Lincolnshire Co-operative: supporting local libraries by building community hubs

The third of our Big Debate case studies looking at how co-ops can step up to solve problems in their communities

Lincolnshire Co-operative has been involved with education in its local community ever since it opened Lincoln’s first reading room in 1873. It now runs three libraries, alongside its food stores, pharmacies and post offices.

What is the social issue?

As austerity measures tightened in 2015, Lincolnshire County Council handed 30 libraries to volunteers to make savings of £2m. The move was not without controversy, with residents taking the council to the High Court and over 22,000 people signing a petition against the closures.

Lincolnshire Co-op took no part in the discussion surrounding the future of the libraries but, once the process was over, it offered to take on five libraries where it had space for them. Three of these were taken up.

Related: The Big Debate – how co-ops show concern for communities

“We have always understood that access to information was an important part of people being able to fulfil their potential,” says chief executive Ursula Lidbetter.

How is Lincolnshire Co-op helping?

When the future of the libraries was being debated, the co-op received letters from some of its members. “They knew they weren’t taking sides but were willing to help if the outcome was that libraries run by volunteers were the way forward,” says Ms Lidbetter.

The libraries are at the the society’s pharmacy and post office site in Bar Lane, Waddington; its Spilsby Food Store on Post Office Lane; and on Fleet Street, Holbeach, sharing space with the pharmacy and post office.

Facilities include self-service machines, people’s network computers, dedicated helplines linking to Lincolnshire County Council’s customer services team and thousands of books.

The library at the society’s Holbeach store

The libraries are run by volunteers but supported by Lincolnshire Co-operative’s staff from its food, pharmacies and post offices on site. Co-op colleagues help with tasks such as opening and closing libraries, supporting the volunteers, liaising with the volunteer coordinator, supporting library users, and banking duties.

The co-op invested £35,000 in each library to set them up, and the council provides around £5,000 per year towards the running cost of each library and offered one-off grants of £15,000 for changes to buildings or equipment.

What is the impact?

Since opening under the Lincolnshire Co-op, the libraries have tripled the number of users.

Support from the co-op’s staff helps libraries run for longer hours – Holbeach Library is open 50 hours a week, as opposed to 18 when it was run by the council. In its first week after opening, Holbeach Library had 824 visitors and 601 books issued. The number of new members joining the library has also increased from five a week to 62 a week.

What is the key to success?

“We think of Lincolnshire Co-operative as not just of providing our services but actually supporting other services as well,” said Ms Lidbetter. “Our vision is that together we are providing and supporting valued services. Supporting the library is an end in itself.”

“It has had a positive effect on our staff, who recognise the support for the library is a way of supporting our organisation,” she added. “Another benefit is that all of our volunteers are local people from the community and it is important to us to keep close to our communities.”

Community groups such as Home Start, district councils, Rotary clubs and pre-schoolers can use the library for meetings. The co-op’s funeral division also hosted funeral help coffee mornings as part of the Dying Matters Awareness Week.

Ms Lidbetter emphasises the need to involve everybody in the initial discussion; Lincolnshire Co-operative engaged with the mutual Greenwich Leisure (GLL), which is now running the back office for the libraries of Lincolnshire, as well as the volunteers, the local community and the co-op’s staff.

“It’s important that right from the beginning you understand all those people and get their views to suit everybody’s requirements rather than imposing it. It’s suitable for a co-op approach,” she said.

  • If you’re attending this year’s Co-op Congress in Wakefield, join us for our Big Debate on Friday 30 June at Unity Works (2.30pm) or read the report after the event:
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