Cons: reasons against volunteer “community libraries”

The rise of volunteer libraries in the UK is closely linked to the decline in funding for traditionally paid-staff libraries.  It is also sometimes linked with decline of usage, tied in with changing social attitudes and, above all, the rise of the Internet and e-books. This page looks at the reasons seen expressed against volunteer-run branches and can be used in conjunction with the counterpart page in favour of them.

 “.. an exploitation of the volunteer and a deprival of someone’s livelihood.” Official Trafford Council policy 2012 on replacing paid staff with volunteers. 

There are many reasons listed against the use of volunteers directly replacing paid staff:

  • Loss of paid librarian skills. Public library staff receive a fair amount of formal training in the many aspects of working in libraries, with the professionally qualified librarian (admittedly an increasingly rare sight on the front line) requiring at least a year’s graduate study.  In addition, paid staff, being able to do the job as a career, have many years, often decades of non-formal training and experience. Volunteer library staff may receive no formal training and be on the front-line from day one, picking it up as they go along.

“When an authority refuses to pay its library staff, and lays down the Sophie’s choice that either they work for free or the service is shut down, the real baddies of the piece are, of course, the authority. But knowing that doesn’t help us any. We still have to choose between descending into charity or watching as a community suffers. At least as things currently lie, I believe the only responsible action is the latter. I believe this in part because I suspect the voluntary model to be ultimately unsustainable, but principally because I believe we have a collective responsibility to our trade on a broader level. The communities we serve can only prosper if we can afford to serve them.”  Are you experienced? Volunteer now! – Succentorship Without Sneers.”

“The government has failed to recognise the correlation between volunteering rates and deprivation, which means wealthy areas are better placed to flourish under the ‘big society’ because they already have higher levels of social engagement. This divide between rich and poor areas could be exacerbated by local authority spending cuts”. The Guardian

“Most people who depend upon libraries would say ‘I don’t want it to be a lottery depending on whether people are willing to volunteer to keep them open.'” (Ed Balls).

“The model that we have followed in Chalfont St Giles is not universally applicable. Our library is small with light to moderate use. Buckinghamshire is a relatively affluent county with a sufficient pool of people with the time and skills to operate the local library. Trying to follow the same model in a busy town library in a deprived area would I think not succeed.”  (Tony Hoare).

“An inability to come forward to volunteer to run the library service for him is not a sign of a lack of interest in or need for a library – it is a sign that communities do not have the strength, level of education, experience, time and power to do so” (Save Doncaster Libraries).

“If the Walcot Library is “a flagship community library” (SA, October 1), then God help the other local libraries when the council starts making cuts! It has no real library staff, is now shut on Saturdays and is no longer available for the local schools to use, because there’s no room available since the charity shop moved in. It is now, in fact, a charity shop with some stacks of books as a sort of afterthought. Comparison of library usage between the years 2008/9 and 2009/10 shows the figures for Walcot have gone down dramatically.” Sherry Waldon, Swindon Advertiser.

“Using volunteers to fill in key roles risks undermining some of the fundamental things that attract people to volunteering. If a volunteer is carrying a role so vital that the organisation would suffer if they did not come in, then there is no room for any flexibility around what they do, and when they do it. We risk a situation where we are, essentially, emotionally blackmailing people to carry on offering time. Job substitution is also problematic on a practical level.” The economic downturn and the spectre of job substitution – Association of Volunteer Managers.

  • Volunteers are not free.  Costs include developing and maintaining a volunteer programme, recruitment, support, training, legal checks etc.  Indeed, in Oxfordshire it is estimated that transferring to volunteers is not saving any money at all, once all other costs (including a volunteer co-ordinator) have been included:.  Indeed, “Any volunteer performing work according to terms and hours laid down by your council could well be a ‘worker’ and eligible for at least the National Minimum Wage. This should be agreed with the council.”

“we appear to have no net financial gain to the County, a net loss in terms of professional library staff, and support groups dedicating countless hours of unpaid time to fill the gaps” Dumb Librarian, May 2013.


“UNISON believes that public library services should be sufficiently resourced and professionally staffed. Volunteers may have a role to play, but they should not be used as replacements for employed, paid, trained staff in the public library service. In the current economic climate, employers may try to do exactly that. We must be clear that the way to deliver high quality and fully accountable public library services, is to employ professional staff, pay them properly, and make sure they are trained and developed.

Many library authorities already use volunteers alongside paid staff. It is vital that we make sure that relations between paid staff and volunteers at a local level are constructive, with everyone understanding everyone else’s role, ensuring that staff and volunteers can work together effectively.

We do not believe that local authorities should use volunteers as a cost-cutting exercise or to make up for the loss of staff through cuts and redundancies. Volunteers should only be used in a limited number of circumstances to complement the work of paid staff. We would view a scenario where volunteers are used for job substitution, either outright or to cover for staff absence, very seriously.” Unison position on library volunteers, 2013.

  • Transiency.  Volunteers tend to work for shorter periods than paid staff: it appears that one half day per week is a common pattern, with volunteers often just working for one year or two before moving on.  The extreme part-time nature of some volunteers can lead to many problems with crossover: informing staff of changes or awareness of developments. It must also necessarily slow down the training and competence of these unpaid members of staff.  In addition, recruitment and selection of staff is a very time-consuming process if done properly making the use of volunteer sometimes a false economy. On a daily level, it also means those responsible for a branch can be in charge of 50 volunteers, with all the attendant problems therein, rather than 2 to 5 paid members of staff such a building would otherwise need. On the other hand, it’s notable that some library volunteers do stay for long periods – the trick is in finding them.
  • One of the reasons for transiency may be that the work can be unpleasantSecurity guards have been known to have to be hired to deter troublemakers and defecation with libraries is not unheard of.  Here are quotes from an article about bannings from Swindon libraries:

“Our Library has CCTV everywhere in it, it’s the only thing that stops me giving the youngsters a thick ear now and again. The old folk that pee on the seats then walk away leaving it to be sat on, get my goat as well.”

