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Councils 'should not strong-arm people into volunteering to run libraries'

Wed 02 Nov 2016

Local authorities have been warned against placing too many demands on volunteers to keep libraries open.

According to national campaign group Voices from the Library, volunteers who manage libraries in their communities are "trying their best".

However, spokesperson Dr Lauren Smith said there is "a real feeling of hopelessness" among many, with some saying they "feel really manipulated into doing it".

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, she therefore warned local authorities against trying to "strong-arm" people into volunteering to run public services.

She argued that this "creates a really poor relationship with communities" and is "not a sustainable way of running a library service".

Dr Smith also pointed out that while volunteers put considerable effort into running libraries, they are unable to provide the same level of expertise as paid and qualified librarians.

As a result, she is concerned that people might simply stop going, which in turn would create a "whole generation of people who don't know what a library service looks like".

This, she warned, could have negative impacts on literacy, community cohesion and the health of the high street.

Dr Smith was speaking after Save Doncaster Libraries revealed that more than eight in ten libraries in the borough are run by volunteers with council assistance.

Spokesperson Lynne Coppendale stated that the organisation had proposed to Doncaster Council that each library have at least one member of staff, but said this idea was rejected.

She described the closure of libraries in the area over the last few years as "just devastating", and noted they are "one of those services that you don't know you need until it's gone".

Ms Coppendale acknowledged Doncaster is relatively fortunate in that the local authority does provide a level of support to volunteer-run libraries.

However, she said that in many other areas, "that isn't the case".

She went on to stress that councils have always been about more than books, as they offer access to council-led services and are run by experts with qualifications and experience.

Ms Coppendale also noted that users of fully-staffed libraries can always be sure when they are open, as opening hours otherwise depend on the volunteers who are available at particular times.

She added that "with the best will in the world - and I think volunteers are trying with the best of intentions - they just can’t do that".

According to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), the number of books borrowed at libraries in Doncaster fell by almost half between 2012 and 2014.

This, it said, was the biggest drop recorded anywhere in the country throughout this period.

Doncaster Council has stressed that volunteers have provided "valuable support in providing these services within their communities".

Councillor Bill Mordue, cabinet member for business, skills, tourism and culture at the authority, said that without this support, many libraries would not have been able to remain open.

He added that anyone who would like to volunteer at their local library should drop in and register their interest.

Joanna Bussell, Partner in Winckworth Sherwood’s Local Government Team, commented: "Volunteers play an invaluable role in library services, as do Friends’ Groups for museums, galleries and parks. However, this is not, in itself, a sustainable business model.
 
"We would urge local authorities to consider the charitable trust model.
 
"This can deliver immediate financial savings.  More importantly, it creates a new legal entity which has a clear social purpose but can operate in a more commercial, entrepreneurial way, optimising both commercial and charitable benefits.  It can, also, combine volunteering with a core team of professional staff.
 
"Devon County Council is an exemplar of creating a new delivery model, Libraries Unlimited South West, which embraces volunteers and Friends but within a structure that provides a core library service.” 

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