COVID-19 disrupts the transition project
In March, along with every other organisation in the country, NewSPAL was disrupted by the restrictions arising from COVID-19. Having already by then acquired and tested the future IT systems, the work of checking and re-cataloguing the collection by our wonderful team of volunteers had to be suspended. We no longer had physical access to the collection in Ewell Library (which has since re-opened for borrowing in September). Work on planning the physical move of the collection to a new home in Woking had to be halted as Woking Borough Council had to re-focus its attention on grappling with the pandemic. With the timetable and other aspects of the project thrown into uncertainty, NewSPAL trustees decided the time was not right to approach grant-awarding organisations for major funding towards the completion of the project.
What did we do?
We were (and remain) acutely aware that every pound we spend is a pound which has been donated by the many individuals, groups and small trusts and other grant-giving bodies who support NewSPAL. So we have continued to make progress on the transition project where we could safely do so "virtually", but being even more than usually careful to minimise expenditure. By co-incidence, because of other commitments, Victoria Taylor, our excellent Transition Project Manager, had already asked to reduce her time commitment to NewSPAL to the equivalent of one day a week. That has helped us to keep expenditure down. We have also received a number of generous donations and a legacy since March, meaning we are now in roughly the same financial position as we were in March.
Does it make sense to continue with the NewSPAL project?
We think so. The reasons for transferring the former Surrey Performing Arts Library (SPAL) collection to a charity and giving it a new independent future remain compelling. The financial pressures on Surrey County Council which led to the closure of SPAL in Dorking, the withdrawal of specialist music librarian support and the reduction in services to SPAL users (including withdrawal from the national Inter-Library Loan scheme) have, if anything, got more severe. NewSPAL's new IT systems will allow user groups to do everything they need to (for example, check availability of sets, reserve and pay for them online and request courier delivery) more efficiently and safely than the current system. NewSPAL will be able to offer its services to a much wider range of users from around the country too, so, despite the current disruption to the activities of choirs, orchestras and drama groups, we are confident there will continue to be a demand to borrow from the SPAL collection.
So what comes next?
First, one of the pre-COVID challenges was with the proposed building in Woking. Woking's structural engineers were concerned the building would need structural reinforcement to take the weight of the SPAL collection. The cost of doing that work was starting to look prohibitive. As a small silver lining amongst the clouds of the COVID emergency, however, another (rather better) building (at ground floor level), situated in the centre of Woking, has been proposed to us as an alternative. We are currently evaluating that and working with Woking on the layout, but it looks promising. If all goes well, the building might be ready to occupy in Summer 2021.
Secondly, we need to update our medium-term business plan and budgets to make sure that the economics still work. NewSPAL will not receive any financial support from Surrey County Council and we need to make sure the income which can be generated from subscriptions and hire charges will be enough to cover the running costs of the new library service (particularly staff costs). Since September there has been some tentative resumption of activity by some orchestras, music groups, choirs and drama groups - but it is early days and the new lockdown has put a stop to everything again until 2 December. To be able to make reasonable projections about future demand for resources from the SPAL collection, we need to see how users adapt to the "new normal". It will be early in 2021 before we can get an idea about that. We know everyone is keen, but the challenges - particularly for large choral societies and orchestras and informal groups (e.g. play-reading groups) under the current restrictions - are considerable. On the other hand, perhaps previously less used parts of the SPAL collection (such as the chamber music collection) may be in more demand.
Thirdly, when we know we have the building secured and when we are confident that we will be able to generate enough income to cover our operating costs, we will still have to resume fundraising to complete equipping the new library, pay for the removal from Ewell to Woking and to employ staff for a couple of months in advance of the opening. With so many charities and organisations in desperate need, we know this will be an even bigger challenge than before.
NewSPAL was set up by and for SPAL users - committed to making sure its large and important collection of performing arts resources should continue to be available to current and future users and potential users. With your support, we have come a long way. The COVID crisis will eventually recede. It has made all of us appreciate the performing arts even more than before. Let's make sure the SPAL collection and NewSPAL are there to help them flourish again. Thank you to all our wonderful volunteers, donors and supporters for all you have done to get us this far.
If you have any comments, would like to get involved or have ideas to contribute to the project, please do get in touch with Victoria – Victoria.firstname.lastname@example.org .