Volunteer-Run Libraries

The Save Doncaster Libraries campaign believes that volunteer-run libraries are not the route that Doncaster Library Services should take, for the following reasons:

  • Volunteer-run libraries are unsustainable and will result in the decline and inevitable closure of branches;
  • It is unfair to force people to provide a service they are already paying for;
  • The introduction of a two-tier system is against the principles of universal public services;
  • Volunteer-run libraries will not have trained and qualified staff providing the service, which is far more complex than the Mayor would have people believe (please see this post for more information);
  • There are questions as to the accountability of volunteers and whether or not they would be required to abide by council rules or the code of ethics that librarians are required to.

Libraries expert Annie Mauger wrote the following in her report about Doncaster libraries in April 2010:

“The use of volunteers should be positively encouraged to form part of the customer offer but not as a substitute for core service provision.”

“Framework for the Future, the MLA Action Plan for Public Libraries states that the best libraries ‘perform to the highest levels and champion continuous professional development, through a workforce that comprises a wide range of talent, competency and skill’ (2008). There are comments on the depleted numbers of qualified staff and over reliance on unqualified and volunteer staff. There is reference to the lack of business and leadership skills within libraries.”

“The report asserts that better sharing of good practice across authorities within the context of a publicly accountable service is needed. There is a need for better training, and not relying on volunteers.”

“A study of alternative governance models such as cultural trusts and commissioning was undertaken to identify the potential for these options for Doncaster’s Libraries. Key findings reveal that choosing alternative governance models depend on a fit and functioning service that can be transferred as a real asset.

At the current time, the library services are not fit to become part of a trust model. Trusts are not a solution to problems but a way to grow and develop services, and there are major improvement issues that would stop any group of trustees from sensibly taking on the libraries until these are resolved.”

Below are some of the issues that arise from volunteer-run libraries. We think the cons far outweigh the pros.

Requirements of running a volunteer-run library

Running a library is a serious undertaking and not something for the faint-hearted.  Jim Brooks of Little Chalfont Community Library has talked about his experience at Words With Jam.  Chalfont St Giles library has produced a guide to running a small public library with volunteers.  Suffolk County Council have produced a very useful matrix listing what responsibilties can and cannot be delegated to volunteers.  The length and detail of this document makes it clear that it is not just all date-stamping and smiling hello.

The Government has established a Community Knowledge Hub intended to support volunteer-run libraries, although it appears that its partner, Locality, will (“value for money access to a range of specialist support partners”) charge for its services.  It is currently dormant but will start in July 2011.

Here is a (almost certainly incomplete) list of what needs to be considered: 

“BLUG has already expressed severe concern about the financial consequences of accepting a lease and believes strongly that IWC should follow the growing practice of other councils, which is to retain responsibility and ownership of library buildings, and train volunteers to work alongside existing professionals rather than replace them. “It’s a practice that has been adopted by a growing number of local authorities and allows substantial financial savings while retaining the professionalism of the full time library staff in the library service,” said Richard Beet, lead author of BLUG’s recent submission to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. “It allows volunteers to do their job in the library without having to become building services managers, and would help overcome employment legislation issues.”  (Ventnor Blog, 5/6/11)

