Volunteers in libraries are nothing new. Members of the public have been involved in the lives of their local branches for years, and few would argue that they have not enhanced the service. Volunteers have been especially helpful in libraries’ outreach work—in taking books to housebound users, for instance, or helping with homework clubs, storytelling sessions and book groups. They have brought enthusiasm and talents that complement those of working librarians, and they have developed their personal and professional skills along the way too.
Until very recently, volunteers in libraries were regarded as a supplement to professional staff rather than an alternative to them. That perception started to change around the time that local authorities started making big cuts to their library budgets; when it dawned on councillors that handing branches over to the control of locals was both a fine way of saving money and a neat encapsulation of the government’s vision of a “Big Society”. By the start of this year, the trickle of community libraries was starting to build towards a flood.
Measuring the extent to which libraries now rely on volunteers is difficult, as their involvement comes in numerous different shapes and forms—but the Public Libraries News blog, run by librarian Ian Anstice, has counted examples of libraries either run by volunteers, or significantly supported by them, in more than 30 authorities.
The Museums, Libraries & Archives Council (MLA) estimated last year that they accounted for less than 1% of Britain’s total stock of libraries, and they have tended to be one-offs within local authorities. But their ranks are growing by the month—and Suffolk recently became the first council to propose devolving its entire library service to a community-managed model, and many others are now considering large-scale transfers. In many parts of the UK, volunteers are no longer simply a welcome bonus for libraries, but essential to their survival.
Hits and misses
Some community libraries have worked out very well. Examples like Grappenhall, near Warrington, have proved that the public’s passion for libraries can produce heartening results and libraries that are, if anything, better than what went before.
Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire, perhaps the best-known of all community libraries, has just marked five years under the control of volunteers. The number of book loans processed by the branch has increased every year in that time. Several more libraries have become completely self-sustaining, meeting costs via philanthropy and enterprise without any local authority contributions.
But others have either struggled to survive, or failed to get off the ground in the first place. Use of libraries has often fallen substantially after volunteers took them on, with changes of locations, hours and services putting people off visiting. And given the enormous demands placed on volunteers, it is hardly surprising that many have stalled.
By and large, volunteer groups have had no blueprint to follow; no management or training to back them up; no help with the avalanche of legal issues and liabilities they face; and little or no money to maintain a library building and service. Support packages from local authorities have varied widely, but while a few have been generous in the sweeteners they have offered community groups, others have provided little by way of support.
That has left some community libraries feeling cast adrift—burdened with all the responsibilities of running a major public facility, but enjoying none of the usual network of resources and services.
Campaigners point out that handing branches to volunteers also removes their accountability, abandoning the principles of equity and free and open access on which public libraries were built and, usually, drastically reducing the important services they can offer.
Councils’ counter-argument would be that volunteers can still provide a friendly, public-driven service—as they do in places like Grappenhall. But these tend to be in areas of the country that have a stock of people with the time and inclination to volunteer. In less affluent areas, finding enough volunteers to get a project off the ground has proved impossible.
Local authorities have also tended to present volunteer-run libraries as a positive, innovative development—a way to bring people together around their libraries and make them the hubs of their communities. But the volunteer model is, invariably, not an opportunity but a threat—and a last resort to the threat of closure. The new breed of volunteer librarians has faced a common and unhappy choice: run it themselves or lose it altogether.
Those who are campaigning against library cuts are adamant that handing control of branches to volunteers is no solution at all, and claim that authorities who do so are shirking their responsibility under the Public Libraries Act to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service.
As the Women’s Institute, a weighty ally in the anti-closures campaign, put it in its submission to the ongoing parliamentary select committee inquiry into closures: “While volunteers have a role to play in public libraries, there is no evidence [to suggest] that communities have the capacity or appetite to run services themselves.”
As well as compromising the services of libraries, handing over branches to volunteers hurts the professionals who previously ran them. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA) figures show that the number of volunteers in libraries is rocketing—up by 22% to more than 21,000 people across the UK according to the latest statistics for 2010–11. But the number of library staff fell by 4% to 23,681 full-time equivalent posts in the same time. If we assume that those trends have continued this year, libraries in 2012 will feature more volunteers than full-time librarians.
Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) chief executive Annie Mauger told the select committee inquiry that she thought up to a fifth of professionally qualified staff in public libraries had lost their jobs in the current financial year. It is too simplistic to say that these professionals have simply been replaced by amateurs—plenty of other factors have been at play in undermining their skills over the past few years—but the dependence on volunteers is undoubtedly very damaging for the profession.
“Libraries have always used volunteers very successfully . . . [but] what is new is volunteers doing the job of library practitioners, and the jobs that people do in libraries take a long time to learn,” said Mauger. “[Volunteers] cannot replace trained library staff who will support people in all of their information needs.”
