Libraries and the Big Society: round-table discussions revealed

Earlier this year, on 25th January, the DCMS held a round-table discussion on Libraries and the Big Society, chaired by Ed Vaizey.  After a series of Freedom of Information requests, we can now reveal what was discussed. The following is the text as supplied by DCMS in response to our FoI requests:

Note of Libraries Roundtable

Ed Vaizey opened the discussion by setting out his view of the current state of the sector in relation to local authority budget cuts, the requirement for radical innovation in service delivery including through enacting Big Society principles. Lord Wei then set out some background on the Big Society policy, and the support being offered to people to take greater control, and to shift and share resources to create services which better fit the needs of each community. He said that he is keen to promote diversification in the use of community assets (including buildings), and raised the need for intermediaries to help to distribute resources form the Big Society Bank.

Jim Brooks spoke about his experiences of running a community library. He said that until recently the Council had not provided adequate support to the community in taking over the library, and that where an asset is devolved councils need also to make resources available and share knowledge about what is involved. He said that the additional work and process involved in running a “library business” was prohibitive, and noted that their council had charged them a £1k per annum management fee to be able to seek advice from them, [section redacted] . They have invested heavily in the bookstock and use the library for a broad range of events and activities, delivering an increase of 25% in footfall and 20% in issues. He said that they charged for fewer services than the authority libraries, as they found that this increased their revenue through donations, and noted that in his view the model would only work in affluent areas. He noted that he had been contacted by people from a broad range of areas saying that their authority had said that their local library either had to be taken over by the community or would close.

Cath Anley noted SCL work to improvement in the use of volunteers across the country, breaking this down into the involving model (where volunteers add value to the core service) and the devolving model (where groups take over the service). Other attendees spoke about experiences or plans in their local areas, including libraries being retained but becoming local government contact points; proposals around use of volunteers; shared spaces with Post Offices, supermarkets and children’s centres.

Further concerns were raised about communities in disadvantaged areas losing out through lack of a voice or lack of awareness about the value of the service, and also about councillors’ failure to recognise the value of the reader development work undertaken by library staff. Yinnon Ezra suggested that capacity building resources from parent authorities could enable disadvantaged communities to take forward ownership of an asset, and Miranda flagged TRA’s Lottery grant to support reader development work in 20 disadvantaged communities to improve literacy.

Lord Wei said that there is a push and pull dynamic with communities, outlined some of the legal and policy steps being taken to encourage change, and asked what else could be done to help, particularly before these new powers are enacted. There were suggestions for BIG funding for capacity building among communities; for a public service scheme for the unemployed which could include libraries; and for support in joining up policy between Ministers. On the latter point, Lord Wei suggested taking the topic to a Cabinet Office ministerial group.

Ed Vaizey said that he wanted to provide guidance to Authorities and community groups, using agencies to help people build on others’ experiences and to encourage LAs to have an enabling attitude. AnnemarieNaylor said that the ATU want to facilitate the sharing of material across the library network, and to develop a single portal for processing the growing number of requests they have for information. Roy Clare noted that while more proposals for closures are likely to follow the May elections.

Action points:

  • DCMS to discuss development of guidance with MLA and ATU (Action: Junior Official already progressed and linked up to discussions with Oliver Letwin)
  • DCMS to approach BIG (Action: Junior Official, can you discuss with Junior Official the best way to open discussions with BIG, drawing in EV as appropriate)
  • DCMS to contact Lord Wei’s office to follow up idea for Ministerial discussion (Action: Private Office to follow up)

List of Attendees

Lord Wei, Government’s Big Society Adviser

Annemarie Naylor, Head of Assets at the Development Trusts Association which delivers the CLG funded Asset Transfer Unit

Christine May, Head of Libraries, Archives and Information Services in Cambridgeshire

Jim Brooks,  Chairman – Friends of Little Chalfont Library

Cath Anley.  Head of Libraries & Archives, Kent

Alison Baxter,  Oxfordshire Community and Voluntary Action

Terry Ryall,  Chief Executive, V – the national young volunteers’ service

Yinnon Ezra, Hampshire Director of Culture, Communities and Rural Affairs

Miranda McKearney, Chief Executive, The Reading Agency

Cllr Liam Maxwell,  Windsor & Maidenhead – a Big Society Pilot Authority

Roy Clare,  Chief Executive, MLA

Richard Mollett, CEO, Publishers’ Association

Antonia Byatt, ACE


In the accompanying e-mail, the DCMS observed that, ‘we have redacted part of a sentence in paragraph 2 in accordance with section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act (Formulation of Government Policy), because Mr Brooks felt it to be incorrect, and misrepresenting his views on the matter could impede this policy development’.