Four views on volunteer libraries: Sue Charteris, AnneMarie Naylor, Marylyn Haines-Evans of the WI and Ian Anstice

The following is from the presentations given by Sue Charteris, AnneMarie Naylor, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, and myself (Ian Anstice) as part of a panel discussion on volunteer libraries given at the annual “Umbrella” library conference in July 2013 held at the University of Manchester. The question we were all asked to answer was:

“Does the emergence of community libraries herald the demise of the public library network?”

Sue Charteris

My answer to the question is not if care is taken over a number of fundamentals. I worked with Locality on the research Community Libraries: Learning from Experience, commissioned by the Arts Council. We took a snapshot in July 2012 and the position was a very confused one, with different councils  using the term community library in different ways.  In some places there was an attitude of ‘you take them on or lose them’ while in others a real partnership was developing between councils and community providers.

AnneMarie will describe the picture we found and the typology we established. We also developed some guidelines and working principles, issues we felt councils should consider at the outset.

I think this boils down to six vital considerations. These are:

  1. What outcomes do we want our libraries to support? (What are they for?)
  2. What does our (statutory) network need to look like in these financially constrained times?
  3. What roles might communities be willing to play in delivering the network and how do we best ask them?
  4. Are there any parts of our offer that we can no longer justify? (And if so be clear about this at the outset)
  5. How do we build a constructive relationship with communities (and staff) to both build and sustain this new approach? It won’t just happen.
  6. What partners have we got inside and outside the council to help us?

So the issues facing community led delivery are not so very different to how the network itself stays strong through the recession and changing nature of demand. Community led provision (community libraries) can be part of the solution but the key issues are:

  • Sustainability: are CM libraries relying on council grant and volunteers or are they becoming social businesses with new sources of income?
  • Stretch: There are additional and different resources needed to support this approach. How are professional resources being spread across the network, to support those community- managed libraries in new ways?
  • Equity:  Addressing the inbuilt risks of inequality (i.e. that communities in most need of a public library service might not be served well without additional input to support).

So what does this mean for library professionals? I think the tacit messages are:

  • Keep an open mind: not assuming that many will come forward to support the library’s existence or that none will:
  • Develop a strategic and enabling approach to professional support
  • Explain how you are supporting this new approach, generating evidence for your professional enabling role to be better understood
  • Work with other services and agencies to support the growth of the model, more to lose than to gain

 Finally, build a professional partnership with those in communities based on mutual respect. I know it’s a really tough ask but avoid being stereotyped into justifying the status quo.  The spread of professional resources across the public library network has clearly been a major challenge for some time. Instead explain and advocate for a mixed approach that can only work with your support.

My answer is  NOT if key stakeholders nurture and/or commission genuine community enterprises to support the emergence of a high quality, future-oriented, mixed library economy.

It’s early days regarding different models –but, let’s be absolutely clear what we meant when we developed a typology and referred to ‘community libraries’. In July 2012 the pattern looked like this:

  • Independents – 5%
  • Community Managed – 40%
  • Community Supported – 40%
  • Commissioned – 15%

Are they all equally resilient? Time will tell. We cannot dismiss 10,000 village halls run, for the most part, on volunteer energy and often benefiting from local donations in rural settings. However, in deprived settings, Locality’s experience is that you need:

  • An endowment fund AND/OR
  • An asset transferred at an undervalue that is capable of income generation AND/OR
  • Grants/Contracts mix AND/OR
  • Access to professional staff/resources AND/OR
  • Enterprise support and a realistic business model/plan

Locality benefits from 700+ members across the UK – with assets estimated to be worth in excess of £650m, and earned income of £250m+ – further information is available via Some of them have been around longer than local authorities themselves delivering an array of social benefits so, we’re confident that they can serve as a sustainable foundation for community-led activities. They’ve been involved in library provision in a number of ways over many years [see: the list in the first paragraph -]

For us, community involvement in libraries is not about saving money – that’s the task facing the public sector. Instead, it’s about providing a mix of services people want and can shape, because one-size-fits-all rarely helps deprived communities.

 My top Top Tips are:

  1.  Begin by working out what the purpose of libraries is in the modern context.  The answer isn’t shared services, efficiency or co-location (although, clearly, they’re useful when it comes to ‘how’ services might be delivered going forward). Try to take a step back…
  2. Find out about community enterprise if you don’t know already what it actually is THEN
  3. Consider if/how community enterprise could ADD VALUE to library service provision and evolution in your communities.

Ultimately, it’s not about encouraging the preservation of poor quality buildings, infrequently used services, etc – as though ‘in aspic’. Like the Maldives in the face of climate change and faced with fast-rising tides, we need to be clear about what it is libraries can most usefully offer now that they’re surrounded by a veritable sea of information. So, for me, it’s about exploring together with your communities how best to manage and transform libraries to the good so that the library (whatever that might come to mean over the years ahead) continues to play a central role in our society.