“One incident, which happened in a North Swindon library last year, was so bad that the police were called and the three culprits, aged between 14 and 16, were given life-long bans. But, the true picture could actually be much worse as some libraries work with Wiltshire Police to contribute evidence to enable anti-social behaviour orders, which includes being banned from the library, but these are not recorded by the council.

  • Mistakes can be made by volunteers if insufficient training is given.  This may also be due to the relatively small number of hours that volunteers may make. Due to the nature of the situation, there is no hard evidence of this and it is merely anecdotal.
  • Bias – One of the key things with a public library is that it should offer equal and unprejudiced access to all.  One of the fears expressed is that volunteers may bring their biases into work, making library use uncomfortable if one is not “in” with volunteers on duty.  There is also similar concern over the purchase and retention of stock, with the fear often expressed that titles that such staff do not like may simply not be bought or survive on the shelves (e.g. strong Christians may object to the work of Richard Dawkins etc).
  • Bear in mind when thinking of running a community library that volunteers may be used as an excuse to close more libraries next year.  The excellent work done in Buckinghamshire’s three volunteer-run libraries has been cited by the council as evidence that another 14 can be “divested”. There are repeated approving descriptions of existing volunteer libraries in some parts of the country if a council is seeking to present this option as palatable in the media.

“Brooks suspects that some Councils may be setting community libraries up to fail. “They’ve worked out that closing libraries will lose them votes,” he says. “So they set a bunch of volunteers up with a building that’s falling apart, starve them of key resources and then when the libraries fail, they will be able to say – well, we tried the volunteer route but it didn’t work.”” Jim Brooks, Little Chalfont Library quoted in Words With Jam.

  • “Although the prospect of a “charity, social enterprise or mutual” running and operating your local library or health centre may not be as objectionable as a profit-hungry public limited company, it’s privatisation all the same. And behind it is the same old neoliberal dogma which says that state or local authority provision of public services is inherently undesirable and needs to be ended.” Privatised Britain is not a fait accompliGuardian.
  • Blackmail – If the library is so valued that the local community is willing to run it, does that not mean that it’s important enough for the council to run it? It’s argued in “Are volunteers happy to run libraries?” that councils are blackmailing local communities.
  • Don’t expect the library staff to like volunteers.  Many library staff see volunteers as a direct threat to their jobs.  After all, volunteers are, in many cases, directly replacing them.  The following extract is from a volunteer who was not directly replacing staff:

“I knew that volunteering in libraries was an emotive subject and was under no illusions that there would be some resistance. What I was not prepared for was to hear from my father that he had been accosted by someone who made it very clear that I was not welcome. In the circumstances it was understandable; it transpired that this person was a library assistant and I can’t blame them for being concerned” i-volunteer.

  • Running a volunteer-run library, especially one which takes funds from parish councils could be seen as involving “double taxation”. Having to support a library through parish council taxes or through volunteers/other contributions is a form of double taxation as the inhabitants are still paying council tax for the surviving public libraries in larger towns in the area.  Moreover, this concentrates the cuts in one area while other libraries receive far less in way of cuts.

“Any cuts to frontline services should be shared across all libraries – city, urban and rural. “If a volunteer model is confirmed to be the only way forward then this too should be one which deploys volunteers in all libraries on a proportional basis and irrespective of location.”  Volunteers’ concern over Sonning Common Library – Get Reading 15/9/11.

  • Reputational risk for the Council“Issues of reputation linked to service failure also remain key, and councils transferring service delivery, particularly to volunteers, must understand that whilst they may no longer have direct responsibility for a service, any fall in quality of provision may still have a serious reputational impact. Councils will therefore need to maintain an oversight of the service, to minimise risk.”
  • Fragmentation of library services may result. The atomisation inherent is separating off separate volunteer libraries from the existing authority may mean that, instead of one library procedure in a county, there may be twenty different ones.
  • Public Lending Right does not necessarily cover volunteer-run libraries and so they may be in contravention of copyright unless they are counted as till part of the statutory service.
  • The government does not believe in volunteer-run libraries when it applies to them – there are no plans for volunteers in the House of Commons Library (Gloria De Piero).

“Quite simply, there is no need to abandon the ideal of a public library service, free at the point of use and run by paid staff. Anything less is an insult to users. Yes, there are successful volunteer libraries around the country, but fewer than politicians in search of a Big Society might imagine. The experience of those that run them is instructive. It is not easy and can not be done on a wing and a prayer.”  (Alan Gibbons)

‘Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished’. (Philip Pullman)

“The librarian is an active intermediary between users and resources. Professional and continuing education of the librarian is indispensable to ensure adequate services.” UNESCO Public Library Manifesto.

Other Public Libraries News resources that may be of interest

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.

See also V for Volunteer – a dystopian reality – A Medley of Extemporanea. Dawn Finch interviews an anonymous museum volunteer who makes clear that volunteering, without support, is deeply problematic. Numbers of volunteers are severely down over a few years as people discover it’s real work or go off to do something else, council fails to support. Volunteer thinks best thing to have done, had they of known what they do today, would be to have campaigned harder to keep paid staff. Questions long-term future of museum, how repairs will be funded and thinks they will need to introduce charging soon.

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