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posted 3 May 2012, 01:35 by Friern Barnet

Volunteer-run libraries

".. an exploitation of the volunteer and a deprival of someone’s livelihood." Official Trafford Council policy on replacing paid staff with volunteers.  Trafford is replacing the staff of two libraries with volunteers, 1st February, 2012.

The idea of volunteers replacing paid staff in smaller "community libraries" is being strongly encouraged in the UK.  They come in all shapes and sizes but currently count for less than 1% of all British libraries.  Almost all are single units.  

The idea of volunteer-run libraries ties in very neatly with the current Big Society philosophy and with the need to make the most of shrinking budgets.  However, there are many problems, as well as the obvious financial advantages, of this model.  It is also not a widely accepted one in other countries, with American libraries generally only using volunteers as additional shelvers and in complementary roles and there being almost none in such countries as Spain.  

I have endeavoured below to create a fairly comprehensive list of current volunteer-run libraries in the UK, along with details on what is needed to run one, their costs, pros and cons.  There has been very little published in this field so please do use this page widely, although an acknowledgement would be appreciated.  Also greatly appreciated would be any factual corrections or amendments.

List of current volunteer-run (or significantly volunteer supported) "community libraries" in the UK

"The One Show" on community libraries

Information below or elsewhere on this website does not constitute formal legal advice.  One should always check with the relevant council's legal team or with private solicitors for an accurate picture.

Requirements of running a volunteer-run library

Running a library is a serious undertaking and not something for the faint-hearted.  Jim Brooks of Little Chalfont Community Library has talked about his experience at Words With Jam.  Chalfont St Giles library has produced a guide to running a small public library with volunteers.  Suffolk County Council have produced a very useful matrix listing what responsibilties can and cannot be delegated to volunteers.  The length and detail of this document makes it clear that it is not just all date-stamping and smiling hello.

The Government has established a Community Knowledge Hub intended to support volunteer-run libraries, although it appears that its partner, Locality, will ("value for money access to a range of specialist support partners") charge for its services.  It is currently dormant but will start in July 2011.

Here is a (almost certainly incomplete) list of what needs to be considered:

"BLUG has already expressed severe concern about the financial consequences of accepting a lease and believes strongly that IWC should follow the growing practice of other councils, which is to retain responsibility and ownership of library buildings, and train volunteers to work alongside existing professionals rather than replace them. "It’s a practice that has been adopted by a growing number of local authorities and allows substantial financial savings while retaining the professionalism of the full time library staff in the library service,” said Richard Beet, lead author of BLUG’s recent submission to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. “It allows volunteers to do their job in the library without having to become building services managers, and would help overcome employment legislation issues.”  (Ventnor Blog, 5/6/11)

  • Costs involved (see this breakdown) include amount of rent/rates to be paid.  Warwickshire include this list as well - rent of premises, running cost of building (heating, lighting, cleaning, maintenance, insurance), computer costs (inc. broadband, licenses, equipment etc), self-service equipment if applicable (£11k per new kiosk plus £1300 p.a. support costs), telephone costs, public liability insurance (normally for at least £6m).

  • A written job description for a volunteer is good practice but means that employment tribunal appeals are possible. Even where there is not a written job description, regular volunteering may be breaking the law regarding the National Minimum Wage.

  • Volunteers are not covered by the Disability Discrimination Act meaning there is no means to challenge if any discrimination takes place against them. However, the community group or council may be liable if a volunteer discriminates against a library user. Volunteers need to receive reasonable expenses.

  • Paid workers will often be working in conjunction with volunteers.  This may cause problems. See Charter for Strengthening Relations between Paid Staff and Volunteers.

  • CILIP guidance is that, under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, volunteer-run libraries cannot charge for book lending (or other printed material) or, correspondingly,  for membership/admission if they are to be counted towards the council's statutory library lending provision.  If they are not be counted as part of the council service, the volunteer-run library can then charge but may not be able to have access to the (highly important) council ICT such as library catalogue.  It may also open up the council to legal action for being in breach of its duties.

  • If considering the volunteer-run route, it is important not to accept the council's first offer.  Campaigning can result in improved proposals such as that in Dorset.  The first offer of the authority is often not their final one.

  • If the council is considerate enough to include income figures, ensure these are actual (rather than forecast) as there can be a considerable difference between the two.  

