With debates continuing over what constitutes providing a ‘comprehensive library service’ (distance, time and access in rural areas?) and following the Arts Councils Innovation Fund this piece provides examples from the hundreds of libraries still open because voluntary staff have stepped in.

Readers checking a book out of the village library might not immediately notice much of a difference, but Congresbury is the latest public library to haven been handed over “to the community”. You may be used to libraries being run by volunteers – maybe your local is – but this structure is relatively new.

Over the last decade, as many libraries began closing across the UK due to swingeing cuts to local authority funding by central government – 121 libraries closed last year alone – some have instead been handed over by councils to the community to run.

Since librarian Ian Anstice began charting the cuts to UK libraries on his campaigning website Public Libraries News in 2010, 500 of the UK’s 3,850 remaining libraries have now been taken over, at least in part, by volunteers. “I’ve been looking at the count going up steadily for the last few years,” says Anstice. “In 2010, there were a handful – perhaps 10 in the whole country. So this is quite a staggering change.”

Paid library staff fell by almost 1,000 in the year to March 2016, from 18,028 to 17,064, according to official figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa). In the same period, volunteer numbers rose by more than 3,000, from 41,402 to 44,501.

Anstice warns that the rise in volunteer-run libraries is masking how dramatic the decline in the library service actually is. “[Closure numbers] would be double if volunteer libraries were not taken into account,” he says. “It’s diverting pressure from councils and, in a way, making austerity that bit easier to live with. It is a trend that will only continue while there’s no effective statutory protection for libraries.”

But expecting the public to have to volunteer in order to keep their local library open is, in the words of Mandy Powell, “frustrating”. Powell works for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip), which is currently campaigning for the government to “fulfil their statutory responsibilities to taxpayers” to provide a quality public library service. Like DCMS, Cilip is adamant that volunteers are not a replacement for paid professionals.

“Volunteers are fearful they will lose their libraries, so rather than be faced with that, people think of volunteering … I can understand why people go that route but they should never have been in the position to have to make that decision,” Powell says. “Volunteers have a brilliant role to play in boosting capacity and outreach but they shouldn’t be compelled to take over running the service.”

For the moment, many volunteers are taking the strain.

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