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Case study: Libraries Unlimited (formerly Devon Library Service)

Updated: Apr 15




Client: Libraries Unlimited and Devon County Council


Date: June 2015 to July 2017


Challenges faced by the client: Public library services across the country are facing significant challenges. The declining use of traditional book lending services requires libraries to embrace rapidly changing technologies and growing demand for digital services.


This is against a backdrop of ongoing financial challenges. Devon County Council’s budget for library services reduced by £3 million (30%) over a 6 year period. This reduction was initially sustained through a combination of reducing management and support services, reduced opening hours and a lowering of investment in new books and other resources. However, in 2016/17 further budget reductions meant significant changes were required to ensure libraries across the county remained open.


Following extensive stakeholder engagement, Libraries Unlimited established as an independent staff and community owned Public Service Mutual (PSM) with charitable status on 1st April 2016. Some of the key ingredients that helped to ensure the successful transition were:

  • An ambitious and positive vision and mission for the future of libraries in the county

  • A recognition of the important role the service plays in supporting strong and resilient communities

  • Strong political support

  • Funding made available by Devon County Council to procure high quality independent business planning, financial and legal support

  • A willingness on behalf of the leaders and managers to venture into the unknown with a ‘can do’ spirit

  • Finding a Chair of the Board with the time and skills to be part of the negotiating team

Support offered:

Mutual Ventures provided bespoke business planning and transition support to ensure the establishment of a sustainable, innovative and outcomes focussed PSM. Our support included:

  • Jointly project managing the business planning and transition processes

  • Engaging with service leadership, staff, council officers, elected members and Friends Groups to develop the vision, mission and values of the new organisation

  • The development of a 5 year business plan that identified the current and future service offerings, informed by community requirements, the ambitions of staff to deliver differently, council requirements relating to impact, financial sustainability and service performance

  • The business planning process involved a review and restructuring of the service’s operating model, involving staff re-structuring, the designing and procurement of ‘enabling’ business support services and agreeing a county wide property solution

  • Support to define the charity’s legal form and governance structure, in addition to the development of a prudent 5 year financial model, including cash flow analysis

  • Advising on pensions, various terms of the contract and the timing of the Council’s savings profile

  • Supporting the development of job descriptions and personal specifications for senior managers and Board of Trustee positions

  • The development and implementation of a costed transition plan

Once established, Mutual Ventures supported Libraries Unlimited to secure the contract to deliver library services in Torbay, as part of our Big Potential funded support designed to support the charity to grow.


Outcome achieved:

Being a PSM ensures that customers, staff and communities directly influence the design and ambitions of the organisation, helping Libraries Unlimited and their partners (including Devon County Council) to achieve shared priorities and improve outcomes for customers and communities.


Since establishing as a PSM, Libraries Unlimited has been able to maximise the benefits of being a registered charity and has been able to develop a more entrepreneurial and innovative approach to delivering library services.


Savings targets of £1.5 million were achieved during the first 2 years. All 50 libraries remain open and run by paid staff. In addition, Libraries Unlimited has been able to secure new sources of funding to trail new and innovative library services. In addition, the charity secured the contract to deliver library services in Torbay.


The charity became an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation in June 2017. This additional funding enables Libraries Unlimited to expand the library offer and to support the organisation’s sustainability.


Libraries Unlimited has achieved a high-profile national reputation and is widely regarded within the sector as a leading and progressive library service.


Ciara Eastell, Chief Executive Libraries Unlimited South West said:


The support provided by MV on this project was exceptional. The consultants were professional, supportive, conscientious and were able to build excellent relationships and credibility across the multiple stakeholders involved on the project. Their help ensured that we were able to ‘spin-out’ within the required timescales.”