  • Question whether volunteers can access the library computer system.  Some councils (such asWarwickshire) decide that this would contravene the Data Protection Act.  Without this access, one cannot tell what books are available at other libraries or even if the person's library card is valid.  This is a major difference between running a branch of the local library system and running a stand-alone library with reduced service.  

  • If running the councils' system is too expensive or not allowed, an "open source library management system" may be cheap alternative: see Koha or the Library Coop for alternatives.

  • Volunteers need to be aware that work in a public library can be unpleasant.  Excrement smeared over the walls of public toilets (or, indeed, deposited in the children's area) is a widely known phenomenon, as is drug use, abusive or violent behaviour.  Individuals that some in society may consider "strange" or "dangerous" are drawn to libraries as they are any public space.

  • Last, but not least, training of volunteers is key.  Libraries are highly computerised so IT training is needed.  Shadowing of library staff would also be immensely useful, although it is worth considering how those library staff feel about having to train volunteers to replace them in what were previously paid jobs.  

  • Quite apart from all of this, there needs to be an understanding of what library workers actually do.  Here is an (incomplete) list.

  • Each council should also have a Volunteer Policy, detailing what it expects volunteers to do (and what they can't do), training, monitoring etc.  See Northamptonshire volunteer policy.   

  • Charitable status.  While not strictly a requirement, being a charity could significantly help the finances of a group running a library.  Ensure that the aims of the organisation tie in with those allowed by the Charities Commission.  For instance: "To advance public education by running and/or assisting in the running of a library at xxx, for the benefit of the residents of the xxx Borough of xxx.” is acceptable.

  • Refurbishing the Library.  It may be that the library space made sense for a council-run library service but won't for your group.  Groups taking over libraries often wish to add event spaces, meeting rooms, a small shop or even a cafe into the space.  This can be a lot harder to do than simply shifting furniture around.  Assistance can be found via professional bodies (see if the Council can assist) or through many private companies.  There are some non-profits that may also assist.  For example, ADP Projects has contacted this blog about its work in changing three libraries in Lewisham for Eco Computers.

  • If the group is taking over a library using self-service machines, it will find that it may need to re-tag all of the books if it ever seeks to upgrade or change the system (if it's lucky it may find out that it can simply reprogramme the tags but this is still a cost).  This is due to a recent introduction of international standards that no UK public library authority currently use but will soon come into play.  Such a cost can be substantial (25p per item plus around 14p each if new tags are needed plus, of course, the cost of the new self-service machines themselves).   It may be useful for any group to seek an indemnity from the Council that they would pay for any future upgrade as it will be probably beyond their financial abilities otherwise.

"CILIP acknowledges the contribution that volunteers make to libraries, enriching the services they provide and helping to sustain their viability. In order to optimise the value of that contribution it should form part of a professionally managed public library service that has at its core sufficient paid staff to ensure the direction, development and quality of the service provided. Volunteers are not 'free' and need proper management, training and development. In many cases a volunteers’ co-ordinator should be appointed to ensure appropriate management and recognition of the value of volunteers."Use of volunteers in public libraries, CILIP October 2010.

Council "Sweeteners"

Councils have been offering a variety of help to communities taking over libraries.

  • Bolton - Groups would need to pay for rent and running costs, including repairs (£57,000 in the case of one branch which needs roof repairs).  Council will pay for bookstock, publicity on council website, initial training/set-up/support.

  • Cambridgeshire - Local community to pay £20,000 per year for running costs, libraries to be self-service and largely volunteer-run but "directed by a member of the libraries’ central team".

  • Camden - Three libraries to be run by community groups, with aid of £100,000 for each group. "The three community groups successfully met the Council’s criteria of delivering a viable and sustainable business model and appropriate self governance. In return they will benefit from support for their running costs for the first year, from April 2012, and one-off grants to help them get started."

  • Conwy - "“Conwy Council will continue to provide 3,000 books, four computers and 15 hours of staff time each week." but not maintenance costs.

  • Doncaster - "Each library will still receive new books, have computers and internet facilities, and will still have events and activities for children and adults run by the council’s library staff."

