[Editor’s note: this guest post was written by Ciara Eastell, former Head of Libraries for Devon County Council, and President of the Society of Chief Librarians, now CEO of Libraries Unlimited]
As Libraries Unlimited reaches its first six months as an independent organisation, it presents an ideal opportunity to reflect on the journey so far and what we’ve learned.
Libraries Unlimited emerged as a response to a large scale public consultation in the summer of 2014 when communities across Devon were asked to consider options to save £1.5 million from the cost of the library service.
Across the county, people consistently told Devon County Council that they valued their library and understood the important role it played in the local community and equally they were keen to show how much they valued the talented and committed library staff running libraries. There was realism too with most people understanding the financial pressures on the local authority and there was willingness and energy to work with the County Council to look at other solutions.
To cut a long story short and, following considerable engagement with staff, communities and councillors, Libraries Unlimited was established as an independent staff and community owned mutual and came into operation on 1st April 2016. Staff transferred across and I became the organisation’s Chief Executive, having previously been the Head of Libraries, Culture and Heritage whilst in the Council.
Factors in our success
We’ve learned a huge amount in the 18 months prior to transfer and now in our first 6 months as an independent organisation, which I hope we will be able to share with library colleagues in the months and years to come. Making this change is not for the faint hearted and is not a quick fix to financial difficulties. Key ingredients we had which – together - helped make the process of transfer a success included:
- An ambitious and positive vision for the future of libraries in the county and a recognition of their importance in supporting strong and resilient communities
- Strong political support
- Engaged officer support at the highest level from the local authority
- Funding for high quality independent financial and legal support (which was via a contract with Mutual Ventures)
- A willingness on behalf of the leaders and managers within the library service to venture into the unknown with a ‘can do’ spirit and a bucket load of energy and commitment
- Finding a Chair of the Board with the time and skills to be part of the negotiating team prior to the contract being signed
- A clearly defined mission, together with a set of values and purposes
- The support and faith of our workforce to believe in the vision and purposes of the new organisation, providing ongoing moral support for senior managers leading the process
Luckily for us, the stars proved to be aligned and, with these ingredients in place, we were able to meet our target of going live on 1st April 2016!
Values, performance management, financial resilience and new partnerships
Six months in, how has it been? Well, we’ve made a really positive start and we already feel like a very different sort of organisation – though we’ve been keen to maintain a ‘business as usual’ approach with our customers. Behind the scenes though, the sense of pace and forward momentum has been palpable.
As the Chief Executive, leading the team in this new world, my initial reflections on six months in are:
We talk much more about the value, mission and purposes of libraries than we ever did as a service within the local authority.
We use our purposes every day to inform the way we’re changing the organisation. One of the first things we did was to develop our own appraisal process so that it reflected our vision and values. Feedback from staff so far suggests this focus on libraries at the centre of our organisation is welcome.
We already have a much tighter focus on our overall performance than we did before – we’re monitoring take up of our services more closely and regularly; providing feedback to our Board of Trustees and Devon County Council and considering new ways to reach more people. This isn’t new, of course, but knowing more about who is using us and what for (and equally important who isn’t using us) is an important cornerstone to growing the organisation in the future.
Similarly, as an independent organisation which needs to be financially resilient, it’s essential we have real-time access to financial data. We now have our own finance system which is geared to the needs of organisations of our size and I have to say I’ve never had a better handle on what our money is spent on.
We’re seeing new and exciting relationships emerge with a whole range of partners and stakeholders locally, regionally and nationally. In 18 months, we have seen our network of Friends Groups grown from 14 to 44 providing us with a ready source of support and funding for our libraries at a local level and input into the governance of the organisation as a whole. Other exciting partnerships include our growing links with the University of Exeter. We have a burgeoning relationship with the Business School along with an exciting collaboration with the Centre of Medical History focused around our Health and Wellbeing offer.
You’ll sense, I’m sure, how proud we are to have established this new organisation and our commitment to ensuring Libraries Unlimited succeeds in bringing ideas, imagination, information and knowledge to people’s lives and communities. With public sector austerity showing no sign of abating, we know that there will be continued challenges for us and the wider library sector around funding. We won’t duck those challenges but we’ll tackle them with a sense of optimism and ambition, which will, I’m sure, enable our libraries to provide more of what our communities really need in the future.
For more information about Libraries Unlimited, visit www.librariesunlimited.org.uk or follow @LibrariesUnLtd on twitter. To find out what is going on in Devon’s libraries visit www.devon.gov.uk/libraries.htm or follow @DevonLibraries on twitter.
UPDATE: It was announced today (Friday 7 October) that the Arts Council have awarded a £200,000 Research Fund grant to a consortium including Libraries Unlimited and Exeter University's Business School, to run a 2 year research project to look at the social value of libraries. [Check out Round 2 applicants on the link above - we’ll share more information as the project progresses].
Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Libraries Taskforce or the DCMS