York library service: All you need to know about the changes

'People will see an improvement in services' – Fiona Williams, York Libraries and Archives boss
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'People will see an improvement in services' – Fiona Williams, York Libraries and Archives boss

‘People will see an improvement in services’ – Fiona Williams, York Libraries and Archives boss

From May 1, 2014 York’s library service will be run independently of City of York Council for the first time. But what will it mean for the library users?

The head of the library service Fiona Williams has all the answers. Here’s everything you need to know about the next chapter for York’s libraries.

What are the main changes?

From Thursday, May 1, York’s libraries will transfer out of council hands. The service will become an Industrial Provident Society run by and for its members – a bit like the Co-op or John Lewis.

The society is called Explore York Libraries And Archives Mutual Limited – or Explore for short. Explore has a five-year contract to supply library services to the council.

York’s 14 libraries, two reading cafés and mobile library will remain open and run by professional, paid staff, with the support of volunteers.

Was the library service unpopular?

No. User numbers have gone up, and broke the one million mark in the 2012-13 financial year.

“We did some socio-economic work, and our usage is fairly representative of the population of York,” said Fiona, whose new title is chief executive, Explore Libraries And Archives.

“We get a higher proportion of disabled people, which is great. It is something like 40% men and 60% women – women do read more than men.”

Libraries are still relevant in an age of digital technology, Fiona said.

“We still need libraries for access to the internet – a fifth of people don’t have access to the internet at home.”

And as well as hosting sessions to help people get online, the library offers free access to otherwise pricey information websites, including the Oxford reference works, newspapers on Newsbank, Ancestry, for researching family history, and now Access To Research to search academic journals.

So why change?

“There are various reasons,” Fiona said.

“One is that we have our Explore vision, which has been very successful. We want to take that further in enterprising and creative ways and that is becoming very difficult in the council because of bureaucracy, being able to move speedily, and being able to access different money pots.”

Money is an important factor. The library service budget was cut by 18% – £450,000 – over the last two years.

“We had to look and say if we have any more cuts, we’d be looking at closing libraries, which we really didn’t want to do.”

How will it make more money?

Because the new service is a charity it will be able to bid for other sources of money. “That’s particularly important for the archive, in terms of the heritage of York, endowments and donations.”

Fiona added: “Our aim is to win other contracts. Whether that’s for cafés, our big income generator, room hire, merchandising.

“Once the archive is finished later this year, that will be an income generator as well, through images and that sort of thing. We wouldn’t be charging for the archive stuff.

“But it’s things like the Imagine York website – selling images from that if people want one for a Christmas present.

“We do make some money out of television companies who may want to make documentaries. Recently television companies wanted to come along and use our House Book which includes the reference to Richard III, so we make charges for that.”

What’s in the new contract?

Explore has a five-year contract with the council to run the library service.

The payment for this year, 2014-15, will be £2.2 million, which will reduce further over the next two years to represent the total £450,000 savings effected by setting up the mutual.

Because the service knows its budget for the duration of the contract, “we can plan over five years rather than over one year, so we’ll be able to use our money much more efficiently”.

The contract requires Explore to deliver a comprehensive and efficient public library service on behalf of the council.

It must deliver the Heritage Lottery Fund funded Gateway To History project – the £1.77m plan to create a 21st century Archive at York Explore (what used to be called the central library). This will finish in 2016.

Also, Explore must increase access to library services by providing excellent services and delivering four “core offers”

  • the Health and Social Care Offer – helping people find quality health advice, online and in person; working to boost public health messages; offering social and recreational opportunities
  • the Universal Reading Offer – promoting the joy of reading through a range of activities and events
  • the Universal Information Offer – staff trained in reference work providing impartial information, including on issues such as jobs, benefits and democratic rights
  • and the Universal Digital Offer – free internet access for all residents, free wi-fi in all libraries, free help to get online and ongoing support.

How will service performance be judged?

Fiona comes under council scrutiny twice or four times a year. “There will be a report that details everything we’ve been doing to meet the contract,” she said.

“I will be meeting with Charlie Croft (city council assistant director) monthly because he will be our commissioner.”

How new is this?

“It’s very pioneering,” Fiona said. Although Suffolk libraries started down a similar path two years ago, York is the first staff-led mutual library service.

And it is the only one combining libraries and archives.