  • Dorset -  "fully independent and self-governed but supported with staffing, books and IT services worth £5,500 each year".  Council also giving "gift of a freehold or long leasehold interest in the library buildings" it owns.  To be continued on a three (possibly five) rolling basis.  "the council has agreed to ensure that all the buildings are in a reasonable state of repair before handover"

  • Ealing - Four libraries will have some council staffing and be "run through community management with assistance from the council"

  • Gloucestershire -

    • 2012: ""The council proposes to offer community-run libraries the chance to buy library buildings or take over leases on a peppercorn rent, and an annual grant of £10,000." (30/3/12).  

    • 2011: These were the options before a successful legal challenge prevented the plans: Different deals for different branches.  Berkeley will have a peppercorn rent for building and £2,500 start-up grant, books reservable from council stock but no council bookfund for library.  A different library, Hester's Way, will be given to a community group to be used as housing so that it's income can pay for a library at the Oasis Youth Centre.  Oasis group will also be given £20,000 for for years.Minchinhampton will have £10,000 grant from council to supply 10 hours staffing per week (5 if no volunteer forthcoming).  Standard offer is books, shelves and library furniture, library computer system and IT support, van service for books, training, named council contact, book discounts, some funding ("revenue stream to offset running costs")

  • Kirklees - "The proposal is that Kirklees Council will provide guidance to interested community groups and individuals, including training, a regular supply of books, maintenance of public access computers and additional support to ensure the continuation of a high quality library service."

  • North Yorkshire - Volunteer-run libraries will "be supported with accommodation, bookstock, IT facilities and broadband connectivity" plus some paid staff support.  The council has offered Great Ayton Library campaigners ", in return for the devolving of responsibilty, a peppercorn rent, a member of staff to visit once a month to train volunteers, to replenish book stocks, to provide an IT service, and also a possible one-off amount to help develop the building into a sustainable community building."

  • Oxfordshire - Up to three years between announcement and fully passing over library to volunteers. "The council promised to provide free buildings, books, access to the council’s computer network and professional support from librarians to all of Oxfordshire’s libraries. But many would have to recruit volunteers over the next three years to replace paid staff" (Oxford Mail). Council expects friends groups to pay for CRB checks on volunteers.

  • Somerset -  1 Council employee (£5k one-off  "priming grant") who will train volunteers, £900 to pay for library computers (staff and public access). 2-year rent-free lease for Bishops Lydeard including everything within it (desks, shelving, books) but no ongoing funding.  

  • Wakefield - £150,000 fund to be split between those wanting to take over any of the 12 threatened libraries.

  • Waltham Forest - An ex Waltham Forest Direct Shop, with books and computers supplied by the council.

  • Warwickshire - Between 300 and 500 new books per year to each library, plus a regular exchange of books to refresh stock. Public access computers with broadband internet access, supported by the county council’s IT service and with access to the council’s library management system.  Self-service technology units, book shelving and furniture.  Three hours’ staffing support each week, with the option for communities to fund additional time.  Council will charge £3000 p.a. for computers if in existing building, £10,000 setup (plus £2k p.a.) if in new building. Initial training and support to help establish the new service but then further charging of volunteers will be charged at £80 per hour. “We are prepared, in principle, to consider leasing council-owned library buildings at a peppercorn rent to communities submitting a strong business case.”

Other councils, borough or parish, may also contribute funds.  However, the Dorset Association of Parish and Town Councils has said that only money collected by parish and town councils under Section 137 of the Local Government Act can be used to fund libraries.  This would limit the amount that non-statutory (that is, not the original library providing authority) councils could provide.  It is unclear at this moment (1st June 2011) if this is correct or a universal viewpoint. Dorset campaigners point out that the Power of Well-being could be used instead but this would not be possible for small communities.


Volunteer-run libraries are a way of still having a library that would otherwise have been closed by the local council.  Some, like the Spectator, see libraries as a natural place for the Big Society.  Volunteer-run libraries will obviously be cheaper than their paid-staff equivalents.  They are also by their very nature "local" - their management and staffing comes from the local community.  They are also not bound by the internal restrictions and politics (both office and party) of the council.  

Volunteer-run libraries are naturally less expensive to run and can link in directly to the community, possibly a "best of both worlds". Darren Taylor from Eco Computer Systems (Lewisham) stressed in a "You and Yours" (Radio 4, 18th May 2011) programme that he can link very well to the community and has the benefit of several retired librarians.  The Government has explicitly stated that the Big Society bank could be used to fund groups taking over libraries.  

Many volunteer-run libraries fall out of the terms of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act and so areallowed to charge for membership or for books.  However, no ex-public library has yet to take up this option.

