Volunteers in libraries: an alternative to closures, or a risk to the professionals?

Manchester Central Library. (Photograph: James Carson)

Manchester Central Library. (Photograph: James Carson)

By James Carson

Anyone doubting the capacity of libraries to stir up strong feelings need look no further than the debate concerning volunteers in public libraries. In 2011, when the leader of Oxfordshire County Council called for increases in the use of volunteers in public libraries, the author Philip Pullman was quick to respond:

‘Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea?’

Volunteers in a changing library landscape

The use of volunteers in libraries is not new. But the nature of volunteering in libraries is changing, largely due to increasing budgetary pressures on local authorities. Since 2010, reductions in the grants given by central government to local authorities have forced many councils to review their services, and some have decided to close one or more public libraries in their area.

Some commentators have argued that because fewer people are using them the closure of public libraries is no great loss. It’s true that usage is down on previous years: a 2012 report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee observed that footfall and borrowing figures in libraries have fallen steadily in England since the 1990s.

But the committee also noted that many libraries have adapted to changing needs, providing other important, but hard-to-measure benefits to communities, such as literacy campaigns in areas of social deprivation and free internet access for unemployed and socially excluded people.

The emergence of community libraries

As an alternative to library closures, a growing number of councils have responded to funding cuts by handing over library facilities to volunteers, enabling them to be run as ‘community libraries’.  Research conducted by the Arts Council of England in 2012 found that over 170 community libraries were in operation, representing approximately 5% of all public libraries in England. Many library authorities reported that they had plans for more community libraries in the next few years.

The Arts Council report also featured a number of case studies demonstrating the different models of community library, including those where a library has been handed over completely to the community, without any professional support, and those where there is continued access to the advice and support of professional librarians.

Professional responses

Unison, the trade union which represents many professional librarians in the UK, estimates that the number of volunteers in libraries increased by 69% between 2006/07 and 2010/11. Its policy is to acknowledge that volunteers have a role to play, but that they should not be used to cut costs, or as replacements for employed, paid, trained staff in the public library services. CILIP, the professional body for the library and information sector, has also come out against the replacement of paid professional and support roles with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts.

A postcode lottery of library services?

In 2013, a report, from the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) warned that the diversity and range of demands placed on volunteers risks diluting the professionalism of the library service and placing an unsustainable burden on volunteers themselves.

“Volunteers have an important role to play yet there is a danger they will reach saturation point and in relying on volunteers to deliver day to day services, we risk losing sight of the added value that volunteers can bring to the service more widely, for example through assisting with reading schemes.”

The NFWI report made a number of recommendations, including adequate training for volunteers, and a debate on how community-managed libraries will fit into the overall library service.

Community libraries are becoming a more common part of the local landscape, and many are providing services that would otherwise have disappeared due to library closures. But, as the NFWI report warned, there are risks associated with the increasing fragmentation of library services:

“…the proliferation of these models could lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ of library services with the creation of a two-tiered system of library provision that undermines the benefits of skilled and trained library staff and under-estimates the role that they play in both delivering an effective public service and supporting communities.”


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8 thoughts on “Volunteers in libraries: an alternative to closures, or a risk to the professionals?

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  2. They are the single biggest change in decades to this much-valued public resource.
    Yet almost nothing is known about them.
    How many are there? A possible estimate is 300* – but there are no official figures.
    Many more are in the pipeline, with more transfer plans expected.
    What kind of library service do they provide? Do they work at all? There has been almost no credible research on the subject.
    The Speak Up for Libraries alliance** says this is not good enough.
    With hundreds of libraries becoming ‘community-managed’ – with central government encouragement – it is high time to find out the truth, good or bad.
    SUFL wants to hear from anyone with a view about these volunteer-led libraries in the UK, whether they are a volunteer, a library worker or a library user.
    What works well and what doesn’t?
    What are the challenges and considerations?
    What is the impact on the library service and what do you see as the future?
    The information will be used to inform SUFL’s advocacy.
    A summary of the evidence will be published. All information received will be anonymised unless specific permission has been given to identify the contributor and the names of library or library service.
    Please email queries, comments and information to SpeakUp4Libraries@gmail.com
    PRESS CONTACT: Laura Swaffield, 07914 491 145.
    * http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/about-public-libraries-news/list-of-uk-volunteer-run-libraries

    Volunteer libraries are the single biggest change in decades to the much-valued public library service. There are at least 300 of them now, with scores more in the pipeline – nobody knows how many. And nobody knows how – or if – they are working.
    The Speak Up For Libraries alliance says this is not good enough.
    It is now calling is calling for information and views from anyone with knowledge of volunteer libraries.
    A summary will be published. All information received will be anonymised unless specific permission has been given to identify the contributor and the names of library or library service.
    Please email queries, comments and information to SpeakUp4Libraries@gmail.com
    ** Alliance members: Elizabeth Ash, Campaign for the Book, CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals), The Library Campaign, Unison, Voices for the Library.


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  5. There is a tendency to oversimplify these issues to the point of error.

    The matter, as presented here, seems to imply that the retention of a professionally-run and staffed library service is anathema only to “professionals” – the implication being that their motivation is self interest. That is incorrect. Their first concern is the erosion of the Service that they have striven for decades to provide to the totality of the public. That concern still transcends any fear for their livelihoods, a fear that is understandably increasing given the thousands of posts already axed or under threat.

    The public is not in another camp, longing to leap forward with a business plan and a commitment for life to a local library ‘offloaded’ by a cash-strapped council. We, too, are dismayed by the loss of valued staff whose training and expertise (paid for by the taxpayer) mean that untested experiments are willy nilly replacing a comprehensive and consistent service. We are appalled by the coercion demonstrated in getting local people to shoulder the responsibilities and expense of local library provision or see the facility boarded up. Threatened libraries and library staff have been and, will continue to be, the subject of strong local and national campaigns.


    • Sorry. I expressed myself badly in my first sentence. Please note, I meant to say: “… seems to imply that the LOSS of a professionally-run and staffed library service is anathema only to professionals — ” (not “retention”). Hope that is now clear!


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