SPECIAL REPORT by Lola Johnson
VOLUNTEERS at Finham and Cheylesmore have now settled into their new roles as community librarians.
Denise Bird, a Finham resident for 50 years, has been volunteering at Finham Library for a month.
“The council made a bad decision to shut down the library. I didn’t use it myself as I got older, but I always brought my children after school from Finham Primary School, over the road.
I thought it was a facility that really shouldn’t be shut. In this area, we haven’t got any community buildings. There is a church, but that’s about it.
“Our library is more than just books. It is an important community hub.”
Ms Bird, who volunteers weekly, blames Coventry City Council’s decision to shut down libraries in communities with less deprivation and need.
“I understand they’ve got cuts, but they need to think carefully before shutting down community hubs. I don’t think anybody in their right mind would think that was the right decision.
All areas need some form of community. Just because we do happen to live in a better area of Coventry doesn’t mean there aren’t requirements and needs in the area.
“I think that’s the problem with the council’s decision. They just assumed we don’t have a need in our community. That’s not true. This sort of area might need and use its library more than others.”
“Despite closing down libraries, Coventry won the City of Culture 2012. I think that’s farcical. The night they announced it, I thought, ‘what about the libraries?’ Surely, the library is part of our culture?”
Ms Bird was cautious about the future of the library, saying, “As a community-run library, there will always be the possibility that Finham Library will be shut in a few years, especially if we don’t get enough volunteers. The problem with the library being volunteer-run is a lack of commitment from some volunteers.
People might be enthusiastic to start, but after a while they lose their enthusiasm.”
At Cheylesmore Library, the atmosphere is slightly more optimistic. Some of its volunteers are ex-librarians, and the library has seen no reduction in opening hours since its transformation.
Hazel, a Cheylesmore Library volunteer, said: “My earliest memory of libraries is sitting on the floor at Radford Primary School, listening to the head-teacher reading from Rudyard Kipling books.
“I spent many years trudging up to Coundon Library every other week to borrow books, all of which opened up the world to a post war, pre-television schoolchild.
“I was keen to help ensure that today’s schoolchildren should be able to experience the same enjoyment.
“I really like helping at Cheylesmore library, learning something new each time. I love to see the families with young children coming in to borrow books, do homework and make use of the computers.
“The elderly are also keen borrowers and it is interesting, and sometimes surprising, to see their choice of books.”
Asked how the Finham community is handling the change to volunteer-run libraries, volunteer Melissa Webb said: “The community has been really patient, because they see that we are trying hard, and we’re trying to make things run smoothly.
“Our experience with the community has been really positive. Everyone has been very understanding. They’ve been really pleased to see the library staying open and are extremely grateful for our help.”
Ms Webb, who volunteers two to three times a week, has lived in Finham most of her life and is a recently returned university graduate.
“Our challenges have been getting used to a different environment, working with the computer systems and trying to learn everything. I think we take for granted the highly professional work that librarians do, especially because they have certified training and experience.
“We are not replacements for librarians. They are great workers and they have done such a good job working at Finham Library.
“We are trying to take on those roles and figure out our place here. It’s such a shame, not just because of the community losing an asset, but because the council essentially got rid of people’s jobs. Our librarians worked in Coventry for years, in jobs they had become really attached to.”
COUN MATON SAYS:
Labour councillor Kevin Maton has said Coventry’s students need to volunteer their time if want to keep their local community libraries open.
“One of the biggest arguments about maintaining Coventry’s seventeen libraries was that they are well used by school students.
“Once people know what time libraries are open, they’ll be able to know that they’re not open at the students’ convenience. The libraries are there, but there’s an access time that students will know when it’s open and when it’s not.
“One of the things we’re hoping is that community-led libraries open longer as more volunteers come in. It may well be that there’s a group of sixth formers who say I would like Earlsdon Library to be open for study and we’re happy to act as volunteers on Saturday every two months, so that it’s open on a Saturday.”
The council’s new “Connecting Communities Programme” places greater emphasis on the community – and on individuals in the community – to take care of itself.
“Connecting Communities is not just about libraries”, the Cabinet Member for Education and Skills continued.
“Primary schools, secondary schools and family hubs are also in a position to start making a contribution to their local communities.
“It is about making sure there is a connection between these facilities and that people know what services are being offered where, and are enabled access them.”
OPPOSITION COUNCILLOR SAYS:
Gary Ridley, opposition leader at Coventry City Council (Conservative), said: “What makes Coventry special is its people and our communities and our libraries form the cornerstone of those communities. They play a key role in the education of young people and provide many people with an opportunity to meet others and expand their knowledge.
“That’s why it’s vital that we protect the integrity of front line services, like libraries, even though the council faces some tough financial choices. This means we’ve got to explore every possible option to protect and safeguard these facilities. Across the city volunteers and local councillors have got involved in Community-led libraries helping to safeguard them from closure maintaining a vital bond with the community.
“However, the council mustn’t simply wash its hands of the libraries once they’re up and running. They must meet legal obligations when placing volunteers in libraries by ensuring that appropriate safeguarding measures are in place to protect the public. It’s also crucial that volunteers are provided with all the training, help and support they need.”
NO CHILD SAFETY CHECKS
VOLUNTEERS at Coventry’s community-led libraries are not being DBS checked – the standard safeguarding procedure designed to ensure adults are suitable for working with children.
Campaign group Save Coventry Libraries says it is a loophole which places children and vulnerable adults at risk.
Under government regulations, most library employees are not required to be DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checked. Library volunteers at Cheylesmore, Finham and Earlsdon libraries are not employed by Coventry City Council.
Councillor Kevin Maton, cabinet member for libraries, has advised: “For staff in council-run libraries the situation is such that libraries are public spaces and staff should not place themselves in situations in which they are working one-on-one with unsupervised children or with any children in non-public areas.
“Libraries are public spaces and parents should either supervise children directly or consider whether it is the right thing for their child to be in a library un-supervised.”
The cabinet member for education and skills maintains the community must play a part in safeguarding its vulnerable members.
“It will be for the community-led libraries themselves to decide whether volunteers need to be DBS-checked or not,” he said.
“One of the positives of this development is it reinforces the communities in supporting themselves.”