Group, 2009, pp. 79-80). Replicating this model to support CMLs could go a long way towards reducing the variation in service offer and service quality that has been evidenced in this study.
In summary, while the data from this study goes some way towards establishing the extent to which CMLs can deliver effective services, it falls short of providing compelling evidence to provide a yes or no answer to the research question. Indeed, there almost certainly is no yes or no answer.
A key finding is the diversity of service offer, service quality and service sustainability across the CML network. Some CMLs provide broadly the same range of services as professionally managed public libraries, whilst others appear to provide a narrower range of services, akin to a ‘book exchange’, and some have started to diversify and offer new services. Similarly, volunteers in some CMLs have benefited from a wide range of formal training and enjoy access to professional advice while others have been given a limited amount of informal training and have been left to sink or swim. Some CMLs appear to have enough willing volunteers to provide a level of consistent access to services, whilst others are struggling to attract enough to keep the doors open. As such, some have flourished and have stood the test of time, such as Little Chalfont, whilst others, like Tumble, have closed soon after opening (Dalling, 2012).
This lack of consistency is compounded yet further by the lack of national library standards in England, which when mixed with the variation in local authority support for CMLs, has produced a potent cocktail of inconsistent practice.
The picture is therefore a mixed one, adding credence to the notion of a growing post code lottery across the public library network. In short, some CMLs appear to be effective whilst others are not.
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The table below illustrates the relative importance that each participant group placed on the effectiveness criteria, where 1 was seen as the most essential determinant of library effectiveness, and 30 as the least. The combined column takes an average weighting between the three groups to provide an overall ranking from the complete research population.
‘Customer satisfaction’ and ‘services suited to the needs of the community’ (marked in yellow) were in the top five criteria for all three research groups. In addition to these two criteria, ‘community awareness of library offerings’, ‘staff/volunteer morale’ and ‘financial sustainability’ were within the top ten (marked in grey).
Ranking – essential
Understanding of Ethics
Suited to community needs
Cooperation between libraries
Speed – reservations
Speed – assistance
Convenience of location
Range of stock
Range of e-resources
Range of services
Convenience of opening hours
Services to housebound
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