A crude strategy but here to stay: Biddy Casselden on volunteer public libraries in the United Kingdom

Biddy Casselden has done the research

Biddy Casselden has done the research

Biddy Casselden is that rare thing – an academic who has taken an interest in public and volunteer libraries. Her doctoral thesis A delicate balancing act: an investigation of volunteer use and stakeholder perspectives in public libraries is a very useful insight into volunteer libraries and how councils should organise them. Here she takes some time to answer a few of my questions.

Are volunteers helping their local community in the long term by taking over threatened public libraries?

The volunteer as library saviour is an interesting one.  Nichols and Forbes (2014) – call this the ‘elephant in the room’ and it was clear from my research that both staff and volunteers questioned had very real concerns about that the impact of increased volunteer use (particularly to save a library from closing) on the status of the library profession, in addition to the quality of any resulting library service.  However, staff and volunteers also acknowledged it was in many instances the only way of saving some libraries from closure and that an open library (with no professional support) was better, than no library.  It should be noted that volunteers have differing views of what their library should be about, in addition to particular skills they have to bring to the library, such that the library service becomes something slightly different because of their volunteering efforts.

“my research discovered that volunteer efforts to save their libraries were helpful, but whether these efforts are viable in the long term is questionable”

So, my research discovered that volunteer efforts to save their libraries were helpful, but whether these efforts are viable in the long term is questionable.  The longevity of volunteering efforts needs greater consideration, as does establishing whether such libraries are indeed, what the public wants, through user experience surveys.

Regarding volunteer run libraries, it remains to be seen if those libraries that are re-born from the ashes of closure, and run independently, are reaching out to all members of their community, or focussing on a niche audience that fails to include all sections of society.  I don’t think that this is intentional – but it is something that is exacerbated with volunteer delivery.

What are the main things, if there are any, that paid staff offer over volunteers?

The key point relates to the lack of a formal employment contract.  Volunteers are not contractually obliged, and this means that they are less reliable and accountable.  Respondents acknowledged that generally paid staff are better qualified, with more knowledge and experience.  Indeed, nearly two thirds of library users questioned felt there was a difference between paid staff and volunteers, with the former being more accountable, stable, and with better training and expertise.  Volunteers require careful management, and training – and a formal recruitment and selection policy, if they are to enable a fully hybrid library service.  Volunteers can always walk away if they wish, as indicted by the following volunteer response ‘we can walk away for a start if we don’t like it, but they can’t. We can pick or choose, they can’t. If we decide not to come in on a Wednesday or come in on the Thursday instead, we can’ (Volunteer focus group LA1).

“If we decide not to come in on a Wednesday or come in on the Thursday instead, we can”

So from a management perspective, staff are more likely to be controllable, and a known entity, which is important when you are trying to meet service priorities.  The relationships that have to be fostered with volunteers are different, and this is where the concept of volunteer relationship management comes in, which I will return to later.

Conversely, are there things that volunteers do better than paid staff?

The underlying feature that came from all volunteers questioned was that they loved their library, and they were fiercely loyal.  They can bring a passion, and expertise in particular areas (such as local history) that staff may not have.  Often this passion is the ‘thing’ that brings them to volunteer with the library in the first place, and often they have a past association with the library that spans many years.  Having said that many library staff are equally as passionate about what they do, so this is not limited to volunteers.

“The underlying feature that came from all volunteers questioned was that they loved their library, and they were fiercely loyal”

Many value-added volunteers (where volunteers are not replacing staff, but adding value to the standard library offer) can offer expertise and additional skills and enhance what a library offers, in addition to engaging with the local community.  They also can help to widen contacts, and bring in a new audience to the library – for example my findings discovered youth groups that helped to bring in a younger demographic to the library.  Volunteers are sometimes able to tap into pots of funding that staff cannot get to, and increasingly, this is something that libraries may have to consider when thinking about funding.

However, where there may be a lack of community capacity to provide for a volunteering effort, there is the potential for volunteers to be perceived as ‘outsiders’, thereby deterring people from using their library.

Have you come across examples of both successful and unsuccessful volunteer libraries? Why are some working well and some not?

My research looked at libraries that use value-added volunteers for supplementary activities, and volunteer run libraries – and it was clear that an increasingly hybrid model of public library delivery is appearing.    This is against a background of misunderstandings, uncertainty, and inevitability, linked to the current political and economic environment we find ourselves in today.   There are some good examples of value-added volunteer use that I came across, which were created largely because of community engagement policy during the New Labour Government.  However new volunteer-run libraries are facing challenges, partly due to the highly sensitive situation which has tainted the positive role of the volunteer within public libraries, and challenged the acceptance of this mode of delivery by library staff, volunteers and library users.  In addition, community capacity means that some of the volunteer run libraries I considered were taking their volunteers from outside of the community, which further challenges the legitimacy of this type of volunteer use.

” a background of misunderstandings, uncertainty, and inevitability”

My results showed that key factors enhancing volunteer use revolved around a set of underlying themes related to volunteer management and use, relationships, control and reward, professionalism and quality and the role of communication as a facilitation tool.

I also think the situation is a highly complex one, with a set of inter-related variables that means that just because one volunteer-run library works in one authority, it is not necessarily the case that it will work in the same way in another authority.  We need to take care in an over-reliance on a laissez-faire approach to plugging the gap in provision.  What I mean by this is that councils have tended to close those libraries that they perceive to have an active library friends group, who they hope will rally to the call for active volunteers to take that library over.  One could argue that what other option do they have, but there is very little that we know relating to the long-term viability of a volunteer-run library, and its inclusivity for the wider community.

