Women's Institute warns against 'sticking plaster' of library volunteers

Report by the charity says that the growth of a community-managed library network is unsustainable without systematic support

Some libraries are being run by volunteers
Some libraries are being run by volunteers

The use of volunteers as "sticking plaster" in the library service cannot continue, according to the Women’s Institute.

A report published today by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes looks at the role of volunteers in running community libraries. It says that in many cases volunteers are left without adequate support to deliver services previously supplied by members of staff. 

The charity warns that, without systematic support systems and a clear vision of where volunteers fit within the wider library service, there is a risk that the rapidly growing community-managed library network is unsustainable.

After a resolution was passed at its 2011 NFWI annual general meeting, the organisation launched the Love your Libraries campaign. As part of this initiative, WI members who were volunteering for or involved in setting up community-managed libraries took part in a focus group and telephone interviews.

The new paper, On Permanent Loan?, draws on the experiences of 13 people from seven libraries. It concludes that only certain communities have the resources to effectively set up and run a library and suggests the proliferation of these models could in effect lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ of library services.

This could mean " the creation of a two-tiered system of library provision that undermines the benefits of skilled and trained library staff and underestimates the role that they play in both delivering an effective public service and supporting communities". 

It adds that the NFWI "does not believe volunteers are an acceptable alternative to paid library staff" but acknowledges the "tremendous contribution" they make to the library network.

Ruth Bond, chair of the NFWI, said the research confirmed its fear that, all too often, volunteers were stepping in to pick up the pieces without adequate support. "Simply assuming community-minded individuals will fill in the gaps is short-sighted at best," she added.

"Volunteers play a vital role across the statutory and wider community managed service, yet there’s a real danger that without a systematic approach and more comprehensive and widely available support and guidance, community-managed libraries will be unsustainable. This inevitably has long-term implications and could well contribute to the gradual erosion of the public library service by default."

Last month, figures released by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy showed there were 23,397 people who volunteered in UK libraries in 2011/12, compared with 15,008 in 2007/8.

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