Ian Anstice

I would love to be able to say, as a professional librarian, that all volunteer libraries are terrible and doomed to failure.  That would be a black and white view of the world, which would provide me with a very comforting moral certitude.  However, the world is not like that.  Some volunteer libraries have proved themselves to be successful for at least several years and seem set for many years to come.  Others, however, have already shown themselves to be failures in terms of accepted library use.  To concentrate too much on either side of the debate is therefore to do a disservice to the reader.  However, I am aware that others speaking today will be putting forward the pro case. With that in mind, therefore, I aim to look at the problems inherent in transferring an increasingly large part of the UK public libraries landscape to the unpaid.

The first problem is that, to be successful, the council needs to be sincere in offering the necessary resources to the volunteers.  The danger is that now, faced with the deepest cuts to local government spending in living memory, councils will attempt to offload branch libraries at the cheapest possible price.  They may do this for several reasons: a lack of a genuine desire to maintain library provision; a lack of understanding of what is necessary or even a deep distaste for volunteers and a resultant desire for the project to fail.

In order for the new library to be successful, the council needs to accept that that the volunteers should have a proper say in the service, with access to the library catalogue and sufficient resources for them to survive into at least the medium term.  The provision of paid staff to train and assist volunteers is essential. This presents a challenge for many councils who have traditionally held full control, jealously protect their systems and want to absolutely minimise costs. Such a challenge is a hard one for both the council and local people to immediately accept.  Indeed, having read now of library cuts in scores of different authorities, one senses a similarity to the Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of grief on behalf of both councils and campaigners where denial, anger, bargaining and depression all have to be gone through before acceptance.

Please note that I am not saying – I am definitely not saying – that the volunteer model is the preferred or inevitable model.  I am just saying that where it has been forced onto communities and, to a lesser extent, the Council then this is generally the stages that are seen.  The process can also be cut off at any time (for instance, , the level of protest is such during the “Anger” stage that paid staff are maintained)  if volunteers are not chosen but, if they are, then these are the stages one normally sees.

Assuming that the council genuinely accepts the need for volunteers and has given them both sufficient resources and a chance at a decent long-term future, there may still be other problems. first is that what we are seeing at the moment is an unprecedented period of forced evolution due to intolerable stress being put on the old system.  Cuts of 50% or more in council budgets over six years mean that carrying on as before is rarely an option.  Given the timescale and lack of experience in other models, it also means that councils are having to invent new models of working on the go, without sufficient research or even at times consultation.  Volunteers in large numbers are not new but unpaid substitution of staff most definitely is. In such an environment, mistakes will be made and it is quite possible that in the long term, the current hell-for leather rush towards the unpaid will prove to be an error.  By the time, in other words, sufficient evidence is in, it may be too late.

There are many reasons for the growth in volunteer-run libraries, quite apart from their cheapness and the ideological attractions they have for those who believe in the Big Society. For, once established as a concept, the model encourages further examples.  Establishing a withdrawn library in one area is used as an example by other authorities as a reason to do more there.  A successful, even in the short term, example, can be used by the same authority as a reason to establish more.  On the part of the volunteers themselves, the reasons for volunteering are almost never that they believe they can do a better job than the Council.  While there are some who argue this way (often Conservative councillors), almost all believe that it is better to run the library themselves than see them close.  It also has the bonus (for the council) of splitting any nascent campaigning groups right down the middle, reducing the level of protest.

What are the possible disadvantages of having volunteers running libraries? There are many.  The first is the obvious one of them being volunteers.  They don’t have to turn up for work and they normally cannot do the number of hours a paid member of staff can.  It seems from my reading of the news reports over the last three years that five to ten volunteers are needed to replace one full-time equivalent member of staff, with all the concomitant problems with training that that implies.  Such numbers also mean that there needs to be a reasonable pool of relevant manpower in a local community.  In practice, this means where there are sufficient numbers of retired professional people in an area, the library is more likely to be sustained than one where there is not.  So, libraries are more likely to be retained in prosperous areas than in those with lower levels of literacy and advantage: This means that there is a danger of a reverse postcode lottery being born – where those areas arguable most in need of a free public library service are precisely those areas where there is less chance of there being one.

An inherent problem with volunteer run libraries is the long-term cost of keeping the building open.  Libraries, like all buildings, will eventually need considerable repairs and maintenance in order to keep them usable.  The cost of a repair of the roof alone can be enough to give many groups pause.  Funding success depends on several factors: the entrepreneurial ability to apply for the funding, relevant funding streams and long-term business planning.  Again, this may well be possible in some areas but is more problematic in others, especially those in areas of family stress.

