I grew up in a household of avid readers and since buying books regularly wasn’t affordable, weekly visits to the local library were commonplace in my childhood. Even now when I need information, the library is my first port of call. So I was both surprised and disappointed to hear news of the closure or reduction in services of libraries over the last couple of years. As library cuts continue, the role of volunteers comes to the forefront and I can see a future where volunteers reduce or even replace state provision of library management. It is not only the end, but also the means that seem unacceptable to me and have consequences for avid readers everywhere.
In Islington, the borough I live in, the Council has been tasked with making cuts of £100 million between 2011 and 2015. So far, libraries have been a key area for budget cuts, with many in my area having their opening hours severely reduced. The Annual Libraries Survey, published by The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy in December 2012, shows that full-time library staff numbers decreased by 8% in 2011-12. By contrast, the number of volunteers in libraries continues to grow, going up 8.9% in the same period. Each volunteer is counted regardless of hours spent per week, so these figures aren’t directly comparable. But they do point towards a trend of staff cuts and increasing volunteer hours in libraries.
Libraries play a part in social mobility; they provide access to books, computers and other learning resources to those that can’t afford them. They’re also a part of cultural inclusion in that children and adults alike can get internet access, borrow the latest films on DVD and be part of the conversation about things they might otherwise struggle to access. Closures are naturally even more problematic than reduced hours and services because travelling to libraries that are further away may be difficult for those on lower incomes or who are less mobile due to disability. When libraries are on the verge of closure, the communities that need them face a choice; let them disappear or step-up and run it themselves. I support finding innovative and enterprising solutions in an era of service cuts, but a wholesale acceptance of volunteer-run libraries makes me uneasy.
The recent Community Life survey published by the Cabinet Office shows an increase of 9% in regular volunteering, a figure that has been grasped at as vindication of the Government’s Big Society agenda. Yes, volunteering in libraries can increase community involvement, but I think this is less a triumph of the Big Society message and more the result of people feeling pressured to prevent the disappearance of libraries from their communities. Essentially, it means local councils can now back away from running this service whilst arguing that if it’s important enough to the community, people will fill the void.
Libraries are a professional service and should be managed and developed by professionals with adequate skills and training. Leaving a library to be run by volunteers puts them under pressure and perhaps undermines some of the great motivating qualities of volunteering. Heralding increases in volunteer numbers ignores the likelihood that communities are going without adequate services and volunteers are plugging the gap. Ultimately, volunteer-run libraries seem to be an unsustainable model and perhaps a stop-gap on the way to closure. We need to explore alternative models that don’t include turning over traditional libraries to volunteers, or a journey to the nearest library might become a day trip in itself.