Barton-under-Needwood library in Staffordshire is overseen by an NHS trust: it allows volunteers to run it but also means it offers advice on mental health and healthy living.
“One of my first memories, when I was four, was being taken to join the library in Newcastle upon Tyne,” says Linda Fenwick. Whenever she has moved since, one of the first things she has done is join the local library. “It’s just unthinkable to not have a library,” she says.
When her local library at Barton-under-Needwood needed volunteers, Fenwick stepped forward to help run it. On 25 April it became the first in Staffordshire to be run by volunteers, and one of eight that has an unusual partner: South Staffordshire and Shropshire healthcare NHS foundation trust.
The trust’s decision to add library management to mental health, learning disability and specialist children’s services will be discussed on Wednesday 13 July at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals’ annual conference in Brighton.
Mark Cardwell, head of business development at the trust, says the idea is to improve community wellbeing, as well as raise the trust’s profile and find opportunities for users of its clinical services. “We can’t just keep salami-slicing our services, we’ve got to look at different ways of doing things,” he says. “Libraries already offer an awful lot that supports the wellbeing of communities and populations.”
The trust’s chief operating officer, Alison Bussey, adds: “We are committed to helping people maintain their mental wellbeing and believe this innovative partnership with community libraries and the county council provides a fantastic opportunity to engage and support local people.”
Many public libraries offer health advice and some, such as in Coventry, have partnerships with NHS trusts and healthcare charities. Staffordshire county council went a step further to keep all its libraries open while cutting around £1.7m from its annual budget. Volunteers will staff 23 small libraries, with the loss of 41 posts.
“While communities love their libraries, it was inescapable when we first looked at this in 2012 that user numbers and physical issues of books were falling sharply, while less than half of our 43 libraries accounted for three-quarters of active borrowers,” says Gill Heath, Staffordshire council’s cabinet member responsible for libraries.
“We said from the outset there would be no closures, but that we needed to change radically to reinvigorate our libraries so they were better used and for communities to have a bigger say in what happens to them so they remain relevant to the people they serve.”
Staffordshire council consulted with staff and the public, and decided it needed organisations to take on statutory responsibility for the libraries, while it continued to provide the buildings, utilities, books, IT, training for volunteers and a small support team. The South Staffordshire and Shropshire trust had already branched out into new areas, including mental health services to prisons and services to former military personnel.
“The trust won our confidence because it could meet all our demands,” says Heath. “It was experienced at working with others to successfully deliver customer-focused services, it was financially stable and it had the flexibility to meet changing demands in different ways.”
Under its five-year deal with the council, which can be renewed for further five-year periods and includes a commitment to maintaining opening hours, the NHS trust will receive no payment for running the eight libraries, but retains income from charges. Cardwell says the trust has two employees working on the project, but otherwise the libraries use their existing departmental services.
The other three libraries in the first wave of transfers were adopted by local organisations including a Baptist church. More are likely to follow as the trust is not planning to bid for any of the 12 libraries in the scheme’s second wave.
As well as taking formal responsibility, the trust provides invaluable administrative support, says Kevin Matchett, a member of Barton library’s steering group: “If we were sitting here from base zero trying to sort out bank accounts, public liability insurance and this and that, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Barton’s 23 volunteers have already started to expand the library’s health promotion work, offering more health advice leaflets from the local GP surgery. Marilyn Davis, another steering group member, persuaded the local Co-op to donate £20 worth of fruit for children for West Midlands health information week. The library is next door to John Taylor high school, with a door between the public library and the school.
Barton is a handsome, prosperous-looking commuter village, arguably making it a relatively easy place to find volunteers. However, the trust has also recruited 19 volunteers for Glascote, another of its libraries in a poorer area on the edge of Tamworth.
Cardwell says the trust is giving volunteer groups three to six months to find their feet. “A lot of the communities were a bit worried that we were going to turn libraries into clinics,” he says.
While this is not the plan, the trust intends to get its service users to volunteer, and for home delivery volunteers to be offered training to check that, for example, older people’s houses are properly heated in winter.
He mentions a former prison officer with post-traumatic stress disorder who finds it hard to leave his house; his local library is the one place he feels he can visit.
“Everybody can walk into a library, it’s non-threatening,” says Cardwell, who volunteers at the trust-run library in Holmecroft. “You can just sit there, nobody’s going to question you and ask why you are there. It’s about making connections between what’s already here, what we can add and what the communities can provide.”
Find out more information on volunteering at the trust’s libraries
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