Pros: reasons for volunteer “community libraries”

The rise of volunteer libraries in the UK is closely linked to the decline in funding for traditionally paid-staff libraries.  This page looks at the reasons seen expressed in favour of volunteer-run branches and can be used in conjunction with the counterpart page in opposition to them.

“The idea of getting volunteers to help with the running of libraries, that has worked in other parts of the country, and obviously we have to make sure we provide services efficiently, effectively, and we encourage volunteers and other organisations to help with the provision of some of these services” David Cameron, Prime Minister, July 2014.

David Cameron has now of course left office and the “Big Society” is now less in focus than once it was but is  still one of the most popular of dishers on a menu of options that councils have when faced with cutting budgets.

Volunteer-run libraries are an increasing feature of the landscape in the UK.  When a council faces deep cuts to its finances, they are a way of still having a library that would otherwise be closed.  And that’s the big thing here.  A volunteer-run library, despite its possible disadvantages, is still to the public an open public library, where they can change their books and use the computers.  Some see libraries as a natural place for volunteers due to the perceived lack of training needed for working in one and for the close link to the community that volunteers, after all, come from.  Local volunteers will naturally know a lot about their community and sometimes more than paid staff who drive a distance to get to work.

Volunteer-run libraries will obviously be cheaper than their paid-staff equivalents, especially as staffing costs can be one-half to two-thirds of total library expenditure. That’s quite a saving for the council and, if people are willing to give their time for free, represents an easy efficiency – after all, that’s a lot of money that ca be spent on other things while the library is still, in the eyes of the council and much of the community, still “open”.

Being naturally less expensive to run and can link in directly to the community, being presented as a “best of both worlds”. Darren Taylor from Eco Computer Systems (Lewisham) stressed in a “You and Yours” (Radio 4, 18th May 2011) programme that he can link very well to the community and has the benefit of several retired librarians.

While as past libraries minister, Rob Wilson, does not directly push for volunteers, he stresses that standing still is not an option for libraries, and facing big reductions in usage and budgets (often 30 to 50% since 2010) he probably has a point.  He suggests that efficiencies and imaginative thinking is the key, with Trusts and co-locations foremost in speeches.  Rob Wilson was also Minister for Civil Society (and hence volunteering).

Many volunteer-run libraries fall out of the terms of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act and so are allowed to charge for membership or for books. 

The Community Knowledge Hub website is involved in assisting volunteer/community run libraries. The site, organised by  Locality, has received government funding but also requires subscriptions from members, which include volunteer libraries and councils.

It lists these benefits of volunteer running libraries:

  1. Reduced running costs for local authorities
  2. Increased community involvement in and control over local services
  3. Increased take-up of library services
  4. Library service innovation and diversification
  5. Improved access to a range of public services 

There is reasonable evidence for all of these benefits from existing voluntary libraries, although it is worth pointing out that all could be achieved by the council via other routes. With sufficient volunteers, a volunteer library can open longer than an equivalent council run library. Additional volunteer resource, greater flexibility and local focus may also result in improved library stock. Both the local community and the council’s Library Service can benefit if the community library is partnered with the Library Service.

The point being made here is that communities may well want to improve the library, not just save it. The ‘con’ case is always that volunteers are unreliable and it will be difficult to provide the man-hours previously provided by the staffed library. But having more resources through volunteers is just as possible as having too little. This point is rarely made.

This links with the idea that volunteer-run libraries can be a sensible response to the changing circumstances that face public library services. Circumstances could include a reduced budget and some decline in branch library usage due to the increased use of digital technology. After making back office efficiency savings a Library Service may have to consider making changes to its front line service e.g. reducing opening hours across the network, closing smaller branches or providing the service in a different way. The supported volunteer library model for smaller libraries can be a useful option as it keeps libraries open, maintains library provision across communities and makes the smaller libraries financially viable for the future. With council support – the local community may be able to improve or widen the services available. Retaining the local library is often seen by smaller communities as an important element in maintaining their communities. The approach also helps minimise service reductions in the bigger libraries.

Lincolnshire - "Cheers for Volunteers".  Council brochure celebrates volunteers replacing paid library staff.

Lincolnshire – “Cheers for Volunteers”. Council brochure celebrates volunteers replacing paid library staff.

To this can be added the stated belief of some commentators that library work is a simple activity that does not require intensive training or an expensive education.  This point of view ties in with that which sees the under-employed or the retired as a ready and willing recruitment pool. The view that publicly libraries are increasingly unimportant and so it is acceptable to replace paid staff has also been seen expressed.  An underlying assumption is that librarianship is not rocket science (“it’s just stamping books”) and can be picked up quickly.

The reported success and survival of volunteer libraries, notably in Buckinghamshire but also in other places such as North Yorkshire, has led to the expansion of the idea into other areas of the country.

Politically, another benefit of volunteer libraries is to divide opposition. Library users faces with a closing library would present a united front of protest but faced with the option of volunteering to save it, many would find themselves reluctantly (or not) on the side of the council.

“The real issue is not about volunteers helping to maintain services but about the service being managed and developed by professional librarians. When I was managing Bedfordshire Libraries we developed a very successful small branch library that had been closed by working with the local Town Council and a committee of volunteers to re-establish the library. We managed to reinstate about 50% of the original funding so that the library is properly linked into the Council IT system and users are regarded as other uses of the authority’s libraries. The local Town Council pick up the tab for a manager and the remaining staff are volunteers – the library has to purchase its stationary etc. from the authority but they keep any income, including fines. They have been extremely successful in raising income from lettings and manage a range of innovative local activities – but at its heart, the service is managed by the authority’s staff who purchase the stock, provide training and generally oversee the service. ” Barry George MBE on lis-pub-libs 22/8/12

Notable examples of successful volunteer libraries

  • New Cross Learning – Previously New Cross People’s Library. Now a combined adult learning centre and library, New Cross is notable for not being in a prosperous area and for the wide range of activities and enthusiasm it shows.
  • Little Chalfont Community LibraryThe most well-known of the volunteer libraries, Little Chalfont is in Buckinghamshire and is a successful library, branching out into events such as cinema screenings.  Widely used an example of a successful volunteer library.
  • Morrab Library – the oldest volunteer library in the UK, set up in 1818.

Further information

The currently most useful site for volunteer libraries is the Community Managed Libraries Network, which is (ultimately) lottery-funded, with links to blogs from volunteers, webinars etc. The Network is supported by the Society of Chief Librarians, the Libraries Taskforce, Locality and Power to Change. Previously, the main site was the Community Knowledge Hub and is still of relevance. There is an interview with the Chief Exec of Locality, Steve Wyler, who explains his organisation’s situation well here.

“We recognise that, especially in deprived areas, one or more of the following are usually necessary to ensure financial viability: an endowment fund, a transfer of assets capable of generating income, a continuing financial relationship with the library authority in the form of grants or contracts, access to professional staff and resources from the library authority, help and investment for the community group to develop associated income-generating enterprises.  ” Steve Wyler

Jim Brooks of Little Chalfont Commumity Library in the video above has talked to around 70 communities about setting up their own volunteer-run library and is happy to be contacted at  He has also produced a case study for the library which can be found here. Similarly, the nearby Chalfont St Giles has produced this guide to Running a small public library with volunteers: our experience .

Other Public Libraries News resources that may be of interest

This page shows the positive aspects of volunteer libraries: please use in conjunction with the counterpart page on the negative aspects, to be found here.

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.