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Ilustration: Jan Barron

Support for Friends of Pevensey Bay Library as they launch their first tier core membership scheme

A small research team working with the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library has put into action a core membership subscription plan to test if the local community would be interested in supporting the community library venture proposed by the Friends.

The work has been undertaken over the last three weeks, from 10 January—2 February 2018.

The results have shown a marked interest in the plan.

A total of 31 people, had signed up to core membership plan by 31 January, with two more people joining the plan in the first few days of February.

The people joining the scheme at what is being described as the ‘tier one’ level represents demonstrable engagement in the proposal put forward by the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library, in the view of the team.

The scheme is pointing the way towards a plan to provide a sustainable income stream to the Friends Group as their proposal is considered.

The subscription income stream currently pledged is £1,155.00 per annum, from 33 people, and is expected to rise through February.

Researchers considered the notion of ‘subscription libraries’, looking to the history of library institutions for inspiration.

Subscription libraries pre-dated the birth of the public library movement in this country, reaching back to places like the early Oxford coffeehouses that began in in 1650, started by a Jewish entrepreneur named Jacob, which came to be called ‘Penny Universities’.

These business ventures were public social places where people would meet for conversation and commerce, at the time, all men. For the price of a penny, customers purchased a cup of coffee and admission. The historian Brian Cowan describes English coffeehouses as ‘places where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern.’

They were often meeting points for protest groups of the day.

Coffeehouses also played a role in the development of the press, offering a place for people to read the news. Lloyd’s Coffee House, for example, (1698) experimented with publishing a newspaper, reporting on shipping schedules and insurance agreements.

The notion of a subscription library in this country dates back to the same moment in our history. Chetham’s Library opened in 1653. The entire collection has been designated as one of national and international importance. The Library began acquiring books in August 1655, and has been adding to its collections ever since. The library operates a £3:00 admission charge, by donation.

Circulating libraries began in the early 18th century, the first in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Scotland led the way, not just with the Enlightenment, but with libraries. By 1750, in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World, Arthur Herman estimates that the country of Scotland had a 75% level of literacy. In his Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell documents him saying (1791) “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”

The Industrial Revolution, many historians argue, saw an increase in literacy. The historian Michael Sanderson argues that the change may have happened for a number of reasons, the most important one being that social opportunities were growing for which literacy was a distinct advantage.

By the middle of the nineteenth century with radical social change in the country, the public library movement was born, enshrined in The Public Libraries Act of 1850.

The interest in public libraries has been unabated since that time. Even people that do not visit local libraries see their value and do not want to see them closed. There appears to be something deeply embedded in the psyche of the nation that says that libraries are important.

Does any of this history of libraries matter?

The answer is that the development of public learning, book borrowing, social interaction and the use of social space that is available to the public for reading has informed every stage in the development of public libraries in this country.

Without this public history of libraries we would not have seen the East Sussex County Council consultation process with regard to the closure of seven libraries in the county.

The question of the closure of public libraries in this country is a touchstone.

A spokesman for the research team said, “we started by looking at the relationship between reading, literacy, the utilisation of social spaces, the birth the subscription library and the explosion of interest in the public library movement in this country in 1850 and asked a very simple question.

“Could anything in the history of the library movement in this country inform the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library in their quest to implement a sustainable ‘subscription base’ to their proposal to found a community library in Pevensey Bay in 2018?”.

The next stage was to analyse 15-20 community library ventures across the country. For this purpose the researchers looked at the Arts Council England Guide to Community libraries, January 2013, Community libraries, Learning from experience:, Summary briefing for local authorities.

They argued the case that whilst dated to 2013, nonetheless the case studies, comprising 170 community supported or managed libraries (approximately 12% of public libraries in the country) was the most illuminating place in the circumstances to study what is happening on the ground in current times.

The team found by considering 15-20 case studies that the ‘subscription model’ had been implemented in a number of key ventures.

