Developing community library services

Needing to make drastic savings, the Lewisham Library & Information Service in London developed new volunteer-led community library services.

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Drastic savings

Two years ago Lewisham Library & Information Service faced an unprecedented challenge: the Council needed to save millions of pounds. Lewisham's Mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, admitted that the scale of cuts could be brutal: "We have to take £1 out of every £4 which is spent in Lewisham - so it goes without saying there's going to be a pretty shocking list of savings."

The Library & Information Service embraced the challenge and developed a comprehensive approach to meeting it. After extensive consultation a number of key decisions were made: the service would be reorganised; it would join the London Libraries Consortium, and, most-eye-catching, they would transfer five library buildings to third parties, decommissioning the library service provision in those buildings and re-commissioning for them a new community library service. These decisions netted £755k of savings in the Libraries' budget, £240k of savings in the Property Services Department, and additional saving in ICT efficiencies, totalling savings for the Council of over £1m.

A community library service

Lewisham's community library service is delivered - on a peripatetic basis - with the support of partner organisations, but remains very much within the remit of the Lewisham Library & Information Service.

The basis of the model - recorded in a Service Level Agreement (SLA) - relies on the third party being responsible for the building and promoting core services, and the Council providing a library service based on self-service, visiting professional input, ongoing training and support to the anchor or host organisation staff. Success depends on everyone's commitment to promoting books and reading in the buildings.

The buildings at Crofton Park, Grove Park and Sydenham are run by a computer recycling social enterprise, Eco Computer Systems. The service in Blackheath has moved into the Reminiscence Centre run by the charity Age Exchange. The New Cross Library building is now run by a group of volunteers called New Cross Learning.

Engagement and volunteers

To support the delivery of the model the Library & Information Service established a new community engagement team that plays the liaison role between the library service and the anchor or host organisation. Through this team, the service manages the stock, trains the volunteers and monitors the SLA. The Council also invested in the model by introducing RFID and self-service technology at every site.

The advantage for the social enterprise is a 25-year lease on three buildings at no cost to them. The advantage for the charity was a one-off investment of £200k that complemented their fundraising of around £750k, which made the refurbishment of their whole building possible. The advantage for the New Cross Learning was a one-off injection of £60k over two years which should establish them as a new local enterprise.

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