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Evaluation of Arts Council England’s Libraries Development Initiative

The ICC completed a large-scale evaluation of Arts Council England’s Libraries Development Initiative (LDI), a national programme involving thirteen individual, collaborative projects, between March 2012 and June 2013. Arts Council England acquired strategic responsibility for the development and support of libraries following the closure of MLA in October 2011. The LDI programme was subsequently launched in February 2012 as a proactive initiative designed to encourage greater synergy between libraries and the arts, and to test innovative partnership approaches to library service delivery. The programme was originally structured under four key themes including New delivery models for arts and culture working together; Coordinating partnerships to achieve national policy outcomes; Books and reading; and Commercial partnerships, with applicants asked to bid for funding under one of these key development areas. Across the thirteen funded projects, the LDI has engaged 143 public authority authorities, with the direct involvement of 668 library staff and 121 library volunteers; and a total of 217 non-library partners including arts and cultural organisations, commercial publishers, health, education and social services.

The evaluation has revealed a number of learning outcomes for Arts Council England as it develops its strategic relationship with public library services, and for libraries on the frontline seeking to develop their collaborative cultural offer within the context of key local and national drivers including commercial viability and public policy relevance. Evaluation findings have been presented therefore to Arts Council England in two parts – the first includes learning outcomes for the strategic development of the pubic library service in England according to themes used to structure evaluation research data collection and analysis (Collaborative working; Sustainability; Relative innovation; Unique library service contribution) and emerging impact indicators (Professional skills and development; Digital agenda; Leadership and value). These are set in the context of contemporary national conditions for the public library service, and other supporting Arts Council England initiatives including the Envisioning the Library of the Future project. The specific characteristics of the LDI programme, and their relative value, are also summarised, including its open, experimental, reflexive approach, and the level of support provided by Arts Council England via dedicated, sector specialist Relationship Managers and Bridge Organisations. Part two summarises learning outcomes for professional practice in public libraries, and includes evaluation summaries for each of the thirteen funded projects, according to project aims and objectives; contexts; delivery mechanisms; deliverables and outputs; and significant learning outcomes. These are then summarised under the four original LDI [structural] themes to enable a comparative profile of projects funded within each area, and the causal relationship between different contexts, mechanisms and project outcomes.

Headline impacts include an enhanced recognition and appreciation of the complementary offers and professional practices between arts and library sectors, leading to the genuine creation of new, sustainable collaborative relationships and products. In this context, LDI funding has worked in a leverage capacity to secure match funding, additional resources, and ‘scaling-up’ of projects for future funding applications. There is considerable evidence of community co-production in several projects, and of low-cost sustainable methods including effective use of social media and adaptable/transferable training materials. Such adaptation and recontextualisation of library services points to several examples of relative innovation for the sector,  including new activities in libraries, community commissioning models, and different ways of presenting traditional reader and/or information service roles via digital interventions. The pilot, experimental nature of LDI has facilitated positive risk taking in this context, allowing a certain amount of ‘creative freedom’ not often experienced by public libraries as statutory local authority services. The unique value of libraries in the context of new collaborative working has been actively considered throughout, with defining qualities such as access, reach and trust being regularly cited, but in a non-sentimental capacity due to the clear impact these qualities have in reinforcing collaborative relationships and engaging a breadth of stakeholders and service users. The ‘connecting’ quality of libraries therefore both within communities and as central links between different professional sectors emerged as a key asset, including their traditional information and reader service roles, and the specialist knowledge and expertise of library staff. Such ‘core’ values have been collectively enhanced by LDI in the shape of improved commercial awareness and versatility; evidence of staff skills development including project management and renewed job satisfaction; and significant new and improved partnerships at local and national levels, each enabling real leadership and advocacy potential for the sector. Furthermore, there are several outstanding examples of commercial viability and social impact in relation to public policy agendas (e.g. unemployment and health and wellbeing) from individual projects.

The evaluation was led by the ICC’s Kerry Wilson, in partnership with ICC Associates Tamsin Cox and Kate Rodenhurst of DHA, and Paul Kyprianou from Liverpool’s Praxis CIC. There were three stages to the project, using a Realistic Evaluation approach: the first was the design of an evaluation framework mapping the full process against core LDI aims and objectives. Secondly each funded project undertook a tailored self-evaluation, with support and guidance from a member of the evaluation team, alongside ‘milestone’ data collection activities led by the evaluation team throughout the programme (e.g. interviews with Project Leaders and Arts Council Relationship Managers; observational visits of individual projects in action; workshops with all key stakeholders). Thirdly, all findings were brought together by a meta-evaluation, synthesising key learning outcomes from individual projects as described above.  The ICC is proud to have been part of this initiative and to have worked alongside public library services and staff, who all engaged so positively with the experience. In completing this work Kerry has built upon a portfolio of research with public libraries, mostly undertaken in a previous research post at the Centre for the Public Library and Information in Society at the University of Sheffield.  For more information on the LDI, please see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/our-investment/funding-programmes/libraries-development-initiative/ For more information on the evaluation and ICCs work with public libraries, please contact k.m.wilson@ljmu.ac.uk

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