Reading between the lines

Local authorities have a statutory duty to “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof” [1], generally free of charge [2].  Budget cuts have made this duty increasingly difficult to fulfil, and so local authorities are increasingly using innovative methods of delivering library services, including transferring libraries to community ownership.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is responsible for ensuring local authorities properly discharge their library functions [3] and where it finds an authority has failed to carry out its duty, the DCMS can take over that authority’s library provision for a time [4].  This would only happen in an extreme case, although the DCMS has in recent years met with council officers from authorities that were considering library closures, such as Gloucestershire and Brent.

Envisioning the library of the future

The DCMS has appointed the Arts Council to support and develop the libraries sector, although the Arts Council does not provide or fund libraries: it is still the responsibility of local authorities to do this.  Last year the Arts Council undertook a major research project, Envisioning the library of the future, which showed there was still a compelling and continuing need for a publicly-funded library service.

The research also showed that public libraries face many challenges over the next few years, many of which are obvious, such as: advances in technology (fewer people read hard-copy books); reduced public expenditure; more involvement of citizens in the design and delivery of public services; and the needs of an ageing population.

Following the research, the Arts Council has set out four priority areas for development of library services:

  • place the library at the hub of the community – think about how the library’s physical space is used
  • make the most of digital technology and creative media – there should be an open ICT infrastructure to encourage innovation and accessibility
  • ensure that libraries are resilient and sustainable – more community involvement in the design and delivery of library services (see Community Libraries below for more detail)
  • deliver the right skills for those who work in libraries – supporting people in using digital resources competently and confidently will become increasingly important.

Community Libraries

A key part of all this is the development of community libraries.  In January 2013, the Arts Council published research carried out for it and for the Local Government Association by Locality, on community libraries.  It aims to assist decision-makers in local authorities as they consider how best to design and manage their own library services.  It is clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, even within the same local authority area.  However, the vast majority of community libraries retain links with their local authority library service.

The research breaks down the different approaches to involving communities in libraries into the following models:

  • independent community library (no public sector involvement) – around five per cent. of all community libraries.  These can be:
    • asset-owning (owns its own premises, sometimes after asset transfer from local authority)
    • non-asset owning (no long term lease or freehold on its premises
  • co-produced library (partnership models with both public sector and community involvement).  These can be:
    • community managed (community-led and largely community delivered, rarely with paid staff but often with some form of ongoing council support and often still part of the public library network) – 40 per cent. of all community libraries
    • community supported (council-led and funded, usually with paid professional staff, but given significant support by volunteers) – 40 per cent. of all community libraries
    • commissioned community (commissioned and fully funded by the council, but delivered by a not-for-profit community, social enterprise or mutual organisation, either existing or newly-created) – 15 per cent. of all community libraries.

Strategic questions:

  • Local authorities considering involving the community in running library services need to be mindful of their duty under the Equality Act 2010 to have due regard to equalities in the way the service is delivered
  • Distinguish between the library service and the building from which it operates: can there be a community asset transfer or could the building be registered as an asset of community value if it has valuable heritage?  Or could the library services be carried out from a different building?
  • Be aware of community rights: the Community Right to Challenge enables local communities to express an interest in taking over the running of a library service, but this will then open it up to a formal procurement process.  The Assets of Community Value allow local communities to nominate a library as an asset of community value, which gives them a six-month moratorium to raise a bid if the library is put up for sale, but does not guarantee that the library service would continue if they bought the building
  • Remember your statutory powers under the 1964 Act.  Section 19 allows local authorities to make byelaws in connection with use of library facilities; and section 20 allows library premises to be used “for the holding of meetings or exhibitions, the showing of films and slides, the giving of musical performances, and the holding of other events of an educational or cultural nature” and can charge admission to these.  So make the most of your library space.


[1] Section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964
[2] Section 8 of the 1964 Act
[3] Section 1 of the 1964 Act
[4] Section 10 of the 1964 Act