19/11/2014 - Permalink

Blog: Ensuring our libraries remain at the heart of our communities

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Blog, by Gwilym Butler, Shropshire Council’s Cabinet member for leisure, libraries and culture

I read with interest the concerns raised by world famous author Michael Morpurgo in 18 November’s Shropshire Star on the future of libraries in Shropshire.

I absolutely agree with many of the comments raised by Mr Morpurgo.  Libraries are an integral part of the community and they should be protected and nurtured for future generations to come.

Libraries are constantly adapting to meet our customers’ changing needs, and offer a wealth of services to people of all ages.  These include literary events and book clubs, books on prescription, home delivery service, children’s activities, work clubs, e- library resources, community hubs and health zones, to name just a few.

Although over the years library services have shown a steady decrease in demand as people are now choosing to access what they want in different ways, which poses a financial burden on an already shrinking budget, this drop in demand also gives us an opportunity to look at how we can reshape these services to better serve our local communities.

Yes, we need to make the best use of our funds and resources over the next few years to address a library funding gap of £1.3 million.  But this is not, by any means, about taking the easy option and closing a library for the sake of it; it’s about working with local people and organisations in our towns to try to find the best solution to meet the needs of that local community so that their library can continue to flourish.  Whilst this work is linked to savings, we want to ensure that we find ways to continue to deliver high-quality services, at lower cost, but with a better overall outcome for the whole community.

We have already worked with local residents, town and parish councils, businesses, public, voluntary and community groups and organisations representing all sectors of the community in Highley and Craven Arms.  By working this way, and finding that different communities have different needs, we have found that not ‘one size’ fits all.

After listening to the views of and ideas of local people in Craven Arms on the future of the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre (SHDC), the library and customer service point moved from SHDC to Craven Arms Community Centre (CASCA), and is now a community library under the management of South Shropshire Furniture Scheme.

Craven Arm residents now benefit from the library being open for longer, and it also provides people with space and meeting rooms for library activities such as reading groups and storytimes for children.  At the same time, with the move of the customer service point to CASCA, people can now access a whole range of services and support.  The library is very much a community facility for local people, and fits in well with the Community Centre as a hub where people meet and get involved in a variety of activities.

We are now working with partners in Church Stretton to explore opportunities and look at how we can redesign and enhance the existing services in the library building to ensure they meet the needs of the local community.

Over the last five months, Shropshire Council, alongside key local partners including Church Stretton Town Council, South Shropshire Academy Trust (Church Stretton School) and the Mayfair Centre, have been discussing and developing opportunities regarding new ways of delivering and improving the services currently housed in the library building.

In market towns such as Church Stretton, the vision is that traditional face-to-face services will be delivered through community enterprises, utilising those who are active in those communities – from local groups and charities, to public services and private enterprises. We believe that sometimes community enterprises will be the best people to develop local services for their communities; they will, for example, be able to draw on all the resources, skills and assets within that community, and to shape the service to reflect local individual circumstances.

A recent drop-in session was arranged, followed by a Local Joint Committee meeting, to discuss with local residents proposals to move the library, visitor information centre and customer service point to different, and possibly more appropriate, locations in the town. We believe these proposals offer a sustainable solution, to ensure the library continues to run and serve the residents of Church Stretton today and in the future.

For those who couldn’t attend the drop in session, can pick up a document outlining the proposals at Church Strettons Town Council, library or go complete the survey online at http://new.shropshire.gov.uk/get-involved/church-stretton-library/.  Deadline for feedback is Wednesday 19 December 2014, so I really would encourage residents in the town not to miss out, and get involved in the future of these services in your town.  The outcome of this consultation will help inform and shape the way these services will run in the future.

Conversations in our communities will continue at a local level, led by the locally- elected councillors, and consultations, depending on the nature of the changes, will then be undertaken at a local level in those communities and progressed accordingly.

We recognise the importance of libraries, and other face-to-face services, and the vital role they play in the community.  Adopting this ‘community conversation’ approach in our towns and villages across Shropshire will help ensure our library services remain embedded into the communities that they serve in a sustainable and cost-effective way.