Pros

“The idea of getting volunteers to help with the running of libraries, that has worked in other parts of the country, and obviously we have to make sure we provide services efficiently, effectively, and we encourage volunteers and other organisations to help with the provision of some of these services” David Cameron, Prime Minister, July 2014.

 


Little Chalfont Community Library

 

Volunteer-run libraries are a way of still having a library that would otherwise have been closed by the local council.  Some, like the Spectator, see libraries as a natural place for the Big Society.  Volunteer-run libraries will obviously be cheaper than their paid-staff equivalents.  They are also by their very nature “local” – their management and staffing comes from the local community.  They are also not bound by the internal restrictions and politics (both office and party) of the council.

Volunteer-run libraries are naturally less expensive to run and can link in directly to the community, possibly a “best of both worlds”. Darren Taylor from Eco Computer Systems (Lewisham) stressed in a “You and Yours” (Radio 4, 18th May 2011) programme that he can link very well to the community and has the benefit of several retired librarians.  The Government has explicitly stated that the Big Society bank could be used to fund groups taking over libraries.

Many volunteer-run libraries fall out of the terms of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act and so are allowed to charge for membership or for books.  However, no ex-public library has yet to take up this option.

The Community Knowledge Hub website is involved in assisting volunteer/community run libraries and is the best port of call for those who wish to research the positive side of transferring assets away from councils. The development manager of the site has been in touch to describe it:

“The site is now completely free to use … Although Locality as a membership organisation does have a member fee you don’t need to be a member of locality to register and access the full site. (http://www.communityknowledgehub.org.uk/user/register). We do moderate access but there is no charge.  The site, and our associated support is not specifically geared towards volunteer-run libraries, more community owned and supported. We have always maintained that we encourage enterprising solutions and some of our more successful community owned libraries employ staff and deliver professional services under contract, or cross subsidise library service staff through earned income. It is true that the approach of many authorities has led to the emergence of many more volunteer run libraries in recent months but there is certainly no intentional bias in this direction from our perspective, quite the opposite. Locality is an independent Charity controlled by it’s membership of community organisations.”

It lists these benefits of volunteer running libraries:

  1. Reduced running costs for local authorities
  2. Increased community involvement in and control over local services
  3. Increased take-up of library services
  4. Library service innovation and diversification
  5. Improved access to a range of public services 

There is reasonable evidence for all of these benefits from existing voluntary libraries, although it is worth pointing out that all could be achieved by the council via other routes.

“The real issue is not about volunteers helping to maintain services but about the service being managed and developed by professional librarians. When I was managing Bedfordshire Libraries we developed a very successful small branch library that had been closed by working with the local Town Council and a committee of volunteers to re-establish the library. We managed to reinstate about 50% of the original funding so that the library is properly linked into the Council IT system and users are regarded as other uses of the authority’s libraries. The local Town Council pick up the tab for a manager and the remaining staff are volunteers – the library has to purchase its stationary etc. from the authority but they keep any income, including fines. They have been extremely successful in raising income from lettings and manage a range of innovative local activities – but at its heart, the service is managed by the authority’s staff who purchase the stock, provide training and generally oversee the service. ” Barry George MBE on lis-pub-libs 22/8/12

Video showing other activities volunteers can do in libraries

Further information:

Community Knowledge Hub or Locality.  The whole of the Community Knowledge Hub site is of use on this subject, see for example this video on a Buckinghamshire volunteer library.  There is an excellent interview with the Chief Exec of Locality, Steve Wyler, who explains his organisation’s situation well at http://questioneverythingtheytellyou.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/questions-to-locality.html.

“We recognise that, especially in deprived areas, one or more of the following are usually necessary to ensure financial viability: an endowment fund, a transfer of assets capable of generating income, a continuing financial relationship with the library authority in the form of grants or contracts, access to professional staff and resources from the library authority, help and investment for the community group to develop associated income-generating enterprises.  ” Steve Wyler

Jim Brooks of Little Chalfont Commumity Library in the video above has talked to around 70 communities about setting up their own volunteer-run library and is happy to be contacted at jim.brooks@ntlworld.com.  He has also produced a case study for the library which can be found here.