A library in a shop?

I visited the Lincolnshire Co-operative Society this week, to see how they are creating space on the high street for libraries.

With cuts all around, the county may have to close up to 32 of its 46 libraries. This is where the co-operative has stepped in, recognising that if communities want it, then there may be new ways to keep the service alive. The co-op is piloting 5 libraries in-store, as well as services such dropping off books with its existing home prescription service for house-bound patients.

In Waddington, Lincolnshire, the library had been reduced in recent years to opening two mornings and one afternoon a week. Now, it is ensconced within a Co-operative Pharmacy, open from Monday to Saturday. It operates with an automated book machine, with a drop off hatch outside the shop – plus volunteers that help out.

Why does the co-op want to do this? The answer was that it always has. It opened the very first library ever in Lincolnshire in 1876 – spurred on to do so because the signatures on its own founding articles included Xs from the labourers who could see the sense of setting up the business but didn’t have the reading and writing skills to sign their name.

“The welfare state handled some of the need our communities had when we first started” says Ursula Lidbetter, the inspirational Chief Executive of Lincolnshire Co-operative Society. “Now that services are under pressure, co-operatives are well placed to respond to the new needs that communities find they have.”

I met Chris Donnan behind the pharmacy counter. The library opened on the morning of the day his baby was born, November 30th 2012, with winter snow falling outside. What he appreciates is the bustle of people in and out. Even so, the atmosphere is quiet and considered – and Chris and his colleague are able to focus on prescriptions and advice rather than the shampoos and spot creams that embroider most pharmacies.

While I look around, Ursula chats to eighteen month old Fleur and her sister, for whom books are a passport to imagination.

The shelves are full of well-thumbed books. Wayne Rooney’s unofficial biography is on the table alongside children’s books, fiction and non-fiction for grown-ups.

Alongside the pharmacy / library is also a post office outlet, another essential local service in Waddington run by the co-operative. Together, they create a footfall that makes the space viable overall. There is no hard sell, no hidden charges. It is just a new way to meet an old need.

The volunteers, like all volunteers perhaps, are a few people who put themselves forward and more who are asked. The co-op has its own volunteer coordinator, Rachel. Until the library opened, her job was about helping co-op staff, working in over seventy outlets across the country, to do volunteering outside of work hours. Knowing how to deal with insurance and to organise cover, she now is the link person for people from the local community who help out on four mornings and one afternoon a week.

Waddington library has fifteen volunteers, and Rachel told me when I got back to Lincoln that the number will swell with students out of university – plus one local author who had come forward. The co-op has over two hundred thousand members already across the county that it is accountable to and the library service is something that they back. “I was not a member of the library” said one resident in Waddington “but I have joined the co-op because the village really needs it.”

Waddington is on a country ridge known as the Lincolnshire Cliff, with views out over the River Witham valley. It feels like a place in which you can look forward and look further.

A library in a shop? Why ever not.

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