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Burn after reading; why volunteer-run libraries could be the beginning of the end

1 March 2013 Blog
picture of library shelves

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.


Have we done this by the book? Or should will another opinion make a Late Charge? Leave us a comment below.


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Submitted by Rob Jackson on
As with so many people who rail against volunteers doing work that may once have been the preserve of paid staff, there is a clear assumption that volunteer equates to unskilled, incompetent, unreliable and unprofessional. Why else include a sentence that says "Libraries are a professional service and should be managed and developed by professionals with adequate skills and training."

I doubt very much anyone is advocating people should be rounded up from the streets and plonked into running libraries with no training or any form of recruitment and selection. So why assume that this is the case?

Furthermore, the word professional is misused once again. The word professional is not primarily defined as competent but as being paid, in the same way that amateur doesn't mean incompetent but means unpaid. Many athletes are amateurs (i.e. unpaid) and are highly competent. Some paid staff are professional but grossly incompetent.

As to the assumption that volunteer run libraries will lead to reduced service, look to the example of New Cross where community led library provision has resulted in greater access. Why? Because instead of paid staff exercising their right to a union prescribed lunch break, volunteers keep the library open during lunch hours because that's when people want to use it. User focused, flexible and open when people want it, not when paid staff feel like it.

So whilst I agree with some of the points made here - the dangers of assuming things will get done, the misguided assumption of some councils that one volunteer will do the work of one paid employee, the questionable assertions made by government about the Community Life date (see my blog on this at - I cannot for one second agree with the view of volunteers that the author holds.

Submitted by Amina Ali on
Thanks for commenting, it’s good to hear views on this issue. I've been a long-term volunteer myself and I don’t feel that volunteers are
incompetent, however I do feel that we should be thoughtful about how volunteers are used and I’m concerned about the possible loss of
librarian skills and the wealth of knowledge people can provide when they have made it their long-term career. As you mention there are examples of volunteer-run libraries like New Cross that work well, but I read a Third Sector article ( in which the volunteer manager of New Cross says she spends 50 hours a week at the library – ideally volunteers shouldn't feel like a service will collapse without them.
Willingness to volunteer varies regionally and my feeling is that volunteer-run libraries aren't the right solution in all communities (most of the current volunteer-run libraries are in small towns or rural communities). It will be interesting to see how libraries evolve and hopefully some alternative models will develop that improve things leaps and bounds – but I agree that right now some volunteer-run libraries are able to provide user-focused and interesting services.

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Image used under creative commons license, thanks to Paul_Lowry.