Harbury Village Library – An Ongoing Success Story

Harbury Village Library (HVL) is housed in a characterful building in the centre of the village, formerly the old School Room which was built in 1856.  For many years, the council operated library only opened on two days a week, and was generally felt to be underused and somewhat unloved. It had been rumoured to have been at risk of closure on several occasions in the last 30 or so years.

In 2010 it became clear that Harbury Library was very likely to be one of 17 local libraries that would be closed as part of the County Council’s spending cuts, because although there is a statutory duty on councils to provide a library service, the exact requirements of this duty is not defined. With the backing of our local County Councillor and the Chair of Harbury Parish Council, a pro-active consultation process began with Warwickshire County Council (WCC) for the village to take over responsibility for the service as a community library. This led to a meeting in the local school hall in March 2011, attended by about 100 people, where it was clear that there was considerable support for this idea.  A survey in summer 2011 by the Parish Council confirmed there was 80% public support for the continuance of a library.  As a result a committee of four was formed to put together the business case, including the Parish Council Chair, someone with experience as a school librarian and two others with useful business expertise. They were shortly joined by another person with extensive catering experience, as the idea had been formulated to set up a volunteer run internet café to help to fund the on-going project.  Crucially, WCC were prepared to continue to provide the book stock and donate the fixtures and fittings, including four desktop computers, in the existing library, along with providing ongoing advice and minimal IT support to maintain the library network, but all the staff and running costs would be left to the village to find.  It was estimated that this would be about £5,000 a year to pay for matters such as utilities and maintenance, in addition to considerable start up costs, for which some grants were available.

WCC had set up a £100,000 fund in association with the Big Society Fund to establish a number of community libraries, to which a successful application for around £7,000 was made for café equipment.  A further grant for approximately £15,000 was awarded by the Community Libraries Capital Fund for the cost of adapting the building to include a café area. Additionally, an existing village environmental group, the HEI (Harbury Energy Initiative), successfully applied for a substantial insulation grant from a government fund, LEAF, which greatly reduced heating costs in such an old building. (Nevertheless at around £2,500 a year, gas and electricity costs are still the largest ongoing cost for HVL).The building itself is owned by the Parochial Church Council,  but WCC had a lease from the Church in 1973 which required the former to renovate the fabric of the building before it could be relinquished. As a result, the roof, guttering and outside fencing were renewed, and a solid floor installed; extensive and vital building work costing in the region of six figures.  Another successful bid was made to the Community Grants Fund for £3,000 for internet/computer related costs such as a new printer etc, and WCC agreed to fund the £500 annual cost of continuing broadband provision. The process for registering as a charity was also instigated, as HVL would in future operate as a charitable trust.

With the grants obtained for new equipment, which paid among other things for a sophisticated coffee machine – no granules here! – and scouring the salerooms for cutlery and crockery, the café began to take shape.  The management committee underwent several changes as two of the original members took a back seat, while four new members, two of whom had a catering background, joined.  Initial IT expertise was provided by local people, implementing the new computers and BookCat Library Management System for the Harbury Collection, of which more below.  Another local resident used his retail experience to source materials for the café and built the counter which was the focal point of this area.

As a consequence of the substantial building works, all the displaced shelves and books had to be manhandled back into place, but the Library finally re-opened in May 2012, having been closed for several months, with an official opening ceremony later attended by both the local MP and the Warwickshire Chief Librarian.

From the outset the café, christened Biblio’s, was a success.  There was no other facility of this sort in the village, and it soon became apparent that an unmet need was being satisfied, particularly for older members of the community who could meet regularly with friends, and also for young parents who could chat elsewhere than on a chilly street corner after dropping off their children at school. Visitors from other villages, passing cyclists, walkers and holiday makers have all taken advantage of this venue. The cakes are home baked and truly delicious, soon acquiring a regular fan base.  A committed group of cooks use fair trade and organic ingredients wherever possible, and, though repaid for the cost of these, their time and expertise, as well as use of their home kitchens, are all given freely as a contribution to the success of HVL. The quality of this enterprise was subsequently recognised by the award of Highly Commended in the 2014 Countryside Alliance Award start up category.

While the social and community benefits of this facility as noted above would be worthwhile in itself (the café has even trained interns to help young people add to their CVs), the roughly £10,000 generated each year is invaluable for paying the running costs of HVL and providing a surplus profit to be re-invested in new café, library and IT equipment as required. Other funding sources are one –off payments from  developers of new local housing schemes, on-going local art exhibitions and hiring charges;  while useful, these are relatively insignificant compared with the financial contribution made by the café.

A major factor in the overall success of the library in its newly constituted form  are the 3,000 or so books  which have been donated  by villagers or purchased through our Buy a Book scheme since 2012, and which are administered by a separate computer system (BookCat) which allows them to be kept within HVL. This has added not only to the quantity of books, but also to the quality, with many prizewinning bestsellers appearing on our shelves very quickly.  Over 800 people have signed up to borrow books from the Harbury Village Library Blue Label Collection which, as this figure represents almost a third of the total population of the village, suggests that the library is generally well-used and much appreciated.  The stock of foreign language books, begun previously by donations from our twinned town of Samois-sur-Seine, has also been added to. There are shelves devoted to local authors and to family history, the latter of which supplements the Ancestry software for those wishing to research their own forbears on the library’s three open access computers free of charge.  Access to the British Newspaper Archive is now also available from the computers.  Recently, a scheme to allow donated board games to be borrowed from or played in the library has also been introduced and is proving popular.  There is also a well utilised Book Exchange for donated books not suitable for library stocks.

