Community Libraries and their value to our town ...

Researching for our next production of Spine by Clara Brennan made us wonder what exactly a community library is, and what value do they bring. We set up an interview with the lovely Kate Daly from Old Town Community Library in Eastbourne (only a stones throw from our theatre) and were quite humbled at the answer. We are going to split this blog into two, as every word is worth a read.

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How does a community library vary from a council library?

A community library is either a registered charity or a community interest company, or even a charitable incorporated organisation. We don’t get any funding so we had to become self-funding.  In 2002, we were one of the first community libraries in the whole country. So we've been doing it a long time.

Do the councils give you the buildings when they close?

Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't.   Our building is owned by Eastbourne Borough Council. They allow us to have the building rent free. The libraries that have recently closed, such as Pevensey, are being allowed to keep them at a peppercorn rate I think. You do have help in that respect.

So you are the flagship Community Library?

Absolutely. That's why, when the other libraries were all told they were going to close (and there was seven across East Sussex), they all came running to Old Town Library for help asking questions like, ‘how do we become self-funding? How do we become a charity etc?’  So they needed lots of help and that's what we provided, whether it was copies of policies, a sample constitution, or where to go and get grant funding. That was what our role was.

At the beginning did you get help with all of that yourselves?

I got involved in Old Town library towards the end of 2015. Prior to that, I'd worked in community fund-raising since about 2005, although it wasn't a library. It was an estate that had a very poor reputation and needed revamping. So I had experience in that respect.  I came on board because Stephen Lloyd was outside doing a book and bake sale and he nabbed my husband and said, “you're exactly the sort of people we are looking for”  I walked in and wasn’t sure, but my husband fell in love with it. He's a builder, so he had this vision. He could see what it could be like. It was very damp and it was very old and it needed modernising. For a library to survive in today's day and age, it's got to be more than just books.

What difficulties do you face aside from fundraising?

We are very lucky. We have plenty of volunteers, but some of the other libraries I know struggle.  Finding volunteers and managing them can be a difficulty.  It took me two years to build the team we've got now. It is very sad every time someone leaves and you've got to find someone else, and hope that they're going to fit in and get on with everybody. That’s because it's really important. It's got to be a really strong team if you're going to keep it going.  It’s not easy sometimes. So fundraising and finding volunteers are the biggest challenges.

I think it is extraordinary that somebody had the vision to say “hang on a second, you're not going to take our library away and we're going to run it in as community library”.  How did that happen?

It goes back to a lady called Pam Carter who was a librarian there. She got together with some of the customers and they formed Friends of Old Town Library. They negotiated with Eastbourne Borough Council to get the building. However, when they took over the building after the negotiations were successful, the county council had stripped it bare. Not one book was left. So they had to start from scratch.  Whereas the libraries that have closed more recently have been able to negotiate with the County Council to ‘keep’ the books for three years - so they have 3 years to replace them.

Where do you get your books?

All our books are donated.  However, for the first time this year, I managed to get £1000 towards some new audio and large print books, and the latest top 10 three or four times a year.  I was really lucky to get some funding, but literally everything else is donated. This is the first time I've had money for books. So we had a bit of a field day going online and choosing all the large print and audio books but, of course, they're so expensive. You’d think £1000 goes a long way but large prints and audios are anything between £20 and £40 pounds each.  I've got about £400 left and that is going to be used for the latest titles, because that's something we never get.

It is a project of passion isn’t it?

It is. It absolutely is. We all love it.  In 2017, we won the Services to the Community Award from Sussex Life, and a certificate for all our volunteers from BBC Sussex. Last year, I was nominated for Fundraiser of the Year at More Radio, and I won that. This year we’re nominated at: More Radio, The Herald and Women in Business. So it shows you what you can achieve…. to be cont’d.

Spine by Clara Brennan, July 24th - 27th 2019 click here to book