Books and beyond

Head of libraries at GLL Rebecca Gediking describes how innovation and adaptation are at the heart of a successful, modern library service.

Widely recognised as a leading operator of municipal leisure services, GLL, a co-operative and charitable social enterprise, has diversified and grown over the past decade, to become the largest single provider of public library services in the country.

The journey began in 2012, when we launched a libraries division working with the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Today, we manage 120 libraries on behalf of local authority partners. Our libraries record some of the highest book issues and visits in the country. The most recent Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants (CIPFA) figures show the libraries we operate in the Royal Borough of Greenwich have the highest visitor numbers per 1,000 population in the country; Woolwich Library boasts 547,440 annual visits. Libraries in the London Borough of Bromley issued the most books in the capital – 1,156,742.

Innovation and evolution

These results have been achieved by continually evolving and re-imaging the library services we offer. Not only do we provide safe, attractive and welcoming spaces, but we also innovate. One of the highlights of 2023 was our collaboration with the London Borough of Bromley to deliver three events as part of a joint NightTime Enterprise Zone project. Our series of Library Lates events aimed to defy expectations of what a library could offer and included cocktail masterclasses, street food, live music, a silent disco and craft activities. The response was phenomenal, our initial target was to attract 300 visitors, in fact 3,000 local residents passed through our doors.

Paula Young, Head of Culture at the London Borough of Bromley said: ‘GLL goes above and beyond, to not only deliver excellent library services, but also to support all our council services and priorities.'

Working in partnership

Working in partnership, not just with local authorities but also other charities and community groups is central to our ethos. We recently collaborated with another social enterprise, Library of Things. Founded to help people save money and reduce waste, it rents out useful items ranging from DIY and gardening equipment to household items. Now visitors to some of our libraries don't just have the option to borrow books, they might borrow a sewing machine, power washer or a drill.

Cllr Adel Khaireh, Cabinet Member for Culture, Communities and Equalities at the Royal Borough of Greenwich said: ‘Having this hub in Woolwich Library is an inviting, friendly and sustainable way for our residents to borrow items they wouldn't usually be able to afford. It will help our residents to save money and reduce the amount of waste we produce.'

Reaching out

Marrying sport with culture comes naturally to GLL, given its roots within the leisure sector and our partnership with charity Alive and Kicking provides a perfect synergy. The Better Ball project offers the opportunity to borrow a football from a library, just as you would a book or DVD. Available at libraries operated by GLL across Wandsworth, Bromley and Greenwich, the scheme benefits children who might not have access to footballs and recognises the benefits of physical activity at a time when childhood obesity levels are rising.

Another hugely successful initiative was first piloted by Lough library in Lincolnshire. ‘Reading Dogs', a collaboration with charity Therapy Dogs Nationwide, has seen therapy dogs brought into our libraries, initially to support children who lacked confidence when reading. The programme was so successful it has now been rolled out to encompass adult sessions as part of a lottery-funded project for the over 50s that encourages interaction amongst the socially isolated.

Karen Waring, manager at Louth Library says: ‘Introducing dogs to our sessions creates a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere. Some children who refuse to read out loud, will read to a dog because they feel like they are being listened to without judgement. It really builds their confidence.'

Crunching the numbers

Behind the scenes a critically important element of what makes our libraries successful, is the way we monitor data. We monitor stock performance; visitor figures and demographic data and we conduct annual user surveys. We always engage with library users to co-design services, recognising that every library and every local community is unique. This approach has resulted in 97% of our users rating the service they receive from us as good or excellent. Since 2022 we have also measured the social value our libraries create, through indicators such as wellbeing, quality of life and educational attainment. For every £1 spent GLL achieves £2 in social value.

Investing in people

Investing in our staff is another critical element of our operating model. We have created a bespoke, library-specific, training programme in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). Our approach is consultative and our staff tell us where skills gaps lie and where they would like to focus their learning. For 2024 training modules will include: working with AI, creative health, green libraries and engaging with teenage audiences. Our proactive approach contributed to GLL being awarded Investors In People (IIP) Gold Standard.

Jo Cornish, Interim CEO at CILIP commented: ‘We are proud to have developed this pioneering training programme with GLL; designed to support library staff and give them the skills they need now, and for the future. It is the only programme of its kind for public library workers in England. Now entering its third year, it is wonderful to see how the training supports the wide-ranging service delivery GLL provides, making a real impact with the community.'

This year will see us launch the GLL Literary Foundation. It is inspired by GLL's long standing and hugely successful Sport Foundation – the largest independent athlete support programme in the UK. The Literary Foundation will support authors who are local to the libraries that we operate, helping them to create their brand, deliver events and reach a wider audience. It will provide library users with the unique opportunity to see stories written, attend author-driven events and read diverse books authored by home-grown talent.

Rebecca Gediking is Head of Libraries at GLL

This article is sponsored content for The MJ


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