A mutual delivery model of library services at Devon County Council

Devon County Council has set up an independent staff- and community-owned social enterprise to run the county’s library service. This case study forms part of the Different delivery models - libraries (mutuals) section of our online Culture Hub.

The idea for this ‘mutual’ delivery model emerged in 2014, when the council asked its communities to consider options to save £1.5 million from the cost of the library service over three years (a 20 per cent reduction in the overall revenue budget). There was strong feedback that libraries played an important role in local communities and were highly valued. However, most people understood the financial pressures, and there was a willingness to explore other solutions.

Following extensive consultation with staff, communities and councillors, the decision was made to establish an independent public service mutual. Libraries Unlimited became operational in 2016 and now runs Devon’s 50 community libraries and four mobile libraries. Its strategic direction is set by a board of trustees (staff, community and independent trustees) who all have a passion for the future of libraries along with the vision, expertise and creativity to help the organisation develop and grow.

Libraries Unlimited has a five-year contract with the council with the potential to continue for a further five years. A commissioning arrangement sets out the outcomes anticipated and provides the framework for the relationship between the two organisations. Library staff were supportive of the move and had faith in the vision and purpose of the new organisation.

Library services at Devon County Council
Library services at Devon County Council. Photo credit: Libraries Unlimited


Impact of the project

The service worked to maintain a ‘business as usual’ approach with its customers. Behind the scenes, discussions on the value, mission and purpose of libraries led to a clearly defined mission – to bring ideas, imagination, knowledge and creativity to people’s lives and communities. Early on, the organisation developed its own appraisal process to reflect the new vision and values. It introduced a clearer focus on overall performance with more regular monitoring of the take-up of services, providing feedback to the trustees and Devon County Council, and considering new ways to reach more people.

There was strong political support from the start. Councillor Roger Croad, Cabinet Member for Community Services, said: “I am proud that we have delivered a strong and sustainable model that has professional staff and communities at its heart. The new service gives libraries the opportunity for greater community involvement and more flexibility, focus and opportunity to work collaboratively with customers, communities and partners to deliver a service that meets local need.” One year into the project, Libraries Unlimited is on course to deliver all £1.5 million savings by March 2018.

Looking to the future

Libraries Unlimited is developing new relationships with partners at the local, national and international levels. Its network of Friends Groups has expanded from 14 to 44 in two years, providing local support, fundraising and input. Arts Council England has awarded £200,000 from its Research Grants programme to a consortium including Libraries Unlimited and the University of Exeter, to investigate the social value of libraries.

Ciara Eastell, Chief Executive of Libraries Unlimited, said: “Making this change is not for the faint-hearted and is not a quick way to fix financial difficulties. We know that there will be continued challenges for us and the wider library sector around funding. We will tackle these challenges with a sense of optimism and ambition which will, I’m sure, enable our libraries to provide more of what our communities really need in the future.”  

Key learning points

Factors behind the project’s success include:

  • An ambitious and positive vision for the future of libraries and recognition of their importance in supporting strong and resilient communities.
  • Engaged and supportive councillors and officers, and a willingness by leaders and managers to venture into the unknown with a ‘can do’ spirit, energy and commitment.
  • Funding provision for high-quality independent financial and legal support.  

For further information contact Ciara Eastell, Chief Executive, Libraries Unlimited: [email protected]

You can read more about Devon's Libraries Unlimited on GOV.UK.

Additionally, you can find wider guidance and more case studies on GOV.UK's Libraries: alternative delivery models toolkit.


This case study has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England