Who runs the Explore mutual society?

It is member run. Two thirds of members will be library users, and one third staff.

Any York resident over the age of 16 can become a member for free, and effectively becomes the holder of one share in the society, worth a nominal £1. You have to apply to be a member: do so by emailing contact@exploreyork.org.uk.

Library users don’t have to be members of Explore to use the services.

Staff are automatically made members, but can opt out.

Every member can vote on the way Explore is run at the annual general meeting. There will be two community members on the board – eventually voted in place – and a staff director, initially Victoria Pierce.

At the moment there are about 120,000 registered users of library services. Fiona says sensitive personal information held on these users will be deleted before the transfer, and only contact details retained.

What changes will library users notice?

“On day one you won’t notice any difference, apart from there’ll be different branding,” says Fiona.

“Over five years people will see an improvement in services – services delivered which are much more relevant to local people’s needs.”

In that time Tang Hall Library might have moved to a “bigger and better” home at Burnholme school, which closes this summer.

The new service is also part of the Community Stadium, planned to be the new home for both York City football club and York City Knights rugby league club.

Explore will be part of the community building in the Huntington Stadium. “We want to use it as a way to reach non-traditional library users – maybe fathers and sons, people coming to football and rugby matches.

“We want to put a sport and leisure archive there so other sports organisations can give us their archive and we can look after it and make it available to people.”

Major library closure

York Explore will be closed for the next stage of the major refurbishment from Sunday, June 1 2014 until Autumn 2014.

During the closure of York Explore we will be extending the opening hours of Acomb Explore, Haxby Explore and Tang Hall Explore. See more details here.

What about the new Archive?

Explore will take over the Gateway To History project. The “gold box” vault has been installed at York Explore to house documents and images from 800 years of history.

When Fiona came to York ten years ago, the city archives “was on the list of things to worry about for the council”.

That has changed with Gateway To History. “Outside London it’s the most important archive in the country, because York was the second city,” she said.

“It will open it up, it will provide access to everybody. A part of that project is community archive work – working with individuals, groups and communities to help them realise that the archive is all about them, not just kings and queens.

“To coin a phrase to be the ‘people’s archive’.

“We have done a lot of work over the last year to catalogue the collection properly. People can use it a lot more without the aid of staff.

“We now have four archivists, and there’ll be even more coming through the HLF money. So we have a whole team of archivists in a way we haven’t had before to really get to grips with the collection and drive it forward.”

Who will own the fixtures and fittings?

“We’ll be leasing the buildings from the council at a peppercorn rent,” said Fiona. “We have to keep them in the condition they are delivered to us.

“We rent two buildings, Dunnington and Copmanthorpe from other people, so the council will continue to be the leaseholders for them.

“We will take the book stock with us because it is dynamic thing that is constantly changing. As a charity, the rules mean we can’t sell the books and run away with the money.

The archive, the vehicles and the IT equipment remain the property of the council.

What about the staff?

“We’ve got about 100 bodies, and about 58 full time equivalents. Over 70% of the staff were actively in favour of this,” says Fiona.

“Library staff passionately believe in what they’re doing. They don’t want libraries to close. They don’t want the quality of service they offer to be reduced.

“They have a very strong relationship with their users. They felt that this was the best way to ensure all of that could be continued.”

Staff will be employed by Explore. They are being transferred with the same pay and conditions, and their pension goes with them.

Staff are already being more entrepreneurial, said Fiona. Sarah Bennett, who runs Strensall library, has held plant sales and hires out a cabinet to a local jewellery maker.

Poppleton library has worked with the local school on fund raising, and 50 people are ready to form a Friends group supporting Dunnington library.

What will the service be like in five years?

“In five years’ time I’d hope we’d be running other library services. If a library service is put out to tender, we could tender for it,” said Fiona.

“We’re very ambitious. My aim in five years is to prove this is the right decision, and for us to be so successful that there’s no question that we should continue for another five years.

“I’d want the people of York to be really involved, and feeling that the libraries belong to them and are used for a whole range of services – a real community hub.”

Three surprising library facts

1. York Explore has a licence to sell alcohol at the café, but it’s not yet been implemented
2. There are plans to combine the toy bus and mobile library
3. Staff want to hold tea on the library lawn – to the side of York Explore – and exhibitions at the undercroft