The Community Knowledge Hub website lists these benefits below.

  1. Reduced running costs for local authorities

  2. Increased community involvement in and control over local services

  3. Increased take-up of library services

  4. Library service innovation and diversification

  5. Improved access to a range of public services

There is reasonable evidence for all of these benefits from existing voluntary libraries, although it is worth pointing out that all could be achieved by the council via other routes.

Further information: Community Knowledge Hub or Locality.   


  • Loss of professional librarian skills. The trading director of Oxfam, David McCullough, argues that volunteers are the wrong approach for public libraries.  He says that volunteers should be additional and complementary to a well-run and well-funded public library service. "Axing staff in public libraries and replacing them with volunteers is not the right approach to government cuts" (Express).

"When an authority refuses to pay its library staff, and lays down the Sophie's choice that either they work for free or the service is shut down, the real baddies of the piece are, of course, the authority. But knowing that doesn't help us any. We still have to choose between descending into charity or watching as a community suffers. At least as things currently lie, I believe the only responsible action is the latter. I believe this in part because I suspect the voluntary model to be ultimately unsustainable, but principally because I believe we have a collective responsibility to our trade on a broader level. The communities we serve can only prosper if we can afford to serve them."  Are you experienced? Volunteer now! - Succentorship Without Sneers."

"The government has failed to recognise the correlation between volunteering rates and deprivation, which means wealthy areas are better placed to flourish under the 'big society' because they already have higher levels of social engagement. This divide between rich and poor areas could be exacerbated by local authority spending cuts". The Guardian

"Most people who depend upon libraries would say 'I don't want it to be a lottery depending on whether people are willing to volunteer to keep them open.'" (Ed Balls).

"The model that we have followed in Chalfont St Giles is not universally applicable. Our library is small with light to moderate use. Buckinghamshire is a relatively affluent county with a sufficient pool of people with the time and skills to operate the local library. Trying to follow the same model in a busy town library in a deprived area would I think not succeed."  (Tony Hoare).

"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" (Save Doncaster Libraries).

"IF the Walcot Library is “a flagship community library” (SA, October 1), then God help the other local libraries when the council starts making cuts! It has no real library staff, is now shut on Saturdays and is no longer available for the local schools to use, because there’s no room available since the charity shop moved in. It is now, in fact, a charity shop with some stacks of books as a sort of afterthought. Comparison of library usage between the years 2008/9 and 2009/10 shows the figures for Walcot have gone down dramatically." Sherry Waldon, Swindon Advertiser.

"Using volunteers to fill in key roles risks undermining some of the fundamental things that attract people to volunteering. If a volunteer is carrying a role so vital that the organisation would suffer if they did not come in, then there is no room for any flexibility around what they do, and when they do it. We risk a situation where we are, essentially, emotionally blackmailing people to carry on offering time. Job substitution is also problematic on a practical level." The economic downturn and the spectre of job substitution - Association of Volunteer Managers.

  • "Any volunteer performing work according to terms and hours laid down by your council could well be a ‘worker’ and eligible for at least the National Minimum Wage. This should be agreed

  • with the council."

  • Volunteers are not free.  Costs include developing and maintaining a volunteer programme, recruitment, support, training, legal checks etc.

  • Transiency.  Volunteers tend to work for shorter periods than paid staff.  However, this does not appear to be case in some existing volunteer-run libraries.

  • One of the reasons for transiency is that the work can be unpleasant.  Here are quotes from an article about bannings from Swindon libraries:

"Our Library has cctv everywhere in it, it's the only thing that stops me giving the youngsters a thick ear now and again. The old folk that pee on the seats then walk away leaving it to be sat on, get my goat as well."

"One incident, which happened in a North Swindon library last year, was so bad that the police were called and the three culprits, aged between 14 and 16, were given life-long bans. But, the true picture could actually be much worse as some libraries work with Wiltshire Police to contribute evidence to enable anti-social behaviour orders, which includes being banned from the library, but these are not recorded by the council.

  • Mistakes can be made by volunteers if insufficient training is given.  This may also be due to the relatively small number of hours that volunteers may make.  Due to the nature of the situation, there is no hard evidence of this and it is merely anecdotal.

  • Bear in mind when thinking of running a community library that you may be used as an excuse to close more libraries next year.  The excellent work done in Buckinghamshire's three volunteer-run libraries has been cited by the council this year as evidence that another 14 can be "divested".