The ways in which they had been implemented appeared to demonstrate, in some cases, both an understanding of the history of the library movement and also, novel, creative and engaging ways in which local communities had been connected to business models for local libraries, fitted to specific rural needs.

Why were some community venture libraries working so well?

Within the body politic of rural communities with some of these ‘new’ libraries, there appeared to be both vision and understanding of the context for such ventures. A number utilised the ‘subscription model’ as the cornerstone to their plans.

Many community library ventures have adopted a simple formula with voluntary yearly contributions around the ballpark figure of £1:00—£5:00 per annum. A number of community libraries adopted policies that included ‘business arrangements’ including the opportunity to sponsor space on a web platform and other such ‘pitches’.

A number of surprising but interesting examples seemed to embrace the notion of ‘subscription libraries’ in a much more extensive way. The researchers found examples in which ‘subscription’ rates ranged from £50:00 to £100:00 per annum in communities of less than 5,000 people.

There appeared to be examples in which as many as 200 people in rural communities were ‘subscribing’ on a yearly basis to their public library, generating yearly income yields of up to £10,000 a year and beyond.

How could that be?

Just as interesting was the fact that the growth and harness of the volunteer management of these libraries, in certain instances, seemed to be coming also from this ‘subscriber membership base’.

As one volunteer manager put it to the researchers, ‘what you have to remember is that these policies take time to implement, but if they are set up with an appropriate benchmark for a rural community they can work.

“What you have to remember is that local people in buying in to membership to these schemes are not just seeing the payment yearly as an expense, they are seeing the payment as an investment.

“It should be no surprise that alongside the payment, that these people are investing their time, energy and skills into each project in the form of voluntary work in a community library. In a sense they are investing in themselves as well as their annual fees in each project,”

In a way, it could be argued, this is where the public library movement came in, with a local tax levy of usage within a community, to enable ‘access’.

A mandatory payment has been replaced by a voluntary payment within some of the community libraries. Of course to access an Oxford Coffeehouse “penny university” in 1660 or Chetham’s Library in 1653, a payment had been necessary. Now Chethams Library (for example) follows exactly the same policy as when the institution began. The mandatory fee has been replaced by a voluntary fee.

Perhaps the acceptance of a voluntary payment by communities to pay for libraries in some way resonates with people. There is a proud public history to these institutions and perhaps perception of the ‘social capital’ in the ventures., handed down over time.

The researchers looking at the question of subscription rates took some specific decisions in their recommendations. A tiered structure of some kind was the recommendation to the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library as part of their business proposal. Their focus was on the ‘first tier point’, as a promotional strategy, given that the rate proposed was likely to generate both the most interest amongst certain key target groups, and also was the most likely route to a ‘higher yield’ in terms of demonstrable annual income as a subscription base.

The first tier core membership rate was set at a proposed £35:00 for the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library venture.

The promotion of the plan together with an explanation of the subscription proposal, was tested over the last three weeks of January in Pevensey Bay.

Something resonated. Within three weeks a total of 31 local people had signed up as first tier core member at the rate of £35:00, generating a potential annual yield of £1,115:00 to the Friends of Pevensey Bay LIbrary for their proposal .

The result appears remarkable, taken at face value. The successful test is now coming to be seen as a potential cornerstone of some description, both with regard to an income stream and an example of sustainable community engagement and interest.

Perhaps with rural communities there is another factor. The notion of precious public assets like churches, schools and village halls sit alongside the notion of the value of a local rural public library, maybe such notions are also deeply embedded in the psyche of the rural communities.

Certainly some of the comments that have been gathered by the research team, along with the subscription pledges, point to the possibility that local people are giving a deal of thought to their fee and investment in the proposal as ‘subscribers’.

This sensibility about the value of the local library appears to be shared across the board by local people, families, organisations and businesses, as well as visitors to Pevensey Bay and people with a stake in the community.

