Austerity 'challenges' facing Harrogate libraries volunteers

Bilton Library volunteers.
Bilton Library volunteers.

At the time, it felt like it might spell the end for libraries.

The arrival of the coalition government in 2010 ushered in a new era of austerity.

Starbeck Library volunteers Jane Stokes, Christine Stewart, Coun Janet Law, Irene Lupton, Peter Smith, Carol Pickard, Maureen Walker, Margaret Manning, Joy Mitchell and Coun Margaret Ann de Courcey Bayley. (1609061AM1)

Starbeck Library volunteers Jane Stokes, Christine Stewart, Coun Janet Law, Irene Lupton, Peter Smith, Carol Pickard, Maureen Walker, Margaret Manning, Joy Mitchell and Coun Margaret Ann de Courcey Bayley. (1609061AM1)

Like local authorities across the country, North Yorkshire County Council had to consider the future of its libraries in the face of cuts in government funding.

The library service has seen its budget almost halved from £7.8m in 2010 to £4.3m in 2017/18.

The impact started to be felt as early as 2012 but it was in 2015 that the results really hit home when 21 libraries across North Yorkshire were told they would need to become community-run or close.

To the relief of many, the latter has not happened.

While libraries in many parts of the country are closing, North Yorkshire’s flexible, co-operative approach and the massive support of 1,200 newly recruited volunteers has resulted in the recent reconfiguration of the service being implemented without losing any libraries.

Anyone who remembers the days of dusty libraries with their strict code of silence and complex indexing systems will know that being a librarian is a responsible position previously held by qualified professionals who’d studied and trained for years.

So the question is, how are our libraries faring in this new era of hardy volunteers?

The volunteers at the libraries this newspaper spoke to are keen to stress how well it’s going.

So is North Yorkshire County Council itself.

The new era libraries appear to be turning into community hubs, hosting events for local groups, as well as offering their traditional services to the book-reading public.

But most people this newspaper spoke also said there were challenges and worries about the new community library system.

Challenges

The common ones include:

Reduced opening hours.

Ensuring volunteers have a good level of expertise.

Decreasing levels of book lending.

Financial worries.

The volunteers’ relationship with North Yorkshire County Council.

These may or may not prove major obstacles in the medium to long term.

No one really knows.

These are still early days.

But these remain questions for a future chapter in the story of our libraries.

Community libraries: volunteers' viewpoints

Bilton and Woodfield Community Library

Anne Richards, secretary said: “The Friends of Bilton Library was formed in late 2011 to campaign to keep Bilton Library open.

“When it became apparent that this could only be done if we ran it ourselves we decided to give it a go as there was nothing to lose.

“In line with all libraries, book lending is on the decrease but the downward trend is less steep than it was and may be bottoming out. NYCC provides some professional support and help with training, the IT equipment and support and, of course, the books.

“We have to pay for everything else. running costs, repairs and maintenance, insurance (as we have to indemnify NYCC against almost everything), professional advice and training NYCC is unable to provide, and any extra equipment/furniture we would like.

“The other challenges involved are keeping up with new developments and ensuring volunteers are trained to a sufficient level.

" The library is becoming a community hub. A survey has shown that most people who completed the survey form said they used the library to meet people. I was astounded because I thought most people came to borrow books. We must be helping to alleviate loneliness.”

Starbeck Community Library

Speaking with the agreement of Starbeck Community Library’s committee, administrator Margaret Manning said: “We took over the library on April 1 this year. We have 35 volunteers and a further five awaiting training.

“NYCC library service owns all the book stock, monitors our performance and we have the support of librarians when needed.

“We have had many challenges but the main one has been agreeing the terms of the lease, particularly as the premises are shared with other people. The other main challenge is that we need to raise funds so that we can pay for utilities etc.

“It is hard to say how many customers/readers the library has as we do not collect the data and have not yet received the figures for comparison.

“A complication is that the library is open for seven hours fewer, the hours being those that volunteers previously covered for about five years as Friends of Starbeck Library.

“We have great hopes for the future and fully intend to build on the wonderful work of the professional staff who ran it before us.

“Our fears are mainly of not raising enough money to keep things going and, of course, we are always looking for new volunteers!”