Interview with Tara Cranswick of V22 which has the contract to run the Manor House and the library

Tara Cranswick, V22

Q: What are your priorities for the library and the house? 

A: For the library – replacing outmoded technology – new server, switches & high speed internet to make surfing faster; new PCs, software and printer to make using library PCs more comparable to PCs used in the work place, schools and colleges, thus saving time, making user experiences better and training more in keeping with the software jobseekers will then encounter once they gain employment. On the books side, as with all community libraries there will no longer be CDs and DVDs, so we will be able to use that space to move the stock around, and possibly introduce more study space or stock.

Q: How many volunteers do you need to keep the library open for the hours it used to be open? 

A: That is a bit of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, it really depends on how many shifts volunteers want to do. We will break each day up into shifts, some volunteers will only be able to do a couple of hours a week, some will want to do the equivalent of a part time job, some will do more than that. Some will want regular patterns and others will just fill in where needed – and we need both. Until we know what we have and the volunteers know if they really like doing the work, it is hard to tell. From experience of volunteers registering at Forest Hill, we normally have about 45 live volunteers, and see about 25-30 during the course of a week.

Q: Where will you find them? 

Some names have been collected by LBL prior to us starting, we have collected another 20 names so far via social media. We will, of course, then advertise in the library itself and hopefully get the word spread that we’re looking for good reliable volunteers.

Q: What duties will they have? 

A: The work that is carried out in a library is very wide ranging and different volunteers have different skills and do different jobs. Some will get involved with IT, helping people log on to the computers, print things etc Some will want to help in the children’s section. Others will probably never want to go near the computers or kids. There are some skills everyone will need to learn – such as what different codes on the books mean and where to shelve them, and showing borrowers where they might find particular books.  No one will be expected to know how to do everything from the word go, the most important thing in the early days is having bodies on site so that the library can be open safely and securely.

Q: How well will they be trained? 

A: There will be training sessions from LBL, both before we open and once we are up and running. There will also be LBL Library Assistants on hand over the first few weeks to provide on the job training. Simon will then be on hand to give continued training and support as the LBL staff withdraw. Training session from the outreach team at LBL can be booked even after that and specific training will also be provided, either by V22 or LBL on specific aspects of library work such as Fire Marshall Training, IT training, Health and Safety etc. There will also be policy documents and manuals and guides that will be available for volunteers to study if they wish.  

Q: Do you think volunteers can possibly fill the place of qualified librarians? 

A: There is no way that a volunteer can fill the boots of a fully qualified librarian. However, there is also often a misconception about who is and who isn’t a ‘qualified librarian’ – the vast majority of the LBL staff are library assistants or senior library assistants, and many of them do not have a qualification as such. Many LBL staff are also simply trained on the job, and a fantastic job they do at that. These are dedicated, hard-working professionals who provide volunteers with an excellent example of what can be achieved in a modern library. Both the LBL Librarians and Library assistants have big boots to fill, and we will try to do our best, thankfully there is always one on the end of a phone if we need them!

Q: Can you maintain the stock without having to pay for it? 

A: Yes, there is no problem with regard to stock at all. We do not have any kind of responsibility to add to stock, LBL will allocate new stock to Manor House when it comes in to them and they will deal with stock withdrawals of damaged books etc too. Furthermore, we will also have the ability to add to the stock, with suitable donations being identified and sent to Lewisham to be catalogued and added to the Manor House collection.

Q: Will you still have newspapers? 

A: As yet we’re not sure. Newspapers were one of the first things to be withdrawn at Forest Hill, but we have since found a sponsor to provide us with four or five of the main titles each weekday. Hopefully we can find someone to sponsor the newspapers at Manor House, or find another arrangement.

Q: How much oversight will LBL (London Borough of Lewisham) have over what you do? Can they discontinue your contract? 

A: We are in constant contact with the Lewisham Libraries team, they will send us requests and visit regularly to make sure the library is being maintained properly. We are under contract to provide a service and they would doubtless terminate that deal if we didn’t keep up our end of the bargain.

Q: How does your contract with LBL work? How much do they pay you to run Manor House? 