A retired public sector worker, who lived in Beachlands and is now based in Eastbourne told the researchers “I would pay up to £10:00 a month for the service, it is that useful to me for my genealogical research. I still come to Pevensey Bay because I love the place and use the library all the time”. When asked if he really would consider such a fee, he chopped a very large hand on the table of the cafe where the question was being discussed and said emphatically that he would “do it now”.

A senior citizen lunching in the cafe, as she was getting into her car, got out to talk to one of the researchers and made a point of explaining that she had heard about the scheme and just said “count me in” as she shut her car door.

Researchers looked at a number of possibilities with the subscription scheme.

With a fixed point first tier membership set at £35:00, they then fixed two more points, membership plus set at £15:00 and basic core membership set at £1:00 per annum. At the foot of the three tiers, there was also a gateway membership for the year set at zero, to enable the library to continue to be free on entry.

At each point of entry to the library membership, came rewards. For example at tier one membership, members would get access to previews of special events, an email newsletter, preferential rates to hire the library for events and such ‘initiatives’.

Researchers said “our target was taken by focusing on the first tier core membership rate, as in that fee we saw the highest potential yield per annum, in terms of both money and personal investment”.

Remarkably they found local people wanted to attach themselves to the notion of first tier membership, as one of the researchers put it “wearing their decision like a badge of pride”.

A total of 5 people joined on the first day of promotion, with each consecutive day seeing another person offering to join.

Single people joined at the first tier membership level, couples joined at the same point and a family of five asked if there was a possibility of establishing a ‘family membership” on some basis each year, which we understand is now being considered by the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library.

Along with the fee pledges, also came ideas volunteered by people. One man asked if he could give membership as a gift to a friend.

Finding people willing to offer their support with the planned membership, given the currency perhaps of the question the future of the local library, the researchers indicated, “was not difficult”.

With the pledges beginning to increase in number each day, also came came volunteering offers with advocacy, event management, strategic profiling and promotion for the Friends Library.

Jayne Howard who became No.19 core membership subscriber at the tier 1 level to the business proposal, talked about her decision.

She said she was “delighted to be invited to become a tier 1 core membership subscriber”.

Jayne, who has been involved in organising everything related to events in Eastbourne from Airbourne Eastbourne to the first Eastbourne Balloon Festival also said that she was “delighted to have been invited to advise the Friends of Pevensey Bay LIbrary about their event strategy”.

She said, ‘I am delighted to have been invited to support the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library with their developing events strategy, and I am also happy for this point to be made by the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library as part of their business proposal presentation”.

As the researchers turned to the business community to test the level of interest, not only did they find that local businesses signed up to the scheme, but that they also offered insight into the proceedings from both a family and business perspective.

Suresh Neesarajah who co-owns the 1066 Store and Post Office in Pevensey Bay was also emphatic about becoming a first tier member subscriber for the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library scheme. He became member number 25.

Suresh who has a wife and two sons, both creatives, whose work has been displayed at local art exhibitions, said “this is my community, my family, the library really matters to me and my family. Yes of course I will join as a member to the Friends of Pevensey Bay LIbrary scheme”.

Katie Bundy, owner of the Ocean VIew Restaurant and Bakery, who became member number 27, put the case even more succinctly, “I am delighted to join the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library team as a core member to their tier one scheme, with my pledge, would they like the money now?”

The research team is now to turn their attention to other target groups including the holiday home community, the five local Womens Institute Branches, churches, local history based organisations and writing groups.

They suggested “however counter-intuitive this very targeted approach may appear, we believe that we may well see similar success rates”.

The kinds of people that are pledging their first tier membership are coming from all walks of local life.

The promotion of the membership scheme and ‘tiered levels’ is now planned to extend to three years.

An opening of the library to the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library would of course offer a ‘point of sale’ for the promotion of the membership scheme and sign up options, which might well see direct interest from the day that the community library is opened to the subscription base business model.

In terms of the work done by researchers over three weeks, the return of 33 first tier core membership sign ups (to February 2), generating a yield of £1,115:00 per annum is being seen as a first stage success.

