York’s libraries, previously run by the city council, are about to pass into the control of an independent charity. STEPHEN LEWIS talks to library head Fiona Williams about what it will mean.

APRIL 1 this year will be a big day not only for pranksters – but also for anyone who is a regular user of any of York’s 16 libraries. Because that’s the day – it’s a Tuesday, in case you were wondering – when the city’s library and archives service will shake itself free of city council control and become an independent mutual, effectively owned by its staff and its members.

It will be known by the less-than-catchy name of the Explore Libraries and Archive Mutual – a name designed by committee if ever there was one. But the hope is that by transferring control of the city’s libraries into an independent “community benefit society” it will not only be possible to protect them from closure, but even to attract extra investment to make them better.

The council will continue to provide the bulk of funding for the newly-independent service – about £1.9 million a year for the next five years. But the Explore Libraries Mutual will be an independent charity – one able to tap into lottery and other funding sources not available to the council.

“We want to increase our income,” says Fiona Williams, the council-employed head of library services who, from April 1, will be the new mutual’s chief executive.

That’s important, given what is happening to library services in some parts of the country. It is becoming increasingly common to see libraries closing – or remaining open only because they are entirely staffed by volunteers.

That is not going to happen in York, pledges Fiona.

“We don’t want to close any libraries, and we do want professional staff in every library,” she says. “I don’t believe in volunteers running libraries. They have a vital role to help, but it is up to us to run the service.”

But how can she deliver on that pledge, given the current state of library funding?

One of the main reasons for the council hiving off the library and archives service to an independent organisation was to save money.

The library service has already seen £250,000 cut from its annual budget – a process which saw the equivalent of ten full-time jobs lost. None of those were compulsory redundancies, although there were a number of voluntary redundancies.

A further £100,000 will be cut from the budget this year, and another £50,000 next year – making a total reduction in libraries spending of £450,000 a year.

It will be up to the new libraries mutual to make up that shortfall, so as to avoid the need for job losses or closures.

Fiona is confident it will be able to do so.

The new mutual will qualify for rates relief, it will be free to tap into outside sources of funding such as the lottery, and it will have more flexibility to use York’s libraries for fundraising events. As a charity, it will also be able to accept donations.

“The York Museums’ Trust has been very successful at that,” Fiona says. “We believe that people will care about York’s libraries and give us money they would not have been able to give to the council.”

There will also be scope to get better value for money on things like cleaning and repairs contracts, she believes.

And every penny that is saved or secured through grant-funding or donations will go towards first securing and then improving York’s libraries.

Library users will in future be able to hold her to that. Because another advantage of moving library services into a mutual so ciety is that, while the library buildings will continue to be council-owned (the mutual will pay a peppercorn rent for their use) the service itself will belong to its staff and its members.

And that means library users who choose to become members of the mutual will be able to hold the organisation to account – and even, ultimately, vote its directors out of office.

There will also be much more scope for members to be involved in the running of the service, says Fiona.

After the first year, they will be able to stand for election to the board. And they will also be invited to join advisory groups – key groups of members who will advise the new library service on everything from the use of digital technology to learning programmes and how to make libraries more attractive to children.

When Sonja Crisp, the city council’s cabinet member for leisure, culture and tourism, made a statement about the forthcoming handover to the new mutual, she said “library and archive users shouldn’t notice any difference”.

Hopefully, that won’t be the case. York’s new library service should have the potential to be better run than it ever was by the council – with more money coming in and users given more say.

If the model works, that is. The success of the York Museums’ Trust suggests that it can. But the York Libraries’ Mutual will in effect have five years to prove itself.

That is how long the city council’s initial funding commitment lasts. After that, theoretically, the council could decide to take the libraries service back under its own wing.

“Or they could put it out to tender,” Fiona says. “If they did that, we would bid for it. But the hope is that, when the five years are up, it will seem so obvious for us to continue.”

At the moment, it is all a bit terrifying, she admits.

“I had a special birthday last year,” she says (her 50th, if you must know). “At this stage of your career, you don’t expect to be heading off on something completely new.”

But it is exciting, too. She’s never really believed libraries belong in council control, she says – local authorities are too inflexible, and there is too much risk of political interference.

Library services should be politically impartial, she says. “We’ve never had any problems with political control in York, but the potential is always there.”

Not from April 1 – not, at least, for the next five years.

Instead, it will be up to Fiona and her team – who will all transfer across to the new mutual on a Transfer of Undertakings (TUPE) arrangement – to prove independent libraries can work in York.

And it will be up to the members to help ensure that happens.

No longer a place of ‘Silence!’

Libraries have been changing for years. Once they were silent, studious places where even the quietest whisper was greeted with a storm of furious hushes.

Today, they are brighter, noisier, more welcoming places, with cafés or coffee bars, and places to read the daily newspaper.

Then there is the digital revolution – modern libraries almost invariably have internet access, wi-fi, even stocks of books available to borrow on e-readers.

They are are also much more likely to host events, such as author signings or school activities, than in the past.

That process of change will continue, and even accelerate, under the new libraries mutual, Fiona admits.

A key will be to use branch libraries more for events – and also to attract more young children into all the city’s libraries.

“We want lots of children to come in,” she says. “There is proof that if children have access to books before they go to school, their literacy levels are higher. So we want to encourage families.”

She recognises, however, that not everyone likes the way libraries have changed.

There are still people who want to come in for some quiet study or reading.

“So it is about a balance.” There will be an area for quiet study upstairs at the main York Explore library, she says – and in smaller libraries where that is more difficult, it may be possible to arrange special times for quiet reading or study.

The bottom line is that they have to appeal to a wide range of people.

“Libraries are community spaces, where everybody is welcome, and where you don’t have to spend money.”

So while the new mutual will be seeking to encourage more paid-for events in libraries, she says, the core service – borrowing and reading books , borrowing music, accessing the archives – will remain free.

How to become a member and stand for election

The new Explore Libraries and Archive Mutual will be run by a chief executive (Fiona Williams) and a board made up of two community directors, a staff director and three non-executive directors.

Two of the non-executive directors have already been appointed, and a staff director has been elected by library staff.

The two community directors will initially be appointed, but in future the idea is that they will be elected by the membership of the mutual.

Any library user will be able to become a member: see below for how to find out more. Members will be expected to put up £1, which will be their “limited liability” as a member of the mutual society. They will elect the two community directors after an initial settling in period – most likely at an AGM that will be held after 18 months – and will also be able to stand for election as a community director themselves.

The new mutual will run all 16 of York’s libraries – the five Explore centres, nine branch libraries, one mobile library, and the reading café in Rowntree Park – as well as the York city archive.

• To find out more about becoming a member of the Explore Libraries and Archive Mutual visit york.gov.uk/libraries or go to your local library.