A notable development instituted by HVL has been the attempt to encourage usage by local children.  Apart from Holiday Book Schemes initiated by the county library service, a regular session of ‘Tunes and Tales’ run by a volunteer has brought in babies and toddlers (and attendant adults) who hopefully will continue to use the library as they grow up. Regular visits from school children from the local primary school have also been arranged to help with their project topics, and the local head teacher is very supportive of these and other initiatives to familiarise the children with what is on offer at HVL.  

The re-vamped facilities have also been attractive for several groups in the village to hire to hold their regular meetings, such as a book group and a writing group, but the space has also been used for talks by local authors; art exhibitions; a tea party and antique valuation sessions, thus providing a useful and comfortable setting which encourages community engagement. In addition, the building has been useful as a setting for displays of local interest such as information about the recent land slip in the railway cutting, and a model of the proposed memorial garden in the Church. Two new initiatives begun in late 2015 are a monthly café for dementia sufferers and their carers called Connections, and sewing classes.

Volunteers are crucial to the success of this enterprise: there are currently about 50 regular volunteers for the issue desk, and 40 or so cooks and counter staff for the café, which is open in the mornings from Wednesday to Saturday throughout the year.  The library is now open for five full weekdays and a half day on Saturday, and has its own website, Facebook page and Twitter account, so it is far more accessible than previously.  The importance of HVL for the provision of resources to the village, including computers, free wi-fi, printing, etc. - and, of course, books - plus the social meeting place of the café facilities should not be underestimated.

HVL has also acted as an important role model and learning resource for other communities experiencing similar changes to their library services, and there have been visits and enquiries from places like Leicestershire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Birmingham  and even further afield, including Essex and Lancashire.

In 2018 a major refurbishment of the Library area, including replacing and repositioning all the shelves and new carpeting, was carried out. The result was a brighter, more modern layout, while retaining the benefits of the historic building. Although a little shelf space was lost, the books were now generally more accessible. We received universal approval for the changes, both from borrowers and other visitors, including a deputation from as far away as Myanamar, brought to visit us by WCC as a model for Community Libraries.

It could not have been achieved without Section 106 money from local developers, but more importantly by the willing and enthusiastic help of volunteers who filled, moved and then re-shelved hundreds of crates of books during the fortnight during which the library was closed.  Incidentally this was the only time that the Library had closed during its normal opening hours in six years of operation, until the onset of the Pandemic in 2020.

In 2019, Harbury Village Library and Biblio’s Café was honoured to receive the Queen’s Award for Volunteering in recognition of the hard work and commitment of all the people who worked to set up and run the operation. A representative from the Steering Committee attended a Garden Party at the Palace, and in October that year a party was held for past and present volunteers in the Village Hall to celebrate the Award and to thanks them for their efforts. This was attended by the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire, who presented attendees with their badges, and senior representatives from Warwickshire County Libraries.

In March 2020, the doors of the Wight School were closed as a result of the spread of Covid 19 amid concern for our visitors and volunteers, many of whom were in the ‘vulnerable’ category. However, during the First Lockdown it was decided to provide access to both books and coffee, within the existing regulations, by having both available outside on fine days with social distancing observed. Careful quarantine of the books which were offered, all from our Takeaway Shelf, was enforced. Later, books were delivered, often by bicycle, to those who could not venture out at all. When the building was allowed to re-open, our own Blue Label books were able to be borrowed, before WCC recommenced loans. Biblio’s switched to social distanced table service, and masks, sanitising, track and tracing were all rigorously observed.  This soon became familiar, but it was a relief when the rules could be gradually relaxed.

The years between the refurbishment and the closure also saw a burgeoning of the HVL as a Community Hub, involving it as a thriving venue for activities and performances such as locally written Murder Mystery plays and talks by local authors, as a service provider for other organisations in handling their ticket sales and as a centre for recycling and the local Food Bank. After normal service was resumed post pandemic, these activities were gradually reintroduced and expanded upon. In conjunction with Live and Local, a number of musical and other artistic presentations were promoted in the village.  New ventures such as the Repair Shed and the Seed Share schemes were begun in conjunction with HVL. Ties with the local junior school and the revitalised Heritage Room were also strengthened. All these initiatives will be continued into the future.

Finally it must be acknowledged that all of this could not have be achieved without the hard work of the founders, particularly the original steering committee headed by Tim Lockley, and all the volunteers, plus the support of the Parish Council, which underwrote the first three years of operation, WCC and the people of Harbury, who we trust will carry on borrowing and donating books and consuming the coffee and cakes so that HVL can continue to thrive.    

Janice Montague