  • Costs involved (see this breakdown) include amount of rent/rates to be paid.  Warwickshire include this list as well – rent of premises, running cost of building (heating, lighting, cleaning, maintenance, insurance), computer costs (inc. broadband, licenses, equipment etc), self-service equipment if applicable (£11k per new kiosk plus £1300 p.a. support costs), telephone costs, public liability insurance (normally for at least £6m).
  • A written job description for a volunteer is good practice but means that employment tribunal appeals are possible. Even where there is not a written job description, regular volunteering may be breaking the law regarding the National Minimum Wage.
  • Volunteers are not covered by the Disability Discrimination Act meaning there is no means to challenge if any discrimination takes place against them. However, the community group or council may be liable if a volunteer discriminates against a library user. Volunteers need to receive reasonable expenses.
  • Paid workers will often be working in conjunction with volunteers.  This may cause problems. See Charter for Strengthening Relations between Paid Staff and Volunteers.
  • CILIP guidance is that, under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, volunteer-run libraries cannot charge for book lending (or other printed material) or, correspondingly,  for membership/admission if they are to be counted towards the council’s statutory library lending provision.  If they are not be counted as part of the council service, the volunteer-run library can then charge but may not be able to have access to the (highly important) council ICT such as library catalogue.  It may also open up the council to legal action for being in breach of its duties.
  • If considering the volunteer-run route, it is important not to accept the council’s first offer.  Campaigning can result in improved proposals such as that in Dorset.  The first offer of the authority is often not their final one.
  • If the council is considerate enough to include income figures, ensure these are actual (rather than forecast) as there can be a considerable difference between the two.
  • Question whether volunteers can access the library computer system.  Some councils (such asWarwickshire) decide that this would contravene the Data Protection Act.  Without this access, one cannot tell what books are available at other libraries or even if the person’s library card is valid.  This is a major difference between running a branch of the local library system and running a stand-alone library with reduced service.
  • Volunteers need to be aware that work in a public library can be unpleasant.  Excrement smeared over the walls of public toilets (or, indeed, deposited in the children’s area) is a widely known phenomenon, as is drug use, abusive or violent behaviour.  Individuals that some in society may consider “strange” or “dangerous” are drawn to libraries as they are any public space.
  • Last, but not least, training of volunteers is key.  Libraries are highly computerised so IT training is needed.  Shadowing of library staff would also be immensely useful, although it is worth considering how those library staff feel about having to train volunteers to replace them in what were previously paid jobs.
  • Quite apart from all of this, there needs to be an understanding of what library workers actually do.  Here is an (incomplete) list.


Volunteer-run libraries are a way of still having a library that would otherwise have been closed by the local council.  Some, like the Spectatorsee libraries as a natural place for the Big Society.  Volunteer-run libraries will obviously be cheaper than their paid-staff equivalents.  They are also by their very nature “local” – their management and staffing comes from the local community.  They are also not bound by the internal restrictions and politics (both office and party) of the council.

Volunteer-run libraries are naturally less expensive to run and can link in directly to the community, possibly a “best of both worlds”. Darren Taylor from Eco Computer Systems (Lewisham) stressed in a “You and Yours” (Radio 4, 18th May 2011) programme that he can link very well to the community and has the benefit of several retired librarians.

Many volunteer-run libraries fall out of the terms of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act and so areallowed to charge for membership or for books.  However, no ex-public library has yet to take up this option.

The Community Knowledge Hub website lists these benefits below.

  1. Reduced running costs for local authorities
  2. Increased community involvement in and control over local services
  3. Increased take-up of library services
  4. Library service innovation and diversification
  5. Improved access to a range of public services 

There is reasonable evidence for all of these benefits from existing voluntary libraries, although it is worth pointing out that all could be achieved by the council via other routes.


  • Loss of professional librarian skills. The trading director of Oxfam, David McCullough, argues that volunteers are the wrong approach for public libraries.  He says that volunteers should be additional and complementary to a well-run and well-funded public library service. “Axing staff in public libraries and replacing them with volunteers is not the right approach to government cuts” (Express).
  • At least some leaders of existing community libraries both defend public libraries and see community libraries as unworkable except in wealthy areas.  New Local Government Network report “Realising Community Wealth” suggests that willingness to volunteer is geographically variable, with some prosperous areas unreceptive too.

“The government has failed to recognise the correlation between volunteering rates and deprivation, which means wealthy areas are better placed to flourish under the ‘big society’ because they already have higher levels of social engagement. This divide between rich and poor areas could be exacerbated by local authority spending cuts”. The Guardian

“Most people who depend upon libraries would say ‘I don’t want it to be a lottery depending on whether people are willing to volunteer to keep them open.'” (Ed Balls).

“The model that we have followed in Chalfont St Giles is not universally applicable. Our library is small with light to moderate use. Buckinghamshire is a relatively affluent county with a sufficient pool of people with the time and skills to operate the local library. Trying to follow the same model in a busy town library in a deprived area would I think not succeed.”  (Tony Hoare).

“An inability to come forward to volunteer to run the library service for him is not a sign of a lack of interest in or need for a library – it is a sign that communities do not have the strength, level of education, experience, time and power to do so” (Save Doncaster Libraries).