  • "Although the prospect of a "charity, social enterprise or mutual" running and operating your local library or health centre may not be as objectionable as a profit-hungry public limited company, it's privatisation all the same. And behind it is the same old neoliberal dogma which says that state or local authority provision of public services is inherently undesirable and needs to be ended." Privatised Britain is not a fait accompli - Guardian.

  • Blackmail - If the library is so valued that the local community is willing to run it, does that not mean that it's important enough for the council to run it? It's argued in "Are volunteers happy to run libraries?" that councils are blackmailing local communities.

  • Don't expect the library staff to like volunteers.  Many library staff see volunteers as a direct threat to their jobs.  After all, volunteers are, in many cases, directly replacing them.  The following extract is from a volunteer who was not directly replacing staff:

"I knew that volunteering in libraries was an emotive subject and was under no illusions that there would be some resistance. What I was not prepared for was to hear from my father that he had been accosted by someone who made it very clear that I was not welcome. In the circumstances it was understandable; it transpired that this person was a library assistant and I can’t blame them for being concerned" i-volunteer.

  • Running a volunteer-run library, especially one which takes funds from parish councils could be seen as involving "double taxation". Having to support a library through parish council taxes or through volunteers/other contributions is a form of double taxation as the inhabitants are still paying council tax for the surviving public libraries in larger towns in the area.  Moreover, this concentrates the cuts in one area while other libraries receive far less in way of cuts.

“Any cuts to frontline services should be shared across all libraries – city, urban and rural. “If a volunteer model is confirmed to be the only way forward then this too should be one which deploys volunteers in all libraries on a proportional basis and irrespective of location.”  Volunteers' concern over Sonning Common Library - Get Reading 15/9/11.

  • Reputational risk for the Council - "Issues of reputation linked to service failure also remain key, and councils transferring service delivery, particularly to volunteers, must understand that whilst they may no longer have direct responsibility for a service, any fall in quality of provision may still have a serious reputational impact. Councils will therefore need to maintain an oversight of the service, to minimise risk."

  • Fragmentation of library services may result.   

  • Public Lending Right does not necessarily cover volunteer-run libraries and so they may be in contravention of copyright unless they are counted as till part of the statutory service.   

  • The government does not believe in volunteer-run libraries when it applies to them - there are no plans for volunteers in the House of Commons Library (Gloria De Piero).

“Quite simply, there is no need to abandon the ideal of a public library service, free at the point of use and run by paid staff. Anything less is an insult to users. Yes, there are successful volunteer libraries around the country, but fewer than politicians in search of a Big Society might imagine. The experience of those that run them is instructive. It is not easy and can not be done on a wing and a prayer.”  (Alan Gibbons)

‘Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished’. (Philip Pullman)

Is a volunteer library statutory or non-statutory?

This is an important question as the council may open itself up to legal proceedings if it disposes of too many of its branches to groups that fall out of "statutory" provision. For a volunteer-run public library to be counted as statutory (that is, part of the council-run library service under the terms of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act) certain conditions need to be met. It also related to whether the library is breaking copyright rules.  However, these conditions are poorly defined and so far have not been firmly challenged in court. The general rules of thumb are:

  • the service must be free at point of use (in terms of both membership fee and loans).

  • there must be a service level agreement with the local council.

  • the council must fund at least a significant part of the service, although staffing may be largely voluntary.  Such funding may be in kind (providing the building, books, lighting, computers etc).

  • the council maintains ultimate responsibility for the library and is thus legally liable.  This may include sub-contracting the service to a community group (in the same way that the service in Hounslow is still statutory although run by a private company).

  • Library premises are "any premises which are occupied by a library authority and are premises where library facilities are made available by the authority"

"CILIP’s position is clear”, she states, “If community managed libraries are to be regarded as part of the statutory service they must have a core paid staff, be part of the professionally led public library service and operate within a service level agreement with that parent library service. Volunteers play a valuable role in enhancing the public library service but they are not a replacement for the skills and expertise of staff. All are entitled to a public library service of high quality”.   Annie Mauger.

The MLA in their Community Managed Libraries report identified several branches which were statutory:Peterchurch Library (Herefordshire), Cleobury Mortimer County Centre (Shropshire) and Chestnut Centre Library (Kirklees).