The future of libraries and volunteering

I woke up this morning to a story on Radio Four’s Today programme discussing the closure of libraries across the country and the increasing numbers of volunteers involved.

The figures quoted, which the BBC had compiled from Freedom of Information requests, tell a story of major change. Nearly 8,000 jobs in UK libraries have been lost in the last six years, approximately 343 libraries have closed, and 15,500 volunteers have been recruited. This is a real illustration of how some public services are changing and how such change is difficult, unsettling and, at times, contested.

Just as importantly, it’s not straightforward: so putting the politics of austerity aside, and with a focus squarely on volunteering, what might these changes mean?

Libraries are already hubs for communities’ volunteering

Involving volunteers in libraries is, however, nothing new – volunteers have always given their time alongside paid staff and formed a crucial part of the library service. Indeed, there’re already a lot of communities getting involved in their libraries. But the scale of the cuts and the speed of increase of volunteers is uncharted territory.

Recent figures from the Libraries Taskforce Report and CIPFA, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, state that there are 241 ‘community-supported or community-managed’ libraries in England, one-in-three library authorities have at least one community-supported library in their area, and between 2013/14 and 2014/15 volunteer numbers across the UK rose by more than 18%.

This feels to me like profound change. Business as usual is evidently not an option for libraries and many are looking to substantially increase the number of volunteers they involve. This then begs difficult questions about what those volunteers will do, how will they be supported to do it and, most controversially, will they be taking the jobs of paid staff in the act of doing it?

The volunteer effort takes many forms

At one end of the spectrum this is simply about expanding what has been in place for years, with volunteers and staff involved inside the same library. At the other extreme, it involves entire libraries being run by volunteer groups on behalf of the local authority, or even on their own – what has been termed ‘people powered libraries’.

This clearly remains an emotive issue, partly because of how deeply valued libraries are, but also because librarians are sadly losing their jobs. And in a world where debate is characterised more by heat than light, volunteering is too often being framed as an excuse for reductions in public spending. It’s not easy to develop an effective approach in such a setting, but if volunteering is to offer a sustainable future for our libraries, three things need to be in place.

A vision for volunteering in the library

While financial pressures are a reality, volunteering in libraries should not be solely driven by a desire to save costs. Doing so risks missing the multiple other distinct benefits they bring, from new connections to the community to a hugely diverse range of skills and experiences the library can draw upon. Libraries – and local authorities – should instead be clear what their strategic vision is for volunteering, of why and how they are involving volunteers, and what the benefits they see are.

Good communication with staff and volunteers

Tensions between volunteers and paid staff will inevitably exist and should be taken seriously. We’ve seen that genuine consultation with all staff, taking on board their views but being honest about what cannot be changed, and involving unions, can help manage this process. In all the research I’ve done, I’ve never however met a volunteer who has sought to replace a paid member of staff.

Good communication is also vital with volunteers, particularly in terms of their motivations and expectations. Many will get involved to help run a service they hold dear, but it’s less likely that being legally responsible for a victorian building in desperate need of repair is top of their motivations. Working out boundaries and good partnership agreements is crucial.

Investment in volunteer management

This may sound counter-intuitive given much of this change is being driven by spending cuts, but it’s the old adage that volunteering is freely-given but not cost-free. It doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

For volunteering to be successful in any setting, it needs investment. It needs good volunteer management and coordination, all of which costs money. The risk otherwise is that volunteers will have a poor quality experience and simply may not stick around.

Building on community commitment

Volunteering is highly likely to have an ever more prominent role in libraries in the coming years. And this will apply to other public services too.

Many libraries will find new ways to function and will stay open as a direct result. In this rapidly changing environment we need to develop a better understanding of what’s happening across the country, developing new evidence and identifying further good practice.

We must draw on this and should learn also from where things have not worked so well. Ultimately this is about people coming forwards to give their time to a public service they value deeply. Volunteers want to see their libraries maintained for their community. We must not take advantage of this goodwill or take it for granted, but instead build on what volunteers are willing to offer.


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Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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