Charity Insurance | Social Enterprises | Voluntary Organisations | Community Groups

Ian Anstice: The Pro’s and Cons of Community Libraries

At Ladbrook we have recently launched a new insurance product for community libraries. Many campaign groups are actively fighting the closure of their local library services and often running one as a community group is the last resort.

We are delighted to welcome the guest blogger, Mr Ian Anstice who runs the extensive information site, PublicLibraryNews as a guest blogger to expand on his views on the pro’s and cons of running libraries in this way.  We would highly recommend registering to receive regular emails from Ians site if you have an interest in local library services.
Ian Anstice

Much has been said about volunteer libraries (in terms of replacing paid staff, not being additional to them) but the main arguments can be boiled down to “Something is better than nothing” (pro) and “all or nothing” (con). This gulf between those two gives you an idea of the strength of feeling inherent in this issue and, when you consider that people’s jobs are often on the line, make this the most controversial subject in public libraries today.

Those against volunteer libraries argue that public libraries are too important and skilled to leave to the unpaid. Public libraries cost £1 billion per year to run, are used by two-fifths of the population, and play a vital part in the education, social welfare, job-seeking, online access and leisure of the country. They provide equality of access to books, information, study space and opportunity that can so often be otherwise lacking on the high street. Ensuring all those buildings are safe and powered, have sufficient bookstock and working computers is quite a tall order in itself. Add in to that the need to have a balanced range of titles, reflecting that of the community and free of intentional or unintentional bias, then throw in the advantages of economies of scale where large library services (the largest running 100 branches) can centrally sort things out off-site or, when even that isn’t efficient enough, where whole consortia of library services band together to get better deals and you may start to see the problem. And I’ve not even mentioned issues about double taxation, time-tabling, computer repair and training as yet. It’s not all about just stamping books.

In addition, there’s also the “thin end of the wedge” argument against volunteers. Closing a library is a really unpopular thing to do and politicians don’t like doing it but, if you’re not closing a library but passing it on to volunteers (or “the community”) then it becomes politically far more palatable. An example of a volunteer-run library pre-existing in an authority (or even in another one) is often used as an argument for causing more to be run in such a way. The worry is that even if a volunteer library is successful in the short term, in the first flush of enthusiasm, it won’t be in the longer term when the first wave of volunteers/campaigners cease or when the roof begins to leak. A volunteer library is thus seen as a combination of a trojan horse and a sticking plaster that, while maybe working short term, can be ineffective or even down-right counterproductive in the long term.

That’s all easy to say, though, unless it’s your library that is faced with closure. If a local community is faced with a “volunteer or it’ll close” ultimatum, it’s unlikely that it’ll understand the national and long-term reasons why it should choose the latter. Few would argue that libraries should be run by the unpaid but, when push comes to shove, it’s seen by many as better than nothing. Some go further and point out that volunteers can bring in extra energy and imagination, and are less encumbered by bureaucracy, than paid staff who may just be turning up for the pay. There is also ideology involved – where councils are seen as necessarily inefficient and “empowered communities” are seen as inherently superior.

In terms of numbers, the volunteer library side is winning at the moment. The financial pressure on councils is just too great and the examples of successful volunteer libraries are persuasive. The “Something is better than nothing” side has also naturally received a boost with the re-election of a fully Conservative government intent on further radically reducing council budgets. It remains to be seen whether, however, in the long term, this is simply “nothing” in disguise.