The article below appears by willing permission of The Library Campaign magazine.  It will appear in the next issue, along with one from Jim Brooks of the award-winning volunteer Little Chalfont Community Library.  The article is written by Trevor Craig and Shirley Burnham

In early February 2009, Swindon’s cabinet announced that Walcot Library would be run by local volunteers, whilst another small library would face closure if it did not follow suit.    A spokesman for Walcot Library at the time said:

“Our volunteers are for the most part local residents who are willing to do something for their area. This is in marked contrast to the residents of Old Town who, having been offered a similar deal, have turned it down.”  - Swindon Advertiser 13 Feb 2009

Walcot Library was reopened on 16th April 2009 as a combined library and community shop, staffed by volunteers.  Its new configuration was the brainchild of two prominent councillors, one of whom has served it as a volunteer ever since.  Teething problems at Walcot motivated the cabinet member with responsibility for Libraries to declare nearly two years later that Swindon’s libraries:

“should have a hard-core of paid staff working in them” and that “each library needs to have a paid staff member on the rota – and not just volunteers.“ –  Swindon Advertiser 26 Jan 2011

10 hours of frontline staff time were subsequently reintroduced to Walcot, to supplement the existing purely administrative support, stock management and other assistance provided ‘behind the scenes’ by professional staff from another library nearby.  Despite the library’s continuing existence, the book issues – still the raison d’être for Libraries – have fallen off a cliff:


From Swindon Borough Council data, obtained by Trevor Craig via a Freedom of Information request.

The above results from Walcot Library cannot in any way be categorised as a success.  Book issues from other public libraries in the Borough, however, remain buoyant.

Swindon All

From Swindon Borough Council data, obtained by Trevor Craig via a Freedom of Information request.

Has the local authority exercised proper oversight of the library and what do Swindon Libraries do to promote its usage?  Undoubtedly, the building continues to serve a vital social function in what is a very deprived area, but its performance as a public library has suffered significantly.  Most crucially, is it a ‘model’ that should be emulated by others?

Local authorities have not only ‘hollowed out’ libraries under their control, as would seem to be the case in Walcot, but many have rushed to embrace the idea of volunteers setting up and running libraries – largely based on evidence from a couple of examples in Buckinghamshire.

It should, therefore, be noted that the Chairman of Little Chalfont Community Library has never advocated the indiscriminate rolling out of the Buckinghamshire model which he has described in the past as suitable only for affluent areas. He told Ed Vaizey :

“To run a library like ours you need financial backing, a pool of people with business skills and support – if you haven’t got this it will fail.” – Amersham & Buckinghamshire Advertiser 2 Feb 2011

There is no hard statistical data, apart from the aforementioned libraries in Bucks, to suggest that the approach works and is sustainable. Cutting the smaller branch libraries also saves very little money, as they are staffed by low paid library assistants and junior managers.  The relentless dismemberment of public libraries has gained momentum on the back of the now discredited notion of the ‘Big Society’ – a Conservative policy at the 2010 general election.

Notwithstanding the above, the Arts Council, the SCL, Locality and others support a model of library provision wherein the local authority pulls back and volunteers are forced to step in  as ‘social entrepreneurs’, as co-operatives or other models that do not involve the local authority.  It is outrageous that these all share the requirement for residents to provide the statutory service to themselves.

We can identify several principal problems with community-run libraries:-

  • The first is that, technically, they are not actually legal. The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act states that it is the duty of the local authority to provide a library service, not the community which has already paid for it.
  • The second is the postcode lottery it creates.  This may not even be a two-tier service.  On the contrary, a patchwork service is created where, if you’re lucky enough to be able to get to the central library, you get a grade A service and, if not, then its pot luck.
  • Thirdly, if a library is not provided by the local authority but by a community – say: run by a small number of individuals giving up their free time – then the neutrality of the library could well be at risk. We all have our own beliefs, some held more strongly than others. What if a militant atheist group took over a library and refused to stock the Koran, Bible or other holy books?  What if a creationist group took over a library and refused to stock any books that they saw as undermining their beliefs, such as those by Richard Dawkins, Darwin or Stephen Hawkins?