“IF the Walcot Library is “a flagship community library” (SA, October 1), then God help the other local libraries when the council starts making cuts! It has no real library staff, is now shut on Saturdays and is no longer available for the local schools to use, because there’s no room available since the charity shop moved in. It is now, in fact, a charity shop with some stacks of books as a sort of afterthought. Comparison of library usage between the years 2008/9 and 2009/10 shows the figures for Walcot have gone down dramatically.” Sherry Waldon, Swindon Advertiser.

  • Even in wealthy areas, volunteer-run libraries find it difficult to pay for big expenses such as maintenance.  In one of the most successful and publicised branches, Little Chalfont,rotten timbers hold up the roof.
  • Where paid workers have gone, it may be because the council feels that volunteers can replace them – effectively meaning the volunteers are inadvertently, and with the best will in the world, causing people to lose their jobs.  This can be particularly painful for library staff when users they know or, even worse, ex-colleagues volunteer to do the jobs that they need for free.
  • “Any volunteer performing work according to terms and hours laid down by your council could well be a ‘worker’ and eligible for at least the National Minimum Wage. This should be agreed
    with the council.”
  • Volunteers are not free.  Costs include developing and maintaining a volunteer programme, recruitment, support, training, legal checks etc.
  • Transiency.  Volunteers tend to work for shorter periods than paid staff.  However, this does not appear to be case in some existing volunteer-run libraries.
  • Mistakes can be made by volunteers if insufficient training is given.  This may also be due to the relatively small number of hours that volunteers may make.  Due to the nature of the situation, there is no hard evidence of this and it is merely anecdotal.
  • Bear in mind when thinking of running a community library that you may be used as an excuse to close more libraries next year.  The excellent work done in Buckinghamshire’s three volunteer-run libraries has been cited by the council this year as evidence that another 14 can be “divested”.
  • “Although the prospect of a “charity, social enterprise or mutual” running and operating your local library or health centre may not be as objectionable as a profit-hungry public limited company, it’s privatisation all the same. And behind it is the same old neoliberal dogma which says that state or local authority provision of public services is inherently undesirable and needs to be ended.” Privatised Britain is not a fait accompli – Guardian.
  • Blackmail – If the library is so valued that the local community is willing to run it, does that not mean that it’s important enough for the council to run it? It’s argued in “Are volunteers happy to run libraries?” that councils are blackmailing local communities.
  • Running a volunteer-run library, especially one which takes funds from parish councils could be seen as involving “double taxation”. Having to support a library through parish council taxes or through volunteers/other contributions is a form of double taxation as the inhabitants are still paying council tax for the surviving public libraries in larger towns in the area.  Moreover, this concentrates the cuts in one area while other libraries receive far less in way of cuts.

“Any cuts to frontline services should be shared across all libraries – city, urban and rural. “If a volunteer model is confirmed to be the only way forward then this too should be one which deploys volunteers in all libraries on a proportional basis and irrespective of location.”  Volunteers’ concern over Sonning Common Library – Get Reading 15/9/11.

  • Reputation risk for the Council – “Issues of reputation linked to service failure also remain key, and councils transferring service delivery, particularly to volunteers, must understand that whilst they may no longer have direct responsibility for a service, any fall in quality of provision may still have a serious reputational impact. Councils will therefore need to maintain an oversight of the service, to minimise risk.”
  • Fragmentation of library services may result.
  • The government does not believe in volunteer-run libraries when it applies to them – there are no plans for volunteers in the House of Commons Library (Gloria De Piero).

“Quite simply, there is no need to abandon the ideal of a public library service, free at the point of use and run by paid staff. Anything less is an insult to users. Yes, there are successful volunteer libraries around the country, but fewer than politicians in search of a Big Society might imagine. The experience of those that run them is instructive. It is not easy and can not be done on a wing and a prayer.”  (Alan Gibbons)

‘Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished’. (Philip Pullman)


2 Responses to Volunteer-Run Libraries

  1. NeilM says:

    Phiip Pullman’s comment (above) sums up the situation in a nutshell. It will be a lasting disgrace if these nasty people get their way and dismantle our vital public library service, which allows people to educate themselves. Something we have a right to do.

  2. Pingback: Davies, you’re a disgrace! | Alan Gibbons’ Blog

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