Could John Lewis be the key to the future of libraries?

New plans for York libraries hope to preserve the service for future generations.
New plans for York libraries hope to preserve the service for future generations.
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With libraries shutting their doors up and down the country, could York have found a novel way to safeguard the service? Sarah Freeman reports.

Every day within the spacious departments of John Lewis a thousand solutions are found for a thousand middle class problems. Over in York they also reckon the company, which is due to open a flagship store in the city in a couple of weeks, might also contain the key to the future of Britain’s libraries.

Like much of the rest of the country, the service was approaching crisis point. With all council budgets under severe pressure, the question of how to fund libraries has been a controversial one. Despite overwhelming opposition from the public and a number of high profile celebrities, many branches have already closed and others look certain to follow.

Just a few weeks ago, as protestors once again lined the steps of Sheffield Town Hall, councillors pressed ahead with plans to axe staff at 15 of the city’s 28 libraries. No one was in any doubt that the move would be unpopular, but many authorities say they have been left with nowhere else to turn.

However, in York, where the library service is currently in the last throes of untangling itself from the city council, they believe they might just have found another way.

“What we are doing is setting up an Industrial and Provident Society, which is a little bit like the John Lewis mutual model,” says Fiona Williams, shadow chief executive of Explore York Libraries and Archives. “In effect it will be a third owned by staff and two thirds owned by the community.”

Membership of the new organisation, which will in effect be run like a social enterprise, will be open to anybody over 16 and once signed up they will be entitled to vote on the future running of the service and have the opportunity to join its board as one of two community directors.

“If you look at the national picture, the library service has been hit incredibly hard,” adds Fiona. “In some places that has meant libraries being run by the community. Volunteers do an incredible job, but we have always felt that libraries should be run by experienced professionals and the team here have been determined to do anything they can to avoid branches shutting.

“We felt it was up to us to act and this new organisation will hopefully give us the best of both worlds.”

It’s hoped the new arrangement will be in place by May with the team behind the change having secured a five year contract to run the service on behalf of the council. Inevitably, not everyone has welcomed the move with opponents fearing any step towards outsourcing will ultimately lead to job cuts and reduced levels of service.

The council will still fund libraries to the tune of £100,000 a year, but with the organisation eligible for tax breaks and able to bid for outside funding it is hoped it will help relieve the pressure on an already cash-strapped authority.

“Initially we hope the public won’t notice any difference when they walk into their local library, but ultimately it will allow us much greater freedom to really develop what we do,” says Fiona. “Before we went ahead with the proposals we had to come up with a pretty rigorous business plan to prove what we were planning was financially viable. I think it’s fairly safe to say that without this move, some of York’s libraries would have had to close.”

Two years ago, the library service took over a cafe in the city’s Rowntree Park. Today the main business is selling cappuccinos, but it’s also possible to return and borrow books and has become something of a blueprint for the future.

“Libraries have always played a vital part in our communities and we want to ensure that’s the way it remains,” says Fiona. “However, that means adapting to changing needs and making the service relevant. There is something about a library that makes people feel safe and that’s something which we are determined to preserve.”