‘There’s a good time coming’ — hope for Suffolk libraries

In 1863 Debenham’s volunteer library, the Literary and Mechanics Institute, held a series of public readings. The final event of the season included a song, There’s a Good Time Coming Girls which starts:

There’s a good time coming girls,
A good time coming.
Old maidens may not see the day,
but still shall give a loud hurrah!
for the good time coming.

From 2012, this feminist song, which looked forward to the time when “women rule instead of men”, looks over optimistic.

In the middle of the 19th century, public, rate-funded libraries were in their infancy. For most places a locally volunteer library was the only option. Gradually they were replaced by council-run libraries, a better way of creating a service accessible to all.

Yesterday, Suffolk County Council handed control of its 44 libraries to an Industrial and Provident Society. The council will continue to provide the core funding for a free library service operating across the county with a common book stock.

And the IPS now running Suffolk libraries has women, Shona Bendix, chair of the board, and Alison Wheeler, general manager, at its head. So in this little world of libraries, that song recited in Debenham 149 years ago has come true.

They are starting on what Public Libraries News today describes as the “Suffolk Experiment”.

Under the heading Suffolk transfers to control by Industrial and Provident Society PLN writes:

In a move that is being welcomed by some and feared by others, Suffolk has transferred its entire library service to a mutual society.  As with a Trust, the main advantage of this is that there are tax savings, or more accurately money back from non-domestic rates. In addition, supporters and even the Council itself says that savings will be made by no longer being part of the Council bureaucracy.  All libraries will retain paid staff and generally appear unchanged in all major ways.  However, the amount of money expected to be saved by the transfer – a £2.6m cut – is a tough target.  The Suffolk experiment, for that is what it is, also runs the danger of being used as a model by other councils desperate to save money without closing libraries.  It may be too soon to do this with confidence but these are the toughest of times and many would prefer being a library user in Suffolk than in Doncaster about now.

I too have reservations about how this experiment will work. But the most important thing is that we still have a free county-wide library service and staff are not being replaced by volunteers (there are likely to be more of them to help improve the service). See Shona Bendix’s message to users.

It means that no libraries are being closed. That is hugely important because it is much easier to close a library than reopen or replace one that has been closed.

The arguments for a library service run by democratically elected representatives (i.e. councillors) are strong and my preference.

Yet the optimistic view of many, but not all, campaigners in Suffolk is that the IPS and individual library support groups can make a better job of running the service in straitened times than the county council.

The hard work is only just beginning. No one really knows how it will progress, but the way will be bumpy, for sure.

I agree with PLN there is a danger of others grasping the IPS model without really understanding what it involves or that it is, at the moment, an unproved approach.

The process by which Suffolk got to the point it is at now, is not the same as that in most other parts of the country. For a start, I can’t think of another area which has lost it council chief executive and leader in the middle of the decision making. That forced fresh thinking on all sides.

For places facing library closures, the IPS model is worth looking at if it will avoid closures.

Generally, I just hope. “There’s a good time coming…”

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