Community libraries

The official view on volunteer libraries has been released (Community Libraries; Learning from experience: summary briefing for local authorities – Locality).  Firmly supporting the Big Society view, its ten case studies and survey of the national picture, suggests that such libraries are a viable alternative to paid staff and indeed may provide longer hours and more services.  It also states that volunteer libraries are statutory as long as they are free, receive some form of council support and that the relevant council has decided that they are statutory. The survey finds that each and every authority is approaching the subject differently and that, even within councils, different volunteer branches are doing things in their own way.  However, this is seen as a positive thing, encouraging local solutions.

Indeed, “positive” is the over-riding theme of the report.  Although the current financial crisis – the over-riding factor, one imagines, in almost all cases of transfer so far – is acknowledged, it is seen as only one driver of four, the other three being technology, localism and joining up services.  The oft-reported view that volunteers are almost always volunteering simply to keep the library open rather than in the belief that it should not be job of the Council, as shown in the recent WI report, is also perhaps not given sufficient attention.  Anyone reading the report without an awareness of what is happening to local government budgets would think that unpaid staff are superior to paid staff and that councils have been wasting their money for all of these years.  Similarly, the ad hoc creation of unpaid branches that are different to eachother is seen as the best way of doing things, rather than any attempt at a standardised facts-based approach.   To be fair, though, the report does go some way towards providing guidelines for authorities and does concede that volunteering may not be the solution in some areas, presumably in those of high family stress, that most need libraries.

“What’s emerging is a picture of great innovation and diversity as local libraries evolve to suit the needs of different communities. Learning best practice from each other will be increasingly important in the tough economic years ahead.” Cllr Flick Rea, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board

Unsurprisingly, such a report has been welcomed with open arms by the Government.  Eric Pickles suggests in the official press release that councils should be making it easier for local people to take over their libraries.  The release also points to a £30 million fund that has been set up to help such initiatives.

Equally unsurprisingly, the report has been met with dismay by the library campaigners I have so far been in contact with.  The Library Campaign immediately released a statement that says,,,

“… now, suddenly, there are hundreds of ‘community libraries’. Scores have been created since this research was done, so it’s out of date already. Hundreds more seem set to happen in 2013.** All of them are so new that there is no information on how well they work, or whether they will last.

No two are alike. Even within the same borough. There are lots of different ways of running them. Nobody has a clue which might work best, where. ACE has put them into categories and written up dozens of case histories. This just underlines the fact that the variety is bewildering.

‘Community libraries’ have mostly been created in haste and panic and conflict. They have mostly been created by communities desperate to do anything to avoid closing down their library completely. Their only choice was: ‘Lose it or run it yourselves.’” Library Campaign

Some others point out the lack of the negative about the reports or, indeed, much mention of the fact that legal action can and has been taken although, presumably, the report will improve the chances of councils winning any such legal actions in the future. One or two other responses I have seen have been unprintable due to either the amount of swear words used or through suggestions that would end up with me in Court if they were repeated here.  The most printable is:

“And that’s the government-supported death of UK public library professionalism in one easy swoop” John Kirriemuir

It is, though, in the final analysis, a report that will be key for public libraries at least through the lifetime of the current Government so I would advise all to read it.  In an attempt to ease things, I have summarised the important points below.

Who is behind it?

Locality (“the UK’s leading network for community-led organisations”) working with Sue Charteris, an independent national expert on library services, undertook the research on behalf of Arts Council England.  The Local Government Association, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Society of Chief Librarians were also involved.

