Monday, May 16, 2011

Save South Petherton Library

We all know times are tough at the moment. The government and local authorities are cutting non-essential services, reducing waste and making less go further. Unfortunately some services that many consider essential are also under threat; police, fire, social care, housing benefits, disability allowances and others. One of the services that is coming under pressure in many places across the country is the free local lending library.

400 libraries across the country are under threat of imminent closure - including ours.

National statutes require that Somerset County Council provides “a comprehensive and efficient” library service – this has been confirmed by the minister Ed Vaizey, who was approached by David Laws MP on South Petherton's behalf. Lending of books must be at no cost, although other facilities such as computer access, DVD rental and others can be charged for, and there is an income from things such as fines, and for sourcing books from other libraries.

Somerset County Council have announced that only 14 libraries out of the 34 across Somerset will stay open. The Council say the other 20 will close unless local communities take over responsibility and funding. South Petherton, Martock and Ilminster are all on the list of 20 to close. The visiting library bus service is likely to be reduced in frequency and coverage.

Many Somerset residents are deeply concerned about the loss of all local library services. Protests and campaigns are going on - in Glastonbury, where a film has been produced with nationally known local figures (Michael Eavis and others) – in Wiveliscombe where they are planning to check every book out of the library to show how used it is. The Facebook campaign Save Somerset Libraries includes many library communities like ours that are appalled at the prospect of not having a library. Possible legal challenge is being considered.

South Petherton have handed over a petition with over 700 names on it to the County Council Portfolio Holder, David Huxtable, and the County Council are well aware that there is a great strength of feeling in the village that the Library should stay. The question is how can we keep it?

I have been asked by the Parish Council to take the lead in working out what is achievable. I have visited library groups in Buckinghamshire who had to go through a very similar thing a few years ago and now run Community libraries. I have also had talks with potential charity and private funders who could make a significant contribution to the ongoing provision of a library in South Petherton. If local individuals are willing to take part in a volunteer group to help run the Library, this will form a very good basis for an attempt to develop a plan for the long term.

If the library closes there are other less effective and costly alternatives. We could travel to Crewkerne or Yeovil, the Library bus could visit every now and then, or we could operate a drop in and pick up service with no books on show. Before we accept any of those alternatives I think we need to consider the continuation of a 'proper' library first.

Providing a library service needs 4 key things – books (obviously), somewhere to house the books with good access for everyone, staff to run the library, and a way of adding new books and getting hold of ones our own library does not hold. Once these are in place there are other very useful facilities such as computer access and reference collections (local history for example) that are invaluable to young and old alike.

The Community Information Centre has been running for a year. When it was set up there was a strong desire to work together with the library. Creating a single place for the library, information centre, police post that also provides public toilets could be the most efficient way forward, especially if they are all located in the centre of the village.

The Somerset Library Service does not own our Library building. The lease has run out, so it is easy for them to stop the contract. This does mean that if the village aims to take over the Library we can evaluate which building would work best. If we add in the Community Information Centre, relocate the toilets from Prigg Lane and create links with the school then 3 options that have been proposed by various residents are all possible – the existing library (quite expensive to rent), the old Co-op (very expensive), and the ground floor of the Blake Hall (owned by the Parish but already in regular use for the club). We need to focus on the property issues very soon.

If the Community take over the Library volunteers could be asked to do a job now done by employed professionals. I have a big problem with this in principle, as I know other people do . We could plan to share qualified paid staff with other local libraries that are facing the same situation, and supplement their time with volunteers (as they do in Burton Bradstock).

The technology that allows books to be issued and given back to the library and access other books from the wider library network is not available to us if we take over the Library. A new, lower cost Broadband access service is under development but will not be ready until much later in the year. We need to agree with the County Library Service to keep on the current library until that technology is available so that we can take over properly.

The 2 libraries in Buckinghamshire have gone through this already, taken over their own libraries, and after several years are thriving with (if anything) too many volunteers. They have been very helpful, and we have fully developed business plans from them that we can base any future plans on. The key issues they suggest must be resolved are full connection to the library network, support from the County Council on an ongoing basis, a well managed and willing volunteer group, a building (Chalfont St Giles Parish Council bought the library building), and access to cash to make it all work.

Money, building, library network connection and people are the things we need to fix. Possible sources of money are to transfer the funding we already have for the CIC (for the next 2 years) to also support the library, find some private funding from individuals (I already have tentative offers), some substantial funding from businesses or charities (some positive discussions already underway) and contributions from both the Parish precept and the County Council.

The village has responded very strongly by calling on the Parish Council to increase the precept to support the library, resulting in £10,000 a year being allocated from the precept starting in 2011. That is separate from money that is planned to be spent on youth services, play, recreation, the Information Centre and toilets. Altogether we will have access to a quite substantial regular income to support the combined activities of library, information centre, publicly accessible toilets, IT suite and youth evening drop-in.

The newly appointed Parish Council will start in May 2011 and will oversee how this funding is allocated, as well delivering a whole range of other new facilities that will be funded by the precept and by money contributed by developers of major housing schemes at Lightgate and Prigg Lane. There is going to be a lot going on!

We have established a not for profit organisation to run the library, and held our first meetings. Unfortunately since then our numbers have dwindled and during the next few months it will be important to find 2 or 3 people willing to take an active role in delivering the library project and acting as trustees to over-see the long term operations. Anyone who is interested please contact me directly on 01460 249119 or at

The latest information we have to hand in mid-April (when this article is being prepared) is that the County Library Service will continue to employ librarians who will be allocated to Community-Supported Libraries at a commitment of 1/3 of the hours that the Library is open. We will pay the County Council for the services of a Librarian, we will not directly employ her. Our volunteers will work with the professional librarian and will receive full training during a 3 month handover period from April to June 2012 with a full-time librarian.

The important thing to do now is to build a fund of money to be used to prepare whichever building we ultimately occupy and to run the library effectively. Fund raising is not easy at the best of times, but when the whole country is having to tighten its belt its even worse. There is a big administrative and legal burden just to establish a charitable organisation, let alone use the money when we have it.

With the active support of the Parish Council we have arranged to work with Somerset Community Foundation who will act as our banker, and we will operate within their existing and very effective charity operation, allowing us to support gift-aided donations.

The arrangement with Somerset Community Foundation offers significant benefits for the Library and for our supporters. The legal framework and administrative support already exist. The charitable intent of the Community Foundation and its existing supporters is consistent with our aims. Somerset Community Foundation have an excellent network of contacts and a high reputation for projects such as recycling winter fuel payments from those that do not need them to those that do. This arrangement will ensure that funds are secure and properly allocated in line with the agreed aims.

Donations will be received directly by Somerset Community Foundation and individuals or companies need not be identified to the Library operation. This invitation is funded by the income from our first fundraising event held in March when we were privileged to be able to listen to one of the world's leading young guitarists Michael Partington. Check him out at

We are hoping for both one-off capital funding for building works or buying books and also for long term commitments of annual revenue funding to contribute to the £20,000 plus per annum we expect to have to fund every year. The funds collected by the Friends will be used to supplement Parish Council and any other grant or operational funding that we can arrange.

Please think very hard about whether an endowment or regular contribution to the Friends of South Petherton Library suits your views of how to support our local community. If you have any questions, want to volunteer, or want to find out more up to date information please come in to the Community Information Centre where I will create an information point for anyone to see progress.

I would like to thank those people who have already approached me both to volunteer and to pledge support. I would also like to thank the young lady who brought her daughter to the concert, apologised that she could not actually stay to listen but wanted to thank us for making sure South Petherton and its young people has the library it deserves – that sort of support makes it all worthwhile.