Does this latter point sound far-fetched?  It is has already occurred:  The Hebron Evangelical Church in Carlisle has shown interest in taking over community services like libraries, and whilst they state that they will not discriminate, they have said:

“Faith groups have a lot to offer. The problem I see developing in society is that when you marginalise Christianity then you’ve got no external reference point for morals. We have a responsibility to provide guidance and help, we also have a responsibility to show what Christianity is about.”  – News & Star 18 Jan 2011

Neutrality is, thereby, lost.

In Croydon, Labour intends to set up library co-operatives to run libraries, no doubt with local party members on the steering groups. Will they really be able to remain impartial and keep politics out of the library?  It is doubtful.  What if a member wanted to read one of Thatcher’s books?  Alternatively, what is to stop a group comprising Tories taking over the library and quietly getting rid of the books that promote the ideologies of the Left?  Or they might divert the library’s focus away from reading and literacy, as seems to be the case in Walcot. This behaviour should not be tolerated, but there will be no-one to stop it.

Another example to illustrate that volunteers ‘running’ libraries might jeopardise neutrality is that of Primrose Hill.  Library fundraisers are reported to have refused a donation from a local retailer because they disagreed with its decision to open a store locally.  In spite of the volunteers having acted conscientiously, it seems that their stance led to a decision to which others were opposed (see ‘Neutrality is Difficult If You Need the Money’, Public Libraries News).

Libraries are supposed to be completely free from the above conflicts of interest.  Like the Civil Service, they were envisaged as impartial and neutral.  But small groups of individuals, given a free hand, will always have views that can compromise those principles. This is why public libraries have been, and should continue to be, a major cornerstone of democracy, untainted by ideology and ‘isms’.

There are legitimate issues of accountability related to all the above.  If the local library is doing something wrong, who is accountable? In a fully supported library, councillors and officers are responsible.  If the library is, instead, led by local co-operation, social entrepreneurship or another group, there is no accountability via the ballot box.  As a result, a library could well be used to push volunteers’ own agendas – and who could stop them?

When Shirley was critical of Swindon library service cuts in her local newspaper this year, she used the phrase “dregs of a two-tier service” to describe the proposed reduction in library-staff hours.  Walcot library volunteers interpreted this as insulting their efforts and threatened to close it if a public apology was not forthcoming.  Although resolved amicably, the incident might be seen as raising an important question.  Whilst, by law, an individual cannot libel a local authority (an important safeguard which allows citizens freely to hold those they elect to account), on how secure a footing would an individual be  when criticising a library released from local authority control? Could pressure or intimidation result, and could that be a means of stifling legitimate comment or complaint?

When Trevor recently asked the lead volunteer at Walcot to comment on the disappointing 6-year book issue figures, he received this response via email:

“Times are changing and the library staff must try to move with the times.  What we offer is what people want and they don’t want books.  I do not agree with you that “libraries should be staffed and supported by the council rather than volunteers”, libraries should provide what people want and that is  I.T., not books.  We have enough libraries full of books and paid staff in Parks and the Town Centre to satisfy those local people who want to borrow books, we do not need any more.

I think your interpretation of the data could be seen to show that there is no longer a requirement for a library in Walcot apart from the I.T. section. What I intend to do now is to speak to the Leader of the Council and his Cabinet to see if we could increase I.T. and reduce or remove most of the books.”  – quoted from: Question Everything They Tell You – ’We will economise on the Beaches: 7 April 2013

Whilst the above-quoted email may well be the lead volunteer’s personal opinion rather than the council’s, it seems bizarre that anyone who has ever valued their public library could subsequently be against the re-introduction of paid staff and an improved book stock.

As Swindon and other authorities contemplate the introduction of more ‘community-run’ libraries, there will, no doubt, be further upheavals, more volunteers’ sensitivities offended and a general exacerbation of anxiety.  To deny the evidence all around us suggests we have become resigned to a status quo and treat it as a fact of life.  Such a denial undermines our universal, shared sense of humanity and is, ultimately, a manifestation of prejudice.  We urge people to carry on the fight for what they hold dear.

The Libraries Act is clear: “It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.   It does not contemplate provision by volunteers, social entrepreneurs, cooperatives, trusts or for-profit companies – It recognises the merits of a universal service provided by the local authority.

There are reasons for that.

Trevor Craig is a library user living in Oxfordshire. Shirley Burnham lives in Swindon and is a member of The Library Campaign, the only national organisation representing Friends and users of public libraries: Details and back issues of the magazine can be obtained via their website at