There is also the problem of bias with unpaid staff.  The librarian profession takes very seriously its commitment to an equal and diverse stock management and membership policy.  This may not be the case with volunteers who may bring their own prejudices, consciously or otherwise, to the task.  One could easily see a church group taking over a library being unhappy stocking the work of Richard Dawkins.  Equally, one could also see often troublesome teenagers being somewhat unwelcome in such an environment.  The overseeing council needs to be very careful in ensuring that this does not happen.  In the 5% of withdrawn branches that have no such oversight, they can do what they like.

The movement towards pushing more and more libraries down the volunteer route is a strong one and, given the financial pressures and short-term benefits, likely to grow stronger yet over the next few years.  The current piecemeal and experimental approach to this is unlikely to be the most effective way of providing an important national public service.  To be clear, volunteer libraries can be successful but the challenges against them being so in the short and long terms are strong.  Those who wish to close their eyes to this for short-term political expediency are doing a disservice to something held in high public esteem and that has a dramatic positive effect in people’s lives.  There is a reason why paid staff was the monopoly model until very recently: it works.  Let us hope that the same can be said of this new force-grown model, using those with no choice but to give their labour to keep open something they love, in the years to come.

Marylyn Haines-Evans (Chair of NFWI Public Affairs), National Federation of Women’s Institutes

The WI campaign on libraries has come full circle – from campaigning for public libraries to open in the 1920s, to campaigning against their closure and in celebration of their value now.

Historically, libraries have relied on volunteers for supplementing the library service. However one of the trends being seen in libraries at present, where volunteers are taking over the management and running of libraries, is on a different scale.

The NFWI conducted research with volunteers working in community managed libraries late last year. The findings of the research give real cause for concern, with community managed libraries developing in a piecemeal fashion.  We found:

* The relationship between volunteers and local authority differs widely: Whilst some volunteers reported a supportive local authority in terms of funding, training and access to inter-library systems, many more reported a chronic lack of support, and were essentially left to ‘get on with it’. Many of the volunteers we spoke to were not clear how their community library service fitted into the overall library service in a particular area.

* Volunteers face huge demands on their time: Volunteers reported that they were balancing the management of other volunteers with complying with health and safety regulations, and often trying to fundraise at the same time.

* Community managed libraries are more viable in certain areas: More affluent communities with a higher number of retired professionals are much more likely to have the capacity to take on the running of a community managed library when it closes.

The way that community managed libraries are currently developing could mean the end of public library services as we know them:

* The added value that volunteers currently bring to the public library service – e.g. through reading schemes – will be undermined if not lost. Without adequate training and support for volunteers, there’s a risk that the Select Committee’s warning that community managed libraries would be viewed as ‘closures by stealth’ will be realised.

* The joined up service that public library service users currently enjoy, for example through inter-library lending will be eroded, with the network of public libraries shrinking considerably as a consequence.

* Services and resources will vary from community to community, depending on their fundraising power and ability to lobby the local authority and develop services.

The WI does believe that there is a role for volunteers in libraries. But, as an organisation in which more than 80% of members volunteer in one capacity or another, this involvement must be proportionate.

If communities are going to increasingly be expected to take over the running of libraries, as looks likely, this must be done with professional support and far greater levels of engagement and guidance from the local authority. This support must be delivered consistently across different areas. Without this, the development of community managed libraries will usher in a two-tier system of library provision that’s essentially a postcode lottery.

At present the very sustainability of these models is in question, and at the current pace of change, it is not only the changing face of the public library service that must be considered, but also its long term future.

With thanks to the NFWI, Sue Charteris and AnneMarie Naylor

  • #1 written by Christopher Pipe
    about 10 years ago

    Deeply worried about unquestioning use of word “community”. Does it mean councils are no longer regarded as working for / representing their local community? Does it imply that individuals are not welcome unless they band together in some artificial sort of club? Does it mean partisan groups or communities defined by race, wealth or culture .might be acceptable controllers of what has hitherto been a public library?

  • #2 written by librariesmatter
    about 10 years ago

    Surely the answer to the question posed is ‘No’ if the community libraries are part of Council’s statutory library service. I’m assuming the public library network is defined as being the same as the statutory service. In that case Councillors will have decided that the best way to provide the public library service given the [reduced] resources available is to have some community run libraries as part of its public library provision. The key point is the resources available. With more resources then the best way might well be different.

    It should also be borne in mind that a move towards local community run libraries is reversible. If more resources become available in the future then the community run libraries could go back to being Council run if both the Council and the local community were willing. The alternative of closing libraries is irreversible.

    The issue that will cause the demise of the public library network is a lack of funding and no floor on what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient public library service.

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