2010-2014: From Community Library to Community-run library: a look at the impact of volunteers

The following paper was largely produced as background for the panel discussion on the role of the public library in the community at the Seventh National Public Libraries Conference, held in Badajoz in November 2014. It has been slightly edited by the author since.

The term “Community Library” was, until recently, the name commonly used for a branch library in England. Paid for entirely by the local council and run by paid staff, the library was geographically close, indeed often within, the community that it served. However, starting in a small way before 2010 but accelerating massively since the Coalition Government came into power and introduced austerity measures, this has radically changed. The term “community library” is now seen as a synonym for a building staffed directly by volunteers, normally from that very community. The local council may supply everything else, including some paid staff or supervision, or it may, at the other extreme, have completely divested itself of the service. This paper intends to examine the scope and the ramifications that the move to volunteering has for the public library service, not only in England, but for the rest of the United Kingdom and even beyond.

The combination of the perceived need for a radical cut in spending to local government and the idea of the “Big Society” has come together in public libraries like perhaps nowhere else. Spending on public libraries has fallen from a peak of £1254 million (2009/10) to £1102 million (2012/13)1. This represents a reduction of 29% if inflation is taken into account in just three years. Further cuts have continued since then and the Conservatives have made it clear that they expect the public spending trend to continue until 20202. The other main political party (Labour3) has also indicated a commitment to similar reductions on spending.

Combined, and perhaps not unrelated to this, is the desire for the public to take more direct responsibility for local services. This can be by volunteering to improve local areas (e.g. looking after the countryside or litter picking) or social welfare (e.g. caring for an elderly neighbour) or being on the governing panel of a non-profit organization. Although this may of course reduce public spending, this is not the sole reason for this move4. Rather, it is believed that local people will, by their very nature, be more responsive and more efficient in the serving the community than larger, more bureaucratic, organisations that are often staffed by people who do not live in the local area.

is believed that local people will, by their very nature, be more responsive and more efficient

Public libraries are amongst the most local of services, often sitting on the very same streets as the public that it serves. Few other council services have the level of support that libraries have and there is also a strong tradition of volunteering in public libraries for other tasks, such as delivering books to the housebound. Added on to this, the library user can often see the work of the library being done – issuing, discharging and shelving books are easy tasks to understand. The welcoming atmosphere of the library may also make such tasks appear attractive to the public. Taken all together, these have led to the belief that the public can both do, and will be willing to do, what was paid work before. Thus, it is widely considered a job suitable for the unskilled (“just stamping books”5) and ripe for those with spare time, be they retired or unemployed.

The weak legal protection afforded to libraries has meant that there is little effective statutory protection for a paid public library service. The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act6 states the need for a “comprehensive and efficient” service but, as recent events have shown, does not define this sufficiently to protect spending on public libraries. Equally, there is arguably little or no legal requirement for paid or qualified staff and very little desire by central government to intervene in the affairs of local councils. This can lead to a situation where it is the public themselves who battle for libraries in the courts rather than the profession or the government and the scope of these local campaigns can be national in nature7. There have been several court cases arguing that the relevant council has been remiss in its legal duties, normally under the Equalities Act or in the way it has run public consultations. Whether successful or unsuccessful such judicial reviews are used by other councils as guidelines into what and what not to do. The decision has led to direct reversals in council policy as they have recognised that they were not strictly within the law. In other cases, councils have only made technical changes to their proposals in order to meet the strict letter of the decision and then carried on reducing library services as before. In all cases, the local library-using community see themselves as undertaking a duty which really should have been carried out by the libraries minister (Ed Vaizey since 2010) who has a statutory duty to intervene in library services which are not meeting the terms of the 1964 Act. However, the, until recently at least, complete lack of any significant intervention by the Government in libraries in their current term of office have convinced many that, if something has to be done, it has to be done by themselves.

The weak legal protection afforded to libraries has meant that there is little effective statutory protection for a paid public library service.

The introduction of the idea of volunteers saving libraries has been deeply divisive to the librarian profession8. The spectacle of retired library staff9 working in branches where the paid staff have recently been made redundant has caused some anger. Others point out that that particular library would have closed anyway and so such actions are saving important insitutions for the community. Some argue that this route can lead to better library services in areas that would otherwise be devoid of them and, indeed, the results in some volunteer libraries appear to be impressive, with an increase in both activities and visitors. The apparent success of volunteer-run libraries some areas – notably in Buckinghamshire10 – has been used by local authorities to push for more volunteer libraries in other areas. In this respect, the genie is already out of the bottle and the validity of the new “community library” model has now reached broad acceptance amongst councillors and amongst Chief Librarians11. Even the professional association CILIP, indeed, whose membership is of paid librarians and would have been seen as a likely bulwark against volunteer libraries, had a policy of not blocking substitution of paid staff by volunteers until a protest by part of its membership12.

