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…”
When the full board of the Industrial and Provident Society which is being set up to run Suffolk Libraries meets for the first time on Wednesday (Feb 15) it will need to start demonstrating its independence.
The three founding directors were appointed by the county council and a further eight have been chosen, if that it the right word, by the founding directors and the council.
There were meant to be five additional directors but it seems that the chairman, Clive Fox pressed for all eight nominees to be appointed. This neatly avoided the potential allegation that the entire board was made up of placemen and women.
One of the first tasks will be to start restoring morale among library staff who are understandably worried about their futures. Radical change in employment, transferring from one employer to another, is always unsettling.
But in this case there seems to have been no planning for internal communication by the county. Staff are complaining that whenever they ask a question they are told it is a “matter for the IPS”.
The whole schedule looks rushed with the objective of the IPS taking over at the beginning of the new financial year in April. The list of those providing evidence for the transfer plan included no one from communications or HR teams.
There is one thing they could do to demonstrate both the independence of the IPS and start lifting morale at the same time — abandon the nasty plan to employ new staff at lower salaries.
The evaluation report approved by the council includes in the justification of the IPS an assumption that the IPS will pay new staff 10 per cent less than existing staff. The historic rate of staff turnover is 4.8 percent, so the saving in the first year would be tiny. perhaps 0.25 per cent of the wage bill.
Refusing to implement that part of the plan would be an easy win for the IPS board and low cost way of starting to rebuild morale.
It would begin to allay fears among library staff (who are not highly paid) that they are going to be eased out to make way for cheaper people.
One of the threats to the IPS plan was recognised as: “Potential low morale, higher sickness absence and higher staff turnover as a result of significant organisational change.”
Alison Wheeler, the IPS general manager (appointed by the council) has made a strong attempt to reassure staff, in an email, offering to answer questions and listen to concerns. She even gave out her mobile number.
In part she said:
We will have to be ingenious, practical, pragmatic and creative to ensure that Suffolk’s library services survive. I am relying on all of you to play your part in this endeavour, working with communities, with an open mind to new ways of working, supporting each other to generate the ideas and apply solutions to new situations.
It is true that the success of the venture will depend on the staff being enthusiastic, creative and flexible. But it was not really the right time to raise the possibility of failure, although it is a fear she probably shares with some senior people in Endeavour House.
Reassurance and big hugs for the staff are what are needed at the moment. I do hope the board will see morale as one of the urgent bits of business for its first meeting.