22nd Sep, 2018

SPECIAL REPORT: What's the future for Coventry's libraries amid funding cuts?

By Lola Johnson

THREE Coventry libraries – at Cheylesmore, Finham and Earlsdon – have now made the transformation into so-called community libraries.

They no longer rely on Coventry City Council for financial or legal management.

Is it former Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” in action? – supposedly placing the wellbeing of society in the hands of the community and volunteers?

“Ideally, our library would still be with the council”, said one local Earlsdon resident, who did not wish to be named.

“I believe that libraries have a great impact on all of society. But, if it was a choice between having a library and not having a library, then I think the community-led approach is a good one.”

The council’s Labour leaders had said in 2014 that all library services at 18 sites, and mobile libraries, would be reviewed with an eye on savings. It followed years of heavy government funding cuts to local authorities.

Community organisations and volunteers were invited to register an interest in taking over their libraries – amid council proposals for libraries to share with other buildings.

A strong campaign was led by the Save Coventry Libraries group.

A charity, FLAG (Finham Library Action Group) has taken over running the library there.

It opens twice-weekly, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

As FLAG recruits and trains more volunteers, parish councillor Robert Aitken hopes to return the library closer to its full opening hours.

Earlsdon Library is now open four times a week, excluding weekends, for a total of 22 hours weekly.

And Cheylesmore Library is now managed by Cheylesmore Community Centre, with an initial plan to keep it open for the next three years.

“It’s a shame. At the moment, the library’s not open every day, because sometimes you come down and forget it’s the day that they’re not open,” another Earlsdon resident said.

“I’m about to go in and print some materials, because I don’t have a printer. I use the library computers a lot.

“My son uses the library for homework; and we both use it to get all the local information from the information boards.

“When he was little, we used to go to the story times and other activities. Sometimes, there are events held in there that I go to as well.

“It is one of the busier libraries. I think you’d be quite surprised at where people come from, because they don’t just come from Earlsdon – lots of people that use it come from Spon End and the lower parts of Earlsdon, which is not an affluent area.

“There are lots of people from social housing who use this library because they don’t have IT facilities at home. They use the IT facilities for job hunting and benefits.

“A lot of housing at the bottom of Earlsdon is rented properties used by high transition or traveller families, or people with short-term lets.

“Even though Earlsdon, as a whole, has an affluent part to it, not all of Earlsdon is affluent and I don’t think the council asked exactly who uses the library.

“A lot of our friends live in Spon End, and they are job-seekers and single-parents who are really upset about the changes, because they then have to go into town to use the Central Library when looking for jobs or looking for rental accommodation.

“Earlsdon library is a nice, friendly place, especially for people who feel quite daunted by a big, central library. They’d rather come to the smaller, community one. I don’t think the council perhaps thought about that.”

Coventry libraries have seen major cuts in services in the last year, including the cuts to the mobile library and moving Willenhall Library into a small space in the Hagard Community Centre.

Sarah Smith of Save Coventry Libraries said of the new Willenhall space, “a room full of books in a community centre is not a library.

“Community-led libraries, on average, close within 18 months of opening. The council has not done a full investigation into the impact and sustainability of community-led libraries.”

COUNCILLOR DENIES MORE LIBRARY CUTS ON WAY

Councillor Kevin Maton, Cabinet Member for Education and Skills, has said that he does not envision more libraries closing.

However, with the council planning to make major cuts and savings of £19 million by 2020/21, this assurance seems premature.

Councillor Maton refuted campaigners’ claims that community libraries tend to close, saying, “Just because it’s happened somewhere else, and in the past, doesn’t mean to say it’s going to happen here.

“I think there are lots of lessons to learn about how libraries can be supported and I think that we would react to that.

“For example, library staff will support community-led libraries if they’re having any difficulty.

“This creates a network of community libraries under our Connecting Communities Programme. We’re a very compact city, so from that point of view, I think the opportunity to support libraries with volunteer staff is a lot easier than in certain other areas.”

WE NEED MORE FUNDING

FLAG (Finham Library Action Group) is trying to raise funds for the running of Finham Library.

FLAG was set up by a group of community-minded people to save Finham’s last community building from closing.

“The council did not make a final decision until March 2017,” said Robert Aitken, chairman of FLAG. “It was a hasty decision. We were not in a position to train volunteers until June. Unfortunately, by this time, people in the community were away on holiday.

“Even worse, we did not get the right paperwork from the council. The council only informed us of their decision to close the library verbally, but provided us no formal documents.

“While Coventry City Council will meet our yearly running costs of £12,000 for the next two years, we must now raise funds to keep the building open after this period is over.”

The council made a decision to close its Finham library as it was placed lowest on a priority list alongside Earlsdon and Cheylesmore libraries.

Pauline Venables, facilitator of the Cheylesmore Library Volunteers, said: “We don’t have money of our own at the moment. We are applying for funding for additional library services, such as newspapers for our users.

“The Cheylesmore Community Centre fundraises and is looking at different projects to help support the library, since we don’t have an income stream of our own at the moment.”

Despite the challenges faced by Coventry’s community-led libraries, they are determined to continue as bedrock to their communities.

Ms Venables stressed: “Things will change in the future in as much sense as, hopefully, the services will improve. Our main aim when we took over was to maintain the community status quo; to provide as good a service as had been provided previously.

“This includes opening for the same amount of hours and providing the other little things, like Rhyme Time, like Story Time, like computer help, and all those things that the library used to do.

“Were looking to the future and looking to still be here in five years’ time, as long as we’re relevant to the local community,”

Ms Venables added:“In the future, as our volunteers become more confident, we’ll make effective use of their different sets of particular skills. Hopefully, we’ll be able to introduce new events and even improve on the previous service offered by the council.

“Any library is a part of the local community, because it’s a safe place for people to come; it’s open to everybody. We always provide a pleasant atmosphere and a friendly face.”

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