“The reality is very different”: A volunteer library manager speaks

The following was sent to Public Libraries News by a volunteer running a library in Dorset.  Please compare with the National Federation of Women’s Institute’s On permanent loan? Community managed libraries – a volunteer perspective. For a positive (and essentially government-funded) report on the same subject, see Art Council England’s Community libraries – learning from experience:


“… Will they continue to be supplied with a library management system, book circulation etc?  We have this supplied by Dorset County Council, plus the services of a paid library staff member for three hours a week. On the other hand, they give us nothing else whatsoever and we have to maintain the building and gardens entirely from our own efforts.   The Parish Council paid our insurance premium until 2013/14 but will not pay any longer as their funds have been depleted by having to pay massive costs for storm damage over last winter.

We reckon our annual costs to be in the region of £7,500 (including the £800 insurance premium).   Income from subscriptions to Friends of Charmouth Library (£24 a year), hire fees for the extension built with a Big Lottery Fund grant, classes and activities, sales of refreshments and goods leaves us with a shortfall of around £600-£1,000, easily covered by a couple of fund-raising events a year. When we were still at the stage of protesting the closures/takeovers, we began to raise funds so that we had a pot of money by the time it all actually happened.   We also bullied DCC into giving us £15,300 to refurbish the rundown building and all community-managed libraries were given an initial £2,000 but nothing more.

As you know, we have since had rather a lot of grants for one thing or another – building an extension, kitchen, equipment, furniture, paving, garden, computers, noticeboards, signage, sewing machines, Smart TV and all the gear, tutors/materials for educational activities etc etc.

I am no longer Chair as my three promised years were up on 28 October.   We now only have an Acting Chair.   The many other duties I had taken on – far beyond what a Chair would normally expect to do – have been shared out amongst the other Committee members.   I’ll see through reporting back on recent grants and other small building projects not yet completed and be a stand-in volunteer in the library, but that’s all.   I’m really only good at setting things up and rubbish at the boring housekeeping.   I figure there is a fully furnished refurbished building with a new extension, a newly-planted wildlife-friendly sensory garden, two year’s running expenses in the bank….

I think Devon has the best model for setting up community libraries i.e. ALL Devon’s libraries will be professionally-run but community-aided libraries.   We put this idea forward to Dorset CC at the outset but, of course, they had already decided on their own agenda for saving costs and the pretence of consultation was just window-dressing.

I think our big fight in the future will be to be kept up-to-date with new developments.   The changes in library services will be swift as everything becomes more digitised.   Exeter has a FabLab, N London has a digital Library Wall, interactive novels are coming…and so on.   I can see that our community-managed libraries could easily remain quaint little outposts, limping along with old technology as the world moves on in ways we can’t even conceive at the moment – or having to pay for anything new because it won’t be funded by the local authority…

Hazel Rosery, November 2014

I’m rather fed up with politicians and their lackeys paid by comfortable institutions like the Arts Council offering advice on how to deprive communities of their council-run libraries.   They get very enthusiastic about cost-saving and the virtues of community-managed libraries.  

The reality is very different – and I write as one who has been Chair of the Committee attempting to run such a library in a small coastal village in Dorset since February 2013.  

First of all, very little money has been saved, though I admit that the Council’s primary objective – to rid itself of costly buildings – will save some money in the future.   Of course, far more would have been saved had they run the Council more like a business.   It’s only when you are forced to study the figures to make your protest arguments that you realise just how much waste there is.   I won’t dwell on this as we’ve already lost that battle.  

Even when run by the Council, the rural library service did not, in any case, offer much more than book-borrowing and public computers during very restricted hours.   The charming part-time staff were not well-read or well-trained but they offered as good and helpful a service as they could.  Because they were a consistent presence, at least they knew how to make recommendations to satisfy literary tastes and to ask after Mrs B’s bad knee.  There was some hope that, as the service alters in the future, their training would have kept up with at least a minimal version of the changes.  

It hardly takes a genius to know that the changes will be radical.   We shall all rely more and more on digital resources and these will become increasingly sophisticated.      Volunteering, by its very nature is largely undertaken by the retired, most of whom came to computers late in life.   They already struggle with the library management system.   With a few days’ training and a manual, they leave any problems to the Community Library Liaison Officer who appears for three hours a week.   Most volunteers take on fortnightly shifts so there is no consistency of service.    Many, like me, are by no means comfortable on computers once we are beyond the boundaries of emails, looking up something on the web and sending the odd photo or two.    How will the volunteers cope with a far more digitised service?   It is unlikely that they will get any proper training.  As it is also unlikely that we’ll get any up-to-date equipment anyway, this may be an unnecessary concern.  

