[Editors note: This post was written by Fiona Williams, who is Chief Executive of Explore York Libraries and Archive. Explore York spun out of York City Council in May 2014, and is one of the first library service mutuals in England. They have formed a consortium (Optimo) alongside the three existing libraries mutuals – Libraries Unlimited, Suffolk Libraries and Inspire – and consultancy firm Mutual Ventures. Optimo are running two free libraries masterclasses in March, which are funded by DCMS through the Taskforce, and will also be producing a toolkit for the Taskforce to support other library services considering exploring alternative delivery models.]
In 2012, library services in York were tasked with looking at alternative delivery models for libraries. Two years and a lot of hard work later, we left the council to find our fortunes as a mutual. There’s a lot I wish I’d known before we left. From how finances work outside local government to how to be a chief executive to generating new sources of income.
Our journey was very much staff-led as we refused to accept the reality with which we were faced – endless budget cuts and a reduction in the quality of the service we provided. It hasn’t been easy, and at times it has seemed almost impossible, but we are really proud of what we have achieved together. The challenges have been balanced with successes and, three years on, we are now focused on contract renewal.
We’re very excited to be working with three other library mutuals – Libraries Unlimited, Suffolk Libraries and Inspire – on a toolkit and learning events for councils who are interested in exploring a new model for their library service. Together we have a wide range of expertise on different elements of the mutual model.
Why consider an alternative delivery model?
We know that libraries have huge potential to deliver improved outcomes in local communities. They support people’s desire to learn and achieve; enable them to engage with a digital world; provide practical support and guidance at key points when people need help; and foster cohesion amongst diverse communities. In York, we’ve found that our new model allows us greater flexibility and speedier decision making so we can take advantage of opportunities. Our staff feel empowered to develop partnerships and gain external funding to support our strategy.
As councils across England handle increasing pressures and competing priorities, they need to look at different ways to help sustain and support library services in the future. We have all seen an increase in councils investigating the potential of public service mutuals and other alternative delivery models to achieve this.
Often it’s difficult to know how to take those first steps in understanding what the different options are and what they mean for your service. There are so many factors to align before a service can successfully leave a council - and we have first-hand experience of these.
For this reason, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is funding two free masterclasses, which will offer dedicated support for councils to think strategically about alternative delivery model options for their libraries. These will be supported by a Taskforce toolkit to help in those crucial weeks after attending the events, so learning is not wasted.
Learning from peers who’ve been down this route already
Our masterclasses will focus on the practicalities of establishing public service mutuals and other alternative delivery models for library services. They’ll bring together the real-life experiences of trailblazing library services alongside specialist expertise on technical issues, and provide the opportunity to ask those burning questions.
A range of issues will be covered including:
- Why consider an alternative delivery model for library services?
- What alternative delivery model options are available?
- What are the benefits, risks and challenges associated with each of these models?
- How do you create an alternative delivery model for a library service?
- How do you engage staff and public in the process?
- What new skills are needed to deliver success?
- What lessons can we learn from library services that have already been down this route?
At the events, you’ll be able to hear from me, and also from others of us who have already been down this route including:
- Ciara Eastell OBE, Chief Executive, Libraries Unlimited
Peter Gaw, Chief Executive, Inspire
Alison Wheeler, Chief Executive, Suffolk Libraries IPS
Stephen Taylor, Development Manager for Libraries, Information and Culture, Suffolk County Council
Oliver Cappleman, Founding Director, Mutual Ventures
Who should attend the events?
To successfully investigate an alternative delivery model, you need to involve a range of people including: heads of library services, elected members, transformation officers and other interested parties.
As the masterclasses are designed to bring together these different perspectives, we’d recommended that councils identify a group of relevant people to bring along if they can.