Libraries Week: Is volunteering the future for public libraries?

This week is Libraries Week on Storge where we’re looking at the potential and the context of public libraries, their future as changes to the way they are run in Derby are proposed. In this first piece we look more closely at the model being put forward by Derby City Council; moving a number of the currently council-run libraries to being managed by volunteers.

Derby City Council’s plan to move 10 of the 15 currently council-run libraries to a community and volunteer managed model is said to bring a saving of £648,000 for the authority but is a web of complex issues beyond the money it may save. The plan includes the closure of the 138-year-old Central Library for a smaller city centre library in the Council House, and Allenton, Allestree, Blagreaves, Chaddesden, Chellaston, Derwent, Mackworth, Sinfin, Spondon, and Springwood at Oakwood will also move to the community-run model.

From today groups and organisations interested in volunteering to run a library are being asked to attend information days and complete the first stage of the application process. Applications will be discussed toward the end of the year and decisions will be made early next. But beneath the practicalities, a number of deep considerations remain buried beneath the behemoth of budget cuts.

The transfer of the libraries will cost £1.77 million to implement, result in the loss of 41 library jobs, but save the council £648,000 per year. Community-run libraries will be offered £17,500 per year toward running costs until 2022 in the initial transfer agreements. If you’re only looking at the bottom line of the budget book and the declining use of libraries in the UK over the last decade the case for moving the service into the hands of communities looks fairly clear cut.

But things rarely are and beyond the sharp edge of austerity there are a number of deeper cultural and community issues and opportunities at play.

Derby is not alone in looking at this model as an answer to a budget shortfall. Volunteer-led libraries are far from new (the Morrab Library in Penzance is the oldest dating back to 1818), nor are they so uncommon in today’s public sector landscape with around 12% now run under this model – there are 3601 public libraries in Great Britain and 446 were volunteer-run as of February 2017 – and more planned as budget’s continue to be squeezed.

Of those that have become community-managed there is an unclear picture on their success or any consistency in what they offer and how they are supported by the councils. Buckinghamshire was among the first to move libraries to the model in 2007 but even the successful branches – some of which report increases in visitors of up to 30% since becoming volunteer run – are very aware their future is always uncertain. David Wolstenholme, a volunteer at one of the libraries told Third Sector of how they are reliant on a constant supply of good, reliable volunteers, saying “Our library is in many ways better than the county library, but that’s because of enthusiastic volunteers. Our argument is it’s better to continue as a county library: if this is impossible, we can help with plan B.”

His story is not unusual – those who start off opposing council plans to close or change model, become (sometimes reluctantly) the volunteers when its apparent their protests won’t stop proposals being passed and it is a ‘volunteer or allow closure’ choice. Many volunteers are retired professionals, some get support from branches which continue to be council-run, many are based in already vibrant (and often middle class) communities but again, even those which are successes, advise caution. Kerry Dunbar of New Cross Learning, which became volunteer-run in 2011, told Third Sector she spends around 50 hours a week at the library and learning centre but doesn’t see the model as a fit for all. She said, “It is not right for all libraries because they will not necessarily have volunteers or support from the community. 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.”

The available pool of volunteers has in some cases been linked to the affluence of the area and the usage of the library. A lack of available volunteers was reported in Doncaster but protest groups argue this is not a sign of disinterest. Save Doncaster Libraries said, “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.”

Even with volunteers the plan may not result in stability or growth. In Sheffield a Freedom of Information request in 2016 showed that usage figures were down in the 14 libraries moved to volunteer control. A spokesperson for SCALP (Sheffield Communities Against Library Privatisation) said: “These figures show that moving Sheffield’s libraries from a professionally run model to a series of volunteer run sites has not maintained the great library service that the city deserves. It has had the opposite effect; the number of people borrowing books and using the library for information purposes has plummeted, proving our worst fears correct. Worryingly, many other UK local authorities are being taken in by the spin of councils like Sheffield and using the city as a model for destroying their own library services.”

Of course, correlation does not show causation and usage figures may well have dropped regardless of the management model of the libraries given changes in borrowing habits. While the decline in public library usage over the last decade has been reported it also shows the most deprived areas of the UK have reasonably steady library use during this period, while areas of prosperity saw the biggest dips in use. This raises the question of universal public services – can those who need the services the most still access them, and in this case if they can access them do they further the means to run them for others as a volunteer.

Even where success for the model is being claimed, caution is also being advised. While volunteers provide cheaper resource and may bring in some different skills and ideas, there is a loss when professional staff are removed. Speaking at the time of plans to cut Trafford Council’s service and staff in 2011 Annie Mauger, chief executive of Cilip (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), said: “Volunteers play a valuable role in enhancing the public library service but they are not a replacement for the skills and expertise of staff.”

Plans such as these deserve more debate than they get – councils cannot be held at fault for consulting if we as a community do not engage when the opportunity arises. Derby city has a population of almost 250,000 people yet it was just 5000 people who responded to the first phase of the consultation in 2015, 4000 to the second phase. In October we’ll find out how many people have put forward their name to volunteer.

While library usage may not be prevalent among the population – the report from phase one of the consultation stated 4,703 people had used a city library in the 12 months preceding the survey – that usage can be linked in to the wider wellbeing of the city, as well as being a part of its cultural offer, and its statutory public service. As Libraries Week continues on Storge we’ll be looking at this potential impact on health, wellbeing, and democracy through changes and loss of public libraries.

Find Derby City Library plans on their website here. More information for groups and organisations interested in volunteering to run a library is here.

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