Running a library is a serious undertaking and not something for the faint-hearted.  For an idea of what one lets oneself in for, please see this article Jim Brooks of Little Chalfont Community Library has talked about his experience at Words With Jam.  A neighbouring volunteer-run library, Chalfont St Giles, has produced this guide to running a small public library with volunteers.

The Community Knowledge Hub, a website that supports volunteer-run libraries, provides much free information on the site, including detailed sections on practicalities, resources and news.

Away from the Community Knowledge Hub, this is a list of that needs to be considered as gathered from other online reports:

  • There is a concern under TUPE legislation that taking over, even on a voluntary basis, a job previously done by someone paid would mean sacked staff could demand reinstatement of pay. TUPE legislation says specifically that public bodies are not exempt.  Isle of Wight Council has promised to indemnify community groups facing such claims.
  • Legal requirements (this list taken from Warwickshire Council) include – insurance, health & safety, risk assessments, safeguarding children and vulnerable adults, licensing, data protection.
  • Watch out for VAT. Councils can claim VAT back on many library purchases, not so for many volunteer libraries. Make sure to include this in the costings – and that the council has remembered this in theirs.
  • CRB checks. The Criminal Records Bureau is an Executive Agency of the Home Office which provides wider access to criminal record information through its Disclosure service for England and Wales. Disclosure is governed by the Police Act 1997 and The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.  CRB checks should be obtained in relation to those people who are working/volunteering (or seeking to work/volunteer) with children or vulnerable adults. There are two types of checks that can be requested – Enhanced and Standard. Both require a fee (£44 and £26, respectively), but are free to volunteers (Source: WiK).  Some library authorities do not require their paid staff to be CRB checked as they are never alone with a child.  However, those working in a library can easily build up a relationship of trust which could be abused off the premises.
  • Under The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, a person with a criminal record is not required to disclose any spent convictions, unless the position in question is listed as an exception under the Act. However, those working/volunteering in libraries are likely to be eligible to undergo Standard CRB checks. Enhanced checks may also be necessary for those who regularly supervise or are in sole charge of children or vulnerable adults.” (Source: WiK).
  • Question of ownership of lease to building, and liability. Community organisations can apply to manage rather than own the library, meaning that responsibility for external and major repairs stays with council.

“BLUG has already expressed severe concern about the financial consequences of accepting a lease and believes strongly that IWC should follow the growing practice of other councils, which is to retain responsibility and ownership of library buildings, and train volunteers to work alongside existing professionals rather than replace them. “It’s a practice that has been adopted by a growing number of local authorities and allows substantial financial savings while retaining the professionalism of the full time library staff in the library service,” said Richard Beet, lead author of BLUG’s recent submission to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. “It allows volunteers to do their job in the library without having to become building services managers, and would help overcome employment legislation issues.”  (Ventnor Blog, 5/6/11)

