Library consortia: challenges but confidence in the future

The inaugural Consortia Conference focused on lessons learned and future opportunities for shared services.

Shared services, shared experiences

A new conference dedicated to shared services and consortia working in public libraries took place in May 2012 in Bath (UK).

One hundred attendees from across the UK participated in Consortia Conference 2012.  Two of the UK's biggest public library consortia shared their experiences of participating in shared services and consortia from governance models to shared library systems, bibliographic services, enquiry services and transforming access to online information.

The 'consortia conversation' discussion groups along with networking during the breaks offered the opportunity to ask individual questions. Eight sponsors, including headline sponsor Axiell UK, were available during breaks to demonstrate equipment and for informal discussions. In fact, feedback showed that talking to colleagues facing similar library challenges and suppliers working with them was one of the highlights of the conference for many public library professionals.

"Well presented, informative, and above all honest"

Speakers from the London Library Consortium (LLC) and LibrariesWest ensured that their presentations covered challenges as well as successes, which was appreciated by the attendees.  The presentations are available on the conference website: which is a proving a popular option with visitors from as far afield as the USA, Denmark and Russia.

The two consortia share very different demographic and geographic areas. Five member-strong LibrariesWest serves a population of 1.6 million people in 109 libraries and is a partnership between Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset, Somerset and South Gloucestershire library services. The London Libraries Consortium (LLC) consists of 15 London Boroughs and has grown dramatically since it was set up in 2004. It now caters for over 3.6 million Londoners who can use their library card at any of over 150 library branches.

As consortia grow in size and maturity, the way they are managed becomes more structured. In the first of his two presentations, Andrew Green, Head of Library and Heritage Service for Wandsworth, spoke on governance and emphasised that requirements for management of the consortium change as it grows - LLC now numbers 15 London Boroughs as members from a starting point of a couple in 2004.

Engagement and communication

As the shape of the consortium changes it is important to engage with new members but also to have a process for those who decide to disengage from the consortium. LLC has recently worked with consultants to help them define their governance structures and to help ensure that all members 'buy in' to the governance to avoid overactive compensators and disengaged fringe voices. LLC is considering various tiers of membership from full, where members are included in all decision-making and participate in all procurement contracts, to those where, for example, libraries may join just to share the library management system. The LLC is also moving its communication on consortium activities away from email to using a shared online area, the KnowledgeHub, a more sophisticated and efficient way to communicate and store information.  LibrariesWest has developed a shared extranet to facilitate more effective communication and to provide them with space for shared document storage. Neither consortium has recruited project management support or an independent chair but these could be considered for the future. Andrew also recommended that consortia work with key suppliers in a business partnership. LLC and LMS/services specialist Axiell UK are partners in moving the technology forward for the consortium and solving relevant issues such as development requests regarding overlaps in consortia stock or bibliographic records, which helps to ensure that changes are made in a structured and efficient way.

The LibrariesWest consortium has a shared bibliographic services department which Carol Gold explained aims to add value for money through economies of scale, standardisation and a joint catalogue. Drivers such as economic necessity , increased partnership working and significantly reduced budgets have led to the creation of shared services including acquisitions, cataloguing, delivery, electronic payment interface, ILL, binding and periodical subscriptions. The user benefits of this include quicker transfer of stock to libraries (typically just three days) and efficiencies in admin and procurement which can translate into more stock for library users. LibrariesWest also has access to a shared enquiry service run from Somerset Libraries. Maggie Harris demonstrated how this helps to ensure equal access to information for all library users who can contact the service via telephone or email using a phone number or contact email branded to the member library service. Despite little marketing, the team answers around 1700 enquiries a month, many of which are very complex. They are now considering adding voice over internet, social networking options and a new digital library site to offer other access options in the future.

LLC can be contacted through and LibrariesWest through Jon Scown:

Photo courtesy of Catherine Dhanjal.