Analysis: The libraries that have been taken over by volunteers

An increasing number of local authorities are handing over the running of libraries to volunteers, but opponents question the long-term viability of such schemes. Chloe Stothart assesses the arguments and talks to volunteers who have stepped in

Volunteers: Kevin Mooney and Kathy Dunbar
Volunteers: Kevin Mooney and Kathy Dunbar

Last month, Surrey County Council joined a growing number of local authorities by voting in favour of handing over the running of some of its libraries to volunteers.

Under the council's plan, 10 of the 52 libraries in the county will be staffed by volunteers with support of part-time paid staff. The council argues that handing over the running of the libraries will mean they can stay open longer and offer more activities.

But the decision continues to face strong local opposition, with campaigners against the proposal arguing that libraries should be staffed by professionals, that they could struggle to recruit enough volunteers and that the plans will not save the council money - which they say is the authority's goal.

The concept of volunteers running or helping to staff libraries is not new. In Buckinghamshire, for example, some of the local libraries have been run by community members since 2007. But the process has accelerated in the past few years as a result of a squeeze on council finances. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip), published in March, found that 13 per cent of councils had set up community-managed libraries. The research also found that 38 libraries became or planned to become community managed in 2011/12 and a further 10 might do so.

The way such libraries are managed varies from area to area. For example, in Doncaster, volunteers run Warmsworth library but can telephone a staffed branch if they need advice; in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, the council plans to rent out part of the library's premises to a shop to cover the costs of employing two librarians who will work alongside volunteers.

However, handing over libraries to volunteers continues to divide opinion. In Doncaster, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Surrey, local campaigners have made legal challenges to changes in library policies.

Lynne Coppendale, a member of the campaign group Save Doncaster Libraries, which is opposing the local council's changes to library services, says: "A library is not just a room with books: it is a service and requires professional staff. It is unreasonable and unacceptable to expect volunteers to offer the same kind of service."

She says that nobody has a problem with the volunteers themselves. "The majority are just trying to save a service that is loved," she says. "How well they do it depends on how much support they get."

A spokesman for Cilip doubts whether volunteers could replace qualified staff completely. "The risk of replacing staff with volunteers is it would be a library service unable to serve the community comprehensively, support people's information needs or provide everyone with the opportunity for learning and development," he says.

In New Cross, south London, the local library has been entirely run by volunteers since August 2011 after the council closed it. Figures supplied by the council and the library show the move has increased the number of users from an average of 4,152 visits a month in 2010 to an average of 4,685 between October 2011 and June 2012.

Kathy Dunbar, one of the two volunteers who manage New Cross Learning, the name of library, says the rise in numbers is mainly as a result of the library becoming "more of a community hub".Activities now on offer at the library include dancing, healthy eating picnics and film nights.

Dunbar says that the move has brought unexpected benefits to the community. For example, one volunteer spotted a regular visitor during the winter whose feet were blue with cold. She befriended him, found out that he had been living in a shed for 12 years and helped him to get rehoused. "Things like that would not have happened if it was run by the council," says Dunbar.

But while she believes that the success of New Cross Learning proves that volunteers can run libraries, she still thinks that they should be run by paid staff.

David Wolstenholme, a volunteer at Little Chalfont Community Library, which has been run by volunteers from the Buckinghamshire village since 2007, points out that successful volunteer-run libraries rely on a strong pool of local people who have time to give.

"It would be easy to open a library, then 18 months later run out of volunteers and have to close again," he says. Both his library and New Cross Learning are staffed mainly by a mix of retired professionals and unemployed people.

With increasing numbers of libraries turning to volunteers to staff their services, could other public services follow suit? The Third Sector Research Centre believes that volunteers could play a greater role in other public services, but doesn't say which ones. However, it doesn't envisage volunteers managing large parts of the public sector.

John Mohan, deputy director of the TSRC, says that only a relatively small proportion of people volunteer for "even half a day a week", and those putting in lots of time tend to be better-off people from prosperous areas. "That raises questions about how compatible that would be with universal public services," he says.


New Cross

Kathy Dunbar, 57, New Cross Learning, south London

Kathy Dunbar started to use New Cross library when studying in preparation for going back to work after years as a full-time mother. When she heard that the council planned to close the library in May 2011, she decided to get involved with a campaign to save the library, which eventually lobbied for it to be volunteer-run as an alternative to closure. "There's a gang culture here and this was another thing they would take away from the local children who are already deprived," she says. Having volunteered at her children's schools and at playgroups in the past, she drummed up 5,000 petition signatures in three weeks, then helped organise public meetings and negotiated a deal with the council to take on the library.

The library was renamed New Cross Learning and reopened in August 2011. Dunbar is joint volunteer manager of the library: she says she spends about 50 hours a week there. But despite the library's success, she is not keen on handing public services to volunteers. "It is not right for all libraries because they will not necessarily have volunteers or support from the community," she says. "If you get rid of libraries, they will never come back. I know we have to make cuts, but there are certain things that should not be got rid of."



David Wolstenholme, Little Chalfont Community Library

After retiring from a busy job in the City, David Wolstenholme was ready to get involved in something new. He joined the campaign to stop the closure of the library in Little Chalfont, but when this failed he got involved in the plans to run it with volunteers. Buckinghamshire County Council had initially wanted residents to be responsible for repairs and to pay for support from the library service. But since then it has become more supportive and covers part of its costs. Wolstenholme says the library's visitor numbers have risen 30 per cent since it became volunteer-run in 2007, but he says libraries should be run by councils because it is not always possible to get enough good volunteers. "Our library is in many ways better than the county library, but that's because of enthusiastic volunteers," he says. "Our argument is it's better to continue as a county library: if this is impossible, we can help with plan B."

He says volunteering at the library has made him feel more involved in the community and it has also provided local people with new opportunities. He cites the example of a woman with mental health problems who had not left her house for six months but started volunteering, initially with a helper. The experience she gained helped her to find a job.



Georgina Mullis, 70, Warmsworth Community Library, near Doncaster

An independent parish councillor, member of Warmsworth Community Partnership and volunteer fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Support, Mullis (in yellow) has been volunteering for many years. She added to that workload about 18 months ago when she took part in a successful campaign to persuade Doncaster Council to hand her village library over to volunteers rather than close it. She says she and her 75-year-old husband, who volunteers for several of the same groups, are "very much involved" in village life and she thinks the volunteer-run library has brought the community together.

Local people have helped the library by making curtains, baking cakes and donating tea to the new cafe, and local businesses gave discounts or donated equipment. The library plays host to various groups and there are plans to launch film and beauty nights in response to requests from local young people. "Libraries used to be starched and it was all 'shhh', but it is not like that now," she says. She spends about six hours a week in the library doing "what a librarian would do", including receiving and sending books from and to other local libraries in response to readers' requests. She says the council covers almost all the library's costs and adds that having strong local groups, like the parish council, to bring the community together has helped the library to succeed.

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