Do you think we will see more and more volunteer libraries in future?

Probably yes, and this mirrors my findings from all stakeholders questioned. I would argue that this hybrid delivery of library services is part of a more general shift to reduce the state with regard to public service delivery, and move towards the Conservative vision of a Shared Society (a development from the Big Society, which failed to materialise).   I like to think that perhaps we could move more towards what Mulligan (2012, cited in Clarence and Gabriel, 2014 p.21) terms the relational state, whereby the state works with the community to deliver key services, rather than the state working for the community.  However, such a situation needs politically literate, engaged citizens – and indeed a culture shift on the part of public libraries, in addition to clarity of boundaries, and careful planning.  This is going to take time, and I am worried that what we have seen over the past few years is simply a knee-jerk reaction to austerity measures.

If we are going to do this properly, we need to think carefully about the reasons why we are doing this, and how we can facilitate the best situation possible.

I use the term “volunteer libraries” but others use terms like “community-led”. What is your preferred term and why?

I prefer the term, volunteer run libraries – this is probably a political stance on my part, and came about from having discussed this issue with the respondents.  A community led library reminds me of the drive towards community engagement, relating to previous New Labour Government policy, ‘It is about the community identifying needs and working in equal partnerships to address these. Libraries can take these opportunities to deliver on key targets and agendas; to widen participation contributing to community cohesion; or to increase active citizenship and thereby increase use of library services’ (MLA 2006 in Museums Libraries and Archives Council (2011a p.11). It is probably what we are aiming for when we discuss the relational state, and brings to mind the idea of co-production whereby there exists an ‘an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours’ (Boyle and Harris 2009, cited in Pateman and Williment, 2013, p.9).

“the culture in which such a volunteer-run library finds itself today means it is not necessarily community-led.  “

I am not sure that a volunteer-run library in the current state, has equal and reciprocal relationships between all actors, and it probably has a long way to go before it reaches that state.  The underlying paradigm, and the culture in which such a volunteer-run library finds itself today means it is not necessarily community-led.  It is more a response from a group of individuals, who may care passionately about the fate of the library, but may not represent the community fully.  So although one could argue that is about semantics, the underlying conditions that create the latter term, require careful thought, a redistributive society and planning.

Do you think that a hybrid public library offer of partially paid libraries and partly volunteer libraries will be the new normal?

Yes, it does appear that such a hybrid model is becoming the norm.  Those areas that local authorities deem capable of rising to the volunteer effort are being chosen as areas where services can be cut.  It is a crude strategy, but in times of urgency, it is perhaps the only option.  The danger is that the ‘usual suspects’ (Brodie etc al 2009, p.30) dominating volunteer run libraries may deter certain sectors of the community from engaging with volunteering opportunities.  We then end up with a two-tier system of public library provision, and we need to ensure that this does not happen and we are capable of offering a seamless, inclusive and high quality service.  Doing this in a Hybrid arrangement is challenging and requires careful management, and should not be viewed as a cost cutting option.  It means we need to re-consider the underlying paradigm relating to public library provision, in addition to considering how we enable society to contribute to such volunteering in a fair and inclusive way.

“It is a crude strategy, but in times of urgency, it is perhaps the only option”

Returning to the concept of volunteer relationship management, Bussell and Forbes (2005) suggest that using this type of approach in volunteer management (more commonly associated with marketing, and termed customer relationship management) may perhaps be the solution for building trust amongst staff and volunteers, and enhancing loyalty.  Therefore use of strategies, technology and communication can help to facilitate new ways of working with volunteers, build relationships and ultimately work for the benefit of underpinning library service priorities and the wider community.

I would argue that increased use of volunteers is inevitable given current economic predictions, therefore it is important that public libraries utilise this unpredictable, yet often extremely valuable resource with care and caution.


Brodie, E., Cowling, E., Nissen, N., Paine, A. E., Jochum, V. & Warburton, D. (2009) Understanding participation: A literature review [Online]. Institute for Volunteering Research. Available: http://www.ivr.org.uk/images/stories/Institute-of-Volunteering-Research/Migrated-Resources/Documents/U/Pathways-literature-review-final-version.pdf [Accessed 2 April 2015].

Bussell, H. & Forbes, D. (2005) ‘Volunteer management in arts organisations: a case study and managerial implications’. International Journal of Arts Management, 8 (2), 1-10.

Clarence, E. & Gabriel, M. (2014) People helping people: The future of public services [Online]. Available at: http://www.nesta.org.uk/sites/default/files/people_helping_people_the_future_of_public_services_wv.pdf [Accessed 25 June 2015].

Museums Libraries and Archives Council (2011) Community engagement in public libraries: An evaluation of the Big Lottery Fund’s Community Libraries Programme [Online]. Available at: http://research.mla.gov.uk/evidence/view-publication.php?dm=nrm&pubid=1114 [Accessed 21 October 2011].

Nichols, G., Forbes, D., Findlay-King, L. & Macfayden, G. (2015) ‘Is asset transfer of public leisure facilities in England an example of assistive democracy?’. Administrative Sciences [Online], 5. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/admsci5020071 [Accessed 8 March 2016].

Pateman, J. & Williment, K. (2013) Developing community-led public libraries, Ashgate.


  • #1 written by Richard Stone
    about 6 years ago

    An excellent article that sheds light on a subject that is going to become more prevelant in the future.

    The professionals are rightly worried about their posts being lost. Users are worried about their libraries being lost. The answers are not simple to find but everyone must work together to ensure libraries are saved, professional staff need to be retained but sadly with less of them in most cases.

    However, if people want a library they must be prepared to show how much they care and the idea of being a volunteer needs to be considered.

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