Pros: reasons for volunteer “community libraries”

The rise of volunteer libraries in the UK is closely linked to the decline in funding for traditionally paid-staff libraries.  This page looks at the reasons seen expressed in favour of volunteer-run branches and can be used in conjunction with the counterpart page in opposition to them.

“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 an increasing feature of the landscape in the UK, with at least 350 as of August 2015.  When a council faces deep cuts to its finances, they are a way of still having a library that would otherwise be closed.  Some see libraries as a natural place for the Big Society.  Volunteer-run libraries will obviously be cheaper than their paid-staff equivalents, especially as staffing costs can be one-half to two-thirds of total library expenditure.  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, being presented as 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. ( 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. With sufficient volunteers, a volunteer library can open longer than an equivalent council run library. Additional volunteer resource, greater flexibility and local focus may also result in improved library stock. Both the local community and the council’s Library Service can benefit if the community library is partnered with the Library Service.

The point being made here is that communities may well want to improve the library, not just save it. The ‘con’ case is always that volunteers are unreliable and it will be difficult to provide the man-hours previously provided by the staffed library. But having more resources through volunteers is just as possible as having too little. This point is rarely made.

This links with the idea that volunteer-run libraries can be a sensible response to the changing circumstances that face public library services. Circumstances could include a reduced budget and some decline in branch library usage due to the increased use of digital technology. After making back office efficiency savings a Library Service may have to consider making changes to its front line service e.g. reducing opening hours across the network, closing smaller branches or providing the service in a different way. The supported volunteer library model for smaller libraries can be a useful option as it keeps libraries open, maintains library provision across communities and makes the smaller libraries financially viable for the future. With council support – the local community may be able to improve or widen the services available. Retaining the local library is often seen by smaller communities as an important element in maintaining their communities. The approach also helps minimise service reductions in the bigger libraries.

To this can be added the stated belief of some commentators that library work is a simple activity that does not require intensive training or an expensive education.  This point of view ties in with that which sees the under-employed or the retired as a ready and willing recruitment pool. The view that publicly libraries are increasingly unimportant and so it is acceptable to replace paid staff has also been seen expressed.  An underlying assumption is that librarianship is not rocket science (“it’s just stamping books”) and can be picked up quickly.

The reported success and survival of volunteer libraries, noticeable in Buckinghamshire, has led to the expansion of the idea into other areas of the country.

Politically, another benefit of volunteer libraries is to divide opposition. Library users faces with a closing library would present a united front of protest but faced with the option of volunteering to save it, many would find themselves reluctantly (or not) on the side of the council.

“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

Notable examples of successful volunteer libraries

  • New Cross Learning – Previously New Cross People’s Library. Now a combined adult learning centre and library, New Cross is notable for not being in a prosperous area and for the wide range of activities and enthusiasm it shows.
  • Little Chalfont Community LibraryThe most well-known of the volunteer libraries, Little Chalfont is in Buckinghamshire and is a successful library, branching out into events such as cinema screenings.  Widely used an example of a successful volunteer library.
  • Morrab Library – the oldest volunteer library in the UK, set up in 1818.


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 here.

“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  He has also produced a case study for the library which can be found here. Similarly, the nearby Chalfont St Giles has produced this guide to Running a small public library with volunteers: our experience .

Buckinghamshire Community Libraries

Handover of Farnham Common Community Library

Other Public Libraries News resources that may be of interest

This page shows the positive aspects of volunteer libraries: please use in conjunction with the counterpart page on the negative aspects, to be found here.

This subject is marked by a lack of research: please do email me at if you have any further information or have any queries, comments or corrections.