Speaking of protest, this has perhaps been the most obvious area where the local community has intervened in the running of library services. The announcement of the closure, or attempted passing to volunteers, of one or more local public libraries frequently results in a campaign against the decision. This can come in various forms. Paper or on-line petitions are common13, especially as a sufficient number of signatories can trigger a formal council debate14. Letters of complaint in local newspapers or in response to public consultations are almost to be expected, with the level of participation sometimes being amongst the highest ever recorded15. The formation of campaign groups has been greatly assisted by social media, with there being numerous online facebook groups or websites being created. The traditional demonstration, with marches and placards16, has also been present, with some country towns experiencing the first such protests in town centres since mediaeval times17. However, such protests have almost never had a notable impact on the decision of the local council. The suspicion is that, due to the often solidly Labour or Conservative majorities in the local authority, councillors can ignore even large scale public protest, safe in the knowledge that their seat is safe. In such a situation, protest exists only to let off steam and can have little effect, especially as closed libraries appear to be rarely in the wards of the decision-making councillors themselves.

The weak legal protection afforded to libraries has meant that there is little effective statutory protection for a paid public library service.

Against the backdrop of this protest, the “community model” of volunteers running libraries can be very divisive. Those who would normally be protesting against the closure of the local library are frequently co-opted by the council into working out how to run the library themselves18. Members of the local community may then be split between those who want a library run by paid staff with council support and those who believe this is no longer fundable and wish to go it alone. This can lead to situations where one campaign group takes the council to court over the cuts while other campaigners complain that such legal action is preventing them from getting on with the job themselves. While there have been no known cases of violence between these different groups of library supporters, councils have sometimes played up in the media the difficulties caused by court action and have highlighted the frustration of those groups willing to take over libraries with their anti-volunteer campaigning peers. Volunteer libraries therefore have changed the story of library cuts from that of pure black and white (closed or open) to that of varying shades of grey.

The attitude of councils to volunteer libraries have undergone a sea change in recent years. How this happened can be best be seen through the example of Buckinghamshire. Way back in 2006, action groups were set up in Little Chalfont and other villages to fight the closure of their local libraries19. When it became clear that the council would not back down and keep them open in a conventional manner, the focus of the groups moves to working out how to run them themselves. The fact that these villages were in highly prosperous areas, with a large number of retired professionals, doubtless helped in making this viable. In the face of fierce opposition, the council reluctantly agreed that the then action groups could take over their libraries as long as it led to no cost to the council. These branches then survived on their own initiative for several years until the changing political landscape – and the success of the libraries in question – meant that the model was re-evaluated from one to be suppressed to one that should be spread. Indeed, the council now helps support these branches and has adopted the model for nine in 2012 and a further three in 201420 21

 the model was re-evaluated from one to be suppressed to one that should be spread

As already seen, volunteers in libraries can be split between those who are complementary/additional to existing staff and those who replace them. UK public libraries have always had, even in the best funded of times, a strong tradition of volunteers. These were often involved in delivering books and other items to those members of the community stuck for physical reasons inside their own homes, or residential homes. The volunteer uses their own cars for this purpose, often being paid travel expenses, and also frequently is the one that chooses the books in the first place. Such helpers are either individually recruited and organised by the library service or are themselves part of another organisation such as the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS). Other volunteers are often to be found assisting with the cataloguing an digitisation of local library collections or conducting story-times. Members of the public are also sometimes in libraries as part of work experience: something which sometimes blurs into volunteering if there is a high demand in that area.