Researchers say, the figure has exceeded their expectations and is predicted to rise to a total 50 core first tier members by the end of February.

The viability and sustainability of the subscription library profile for the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library appears already to have been demonstrated.

What had been planned is for a roll call of honour of the first 30 subscribers to be positioned in the Friends LIbrary on opening day in the foyer, an idea that has been adopted from other community library ventures.

The ‘roll call of honour ‘ is something that is a nod to the history of the library movement and the notion of patronage and subscription, when such ‘roles of honour’ related to patronage were once common to public libraries.

Researchers now say that since that figure has already been exceeded that total that they intend to recommend that the ‘roll call of honour’ is comprised of the first 100 members at the tier one level.

They estimate, given their targets and work done and approach, that this point will be reached at some time around May—June 2018.

They suggest “that will mean that we will have delivered for the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library venture, 100 first tier core members, in less that six months, delivering an annual yield of £3,500.

The researchers say that the take up in the local businesses community is also exciting and a possible demonstration of the understanding that the library as a business venture represents ‘capital social value’.

The welcome desk at the new library may become busy, servicing not just book enquires but also enquiries about membership.

The researchers noted the course pf the extraordinary Parish Council meeting held in Peveney Bay on 30 January.

What was said by one councillor, who seemed to understand the tenor of the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library business case seemed to chime well when questions were asked about the proposed subscription model.

They said, “we noted what councillor Sue Beck said when it came to questions about the subscription strategy and the answer that Margaret Martin gave, and the nod of approval and the expression of interest and note from the councillor about the link to the history of patronage and subscription with the library movement.

“It came as no surprise to us to hear that she has been a librarian for thirty years”

Researchers say that it is early days with their subscription profile for the new library venture but that what is emerging might become ‘a cornerstone’ of some description for the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library and their proposal.

Is there anything in the argument that suggests that something is resonating here in relation to the story of the library movement in this country?

Without question there is something deeply embedded in the understanding and appreciation of the power and glory of libraries by people in this country.

It would be no surprise to find that some local people connect somehow with this sense of the value of a local library. Perhaps the notion triggers a memory trail right back to a moment when one book in one public library transformed their lives in some way.

If, as is the case, links with the printed word and socialisation, discussion, commerce, education and entertainment can be traced back in this country to the public ‘penny universities’ of Oxford in 1600 and subscription libraries, perhaps this shared sense of the value of a local library is deeply embedded somewhere in us all.

Combine this sensibility with the strong attachment to rural communities that residents pledge and you have a feeling that is demonstrably profound.

Does this combination of factors explain why some rural communities see up to 200 people coming forward as ‘members’ of new community libraries, paying as much as £50:00 a year for the privilege?

An understanding of these kinds of vernacular value are what holds a community together, providing identity, continuity and sustainability. Perhaps it would be no surprise to see that the ‘passionate sense of village life’ is also a factor in the growth of some of these rural libraries.

In making the decision to pledge a fee of £35:00 for the local library, are local people in some sense, passing on the torch to the next generation?

Perhaps they want to see that the intellectual light of a library remains undimmed, both for themselves and the people that will follow in their path to self-enlightenment.

Libraries in this country are strong and sustainable currents of interest.

Repaired in spirit as a subscription library, the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library might be about to write their own chapter in the history of local libraries in East Sussex.

Their three tier subscription plan may also become a touchstone.

The roll call of honour and red carpet treatment for all the first tier core members to the local library is yet to come, that might be some party.

If there is to be soundtrack for launch day, Abba and Waterloo might fit the bill. One part of the first stanza resonates.

The history book on the shelf
Is always repeating itself

A library fit for the 21st century, set up, funded and supported by the Friends of Pevensey Bay library, is now looking like a sustainable entity.

More information about joining the Friends of Pevensey Bay LIbrary core membership scheme is available by contacting the Friends of Pevensey Bay Library here, www.friendsofpevenseybaylibrary.org