Is York at the centre of a radical new chapter in library services?

Relaxing at York Explore

Relaxing at York Explore - Credit: Joan Russell

A new age of exploration for libraries in York

York Explore - the former central library in the city

York Explore - the former central library in the city - Credit: Joan Russell

There was a time, not so long ago, when the only things you got from your local library were a book and a cold stare (because you’d inadvertently starting humming the TV theme tune while checking out the latest Paddington adventure).

In the years since, libraries have changed, and not always for the better. Yes, banks of computers have appeared, chat is not just tolerated but encouraged and families have been tempted in with fun events and activities, but political intervention and increasing financial pressure has also led to the closure of some services and the sword of Damocles hanging threateningly over others.

So, what’s the solution? How do we make libraries a viable, sustainable option for future generations?

York libraries believe they have the answer. All 15 have broken free from council control to become an industrial and providential society with charitable status – the first of its kind in the country – under the umbrella name of Explore.

The door is open to everyone at York Explore

The door is open to everyone at York Explore - Credit: Joan Russell

This means it’s owned by its community members and staff, and managed by a chief executive and representative board. Anyone over the age of 16 can apply to be a member, giving them a vote at the AGM, the chance to stand for election if a board position becomes available, the opportunity to join an advisory group and access to an informative monthly newsletter.

They also get a café loyalty card which, according to chief executive Fiona Williams, is one of the main reasons people sign up.

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And it’s easy to see why. The bright, modern café at York Explore – formerly York central library in Library Square – is a vibrant hub offering fresh food and good coffee (both vital ingredients in virtually every contemporary business venture). While innovative ‘reading cafes’ in Rowntree Park (an absolute gem in a lofty eyrie that was once the park-keeper’s lodge), The Homestead in Clifton and at Sycamore House in Clarence Street are perfect for coffee, cake and contemplation (but mainly cake).

They’re all part of the warm Explore welcome, aimed at enticing everyone in – even dedicated library-dodgers.

‘Some people can still be a little wary of libraries and worry about not knowing what to do, but everyone knows how to drink a cup of coffee,’ said Fiona.

But Explore is about much more than creating cafes. It’s about creating a sense of adventure, a sense of place and a sense of community togetherness.

‘Our vision is not about saving money or cutting corners,’ said Fiona. ‘We have created a very unusual model, but it fits all our criteria and is a great example of light-touch governance. Our libraries and archives are run for the greater community.’

York archives are a key part of the Explore offering alongside its 15 libraries, reading cafes and the mobile/home library service. The collection contains thousands of unique documents (the oldest dating from 1155), plans and photographs that span 800 years of the city’s fascinating history, together with more than 68,000 books, newspapers and maps detailing everyday life.

The archives, once tucked away at the art gallery and viewable by appointment only, are now housed on the upper floor of York Explore in a secure, climate-controlled environment, accessible to all and (thankfully) with the 150,000 former index cards now transferred online and available via a couple of keystrokes.

‘Our archives give people a real sense of place and help York residents understand where they come from,’ said Fiona. ‘It was something of a gentlemen’s club before. Most people didn’t know the archives existed, and those who did assumed they weren’t for them. We’ve now opened them up to everyone and the response has been phenomenal.’

As has the response to the rest of the updates and improvements that have happened since Explore took over the service in 2014. Acomb library – now Acomb Explore – was the first to get a makeover. The response was a rise in daily visitors from 200 to 800.

‘That gave us a working example of our vision,’ said Fiona. ‘Then Aviva (the insurance company based in Rougier Street, York) stepped in with funding to transform the ground floor of the central library, so we had our flagship.’

Currently, around 700,000 people visit York Explore every year. The chief executive wants that to reach a million. It’s an ambitious goal, but the team wouldn’t be where they are now without ambition and chutzpah.

Perhaps inevitably, the Explore vision was less focussed when Fiona and her team were first asked by City of York Council to look at different operating models for the library service four years ago.

‘It was so confusing at first,’ she said. ‘There were so many elements to consider, not least the nerve-wracking idea of leaving the council’s support network in terms of finances, legal and HR.

‘York Museums Trust had already successfully gone it alone, but theirs is a different offering. People expect libraries to offer a completely free service, so charging was never an option.’

In the end, she sat down with lawyers and advisors from Mutual Ventures, a London-based company that specialises in developing public service entrepreneurship through mutuals, and laid down what she wanted to achieve: no library closures, greater staff and community involvement and paid staff in every branch.

‘The model we’ve created is not just right for our libraries; it’s right for all libraries,’ said Fiona. ‘We’re outside of political control and our neutrality is key. Our staff also have a real stake in the service and their contribution is significant. We ask a lot of them and their trust in us is truly humbling.’

Inevitably, there were some concerns about pensions and job security but, from day one, 70 per cent of staff actively supported the change, relishing the prospect of having their say on service improvements.

Explore has a five-year contract with the council, giving it financial security until 2019, and is already in renewal talks with officers.

‘We have to improve our income streams and clearly demonstrate our impact but, at the end of the day, we are the people to do this, to run a successful library service across the city,’ said Fiona.

‘There is no Plan B. I love NCIS (a long-running American TV series based on the crime-busting adventures of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service) and there’s a character in it who says ‘we look at the reality in front of us and refuse to accept it’.

While renegotiating with the council, Explore is also working on a five-year strategy to take it up to 2021. It plans to further expand its reading cafes, move Tang Hall Explore into the former Burnholme Community College (making it even bigger than Acomb Explore), find a long-term home for Haxby Explore, which was literally falling down and has been temporarily relocated to Oaken Grove Community Centre, open a new library in York’s forthcoming community stadium (due to open in 2018) and negotiate a move for the New Earswick branch from the local primary school to the more central Folk Hall.

There’s a mountain of work to do and, at the moment, the summit is still nowhere in sight. But Fiona remains resolutely upbeat (if a little tired) and convinced that the decision to go it alone was, in reality, the only positive, sustainable choice for both the staff and the community.

But what would have happened if the library service had remained within the council’s control?

‘We got moving at the right time,’ said Fiona. ‘Charlie Croft (the then assistant director of leisure services at City of York Council) saw this coming years ago and gave us a timely push in the right direction.

‘If we were just starting this process now, I fear it would already be too late. Something would have to give and that usually means library closures.

‘If we hadn’t done this, we would have suffered death by a thousand cuts. Instead, we’re seeing an increase in visitor numbers and an increase in our community profile. We’re working hard and we’re winning.’