Main findings

  • Change is being driven primarily by four factors: cuts in budget, the digital revolution, the desire to join up services and localism.
  • 5% of libraries had some form of community involvement in July 2012.  Most of these started in 2011 or 2012. It is expected that this will more than double to around 12% in the “near future” and will increase further. This 12% (425) figure is arrived at by counting those currently under operation and those being planned.  It is expected therefore that this number will increase as more are announced. The number rose from 178 in July 2012 to 254 nowincluding the first public service mutual (York – which are receiving “expert support procured through the Cabinet Office Mutual Support Programme”) running a whole library/archive service. There was a 70% increase in volunteers from 2006/7 to 2010/12 One in three authorities has a volunteer library.  However, such volunteer run libraries tend to be the smallest and so their overall percentage of library use is a lot less than 5%.
  • 95% of currently community managed libraries are operating as partners with local authorities and still count as part of the statutory provision. The 95% is split between “community managed” (40%), “community supported” (40%) and “commissioned” (15%).
  • Everyone is doing it differently.  No two authorities have adopted identical models.  This is seen as a good thing as it means such branches are “most appropriate to a community’s needs, capacity for involvement, and interest.”.
  • Properly done, volunteer-run libraries “does not mean a poorer library service”.  Case studies suggest more hours and more services than what they replaced in many instances.
  • Volunteer libraries are statutory as long as they’re free and the council supports it in some way. “So, as long as a library is serving the public and not charging for lending its books, it can be considered as part of the local statutory library service if the library authority considers that the library is required in order to fulfil its statutory duties and wishes to provide on-going support for it. Local authorities should be clear as to whether any community libraries within their area are part of their statutory provision or not.”

Case Studies

There are ten case studies:

  • Grappenhall, Warrington – Independent community library. asset transferred. 50 volunteers, no paid staff. 600 borrowers. Opening hours maintained.
  • Primrose Hill Library, Camden – Independent community library, asset not transferred. 220 volunteer “pledges”. 560 pledges of financial support of £600, 000 of which 80% has been honoured. Opening hours increased.
  • Farnham Common Community Library, Buckinghamshire. Community managed, statutory, 30 active volunteers, 500 (sic) volunteers on database. Opening hours increased.
  • Bradford.  Community managed, statutory. Opening hours increased.
  • North Yorkshire.  Community managed, statutory.  Opening hours maintained.
  • Saxilby Community Library, Lincolnshire.  Community supported, statutory. Increased opening hours.
  • Telford and Wrekin.  Community supported, statutory. Opening hours maintained or increased.
  • Northamptonshire.  Community supported, statutory. 820 active volunteers.
  • Croxteth Community Library, Liverpool.  Commissioned, usage increased.
  • Suffolk.  Commissioned, statutory. Hours maintained.


“Guiding principles”


ACE and LGA have come up with some “guiding principles” for authorities planning to withdraw from running one or more local library:

  • Take a strategic view across the whole service.  There many things to think about but the main headings are:
  1. What outcomes are you seeking?
  2. Which outcomes could community involvement contribute towards?
  3. Are you reviewing individual libraries or the whole service?
  4. Are you reviewing buildings or services or both?
  • Locally appropriate solutions work best.
  • Community libraries are testing out what works best
  • They may not work in the areas that need them most  “Community interest cannot be assumed, but needs to be assessed. Some communities are less able to get involved with service delivery and are sometimes less interested. Often, such communities are the very ones that most readily benefit from the provision of library services. Therefore, councils should consider whether it is appropriate to offer additional tailored support in these areas.” (p.29).
  • “Community Libraries” often involve more than “just volunteers”. “Professionalism must be at the heart of any library service. Community managed libraries can be professionally run, usually involve unpaid volunteers and paid professionals working closely together and a number employ their own paid professional staff.”
  • Library buildings and assets can be transferred into community ownership. “Our research showed that the majority of community libraries are still run from buildings owned (or sometimes leased) and managed by the local authority, with approximately one in six community library buildings are now owned and managed by the community. But the numbers are growing. In practice, this means that the community own the building’s freehold or a lease of 20 years or more.”

Why is it important?

  • ACE will probably be firmly behind volunteer-run libraries “Together with Envisioning the library of the future(due to be published in Spring 2013), the Arts Council’s programme of research and debate on what the library of the future could and should look like, this latest research will help to define the Arts Council’s long term strategy for libraries.”

“What this research illustrates is that community involvement, when coupled with support from local authorities, does not mean a poorer library service. However, there is still work to do. Together with our research partners, we need to work to ensure that this professional support continues, for the benefit of library users today, and tomorrow.” Alan Davey, Chief Executive, Arts Council England

“This report shows that localism is alive and well with more people and local groups playing a bigger part than ever before in providing local services whilst also saving taxpayers money. Libraries can be at the very heart of any neighbourhood and this research shows the kind of contribution active communities can make. Councils need to be making it as easy as possible for people to take over buildings and services that are valued by the local community,” Eric Pickles

Further reading