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

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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