Co-op rewrites the book on library services

A group of leading librarians, frustrated by NHS bureaucracy and funding cuts, have found a new co-op. And, a few months into the new venture, founder member Gerhard Bissels...

A group of leading librarians, frustrated by NHS bureaucracy and funding cuts, have found a new co-op. And, a few months into the new venture, founder member Gerhard Bissels is confident he and his fellow Library Co-op members have made the right decision.

“We had worked well together as a team setting up the world’s first library for complementary medicine, funded largely by donations, at the homeopathic hospital in London.

“We’d put a lot of effort into it but found the NHS structures we had to work within were very antiquated and hierarchical. It’s very difficult to do something forward-thinking or unusual within those structures.”

So, in February, the group left to start the co-op. “We wanted to stay together and because of the way we’ve always worked, a co-operative seemed the only structure for us,” said Mr Bissels. “Between us we have a broad range of skills, including library, finance and archiving.

“Our time at the NHS taught us a lot about lean management of resources and utilising innovative partnerships. For example, most libraries buy in expensive software for their library functions, whereas we use open-source software which offers a much more flexible and cost-effective system.”

Mr Bissels says that, with public sector cuts, such cost efficiencies should prove attractive. “It’s quite scary what’s happening to UK libraries at the moment,” he adds. “Public libraries are closing left, right and centre. The Paul Hamlyn Library in the British Museum has closed. As universities see their incomes drop, library services are often the first things to be cut.”

He says the cuts to library services are made easier because of how poorly valued libraries and librarians often are. “There has been a de-professionalisation of library services in the UK,” he said. “Qualified, professional librarians have been replaced by lower-paid, less well-qualified workers and in academic libraries, senior librarian posts have either been merged or have disappeared.”

Mr Bissels, who moved to the UK from Germany 15 years ago, struggles with this country’s attitude to libraries. “Public libraries now are often scruffy and run-down with a few cook books and a children’s section,” he says. “Books have been replaced with videos and DVDs because, while libraries can’t charge to lend books, they can charge to lend out DVDs. That may be within the letter of library law, but it is certainly not within the spirit of it.”

But, he insists, even poorly supported libraries still perform vital functions. “For young people in not-so wealthy areas, they provide access to learning, giving children a safe environment where they can go after school to do homework. When libraries are cut, that resource disappears.

“And when people want to investigate legal or medical issues they will not be able to access the resources – people will no longer be empowered to make decisions.”

Mr Bissels says the picture is very different elsewhere. “In Switzerland, people are also protesting about libraries – but they are not protesting against cuts, just the amount of new investment. People want even greater investment in their libraries. A library in London might have a stock of 50,000 books, a provincial library in Switzerland would be disappointed to have less than 700,000.

“Library users also expect large digital collections so they can download e books, audio books and films, all as part of their library membership. The UK really lags behind.”

It is against this bleak backdrop that the Library Co-op sees its opportunities. “As mainstream libraries vanish, other bodies feel the need to offer a library service. In the past this would have been too expensive but online services means that the cost threshold is much lower. We can set up and manage online libraries for organisations and their members or users.

“We particularly want to work with our friends within the Co-operative Movement. We have had a lot of help from the Movement in getting established — far more than we received from government or elsewhere — and we want to be an active part of the Movement.”

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