  • Costs involved (see this breakdown) include amount of rent/rates to be paid.  Warwickshire include this list as well – rent of premises, running cost of building (heating, lighting, cleaning, maintenance, insurance), computer costs (inc. broadband, licenses, equipment etc), self-service equipment if applicable (£11k per new kiosk plus £1300 p.a. support costs), telephone costs, public liability insurance (normally for at least £6m).
  • A written job description for a volunteer is good practice but means that employment tribunal appeals are possible. Even where there is not a written job description, regular volunteering may be breaking the law regarding the National Minimum Wage.  However, a  court decision (Dec 2012) has meant that volunteers cannot claim under employment law unless they have a contract or are undergoing vocational training.  This removes an obstacle for volunteers taking over libraries in that it frees them from having to worry about employment law with their unpaid workers.  Of course, it’s also equally a detriment to those same volunteers who cannot appeal to the same rights that paid workers have, at least in this instance
  • Volunteers are not covered by the Disability Discrimination Act meaning there is no means to challenge if any discrimination takes place against them. However, the community group or council may be liable if a volunteer discriminates against a library user. Volunteers need to receive reasonable expenses.
  • Paid workers will often be working in conjunction with volunteers. See Charter for Strengthening Relations between Paid Staff and Volunteers.
  • CILIP guidance is that, under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, volunteer-run libraries cannot charge for book lending (or other printed material) or, correspondingly,  for membership/admission if they are to be counted towards the council’s statutory library lending provision.  If they are not be counted as part of the council service, the volunteer-run library can then charge but may not be able to have access to the (highly important) council ICT such as library catalogue.  It may also open up the council to legal action for being in breach of its duties.
  • If considering the volunteer-run route, it is important not to accept the council’s first offer.  Campaigning can result in improved proposals such as that in Dorset.  The first offer of the authority is often not their final one.
  • If the council is considerate enough to include income figures, ensure these are actual (rather than forecast) as there can be a considerable difference between the two.
  • Question whether volunteers can access the library computer system.  Some councils (such as Warwickshire) decide that this would contravene the Data Protection Act.  Without this access, one cannot tell what books are available at other libraries or even if the person’s library card is valid.  This is a major difference between running a branch of the local library system and running a stand-alone library with reduced service.
  • If running the councils’ system is too expensive or not allowed, an “open source library management system” may be cheap alternative: see Koha or the Library Coop for alternatives.
  • Volunteers need to be aware that work in a public library can be unpleasant.  Excrement smeared over the walls of public toilets (or, indeed, deposited in the children’s area) is a widely known phenomenon, as is drug use, abusive or violent behaviour.  Individuals that some in society may consider “strange” or “dangerous” are drawn to libraries as they are any public space.
  • Training of volunteers is key.  Libraries are highly computerised so IT training is needed.  Shadowing of library staff would also be immensely useful, although it is worth considering how those library staff feel about having to train volunteers to replace them in what were previously paid jobs.
  • There needs to be an understanding of what library workers do.  Here is an (incomplete) list.
  • Each council should also have a Volunteer Policy, detailing what it expects volunteers to do (and what they can’t do), training, monitoring etc.  See Northamptonshire volunteer policy.   
  • Charitable status.  While not strictly a requirement, being a charity could significantly help the finances of a group running a library.  Ensure that the aims of the organisation tie in with those allowed by the Charities Commission.  For instance: “To advance public education by running and/or assisting in the running of a library at xxx, for the benefit of the residents of the xxx Borough of xxx.” is acceptable.
  • Refurbishing the Library.  It may be that the library space made sense for a council-run library service but won’t for your group.  Groups taking over libraries often wish to add event spaces, meeting rooms, a small shop or even a cafe into the space.  This can be a lot harder to do than simply shifting furniture around.  Assistance can be found via professional bodies (see if the Council can assist) or through many private companies.  There are some non-profits that may also assist.  For example, ADP Projects has contacted this blog about its work in changing three libraries in Lewisham for Eco Computers.
  • If the group is taking over a library using self-service machines, it will find that it may need to re-tag all of the books if it ever seeks to upgrade or change the system (if it’s lucky it may find out that it can simply reprogramme the tags but this is still a cost).  This is due to a recent introduction of international standards that no UK public library authority currently use but will soon come into play.  Such a cost can be substantial (25p per item plus around 14p each if new tags are needed plus, of course, the cost of the new self-service machines themselves).   It may be useful for any group to seek an indemnity from the Council that they would pay for any future upgrade as it will be probably beyond their financial abilities otherwise.

 “CILIP acknowledges the contribution that volunteers make to libraries, enriching the services they provide and helping to sustain their viability. In order to optimise the value of that contribution it should form part of a professionally managed public library service that has at its core sufficient paid staff to ensure the direction, development and quality of the service provided. Volunteers are not ‘free’ and need proper management, training and development. In many cases a volunteers’ co-ordinator should be appointed to ensure appropriate management and recognition of the value of volunteers.” Use of volunteers in public libraries, CILIP October 2010.

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