The use of volunteers in libraries is a “win-win” situation but they should not replace paid staff, culture minister Ed Vaizey has said.
Speaking to the BBC following its investigation which revealed that almost 8,000 jobs have been lost since 2010, Vaizey denied claims that the library service was being “hollowed” out, with professional staff replaced by unpaid helpers.
The BBC report revealed that the number of paid staff in libraries fell from 31,977 in 2010 to 24,044 in 2016, which is a drop of 25% for the 182 library authorities that provided comparable data, while the number of volunteers nearly doubled, rising by 15,000. Altogether 343 libraries have closed in this time.
"People need librarians, that goes without saying," Vaizey said. "The use of volunteers is, I think, a win-win, because volunteers live locally so they can really shape the local library in terms of providing services. We've never said volunteers are a substitute for paid staff."
He added that although people were borrowing fewer books, libraries were providing new services including free internet access.
“Libraries have a huge range of functions," he said. "You can go as a small business, with a laptop. A lot of people go to libraries when they are starting up their business. And I'm emphatically in favour of library buildings staying open but providing a range of modern services."
Vaizey also said that councils should invest in branches despite funding cuts.
"It's always a changing picture," he said. "And what I find frustrating as the libraries minister is that people try and portray the scene in libraries as complete doom and gloom. There's a huge amount of initiative going on and a great story to tell about libraries."
Author Philip Pullman said reliance on volunteers is "exploiting people's goodness and willingness to work".
"I am in favour of volunteering but relying on volunteers to provide a service that ought to be statutory is not a good policy", Pullman told the BBC. "What next? Are we going to rely on volunteer teachers because we can't find new teachers because all the staffing levels in schools are going down?"
In September last year, members of libraries body CILIP voted “overwhelmingly” in favour of actively opposing volunteer-run libraries that have little or no funding for professional or paid library staff.
Martyn Wade, chair of the CILIP board, said: “Volunteers should be an asset. We should recognise the valuable skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, experience and fresh perspectives that volunteers can provide. But we must act when the quality and long-term sustainability of library services is at risk.”
CILIP's official policy on the use of volunteers recognises the value of volunteers working alongside staff but opposes the replacement of staff by volunteers to save money.