Abigail Barker, of the Voices for the Library campaign, said librarians appreciated volunteers but now felt threatened by them. “I find it quite insulting at times, as a librarian, that my chosen career and profession is so easily thrown away when a retired bank manager can take over. I would never go into a bank and say: ‘I am a retired librarian, let me take over.’ So I do not see why it should be the other way around.”
A united front
Trade union Unison echoed CILIP’s sentiment in its own written evidence to the inquiry. “Volunteers should not be used to undermine the position of paid, trained staff within library services.” But while both CILIP and Unison have tried to protect their members from the blows raining down, some professionals and campaigners have criticised them for not being more militant in their defence.
Like the community groups now backing libraries, CILIP is stuck between a rock and a hard place. No one wants to criticise volunteers for taking such an active and enthusiastic interest in their local libraries; but no one wants them to have to get involved in the first place either.
Volunteers are undoubtedly contributing to the erosion of professionalism in libraries—but if they do not come forward to help, then those jobs will be lost in any case. The sad truth in many small and less affluent towns and villages is that while handing libraries to volunteers saves them for now, it may only be commuting their sentence to a slower death.
“In effect, councils who are offering residents the choice of running a library themselves or losing it are blackmailing them into taking on a near-impossible task, and one which is more likely to delay closure than avert it,” said north Hertfordshire’s We Heart Libraries group in its evidence to the select committee inquiry. “The job of running libraries is one for a local authority, and not something it should be attempting to delegate to citizens under the banner of localism or austerity.”
Volunteers in action: how Grappenhall got its library back
When Warrington Borough Council put its proposed library closures out to public consultation early last year, the people of Grappenhall, like most around the country, knew that their protests were in vain. But when they realised they could make a case for a community transfer, it began a year of frenetic activity that has brought the library under the control of volunteers.
They have included qualified solicitors, librarians and local authority workers, which has given Grappenhall a head start when grappling with the legal and logistical challenges of taking over the library. Public meetings helped to attract nearly 100 volunteers in all, who set to work on painting walls, clearing drains, leafleting the local area and readying the library for its launch to the public in late January.
One of the group’s leaders, Sheelagh Connolly, says the council has been very supportive in terms of advice, and it is providing 50% of the library’s running costs for the first year, and 25% the following year. But it did not offer help with a rather crucial aspect of libraries’ provision—books—and so a local appeal was launched. Soon the library had 6,000 books for instant collection.
The hugely enthusiastic response leaves Connolly optimistic for the future of the library—but while her team is determined to stick to the principle of a free service, it is also aware of the need to balance the books.
Grappenhall will have to cast around for the £13,000 a year it thinks it will need to stay open, with sources including grants, a “Friends” scheme and local fundraising. “It’s generated a fantastic sense of community, and it’s shown how passionate people feel about libraries,” Connolly says.
“But the devil is in the detail, and alongside all the warm, fuzzy stuff, we know there’s a huge responsibility on us too. This is a major, long-term commitment—but none of us would be here in the first place if we weren’t optimists.”
Going interactive: how one librarian made ‘story time’ interactive
"I started working in the library sector about 12 years ago as a Saturday assistant. About six years ago, after finishing a Drama degree, I started working full-time at Wallasey Village Library, Merseyside, alongside a full-time and a part-time colleague.
"As well as working in the library, I run an after-school drama club for local children. I realised that the “Story Time” session I ran in the library was helped by all of my external drama experience, so I started to think outside of the box as to how I could do something a bit different with it.
"I now run a character-themed “Story Time” that incorporates filmed media, props and theatrical storytelling. It’s interactive, entertaining and fun, and now in my spare time I make YouTube book review videos as well. My videos are all about books—be they book reviews or character videos that feature me dressed up as a crazy, unique character—with the aim of getting children into reading and helping them to see a different side to books. One of my most popular characters is called Grandpa Joe, a crazy old man who loves books . . . a bit too much! So when he reads the story from his storybook, he pulls out disgusting props which children love—like Little Red Riding Hood’s hand.
"There is an argument that children don’t use libraries, but I know that’s not true. Our children come to “Story Time” with us because they enjoy it. Libraries are known for being traditional places and there are certain things that people might expect from them, but the way forward for libraries, and for librarians, is to think differently.
"We must do things with the same values and aims as the more traditional library activities, but keeping in mind how in 2012 we are going to achieve those aims and make them more relevant and fun for children today.
"Being in the library each day, I am in the right place to talk to children and see what’s popular and new, and so I get the children to help me come up with the ideas for the videos. Children spend lots of time looking at videos online and they do love books, despite what anyone says, so it’s great to be able to combine the two.
"Last month I was asked by Waterstones Birkenhead to hold a Grandpa Joe “Story Time” in-store, and Waterstones’ Arndale and Altrincham branches have now asked me to appear in-store, too. It has been picked up by Halton Lea Library as well. They run an initiative called My Voice (a creative reading and writing project run by The Reading Agency), which works with children and teenagers, and I’m going to go in and help them create their own videos. Hopefully I can help them to see books in a different way too.”
Carl’s book-related videos can be found at carlontv.com