Recently, the Council announced that the town  “core” libraries would at last have public-access wi-fi.   Community Managed Libraries (CMLs) could also take advantage of this offer if they were prepared to pay £76 annually for it.    This is not so much money and most could afford it….but that is not the point.   Here is the first indicator that CMLs will fall further and further behind in the digital and ICT provision which will be so vital in the future as the Council will only provide access if the CMLs can pay for it.    It is the kiss of a lingering death.  

In the meanwhile, we struggle on, manipulating rotas, recruiting volunteers, trying to turn the library into a community hub, arranging activities, lending out books, offering computer classes, selling refreshments –  and then there is the relentless round of fund-raising events to keep all this going.   We have been lucky.   A Big Lottery Fund grant helped build an extension for a meeting room cum café and other grants have furnished and equipped it.   Even the County Council reluctantly coughed up enough to repair the leaking roof and install central heating to the original premises so we now have the freehold on a warm, newly-decorated and attractive building.   This does not stop the Committee worrying about how it will afford to keep the enterprise going as costs increase and the library is only one of 30 or so good causes promoted in the village.   In straitened times, there is only so much money to spend on charitable donations.  

Issue figures continue to decline country- and county-wide and those for CMLs are declining even faster.    Our village figures are not as bad as those of other Dorset CMLs which have not been so fortunate in their location and are tucked into the village hall or parish council building.   In fact, in the first five months since we took over, we have issued 76 new library cards, 40 of which were to under 18s.   More children took part in the Summer Reading Challenge than ever before.    We get lots of comments on the extension of opening hours (from ten to seventeen), the comfort of the building, the friendliness of the volunteers and the provision of a haven for the socially-isolated.  

Perhaps in the eyes of the general user local libraries always were more about being havens and borrowing books than providing wide, in-depth information in a professional fashion.   Perhaps it will not matter if CMLs are left behind with digital service provision.   Perhaps when I step down next year we can find someone else prepared to take on the almost full-time job of keeping the library/community hub going – but, then again, perhaps not.  

The old Council-run service in rural areas was not that brilliant and, even with fewer town-only branches, it remains mediocre.    Here, the Parish Council had had to step in to increase opening hours from six to ten.   There were no activities of any kind.    But there was something which could have been built on if there had been the will to do so.     Ideally, the Council, Parish Council and Friends of the Library would have worked in harmonious partnership  to introduce Rhymetime, Tea & Chat, Sewing Circle, Creative Writers’group, book clubs, computer classes and so on while keeping library services constantly updated.   Volunteers would have run the activities and raised some funds towards new equipment and expenses but the statutory responsibility, building and staffing would have remained with the Council.  That would have been a really good local service to the community and our taxes would have been well spent….but that is obviously too much like common sense.

Hazel Rosery

October 2013

Please note also two more pages – pro and con volunteer run libraries. For another volunteer library that may not be having an entirely positive time, please see this post.

  • #1 written by librariesmatter
    about 10 years ago

    Aren’t most of Hazel’s points really a criticism of a lack of support from Dorset CC . Dorset CC leaves out the eight community run libraries from its statutory library service. This indicates that abandonment of these libraries is the currently preferred option for the Council. Wouldn’t a better policy be sensible Council support to ensure a sustainable future for the libraries within the statutory library service? Residents in smaller communities are just as deserving of a local public library service as are residents of large towns.

  • #2 written by Booling
    about 10 years ago

    Reply to librariesmatter…the whole point of unpaid, volunteer, “community” libraries is to save money. A council giving any support to a comunity/volunteer-run library defeats the purpose of the exercise. Council support would cost staff time and money. If you provide proper support you may as well keep the library in Council hands!.

    • #3 written by librariesmatter
      about 10 years ago

      Reply to Booling,
      No! The branch cost of a sensibly supported community run library is likely to be half or less that of a traditional paid staff library. I’m not saying that it is a desirable thing to do. If you can sensibly avoid it, then don’t do it. But if the budget choice is to close half the small libraries based on the traditional library model or keep them all open with a supported community run model then that is choice for Councillors to consider.

      Hazel seem to have concerns about the IT and IT developments and the community run libraries getting left behind. The cost of the Council providing support for that is not likely to be much.

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