Do libraries run by volunteers check out?

Over the last decade, around 500 UK libraries have been handed over to ordinary people to run for free. This option is seen as a good alternative to closures – but how do the volunteers feel?

It is just before 7pm on a Tuesday and Wilsden library is about to close. There are a few stragglers, mainly mums with small girls who have been at the dance class in the village hall, where the library occupies one corner.

Wilsden is just one of 15 community-managed libraries in the borough of Bradford, West Yorkshire. It opens for one day a week and is staffed completely by volunteers such as Simon Dickerson, whohas volunteered at the library since it became community-managed in 2011. Prior to that, the library was run and staffed by Bradford council, but budget cuts meant that Wilsden’s library, along with branches in nearby Denholme and Wrose, were earmarked to close.

“It was inconceivable that our library should close,” says Dickerson. “There was a village meeting called. About 100 people turned up and there was a very strong feeling that the library should continue.”

Those three villages became the first of Bradford’s community-managed libraries. Now Wilsden has a pool of 40 or so volunteers who can work a couple of hours on a Tuesday.

Eight years ago, there were only a handful of libraries run by volunteers – around 10, estimates Public Libraries News. These days, 500 of the UK’s 3,800 libraries are operated by ordinary people, working for free in a role once regarded as a profession. The rise of volunteer libraries goes hand in hand with closures: in 2017 alone, 105 public libraries around the country closed, according to the Chartered institute of public finance and accountancy, bringing the total number of closures since they began counting in 2010 to almost 600.

The positive side of volunteer libraries is that communities who would otherwise lose their library can keep them. The downside is that professional librarians are rapidly declining in number. In 2016/17, local council funding for libraries was cut by £66m, with 5% of librarians – almost 900 people – losing their jobs. It isn’t just public libraries feeling the pinch; most recently, the Scottish Borders council was criticised for replacing school library staff with pupils.

Like many other parts of the country, Wilsden was handed over to volunteers after Bradford council announced swingeing cuts in 2016. Out of the 29 libraries across the district (population: 528,000), 10 remained council-run, two became “hybrid” operations (a mix of volunteers and council staff), and 17 were given an ultimatum: become volunteer-run or close.

So far, only one has closed (and that was due to a third-party lease on the property not being renewed). The rest were saved, due to the strength of community interest in keeping them open. But does that mean volunteer-run libraries are a success, or just delaying inevitable closures?

“Local councils have seized on the volunteer idea as an easy answer to budget cuts,” Laura Swafford, chair of the Library Campaign, wrote in the Guardian last year. “The commitment of volunteers is wholly admirable, but the result is that as a country, we have been left without a coherent library service and we have seen no real attempt to find out how well community-run libraries work.”

‘If everyone who turned up to the meeting to save the library actually used it, I might be a bit happier’ … Simon Dickerson at Wilsden library.
‘If everyone who turned up to the meeting to save the library actually used it, I might be a bit happier’ … Simon Dickerson at Wilsden library. Photograph: David Barnett

Even before it was passed into community hands, Wilsden was only open on Tuesdays. The day coincides with the aforementioned dance classes, as well as a luncheon club for the elderly. It plays host to three or four children’s events a year, and it houses a book group. As a volunteer, does Dickerson feel it is working? “We get young people in to use the laptops, but not as much to borrow books. And perhaps if everyone who turned up to the meeting to save the library actually used it, I might be a bit happier,” he says.

Bradford, where Wilsden is located, is a district of diversity and extremes. It contains some of the most poverty-stricken wards in the UK, as well as some of the richest. Ilkley is a point on Yorkshire’s so-called Golden Triangle, which has some of the highest property values in the country. And just outside Ilkley is Burley-in-Wharfedale, where the local library was handed to volunteers in April 2017.

There, community ownership has not just allowed the library to survive, it has revived it, according to volunteer and former parish councillor Niccola Swan. “The library wasn’t exactly dead before, but it was a lot quieter,” she says. “When the announcement came through about library funding, it was a no-brainer for Burley. The parish council immediately said that we were not going to lose our library.”

Like other community-run libraries, Burley lost all of its paid staff, who were replaced with a team of around 50 volunteers. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Swan says. “The library staff we had weren’t local, they came in to do a job. While it was often a perfectly fine job, they didn’t have the incentive to be as engaged with the community.”

Usage of the library has grown steadily month on month, Swan says, both in terms of visitors and books borrowed. “I’m really thrilled with what we’ve achieved,” she says.

While Bradford’s libraries get their stock from the national library network, funding for maintenance and infrastructure is entirely dependent on the circumstances of each library. While Wilsden sells secondhand books and greetings cards, and receives support from the village hall association, Burley has just secured £150,000 of funding from the parish council for refurbishments, including a new roof.

But Burley library is lucky, being in an affluent area. Around 12 miles away in Holme Wood, things are different. The area is typified by high-rise flats and estates; parts of the ward frequently appear in the top 1% of the government’s index of deprivation. But Holme Wood’s desire to save their local library was no less strong than Burley’s, though that end was achieved differently: the community entered into a partnership with a private company. The library is now run by volunteers with support from All Star Entertainment, a Bradford-based training provider.

One crucial point with Holme Wood – and, to varying degrees the other libraries – is that they are not just about the books any more: they serve more frequently as wide-ranging “community hubs”. At Burley library, older people often drop in just to see a friendly face, while Wilsden is a lifeline for members of the luncheon club, some of whom may only leave the house once a week.

Burley Library
‘I’m really thrilled with what we’ve achieved’ ... Burley library, which is run by around 50 volunteers. Photograph: Love Burley Library Facebook group

Holme Wood offers resources to improve literacy and learning, through link-ups with local schools that see pupils visit the library for literacy programmes and holiday events. The local job club is based there, and there are courses to teach adults how to use the internet and access council services.

“The library’s core business has changed from being only a lending service, and I think this reflects the changing face of libraries everywhere. There are new challenges that have to be faced,” says Daniel Carroll, who is All Star’s Holme Wood community liaison. “People are working together to make the library work. And that means it has to work for them, and to serve the community.”

“The volunteers are part of the community, they know the place and the people,” says Swan at Burley. “We do what we always did, but now we can bend the rules. If someone wants to just come in and have a sit down and a cup of tea, then that’s absolutely fine. We’ll get the kettle on, because we can.”

Libraries have, for years, provided services other than book borrowing: computer access, DVD loans, event hosting. But the rise of the volunteer-run library is evolution in its purest sense: motivated by a desire to survive. While most would agree that their local library could benefit from more funding from authorities, the reality right now seems to be that libraries are going to require the input of local communities if they are to continue to exist at all. As Dickerson says: “We’re in the middle of some very profound social changes, and those changes are still happening and will continue to happen for some time. Libraries have got to reflect that.”

It is worth noting that a declining library service isn’t seen as inevitable everywhere. Ireland’s Libraries Development Committee has just unveiled a scheme to double attendance over the next five years, involving abolishing fines, extending opening hours in almost two thirds of the country’s 330 libraries to 10pm and, crucially, hiring 100 more librarians in the coming months. While the drive and enthusiasm of the UK’s volunteers should be applauded and encouraged, hopefully their willingness to step in won’t consign government investment to the history books.


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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