A: They do not pay us. It is up to us to bring in income through renting out the spaces. As the building is such an important one, LBL have agreed to keep responsibility for major structural repairs to the fabric. Library services, still runs all the books, trains volunteers and assists with all details. We have a 25 years lease on the building which is connected to a service agreement to run the library. If we fail to live up to that service agreement, the lease terminates.

Q: As a Grade ll* building Manor House is in the top 10% of important buildings in England.  What’s the arrangement for maintaining it?  Is it your responsibility or LBL’s?

A: As above. However heritage buildings are very important to us here at V22 and we will be working to raise funds to maintain it and do important works.

Q: The rooms were always under-used in the past – partly because they were very expensive to hire. What are your plans to change that? 

A: We have a three tier charging system. Free for amazing projects that make no money. A small service charge for other community or social projects. A commercial hire fee. These all help to support each other and hopefully will make the public rooms more usable for more people. Some of the rooms will be let on a permanent basis to create regular income to pay for a member of staff for the library.

Q: Will you continue to have weddings in the house? Have you thought of getting a licence so people can have their party there? 

A: We have already had discussions with LBL so that both weddings and private party options can be explored. The simple answer to both questions is yes, most probably.

Q: You say you won’t have a cafe in the house but might that not generate useful income? After all you’ve done it at Forest Hill. 

A: We are not keen on the idea of having cafes or gyms or similar projects in a library. We think the space can be better used for library services. With several excellent Cafes within walking distance we feel they would do a better job. It is not something we would permanently rule out, but it is not in our plans. And also, there is no café or plans for a café at Forest Hill library, although there was a rumour put around that we had done this, along with a great number of other rumours that should be taken with a very large pinch of salt!

Q: We were confused about the role of Simon Higgs. “With a view to Simon becoming the building’s General Manager” sounds as if he may not be. As this is a critical role, shouldn’t the appointment be a competitive process? 

A: Simon will be the general manager, but, due to the fact the role is so demanding and does need someone competent to do the job, no one is more aware of this than Simon himself and if he feels he can not do the job justice then a replacement would be sought.

Q: He says he’s local but his home and business address seem to be SE18 – not very local. Also, he seems to run the Forest Hill library, with work in a cafe in Dartmouth Road, Forest Hill. His brand new business seems to do IT jobs.  A very busy man!  How can he have time for Manor House?

A: Simon lives in Blackheath, on the Lee side – the SE18 postcode is his correspondence address for all mail and delivery and has been his parental home for thirty years. Simon has been running Forest Hill Library full time for the last six months, but will hand over the day-to-day running to an assistant when he starts at Manor House. He will still have oversight of Forest Hill but will have a permanent office at Manor House. He does have a minority share in two cafes, neither of which he works in. He also has a mail order business and his new business management business, both of which have staff and other managers/directors, so his time is entirely dedicated to Libraries.

Q: Does this mean that Manor House and the Library will actually be indirectly run by Forest Hill Traders Association?

A: The FHTA is purely an association of its members and run for the interests of promoting business in Forest Hill, it has officers (Simon is not one of them) and an executive, and Simon is on that panel. The FHTA meets quarterly and does not run anything at all, unless you include a couple of events in Forest Hill each year.

Q: When are you coming to meet local residents and introduce yourself?

A: The council has arranged our first stakeholder meeting for May and we hope to arrange a series of open days throughout the summer. Q: V22 does some exciting art projects according to your website.  Will any of these take place at Manor House?

Q: V22 does some exciting art projects according to your website.  Will any of these take place at Manor House?

A: We would like to present events here but our first priority is getting the library running smoothly so we would not be looking to do that until we feel that is happening. We also do not yet know what might be suitable. It’s generally awful when organisations start programming stuff without any knowledge of the are in which they operate.

Q: What happens next?

A: We are currently liaising with the various departments of Lewisham Council, sorting out phone lines and contracts and all such behind the scenes stuff. We are recruiting volunteers and will be in touch with those who have signed up to see if they would like to come along to some training days we’re putting in the diary prior to re-opening on the 24th April.

Then we take it from there, hopefully in partnership with the community.

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