In recent years, there has been an increased trend for councils to advertise for volunteers to be in further roles up to but not quite including running individual branches. Volunteers have been widely used to give users basic help with computers and there is also a relatively recent national programme run by the Reading Agency to have young volunteers assisting with the Summer Reading Challenge22. Sometimes, the roles asked for by councils can go far far further. Northamptonshire, for example actively asks for volunteers to create book displays, assist in backroom duties like unpacking stock, shelve and tidy books, conduct surveys, help with homework, outreach roles in Children’s Centres, support events, be a key-holder/emergency contact, be the extra person needed to extend opening times to Sundays, fundraise, assist with local and family history queries, assisting those with English as a foreign language, adult literacy, reading groups, gardening, coffee mornings, greet customers and even help with healthy walks23. Taking this one step further, Friends groups have been set up to assist the running of library services in Suffolk24 with this model being widely promoted and other councils, such as Devon25, considering adopting that model. This is therefore a mixed model where volunteers effectively replace a substantial number of library staff but not all of them.

The most recent national official statistics from Cipfa show that there are now more volunteers working in public libraries than paid staff

Let us now look at the figures. The most recent national official statistics from Cipfa show that there are now more volunteers working in public libraries than paid staff26. However, this takes no account of the actual number of hours worked. My suspicion would be that the average volunteer works no more than one day per week (with the most common amount probably being half a day or even less) so the actual figure in those terms will doubtless have paid staff still very much comfortably in the majority. While there has been no official count of the number of volunteer-run libraries in the UK, my own count based on media reports is that they are present in at least 62 of the 151 English library authorities27, with the largest number of volunteer branches being just under twenty (in both Buckinghamshire and North Yorkshire). The most common estimates suggest there are around 400 such branches in the UK which, if correct, would account for around one in ten libraries. In addition, there are authorities where volunteers are assisting in the running of libraries but have not taken up all of the work (such as in Northamptonshire or in Suffolk).

don’t worry, if you lose your job, I’ll volunteer and keep the library open”.

There have been very few studies on how this has affected the actual service to the public, with much of the information being anecdotal28. Certainly, the morale of surviving library staff is often said to be as low as anyone can remember29, with well-meaning members of the public sometimes not helping the situation by asking if the librarian is a volunteer or, even, saying (anecdotally) “don’t worry, if you lose your job, I’ll volunteer and keep the library open”.

There are other stories being told of volunteers in some branches not accepting certain people into the library due to them being perceived as undesirable in some way. However, it is worth sadly noting at this stage that this attitude is not limited to unpaid staff and that there exist still today some employed staff who do not welcome “the wrong type” of user into their branch.

There are also tales told of volunteer libraries actually leading to a renaissance in library provision in some areas. In the most extreme examples, rather than being run by members of staff whose main motivation for turning up for work was said to be pay, libraries are now staffed by people whose main reason for being there is that they love the library service and enjoy the work. Being taken out of direct council control has also reportedly unleashed a fair amount of creativity and can-do attitude, unlimited by bureaucracy and corporate regulations. However, many library volunteers themselves would say that the best situation would have been a well-funded council-run library but that, being this is unlikely to happen, they are doing it instead. There is also an awareness that volunteer libraries appear to work best in precisely those areas where people can most afford books and computer access: leafy prosperous areas with large numbers of retired professional people. However, there are some libraries, such as New Cross in London, that are seen to be doing wonderful things in the most urban of settings. Some volunteer libraries are branching out to different areas than those normally found in a formal public library30. For instance, they can appear to be more community centres or adult learning centres than libraries (although one must accept that this is sometimes also the case with council-run public libraries).

Being taken out of direct council control has also reportedly unleashed a fair amount of creativity and can-do attitude, unlimited by bureaucracy and corporate regulations

In summary, the presence of the volunteer option is a highly complicated and evolving one in English libraries and is possibly the most emotive issue in public libraries today. The change is being undergone at breakneck speed and is having irreversible impact on the national library service. Whether this is for the good or for the bad is yet to be seen. What can at least be said is that the phenomenon shows the strength of positive feeling many people have for libraries. Long may that, at least, continue.



  • #1 written by Shirley Burnham
    about 9 years ago

    I think it is time that people, however well-meaning they are and however desperate to save their library, have a long and serious think about refusing to volunteer to replace paid staff. They have no Union to represent them, so it is difficult to envisage all library volunteers withdrawing their labour at the same time in protest at the burdens they are being forced to take on. However, that is exactly what I would like to see. We can talk about community altruism till the cows come home and bend over backwards not to offend anyone, but the bottom line is that the statutory service must be professionally led with paid frontline staff. By suggesting anything other, or fearing criticism for calling a spade a shovel, we demonstrate a shameful complacency in the face of the inevitable destruction of our national library service which seems to be well under way.

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